This week, I attended Screen Craft’s inaugural New York City panel, Digital Discourse: The Future of Distribution and Content Creation, at the WGA-East. It was a genuinely great panel. You can read a summary from Screen Craft by following that link, Indiewire pulled some more highlights here, and the discussion was recorded and should be available soon online via Screen Craft and/or other resources.
That being said, I want to also chime in a bit about what I gleaned from the discussion. Bits and pieces of what was said have been banging around in my brain for the past few days, and I think some paths are beginning to emerge in there that are made out of the contributions of the thoughtful, focused, hard-working people who made up the panel.
The links above provide plenty of information on what was said. The video will offer the full set of info and insight — and I would encourage interested filmmakers to check it out when it’s available. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I got out of it.
While not an exhaustive list, we (filmmakers and creators), need to focus on:
This is something that people generally shy away from saying (because they’re nice), but many people who call themselves filmmakers don’t try hard enough or don’t work hard enough to develop the confidence and skills necessary to achieve long-term success (however that may be defined) while at the same time cultivating their artistic voice. I’m saying it now because I’m not speaking to anyone directly, and can further bite the bullet and point at a past version of myself who was guilty of this very mistake.
I could write about this point for days, but in terms of the end-game (monetizing work to at least the point of sustainability, if not past it), it’s sufficient to point out that none of the panelists that spoke on Wednesday were wrong — the reality of the distribution landscape is that it’s not the same, that it continues to change almost daily, and that “the good days” are not coming back. The old narratives of what it means to be an indie filmmaker (perhaps even a filmmaker in general) and to succeed as one — they no longer apply. This is not news to a lot of people, perhaps. But there’s a difference between knowing there’s a mess to be sorted through and accepting the responsibility of the sorting. This is why focusing on the next three concepts is crucial.
Marc Schiller of BOND360 spoke passionately about his findings so far as his firm continues to partner with filmmakers to navigate this changing distribution landscape, but the lead-in to almost every specific note he made, and every recommendation, can be summed up by the word: adapt. Once we’ve accepted that the landscape is shifting, adaptation becomes not only an imperative for survival but an invitation to innovate. There’s no rule that says indie filmmakers can’t thrive in today’s current climate. But as Marc and other panelists pointed out, we have a responsibility, as storytellers, to trace the organic pathways to our audience by not only creating and delivering what we feel compelled to share with them, but to also do so in ways that appeal to what they want and expect out of the equation.
Figuring out how to adapt requires testing and experimentation. Highlights from the panel, in this regard, include testimony from moderator Ryan Koo (founder of NoFilmSchool.com) and Erica Anderson (from crowding-funding and distribution platform Seed&Spark). From what I know about Ryan, it seems an argument could be made that he’s got to where he is now almost purely on the basis of experimentation. He had ideas (both creative and entrepreneurial) and combined them and tried things out. One thing led to another, in succession, over the years, until he got to the point where he’s now developing his first feature. Erica spoke about Seed&Spark’s WestFest film festival in LA, through which they were able to test some of their ideas on how to reach sustainability by putting just as much effort into collaborative distribution and community building as they did programming. Along the way, they piloted other ideas surrounding the potential for joint-revenue between filmmakers (such as a tip jar).
Marc Schiller and Adam Neuhaus (from Radical Media) detailed similar efforts to test ideas and approaches surrounding how to engage and market to customers who are actually interested in you and/or your product (a strong case could also be made that, as a creator, you are also your product). They (and other panelists) also pointed out the importance of keeping audiences happy by giving them what they want and by making it as easy and simple as possible to get it — and making the exchange fun as well at every opportunity.
A lot of this is about embracing some of the spirit of experimentation and ingenuity that has served the tech industry well in recent years — and tethering it to your creative intentions.
All of this being said, we have to think as well. It’s not enough to listen to advice and follow it blindly. This is a similar point to the one I made last week in my post about creative productivity, when I wrote about the necessity of introducing thoughtfulness and discernment into our daily considerations about what to do and how. Assuming the creative impulse takes care of itself, and/or that we’re able to establish our workflows and put in the work and get the films planned and made — a consequence of looking at the distribution landscape realistically is that we need to adapt and experiment thoughtfully as we develop the work. We need to apply strategy, at the earliest phase of preproduction, to the overall need to build, engage, and nurture an audience. I spoke briefly on Twitter with Dani Leonard of Big Vision Empty Wallet about this as well recently — all of this needs to be done after you have developed your voice as an artist (or, at the very least, as you develop it) and are thus capable of figuring out out how to truthfully introduce that voice into all efforts to get your work seen. If, as a filmmaker, you can’t do this, whether it’s because you don’t have the time or the skill set — find someone who can. Or partner with an organization who can help. Make sure that person or organization understands you and the work, and/or help them understand.
Conclusion: Opportunity is Out There
All this chaos is to the advantage of the independent filmmaker. Big distributors are struggling to adapt to the changing landscape, or refusing to focus on it based on fear or apathy. The studios could care less about what’s happening on the ground, which they can’t see from where they are anyway (I believe Marc Schiller made this exact point during the panel). If we as indies are at all doing our job right, we’re already on the ground watching change take place. Sure, we’re small and we’re broke. That’s often been true of indie filmmakers — at least so long as they hold on to the true spirit of the label. But our smallness and our financial limitations can be leveraged to our advantage. We can make ourselves quick and nimble. We can experiment freely, with nothing to fear from a fall other than another bruise on the ass.
Notice that the Screen Craft panel was smartly “subtitled” to include distribution and content creation. Notice also that I, as an indie filmmaker, also decided to subtitle this post “Translating The Indie Film Landscape” — rather than “Translating The Indie Film Distribution Landscape.”
This is because, like so many other things in our lives as hyper-connected citizens of an increasingly globalized world, it’s all starting to bleed together. So, we have a choice. We can accept the reality — the happy reality, in my opinion — of this great resettling of American independent film, and embrace the chaos and empower ourselves to become a part of its new shape, or can we do nothing and end up left behind to watch others do it instead.