Producers: Let’s Hack Today’s Systems and Better Connect Audiences to Films

Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam

Keri Putnam, Executive Director, Sundance Institute

Each August, the professionals on the front lines of producing, distributing, and marketing independent films gather in the mountains of Utah to share their knowledge and experience with the Sundance Institute Producing Fellows at the Creative Producing Summit. The weekend was kicked off by Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper who posed a central question to Summit participants – “Are you more or less optimistic today about the health of independent film than you were five years ago?”

Keri Putnam, Sundance Institute’s Executive Director, shared her own response with the Summit community in remarks that helped to define the tone of the weekend and offered up a call to independent producers at large.

5 years ago. 2009. I had just found out I was out of a job.

I lost my job because Disney closed Miramax where I worked then, part of a trend among studios closing their specialty divisions and deciding their business was primarily in global tent-poles. Movies that can be rides and lunch-boxes.

In the last five years, we’ve seen writers and directors interested in rich characters and stories flock to television. With a few wonderful exceptions, the studios gave up the rich, adult movie. Which makes the work of all the producers here all the more important.

In the last 5 years, it got easier – or at least less expensive – to make a movie. But it is no easier to find an audience. In fact, based on the volume of movies and a flat revenue pie, it is much harder.

Thousands of films are made each year (nearly 4,000 features were submitted to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival alone). And very few of them get expert U.S. releases. 

  • Of the 740 films released in theaters last year (this includes very limited and day and date releases), studio movies take 84% of the box office. 
  • Of the 600 remaining indie films, there were a very few hits and a few more that made some money or maybe broke even, but over 500 of them were left to share just 1% of the revenue.   

The same percentages hold true for digital. Although as we all know the numbers are harder to find publicly. The revenue isn’t increasing at pace with the volume, and marquee titles are taking the lion’s share.

To succeed today requires nearly perfect conditions: solid marketing support, high quality, great reviews, water-cooler or cult subject, and often genre appeal. 

So some advice for producers here: Make great distinctive movies. There are too many mediocre movies out there that just don’t excite audiences. Making great movies is a huge challenge, and certainly the first challenge. 

But an equally important challenge is revealed in considering what is the business model for filmmakers and financiers in this environment? For some it’s really about making art or making social change and less about the financial returns. We’re grateful to them! But for many producers and financiers who want a financial return, it’s the brass ring model – the dream of a film made for a little money that beats the odds and is a critical and commercial success.  

Do you know what I mean by brass ring?

I spent summers at the Jersey Shore where there was a great, old-fashioned amusement park on the Boardwalk in Ocean City. Everyone would ride the merry go round – not because it was a thrilling ride, or for the calliope music, or the vintage horses and sleighs.  But because the ride operators would swing out a contraption that allows riders to grab a ring each time they passed it. Most of the rings were iron. But one was golden brass. And whoever won it got a free ride next time.  (There are 17 brass ring carousels left in the US according to Wikipedia).

We can’t be in a business of brass rings. 

Of course we all celebrate the success of films that break out financially and have true cultural and creative impact. We know the distributors who handle the successful indies are running smart business and making good professional decisions, and we want them to succeed. But chasing these few successes is not a viable model for most independent films There are too few. It won’t work. It won’t sustain a vibrant field of filmmaking, and most importantly won’t allow producers and artists to earn a living.  

Further, chasing the brass ring distracts from the joy of the ride: making great movies and sharing them with people who care about them. 

We need to focus together on sustainability for the many rather than on big careers for the few

The need is acute. 

The tools are available. 

Experimentation is in the air.  

I am more optimistic because I think we are finally poised to do the hard work necessary to create real change.  

But I don’t think this is only or even primarily about the creativity and entrepreneurialism of individual filmmakers and film campaigns. Of course I do believe that is essential, but these tactics will only have incremental value without a radical structural shift in how we market and distribute most films.  

Why are we trying to climb the walls of the mainstream castle to gain access to the audience? Why spend our time tinkering at the margins of the existing marketing and distribution system when it so clearly isn’t right for most of us? We adjust the windows, yes.  Yet we do so in fear of the gatekeepers. We try to play by the rules, but constantly come up short.  

We don’t have to do this.

We can pioneer new paths.

Let’s move away from a world where lone voices and small companies try to eke out a subsistence living and band together to imagine a new ecosystem.

I’m not talking about creating a market for every movie made. Not all movies made will connect with audiences. And there will always be some that work in traditional release through mini-majors or big independents. But we have to aim for more sustainable revenue – including producer fees – for a much bigger subset than we have at present.

The biggest challenge for producers today is to work together to build new systems.

Let’s harness the collective power of independent artists as a force for change. 

The BIG new challenge is to stop thinking only about your own career and your own movies. Make the time to start thinking about the systems architecture of marketing and distribution. This challenge is urgent. If we don’t rise to meet in the next few years, making film will become only a hobby for most people.

This is not somebody else’s work. Existing distributors are not incentivized to make bold changes, and I don’t believe the best new ideas will come from start-ups entirely outside our community.

So let’s identify the bold and new ideas and work on them together: Partner with non-profits, foundations and technology companies as well as industry experts. Build collectives to think creatively and practically about audience demand in our field. 

Let’s create an experimental mindset and space where new models can be tried. The whole point is the exploration. I certainly don’t have any answers. But I do know there are lots of promising small projects and businesses afoot now. 

What we need is focus and momentum.

There are so many areas we could choose to focus on. Here are just a few ideas:  

  • How can we connect curation, whether by Festivals or social networks or well-known voices, with marketing and distribution. 
    • For example, there are so many film festivals across the U.S. where people come together and pay to see films. One source listed 3,000 currently active festivals. How can it be they are completely unrelated to the distribution system now in place?
  • Why don’t we find technology partners who will help us connect people and build communities. Tell them our challenges and seek their ideas. Share costs with one another to develop new products that can be used by many.
    •  For example, how ineffective is our marketing model for film? We go broad with every title and don’t gather any information about who our customers actually are. Let’s find ways to gather and deploy data that can be shared and used by many.
  • Let’s advocate together for changes that will benefit all.
    • For example, more transparency on digital revenue so we can build better models and plan better marketing campaigns.
    • Or standing up together to protect producer fees in shrinking budgets
    • Or negotiating collectively for other goods and services we all need. 
  • Why not work with brands to finance and distribute our work in entirely new ways. Make the interest in ‘storytelling’ from corporations’ marketing departments work for us rather than going to work for them.
  • What does tiered pricing look like for indies? How can we make moviegoing an event worth paying more for?
  • And I think we should really work to develop a true, deep non-profit infrastructure around our field, including narratives. Make the case for film as art and mean it. This doesn’t mean we can’t earn money or pay artists.

Of course there are so many more ideas…  

There will be trial and error. There will be overcoming factionalism and competition. There will be failure. But some of the ideas will work.

And they won’t be created for individual movies working alone. The costs to create them will be amortized and IP will be shared. I think many of these new models might be non-profit to start, and some might remain non-profit in the long run. 

The idea is to bring revenue to artists and enable them to earn a living while making great work.  

To enable them to enjoy the ride and stop grabbing for the brass ring.

Let’s stop having panels and roundtables and start having more targeted working sessions and hackathons.

Let’s break the rules that Hollywood has set, because they don’t apply to us. 

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