Of the 3661 feature films submitted to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, about 120 made it into the festival. Of those, 50 have no distribution as of this October. For the just about 3,500 total films submitted to Slamdance in 2008, 20 made it in to feature narrative and feature documentary competition, and 92 made it into the shorts programs. Of those features that got in, 5 got picked up for distribution. And then… What sort of distribution? Though there are some exceptions, as a general rule filmmakers are often faced with strict acquisitions deals demanding rights worldwide, across all platforms, in perpetuity… often for negligible sums of money.
The truth about the independent film world is that for the most part, the only ones that are able to sustain comfortably are the lawyers, the middle-men, and the studio execs. There are exceptions, of course, but for all the success stories that serve as models of the “what if?” there are an equivalent amount of quiet failures, films languishing in obscurity while their makers shrug and dutifully begin developing their next project.
Most filmmakers take it for granted that there is a slim chance of receiving a supported release, assuming, as artists do, that the fault is somehow theirs. In truth, this reality is more a symptom of an outdated, broken distribution system that can’t keep up with the spike in creative output than it is a testament to bad filmmaking. Though it goes without saying that some films could be better, what of the thousands of very good, relevant films that sit on the shelf? A sense of futility sets in: Since the filmmaker’s lot is to engage in public storytelling, there inevitably comes a time when we ask ourselves what the point is of spending all this money and energy creating films that end up reaching an audience of, like, 40 people. Why make films at all, if there’s such a slim chance of having them seen?
We here at Slamdance take this situation very seriously, asking ourselves a few simple and crucial questions: What role does a festival play in furthering its filmmakers’ success? In disseminating stories? In ensuring the continuation and sustenance of independent film? We suspect that if festivals have the curatorial purpose of introducing new film to new audiences, then they also need to further that by taking an active role in helping filmmakers harness audiences through new distribution and marketing methodologies — and not just by inviting acquisitions execs to the screenings. A symbiotic and self-empowered relationship needs to form in order for all to survive — one that is built firmly OUTSIDE of the permission-based system in which we currently work.
With all this in mind, this year Slamdance has teamed up with the WorkBook Project and the Open Video Alliance to present the first ever Filmmaker Summit.
From the Summit release, as drafted by Lance Weiler & Peter Baxter:
“The mission of the Filmmaker Summit is to jointly craft a new charter for filmmaking, storytelling and content distribution, with and by the global filmmaking community. Born out of reaction to an independent film industry in a state of turmoil, the summit aims to explore how a global filmmaking community can better understand new DIY distribution strategies, and work towards the democratization of new technologies, tools, story-telling techniques, and processes. We believe that sustainable independent filmmaking is no longer just about production. Instead it is about the ways in which filmmakers must expand their roles and take charge of reaching and engaging worldwide audiences, across all viewing platforms. The topics to be explored at the summit are set through crowd-sourced methodologies (topics voted on and suggested by the independent film community). During the summit itself we will be hearing from filmmakers and strategists from around the world, chiming in on new marketing and distribution techniques they have employed to get their content made and distributed.”
Slamdance believes that we need to help our filmmakers sustain by supporting the self-empowerment inherent in self-distribution. Though this emerging methodology is still, largely, theoretical, we believe that we can all find some working models, together.
And, let’s not forget our special thanks: to Scilla Andreen at Indieflix; Mike Beynart at Elephant Pilot and Micah Hahn at AutumnSeventy for their amazing design work; Ben Moskowitz and Josh Levy at Open Video Alliance; George Chriss; Flumotion and XMission; Zak Forsman and Kevin Shah at SABI; Brian Newman, Brian Chirls and Chris Holland for their insight; and of course all our filmmakers.
I’m an independent media advocate and producer-at-large, cum strategist. It all depends on the day. I agree with Thomas Jefferson’s theories on idea ownership.