DIGITAL HOLLYWOOD NEW YORK
Despite the recently depressed market for internet IPOs and concomitant drop in share value of .com enterprises on the NASDAQ extant, there remains a climate of qualified optimism in that segment of the creative community who operate outside the umbrella of corporate patronage regarding the ability of the web as a means to bypass the pitfalls normally associated with traditional means of distributing their work. For independent filmmakers in particular it would seem that anything producing anxiety in Hollywood on the scale that the rise of the internet has can only be a positive development in the quest for a more democratic process facilitating audience access. Still, fashioning an arts or entertainment career via the net isn’t as simple as posting a web site and sitting back to count the cash once the obvious genius of ones labors translates into thousands of hits per month. Anyone seeking a more reality-based assessment of the current communications E-revolution and the possibilities it offers had an opportunity to acquaint themselves first hand with some of the people, businesses, programs and solutions shaping this evolving landscape by attending the recent Digital Hollywood™ New York Conference [www.digitalhollywood.com] at the Puck building from May 15-18.
As with most conferences, a lot of physical space is taken up by the booths that firms rent out to boost their visibility and promote their services, and I’ve yet to adequately digest the reams of (anachronistic) paper they stuffed my satchel with. Of more immediate appeal were several of the panels convened, though these were unfortunately scheduled in such a way that almost none of the first-day round-tables related to my interests, whereas a number of the ensuing worthwhile panels went on simultaneously.
A Tuesday panel entitled Revolution in Feature Film/Short Film Production and the Net – The New Economic Model was the most informative conclave addressing the intersection of filmed entertainment and the net. The spectrum of digital strategies detailed by these panelists ran from those that feel the best use of the net is simply as a marketing and promotional adjunct to their film productions – such as Trina Wyatt of Tribeca Films – to those who advocate exploiting the unique characteristics of the new media rather than reconfiguring existing media formats for digital delivery, the stance taken by Doug Liman for nibblebox.com. Best known as the director of Go and Swingers, Liman claims that “Broadband changes everything”, and he presented a clever demo of nibblebox.com’s weekly series Virtual Rob, wherein the user can direct Rob’s behavior by clicking on the appropriate limb or facet of his apartment: making him raise his leg by clicking on his knee for example, or turn on his stereo by clicking on it. Users can also navigate Rob’s way through dates, meals, and other situations, mapping out their own storylines for him through architecture for the program that was developed by USC students; in fact nibblebox.com’s central aim is to mentor non-filmmakers from over 100 colleges and universities in the creation of internet-focused content development – programming Liman prefers to see as “shows” rather than films or movies.
A contrary view was sounded by Jason Kliot of Blow Up Pictures – the arm of Kliot and Joana Vicente’s Open City Films created for the purpose of producing DV films for theatrical distribution – who opined to me after the panel that “everybody’s going nuts with Broadband distribution” and other applications, but that “once Miramax gets their on-line distribution up they’ll blow everybody out of the water”. A likely scenario given their money and marketing power, yet to judge by the clips shown prior to the panel by Miramax’s Darcy Young their aesthetic will remain unchanged from the customary Anglophilia and feature length sitcoms we’ve come to expect from the house of Weinstein.
Two other panelists, Megan O’Neil of atomfilms.com and Curt Marvis of CinemaNow.com outlined approaches taken by their firms that fell between these extremes. Atomfilms acquires exclusive rights to short films for the purpose of licensing international Broadband distribution and currently boasts over 1000 titles; O’Neil believes the internet is a way of greatly expanding the traditional outlets for shorts and that success in this aim rests on “giving the audience something they can’t get anywhere else”. As an entity majority-owned by Trimark Films, CinemaNow was set up to distribute their catalogue through the web and other digital means, but is also engaged in developing new filmmakers who haven’t had access to previous avenues of distribution; they also have a library of 1000 titles including both features and shorts.
The panel that came next, Broadband Entertainment Programming and Content Development reflected a similar trend in the firms represented by the panelists. Outfits here of interest to filmmakers included iCast.com, which aggregates entertainment to serve as an “eMall” targeting young audiences and is currently acquiring content from film producers. Intertainer.com, a content aggregator and user interface with 62 content providers and over 42,000 hours of entertainment, is now producing 5 films in conjunction with Artisan and plans to work with individual filmmakers in the future. Medium4.com is an E-network that is licensing and acquiring short and feature films from producers and filmmakers and in some cases producing original content as well. Also on this panel was the CEO of Wirebreak, a firm that specializes in developing content that’s web-centric in apps and delivery.
But what if you’re a filmmaker who’s had all these sundry and various content aggregators pass on acquiring your work? The afternoon panel Monetizing Movies on the Net – Exploring Pay-Per-View, DVD, Subscription & Other Pay Concepts presented some alternative routes to reaching a remunerative audience in the digital arena. A seemingly inclusive option is BuyIndies.com, which their Director of Distribution Anishiya Taneja describes as a cinema E-commerce community that offers a platform for filmmakers to sell their films among the now 70,000 independent and hard-to-find films catalogued on the site; they monetize their venture from a % of all film sales they facilitate for sellers. In contrast Shortbuzz.com makes no money as they post no ads and sell no products but simply broadcast short films of 30 seconds to 30 minutes on the net – and when you’re looking for any sort of exposure that’s nothing to sneeze at. Eveo is a site that screens videos of a duration of 3 minutes or less – a visual packet they’ve dubbed an “Eveo”, hence the name – and offers contributing videographers a compensation of 5 cents per stream. Bigstar.com bills itself as “the leading shop-a-tainment site for filmed entertainment”, with 70,000 titles, direct-marketing e-mail and a weekly TV show as part of their “movie superstore”; they monetize through enabling digital downloads. Sponsor-driven PitchTV is a content development studio that puts up 15-20 different films each month, like a monthly movie magazine on the net.
On a Thursday panel a presentation was made by newly re-named AlwaysI.com, a site created by two filmmakers which bears some similarity to BuyIndies.com in that it is a distribution, marketing and exhibition platform for independent filmmakers. President Gary Zeidenstein welcomes submissions, claiming “as long as it’s not the backyard homemade movie, we’re going to post it on the site”. There was a reasonably broad variety of other firms on this and other panels, but many of these are focused on cross promotions of more established corporate product or content developed more specifically with interactivity in mind; for the sake of brevity here let it be said that those truly interested in a more thorough investigation of the net entertainment landscape should log onto the Digital Hollywood site for a complete roster of conference attendees and participants.
Some music people (like Todd Rundgren with Patronet.com), as well as Crushed Planet President Harry Gantz – who also created the HBO show “Taxi Cab Confessions” – have solved the monetizing problem inherent to non-pornographic streamed content by instituting a subscription plan that entitles the purchaser unlimited access over given time periods. However, this is a model that seems designed to function best for artists who’ve already established a reputation and fan base for whatever work they might do. It’s easy to imagine brand name independent filmmakers who also own their own negatives such as Jim Jarmusch, Russ Meyer and Henry Jaglom prospering with this kind of arrangement (offering alternative takes, still photos, commentary by the actors, and other added enhancements) but the person in the process of building an identity in the aesthetic agora might not fare nearly as well.
With all these start-ups competing with one another for eyeballs when they’re not being acquired by other entities or doing partnerships with them, the thing to remember is that effective publicity is usually crucial to initiate the word-of-mouth that makes any enterprise in the arts a hit, and that’s becoming even truer on the net with the cancerous growth rate of web sites. Players with the deepest pockets are positioned best to mount such campaigns, for as one panelist put it “there’s not going to be another Blair Witch”; i.e., a winning homegrown e-mail marketing effort. When a big money guy like John Sculley gets in at the ground floor with a company like Gizmoz – a multi-faceted viral marketing application – you know that amateur hour is over.
Closing out Tuesday’s conference activities was something of a freak show in that the two keynote speakers were Sam Donaldson and Courtney Love – he of the fake hair and she of the fake boobs (and just about everything else of her bodily contours). Evidently the organizers were going for a certain celebrity quotient here, and Love’s diva act prior to her speech – hiding from and then cursing out the paparazzi, without which her unjustifiably persistent career would be unthinkable – didn’t disappoint on that score. I didn’t stick around to hear her complain about how her record company is ripping her off because there were too many great parties kicking off at that same time, including the ABC network party celebrating their new program lineup at La Nonna. There I overheard Michael Badalucco of “The Practice” tell his bar companions of an actress who’s always bitching about the media intruding on her life when she should simply accept it as part of being successful in the working life she’s chosen to pursue; an apt summary I thought of the performance I had just witnessed.