Toward a Post-Theatre Age

For years, the holy grail of independent distribution
was Miramax. Then mid-sized companies like
ThinkFilm, Magnolia Pictures, and IFC Films
emerged around the millennium, while mini-majors
such as Sony Classics formed to compete with the Weinsteins.
Meanwhile, smaller, mom-and-pop operations, trusted for
their integrity—Kino, New Yorker, and Zietgeist—inhabited
a less flashy, but still important place on the distribution landscape.
And those are just theatrical. The pot of gold for documentarians
has long been HBO, followed closely by
Showtime, and the Sundance Channel, with cable giants like
A&E and Discovery also sporting their own documentary
arms. But the distribution structure is continually morphing,
theatrical release and television broadcast are quickly becoming
outdated. With Netflix, MySpace, video-on-demand, and
download-to-own, our models for consumption are rapidly
changing, and the future, judging from the wide range of
experts’ predictions, is still undeterminable.

Molly Thompson, head of A&E IndieFilms, the cable network’s
new feature documentary division, believes the social
experience that has defined the movies for the past century will
never fully be replaced by home technology. “It is the filmmaker’s
passion to see their work in front of an audience,” she says.
But Marie Therese Guirgis, until very recently the head of
acquisitions at Wellspring Media (Genius Products, owned by
the Weinstein Company, shut down Wellspring’s theatrical unit
at the end of February), argues that theatrical may indeed
become extinct and perhaps sooner rather than later. “People in the industry have wanted theatrical to die for a long time. It is
the most expensive form of distribution, and companies usually
lose money, which they make up in TV and video,” she says.
But she adds that many of the people buying DVDs for video
stores or other distribution outlets are “still beholden to a
notion of theatrical release as arbiter of success. It’s not gonna
die in the next couple years.”

“The theatrical run of a film in nearly all cases, even studio
films, isn’t where money is made on movies,” says Agnes
Varnum, a documentary consultant who programmed a panel
on distribution at this year’s Newport International Film
Festival. “It fuels the after-market of video-on-demand, DVD,
hotels, airlines, etc. Even indies without that kind of push, but
perhaps [with] a good festival run, can fuel their own long-term
buying in their niche market. The idea of ‘long-tail’ is that you
find your niche market, but that it takes time, viral marketing,
search engine maximization, and a film at a consumer price
point.”

One of the many new companies using internet technology
to revamp film viewing is BitTorrent, a peer file-sharing network
for media (music, television, films) used by 65 million
people worldwide. The company’s mission, according to
Director of Communications Lily Lin, is “to become the leading
platform for people to publish content online.” At a panel
on distribution at the Tribeca Film Festival, BitTorrent COO
Ashwin Navin argued that this new form of decentralized distribution
via download technology could free the consumer
from, among other barriers, geographical limitations.

Surprisingly, a week after that panel at which BitTorrent
positioned itself in opposition to Hollywood, the company
announced an agreement with Warner Brothers Home
Entertainment Group to make their mainstream studio films
available for purchase through BitTorrent. While this doesn’t
exactly shut the independent filmmaker out of the equation, it
marks a disturbing pattern where visionaries attempt to radicalize
media, only to merge with and be tamed by Hollywood’s
centralized model in the end. The more positive way to look at
this though is that Big Hollywood has finally decided to join the
visionaries in making their content available to more people
through alternative channels. And BitTorrent insists that they
are still geared toward the independent community as much as
they are toward studio power players. “Almost 90 percent of
movies don’t ever see theatrical release. We want to be the ones
to showcase art for people,” says Lin.”

ClickStar, Morgan Freeman’s high-profile start-up formed in
July 2005, will also release films, albeit big-budget ones, via a
broadband download tool. CEO James Ackerman says the company
was created to “facilitate the industry’s move into digital
distribution and to provide a means to make it easier for consumers
to buy than to pirate movies off of the internet.”
Though the company proclaims to be about “A-list,” it is also
cultivating a documentary channel backed by another celebrity:
Danny DeVito, and his new distribution company. Jersey Docs,
will provide the content for ClickStar. “The most dynamic element
in consumer enjoyment of entertainment is the growing
opportunity for consumers to choose when, where, and how
they enjoy their entertainment,” Ackerman says. “The theatrical
experience will always be important to a segment of the population
as new distribution channels emerge.””

Guirgis is a bit more skeptical that this trend of “cutting out
the middleman” will give independent films bigger audiences
(That middleman being one with a job such as her old one.)
“The hope is, we think, that people really will have a chance to
choose to see any obscure movie from Africa. We want to think
if we take away people thinking for people, there will be an outlet
for these films, but we don’t know,” she says. IndiePix CEO
Bob Alexander cites Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival as
proof that people will want to watch these obscure African
movies. “Every cinema is packed with diverse people, from
graduate students to farmers. The audience is not who we think
it is.” The future of distribution, he continues, is in the filmmakers’
hands. If filmmakers insist on hanging on to the idea
that theatrical is the only way, both producers and consumers
will lose out.”

Other experts are less sure of any definitive trajectory. “It is
changing so quickly,” says ThinkFilm’s Head of U.S. Theatrical,
Mark Urman. “There have been more dramatic changes in the
film industry and community in the past four years than in the
100 years preceding.” The biggest change, he goes on to say, is
that “people used to see movies over time—the largest group of
people saw movies in the third and fourth months of distribution.
Now these months are about the DVD. The question is:
Do I wait a few weeks or a few days for Netflix?””

Urman also points out that the quality of many high-end
home theatre systems is better than what can be found in many
cinemas. And because the majority of Americans do not live
within a convenient distance to independent cinemas, methods
that bring movies directly to the home, and the simultaneous
release of DVD and theatrical, will be crucial. “With TV and
DVD, Americans can curate their own entertainment. This is
preferable and more cost efficient. I can’t swear that 10 years
from now, it will start with theatrical,” Urman says. “There is an
insane proliferation of avenues and venues—we need to be open
to any permutation.”

“I am willing,” Thompson says, “to embrace whatever medium
can assist me in maximizing the audience.” Though she is
unsure which model will be most successful or lucrative, she
believes that “everyone is going to have to become a lot more
experimental in finding new ways for films to get to audiences.”
And this generation is more equipped than ever. Because more
young people are “used to DVD and tech-savvy with V.O.D.,”
says Guirgis, “there is beginning to be a radical shift in not only
how films are viewed, but also what constitutes a movie.”
“People feel nostalgic, but technology is transforming our lives,”
Thompson reminds us. “People used to have to stand in line for
mail at the post office too.”

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