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The (R)evolution of Filmmaking: A Look at Online Festivals

When Deborah Wallwork first started out as a filmmaker in the early 1980s, her goal was to get her work onto one of North Dakota’s four TV channels, and the editing process was all analog. Then the technology changed. She started doing DOS-based computer editing.

“You had to learn programming language to edit,” she says.

In the course of her career, Wallwork has gone from working in the analog world to winning over the digital-world at the 2007 Independent Lens Online Shorts Festival, with her film Beck.

“You have to work with all these different outlets now,” Wallwork says. “You have to figure out new technologies every year.”

The changing landscape of the Web has an impact on a lot of industries, and film is no exception. For many, the way forward seems to be combining innovative online festivals and real-world screenings. As the laptop screen becomes an increasingly common way to view film, the films submitted to online festivals are adapting to suit the medium. But for both filmmakers and institutions, how to make money in this new world is still an open question.

For Wallwork, who used to work as a public television producer, the Independent Lens festival was a perfect opportunity.

“I’m very oriented towards television,” she explains, and adds that with Independent Lens, “You got your work on television and you got your work online at the same time.” Wallwork continues to use the Independent Lens site as a promotional tool, so people who are interested in her work can watch one of her films in a quality, curated environment.

The “brand” of something like the Independent Lens festival can be an important consideration for filmmakers, like Wallwork, who are using a short film as an introduction to their work. The goal of online-only film festivals is to somehow capture the prestige of Sundance in the digital realm.

The Haydenfilms Online Festival, which issued its first call for entries in 2004, is actively pursuing partnerships with traditional real-world film festivals in order to offer filmmakers the benefits of both types of experience.

“We see ourselves being a bridge between online and offline content,” says Hayden Craddolph, founder of the festival. Films are posted online and then shown at real-world screenings, with filmmakers invited to come meet and greet.

“That’s what they all want, that group experience, and to get their films seen,” Craddolph says.

Haydenfilms now has a partnership with the HollyShorts festival in that includes screening Haydenfilms winners in LA, and a “HollyShorts channel” featuring 25 music videos on the Haydenfilms site. Even as they keep up with the latest technology – they’re hoping to release an iPhone application this year – Haydenfilms tries to offer its filmmakers, many of whom are students just getting started in the business, real-world opportunities and support.

“We want to continue taking a hands-on approach. It’s not just putting the festival up online and then walking away,” says Craddolph.

Even as the real-world big screen remains the ideal for many filmmakers, the small screen of the laptop is starting to influence the style of new films.

“The best way to see a film is on big screen in a dark room full of people,” says Nina Paley, whose film Sita Sings the Blues (view the trailer here) screened at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and is now available for free download online (you can download a copy of the film here).

Paley still wants her work to be screened at traditional festivals, but promoting Sita has gotten her more involved in the online world. Her next project will be a series of short films about free speech that are designed to be seen and spread online. For her, making a film work online means keeping it short: she refers to these upcoming shorts as “minute memes.”

Others see the digital environment influencing the style of new films as well as the length. Karol Martesko-Fenster, the general manager of the Babelgum Online Film Festival, points out that filmmakers editing their work on a computer are seeing exactly what the audience in an online environment will see, so it’s easy to tailor a film toward what works on that small screen.

“They’re not shooting grand landscapes, they’re doing tighter shots,” Martesko-Fenster says.

“I’ve always believed in digital tools for filmmakers,” he adds. “To me, this is a natural progression.”

How to make money in this shifting environment remains an open question, however. Babelgum is currently in beta mode and will launch its new consumer platform, including applications for mobile phones, at the end of March. At that point, in addition to the five 20,000 Euro prizes the festival offers, Babelgum will share revenue from the website and the mobile component with filmmakers in a split, based on how many people view each film.

“Think of Babelgum as a theater for their film,” Martesko-Fenster explains – and adds, “How many short films have you seen lately at your movie theater?”

For Haydenfilms, which also offers a cash prize to winning filmmakers, the business model focuses on finding corporate sponsors for the festival and the real-world screenings that accompany it. Craddolph remains optimistic about the opportunities for artists who are able to stay on the cutting edge and keep an eye on youth culture.

Young people immersed in the digital environment, he says, “are going to grow out of the YouTube phenomenon and they’re going to be searching for high quality content.”

The opportunities available for filmmakers continue to change. The Independent Lens festival that gave Deborah Wallwork that perfect TV-and-online combination no longer exists, and the Independent Television Service is currently working on designing a new model for digital distribution of independent film.

Nina Paley’s experience trying to promote and distribute Sita Sings the Blues illustrates some of the challenges of releasing work online.

“I want the most people as possible to see the film,” Paley says, but “I would also like money. And the existing system for getting that is based on restricting access to the film.”

Paley ran into trouble pursuing the traditional distribution model after the Tribeca Film Festival because some of the music she used in Sita, believing it was available, turned out to have copyright restrictions. Her response was to turn over the entire film to the audience, for free, online, and rely on goodwill and word of mouth to generate donations, more theatrical screenings, and DVD sales.

“I hope the spread of it online will increase the demand for the 35mm screenings,” she says.

Fans have contacted her with comments like, “‘I watched it twice, now I really want to buy the DVD,’ which is the opposite of the old business model,” Paley points out.

The logic of online distribution is exactly that: more eyeballs will somehow, someway, translate into more revenue for filmmakers. Online film festivals and the filmmakers who enter them have to hope that proposition is true.

For her part, Paley says of Sita, “The more I let go of it, the more people are coming to me.”

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2 Responses to “The (R)evolution of Filmmaking: A Look at Online Festivals”

  1. michele

    Just wanted to add that the first annual Online New England Film Festival curated by NewEnglandFilm.com and Women in Film Video New England is currently accepting entries. For more information visit http://www.newenglandfilm.com/festival/ In addition to online screening at NewEnglandFilm.com (with over 70,000 visitors), the award-winning films will be screened at a Boston theatre in October 2009.

    Michele Meek
    Publisher of The Independent
    Publisher of NewEnglandFilm.com
    Founder of Little Plum Pictures
    http://www.michelemeek.com

  2. Film Directing School

    Great Article! I am really hoping to see more digital film festivals!