A still from "The Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie."
FilmBuff is a digital distribution service provided by Cinetic Rights Management (CRM). Although FilmBuff is less than three years old, its sister company, Cinetic Media, has been a major player in film sales since 2001. Former South by Southwest Film Festival head Matt Dentler left the fest in 2008 to lead marketing and programming operations for CRM, which has grown significantly in the past two years. FilmBuff focuses on finding distribution for digital media by representing filmmakers to various distributors. The Independent‘s Courtney Sheehan spoke with Chris Horton, head of acquisitions at FilmBuff, to get a better sense of what independent filmmakers can expect from a company whose business is digital distribution.
Courtney Sheehan: Usually, The Independent does FAQ interviews with exhibitors and distributors. Cinetic Rights Management/FilmBuff doesn’t really fall into either of these categories. Can you tell me what CRM/FilmBuff does?
Chris Horton: Our company, FilmBuff, has been around for about two-and-a-half years. We are a sister company to Cinetic Media, a leading north American sales company. Cinetic Rights Management operates under the brand name of FilmBuff so everything we do, all of the outreach and messaging we signal, falls under the Film Buff brand.
[FilmBuff] is a lot of things, but we distribute movies predominantly through digital platforms. We are one of the largest digital distributors. We are in 43 million homes; [We are] on VOD; We’re putting movies up on cable via digital platforms; We are direct supplier of movies to the iTunes store, Amazon VOD, Hulu, Netflix’s Watch Instantly streaming service. This is a much, much different world than three years ago, when you could take seemingly any buzzed-about film to a festival and expect distributors to pay a couple million for it. The game has changed. [Traditional] distribution is no longer there for the vast majority of independent film. We’re trying to serve as a direct company for filmmakers to make some money on these platforms. Often in conjunction with theatrical self-release, theatrical DVD release.
Sheehan: What sort of film projects do you like to work with? What’s the process for selecting who you work with/what you work on? Do you solicit projects or just review submissions?
Horton: A lot of filmmakers know Cinetic, because over the last decade, [Cinetic has] made [its] name selling movies, and what independent filmmaker doesn’t want to get their film into Sundance and sell their movie to a distributor? Unfortunately, that’s increasingly rare in today’s climate. A lot of filmmakers are embracing—and are fully in support of—digital release, unlike a couple of years ago when it was like turning an ocean liner in midstream: “Digital?! What?!” Now, filmmakers are coming to us and saying, “We like what you do…would you consider [my] film for digital?” So we’re happy to look at any submission. We screen a lot of films, we evaluate them based on whether we think the film is good and whether we think it’s good for an online audience.
Sheehan: At what point in pre/production/post timeline is it ideal for filmmakers to contact Cinetic?
Horton: Right when you’re approaching a rough cut.
Sheehan: What makes a film good for an online audience?
Horton: Not every film works on iTunes or Hulu or VOD. In general, we’re looking for original content, fresh voices, energy and excitement. Online audiences are very discriminating. A younger voice tends to be palatable for a lot of these films…audiences older than 60 may not work well for us. DIY comedy that can really work well is amazing; genre film that may not be “Best Picture” material works well for us.
Sheehan: That’s interesting, because typically, genre film has been stigmatized as “low culture,” but it seems like you’re working to dissolve that boundary.
Horton: Yeah, in the ’90s, in the early part of the decade, the term “straight to video” had such a negative connotation. Movies got theatrical release, then video, then HBO. That no longer holds. Movies are increasingly opening up on different platforms all at the same time. Way back when, something that went straight to video was automatically deemed not good enough to make theatrical release. We’re working hard to counter [that]. Movies…released first on iTunes are doing [just] that because that’s the right format for them, and the audience is never going to see that movie in theaters.
Sheehan: Can you talk about a project you’ve worked on?
Horton: Collapse is a film that we are working on now. It’s a documentary directed by Chris Smith, who directed one of the great documentaries of the last 20 years, American Movie. Collapse is his most recent film, a really intriguing, kind of horrifying character study of a conspiracy theorist named Michael Ruppert. Most of the film is Smith talking to Ruppert in his basement about the collapse of civilization. You tend to get whipped up in [Ruppert’s] thoughts because he’s so articulate, but Chris is a much smarter director than that, so you start to question [Ruppert’s] motives. Chris wanted to get that movie out as quickly as possible. He put in place a self-distribution scenario, hiring Vitagraph Films handle the theatrical release, only a couple months after its 2009 Toronto premiere, where the film was among the festival’s best-reviewed documentaries. The film is currently available to rent or own on iTunes via FilmBuff, and MPI Media, a Chicago-based distributor, is handling the DVD release. Chris was still in control of all of the rights, not having to sacrifice [everything] to a distributor. It’s about us being unable to unlock potentials for Chris that didn’t exist a couple years ago.
Sheehan: As a company, Cinetic could be said to represent this turning point or changing landscape in film distribution. What are your hopes and fears for the future of distribution?
Horton: My hopes are everything that’s been happening. Things that we thought would be happening three years ago when we started this company have happened more quickly. My hope is that this continues, that, more importantly, filmmakers use companies like us and still own the film and get the lion’s share of the revenues online. DVDs are going to be collector’s items in five years. Theatrical [release] is extremely important, but not for every film. VOD and instant availability is going to be increasingly prevalent. Digital and VOD are not going away, [they are] only going to become more dominant, so independent filmmakers need to be more vigilant than ever about owning their rights and understanding the various options that are out there.
Sheehan: What advice would you give independent filmmakers who are approaching you with their films?
Horton: If they’re approaching us, in general, they probably already have an understanding of digital. [As far as] an independent filmmaker in general that has a film—the best advice that I have for them is to pay attention to what’s happening online, pay attention to all of these trends, anticipate and expect that your movie is not going to be getting traditional offers for distribution, and embrace that. Pay attention to Netflix streaming, how movies are online on Hulu, and the more that filmmakers are able to understand that eventuality, the better off they’re going to be. [They should] not wait two years after they shot their film to get it out there.
Sheehan: Let’s shift gears and talk about Cinetic. What would you say is the most important issue facing Cinetic today?
Horton: Understanding and contemplating piracy is something that affects all of us in this business. Instead of fighting it, [we’re] trying to embrace it: we put movies for free online all the time on Hulu. As the space evolves we’re going to have to get smarter about understanding that reality. Another big challenge, and something we’ve devoted significant resources toward, is making sure you have a marketing and promotional plan to make sure titles stick out in a sea of seemingly infinite availability.
Sheehan: What does Cinetic do specifically in terms of marketing films?
Horton: That’s a big part of what we do. We have these deals with Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix. We could take a film that a filmmaker gives us, put it up there, wipe our hands and walk away—but we wouldn’t be a good company if we did that, and it wouldn’t be fun. So we staffed up in terms of resources committed to marketing. We’re very active in social media, through our Twitter, through our Facebook…it’s just about signaling to the public where consumers can find these films.
Sheehan: Anything else you want the world to know about Cinetic? Is there anything else we haven’t covered?
Horton: Just that VOD is here. Don’t fear it because it makes you much more inclined to make more money because you’re going to be owning the rights.