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Alternative approaches to entertainment distribution/consumption

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Filmmakers Should Avoid Online Film Festivals, Unless They Ask These Questions — Opinion
By Brian Newman

Many filmmakers are wondering if they should accept offers from online programs. Here are the hard questions they should ask.

As the coronavirus crisis continues, most film festivals are being forced to postpone, and many have opted to launch online versions of their events. But as these new versions of film festivals keep popping up, I am getting asked by filmmakers: “Should we participate in this?” Or, more often: “Am I missing something? Why would we do this?”

My answer is always the same: If you are launching a brand-new film that is still seeking distribution, no. If you have a short, or an older film, or one where you have locked in distribution (and if your distributor agrees), or one where you are doing a DIY release — sure, consider it. But if you are trying to premiere a feature film, and you don’t yet have distribution, then as of now you can’t consider these online festivals because buyers consider them a conflict with their distribution of your film. They do NOT see it as word-of-mouth building, or good PR, or a way to test/prove audience demand. They see it as a distraction at best, and lost income, or a loss of control or a loss of premiere status at worst.

That’s why you don’t see many feature films premiering as part of the recent SXSW/Amazon deal (rumors are that the less-than-generous terms didn’t help). And that’s why Tribeca quickly announced that its new “We Are One” mega-festival isn’t intended for most new films, either. Because until Ted Sarandos, or someone else at Netflix, gives the greenlight for films to premiere at online festivals before streaming, no one is going to do it.

I am helping about 11 films with their festivals and distribution right now (brand-film clients and one film that I produced), and most of them are in festival limbo-land. Dozens of festivals have emailed to say they’re launching an online/virtual festival (it’s not virtual unless you’re in VR, but that’s another post), and they ask whether the selected film wants to participate. Of those letters, only two addressed why the filmmaker might want to participate, and how the system would work. Only one offered any kind of compensation to the filmmakers. But even when the festival offered compensation, that wouldn’t work for my clients with new films.

There remains too much danger that distributors will see this as a problem. But still, kudos to those two festivals. Even though my clients couldn’t accept their offers, we had something to consider, and it was clear that the festival had thought about how this impacted the filmmaker.

It seems to me that film festivals launching these new online events are thinking about many things – how to serve local audiences; how to keep their brands alive; how to salvage some part of their festival; how to not lose as much money; how to build a new model. All of these are good and valid things to consider that might be solved by an online festival. I remain skeptical,  but too few are thinking about the impact on filmmakers.

Film festivals have two main sets of constituents — audiences and filmmakers — and you can’t build a program for the former and forget the latter, but that’s precisely what’s happening. Too few people are asking, “How can we build something that best helps filmmakers?” And that’s the question that matters, especially at a time when most filmmakers have lost all of their income, and when they are under severe duress. Remember, festivals, even as they struggle, might bounce back next year. But a film stuck in limbo could completely disappear, along with the career of the filmmaker who made it.

I’ve spoken with many festival directors in the past few weeks, and a common refrain is that they wish Netflix/Amazon/et al. would see things their way and say these online festival premieres are okay. Many even signed a pledge advocating for a new business model around premieres. But none of the major/market festivals signed this pledge, nor did any of the most important buyers. If what you’re offering is going to hurt filmmakers, why offer it? It shifts the problem to the filmmakers, and in the best case, they look like jerks for not participating; and in the worst case, they do participate and possibly ruin the marketability of their films.

As I speak with other producers, another common question arises: Are any of these festivals gathering input from filmmakers on what they want? Many filmmakers are afraid to ask this question out loud because they don’t want to jeopardize their relationships with the gatekeepers who are often so crucial to their film’s success. Filmmakers need more people advocating for improved festival business models that help audiences discover films without jeopardizing their future success.

Festivals need to invite these conversations and have them more transparently, because while figuring it out won’t be easy, this is a field-wide issue, and it needs robust debate and solutions that take into account all stakeholders. If we’re going to use this crisis to build a new business model, let’s not do it in a vacuum; instead, let’s step back and use this opportunity to build a new system that’s better than the old one.

So, what do filmmakers want? In my conversations, a few things keep coming up. First, we need to acknowledge that in the current climate, we don’t just need festivals for industry discovery, we also need them to help audiences discover films. But this means the discovery/premiere aspect of festivals needs to be timed to the release of the film to the public. That probably means most festivals — all but the biggest industry ones — need to rethink their “discovery” programming and focus on bringing audiences to films that have distribution sorted out, and that are just about to launch. This probably means that festivals need to think differently about how and when they promote themselves and their films (a lot earlier for both). And we need to figure out how to push those audiences to films post-festival as well (via email lists with opt-ins, on social media, etc.)

We also need to discuss compensation. There was an argument — one that I believed in for a long time as a festival programmer — that discovery and promotion were enough. But in an online world, there needs to be compensation for filmmakers, even when your festival is struggling. Now is the time to make that argument with board-members, donors and sponsors.

But we also need to acknowledge that compensation will never be enough for films that are seeking distribution. This may necessitate creative partnerships (between festivals and distributors), and a renewed focus on other areas that help filmmakers. For example, there needs to be data transparency — to filmmakers, among festivals, to distributors, and in some cases, to the public. Filmmakers need to know how many people saw their film, how much of it they watched, and be able to use this data to build a case for their film with distributors, press and other audiences.

Filmmakers also want more opportunities to network with other filmmakers and industry representatives, even if this only takes place online. They also love the chance to win an award that might help bring them more attention, but they’re starting to miss the cash prizes that many festivals have cut due to austerity.

We need to have these conversations now, as the field develops solutions that are bound to become not just temporary band-aids, but long-term changes to the system. Festivals are understandably rushing to develop online systems that can help them survive the crisis. Filmmakers appreciate this need, and many of them owe their careers to scrappy festival directors who took a chance on their films. The two need to work together to develop systems that can allow both to not just survive, but thrive, going forward.



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Finally, Here Are Some Real VOD Box Office Numbers — and They Show Promise

Kudos to Kino Lorber streaming platform Kino Marquee, which released initial revenues for its first eight titles. "Bacurau" leads the pack.

Welcome to the new normal. While we currently have no Sunday box-office estimates, we have our first full-fledged VOD report courtesy of Kino Marquee. The numbers for the streaming arm of New York distributor Kino Lorber bear little resemblance to those of, say, Universal VOD, but it’s an eye-opening look at the potential — and the limits — of virtual cinema.

These early numbers suggest the combined virtual-theatrical returns could end up in the range of a full theatrical release. For now, they also suggest that for theaters there is no substitute for the physical customer.

“I think we have all learned over our joint foray into this new business that virtual ticket sales do not make up 100% of theatrical revenue lost by exhibitors and distributors,” said Wendy Lidell, Kino Lorber’s senior VP of theatrical/nontheatrical distribution and acquisitions, writing to the Art House Convergence Google group. “This is a different business. We are competing with lower cost online streaming options, but I believe we need to maintain the premium price of a premiere theatrical window, and we on the distribution side are endeavoring to promote films as such.”

Kino Lorber is known as a venerable distributor of high-quality titles, most of which premiered at festivals, and it has one of the most vital DVD/Blu-Ray libraries around. In March, it launched Kino Marquee, a VOD platform that also enables movie theaters to serve their audiences and generate revenue.

Unlike traditional theatrical releases, Kino Marquee allows it to offer far more films, and for much longer periods. The goal, Kino Lorber announced, was “to emulate the moviegoing experience as much as possible, enabling movie audiences to support their local theaters by paying to view films digitally.”

Kino Marquee currently features eight titles. Four came in partnership with other distributors: Good Deed’s Irish comedy “Extra Ordinary” and Zeitgeist’s documentaries “Beyond the Visible: Hilma at Klimt” and “The Woman Who Loved Giraffes,” and Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You.” One is a re-release, “Thousand Pieces of Gold.” Also included is a collection of repertory titles from Hungarian director Istvan Szabo that include the recently restored “Mephisto.”

From March 19-April 30, some eight Kino Marquee titles grossed $316,000 via online release. Initial results show two standouts that represented more than half of that total. One is “Bacurau,” a 2019 Cannes award-winning Brazilian film, which grossed about $100,000. The other is “Extra Ordinary,” an Irish comedy that premiered at SXSW 2019 and stars Will Forte. It grossed about $79,000 in virtual release.

The eight titles received staggered releases across five weekends. Not every theater handled all Kino Marquee titles; out of the 233 that participated in “Bacurau,” 10 accounted for 40 percent of the film’s gross.

For theaters, some of these returns can be quite small. For “Bacurau,” 213 theaters shared about $60,000 in revenue, which is split 50/50 with Kino Lorber. Sources suggest some New York partners, led by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Forum, and BAM are standout, similar to what would happen in normal theatrical play.

Still, even with a return that’s almost certainly significantly less than what theatrical would provide, so are the expenses. And, it allows theaters to stay in touch with customers and keep their communities alive.

And, compared to other Kino Lorber releases, these top earners show some promise. In 2019, its top theatrical release by far was “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” with $521,000, and only a handful topped $100,000.

Kino Lorber thrives on the volume of its releases, its library (which includes many classics), and its access on niche outlets like Criterion and MUBI. This is just one sample look, and we’re glad for it; let’s hope others follow.

Results are listed by title, (theatrical and virtual release dates), virtual gross, and total gross, which includes theatrical. Titles listed in order of virtual gross.

Bacurau (3/6 theatrical, 3/19 virtual)

Virtual – $100,152 Total gross – $158,267

Extra Ordinary (3/6 theatrical, 4/3 virtual)

Virtual – $79,307 Total gross – $240,201

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klimt (no theatrical, 4/17 virtual)

Virtual – $56,064 Total gross – $56,064

Sorry We Missed You (3/4 theatrical, 4/3 virtual)

Virtual – $35,160 Total gross – $63,933

The Woman Who Loved Giraffes (1/10 theatrical, 4/10 virtual)

Virtual – $17,628 Total gross – $131,486

Beanpole  (1/29 theatrical, 4/10 virtual)

Virtual – $17,304 Total gross – $214,562

Istvan Szabo Collection – Mephisto, Col Redl, and Confidence (1/10 theatrical, 4/10 virtual)

Virtual – $6,420 Total gross – $35,280

Thousand Pieces of Gold (pre-release previews, 4/24 virtual)

Virtual – $5,268 Total gross – $14,753



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James Mangold Says Movie Theaters Are Hurting Themselves with Awful Film Projection

The "Logan" and "Ford v Ferrari" filmmaker says theaters are creating their own damage in the fight against streaming.

Edward Norton made headlines in October 2019 after sharing his belief that movie theaters were doing more damage to the theatrical experience than streaming giants such as Netflix. The bulk of Norton’s argument centered on movie theaters offering poor theatrical projection and thus not offering a better alternative to streaming and television, which is an opinion “Logan” and “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold doubled down on in a recent interview with Discussing Film. For Mangold, poor projection and lousy theater conditions aren’t doing theaters any favors in the fight against streaming.

“The reality of theater projection has gotten so tragically bad in so many cases,” Mangold said. “The fight to put your movie in a theater that stinks and someone’s eating an enchilada next to you — half the screen is out of focus or too dim. Theatrical has its own problems, which is that if it doesn’t make itself a sterling presentation that you cannot approximate at the home then theatrical kills itself without any other delivery method even competing with it. When I talk to theater owners or theater chains, that’s the big thing.”

Mangold recounted how a “Ford v Ferrari” screening earlier this year in New York City was ruined because of poor projection. The filmmaker was in attendance to participate in a Q&A and watched as “Ford v Ferrari” was screened through a projector that still had a 3D lens attached to it. Mangold noted it was an Academy screening of the film at a major theater in New York City. Two “Ford v Ferrari” screenings that evening were presented through 3D lenses even though the film is not a 3D movie. Mangold said this is a frequent issue at theaters and the reason for it is either “financial or physical laziness to send someone up and put a different lens in the projection system.”

“My point really is just that theatrical is a wasteland right now of a lot of shitty delivery of movies to audiences who are paying a premium to see them on a big screen,” Mangold said. “That’s something that needs to be solved in the future.”

When asked whether or not filmmakers should therefore have more involvement with the exhibition process, Mangold answered, “Well, of course, but do I believe they do? No, because the theaters are, like all capitalist endeavors, in a never-ending cycle of running from bankruptcy. They pay people as little as they can. They hire as few people as they can. They serve snacks that cost them 45 cents to manufacture at prices 22 times the cost of creating. They put you in a theater that is as possible as it can be at the minimum amount of expense.”

Mangold added, “Once in a while, the main theater chain will renovate and put new equipment in. But if the people running the equipment aren’t great, trained, or even give a shit because they’re paid so badly then the result is always going to be questionable. It’s just that simple. It really doesn’t matter what filmmakers say when theater owners are worried about whether they can pay rent next month. More than whether some spoiled filmmaker thinks that their sound is too low or the image brightness isn’t high enough. That’s not where their heads are.”
He held on. The dolphin and all the rest of its pod turned and swam out to sea, and still he held on. This is it, he thought. Then he remembered that they were air-breathers too. It was going to be all right.


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Agreed.  Although I wasn't aware that enchilladas were contributing to the challenges of properly projecting a movie.  (Unless it was the projectionist eating it, I suppose.)
"Trying to fit in since 2017."