Yesterday, Ingrid Kopp asked me over Twitter what I thought of the IFC/SXSW announcement of launching SX films on IFC’s VOD platform during the fest. My initial reaction was, no biggie, cool for all involved. After a couple more questions, I realized that Tom Hall wrote one of his long and thoughtful pieces that was prompting Ingrid’s question. Of course, in that case, I owe this more thought, but here is what I’m working with:
1. I love SXSW. It is hands-down my favorite festival (and it was so before I got to Austin). I do a bit of screening for them and last year I did some program notes, so I consider myself invested in their success in a small way. I have to admit that bias, though I feel no less supportive of any other festival. I love film festivals in general.
2. Before I left for Sundance this year, I was hearing ads on my brand new Time Warner digital cable OnDemand that they would be offering 13 films from the Sundance line up while the festival was happening. IFC & SXSW are not the first to create this kind of partnership, they just happened to have held a press conference about it, while I never received so much as a press release from Sundance about their Time Warner partnership. Are you feeling like the general public is over Sundance already because it was on Time Warner? Probably not.
3. Sundance’s 10 for 10 made available 10 shorts from the festival available on iTunes during the fest. I believe they did this last year as well. I’ll grant you that shorts aren’t features, but there might actually be more of a market for shorts via download. I haven’t heard any filmmakers or festival programmers wonder if they won’t be able to show a great short they saw at Sundance because it was on iTunes.
4. The trend in the marketplace for video content is toward availability on all screens at the same time. Some people are devoted to the theater, others want to watch on their phone, others want to stay in the comfort of their homes and/or save money. The hardware and companies that bring about total convergence (Netflix, Amazon, Apple so far) are the ones who are going to win. Trying to preserve release windows is a recipe for illegal downloading because release windows are something that the people with know-how are not willing to respect but they just might buy it if it is available for purchase.
5. There was a huge debate around day-and-date back when Mark Cuban’s company launched Soderbergh’s Bubble in the theaters and VOD. There was a lot of hoopla about the strategy and “the sky is falling” predictions, and the film didn’t rake in millions, so the experiment was deemed a failure in the press. But, all concerned with the deal appeared to walk away happy. Bubble wasn’t the kind of film that would appeal to a mass audience so the idea was about capitalizing on the audience that would pay to watch a new, quirky Soderbergh movie. According to their accounts, they achieved that goal. Again, I’m not convinced that preserving windows helps the filmmakers or the companies who are hoping to capitalize on those windows.
6. Most regional film festivals I have attended have significant community followings. They turn out for the festival because the program has been curated by people they trust, to meet the filmmakers and hear Q&A, and to take advantage of the fun parties and events that happen as part of the festival (what can be better than the True/False Mucca Pazza parade?). These kinds of experiences can’t be replaced by sitting in one’s living room and if you have created a valuable experience, don’t discount its power to move people to the theater. I work for the Austin Film Society; we exhibit independent and foreign films, documentaries and even regional experimental work all year round, in addition to tentpole premieres. We can still turn out an strong audience so I’m confident that Sarasota and others like them can too.
7. There is a real lack of information on the numbers here. IFC proudly boasts the many millions of homes that VOD is available in, but I don’t know one filmmaker who has given up the idea of selling DVDs or getting theatrical release because they are making money hand over fist via VOD. Even on VOD, the film is still an unknown to most of those households that have it available. I have to admit to going to my own VOD service and not recognizing the titles as films I’ve wanted to catch, and not being willing to drop $5 to check it out.
There is no replacement for word or mouth, and/or good curation. Maybe if a VOD user sees the SXSW brand associated with the movie, that will mean something and they’ll watch, but it could just as easily and more probably go in the other direction en masse. It might alleviate some festival fears if the IFC folks met with programmers to discuss the kinds of numbers they are seeing in downloads. My guess is that you needn’t worry, though honestly, wouldn’t it be fabulous if we weren’t trying to split a dollar 50 ways while Mall Cop rakes in millions, as Tom points out? Oye, we are really feeling the effects of the lack of funding in the arts and arts education. We need to get Obama on this after he saves the economy and makes peace in the world
I would be very sad if Tom’s questions were answered by his worst fears. Desanguination of festivals in favor of sitting in front of a television at home would be the fall of the last bastion, as far as I’m concerned. I think the only thing we know now is that everyone is willing to experiment to try to find a strong, workable niche in a vast media landscape, and it probably won’t hurt for festivals to jump into the experiment too. Let’s see how it goes in March.