Awesome: 'The Book of Caleb' screens in San Francisco as part of the From Here to Awesome film festival. (Photo courtesy BoC)

Not Quite Quiet Desperation

Jonathan Marlow August 14, 2008

Desperate times require desperate measures. Or, as Guy Fawkes supposedly put it (regarding the Gunpowder Plot), "The desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy." For instance, when Thor Heyerdahl’s theory about the possible migration of folks from Peru to the islands of the South Pacific was repeatedly ridiculed, the Norwegian explorer and ethnographer built a raft and made the journey himself. Proved it could be done by sailing the Kon-Tiki toward Tahiti. Didn’t prove that it was done, though.

The minor kerfuffle that resulted from a pair of pieces that ran at the Daily (They didn’t build their sales model for you and An open reply) and the similar outpouring of naysayers that followed former Miramax President/current The Film Department CEO Mark Gill’s speech at the Los Angeles Film Festival (Yes, The Sky Really Is Falling) reinforces the notion of two overlapping realities—that, firstly, truth is critically needed but, secondly, such truths will nonetheless be systematically rejected by those who need them most. If you haven’t read Mr. Gill’s remarks, I recommend devouring them (and, while you’re at it, my associated earlier diatribes) in their entirety. Unfortunately, in this era of secondary sources, more readers have read other "journalistic" impressions of his comments (and mine) than have devoted their precious time returning to the actual words. In the meantime, since you’re not likely to do what I’ve asked, let’s briefly kick around a few of the highlights in this belated rehash.

Good isn’t good enough anymore . . . your movie now has to be very good —in the eye of its intended audience.

I’ve been saying for years that I no longer have time for "good" anymore. I only have time for "great." It’s not meant to be snarky. I wager that I’m not the only one that has become much more discriminating. Furthermore….

There actually is a growing audience for quality.

I’d argue that there was already a substantial audience for quality. The issue is that it’s now much easier for those quality-seekers to find what they want. For years, when they couldn’t find anything that they wanted to watch, they opted to watch nothing at all. This might be hard to take given the number of people that go to watch the latest dreck that hits the multiplex. However, this merely is a manifestation of the myth of popular culture—a fascinating topic worthy of many rambling words on its own. But I digress.

Fifteen years ago, the Sundance Film Festival got 500 submissions. This year, they received 5,000… [of those] maybe 100 of them got a US theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That’s one-tenth of one percent.

These are the statistics that, if anything, are the definitive take-away from the piece. The odds are against you. Despite the odds, people will keep making movies. Because of the odds—other odds regarding the probabilities of relative success and failure—most of these movies won’t be very good.

Meanwhile, I was also delighted to learn that The Conversation is the most popular film on Netflix. I had no idea. That is one damn fine motion picture. But, really, you should go and read Mark Gill’s full piece. Go ahead. We’ll wait. We’ll be here when you get back.

Since his thirteen points of specialty divisions closing and independents folding, Tartan Films and Red Envelope Entertainment have shuttered; indieWIRE was sold (to the evidently resourceful people at SnagFilms). The Netflix-owned Red Envelope (not to be confused with the gift-site-of-the-same-name that filed for bankruptcy back in April) acquired and distributed a little more than a hundred films in its brief existence, including quite a few remarkable ones. Tartan US distributed a little less than a hundred and, while the library was recently acquired by Palisades Media, the fate of Tartan’s yet-to-be-distributed titles (such as Stellet licht and my favourite film of last year, You, the Living) is somewhat in doubt.

Fortunately, there are a few new upstarts to take their place—The Auteurs (you’re bound to hear more about them and founder Efe Cakarel in the weeks ahead), Sezmi (formerly known as Building B), Unique Features (the shingle, or perhaps a stand-alone, formed by former New Line toppers Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne), VUDU (the place where I presently hang my hat) and others. Whether these efforts will offset the above losses remains to be seen. For instance, these so called times of desperation have still left the excellent shot-in-San-Francisco Medicine for Melancholy without a distributor. Writer/director (and all-around swell fellow) Barry Jenkins called me from Los Angeles recently to tell me that he was trying to sell-out. Nothing wrong with that, admittedly—if it works. In a coincidental development, Wyatt Cenac, star of the film, has since joined The Daily Show as a correspondent (the "new guy"). You’d think that would help the fortunes, indirectly, of this unbelievably charming film. It’s admittedly discouraging (for me at least) to see MfM go largely unseen outside of a festivals across the country and around the world. It isn’t the first time that it’s happened to a great film. It’s not likely to be the last.

Jenny Abel, co-director/co-writer (and, in a sense, co-subject) of the exceptionally entertaining documentary Abel Raises Cain, hit the festival circuit in 2005. I first met her at Slamdance, then again a few months later when the film screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Several years later, Jenny and directing/writing partner Jeff Hockett are still at it. In fact, they opted to participate in the From Here to Awesome film festival (of which, in an effort of full disclosure, VUDU is an exhibition outlet). But this story has seeds that were sown long before. Their distribution strategist (the savvy Peter Broderick, President of Paradigm Consulting, former President of Next Wave Films and one of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet) recommended that they pursue a hybrid strategy for distributing their film. For instance, he introduced them to Neoflix which now sells their DVDs within particular territories where they’ve retained the rights. This allowed them to sell the Canadian rights to filmswelike and carve out other territories if and/or when those deals presented themselves. In essence, Neoflix provides a full-service pick, pack and ship solution that frees filmmakers from the chore of fulfillment. Despite the marketing-speak, those are my words, not theirs! All the filmmaker has to do is provide DVDs (and pay the initial set-up fee and monthly service charges)—a good system for many filmmakers but arguably a bit rich for folks with lesser-known work.

Meanwhile, back at the aforementioned multi-platform film festival, From Here to Awesome puts the hybrid approach fully into practice. Started by filmmakers Lance Weiler (The Last Broadcast), Arin Crumley (Four Eyed Monsters) and a handful of other likeminded individuals, FHTA takes a dozen features and a handful of shorts and makes them available on VUDU (them again), IndieFlix, Caachi and elsewhere. Abel Raises Cain is far from the only good film in the festival. I don’t want to show my hand too heavily but, to name only one other title, I’d point you to The Book of Caleb. I suppose it should come as no surprise that Strike Anywhere Films is not so subtly connected to both Caleb and Medicine for Melancholy.

On Friday, August 15, three of the FHTA films will screen at the Mezzanine, an event which is directly connected to a free workshop sponsored by Current TV and the Workbook Project at 111 Minna Galley on Sunday, August 17. A number of notable folks will be present at DIY Days, as it’s known, in addition to the aforementioned Weiler and Crumley: Heretic Films’ Alex Afterman, the just-returned-from-Italy Caveh Zahedi, Scilla Andreen from IndieFlix, indiegogo co-founder Slava Rubin, multi-hyphenate Tiffany Shlain and others. You should go. If you’ve read this far, everything that’ll be discussed there will likely be of interest to you. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two. I’d be there myself if I wasn’t already scheduled to be in the South Pacific. Like Thor Heyerdahl before me.

[Additional reading on the topic can be found in this recent article from NPR.]

Jonathan Marlow is a cinematographer, curator, critic and composer, and, he says, "not necessarily in that order." He is currently the Director of Content Development for VUDU. In addition to his role as President of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Cinematheque, he can occasionally be found under the Cabinetic anonym hosting film screenings throughout the country showcasing remarkable cinematic works otherwise unavailable elsewhere.

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