TOH contributor Cameron Carlson explores McSweeney's innovative DVD experiment.
The company’s stated goal: “To make you feel the way we felt when we learned that dolphins and whales sometimes, you know, do it.” Fair to say, Wholphin has carved out a unique niche.
It can be surprising to see DVDs displayed in the McSweeney’s section of a local bookstore. Indie darling Dave Eggers’ renowned publishing enterprise started off by including short film collections in 2006, under the Wholphin DVD label, after a casual conversation four years ago when Eggers and lieutenant Brent Hoff noticed the peculiar dearth of short films on the consumer market. It seemed that many strong non-features spent their entire life cycle on the festival circuit or in famous filmmakers’ basements or museum archives.
When McSweeney editor Eggers and executive producer Hoff, respectively, embarked on this experiment, they were wondering why none of these shorts were getting released anywhere. Why wasn’t there a market for them? They weren’t necessarily expecting success at all.
Hoff remembers a woman from a Taiwanese television station asking him, “This has been tried before, why do you think you won’t fail?”
They very well might fail, Hoff admitted. Looking back, their foray into film distribution seems brilliant. An original run of 50,000 Wholphins were covertly stowed inside the McSweeney’s subscription magazines and books, to cast a line for possible subscribers. The response was overwhelmingly positive. McSweeney's now issues an initial 20,000 - for bookstores and subscribers - with repeat printings when necessary.
Even four years on, subscriptions account for 80% of Wholphin’s business. By piggybacking on McSweeney’s pre-established distribution channels, Wholphin was able to get off its feet faster than expected. Even though they rely on a subscription model, Wolphin is looking to expand their retail presence. Most of their resources have been dedicated to building recognition and putting together a quality product. And while their online content is growing, Hoff remains adamant about the physicality of each “issue” and its attached booklet (which contains original color art, interviews, etc.)
“We’re able to offer high quality versions of films digitally, and if people want it that way than we’ll show it that way," he says. "Although our core business is still providing something akin to a book…It’s about the contextualization and the flow, and hopefully we’re offering something that is an entire piece. That’s what we’re trying to do, trying to keep it fresh…It’s about twenty times more expensive than it would be the way most people do it. We put a lot of time and effort, and money into that because we want to make something that’s lasting, material, that you can hold on to and have.”
But all that wouldn’t matter if their content lacked quality.
With films like Alexander Payne’s student thesis and video art from Dennis Hopper, Wholphin lays claim to some compelling shorts. Hoff has been able to acquire such a wide range of films by being filmmaker friendly. Hoff met Hopper, one of the founders of Cinevegas, at the festival. “He trusted us to give us a piece of his art...which is kind of amazing, it doesn’t happen, you know?”
Not all the films come through so easily. Some of Wholphin’s resources are allocated to licensing films from festivals, sometimes spending to help filmmakers turn a likable festival entry into a Wholphin-ready short. Wholphin provides a unique venue for struggling artists, blind submissions, and experimentation outside the mainstream (Wholphin recently released Natalie Portman’s directorial debut). Established filmmakers offering student films and emerging artists alike are willing to let Wholphin distribute their work-- with little economic incentive--just for the guaranteed exposure.
Wolphin often plows leftover profits into producing Wholphin shorts, one of which was recently picked up by CNN.com. It remains to be seen how Wholphin will parlay this ambitious experiment in the face of emerging new digital distribution models.