A Response To Jonathan Marlow's <i><b>Sales Model</i></b>

by twhalliii
May 29, 2008 5:01 AM
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In his recent (and much-linked to) piece on GreenCine Daily, Jonathan Marlow takes aim at the current climate of change and looks for answers to the dilemma of modern day film distribution. I have some major problems with this piece and I think a response is in order. First, a few of Jonathan's thoughts:

"Since the beginning of the independent 'common era' (circa 1989), the traditional Grail-quest of acquisition-derived-from-festival-screenings was a relative uncertainty. Now, nearly 30 years later, such good fortunes are approaching the level of impossibility.

The festival circuit has instead become an ersatz distribution system unto itself that, for the most part, keeps money away from the makers. The ten or 20 dollars you spend on a ticket (or the $50 to $500 you spend on a pass) rarely finds its way into the hands of the folks behind the camera. For all of those folks that were frustrated by the late-1990s business model of mere exposure-driven outcomes, these same folks generally have little complaint when festivals routinely screw them the same way. If you're going to prostitute yourself and your work, wouldn't you want to at least be treated with a little respect? To stretch the analogy, isn't the distance between 'street-walker' and 'call girl' really a matter perspective?"

Here we go again....

Let me begin by taking exception to Marlow's straw man, one that I have seen being built over and over again on panels and in discussions among filmmakers and programmers over the past few years; Film festivals are not, in fact, an ersatz distribution system for films. I know that with the decrease in screen space and the incredibly competitive marketplace for films among the distribution companies, film festivals have become the only way for many films to be projected in a theater in front of an audience. That said, we've had film festivals around for literally decades; What has changed about film festivals? How have they evolved from being showcases for independent and foreign films to being equated with the institutional pimping of filmmakers? In reality, aside from their wider proliferation, there has been no change. Instead, the business of actual film distribution has changed and audience access to independent and foreign films has changed. Festivals have remained, for the most part, non-profit organizations committed to curating film programs for audiences who want to see hard-to-see films on the big screen, meet the filmmakers and actors, and have an environment where film is taken seriously, presented reverently, in the spirit of a shared cultural event. In addition, there is no collective network of festivals that collaborates to set up a national distribution path for films. Festivals don't cooperate with one another on programming beyond a friendly exchange of information; most of the time, we're competing for films. Each event stands alone and should be weighed on its individual merits, benefits and shortcomings. This is not some form of institutionalized distribution unless the filmmaker decides he or she wants to pretend it is so. In which case, they are wrong. What film festivals share with distributors is that they both screen films in a theater. But does that make them the same thing?

I really take exception to this article (and Marlow's later claim that any one who says otherwise has a vested interest in the exploitation of filmmakers) and the idea that somehow low-ball , "exposure-driven outcome" deals by for-profit distributors are the same as non-profit festivals building word of mouth with one or two screenings of a film for a paying audience. The cost of renting theaters, equipping them with video and film projection, staffing the booth, organizing travel and accommodations for the filmmakers, staffing for programming, marketing and press for the films in both the national and local press? That cost FAR OUTWEIGHS the income generated by single ticket and pass sales at most film festivals. So, with festivals essentially subsidizing film screenings (which generally operate at a loss) with sponsorship dollars, I am not sure how the festival is prostituting the filmmaker. In fact, the whole argument is bullshit. Non-profit arts organizations are not structured as a replacement for traditional for-profit distribution models. Film festivals are not theater operators or exhibitors, take no money from the concession stand, and use the revenue generated by film tickets to help offset the cost of showing the films. We are not distributors, do not share in a national distribution plan, do not exhibit a film more than once or twice, and generally don't turn a profit on ticket sales. I've never met a rich film festival employee in my life.

Marlow goes on to show his love of undistributed films and his empathy for the lack of screen space by equating the quality of a film festival with the relative size of their programs; while films can't find an audience because screens are not available, Marlow argues that film festivals can truly show their quality and commitment to these artists by showing fewer films. I guess he's saving the poor filmmakers from being exploited by the cash-generating festival machine. I think this is one of the most condescending ideas I have ever read; our festival featured over 220 films this year and I was proud to show each title among them. Marlow expands his straw man by arguing that the future of festivals should be to set up revenue-sharing models, moving the festival experience on-line in conjunction with VOD and DVD strategies. I have no beef with festivals that set up post-event revenue packages that include multiple platforms for filmmakers, but to claim that anything else is exploitation, to say that festivals are better for featuring fewer films and then to hold up Telluride, the most venerated of American festivals, as proof that brevity equals quality (despite the fact that Telluride programs films from Cannes and American independent distributors and rarely ever features undistributed American independent films) shows me that, like so many folks who feel free to saddle film festivals with the economic burden of replacing distribution in a movie theater, Marlow doesn't seem to know much about how film festivals work.

Each paragraph of the piece contradicts the previous one, exception taken and then used to bolster a later argument; Is this a strategy? A philosophy? Is the future of independent filmmaking, marketing and audience building really limited to a set top box and DVD? Of course not. What Marlow is really rejecting here is community, and I don't mean virtual spaces and networks, but cities and towns, physical communities across the country that want to share in the art of cinema. There is a presumption of access here, a presumption that people everywhere want to watch films online, want to pay for set top boxes so they can rent films, that seeing films at all is more important than how they are seen. Thankfully, both are important. The reality is that festivals are integral to the development of those audiences, building them by way of grassroots marketing in the real world.

Sure, festivals continue to build on-line community and word of mouth, but local, regional and national audiences for films still matter; the people at the screenings matter. Festivals continue to be showcases for filmmakers to share their work and serve an important purpose for countless communities around the country to explore the state of cinema in a way they otherwise could not. As the frustration grows at the fact that distribution has become more ruthless, as independent distributors gauge the relative success of their films against the numbers that are put up by so-called crossover films that bring in previously unheard of box office, there is a clear tendency for the marketplace to look for other revenue streams. But why punish and bad-mouth festivals and their purpose? Festivals want to grow and develop to meet the needs of filmmakers and audiences, but if festivals are being forced to become a mere subset of the theatrical distribution model, something valuable is lost in the process. Square pegs, round holes and nobody wins.

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  • Chris Holland | June 9, 2008 12:51 PMReply

    I had the same questions about the original post -- it rambled a bit and I wasn't exactly sure what the point was, except that he thought somehow festivals were going to find money in their budgets to pay filmmakers. Here's my own reaction to Marlow's piece:


  • Sujewa | May 29, 2008 9:47 AMReply

    But haven't both the production and distribution worlds changed so much that "back in the day" festivals were showing art/indie/foreign films that had some kind of a distributor (usually in another country, if we are talking about US festivals, I am thinking about an essay I read about how the San Fran Film Fest got started w/ I think a French New Wave film) but now; with low budget digital production, we actually have totally indie American movies; movies that got to the fest fully due to the filmmakers efforts and not because that the exposure gained from the fest serves a third party (a distributor)?

    If the argument is that fests can't pay filmmakers because they haven't in the past, the counter argument is - the past is not very relevant in this case (some fests are very popular, generate a significant amount of $s from tix sales (even if those $s are ultimately insufficient - as you say - to cover all the expenses of many fests).

    Why do businesses or events that have over 20,000 customers (as is the case with several US fests - probably including Sarasota) run without a profit anyway? Specially since the full interaction with customers/customer service part of the biz is very short - a week or so at most (unless you are SIFF). Is it just impossible to make a profit showing movies in a fest situation?

    Even though fests do not share tix sales $s with filmmakers (yet :), I am glad fests are here. Lately they've helped me figure out where indie film consumers might live in the US, etc.

    Also, of course, as a fan of film, fests are great events to attend.

    Ultimately if no one in the film fest biz makes money, it would be cool to have that "not making money in the end but some money going through our hands for a limited time" situation apply to not just film fest organizers but also the makers of the films that play at film fests.

    Anyway, this is an evolving situation. And Marlow expresses real concerns held by many. And your view, from the fest side of the equation, is useful in trying to come up with solutions to the problems that Marlow points out.

    On the bright side, film festivals show, on almost a weekly basis somewhere in America, quite a bit of people will show up to buy tix to well marketed & programmed events featuring art/indie/foreign movies as the main attraction.

    Now we just have to make the numbers add up. And of course get the makers of the product/work some $s from the fest screenings & in the end make sure the fests do not end up in debt.

    Easy task, no doubt :)

    If anyone out there is running a profitable fest, post here (or somewhere) & let us know how it is being done.

    - Sujewa

  • gabe | May 29, 2008 9:12 AMReply

    beat me to the punch! i am going to follow up with my thoughts on this as well.

  • Sujewa | May 29, 2008 7:49 AMReply

    Hey Tom,

    I am going to try to put together (with the help of a lot of other people hopefully) a filmmaker group show type festival in NYC in summer '09 or later. Wish me luck.

    Here's the post re: it:

    - Sujewa

  • Suejwa | May 29, 2008 7:03 AMReply

    Hey Tom,

    I like non-profits, always have, even have worked for at least one. Perhaps indie filmmaking & distribution projects, or the real indie side of it; stuff that does not yell out "commercial", should be set up as non-profit businesses. Something people have mentioned in the past, and perhaps more filmmakers should look into.

    And yes, I do appreciate the tremendous amount of work - including thousands of volunteer hours - it takes to put on film festivals. Showing 1 film at a DIY screening takes dozens to hundreds of hours of prep, so I can imagine what showing 100-plus movies must be like - work load wise. Certainly not something that would be quickly affordable if the event was not set up as a non-profit event.

    Putting the money to filmmakers side of the equation aside a little, I think it would be useful for indie DVD labels & other distribution related enterprises to advertise at film festivals - as long as there is no conflict of interest w/ programming, etc.

    Maybe the project is to make indie film fests more profitable or profitable period or events that generate more $s & or are easier to finance; and then we can work on getting filmmakers who show at fests paid to some degree perhaps.

    And the other thing that I & other filmmakers might want to try is to try putting on a festival to see exactly how it works, and what we might see are changes that can be fine tuned, etc. to create events that are both not a huge financial challenge to the organizing entity & are useful as publicity & a revenue stream to the filmmakers. Perhaps something like a group show by painters - organized under a film festival model & marketed as such; with perhaps even non-filmmaker/outside curatorial (i hope that's a word :) oversight.

    - Sujewa

  • Bill | May 29, 2008 4:35 AMReply

    Tom, a very detailed response to Marlow's piece, but I feel you're being a bit too sensitive in it. Marlow might set up a few straw men ... but he's got some tin ones and flesh ones too. As an independent filmmaker and teacher of budding independent filmmakers, the issues he raises and some of his points are extremely valid.

    Yes, too many people think film festivals are leeches living off the blood of filmmakers, and this is a very unfair and damning point of view and doesn't address the real problem.

    But I do think it is important for filmmakers to realize that the old model of festival, acquisition, theatrical distribution really is like playing the lottery any more -- they should be aware that the game has changed, the odds increased and that festival exposure does not equate to commercial distribution.

    Often, festivals do end up being a de facto distribution system for indie films -- that's not saying the festivals are abusing filmmakers, but the reality is that festivals will end up being the only place many films will ever see the light of a projector bulb. And the fests are indeed doing a public service bringing such films to the public's attention.

    But there is nothing wrong with filmmakers trying to make a living off the films they make and in that light, I feel that Marlow's key point -- one that I teach my students -- is:

    "Making the film is one thing. Getting it out there is another. Giving an audience a reason to watch? Something else altogether. It is definitely something that the filmmakers and distributors of today (and tomorrow) should be prepared to figure out."

    And please don’t be snarky to Sujewa as he himself provides a -_tremendous_ non-profit service to indie filmmakers with his blog. Some of your pointed comments to him reflect your anger at the abuse festivals receive and are not truly reflect the points he was trying to make.


  • Tom | May 29, 2008 2:46 AMReply

    I have never been to Telluride, but my wife attends every year while I sit home in a pool of jealousy (I save it for Toronto the following week). I think it is safe to say that all festivals admire and envy them. They have created a cinephilic ideal and I don't disagree with Jonathan Marlow that they are, in fact, the standard by which all other should be measured. But its not because of the brevity of the program, but the quality of the event they have built overall. Festivals are not more or less selective because of their missions and lengths; I think most programmers would KILL to have the access to films, to inherit the reputation of Telluride, to be able to show a program as selective as they do. But every festival cannot be Telluride because, well, Telluride is Telluride. But again, who wouldn't want to create something like that? It is a special festival and should be honored for its vision.


    Again, I don't know what you're saying. Various festivals have always shown films with and without distribution, but market festivals aside, most of us just want to share great work. We have a curatorial mission. I never said the argument is we can't pay filmmakers because we haven't in the past; I am saying that showing films at film festivals is NOT PROFITABLE; Festivals take on a huge expense in setting up our projections booths and staffing the festivals, so if you really want to share in the economics of the festval, maybe filmmakers should pay US to offset the cost of helping them promote their films (since we don't recoup, in most cases, the cost of the screening). Obviously, that statement is ridiculous, but so is its inverse; paying for screenings only adds costs that are not recouped and completely undermines the marketing service festivals provide. Instead, as I said in the piece, we get sponsors to come in and offset costs so that we can try and break even.

    As for your question as to why we run without a profit, the answer is that we are non-profits and that we provide an artistic service to our communities. The better question is why you don't see the value in a non-profit, community and industry based organization? It's because your sole focus is making money on your films, which, if you were able to get it into the marketplace proper, you STILL may not recoup. Your individual film aside, our mission is not to make a profit; individuals and sponsors get a tax deduction for their contributions to the organization. Without a non-profit incentive, we could never raise enough money to put on the event. I don't work to get rich and our festival doesn't charge members of the community huge amounts of money to see a film; It's $9, $6 for a matinee. We try to bring the best in cinema to our audiences and celebrate work that otherwise would not get seen in a theater. I vehemently disagree with you that my festival's goal should be to get to a place where we are sharing money with filmmakers; I guess my goal needs to be express the marketing value of playing at the festival to filmmakers so they can weigh whether or not playing their film in Sarasota is worth it to them. I encourage you to explore the actual costs involved with executing a festival (especially in our current economy), but I can assure you; It is way more expensive and requires far more man power than your film.

  • Andy Brodie | May 29, 2008 2:21 AMReply

    Amen! And thank you for the thoughtful response.

    As a filmmaker, I'm thankful for festivals like Sarasota that take their task seriously and work to create a respectful viewing environment for both filmmakers and the audience. It's rare to get that anymore in contemporary film culture.

    I won't get into whether a large or small festival program is better (I can see merits in each), but one reason I make the costly trek to Telluride each year (as a volunteer staff member) is because it's refreshing to be in an environment that shows the utmost respect for presentation and communal viewership.

    On a related note (and of great concern to me) is the question of how changing delivery channels impact the art/craft of filmmaking itself...

    I didn't fall in love with cinema because of images composed for computer screens or iPods. While digital technology can be liberating, it can also have a dumbing/watering down effect on the kind/quality of films being made.