Who Needs Distributors Anymore?

Film festival panel discussions are always repetitive. Listening to a handful of experts analyze the state of the industry or its future can start to feel like watching reruns of Charlie Rose. However, the conversation that took place today at the Tribeca Film Festival about "Tools of the Trade" was a welcome exception. The subtitle said […]

Film festival panel discussions are always repetitive. Listening to a handful of experts analyze the state of the industry or its future can start to feel like watching reruns of Charlie Rose.

However, the conversation that took place today at the Tribeca Film Festival about "Tools of the Trade" was a welcome exception.

The subtitle said it all — "Alternative Distribution, Marketing 2.0, and Beyond" — and yet it said nothing, because there are a million directions that such a conversation could take.

In this case, however, the speakers remained on-topic and refreshingly realistic.

The Hollywood Reporter's Steve Zeitchik moderated the panel, which contained a diverse group of filmmakers and their advocates: IFC Films' Ryan Werner, 42West publicist Cynthia Swartz, YouTube film and animation manager Sara Pollack, "Bomb It" director Jonathan Reiss, Oscilloscope Pictures' David Fenkel, and Tribeca Enterprises chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore.

There was no discernible argument among the panelists about the current need for filmmakers to dramatically increase their outreach efforts. "It doesn't matter if a film comes to me," said Gilmore, who recently moved to Tribeca from the Sundance festival. "The real question is how an audience will find out about it."

He explained that relying on a distributor to find an audience simply doesn't yield the results it once did. "I sometimes think theatrical distributors don't trust audiences anymore," he said. "I've never seen anybody so frightened about taking risks."

Following up on that thought, Swartz said that filmmakers should raise print and advertisement costs at the same time as their production costs, rather than waiting for a distributor to cover them. "Every film has a niche," Swartz said. "No distributor is going to have time to become an expert in that niche. You should be the expert."

The participants also said that filmmakers need to carefully manage their expectations. Simply, alternative distribution models generally don't make a lot of money for the content creators.

On the flip side, smaller movies are now finding audiences that seemed inaccessible 10 years ago. Werner said that VOD "has kept foreign film alive in America," while Pollack pointed out that the four short films at Tribeca available on YouTube have already been viewed thousands of times.

His enthusiasm reflected the sheer scale of Internet-based audiences, one area that continues to thrive even if the distribution models have yet to fully emerge.

Of course, it's not an entirely rosy scenario. Fenkel noted that streaming video is a lost cause for anyone looking to make a serious profit. "I haven't heard one number that's worked for any film, ever," he said.

Reiss, whose experience with self-distributing his graffiti documentary "Bomb It" has led him to write a book that will come out this fall, urged people to expand their definition of theatrical release. "Even a living room can be a theatrical release," he said.

Everyone agreed that all small movies benefit from distinctive release strategies so that they can reach their specific audiences. Otherwise, they just turn into more faces in the murky crowd.

"The good news is that more films have been distributed in the theatrical market since the 1950's," Gilmore said. "The bad news is that more films have been distributed in the theatrical market since the 1950's."

That got a laugh. A nervous one.