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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


Does Independent Film Need its own Google?

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

In a recent Indiewire article, "In Film Buying and Selling: Too Much Insider Information, Not Enough Data," Editorial Director of Slated Colin Brown makes a resounding plea for something we have harped on numerous times in our findings: more data. In this case, he means specifically more transparency in the film business around sales numbers. He mentions how the variety of players in the film industry contribute to the secrecy around numbers; everyone from a producer to a distributor to a director seems to have a reason to maintain their "tendency to massage, manipulate, and even muddy figures for individual gain." In fact, an entire format of distribution (and an increasingly popular one) is notorious for not making sales numbers readily available; though access to something like Rentrack to check specific theatrical grosses is privileged and costly, at least it exists, which is more than can be said for Video-on-Demand. (However, if you want to see a thorough presentation on film that thrived specifically on its VOD sales, complete with actual, not secret VOD numbers, check the accompanying article from Indiewire about the film American: The Bill Hicks Story). Brown makes a very strong case and hits on many of the problems we've encountered, though he does imply that distributors can benefit from making sales data available as much as producers. Specifically in independent film, this seems like a dubious idea; 1) already distributors have more access to sales data by nature of their jobs, and 2) by withholding what is a commonly paid advance or normative terms for a certain kind of film, distributors can more easily get to the negotiating table with producers. In the festival context of being met with a much bleaker market for their film than expected, filmmakers can become open to deals with certain distributors based on other factors.

In fact, Brown's post leads us to wonder: if there were some sort of publicly accessible information set regarding film sales -- like Hollywood's own Google -- is it likely that as many films would even get made? As this article makes clear, many films are pitched to investors with faulty business plans, based on sloppy estimates as to what kind of films did what kind of business in what kind of formats. If all of that was out in the open, and just a few clicks away, would equity investors go in for nearly as many films as they do currently? Or is this even a relevant question at this point; has the independent film industry been living off of the misinformed hopes of investors for so long that it is ingrained into the business's ecosystem?

Imagining something beyond the current status quo, it seems that the independent film world could go one of two ways. One option is to make this data publicly available and risk that production would slow. This would not necessarily be a bad thing, in that the glut of production being forced into relatively limited distribution channels (without filmmakers inventing their own paths) has proven to be problematic. What would be a bad thing is if production didn't slow down, but rather become boring -- in other words, that the information available would lead investors to play it safe with safer, broader films. (Said another way: even artier, less commercial filmmakers are currently thriving on the lack of available data out there).

The second option would be to really make strides so as to provide a ready-made recourse for filmmakers that sense that their film might not have much market value as an asset to a distribution company, in whatever format. Everyone is focused on sales -- even artier filmmakers -- because it is the only tangible perception of a film's success. The thought of putting a film out yourself is still just too scary. If, through popularizing grassroots tactics, the thought of self-distribution wasn't so daunting, and there were tried-and-true techniques that could allow you to get more of an audience for less of a cost, sales could be made an irrelevant idea for non-commercial films where it is, truly, irrelevant.  Websites like Kickstarter show that we are in an age where otherwise tough-to-finance film can be made (and attract an engaged audience) on a donation and campaign based model. So let's give up the ghost: if the film someone wants to make just isn't sellable, he or she need not waste time searching for data to trick an investor into thinking it's otherwise. There are other ways to get it made, and perhaps sales should not be your end goal to begin with.

And as for ways to get it to the world? Fortunately data (of the unrelated-to-sales variety) does have an important place in the  non-profit/campaign/donation-based world -- which is the sandbox you are now playing in, if you accept that your film is not a business enterprise. Being transparent with data about goals for example -- how many theaters you'd like to hold over your film (realistically), or how many audience members you think you can engage based on a similar prior film -- can really inspire your audience to become advocates for you. This is similar to the way that David Plouffe used data in videos to inspire donors and volunteers; he would remark on exactly how many voters the Obama campaign needed to reach in order to make sure that enough people came out on Election Day. Or he'd be upfront with exactly why they were targeting certain states in order to reach a precise electoral college goal.

Maybe sales data is the wrong kind of data to be searching for altogether. More likely, the question a self-distributing filmmaker needs to know is not "How much will my film make?" but rather, "Who is the audience for my film?" Answering that question will enable them to target them, and empower them, and then be able to answer that first question with at least some sort of clue. A great thing about a site like Kickstarter is that besides enabling the funding of your film, it also identifies an already-opted-in audience for it. What if engaging that audience on the other end of that film's life (in its reception) seemed as easy-to-do and popular as Kickstarter? In campaign terms: you've identified your voters. Now the task is to activate them for Election Day.

We hope to be able to figure out how to help filmmakers do this, by the end of our fellowship.