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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. 

A Conversation with Kate West and Jacob Perlin about Grassroots Distribution and Exhibition

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A Conversation with Kate West and Jacob Perlin about Grassroots Distribution and Exhibition

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

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We recently interviewed Kate West, who is the Managing Director of Artist Public Domain, and Jacob Perlin who is the Director of the Cinema Conservancy. The mission of Artist Public Domain is to support independent cinema through three core programs: Production, Cinema Conservancy and Education.  The Cinema Conservancy is a branch within Artist Public Domain that focuses on releasing and preserving film projects that have historical and social significance and for some reason have slipped through the cracks of traditional exhibition networks or venues.  What makes Artist Public Domain and the Cinema Conservancy unique from other production and distribution companies is that their main objective is to enrich culture through supporting independent film instead of serving their own commercial interests.  For example, if there were a hot film in Sundance, they would not try to distribute the project since it would probably have a conventional distribution run at the hands of more traditional distributor. In our conversation Kate and Jacob encouraged independent filmmakers to think of grassroots distribution as not only social media, Kickstarter, YouTube and blogging, but also as grassroots exhibition.  Jacob pointed out,

“If you can get your film on the screen in Hartford Connecticut at like Cinestudio, which is a traditional audience, yeah they are going to have a built in audience and then you can use grassroots to get people there. But another way to do it is you find a non-traditional venue that is more in tune with what your film is… I think the future will be about identifying other types of venues that aren’t necessarily only movie theaters.”

 

Often filmmakers spend a significant amount of their time and resources trying to get their films into a straight-up movie theater when a more unconventional venue might appeal more to their target audiences and require less effort.  For example, in our case study with Jay Craven, he attracted new audiences that normally would not go to the movie theaters by screening his film in school auditoriums and gym’s that were more accessible to people living in rural towns across New England.

Kate noted, “Maybe the issue is not finding your distributor but finding your audience.”  The advent of digital screenings has made it easier and cheaper for non-traditional venues to setup their own screenings. A good venue can save thousands of dollars on P & A and the countless hours it takes to convince a conventional distributor to screen your film.

However, with so many screening options it can be difficult to determine the best venue for your film. This may be especially true when the filmmaker is unfamiliar with a city. Jacob raised the possibility of creating a network of organizers in different regions who are familiar with the non-traditional venues available to screen films.  Jacob stated,

“You have to have someone on the ground. I think some type of affiliated network where there is someone representing different regions who have more knowledge about it. Like for instance, if you have a [certain kind of] film in New York the goal is Film Forum because it gets the biggest best audience.  But what happens if your film doesn’t get in there? Well the traditional thing was always you open your film in Manhattan because Manhattan is better than Brooklyn but that isn’t the case anymore. Also, do you open your film at BAM or Nitehawk?  Someone outside of New York is not going to know the difference…there are so many iterations that only someone here could know and advice a filmmaker.”

 

From our experience working on the Obama campaign, field organizers played a critical role in communicating the most effective places to have staging locations that were accessible to volunteers so they could make calls and canvass for the campaign.  Similarly, a network of organizers could help filmmakers determine the best place to screen their film at inexpensive costs and appeal to their target audience.

This led Jacob to consider the possibility of making information about movie venues more transparent so filmmakers could know ahead of time what exhibitors are worth their time to pursue. Jacob reflected,

“Think about it, you’re a filmmaker and you have one person on your team who is doing all this.  Do you want them to spend 10 hours trying to get the film to play in one place where you’re never going to get the money from? Or do you want them to spend that 10 hours trying to set up other things.  There’s certain venues, why wait?  Or just try another venue in that town.  There’s no reason it shouldn’t be public. If it would take two bookings in the amount of time it takes to do that one booking, that’s the kind of information that should be known.”

 

One could imagine a website similar to Yelp where filmmakers rate and review different exhibitors.  This would help filmmakers determine if screening their film at a certain venue will play to their target audience, and match the time and funding they have available for the screening.  The website would also keep exhibitors in check and more sensitive to the filmmakers needs for screening their film.

Conclusion:

Our conversation with Jacob and Kate reminded us of how important it is for independent filmmakers to consider non-traditional venues for screening their movies.  As Jacob noted,

“I think that everyone is just so wrapped up in the idea that they want to have their film in the theater where the lights go down and the trailers come on and everyone has popcorn, [but] that’s just not going to happen any more. With the screens left, the stuff that is going to be dominating the screens is going to be major stuff like Fox Searchlight.”

 

Many renowned filmmakers have talked about how the film industry is crumbling; most recently Spielberg talked about the industry crashing because even big budget movies that dominate the box office are tanking. What if the future of independent film isn’t in movie theaters, TV or on Netflix but in the non-traditional venues that Kate and Jacob are using to distribute independent films for Artist Public Domain and Cinema Conservancy?  This of course would require organizers who are experts in non-traditional distribution to set up screening venues. In future posts we plan to explore how the grassroots volunteer structure of the Obama campaign might be able to support a system of grassroots exhibition so independent filmmakers no longer have to rely on traditional movie theaters to screen their movies.