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Region's film community gets crash course in the changing economics of filmmaking

The region’s film community got a weekend crash course in how the business side of filmmaking has undergone massive change.

These days, “Everyone [in the industry] is overwhelmed. Everything changes every six months,” said Jon Reiss, a California-based independent film and music video producer.

 He called 2007 “the tipping point in the collapse of the studio-based independent distribution model.”

Reiss recounted his experience that year with “Bomb It,” a documentary about the global graffiti movement. Buoyed by sold-out audiences and positive reviews at Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival., he was disappointed when he received three “no money” distribution offers.

The experience convinced Reiss that “the old model of distribution and marketing for most filmmakers doesn’t exist anymore. … It could never sustain the number of films being made these days,” he told the Minneapolis audience of nearly 100 independent filmmakers, producers, directors, screenwriters and students from throughout the Upper Midwest.

After that experience, Reiss created “Think Outside the Box Office,” which addresses the changed industry dynamics.

Hoping to learn the secrets that can lead to fame, fortune, and a movie deal … or at least to walk away with some practical advice on navigating the new rules of film marketing and distribution, the Twin Cities audience attended a  daylong conference mounted by the independent film producers’ IFP Minnesota Center for Media Arts. Experienced industry insiders, both locally and from New York and L.A., touched on topics as diverse as fundraising and negotiating contracts to developing sources and audiences.

The dream of independent filmmakers used to be: “Take your film to a premier festival, like Tribeca, the L.A. Film Festival, Cannes, Toronto, or Sundance (where) you get the big buzz,” Reiss said. “A distributor buys it from you for $10 million and you’re happily, merrily on your way, and your career is wonderful. That was a great system in the ’80s and the ’90s, and it worked for a lot of filmmakers.”

Reiss said that about 35,000 films compete every year for slots in film festivals around the world. The premier indie festival, Sundance, only accepted 200 of the 5,000 entries last year, and of those, only 40 to 60 signed distribution deals “that made any economic sense,” Reiss said. “It’s a hypercompetitive marketplace … Anyone thinking the odds are in their favor are sorely mistaken.”

Minnesota film industry
The Twin Cities once ranked among the top five areas for film production, along with the likes of  New York, L.A. and Chicago, according to Lucinda Winter, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board.  But now, the region has fallen behind such areas as Philadelphia and Atlanta and the states of New Mexico and Louisiana all of which have funded incentives for production companies to bring projects to their regions

The Pawlenty administration tried to shut the office down last year, but support within the Legislature kept it alive, Winter said. The Dayton administration has proposed $1 million to re-fund incentives for film production in Minnesota, according to Winter, but she expects to take a 15 percent cut in her operating budget, bringing it down to $278,000 for next year.

Winter noted the Twin Cities concentration of Fortune 500 companies that spend in aggregate more than $100 million annually on video, much of that going to area freelancers. That steady stream of commercial work has allowed a thriving community of workers to “pursue their passion” for independent documentary and fictional film and video projects, she said.

In 2009, 495 video production companies in the state employed more than 4,000, she said.

DIY distribution and marketing
Reiss urged Twin Cities filmmakers to adopt a “do-it-yourself” attitude when it comes to distribution and marketing – and to think of the business side, as well as the creative side of filmmaking.

Hearkening to the beginning of the film industry a century ago, before the rise of studios and dedicated movie theaters, Reiss said that early filmmakers had to find ways to market and promote their work. ”Films were shown anywhere, in vaudeville houses and bars,” he said. Filmmakers today have to take a similar approach, creating public events around their films at venues outside traditional theaters, if they hope to build an audience.

Adding a couple of  21st century twists, filmmakers today have to segment and negotiate separate digital rights and distribution models ranging from iTunes to Netflix, Reiss and several other speakers said.

Filmmakers also are taking a lesson from the music industry by developing a portfolio of merchandise, including books, video games, websites, music DVDs and other products that can also earn revenue for the project.

They also are harnessing social media to help them build a loyal audience, Reiss said. Admitting that using “social media does not come naturally to me,” he credits contacts  he made on Facebook and Twitter with  ultimately leading to an  Australian tour to promote “Bomb It.”

Eric Howell, a filmmaker with Twin Cities roots, recounted how he was able to fund his short film, “Ana’s Playground,” shot in Minneapolis in 2008, through donations. Because he intended to give the film to groups working with children victimized by war and violence, he found a variety of industry heavyweights. From Skywalker Studios and the Coen brothers to Deluxe Film Processing and Panavision, they were willing to provide substantial in-kind donations, including cameras, film processing and studio space for editing.

Howell said the film never would have achieved its finished quality without that help and estimates the film would have cost up to $750,000 without donations.

Amy Dotson, deputy director of Independent film Producers) in New York, urged the Minnesota audience not to get “so stressed out by all the things that need to get done. … Enjoy yourselves. … Remember why you‘re doing what you’re doing … to connect with audiences.”

Frances Perkins, an independent producer from Madison, Wis., said the seminar provided “really important information about the new landscape. But I think it will be hard for creative types to accept that they’ve got to be business people as well.”

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