It’s easy to imagine that those of us who know Austin for SXSW don’t realize that it is, most of the time, a college town not unlike, say, Madison, Wisconsin. That is a big school with a decent academic reputation, a serious sports program and a culture of coeds and frat boys and whatever it is they do these days. SXSW famously got off the ground as a Spring Break filler, wherein the bars were willing to take a flyer on a week when their easy money was on hiatus.
The private after-party for the film “The Heart Machine,” with its thoroughly New York and Brooklyn essence, was sort of surreal, taking place as it did at a joint called Cheer Up Charlie’s, with its signature drink, the Banana Hammock. Though inclined to think it was booked (it was a co-party with another film and, true to its indie ethos, had a cash bar) with an ironic smirk, it didn’t seem to matter. Never so well have throbbing dance floor beats and Ulysses S. Grant beards blended so well. What the heck: the movie just had its world premiere, folks seemed to like it (more on that later) and Bushwick’s like 2,000 miles away. Sometimes it feels good to forget about appearances and just cut loose. This seemed like a perfectly good image with which to end a cold and rainy day, but on my way home, I passed the transformed Red 7 Bar (see the photo), a celebration of the upcoming TV series of Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk to Dawn,” and I could not help but think that that party was costing more than the entire budget of his first film.
Earlier in the afternoon, newer methods of financing were discussed in a session entitled “Future 15s: the Crowd” (15s referring to the number of minutes each speaker is allotted.) Elisabeth Holm of Kickstarter shared some statistics about the enormously successful all-or-none platform (“eighty-two percent of projects that reach twenty percent of goal are funded”); 13,000 films have raised something like 200 million on the site to date, including Academy Award-nominee “The Square,” SXSW entry “Veronica Mars” and her own project, “Obvious Child,” which raised finishing funds very recently. John Trigonis, who manages the film and video business for the other well-known crowd-funding platform, the any-and-all Indiegogo, shared similar thoughts as well as insights from his book, “Crowdfunding for Filmmakers.”
Most interesting was the lesser-known Tugg, represented by its co-founder and CEO, Nicolas Gonda. Launched at the festival two years ago to this day and based in Austin, I’d never heard of the company before arriving but had heard the name repeatedly since. Tugg is a crowd-sourced distribution model that lets audiences pre-purchase tickets to a screening in their city and by doing so, create the screening opportunity in the first place. It seems like a compelling part of the solution to the studio-centric exhibition mechanism that makes it challenging for indies and docs without a distributor to gain traction, but also works for smaller indie studio films as well. Gonda walked the audience through a few case studies, including the doc “Why We Ride,” which had already booked more than 110 events and $188,000 gross on his platform. Tugg works either in conjunction with other distribution models, or as a staging mechanism for VOD. The doc “Honor Flight,” he said, conducted six months of events on Tugg before moving to iTunes and become the top-selling film there at its debut. He concluded with an optimistic challenge to the audience, saying that crowd-sourcing is where film was a hundred years ago. That is, the tools are in place, but creative visionaries are needed to propel it forward to realized its potential.
Gonda’s optimism was a sharp contrast for the strangely pessimistic tone of Sundance Institute’s Chris Horton, who led off the “Future 15s: Distribution” session and might have left its audience wondering why they had not joined to masses lining up outside to bask in the charm and celebrity of Tilda Swinton, Jason Bateman and Seth Meyers. Horton waxed enthusiastically about the future dominance of S-VOD, especially via Netflix, leaving a clear sense that theatrical exhibition was on a dinosaur track. But this was a cloud with a black lining for filmmakers who make features and not television, as he revealed the statistic that seventy percent of Netflix views are already for episodic content and thirty percent film. After concluding that “I don’t see much future for film on Netflix,” he half-heartedly suggested that its destiny might be theatrical after all, a bittersweet sentiment given his earlier comments.
To the rescue of the sagging hearts of filmmakers were Benjamin Crossley-Marra of Zeitgeist and Jillian Longnecker of Exclusive Media, who both made the case for continuing theatrical distribution, though more so for marketing and negotiating purposes than for the net revenue. Since no one is yet measuring and reporting VOD revenue, theatrical is still the principal way for a film to establish its commercial viability as it expands into other channels. Crossley-Marra walked the crowd through his dos and don’ts of low-budget marketing and distribution; most noteworthy was his case for the road show, that is, turning theatrical screenings into events, with Q&A’s, performances, etc. It’s a strategy that Chicago’s Music Box Theatre has been increasingly deploying with seeming effectiveness. Longnecker spoke to the nuts and bolts of production—she reeled off a long list of filming locations with compelling tax credits but did not mention Chicago or Illinois—and walked the audience through a case study of her own film, “The Quiet Ones,” which was shot for a budget of less-than three million and inked a wide distribution deal with Lionsgate for an April release. That’s the kind of real hopeful story that everyone was looking for, and Horton’s pessimism was long forgotten.
Several hours of hearing folks talk about film stirs up the cinematic appetite, so I headed out in the rain to catch the world premiere of “Wicker Kittens,” a very funny and charming doc about a Minneapolis jigsaw puzzle competition. After that, I saw the aforementioned “The Heart Machine,” which is a well-made and engaging exploration of modern romance through the prism of technology. A Brooklyn writer falls in love via Skype with a pretty poet on a fellowship in Berlin, but comes to have doubts about some of her story. Part suspense, part rom-com and thoroughly a commentary on these times we live in, it’s the feature debut of writer-director Zachary Wigon. As he gathered his large group of producers, actors and other collaborators on stage after the screening—all seemingly connected through strands of his New York life—I left thinking that, in many ways, this is the exact kind of thing we should do for the Chicago Film Project.