Web buzz hasn't replaced critical branding

Indie filmmakers agree that Internet distribution offers plenty of opportunity, but the Holy Grail is the same as ever: reviews.

Wait a second. Wasn’t film criticism supposed to be irrelevant? On the way out?

When it comes to mainstream Hollywood tentpoles, maybe. But talk to filmmakers, no matter what their stripe, and all the talk of new media fades fast. They want the same things indies wanted a few decades ago: reviews from established critics.

The Web has affected the film biz in many subtle ways, but it hasn’t yet replaced the branding that occurs via theatrical booking and critical reviews. A local movie critic with a following drives people to see indie movies in a way that nothing else does — at least so far.

Those points were brought up during two panel sessions at the recent Seattle Film Festival.

The most heated debate at the indie digital distribution panel was between Amazon Unbox exec Roy Price and two filmmakers in the audience who argued that “Who Killed the Electric Car?” was only an Unbox hit because it had already played in theaters.

Price insisted it would have been just as big a hit without a theatrical release. He believes passionately in the future of Internet DVD sales and downloads and early believers building a movie into an Internet hit via social networking, viral marketing on sites like MySpace, and an ardent fanbase. “Movies don’t need theaters to succeed on the Internet,” he declared.

Seeming to back up Price’s point, panelists David Straus of Withoutabox and Scilla Andreen of IndieFlix, which give filmmakers tools for self-distribution on the Web, cited the docu-style romantic comedy “Four Eyed Monsters” as the new-model Internet success story.

Made two years ago, “Four Eyed Monsters” is still building a following and selling DVDs. After their first festival showing at Slamdance in January 2005, filmmakers Arin Crumley and Susan Buice have continued to use their MySpace homepage (myspace.com/foureyedmonsters) and indie film sites like Withoutabox and Spout to grow their subscriber list.

But Crumley and Buice also signed up local moviegoers who wanted to see their movie in theaters. With help from New York distrib Emerging Pictures, they booked short runs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston, which yielded 11 reviews. (They were rated an excellent 82% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.) This month, “Four Eyed Monsters” became the first full-length feature film available via YouTube. In one week, some 500,000 people viewed the film’s YouTube page(youtube.com/user/foureyedmonsters) if not the entire 71-minute movie.

Spout is offering the filmmakers $1 for every new person who joins its membership community. As of June 19, the filmmakers had raised $23,000 toward their mounting credit card debt.

On Wendy Sheperd’s MySpace blog, Crumley writes that podcasting is key, offering bits of media that come automatically to subscribers. “No TV channel has that. No major studio has that. No radio DJ has that. When we make a new video or have a new trailer or post a new short episode or have a video invitation, our subscribers get it. They want to know what we’re up to and see whatever we make and put up there. It’s the single most powerful thing we’ve done online.”

Still, Crumley and Buice have been living hand to mouth since 2002. Of Withoutabox’s 130,000 filmmaker members, Straus lists about four who have earned from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Success is relative,” he says. “The industry doesn’t change overnight. People need to realize they can use Unbox, IndieFlix and Film.com to do it themselves.”

And Crumley and Buice spent a lot of energy booking theaters; it’s unlikely that they would have had even their modest level of success if not for the stellar print reviews.

Generally, a film needs to be booked into theaters to get mainstream reviews. “Nothing beats five weeks in a theater with good word-of-mouth,” says producer Jim Stark.

Which is why Withoutabox’s Straus has devised ways to help filmmakers book screens themselves. As online distribution services reach critical mass, Straus says, more filmmakers will self-release with more success, networking with other filmmakers with similarly inclined fan bases and reaching out to local followings in different cities.

IndieFlix’s Andreen argues that making movies accessible for free might create revenue using an advertising model. And Real Networks is showing selected movies for free, in partnership with online DVD retailer Greencine, on its Film.com site, says director of product management Michael McMurray; filmmakers get a license fee.

The need for theater bookings and accompanying film reviews was reinforced at another Seattle panel on the impact of the Internet on film criticism. Audience members made the case that reviews from established critics — such as panelists David Ansen (Newsweek), John Powers (Vogue) or John Anderson (Variety) — carry far more weight than any dotcom reviewer. While Slate and Salon critics boast some cachet, no online critic so far has broken through to a wide following. The critics themselves argued for the benefits of having the time to write considered pieces rather than dashing them off online.

Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeffrey Wells, who didn’t make it to Seattle, sent a statement: “Any film critic who’s not writing for an online audience, or at least putting his/her stuff online so the under-35s can read and react, is writing his or her own obituary. The old models and old configurations don’t work any more, and even the most old school media reactionaries are admitting this.”

That’s news to Powers. While Conde Nast now posts his Cannes festival diaries online, readers of Vogue, for example, still want to hold the visually rich monthly in their hands. Powers has the luxury of writing slow with a long lead time. His material has to be strong enough to endure on newsstands for weeks.

As publications make the transition to the Web, critics like Ansen are doubling their workload as they provide separate content for the magazine and the online edition.

Anderson has made a tougher adaptation: like many newspaper employees these days, he accepted a buyout offer from Newsday and now freelances for such outlets as the New York Times and Variety. Tim Appelo left his critic post at the Seattle Weekly for a more remunerative job as content editor at Amazon Unbox; he writes a blog that steers Amazon readers to his fave raves.

As the pool of well-paid print critics shrinks in size, the next generation of film fans may come to trust critic/bloggers like Appelo, Wells and Spout’s Karina Longworth, who helped to create major film blog Cinematical, but wasn’t paid enough to remain there, even after it was bought by AOL.

Spout hired her to write short and fast for its burgeoning film community, to help people to find movies to add to their NetFlix queue or order on-demand. “I’m not cut out for long-lead journalism,” Longworth says. “I get more of a thrill out of the daily grind of blogging.”

During this period of transition, boomers and older filmgoers will continue to glean their movie info from print media and their websites. But as newspapers decline, younger filmgoers are checking out blogs like Cinematical and aggregators like Yahoo Movies. And as more inexpensive indie films are produced, filmmakers blocked by the theatrical distribution bottleneck will follow the lead of John Jeffcoat, whose “Outsourced” won the audience prize for best film at the Seattle Fest. Jeffcoat has decided to self-distribute his film: Its premiere in September will be at Seattle’s Majestic Bay Theater.

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