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3 Solutions to Indie Cinema’s Digital-Age Funk

Locarno think tank Step-In discusses ways forward for independent production in a digital age

StepIn 2016 - wrap up session
Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno

LOCARNO — The challenges facing the world’s independent movie industry roll off the tongue like a well-known litany.

“While structurally things are at very different stages in various parts of the world, the bottom line is that it seems everybody across territories everywhere shares the same fears and issue,” said producer Ira Deutchman (“Matewan,” “Short Cuts”) about work sessions at Locarno think tank Step-In, which this year broadly focused on the U.S. and Canada, while addressing huge indie industry big-picture concerns.

He added: “If there was any frustration expressed by people taking notes it was not for a lack of conversation but lack of solutions.”

On Friday an initial Step-In panel at Locarno featured comments on North American market realities from the Toronto Fest’s Cameron Bailey, Telefilm Canada’s Carolle Brabant, Mongrel Media CEO Hussain Amarshi, and indie producer and Columbia University professor Ira Deutchman.

Moderated by Deutchman, a two-hour presentation of subsequent Step-In work group discussions on Sunday at Locarno did point to some solutions or at least well-regarded initiatives which may better the lot of the world’s independent industry. Here are three:

1. Power to the Creators: Telefilm Canada’s Micro-Budget Production Program

European film funds spend about €2.29 billion () a year over 2010-14, according to a European Audiovisual Observatory report presented Saturday at Locarno. How should they spend it? Telefilm Canada’s Carolle Brabant presented one way forward at Step-In on Friday. Targeting first-time directors, its Talent Fund – a private donation fund whose partners include Bell Media, Corus Ent and Technicolor – finances movies or TV/web narrative content capped at $250,000 per budget and specifically created for digital distribution. 15% or more of Telefilm financing contribution must be dedicated to promotion and distribution. A pioneering experiment, money is raised not by Telefilm but influential local equity investors backing the Fund, and decision-making on projects is left with film schools or fund partners. Breaking the rules of standard cinema, the fund allows young filmmakers to try things which no committee of experts would countenance, observed Eurimages’ Roberto Olla, a Step-In attendee. That, he argued, allows cinema to move forward.

2. Transparency in a Digital Age: Sundance to the Rescue?

In a bygone age, about 10 years ago, theatrical box office was a pretty good yardstick for moneys a film could help to make in what was called ancillary: Physical DVD and TV sales. That was then. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for producers to get release information from distributors,” said sales agent Xavier Henry-Rashid at Film Republic, reporting back on a work group which discussed the need for far greater transparency in a digital age. Smaller player can’t afford ComScore box office figures; Digital distributors such as Netflix, which pays fixed fees, do not reveal views. Could Sundance be riding to the rescue. Henry Rashid and Brian Newman, at Sub-Genre Media, spoke with enthusiasm at Step-In about Sundance Institute Transparency Project, a long running attempt to fashion new business models for producers in a digital age. “All of us, distributors, sales agents, festival, exhibitors, are trying to build business models in this digital era. The idea is that all of us together could come to collective solutions about what is happening in the market place,” said Newman, a consultant on the Sundance Project. The Project has collected data from dozens of distributors in the U.S., on AVOD, TVOD, SVOD, theatrical  festival revenues, though there have not been reports as yet on the data, Newman said. The idea is to expand to international, he added.

3. A Communal and Community Experience: Cinema Theaters Will Never Die

Another Step-In work group considered if, in a digital age, arthouse theaters were an endangered species. Its answer was a rotund no. If any kind of hardtops take a hit from increased digital consumption it will be multiplexes, said Mad Solutions Alaa Karkouti, reporting back on the group’s discussions. Day and dating has not generally hurt arthouse audiences and independent distributors are moving away from day-and-date releases in the U.S., added Deutchman. He recalled that North American art house owners celebrate an annual Art House Convergence conference. It has two big takeaways, Deutchman said at Locarno. One: “The one thing that keeps theatrical going, exceptional, is the audience, that communal experience.” And the other: Like repertory cinema of old, “there needs to be continuity of programming and scheduling.”

“We’re making a profit,” said Jon Barrenechea, at the U.K.’s Picturehouse Cinemas, which aim to become hubs of community activity all day long and run their own cafes and bars. “One thing programmers don’t like to hear is that it isn’t about films but venues,” he insisted. Last year at Step-In, Barrenechea cited the case of a 243-seat three-screen in Dulwich, a more affluent part of south London,which was doing “incredible business,” with 90% of audiences living within 10 minutes’ walk of the cinema. Theaters have the opportunity to offer a communal and community experience, both increasingly exceptional in a digital age.