This post is part 4 of an ongoing series of posts chronicling how rapid technological change is impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this affects filmmakers and their post-production and delivery choices. The prior three can be found at the following links: January 2013August 2013October 2014

DCPs can be proprietary hard drives. Alternatively (not shown), then can look virtually identical to external hard drives

When I started this series back in 2013, a fairly new exhibition format called DCP was starting to significantly impact independent exhibition and distribution, and I was very afraid. I was sure that the higher costs associated with production, the higher encryption threshold, and the higher cost of shipping would significantly impact the independents, and heavily favor the studios.

Flash forward to today, and of course DCP has taken over the world. And thankfully we independents are still here. Don’t get me wrong…I still kinda hate DCP…especially for the increased shipping price and their often bulky complicated cases and how they are so easily confused with other kinds of hard drives…but they are a fact of life that we can adapt to. Prices for initial DCP creation have dropped to more manageable rates in the last two years, and creating additional DCPs off the master are downright cheap. And most importantly, they don’t fail nearly as often as they used to…apparently the technology and our understanding of it has improved to the point where the DCP fail rate is relatively similar to every other format we’ve ever used.

While DCPs rule on the elite level….at all top festivals and all major theatrical chains…filmmakers still need to recognize that a wide array of other formats are being requested by venues and distributors every day. Those include BluRays, ProRes Files on Portable Hard Drives, and, most significantly, more and more requests for downloadable files from the cloud.

To track the evolution of formats over the last two years, please refer to the booking charts of Film Collaborative films below. Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services is booking our clients’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc. October is always the busiest month of the year…as it is the month of the year with the most film festivals. By comparing the last three Octobers, we can see quite clearly how venue deliverables have changed over the last two years.

Quick observations of the above include:

  • Bluray use for exhibition has remained relatively constant over the last three years in terms of total Blurays used, although its percentage rate has declined by about 23% from last year.
  • DCP use for exhibition has increased from 6.1 percent in 2013 to 31% in 2014 to 39% in 2015. It should be noted that the vast majority of high-end bookings such as top festivals or top theatrical chains require DCP now, and the vast majority of Bluray bookings are at the smaller venues.
  • Digital tape formats, such as HDCAM and Digibeta, have entirely disappeared to 0. As we said in our last post to this effect….stop making these entirely!
  • Requests for Quicktime files on hard drive format are on the rise…and the only reason their numbers above seem so low is because we resist booking them whenever we can—because they are an additional cost. So the 8 listed for October 2015 means in those cases we determined we had no other choice. We should discuss this further in this post.
  • For the first year ever, our company is now offering downloadable vimeo links to festivals to show the film from electronic files delivered over the internet. This is a radical direction that has much to be discussed, and we shall do so later in this post. To date we are only offering these in extraordinary situations….mostly for emergency purposes.

While DCP is certainly the dominant format at major venues for now and the foreseeable future, I still maintain my caution in advising filmmakers to make them before they are needed. Nowadays, I hear filmmakers talk about making their DCP master as part of their post process, well before they actually know how their film will be received by programmers and venue bookers. Lets face it, a lot of films, even a lot of TFC member films, never play major festivals or theatrical venues, and their real life is on digital platforms. Remember that DCP is a theatrical format, so if your film is never going to have life in theatrical venues, you do not need to spend the money on a DCP.

If and when you do make your DCP(s), know that DCPs still do on occasion fail. Sometimes you send it and the drive gets inexplicably wiped in transit. Sometimes there is a problem with the ingest equipment in the venue, which you can’t control. Film festivals in particular know this the hard way….even just a year ago DCP failure was happening all the time. A lot (most) festivals got spooked, so now they ask for a DCP plus a Bluray backup. That can be a significant problem for distributors such as TFC, since it can mean multiple shipments per booking which is expensive and time-consuming. However for individual filmmakers this should be quite do-able….just make a Bluray and a DVD for each DCP and stick them in the DCP case so they travel with the drive (yes I know they will probably eventually get separated…sigh). And the Golden Rule remains….that is never ever ever travel to a festival without at least a Bluray and a DVD backup on your person. It never ceases to amaze me how many (most) filmmakers will fly to a foreign country for a big screening of their film and simply trust that their film safely arrived and has been tech checked and ready to go. If your DCP fails at a screening that you are not at…well that sucks but you’ll live. If you travel to present your film at a festival and you are standing in a crowded theater and your film doesn’t play and everyone has to go home disappointed, that, in fact, is a disaster.

As mentioned previously, more and more venues that cannot afford to upgrade to DCP projection are choosing to ask for films to be delivered as an Apple ProRes 422 HQ on a hard drive. Since this is not a traditional exhibition format, a lot of filmmakers do not think they need to have this ready and are caught unawares when a venue cannot or will not accept anything else. At The Film Collaborative, we keep a hard drive of each of our films ready to go at our lab…as mentioned we do not prefer to use them because of the extra shipping cost (DCPs are trafficked from festival to festival so at no shipping cost to us, while hard drives are not used often enough to keep them moving like this). However we do find we often need them in a pinch. So do keep one handy and ready to go out. This should not be a big deal for filmmakers, since the Apple ProRes 422 HQ spec is the most important format you’ll need for nearly all types of distribution deliveries, whether it be to distributors or digital aggregators or direct to digital platforms. So, if you plan to have any kind of distribution at all, this is a format you are almost certainly going to need. Make a couple to be safe.

Is the Future in the Cloud?

As I have touched on before, the Holy Grail of independent film distribution would seem to live in the cloud, wherein we could leave physical distribution formats behind and simply make our films available electronically via the internet anywhere in the world. This would change the economics of independent film radically, if we could take the P out of Prints & Advertising and save dramatically on both format creation and format shipping. Unfortunately today’s reality is far more complicated, and is not certain to change any time soon.

I can’t begin to tell you how often…nearly every day…small festivals looking to save on time and shipping will ask me if I can send them the film via Dropbox or WeTransfer or the like. The simple answer is no, not really. So every time they ask me, I ask them back…exactly how do you think I can do that? What spec do you need? What is the exact way you think this can work? And they invariably answer back…“We don’t know…we just hoped you’d be able to.” It is utterly maddening.

Here’s the tech-heavy problem. Anyone can get a professional-sized Dropbox these days…ours is over 5,100 gigs (short for Gigabytes, or GB) and an average 90 minute Apple ProRes 422 HQ is around 150 gigs…so that doesn’t seem like a problem. Clearly our Dropbox can fit multiple films.

The current problem is in the upload/download speed. At current upload speeds, a Apple ProRes 422 HQ is going to take several days to upload, with the computer processing the upload uninterrupted all the time (running day and night). Even this upload time doesn’t seem too daunting, after all you could just upload a film once and then it would be available to download by sending your Dropbox info. However, the real problem is the download…that will also take more than a day on the download side (running day and night) and I have yet to ever come across a festival or venue even close to sophisticated enough to handle this. Not even close. Think of the computing power at current speeds that one would need to handle the many films at each festival that this would require. And to be clear, I am told that WeTransfer is even slower.

To make this (hopefully) a little clearer…I would point out four major specs that one might consider for digital delivery for exhibition.

  1. Uncompressed Quicktime File (90 mins). This would be approx. 500 gigs. Given the upload/download math I’ve given you above, you can see why 500 gigs is a non-starter.
  2. Apple ProRes 422 HQ (90 mins). Approx 150 gigs. Problematic uploaded/download math given above. Doesn’t seem currently viable with today’s technology.
  3. HD Vimeo File made available to download (90 mins). Approx 1.5 – 3 gigs. This format is entirely doable—and we now make all our films available this way if needed. This format looks essentially the same as Bluray on an HD TV, but not as good when projected onto a large screen. This can be instantaneously emailed to venues and they can quickly download and play from a laptop or thumb-drive or even make a disc-based format relatively inexpensively. However, there are two major problems…a) most professional venues that value excellent presentation values and have large screens find this to be sub-par projection quality and b) this is a file that is incredibly easy to pirate and make available online. For these reasons, we currently use these only for emergency purposes…when we get last minute word that a package hasn’t arrived or an exhibition format has failed. It is quite a shame…because this is incredibly easy to do, so if we could find the right balance of quality and security…we would be on this in a heart-beat.
  4. Blu-Ray-Quality File (Made available via Dropbox)(90 mins). This spec would be just around the same quality as a Bluray (which is quality-wise good enough for nearly all venues) and made available via Dropbox or the like. It is estimated that this file would be around 22 – 25 gigs. This would be slow, but potentially doable according to our current upload/download calculations. This is the spec we at TFC are currently looking at…but to be clear we have NOT ever done this yet. Right now it is our pipe dream…and our plan to implement in 2016. I will follow up on this in further posts!

To conclude, where we stand now, we have yet to find a spec that is reasonably made available to venues via the internet, both in terms of quality and safety protocols…but a girl can dream.

It is critical to note that the folks I am talking to recently are saying this may NOT change in the foreseeable future…because internet speeds worldwide might need to quintuple (or so) in speed to make this a more feasible proposition. Nobody that I know is necessarily projecting this right now. And that’s a sobering prospect that might leave us with physical deliverables for quite a while now. And for now, that would be the DCP with Bluray back-up. If this changes, you can be sure we will write about it here.

But hey, maybe that Quantum Computer I’ve heard about will sudden manifest itself? Gosh, that would be cool. In the meantime…how about a long-range battery that runs an affordable electric car and is easy to recharge? That would be super cool too. We can save the world and independent film at the same time.

In the meantime…if you think I am missing the point on any of the nerdy details included in this post, or you know anything about how digital delivery of exhibition materials that I might have missed, please email me. Trust me….we want to hear from you!

November 24th, 2015

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical, Uncategorized

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Written by Orly Ravid and Guest co-Author Jessica Rosner, who has been a booker in the educational, nontheatrical and theatrical markets since the days of 16mm. Recent projects include Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film and John Boorman’s Queen and Country.

fair_userecent blog by Orly Ravid covered just a little bit about educational rights and distribution. This blog is intended to develop that in response to a comment about the “Face-to-Face” teaching exception. This exception defines what films can be shown for no license or permission by the producers or rights holders.

The Copyright Act provides for an exception to needing a copyright holder’s permission to exhibit a copyrighted such as a film. That exception, however, is only for “face-to-face teaching” activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom. That’s why it’s called the “face-to-face” exemption.

I emphasized the key words to clarify that this exception does NOT apply to social club or recreational screenings of films or any exhibition that is not in “classroom” or “similar space devoted to instruction” where there is face-to-face instruction between teacher and student and where the exhibition relates to the educational instruction. Second, not all institutions or places of learning are non-profits. All this to say, the “face-to-face” exemption is not a carte blanche free-for-all to show any copyrighted work in any context as long as there are books around within a mile radius. This is important because educators and distributors are often unclear about what can and cannot be done under this exception to proper permission to distribute or exhibit a film without permission (which often includes a fee).

Below is some key information about the state of educational distribution in 2015 and can be done lawfully without the licensor’s permission (under the Copyright Act):

Viable options for educational distribution that involves either selling physical copies, download, or licensing streaming rights or other rights and type of rights or sales, including price points, terms, limitations, etc.

It’s important to understand that “educational sales & use” is not legal term and that educational institutions have the right to purchase any film that is available from a lawful source and use it in an actual physical class under the “face-to-face” teaching section of copyright law (discussed above). Also okay is for them to keep a copy in the library and circulate as they choose.

However, if as increasingly the case, they wish to make films available via streaming or to exhibit them outside of a class they must purchase those rights. A filmmaker or distributor can charge a higher price to an institution to purchase a DVD if they control all sales but that would be a contract situation and mean the film basically has no sales to individuals. This is done but mostly with non-feature films or ones whose market is intended to be only institutions and libraries.

Streaming rights offer a real opportunity for income for filmmaker provided they are willing to sell rights to institutions in “perpetuity” (meaning, forever). They will make more money and the institution is far more willing to purchase. Many if not most universities now want to have streaming rights on films that are going to be used in classes.

Exhibition of film at universities or educational institutions that is NOT paid for (not licensed or bought from copyright holder) – when is it legitimate (lawful) and when is it not so?

It is legal to show the film in the classroom provided it is legal copy (not duped, bought from pirate site, or taped off television). Any public showings outside the classroom are illegal. Streaming entire feature films is also illegal but streaming clips of films is not.

What is the reason or rationale for the non-lawful use?

If it is a public showing (exhibition) they (and this is usually either a student group or professor, not administration) claim “they are not charging admission” and/or that “it being on a campus” makes it “educational and in extreme cases they claim that it actually IS a class. Illegal streaming is far more insidious and involves everything from claiming streaming a 2-hour film is “fair use,” (which would justify showing it without permission) or, that somehow a dorm room or the local Starbucks is really a classroom. Bottom line: not all use of film can be defended as “fair use.” Exhibiting not just clips but a whole film is usually not lawful unless the “face-to-face” teaching exemption requirements (discussed above) are met.

There is a disconnect for these educational institutions between how they treat literature vs. cinema:

All the parties involved in streaming (legal and illegal) librarians, instructors, tech people, administrators know that if they scanned an entire copyrighted book and posted on campus system for students to access it would be illegal but some of the same people claim it is “fair use” to do with a film. I actually point blank asked one of the leading proponents of this at the annual American Library Association Conference if it was legal to stream CITIZEN KANE without getting permission or license and he said yes it was “fair use” when I followed up and asked if a school could scan and post CATCHER IN THE RYE for a class he replied “that is an interesting question.” It is important to note that “fair use” has never been accepted as a justification for using an entire unaltered work of any significant length and recent cases involving printed material and universities state unequivocally that streaming an entire copyrighted book was illegal.

Remedies to unlawful exhibition of copyrighted works for distributors or licensors:

Independent filmmakers need to make their voices heard. When Ambrose Media a small educational company found out that UCLA was streaming their collection of BBC Shakespeare plays and took UCLA to court supported by many, other educational film companies, academics reacted with fury and threatened to boycott those companies (sadly the case was dismissed on technical grounds involving standing & sovereign immunity and to this day UCLA is steaming films including many independent ones without payment to filmmakers). For decades the educational community were strong supporters of independent films but financial pressures and changing technology have made this less so. (Jessica Rosner’s personal suggestion is that when instructors protest that they should not have to pay to stream a film for a class, they should be told that their class will be filmed and next year that will be streamed so their services will no longer be needed). Orly Ravid gives this a ‘thumbs up’.

Of course remedies in the courts are costly and even policing any of this is burdensome and difficult. Some films have so much educational distribution potential that a distribution plan that at first only makes a more costly copy of the film/work available would prevent any unauthorized use of a less expensive copy or getting a screener for free etc. But not all films have a big enough educational market potential that merits putting everything else on hold. And once the DVD or digital copies are out there, the use of that home entertainment copy in a more public / group audience setting arises. As discussed above, sometimes it’s lawful, and sometimes, it’s not but rationalized anyway. It is NEVER legal to show a film to a public group without rights holder’s permission. Another viable option for certain works, for example documentaries, is to offer an enhanced educational copy that comes with commentary, extra content, or just offer the filmmaker or subject to speak as a companion piece to the exhibition. This is added value that inspires purchase. Some documentary filmmakers succeed this way. It is extremely important to make sure your films are available for streaming at a reasonable price.

Parting thoughts about educational distribution and revenue:

Overall, we believe most schools do want to do the right thing but they are often stymied when they either can’t find the rights or they are not available so get the word out.

Streaming rights should be a good source of income for independent filmmakers but they need to get actively involved in challenging illegal streaming while at the same time making sure that their works are easily available at a reasonable price. It can range from $100 to allow a school to stream a film for a semester to $500 to stream in “perpetuity” (forever) (all schools use password protected systems and no downloading is allowed). TFC rents films for a range of prices but often for $300. You may choose to vary prices by the size of the institution but this can get messy. Be flexible and work with a school on their specific needs and draw up an agreement that protects your rights without being too burdensome.

Happy distribution!

Orly & Jessica

August 20th, 2015

Posted In: Distribution, education, Legal

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As 2014 draws to a close TFC reflects on five (5) film distribution lessons from 2014 in anticipation of our 5th Anniversary at Sundance 2015.

1) DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY POSITIVELY IMPACTING FESTIVAL & OTHER PUBLIC EXHIBITION DISTRIBUTION BY REDUCING COST AND HEADACHE:

As we have seen every year for several years now, we are experiencing additional technological revolution that will change our business forever. In 2014, we said adieu to the preview DVD (for festivals, distributors, exhibitors, press etc.) in favor of the online screener link. We said goodbye to the HDCAM and the final nail in the coffin of the Digibeta. We struggled with the problems of the DCP and all its imperfections and inevitability (at least for a few more years). And we are RIGHT ON THE VERGE of the greatest evolution we will experience in recent years, which will be full delivery of films for exhibition via the Internet…whether it turns out to be Vimeo or Drop Box or iCloud or other. If we can remove the SHIPPING part of the independent film business, filmmaker (and distributor) profits may greatly increase without that part of the equation. We are almost there now…

2) THE HARD-TO-ACCEPT REALITY OF MARKETING SMALL FILMS:

As much as all of us at TFC have talked about the need to identify and target niche audiences, the ones who would be the most interested and excited to see a project because it speaks to a belief or lifestyle or cause, most indie filmmakers still aren’t heeding this advice. Of the consultations I had this year, most were with filmmakers who made micro-budget dramas with no notable names and were without prestigious festival accolades. They still believed a distributor would be willing to take on their project and give it a full release. Even those who realized this wasn’t going to happen found the financial burden associated with the kind of release they envisioned too difficult to bear, especially because they were likely to never see that money again (hence why distributors weren’t willing to take on the burden).

If you’re going to work small, you need to think small, but deep. You NEED a small, but highly passionate audience that you can reach given the resources and assets you have. Their enthusiasm will help you if you can harness their attention early on. I won’t say this is easy, but before you embark on a project that could take thousands of dollars and years of your life, first think about how you will approach the audience for your work and how you will maintain it on a consistent basis. If you think someone else is going to take care of that for you, you haven’t been paying attention to the shifts in the indie film marketplace.

If you think someone else is going to [attract and maintain a niche audience] for you, you haven’t been paying attention to the shifts in the indie film marketplace.

3) WHEN BROADCASTERS WANT STREAMING RIGHTS – WHAT TO DO?:

Increasingly, broadcasters are seeking streaming rights along with traditional TV broadcast rights and they have holdbacks on streaming and SVOD at a minimum, and often on transactional digital (DTO/DTR) too. For sure they limit / prohibit cable VOD. As a filmmaker, you only have leverage to demand a higher licensing fee if your film is a hot commodity. Otherwise, while online (or in-app) streaming will possibly gut your transactional VOD sales, you can’t beat the reach a broadcaster can give to your film. Think very hard about turning down a broadcast deal that includes online streaming. Will your iTunes/Amazon/Google Play sales really be so much if very few people have heard of your film? iTunes and Amazon are not going to promote your film like a broadcaster would.

Then again, which broadcaster is it? How big is its reach? How much publicity and marketing will you get? How much digital distribution are you barred from and for how long? Not all types of films make the same money on all types of platforms so does your film demand-to-be-owned? or is a renter, at best. Not all platforms will even accept all films (e.g. all Cable VOD, Sony Playstation, Netflix). Is yours one that will digitally succeed broadly or narrowly, or at all? Will Netflix pay 6-figures like in the good ole days or a lot less, or anything? Do you have a direct-to-fan distribution strategy that you can employ in tandem so as to not need to rely on other digital platforms in the first place?

Or if you want to try it all, still, your strategy would privilege the direct sales anyway. Which is better for your goals, a film that gets national broadcast airings or a film that turns down that opportunity only to be buried in the iTunes store? Or would it not be buried? Only you can answer this as not everyone’s goals are the same and not everyone’s opportunities / potentials are the same. As we have always said, knowing your film’s ACTUAL potential and combining that with your HIERARCHY OF GOALS will help you answer these questions and decide your distribution strategy.

And while it may feel like you are giving up revenue by allowing your film to be streamed (hopefully for a limited time!) through a broadcaster’s portal, you may find this is a good career move for your next feature because people will be familiar with your work having had the opportunity to see it.

4) THE HEAVY BURDEN OF THE NARRATIVE WITH NO NAMES:

Several of us opined about the challenges facing narratives with no names.

The emerging mega strength of incredible television series available everywhere threatens narrative film even more than before, and of course, especially the smaller indie fare.

We have seen time and again how narrative dramas or comedies almost always fall flat in sales unless they have very strong names and not just C-list or B-list names. Of course there are exceptions to this rule and Sundance can be part of that, or a hot director, or simply just an exceptional break out film. But too many filmmakers look to those as the model when they are the anomaly. The pattern we, at TFC, see repeated too often is the making of a decent or good but not exceptional narrative with names that are okay but not great and then wasting time trying to make a big or even medium sale. It just does not happen. Money and time are lost and careers often not made. Again, there are exceptions, and of course certain niches such as LGBT may be one of them, but we advise discerning between passionate optimism and sheer folly.

5) TRANSPARENCY—The Kale of Film Distribution:

The big takeaway from 2014 about TRANSPARENCY is that, on the one hand, it has become a sort of new, hip standard—something cool and good, like eating kale—that more honest distributors practice and/or shadier ones pretend to because it’s more expected. On the other hand, however, we were surprised at how many filmmakers still resist it—resist sharing their data, even anonymously. And to that, all we can ask is, what are you afraid of? It’s meant to be good for the filmmaking community as a whole but maybe individually folks are scared about what the truth will bring. And some folks just want to eat bacon. We get it. Still, we encourage sharing the real data for the greater good and we will keep on working to inspire and facilitate more TRANSPARENCY.

We at TFC wish you and yours a delightful new year and we are looking forward to being even more of service to filmmakers in 2015!

December 29th, 2014

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, DIY, Marketing, Uncategorized

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