In a recent blog post on the new digital cinema distribution models, Jim Emerson cites Spike Lee’s interview with Digital Camera Magazine, in which Lee enthusiastically discusses how these new tools provide new “opportunities” for anyone who wants to be a filmmaker. Emerson is absolutely correct to add that “the means of production and promotion are in the hands of filmmakers in ways they have never been in the medium’s history” and that filmmakers who are prepared to market and promote themselves energetically–and, presuming they’ve made a decent film–can often find an audience for their film, especially given that social media tools such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, allow fans to become advocates, collaborating on a viral marketing campaign. In fact, for me, the best promotional practices can even become part of the story of the film, expanding our relationship to the filmmakers and the characters they’ve created.
That being said, these new distribution models also raise some new challenges, especially for filmmakers who are less capable–for whatever reason–of marketing themselves or talking about the film they’ve made. Emerson cites Reid Rosefelt’s blog essay in which Reid characterizes the new promotional practices of filmmakers such as Lance Weiler, Gary Hustwit, Susan Buice, and Arin Crumley as a “new art form,” which I think is about right. But Rosefelt raises an interesting question as to whether filmmakers who are able (or willing) to market themeslves will be in a better position of succeeding and whether social media tools will expand that gulf.
I think that my immediate answer is that it may not change much. Savvy (self-) promoters such as Spike Lee would likely do well in either situation, again, assuming the movies (and the texts that frame them) offered something worthwhile. But I think that Emerson and Rosefelt’s questions speak to broader questions about how audiences find movies in the first place and whether that has changed in some significant way in an era of social media, Netflix, Hulu, and other filtering tools. Add to that the changing status of the newspaper-affiliated film critic, and our filtering systems have changed considerably. Scott Kirsner recently addressed this question, asking his readers how they “discover” new movies, and the discussion, now approaching 40 comments, reveals a variety of practices from Netflix recommendation algorithms (with which I’ve had some success) to reviews and old-fashioned word-of-mouth.
I found myself thinking about these issues the other day when I was in Cary, waiting to see Goodbye Solo ( a wonderful movie, by the way) at the Galaxy Theatre. Because I had a few minutes to kill and was bored with what I was reading, I found myself wandering into a local video rental store, and I realized how much I’d forgotten about that experience, thanks to my reliance on online or on-demand offerings. After getting oriented, I found myself scanning the new release walls, spotting films that I’d been meaning to see but that had somehow missed finding their way to my various viewing queues. I don’t know whether my experience is representative. I live in a town without any real access to independent video stores and have an aversion to stepping into obnoxiously loud and garishly bright chain stores (hint: their colors are blue and yellow) that have limited independent, foreign, and documentary offerings. But I’d forgotten how much I depended on that new-release wall for reminding me that something is available. I’d still scan my video stores’ collections for older classics, but there is something about the physical makeup of the video store itself that could heighten my anticipation and direct my tastes that digital filters have not quite matched. This doesn’t mean that it won’t happen but that the lack of material access to a video store changes my relationship to movies in a complicated way and that the digital distribution transition will likely not happen without some bumps and bruises along the way.
All of these questions seem related to Ken Levine’s recent blog post describing the sudden and dramatic decline in DVD sales in recent months. Studios, Levine mentions, are reporting an 18% drop in DVD sales, even while box office has climbed 10% over that same time. Levine adds that “bad movies are the ones that are no longer selling” (his emphasis). As Levine speculates, part of this is likely due to the fact that the novelty of owning DVDs has worn off and consumers are realizing they can do without a DVD copy of whatever generic movie you can pull out of the DVD bin at the local big box mart. Part of it may be the economy (though many DVDs are now less expensive than a first-run movie ticket), but if the impulse to collect movies persists, and I think it will, it may be that people will make their purchases more juiciously in the future. Levine speculates (probably correctly) that this will only mean that “They’ll just invent a new format.”
I don’t have a way of tying all of these threads together, other than to say that they all speak to the ways in which current models remain up in the air.
Update: Forgot to mention that Alisa Perren and Jennifer Holt address many issues related to these in their interview with Tim O’Shea in promotion of their media studies textbook, Media Industries: History, Theory, Method.