Alternative Distribution at the Sundance Film Festival

Jewel Mensah is a current second year student in Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Entertainment Industry Management (MEIM) Program and was AMT Lab’s Chief Social Media Coordinator during the 2015-2016 academic year. He makes his return to our platform by sharing an interview with Dan Green at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival about alternative distribution and the impact of technology presented by a collaboration between CMU’s MEIM Program and the Creative Distribution Initiative.

JM: Thank you for talking with me today. What brought about this collaboration between Sundance and the MEIM Program?

DG: When we decided to go to Sundance with the MEIM students several years ago, we basically just hung out, saw some films and for our social/networking event, we ended up at a bar on Main Street and invited some friends and faculty who were at the festival. It was casual and unorganized. The following year, I reached out to Sundance about the opportunity of being an Institute Associate sponsor. The idea was to try to get both the support of Sundance and to get the students more involved. At the end of the day, it became a smart way for the students to get connected to those in the film industry. Over the years, we’ve highlighted

and supported various events there.  Our first official event supported the International Filmmakers Opening Night Party. A few years later, we started supporting the New Frontier, which is an initiative that combines film, art, media, music, technology and even live performance at times. The kick-off opening night party was a highlight for the students to attend. This year, we worked with the Creative Distribution Initiative. We had done some seminars with them in the past and they’d been speakers for us at both the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) and Sundance.  We developed a strong relationship with the Sundance team and ended up doing two capstone projects with them over the past few years that we felt worked out well. This year when we were talking about how Carnegie Mellon would support them, one thing I mentioned to them was, “You’re doing a whole seminar on distribution models for independent filmmakers and we’ve done capstone projects on these exact topics.  Would you be okay with CMU having some current students doing a presentation and summary?” They loved the idea, and that’s what kicked it off.  We had these two particular projects, one about platform release schedules which was presented by Krysta Brown (MEIM ‘17), and one about piracy presented by Jeremy Martin (MEIM ‘17).

JM: One of the key considerations was around strategies independent filmmakers could use to combat piracy. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and also shed light on the ongoing conversation around alternative distribution models?

DG: The idea for this came about because people so often talk about big releases – a really famous film that has a gigantic marketing budget. We know that this film is getting pirated and we know that piracy is a big issue. I think the nice thing that Sundance did was that they tried to look at what their particular independent filmmakers were dealing with and analyzed if piracy was affecting them at this independent level. I think that was an interesting way of doing it because you know that the next big superhero film might be pirated in some way, but was piracy also affecting smaller releases?  The answer was yes. That was an appealing topic for us to examine as well.  They were trying to not only examine theatrical windowing and see how that affected things, but also look at the issues that were influencing piracy, which is a massive undertaking in it of itself. They suggested that our MEIM students look at films that had played at Sundance and use those as a case study. The independent films had alternative forms of distribution – and Sundance was interested in coming up with best practices they could share with future filmmakers.

JM: Multiple download peaks were one of the key findings in the research.   Can you elaborate on the relationship/correlation between that and the piracy factors highlighted (windowing, home entertainment effect, three C’s)? 

DG: I think with the cost, convenience, control, one thing to think about is that piracy is inevitable, but is there a way to combat that? It was worth examining the reason why people were pirating these films.  It’s easier to just watch something in your house, it’s much more convenient. But this other idea is the control factor.  Can I watch it when I want, how I want it and where I want to on my own terms?  As a matter of fact, this project is a couple years old and one of our concerns that we spoke to the Creative Distribution group was, “this information changes very quickly and is this still accurate even 2-3 years later?” Because Netflix and Amazon Prime have permeated homes and viewers have access to content in ways never before imagined, one consideration is that the window of releasing a film is being narrowed. Our students did a survey looking at one’s likelihood to pirate something based on various factors and the reasoning behind it. Price became one of the motivating factors if someone were to pirate.  Certainly, convenience was a factor – how quickly people can get to stuff, and also if there’s an exclusivity. Heinz professors Mike Smith and Rahul Telang’s book Steaming, Sharing, Stealing highlights much of this in greater detail. Did you read that book?

JM: Yes, I did.

DG: It’s a great read for those interested in this topic.  The students in the capstone group looked at four particular case studies.  One of their case studies was on the film Brooklyn, which was a very popular film. Another film they examined was the documentary Blackfish.  We were at first surprised that Blackfish would have more [downloads].  Blackfish certainly had a lot of buzz and people were talking about it. It had become a cultural touchpoint so to speak, so people wanted to see it, even if it meant downloading it illegally. Another case study was Boyhood.  I saw Boyhood at Sundance and the buzz on that was really strong and that motivated many people to go out of their way to see the film, either in theaters or to pirate it. Then the team used the film Jobs as an outlier. I think one of the interesting things about Jobs was that it was the first of the Steve Jobs films to come out, and people were excited to see Ashton Kutcher portray Jobs.  That film ended up being more downloaded than any other film the team analyzed.  Jobs was pirated more than Brooklyn, Blackfish and Boyhood combined.  There’s an excitement level, even for these independent smaller-budgeted films.

JM: What was surprising about [the presentation] was the ratio at which international downloads for premieres alone dwarfed every other category – both international and domestic.

DG: Two points on that, I think some of it is what’s happening on social media and press because there was a time when (I mean this is ancient history but) you’d have to wait to hear about how good a film was and now it’s instantaneous, so people are reading about reviews that are being posted by audience members on social media who are still sitting in the Q and A after the film. I think the other notable thing to mention occurred at the Creative Distribution Initiative last year when Mike Smith was presenting his research. There was a guy from another country in attendance who stated that his country didn’t have access to these great films and many would never come to his country. He basically said to Mike, “I really appreciate all of your research and what you’re saying, but I’m a filmmaker, and you know what, if I hear about a film I’m going to do anything I can to see that film, including pirating it. What should filmmakers do who don’t have access to every film that comes out?” It was an interesting perspective to hear. 

JM: The team’s recommendations included condensing theatrical windows, lowering price / increasing access, and embracing alternative distribution strategies. Can you speak to the role of technology in these recommendations and its implications for future strategies?

DG: It’s about accessibility.  If I told you 10-20 years ago, “Give me $20 a month and I’ll provide you an option to watch not 10 films, not 15 films, but 500 films in your living room.” You’d probably go, “What?  That’s crazy!” That’s what’s happening now with access. You’re going to continue to see a change as technology continues to improve. Many years ago, an executive at Microsoft claimed that there would be a time when everything you would want in the world of entertainment would come from one box in your living room.  As you know, that time is here now. It’s a fascinating thing.  Our students can’t imagine turning a channel without a remote control.  They can’t imagine staying at home to watch a show on a Tuesday night for fear of missing it.  It’s all about technology and how it’s affecting our consumer behavior. It’s all about the fact that the distribution model is changing constantly. 

Here’s a great question out students are investigating now.  “Would you pay more money to see the new Star Wars or the new Batman one day or two days early?” So instead of a $15 ticket, would you pay $50? Napster founder, Sean Parker and his service, The Screening Room is dealing with this issue now.  Their service would allow customers to view a new release in the comfort of their living room for about $50 on the same day the film is released theatrically.  The project has heavy-hitters like Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson on board. The changes we’ll experience over the next decade will massive and it relates to both accessibility and convenience.