Thursday, July 1, 2010
The Shelf-Life Of Films
I was having breakfast yesterday with Sam Jones, CEO of Formation Media who is not at all in the film industry, but was introduced to me by my friend DeMille Halliburton who does film production insurance. Sam is obviously a very smart, energetic, forward-thinking and internet-savvy guy who identifies trends and opportunities in all kinds of different business environments as part of his job. He was talking about how old-school it is that films have a shelf life - meaning, they come to us in theaters or on DVD with a big marketing splash (even small indies) then seem to fade away forever once revenues tail off. This was something, I admitted with some embarrassment, I accepted as part of the "life cycle" of films and had never given serious consideration.
This smart non-filmmaker then proceeded to explain to me why this was the case. It is because the concept of a film's shelf-life is rooted in the old brick-and-mortar approach to selling/watching films. Meaning, if you have a theater showing a film, as soon as attendance dips to a certain point, it is time to move that film out and put in a new film that will pack the houses. Or if you sell DVD's in a store, you only have so much shelf space so you have to move out the old and bring in the new to keep sales brisk. Makes sense, right? It is a concept that makes and has made sense to studios and theaters - and one to which they are obviously still clinging. However, filmmakers all the way down to the most no-budget indie have also bought into this concept and are almost as slow at shaking free from it. However, in the digital age, this concept will most certainly go the way of the dinosaur and it should be us indie filmmakers helping to expedite its extinction.
Films are like songs. Time does not necessarily de-value them. Some films actually take a long time to catch on with potential viewers, aging beautifully like a fine wine. Yes, films sometimes are dated by concept/language/style, but that often does not preclude them from remaining relevant and/or entertaining indefinitely. And even if you've seen a film upon it's initial release, you may want to revisit it over an over again. I know people who have seen "The Godfather" 2,796 times. If it pops on the t.v., they immediately stop whatever they are doing - even if it is giving birth - and watch the entire film over again. Again, like a song you want to play over and over again, there are films you simply never get sick of.
So, why can't we just order the films on DVD or download them whenever we want them? Because so many titles are still, incredulously, unavailable either on DVD or digital download. You might be able to get a VHS copy on Amazon, but who the hell can stomach that in this pristine new HD universe we are now living in? And even if they are available on DVD or digital download, they are often difficult to find - even with Google - if they are not on Amazon or some other major product aggregator. Finally, from a an audience perspective, even if you are able to access any film ever made, how do you know what to watch? There is virtually no curation for older indie films unless they are critical darlings, and it makes no sense after awhile for distributors or self-distributors to continue spending money on promotion to keep the film in the public's consciousness.
Well, despite the entrenched studios being unable to "burn the boats" of their tired paradigms and indie filmmakers being too myopic to grasp the opportunities in their midst, there are business visionaries within and without the film industry who understand that the digital age is going to change everything. Those folks will very soon make it so that you will someday be able to digitally download every film ever made and watch it at HD quality - on a big screen, if you so desire or the opportunity permits. And all films will be curated - not by a single or small handful of gatekeepers, but by big communities of engaged viewers who will vote, comment, share and otherwise work to bring good films to light for the sheer love of it. Those older films will not need to just fade away if they still have the ability to move audiences and open them up to a newfound (if not genuinely new), compelling cinematic experience.
And what about films that weren't great in their initial release and don't get any better with time? Well, some films simply don't deserve to be successful financially (even many that somehow manage to strike it rich) and/or catch on with audiences. Some films are simply learning experiences for the filmmaker or personal projects that are without any kind of revenue potential. But new technologies allow even those films to have a second life. How? Well, the filmmaking process never ends, it simply gets put aside. Weak, bad or just mediocre films can be re-cut and/or updated visually or musically to create a more compelling version of the film and then re-released. Or, even more interesting to me, you can make your old indie film available for recutting (for a fee, if necessary or for free if you are open and bold enough) to other filmmakers who can create something completely new and fresh. Or they can create multi-film mash-ups with updated tempo/music, etc. - much like re-mixed/sampled music in new songs. The resultant film can be then re-released or, rather, released totally anew. A lot of very exciting stuff to explore in that realm for filmmakers who don't have an interest in shooting their own material - and for audiences looking for something innovative and outside the box.
Any way you slice it, the new, digital universe opens up many possibilities (probably many I am totally missing in this blog) for aged films (and aging filmmakers) that are simply impossible in the old brick-and-mortar paradigm. But that paradigm is dying fast. You've probably heard the adage "content is king" but that is never so true as in the emerging internet space. If you have your hands on interesting films, they can and will be distributed on the internet....and found by audiences. Each film may not earn a gazillion dollars, but as per the long-tail theory, each can have its own small audience and, in aggregate, earn a nice chuck of money. So, I would urge you filmmakers to get onboard with the future paradigm and plan for your films to lead a long and healthy life. The shelves, the stores themselves, are coming down and the internet itself will become an ever-expanding warehouse of all films ever made with no expiration date on any of it.