Kickoff to the MIPS Marketing and Distribution Presentations

Here is the full text of the kickoff remarks I made this morning at the Minority Independent Producers Summit, a three day conference that has going on since Tuesday night in New York City. This morning’s topic was marketing and distribution and consisted of panel discussions and case studies. The full schedule of events can be found at The intention of my remarks was to set the stage for the discussion that followed, and to throw out a few provocations to wake people up.

Minority Independent Producers SummitGood morning.

Before I start, I want to thank the Founding Members of MIPS for organizing this conference. I want to particularly thank Damian Bender for co-curating this morning’s Distribution and Marketing Pod as we’ve taken to calling it. I’m listed as the co-curator, but Damian is the one who did the heavy lifting, so I want to give him a big shout out.

When I was first approached about being on advisory board for a conference about underrepresented/minority producers of movies and television, I had a series of immediate responses swirling around in my head.

First, I was excited by the idea…this was something that was long overdue. It was about time that this discussion was taking place.

Second, I found myself becoming a bit skeptical… given the rapid changes happening in the marketplace, how would this conference be any different from what would be discussed at any conference of aspiring and or struggling media makers?

Third, I was impressed at the level of interest and the number of amazing people who stepped up to participate.

From a personal perspective, when I starting contemplating the types of discussions that would take place at such a conference, my mind immediately leapt to marketing & distribution.

The first reason was obvious…it’s my area of expertise and the space where I’ve spent the majority of my 40 year career.

But the bigger reason was because it seemed to me that finding audiences was, in fact, the biggest barrier to entry that has always faced members of minority groups who aspired to be media makers. And perceived lack of audience was and remains the biggest barrier to a sustainable career. Notice I said perceived. Historically, this has been to a great extent a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But we are living in an age when all the traditional means of distribution and marketing are being blown apart by new technologies, new business models and new definitions of success. Surely this is an opportunity to finally cure the historical barriers to entry and build new paradigms that finally allow the underrepresented to break into the marketplace.

But there is a paradoxical counter-current has been ushered in by these same changes. All content, no matter who the maker is, has been slowly, maybe not so slowly, devalued, as the mainstream distribution channels narrow their focus to only the broadest appeal product, and the niche players are working on such low margins that there is little money to support an infrastructure.

So…let me recap where we are.

Too much product is getting made…

There are too few slots in mainstream distribution channels…

And there is not enough profit from niche audiences.

Not a pretty picture.

So what has been hailed as the “democratization” of distribution, has evened the playing field only by way of making it more difficult for everyone.

So, the good news/bad news bottom line is that we’re all in the same boat. When Spike Lee is financing his films on Kickstarter, and Bernardo Bertolucci can’t get distribution for his latest film in the United States, you know something is amiss.

Yet, I remain extremely optimistic.

With all change comes opportunity. And with opportunity comes empowerment.

But before we can understand the opportunities that are potentially available, we have to adjust our head space a little bit.

(This is where I’m going to stray off topic for a moment)

I’ve become fascinated lately by the fact that given that we live in the country that speaks the universal language of worldwide business and popular culture, we have so many problems with words.

Words that have many meanings are used interchangeably in ways that conflate radically different ideas and obfuscate logic.

A few examples:

“Media” – Are we talking about the McLuhanesque delivery systems that create an environment for content? Or are we talking about specific types of content?

“Digital” – What does this mean other than ones and zeros? My Casio watch that I’ve owned for over 20 years is a digital watch, and yet it hasn’t changed my conception of time.

“Movies” – Are these defined by where we see them? Or by a specific dramatic form? Last night I watched a great new Swedish film that is currently playing in theaters “We Are the Best” by streaming it in high definition on my big screen TV. Does that somehow make it less of a movie?

“Television” – When people talk about the new Golden Age of Television, are they talking a about an appliance or a business model?  Or are they really conflating long serialized movies with an outdated model of advertiser supported, least common denominator formats.

See what I mean? We use these words every day and have no common understanding of what we are talking about. Here are a few more…

“DIY” – Is it really possible to do anything completely by yourself?

“Independent” – Similar point. I’ve always hated the term. It defines us by what we are not, rather than what we are.

“Minority” – Well, let’s not go there right now.

Words. All words. But defining our terms is important.

I bring all this up because members of minority groups have measured their success or lack thereof in terms that frankly are becoming more outdated with every passing day.

Traditionally, success in film and television has been so controlled by big media companies, that there seemed to be only one path to success. Movies were expensive, so there was a built-in barrier to entry. Yes, you had to become a member of the club to have any chance of success. And even so-called “independent film” was mostly a lottery ticket to win membership in that club. Getting in wasn’t easy, but there were substantial riches (theoretically) awaiting you on the other side.

With the removal of these barriers to entry, we have to adjust our expectations about what lies on the other side. If you are here because your end goal is to get rich, that same lottery system still exists, but the odds are worse than ever. On the other hand, if you are in this because you burn to tell stories, stories that mean something to you, or that shed light on some aspect of culture and society that needs to be exposed, or any number of other reasons why you may be sitting in this room, short of getting rich, there is now a wider range of measures for success.

Over the course of this morning, we’ll be presenting two panels and two case studies that hope to shed some light on new ways to build and nurture audiences for your work. We’ll be exploring methods for building personal fan bases, ways of approaching your career as an exercise in branding, and ways of taking more control of your own distribution via newly emerging business models. Within each of these areas, I hope that our panelists will be as candid as possible about the challenges presented by these approaches, and will scale your expectations appropriately.

New distribution mechanisms, while incredible important and potentially empowering are empty vessels without audience. My mantra these last few years to anyone who will listen is that “Distribution is Easy…Marketing is Hard.” (aside: Maybe I should sell T-Shirts with this slogan on them)

You should be listening to what is said up here, not to try and copy what has been done successfully before, but to inspire you to think differently about the marketplace and where your work fits in. Projects need to be scaled to realistic audience levels. That is what creates sustainability. Every project is different. Every filmmaker is different. You should always be thinking about what is unique about your work, so you have something to motivate audiences to seek it out.

This is something that successful filmmakers have done throughout the ages. The difference is that now we have more tools at our disposal and more access to those tools. But we have to be incredibly creative to make them work.

This may sound like heresy to some of you, but the French New Wave was essentially a marketing gimmick, one that focused attention on a number of new filmmakers who had little in common other than a love of cinema and an urge to shake things up. The “branding” of their work got them way more attention than any of them might have had they acted alone.

Spike Lee was and is a born marketer. I don’t know how many of you remember the original trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It, where Spike himself addressed the audience directly, in character, while selling socks on the streets. It was hilarious, original and personal, and definitely contributed to the success of that film. He branded himself indelibly right from that first film, and that brand still has meaning all these years later.

Another good example of what I’m talking about is Ed Burns, who after the success of his indie feature Brothers McMullin, had a hard time drawing sufficient audiences to his subsequent films, finally scaling down his productions substantially, and taking on the distribution and marketing duties on himself. With each film, he experimented with different distribution strategies, and he worked incredibly hard at building up a loyal fan base. He’s finally reached the point where he can make enough money on his films that he is able to pay fair wages to all involved, and continue on to his next film. It’s hard work, but shows that thinking along these lines can pay off. By the way, he has 65,000 followers on Twitter, 35,000 “likes” on Facebook and 1.4 million views on YouTube.

I’m currently working on a project with the Italian Government, in which I’m releasing five recent Italian film, including the unreleased Bertolucci film I mentioned earlier, which (shameless plug) is opening in New York on July 4th. The idea, once again is to use a brand–in this case, Italian Cinema–to get attention for films that might have gotten lost in the marketplace otherwise.

So, my point here is that getting attention requires creative thinking, which hopefully translates into building audience, which hopefully translates into some kind of sustainability.

We are in a unique transitional moment in which the traditional barriers are going away. We have to step up to the plate before someone else puts up new barriers. I keep saying this, but it’s worth repeating. It’s never easy. But if you embrace the new world we’re in, and think creatively beyond the obvious, you will be truly empowered.

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