The film professionals gathered at the Berlinale's European Film Market are worried about how to cope with the vast possibilities of alternative distribution. As a live debate showed, the only solution is - embrace it.
There's a bit more to the Berlinale than movies and ticket lines and silver bears and cocktails and premiere parties and red carpets. Behind it all somebody has to make the numbers work. Off to one side of Potsdamer Platz, the contemplative atmosphere of Berlin's vast Martin-Gropius-Bau art gallery is transformed every year into a teeming hive for the movie business - directors selling films to producers, producers selling films to distributors, distributors selling films to cinemas chains. This is the European Film Market, from which emanates the raucous noise of people trying to make their film stand out among the estimated 19,000 that get made worldwide every year.
It's in this context that the EFM hosts three "Industry Debates" every year - panels of successful business people discuss whatever the industry's current biggest issues - in other words, what they need to be worrying about to stay ahead. One of these, held this Sunday (08.02.2015), discussed what amounts to an existential threat to whole link in the chain: the distributors. Entitled "The Joys and Challenges of Alternative Distribution," the six-headed panel discussed ways that film-makers are increasingly bypassing the middle-man between the producers and cinemas. That is, raising money for the distribution from fans, organizing screenings at a local level, or even putting out films directly on the internet - often through video-on-demand platforms.
The solution is meant to be liberating - direct distribution, as the industry jargon calls it, is when producers take control of the destiny of the film. Instead of simply selling the rights to a film to a distributor who then sells the film round the world, the production company keeps those rights and hires to agents to directly identify and reach their audiences.
Panelist Olivier Kaempfer of UK-based Parkville Pictures, had a colorful metaphor to describe the point - it was first expressed by Ted Hope, the independent US producer considered a pioneer of direct distribution. "Film-makers have spent too long expecting someone else to raise their children, and then complained that they've ended up being criminal and dysfunctional," he told the audience, which was made up mainly of film producers. "Actually maybe we should start raising our own children, and they may end up being happier and more rewarding."
Kaempfer's film "Borrowed Time" was a notable example of how to make direct distribution work - with a micro-budget of 120,000 British pounds (160,000 euros) and a small festival audience, the film was first shunned by the major distributors. In response, Parkville Pictures took to Kickstarter to raise 25,000 pounds in distribution funds, and were rewarded by another 25,000 pounds from the British Film Institute, in recognition of the innovative approach.
The Kickstarter method was key - not only did it mean that the film was essentially finding its own audience - ordinary people who wanted to see the film and so helped finance its distribution - but it was connecting the business side of the film directly with the enthusiasm for the film itself. "It seemed really exciting, because it presents exactly what the notion of direct distribution is about. It's not just about business, which a lot of people get put off by - 'oh, I make films, I'm not a business person' - it is actually connecting with the people who are going to watch your film."
And it isn't only independent producers that try alternative distribution. Another panelist, Gareth Unwin of Bedlam Film Productions, was an Oscar-winner in 2011 with "The King's Speech," decided to try something different for his latest feature - . called "Kajaki," an Afghanistan war drama, about a group of British soldiers trapped in a Soviet minefield. Knowing it was going to be a "tough sell," as he was dealing a first-time director and a no-star cast, Unwin developed a different strategy. "The idea was that we were going to do it without a sales agent, without a distributor, that the production company itself was going to raise a substantial amount," he said.
That meant identifying an audience - so Unwin approached British military veterans' charities and offered them a percentage of the gross profits in exchange for promoting the film. "They were encouraged by the story we were trying to tell, they recognized that we were going to sell it with honesty," he said. "And I could look them in the eye, and say for every pound that walks through the British box office, it will be 10-p to the charities. That meant they got on board. And to this day they are our biggest source of promotion." As a result, Unwin was able to approach cinema chains in the UK directly to sell the film: "It proved something to me: self distribution, direct distribution - none of these are dirty words. It gave me direct communication with the theaters."
Know your film
The key to a successful alternative distribution strategy, all the panelists agreed, was knowing the film and finding its audience. But that's a lesson that documentary makers have long since learned. Documentaries have found a new life through alternative distribution - especially by video-on-demand services. Danish documentary producer Sigrid Dyekjaer explained that her industry is forced to have a more intimate relationship with its audiences, because of low budgets and often specialized subjects.
"It's not rocket science," she said. "It's just really caring about your film, taking the lead of the distribution, whether you do Kickstarter, whether you work with Amnesty International, it's still knowing your film very well, knowing your interest groups, and having a clear contact with your ambassadors in each country."
Altogether, alternative distribution has clearly become a new opportunity to break the power of traditional film forums - like the Berlinale itself. Dyekjaer concluded with a word of encouragement for the audience: "Maybe you don't have a film on a festival. But it's not only festival films that can sell. I think there can be this hype at the Berlinale - it's a very nice festival. But you can go out and release your film in your own territory, your own town or three towns you know very well, and test your film and how you create this movement. The world is not just festivals and festival screenings."