The Future of Distribution: Thoughts From a Platform Agnostic

The Future of Film Blog, launched as part of the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival, features filmmakers and other experts in the film industry sharing their thoughts on film, technology and the future of media. Below, film producer Howard Gertler discusses how digital technology has impacted the kinds of movies that are made.
Theatrical distribution used to be the primary way in which you’d see narrative films that were different, transgressive, innovative, and feature-length. But now you can see these kinds of visual stories on almost any screen, including the one in your pocket. Filmmakers can no longer take for granted that audiences want a feature-length experience when the latest online viral sensation is competing for their eyeballs.
As a film producer, I’m platform-agnostic. Wherever and whenever a viewer can watch a movie I’ve produced is fine by me. But I still believe in the importance of theatrical releases. Moreso than in the past, you need to defend a project’s theatrical merits rigorously starting at the development stage. Why is the story worth seeing larger-than-life? Why would an audience want to experience it communally? What’s the story about the film beyond the film itself? How does the film differentiate itself from everything else in the marketplace?
I think the glut of independent films that fell off the recessionary cliff suggested that we, as a cohort, weren’t always asking ourselves these questions. Or answering them well. The reset button has been pushed, and we need to take advantage of what we’ve learned. For all the talk of DIY production and distribution, if we can’t honestly justify the content – more than justify, fight passionately for it – then all of the Red cameras in the world won’t save us.
For me, the key benefit of the internet has been accessibility. It keeps us connected in real-time as an industry and community, forming an immense knowledge-base at our fingertips. It’s an instantaneous and accessible way for audiences to explore, find and see the different, transgressive and innovative – and every new viewer who gets a taste and becomes hooked helps grow our audience in ways that theatrical and bricks-and-mortar home video never could.
On the other hand, the key challenge of the web is its sheer volume. With the immense amount of choice amongst content and platforms, differentiation is even harder online than in the theaters. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds promoting movies start to feel like nothing but static. Cultivating your audience online requires innovative strategic thinking, not blitzing out messages.
From a development angle, I think myself and other filmmakers will be even more adventurous as the technology advances and the costs continue to decline. I’m part of a team that’s currently producing an animated feature from graphic novelist Dash Shaw, and the tech scale and learning curve are manageable for someone like myself who’s new to the medium. We’ll be able to create a movie of scope and unusual beauty with a modicum of means.
And yet, I do think the digivangelism can sometimes get a bit out of hand. I moderated a panel at SXSW last month about adapting graphic novels and comics into movies. Afterwards, an audience member chastened me for being “very 20th century” in my approach to the panel for not discussing anything “digital.” The focus, stated and discussed, was on the decision-making processes undertaken by directors, screenwriters, studios and the comics creators themselves. We haven’t given that part over to the machines…Yet.
Howard Gertler’s producing credits include Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams, which premiered at Sundance and was released by Magnolia in August ’09. Along with Tim Perell at Process (where Gertler was head of production 2001 through 2009), he won the 2007 Film Independent Spirit Producers’ Award for John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, and in 2006 was named one of Variety‘s Ten Producers To Watch. Shortbus premiered in the official selection in Cannes and was released worldwide.

This article originally appeared in Tribeca.