Anyone curious as to where the art of filmmaking is heading should be more than a bit curious to hear about a fascinating—and at times stunning—conversation Friday afternoon at the Sun Valley Film Festival.
Billed as something called "conTent," a panel, hosted by Jason Tanz, executive editor of Wired, deconstructed the current state of narrative and nonfiction films, videos, webisodes and, most importantly, the platforms where they're all showcased.
"I would like to point out that today (March 14), we're sitting here as Veronica Mars is opening on a few hundreds screens around the nation at the same time as it is becoming available, as Video on Demand, on iTunes," said Tanz. "But it's been a brave new world for quite some time now."
Tanz navigated a dense 90-minute discussion that could have (and possibly should have) lasted several hours, by introducing some of the top producers and executives of 21st century content and the many digital platforms where that content appears.
Greg Whiteley, director of the most buzzed-about documentary in the nation currently, Mitt—examining the failed candidacy of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney—talked about how, when he was ready to pitch his film to distributors, there were some new "players" in the room.
"Traditionally, if you're lucky, your documentary premieres at Sundance, you get bought, you negotiate for months, your film is distributed and you live to fight another day as a filmmaker," said Whiteley. "But when we brought Mitt to distributors, there were the usual suspects—HBO, Showtime, The Weinstein Company—but then there were also CNN and Netflix in the room. And Netflix actually asked us, 'How would you like your film to premiere?' That's unheard of. So, we told them that we wanted to premiere at Sundance and then appear on Netflix instantly; that's incredibly rare. Normally, it takes months to negotiate distribution and by the time a film is released, the Sundance buzz has faded away."
Two female executives from burgeoning platforms—Jen Roskind, head of production for Cracked.com, and Scilla Anderson, founder of Indieflix.com—talked about how the independent film trend that swept through feature films in the late 20th century is now sweeping through small screen platforms.
"In 2005, indieflix,com started with 36 titles; today we have more than 5,000 titles," said Anderson. "That includes features, shorts and a lot of new original series."
And then Anderson talked about a fascinating new model to pay filmmakers.
"It's RPM: royalties per minute. We pay filmmakers for every minute that their film is watched," she explained. "We take 30 percent of our gross revenues, put it into a pot and we pay royalties from that based on minutes watched."
And then Anderson talked about how her company was developing an app that would serve a growing audience whose tastes are shifting to shorter content.
"There's just not too much time or incentive to watch features right now," she said. "Seventy percent of Netflix is now television programming. Short forms are more popular. We're developing an app that will allow you to say, 'I've got 12 minutes and I want to laugh. Show me something,' or 'I've got 16 minutes before the roast is done and I want to see something thought-provoking'."
"I guess we have commitment issues," joked Whiteley. "But now I'm thinking that I'm going to start making shorter, seven minute-long content. If someone here gives me the money, I'm going to re-edit Mitt right now."
Bernhard Fritsch, technology entrepreneur and founder of the StarClub social media platform, said his company had just completed a study, with a test group of more than 3 million people, that indicates the average attention span is 7.5 minutes.
"I think feature-length films are amazing, and I'm a major fan of feature-length," said Fritsch. "But the problem is, how can we feed the world with that?"
Which left more than one audience member to ask the inevitable question: Where do movie theaters fit in if more people are watching their films on personal devices?
"I love going to the movies. Where would you go for a date?" asked Andreen.
Whiteley took it a step further.
"The current business model of movie theaters is broken. It needs to go away," he argued.
That's when Andreen talked about a growing trend that she called "tug and gather."
"It's movie theater viewing on demand," she said. "You get enough people to pay for a screening. If you don't get enough people, you offer those who did sign up to perhaps purchase a DVD or download. But content producers can't be the ones to solve this. Movie theaters have to do something."