Microcinemas Meet Macroeconomics: The siren call of DVD lures alternative exhibitors into distribution
Hollywood claims that more than three billion dollars are lost each year to pirates who illegally copy VHS tapes or burn DVDs for the home market. So fierce is the concern over black market revenue losses that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) agreed to provide screeners to Academy members (who vote on Oscar nominations) only if they sign a pledge that the tapes would be strictly for personal use. Screeners on DVD, a format that has supplanted VHS as the industry standard, were not offered as an option.
While Hollywood stews over this controversy and becomes increasingly alarmed at the ease with which blockbusters can be bootlegged, filmmakers and exhibitors who operate far from multi-billion-dollar worries are embracing the new technologies and molding them to their advantage. Three well-established microcinemas - San Francisco s Other Cinema, Peripheral Produce in Portland, Oregon, and Microcinema International, out of Houston and San Francisco - have each released DVD titles in the past few months.
As most filmmakers and small distributors can attest, distribution remains the toughest phase of filmmaking. Even if a title attracts one or more distributors, without dedicated and targeted marketing efforts, it risks languishing on a shelf. In the 80s when the home video market opened up, independent filmmakers saw salvation for their works, which had been generally forsaken because of large companies stranglehold on broadcast and theatrical outlets.
"DVD has the same sort of rhetoric surrounding it," says Kim Tomczak, executive director of the Ontario-based V Tape, a nonprofit, artist-run educational distributor for experimental video. A video artist who derives his primary income teaching at the University of Toronto, Tomczak remembers how the dream of capturing a portion of the home video market was dashed not only by the high costs of entering the system, but also because the number of sales per unit to break even was too great for smaller outfits to achieve. "Three or four national distributors in the U.S. and Canada already had the market sewn up," he says. "The trick is to produce a format that individuals will buy." Does he believe DVD is that format? "I consider myself a typical consumer and I never wanted to buy VHS," says Tomczak. "But I do want to collect DVDs." He mentions a recent Michael Snow DVD release made with the help of Montreal s Langlois Foundation. "It has links to websites, a book. It s complicated and wonderful. I want to have it."
These alternative exhibitors now entering the distribution fray are betting that this kind of thinking is typical. When asked why they are taking this gamble on DVD, these three microcinemas each cited the dropping costs of the format s technology and the perception by consumers that DVDs, as opposed to videotapes, are collectible items.
In mid-October, the nearly twenty-year-old Other Cinema, an alternative film venue housed at San Francisco s Artists Television Access, launched Other Cinema Digital (OCD). Its first release is Craig Baldwin s feature-length opus, Spectres of the Spectrum, and two curated compilations, The Subject Is Sex and Experiments in Terror, are scheduled for release by the end of 2003.
OCD s only paid employee, Noel Lawrence, makes up one quarter of what he calls a "brain trust," which includes "godfather" Craig Baldwin, Glen Springer, who designed the business model, and Oddball Film and Video owner Stephen Parr. A filmmaker who has been curating programs for Other Cinema for five years, Lawrence says that the DVD label has everything in common with Other Cinema s mission of supporting experimental, underground, recycled images and their makers. "We represent truly indie artists who don t stand a chance in hell of securing a [traditional] distributor. These filmmakers have been part of the Other Cinema network for several years."
Lawrence affirms that dropping costs of DVD production - when replicated in units of one thousand - along with Other Cinema s reputation for curatorial integrity and its standing in the film community, have allowed the microcinema to branch out into distribution. "Other Cinema has a lot of good will in the community," he says. "We work with people who share our mission." OCD s business model calls for distributing to educational institutions and museums at higher prices, which include "public performance [exhibition] rights." The company also hopes to capture a national niche market by selling to individuals through its website, at Other Cinema events, independent video stores, alternative record stores such as Amoeba, and the kinds of bookstores that stock zines.
Microcinema International is preparing single-artist DVDs under the rubric of the Blackchair Sessions label. Filmmakers Kasumi, Evan Mather, Lev, Yuri A., and Brett Simon all have DVD titles in the works. Microcinema International, which also burns in-house DVDs for use on its touring program Independent Exposure, will release consumer-quality DVD versions of the short-works exhibition series under its Microcinema Sessions label.
Founded in 2000 by Joel Bachar and Patrick Kwiatkowski, Microcinema International s mission and distribution plan for its DVD titles is akin to that of OCD. According to Kwiatkowski, the Microcinema Collection represents Independent Exposure s goal to exhibit works that "challenge - underline challenge - the viewer through visuals and storyline and music to thrive." The titles will be offered through Yahoo!, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and eventually through a large traditional distributor like Baker & Taylor. "All this needs to happen very shortly after the launch of our own online store," says Kwiatkowski, "most likely before Christmas." Once the "soft launch" occurs in November, the label plans on releasing one title each quarter. Further, the team will parlay their already valuable web presence - the Microcinema International website has a searchable database of films and alternative exhibition venues - and extensive e-mail lists to create a market for the works.
Part of the marketing strategy for both companies is to package DVD titles with artwork designed by the filmmakers. The booklet that comes with Spectres of the Spectrum features stills and a review of the film written by critic Gregory Avery. Microcinema International provides the templates for its DVD packaging to the filmmakers and lets them have their way. "It saves on paying a graphic designer," says Kwiatkowski, "and it becomes an artist s statement, giving the DVD the look and feel of the artist."
Peripheral Produce, which for the past six years has operated under the umbrella of filmmaker Matt McCormick s Rodeo Film Company, also recently released a DVD compilation of short experimental works by makers who have traditionally participated in the Portland, Oregon, exhibition series. But distribution is nothing new to McCormick. He s released nine VHS titles since 1998, slowly building up a small video business through word of mouth.
The filmmaker recounts how "young graffiti kids" circulated bootlegs of his film, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, which has an underground subject matter and aesthetic. Happy that his work was getting an audience, McCormick decided to sell VHS tapes of his film "[My graffiti film] was like Heavy Metal Parking Lot [by John Heyn and Jeff Krulik] in that it broke across the experimental film plane into pop culture," he explains. Moving into DVDs once the prices dropped - about one to two dollars per unit less than VHS - was a no-brainer for McCormick. "For me, VHS and DVD are the same exact thing," he says, adding that stocking DVD has practical benefits. "DVDs take up less room on the shelves, which is a good thing."
Peripheral Produce DVD sales have broken all its VHS records, surpassing 50 copies in the first two weeks, proving to McCormick that DVDs offer something inherently more purchase-worthy than videotapes. "DVD sales crush all VHS sales. No one buys VHS," he says, "unless its something unique that they can t have any other way." He explains further why consumers flock to buy DVDs. "It s a technical fetish. It s not just the visual quality. There s extra features. It s more interactive."
Documentation of the filmmakers works adds another element to the collectible nature of the titles. Referring to OCD s debut release, Spectres of the Spectrum, Noel Lawrence first explains how the DVD format is suited to the work trumpeted by Other Cinema. "Spectres is like [James Joyce s novel] Ulysses. You can t flip through it like a paperback. Experimental work lends itself to repeat viewings that are usually not possible." High-quality, easily navigable DVDs will be a boon not only for the urban cinephile, but also for audiences who live in areas with no access to these works. "Unless you live in San Francisco or New York," says Lawrence, "it s difficult to see these films at all."
Secondly, DVD technology, with its capacity for enormous amounts of material and interactive characteristics, can accommodate a director s commentary, "making of" featurettes, and other ancillary features that help contexualize the work. "The DVD format allows us to add value and depth," says Lawrence, noting that the Spectres of the Spectrum DVD contains an interview with Baldwin by San Francisco Bay Guardian critic Patrick Macias, "Behind the Spectrum," shot by set designer Matt Day, and pieces of the "Science in Action" kinescopes that initially inspired Baldwin. "Works on OCD releases will be heavily documented. This is not done in theaters or on video."
Microcinema Sessions DVDs, on the other hand, feature simple menus, without artist documentation and ancillary materials. Kwiatkowski says, for the kinds of works he traffics in, these raw materials just don t exist. "Eventually we may do directors commentaries and special features but sometimes this stuff quickly becomes a gimmick," he says. "We don t want to dilute the original work - the DVD is simply a unique delivery tool. Technology is just technology in the end."
The DVD released by Peripheral Produce also does not contain a great deal of ancillary or contexualizing materials. McCormick is doing all the work, menu design, digitizing, and packaging on his own computer using DVD Studio Pro, and is keeping things simple. "These aren t nearly as layered as other professional DVDs," he admits readily. Peripheral Produce s All-Time Greatest Hits, the company s first DVD release, features Miranda July s Getting Stronger Every Day, Naomi Uman s Removed, and Sam Green s N Judah 5:30, among others, as well as "silly interviews" shot during the 2001 Peripheral Produce Invitational, which pits filmmakers against each other in a competition for "Best of PDX"(Portland Documentary and Experimental Film Festival). "Things like [filmmaker] Melinda Stone talking trash about Craig Baldwin," recounts McCormick, "saying she s going to walk away with the trophy. It s a nice bonus track. "
All three outfits are committed to the individual filmmakers. As filmmakers and artists themselves, they remain focused on what is truly important about their business venture. Proof of OCD s commitment is that the label will measure success not by profits, but by how generous it can be to artists. "We recognize the reality that there is less and less funding for the arts," says Lawrence. "We want to show filmmakers a way they can live off their work, outside the traditional system of grant writing. It s very empowering."
Microcinema International also hopes to show artists a way out of depending on grants to fund their works. "It s not that we re against grants," explains Kwiatkowski, "but it s more compelling to devise a system in which arts supports itself." Before supporting artists, however, the team at Microcinema has to keep up with royalty checks. "Our goal is to keep it going. To stay alive." Part of staying alive is spending its money very carefully. While DVD replication is cheaper by the thousand, Kwiatkowski says Microcinema International cannot afford the outlay of cash that would require, and is instead burning on demand. "If they start selling, then we ll burn 1,000. We re trying to be creative with our capital."
McCormick is the sole operator of Rodeo Film Company, the business identity that covers his filmmaking, exhibition series, and an annual experimental film festival, among other ventures, relying on a host of volunteers. "I work about 50 hours a week with one other person on distribution," says McCormick. "I would like to pay someone full-time and become the creative director." He does not anticipate releasing any more DVDs in the near future, as he is burdened with a large Visa bill from producing the first title. The scope of distribution for McCormick remains small, mostly selling his DVDs and VHS tapes through the website, by word-of-mouth, and at screening events. Success for him has so far been defined as breaking even and occasionally being able to write a $25 royalty check, which he says oftentimes gets donated back by the filmmakers. However, if DVD sales hold steady, McCormick anticipates finally being able to legitimize Rodeo Film Company as a business. "When I say be profitable, I mean paying the rent, bills, and having $200 leftover. If I factor in a wage for me, it s not so profitable. But I benefit in other ways, not monetarily."
Other Cinema Digital, the Microcinema Collection, and Peripheral Produce also resell other artist-produced DVDs to help sustain their fledging businesses. McCormick says his first break as a microcinema distributor came when Craig Baldwin allowed his VHS titles to be sold through the Rodeo Film Company website. Microcinema International s online DVD shop resells titles released by the Paris-based distributor Lowave, and hopes to forge links with individual filmmakers and other independent distributors. Currently, OCD is offering Bill Morrison s found-footage masterpiece Decasia in a limited edition DVD that includes a piece of a discarded 35mm print of the film in the packaging. OCD is open to producing and distributing works by what Lawrence calls "A-level" talent, similar to Baldwin and Morrison, and to lesser known works.
Lawrence goes on to say that DVD production is a difficult task, calling it an unforgiving medium. "Artists who are doing it on their own will find that it would be a lot easier to come to us." As an example, he explains that creating the type in the menus alone is time-consuming. "To be able to read it on a TV screen, it has to be a lot bigger than what appears on a computer monitor. Then, you have to review it again and again and again. If you make a mistake, you re stuck with it for all eternity."
With the anticipation that these businesses may grow to sustainability and perhaps beyond, are any of them concerned about the black market that has Hollywood in a state of turmoil? None of the three microcinemas are pleased that unauthorized copying occurs, as artists and filmmakers rely on copyright to be compensated for their works. However, at this point, they agree that nothing can really be done. "There s really no way to secure your disc from unauthorized copying," explains Lawrence. "But your copy will be lousy. You can only recover the film itself. You will lose the menus, bonus materials, director s commentary, etc. Further, the image quality of the copied film will be inferior to the original." Kwiatkowski takes a similar approach. "In our niche market, if VHS is any indicator, we do not see that copyright infringement will be a major problem."
McCormick sees the bright side. "For every tape that doesn t sell because someone bootlegged it, another one does sell because someone saw the bootleg and decided to buy an original." Even if his DVD business does boom and he has to deal lawyers, accountants, and piracy, he says he will stay true to the grassroots sensibility of Peripheral Produce. "First and foremost, I do this for the love of filmmaking. No one started out doing this to make money."
SHARI KIZIRIAN is the managing editor of Release Print, the magazine of Film Arts Foundation.
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