The opening night panel at this year’s Sundance Independent Producers Conference inaugurated a weekend-long exploration of what constitutes an “independent” film. There is a range of definitions, of course, but what really drives an independent artist is the creative impulse that takes precedence over financial considerations of the marketplace. As lines between global and domestic blur with the possibilities of online distribution, the walls between formerly well-defined universes within the film industry become more and more transparent and production, marketing and distribution windows collapse in on one another.

Listening and speaking with independent film executives, producers, directors and marketing and distribution folks, certain themes and buzzwords crop up frequently. Sony Picture Classics Co-President, Michael Barker, pretty much covers it all, “You [the producer] are hit with so much information, on so many different levels, that you’ve got to split your brain between the discipline of the rules that don’t change and the chaotic part of your brain that has to allow for a lot of change. And the film business is like that—it just becomes more complicated every year.

“The future is more complicated. Audiences are becoming more fragmented. When I started in the business, there was theatrical, there was television, there was no video or DVD, documentaries were a strange breed of film only made for television and libraries, foreign films could never do a hundred million dollars like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, American independent films were John Cassavetes with a telephone. We all wouldn’t be here without him having been there and done that. The fact of the matter is, now you almost have to be a renaissance person. The basics of making, marketing, selling, releasing a film is all still there. However, the opportunities for success for your film and all the avenues that that entails—television, international, home entertainment—you have to be on top of all of those things. The time has passed, where as a producer, you’re on top of the theatrical and everything kind of takes care of itself based on the success of your film theatrically. What makes it even crazier is how fast everything moves—communicating with each other is faster than ever before all over the world, how the information gets to the public. This whole idea of windows—yes, they’re being squeezed but in some rare cases, they’re not. I think there is a lot of money to be made on film, more than ever before because there are so many new opportunities in which so many people can see films, but the fact of the matter is what’s going to be key is not to be narrow in your knowledge or in your view and you’ll have to have both a cosmic view of the industry but also be a micro-manager at the same time.”

Also sitting on the panel, lawyer and Cinetic Media founder, John Sloss, said in response to that, “Well, I think everything Michael is saying is true, but I also think you could flip it on its head and it would also be true. Because, in a weird way, things are simplifying.

“Before long, people are going to really have two choices—to see something in public or to see something in private, whether in their home or on a mobile device. I believe that it’s inevitable that the world will be day-and-date, that with rare exceptions, there will be really tight windows because of piracy more than anything, the threat of piracy. People are going to be able to see things in private when they can see things in public; I don’t think that will be the end of the theatrical viewing experience but it will probably change what the theatres show. There’s an interesting clarification, at least from where I sit. For whatever reason, I think there’s a certain type of film that has evolved, a sort of high-end specialized movie that was born from what Harvey [Weinstein] was doing in the 90s and has been clarified by all the studios creating specialized divisions and now there really is a genre of movie to which the theatre-going audience is being acculturated and that A-level movie stars are now getting comfortable with because of the quality of the film and because the business deals are being clarified and they’re collecting their back-end. So, in a weird way, I actually think things have never been more clear.”

Okay, so things are complicated. But clear. Crystal.

I find what these media leaders are saying encouraging. I think most filmmakers who are out there slogging away in prep, production or post—those filmmakers who make movies every day of their lives—know the landscape more intimately than anyone. They live and breathe it and are assiduous students of everything from what latest acquisition the Criterion Collection has added to their arsenal, to the latest hot buzz at festivals, to who got a little baksheesh from Sundance or the AFI or Aperture or Renew Media. But they know what they know by trial and error because they were the first in line to take the plunge and do something kind of new and interesting.

When Doug Block started his film blog, it was exactly that. A blog about Doug Block making his film. Not his first film, mind you; he’d been making them for quite a while—that’s where the credibility came in, the experience of a seasoned pro. So he wrote about what he shot that day, how it went, shared the minutiae of his mind during an active time, and did it articulately and humanly, which, to my mind at least, is key if anyone is going to keep coming back to read the latest and greatest from the depths of your brainpan. It’s got to illustrate the complexity and clarity that, oddly, go hand-in-hand with the times in your life when you’re sleep-deprived, highly anxious and have no idea where things are headed. And Block’s prose did do that, and in spider web fashion, sparked little god-kiddies everywhere who are now, in turn, sharing their experiences of what it’s like to make, shoot, finish, market and distribute their own films. I’m the audience, so I find it all fascinating and instructional. But I also think that getting to read about someone’s experiences as they’re living them is still such a new phenomenon, we’re really not appreciating what we get to share with one another.

I spent most of one morning last week chatting with Doug at his production office in Chelsea. It was a quiet morning in the city, but Block, with 51 Birch Street available for purchase online after its quite successful theatrical run, a new production he’s currently at the tail end of shooting (another family story), another production chugging along in prep, co-piloting the D-Word, moving his daughter, Lucy, all the way to California for her first year of college and moving his own offices to Brooklyn—well, let’s just say the energy in the room didn’t just come from the Starbucks coffee I brought along.

We met specifically to talk about online distribution and his thoughts on how his most recent deal went. However, we talked the sun, moon and stars about filmmaking, too. The biggest question? A filmmaker who’s been making films for decades, an experienced producer, director, DP, and writer is asking: “How do we make money at this?” Gee, that question’s been on a lot of folks’ minds lately, hasn’t it? And it made me think that the whole reason I got to go to the Producers Conference in Utah was to be around a bunch of people who had made, and continue to make, money making movies. So what’s the secret password? Are there uncomfortable concessions and artistic sacrifices these people have had to endure? Certainly. But there’s no denying that being successful at what they do is an art and they’ve found their means of expression—making deals, recognizing talent and taking a chance on it with a strong gut instinct, and a sense that they are our version of arts patrons, for better or worse. Meaning everyone usually wants something from them. And that can be a pain, too. But, that is part of the service when one becomes successful, right? So, all the people that came as panelists did so to share knowledge, to uncover a bit of the big mystery that surrounds what they do day to day, to listen to what the troops on the ground are saying, and to give counsel when they can. The free trips to fabulous places have nothing to do with it.

Here’s Doug Block: “It’s all about sharing what you know. I’m a promoter, of sorts, of documentaries. And I have strong opinions. If you go to the D-Word, I’m not big on ripping other docs or publicly taking a negative stance on someone’s work. I’d rather point out the things I like. The critics out there can be more critical.

“Look, it’s very tough to stand out in the filmmaking process all along the way, from getting the funding for yourself early on, which is really tough, even when you have a track record. The odds are always long. You really need to, from the very beginning, be promoting your film. And yes, the blog can be a part of that as you share what you’re doing, what you’re learning. But it needs to be interesting and helpful to other people; it shouldn’t simply be an advertisement for yourself. That’s really the key.

“But if you think fund raising is tough, try distribution. Everything is always possible and, yes, now more so than ever. But the possibilities of making money doing that kind of distribution [online] has yet to be seen and is still a long way off, I think. What’s lacking is money—people paying good money for your documentary online. And what’s lacking is the model that will show you, that if you put your film up online for sale on this site, people will come, they’ll discover it and they’ll pay for it right then and there through PayPal or whatever. And they will pay in enough numbers that will justify your going that route. The thinking is still very much, ‘Well, if your film is online, how good can it be? Why wasn’t it in theatres?’ The Internet, right now, provides the lowest revenue stream, except for ordering the DVD—which sees big business still mainly for the educational or specialized niche markets.”

And so, even with his latest film, Block went the old-fashioned “getting out the word” route.

“The blog, this time out, really helped. We did a real old-fashioned guerilla marketing campaign. But, this time, the guerilla campaign went viral. We pulled in a lot of favors, built up our email list, we went to all the bloggers, one by one, and asked them to attend screenings, we sent out hundreds and hundreds of DVD screeners. And when the time came for its New York opening, there was a total groundswell. I went on indieWIRE one day and half the blogs were devoted to Birch Street. Luckily, the reviews were sensational. And it felt like everyone was talking about the film. And we had no money to open it! It stayed in theatres in New York for 11 weeks.”

Block went on to say, though, that this does not a model make–that this theatrical-run “model” is a bit broken, because like everything else in our commercial world, we’re spoiled for choice. And the way a small film has to compete with everything around it, including many other small films of equal merit, is just not financially or physically tenable for the average filmmaker. What he does appreciate and like about the online models being used today (particularly for feature-length nonfiction films) is the emphasis these sites have on original content, and their mission for creating new content for these platforms.

Really, Block has seen the potentials for online for quite a while and is keeping close watch on how young filmmakers like Joe Swanberg and Arin Crumley (he’s a fan of both) are making and marketing and selling their films. They are vociferous self-promoters, building what amounts to a cult following. And one good push from the rear from a film festival producer or an editor who publishes one of the most-read online “papers” in the entertainment industry, and a kick-ass myspace page (or any other social networking site of your choice), can put you on the road to getting known around places like the Big Apple, and beyond, astoundingly quickly.

Later this week, I’ll be talking to Aaron Hillis and Andrew Grant of Benten Films. Both men are film writers and makers, and now, they’re in the online distribution biz. Their first release is Joe Swanberg’s LOL

Which just seems so right, somehow.

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Tags: Big Picture, Blog-Project, Creative Process, Distribution, Reframe