It’s no news that film festivals have discovered the Web. From Toronto to Telluride, just about every fest, big or small, has a website. General info, maps and even screening schedules can be found online – there is no better way to provide festival goers with the information they need to navigate an event. But since the development of streaming and downloading video technology, the concept of the film festival website has evolved.
And so the online film festival is born.
‘We started out in 1994 as the Low Res Film Festival,’ recalls Bart Cheever, a founder of Low Res and now executive director of D.FILM, a non-competitive, traveling and online film festival which celebrates the work of digital filmmakers. ‘We did our first shows in 1994 in San Francisco and New York and that was the same year we put up our website – which was one of the first major sites that let people watch movies on the Web.’
Cheever broke away from Low Res in 1996 to start D.FILM (which launched in ’97). Since then, the traveling festival has played to sold-out crowds, but it’s the online component that has reached the most eyeballs. ‘We consider them two parts of a whole,’ says Cheever. ‘The traveling festival went to 21 cities all over the world last year . . . It lets us get out and connect with people on a really personal, one-on-one basis. The website [on the other hand] lets us get to places that we could never go. There are people all over the world using digital technology and the site lets us build up an online community of people from around the world.’ When D.FILM launched a new version of their site last year, approximately 1.8 million hits struck the site in the first month.
For Cheever, gaining access to a worldwide audience is an opportunity that only the Web can provide. ‘We have an area of our site called The New Venue which we did with Stanford University. Every week we put up a new movie, and every week that movie is downloaded about 10,000 times . . . When we were in Cannes last year, I found out that half of all the films released in France every year are seen by fewer than 10,000 people.’
But is the online festival an attempt to replace or mimic the actual festival experience for this massive online audience? No, says Cheever, ‘It’s never going to replace the experience of being in a theater.’
Jonathan Welles, executive director of the RESFEST digital film festival would concur. RESFEST, which has both an online and actual component, also sprang from the Low Res Film festival, which Welles co-founded with Bart Cheever. Says Welles, ‘Actual fests offer an unmatchable viewing experience. For films that were meant to be viewed [in a theater], nothing can beat the big silver screen and a Dolby Digital sound system. Perhaps the most important component of the theatrical festival experience is group interaction – many people look forward to RESFEST each year to meet like-minded people.’
A non-competitive film festival that extols innovation in digital filmmaking, RESFEST places emphasis on its ‘real-world’ event – which includes three short film programs, three feature films, an interactive media showcase, tech demos and digital filmmaking panels and workshops – its website does contain a short film selection and is an essential part of their promotional strategy. Says Welles, ‘The online component – crucial to a festival about the empowerment of artists by technology – was designed as a promotional vehicle for the physical festival.’
By their nature, digital filmmaking and online film festivals go hand in hand. Digital technology allows filmmakers to produce their films relatively cheaply and without a high level of technical expertise. As Francis Ford Coppola has oft been quoted these days, ‘One day a little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s camcorder. For once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed and it will really become an art form.’ Coupled with the Internet’s unique ability to reach audiences from even the most obscure interest groups, creative freedom in digital filmmaking will be increasingly encouraged and embraced.
‘We’re going to see an evolution of what I’d call niche genres,’ says Cheever. ‘Genres of film that are really specialized and really focused on a specialized audience – something that never would have been able to be created before. We’re also going to see a lot of filmmakers using the Web to promote and market their films in a way that can compete with the studios head to head . . . Documentary is the one area that I think is benefiting the most from this because it’s just so inexpensive to shoot and the cameras are so small and easy to transport – it really is like [Jean-Luc] Godard talked about, an evolution of a new personal cinema of intensely personal films that maybe only appeal to a very small number of people.’
Jesse Jacobs, executive director for the Yahoo! Internet Life Online Film Festival agrees. ‘In Hollywood, as soon as you have an idea, people want to shoot it down, ‘No’ is the first thing you hear. On the Internet it’s ‘Yes, we can do that.” He adds, ‘The way people think about films, feel about films and make films is changing. It’s changing quickly and in unprecedented ways.’
The real-life component of the Yahoo! festival, which was held from March 22-23 in Los Angeles (to pre-empt the Oscars), screened features and documentaries (that have some connection to the Internet, either in their production or content), shorts and animation. Submissions for the shorts and animation categories were made available for viewing online, prior to the festival, so that Web spectators could watch and vote on the films themselves. The top six films chosen by the public went on to be screened during the actual event. ‘The idea is that this is all done in the spirit of the meritocracy of the Web. When you get selected into Cannes, you don’t know who’s watching that movie – it’s so faceless. What we wanted to do is essentially let the people decide which films get in.’
As of right now, the longest film to appear on the Yahoo! website is around 20 minutes – which is the same for D.FILM and RESFEST. When asked if he would be interested in showing longer films on the site, Jacobs replied, ‘Absolutely. As soon as the technology is there and affords a satisfactory viewing experience for a feature film, we will be there. When is it going to be there? Some people say a year, some say ten. I think more in between.’
But Cheever believes that while there is a place for longer films, shorts will always have a home on the Internet. ‘I think the more people watch short films,
the more they’ll become accustomed to [them],’ he says. More importantly, Cheever sees greater value in increasing the image size from thumbnail proportions to a full screen experience.
The meritocracy of the Web, the embracing of new ideas and the fat kid in Ohio aside, the question remains: Are indie filmmakers making money from exhibiting their film online? Says Jacobs, ‘The answer is no, they’re definitely not.’ He adds, ‘Anyone who tries to hoodwink you into thinking that they are is being disingenuous – but that’s not to say that it won’t be the case, soon.’
Online Public Viewing: That’s ‘Inter’tainment! By Jenn Kuzmyk
Allowing the public to view docs online offers the benefits of exposure and potential revenue down the line, but consider these points when negotiating an internet distribution deal: the possibility of upfront cash, e-commerce and direct marketing opportunities, P&A (publicity and advertising) funding, assistance in doing deals for other media, and various revenue sharing models based on advertising and syndication.
Another important factor is the length of the streaming license. Similar to a broadcast license, it determines the amount of time the project will be available to the public, via streaming, at a particular site on the Internet. Terms can vary from a few weeks to a couple of years. Bear in mind that having a property streamed full-length on the Internet may negatively affect other media deals such as television, video or a theatrical release.
The following are a few sites to check out:
AtomFilms.com streams only animated and live-action shorts. The site has eight docs and over 1,000 titles. Exclusive online rights are required.
escreeningroom.com is a free access entertainment site dedicated exclusively to streaming full-length docs. Currently, the site has six one-hour docs available for screening, with plans to grow to at least 30 hours by the end of the year. Filmmakers are asked to supply at least five retail VHS cassettes.
IFILM.com streams full-length indie films, and has around 100 docs and over 1,000 titles. Because there is no license term, producers can keep their films up indefinitely. IFILM does not ask for rights exclusivity.
MediaTrip.com is a free access site that streams full-length features, animated and live action shorts as well as music videos. The site has 17 shorts and features, two of which are docs. Exclusive online rights are required.