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The New Frontiers of Digital Distribution

Friday, June 16----The new frontiers in distribution of documentary films has been a running theme at the SILVERDOCS International Documentary Conference. While other topics such as film financing, working with non-profits and foundations, and producing for public television are rather evergreen and non-changing from years past, the arena of distribution is on fire, with a number of panels pointing to incredible new opportunities for documentary filmmakers to reach wider audiences.

On Thursday morning, a panel of experts convened to discuss the new developments in theatrical distribution. "The current system is broken", indie marketing guru Peter Broderick declared. "Distributors are becoming less willing to gamble on films that are unique because the costs of opening films theatrically have skyrocketed." With television advertising and other marketing costs are record high levels, even a modest theatrical release in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, represents a tremendous risk, where breaking even is considered a milestone.

The arena that is capturing the attention of independents and the Hollywood studios is the move to add digital projection equipment in theaters, which will greatly reduce the fixed costs of creating 35mm film prints and shipping them to theaters around the country. As key specialty theatrical chains move into the digital space, new ventures are allowing non-traditional venues to become showcases of digital cinema.

Barry Rebo, who along with partner Ira Deutchman, is the driving force behind Emerging Pictures, a New York-based digitial distribution company that has presented 62 features in digital format in the past year to a growing network of digital cinemas around the US.

Most of these cinemas are museums, cultural centers and renovated theater palaces who have opted to invest in digital projection equipment instead of the expensive and cumbersome 35mm film projectors. "We have been able to bring quality independent films to markets that have few if any arthouse cinemas", Rebo recounted, "which has allowed these cultural institutions to offer a diversity to their communities that would have been too prohibitively expensive in the past."

Emerging Pictures is also leading the way for the expansion and syndication of film festivals, allowing for film events to be experienced in several venues at the same time. In the past year, the company has brought films from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Latin Beat series, and indieWire's Undiscovered Gems program to nearly 20 communities.

In addition, the company is working with public television stations to offer theatrical exposure for special event programming, including last year's Martin Scorsese documentary of music legend Bob Dylan, NO DIRECTION HOME. While the controversy over who will pay for installation of the digital projection equipment (the exhibitor or the distributor) continues, more non-traditional venues are becoming centers for digital presentation, and offering specialized films to a growing community of interest.

The internet obviously has a large role to play in this development. With traditional advertising so expensive, these institutions are relying on their websites to promote their film calendars. And by linking to the films' individual websites, the digital theaters can offer a variety of unique and creative extras to motivated filmgoers.

The new media as a platform for delivering content was explored in another panel in the Conference, entitled "E-Media, I-Media, What Media? Whose Media?", which brought together several leading experts to discuss the overwhelmingly diverse number of new platforms for delivery of video content. Douglas Donalson of Team Creative, a local Washington DC producer, talked about the development by his company of a new broadband channel titled Essential TV, which will offer lifestyle programming that will combine video, text, interactive elements and other techniques to create a more pro-active relationship with the audience.

Clint Stinchcomb, new media guru at Discovery Communications, discussed his company's aggressive move into video on demand, digital downloading, creation of new broadband channels and creation of short form content for mobile technology. "The new generation of consumers is becoming used to getting their information and entertainment for a variety of sources", Stinchcomb explained. "We are attempting to juggle the commitments we currently have with cable and satellite television delivery companies, while trying to become a leader in these new platforms that will only grow in sophistication in the coming years."

Questions still remain on how consumers will find the programming to suit their tastes and needs in an overwhelmingly crowded universe of video offerings. In addition, the traditional road that a film or television series becomes a "must see hit", which is what fuels the current theatrical and television experience, may become a thing of the past, as levels of penetration become modulated to accomodate consumers' more narrow interests. "It is a confusing jungle out there", Discovery's Stinchcomb observed. "No one really knows how it will all shake out, but everyone does agree that technology will be fueling new content and new formats that will radically expand consumer choice."

While the International Documentary Conference may be posing more questions than offering easy answers, the excitement of the new opportunities for filmmakers and established media companies to offer a wide array of programming choices in new and creative formats has created a palpable sense of excitement among attendees.


Sandy Mandelberger
24 Frames per Second

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Dates: June 13-18, 2006


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