In a speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh summed up the problems facing independent filmmakers in mathematical terms: “You’ve got fewer studio movies now taking up a bigger piece of the pie, and you’ve got twice as many independent films scrambling for a smaller piece of the pie. That’s hard. That’s really hard.”
So what happened? Wasn’t the Internet was supposed to bring about new distribution channels like YouTube? New fundraising models like Kickstarter? New marketing tools like Twitter? We were promised a new Renaissance but all we got was “Grown Ups 2.” Where did it all go wrong?
Benjamin Oberman, a professional figure skater turned film producer who struggled with these realities for years, says that while the lower barrier of entry has created a lot more opportunities for filmmakers, it’s also created a lot more noise — It’s hard for audiences to know what’s worth their time and what isn’t. Meanwhile, more and more people are staying home from the movie theaters while concession sales, which, like it or not, account for an enormous amount of a theater’s revenue, have taken a huge hit. “For the multiplexes,” Oberman says, “it’s less about great stories and more about, ‘Is there enough marketing behind (this movie) to ensure it’s a big success?’”
But Oberman, who now runs MouseTrap Films, thinks he may have found an answer: It involves recreating the film festival experience, but without the hassle of dropping hundreds of dollars and taking a week off work to go to Utah in January.
Here’s how it works: Oberman catches a great film at a film festival or on a screener that doesn’t get picked up for a wide release. MouseTrap Films acquires the distribution rights for the film and pays the filmmakers a minimum guarantee or a percentage of the film’s profits. Then the company takes the film on the road through its subsidiary Film Festival Flix, showing it in theaters in Los Angeles and New York, but also heartland cities like Dubuque, Iowa and Montgomery, Alabama. FFF brings along the actors, director, and other principals for a red carpet event, a Q & A, and a post-screening after-party. The idea is to build enough word-of-mouth buzz surrounding a film, so people tell their friends to download it off MouseTrap’s on-demand site or through other channels like iTunes.
“The irony is that years ago we were using the Internet to drive people to the theaters. Now we’re using theaters to drive people to the Internet.”
MouseTrap and Film Festival Flix have already had a couple solid hits: An Australian film called “The Wedding Party” became one of the top-five independent comedies on the iTunes charts. Another film, a South African thriller called “Expiration” was subsequently picked up by Redbox and distributed to 70 percent of the kiosks in the country. That success allowed the director, Alastair Orr, to get his next four films financed, and he’s currently working on a film with “Sin City” director Robert Rodriguez.
But what’s so special about the film festival experience? For one, in this on-demand era where people watch what they want, when they want it, the film festival is one of the few places where serendipity and scarcity still play a part. “I would go to film festivals and ask people what they were there to see, and it was usually, ‘Whatever was at 2 pm.’ They just knew the festival had chosen it, and they wanted to be a part of it somehow. So we’re applying the idea of a festival to bring somebody in to see something they knew nothing about.”
That will be the biggest challenge for MouseTrap Films: To build up trust with audiences that the films they curate are the best independent films that haven’t yet been picked up. And while there are plenty of other companies trying novel experiments with independent film distribution like Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures and Drafthouse Films, they’re as much partners as they are competitors, with Magnolia letting MouseTrap use its Landmark Theaters chain, and Drafthouse setting up a co-distribution deal with MouseTrap. After all, with independent film in the sorry financial state described by Soderbergh, all stakeholders need to work together.