IndiesLab participates in The Conversation at Columbia University

Posted on March 31, 2010

The Independent Digital Distribution Lab –– IndiesLab for short –– is a joint initiative of ITVS and PBS designed to help filmmakers navigate the marketplace and to generate revenue streams while also having a social impact. Last weekend, IndiesLab's Director Davin Hutchins, attended The Conversation, a one-day conference held at Columbia University to create a dialogue and an exchange of ideas around social media, digital distribution and the future of film. 

This past weekend in New York City, several hundred filmmakers descended upon Columbia University for The Conversation. Although years have passed since the first Conversation was held in Berkeley, California, this year’s pow-wow – organized by Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain and Cinematech blogger Scott Kirsner – featured many luminaries from the independent film world. The goal: to seed new ideas and pollinate older ideas to chart a course of online distribution. Clear answers on the best direction forward were elusive. IndiesLab shared the stage on a panel with Matt Dentler of Cinetic Rights Management/FilmBuff, Scilla Andreen, CEO, IndieFlix and Ryan Werner, VP of Marketing, IFC Entertainment. When pressed by the moderator on what constitutes a successful online film title in monetary terms, our panel fumbled for encouraging data. One of the most sobering thoughts came from Ira Deutchman, head of Columbia University's Producing Program. He asserted that because inexpensive production technology and free distribution is available to everyone now, the democratization of filmmaking is in full-force. But that’s a double-edged sword. Hundreds more auteurs in the marketplace does not necessarily mean hundreds more Michael Moores. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; it takes that much more talent to rise above the noise. Deutchman suggested that the independent filmmaker’s future career may more closely resemble that of musicians or painters, where tens of thousands eek out a subsistence living while only a few dozen secure critical acclaim and lucrative returns. Richard Lorber, CEO, Kino Lorber, summed up online distribution this way: "Everything is possible and nothing is working."

During a roundtable hosted by IndiesLab, I led a discussion on the idea of the “micro-documentary” in an attempt to figure out why things aren’t working. One problem with online film is the sheer plethora of things to do on the web. As Nina Paley, Director of Sita Sings the Blues so succinctly stated on a panel: “Attention is scarce, information is not.” Also, filmmakers remain focused on the 90-minute festival cut or the 52-minute broadcast cut, because that’s what funders want. But neither length works well on the Internet. Our IndiesLab data suggests most people stop watching long-form content after 10 minutes. So the question becomes: what do you want people to do after watching for ten minutes?

This is where the “micro-documentary” comes in – which our roundtable defined as a 10- to 15-minute version of your long-form project that leaves this burning question: “What happens to these characters?” This can be leveraged in many ways – to raise co-production funds from broadcasters or foundations, to build a grassroots marketing base while you’re producing your film, etc. A “micro-doc” may also be the best way to convince someone to fork over $3 to rent your film on iTunes or Amazon. You might release many micro-docs during the course of your project. It is entirely possible that a “micro-doc” might be all a viewer ever sees of your project. So it should have the same goals of the long-form documentary – raising awareness, audience engagement, affecting social change. If we reached a consensus on the panel it was this: filmmakers may very well need to start playing with new forms of documentary to conquer the web. If you’d like to get a sampling of what else was discussed at the Conversation, go to and search on #convoNYC. Davin Hutchins Director, IndiesLab


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