The times they are a changin’.
As the the proliferation of high speed broadband connections increases and the expense of theatrical distribution continues to stay the same, the internet is looking more and more like a viable medium for documentaries. Conscious of this shift, The Tribeca Film Institute has started a program called Reframe, aimed at providing an outlet for both new and old content that otherwise might not find an audience.
Tami Yeager (IMDB), the producer behind the award-winning 2008 PBS Independent Lens documentary “A Dream in Doubt” is working with Reframe to make it an innovative doc distribution solution for both media makers and watchers. Viva Doc’s Andrew Rosinski asked Yeager about this groundbreaking initiative and the future of documentary distribution in general in December 2008.
Viva Doc: How is Reframe different from DVD distribution?
Yeager: Reframe is an exciting project to describe because it serves a lot of different needs at once. Rather than acting as a traditional DVD distributor, Reframe’s central mission is to help individual filmmakers, distributors, public media organizations, archives, libraries and other media owners digitize, market and sell their work using the Internet. Reframe’s initial non-exclusive platform partnership is with CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon.com. When content holders sign up with Reframe, their analog tape formats and DVDs are digitized for free and enjoy the better royalty returns negotiated by Reframe. The content owner sets the prices and provides the artwork – Reframe showcases the content owners’ brand and profile. All content is marketed on Reframe’s robust, searchable website and is sold and fulfilled through Amazon.com in DVD and/or digital Video on Demand formats, per the content holders’ choosing.
One of the perennial challenges facing filmmakers and distributors alike is connecting with a film’s target audience. The new media landscape presents as many opportunities as hurdles. The Reframe website is designed to address those hurdles and take advantage of those opportunities by becoming a destination where scholars, artists, teachers and film enthusiasts can easily discover, recommend and purchase media. Building community and providing a voice for trusted sources from various fields of expertise are important tools for supporting the community of work gathered on the Reframe site. Reframe’s functionality will increase over time beginning with guest curators, blogs, and thematic lists adding tagging and discussion forums and embracing networking and many other applications later.
Viva Doc:What is Reframe’s submission process?
Yeager: The first step is to send an email to email@example.com and tell us about the film/s you would like to submit. If possible, include any relevant links to websites, reviews, film festivals, etc. so we can learn more about the work. Someone from the partnerships team will contact you to share information about the contract, terms, and deliverables. If a film is a mutual fit for Reframe, then you will send in the contract, relevant details about the film, signature still image, filmmaker photo and bio, cover DVD artwork, and source material (tape, DVD, or digital file on a hard drive) for digitization.
Viva Doc:In most cases, festivals look for short films that are under 12 minutes in length. Will online distribution open a market for films that are 20 – 50 minutes in length?
Yeager: Festivals are constrained by the clock and the schedule. Shorts either have to be very short to play before a feature to fit into the conventional two-hour blocks or to be around ten to twelve minutes to create a program comfortably comparable in length to a feature presentation. When the consumer is the programmer, things change. For the user at home at her computer, a work is captivating or it isn’t. There are no constraints of theater turnover or conventions for time-length. For the institutional consumer, shorts work well in classrooms and civic settings as they can convey the emotion or information of a feature length work while leaving ample time for the assembled group to engage in active discussions. Cynthia Wade has said on panels that she purposefully decided to keep her film FREEHELD within the Academy’s short film limits as much to make a film that was a more useful advocacy and teaching tool as to compete in the short category. Digital projection eliminates the costs and time constraints of dealing with physical media, and the time-shifting technologies of DVRs and Internet services will allow consumers to connect with subjects that compel them, captivate them and entertain them without regard to time and physical constraints of the past. Interestingly enough, two of the first three sales of Reframe titles were shorts, one a thirty-minute film and the other an eight-minute film.
Viva Doc:What direction do you see documentary distribution headed in?
Yeager: The fascinating thing about the Internet is that it has allowed documentary filmmakers to reach out directly to their target audiences. The ability to sell your DVDs from a website and/or stream clips or a whole film is completely revolutionary, and, in my opinion, empowering for our community. For the short term, it appears that DVD sales will continue to be the cash cow for films in general, while creative Internet marketing techniques allow filmmakers to raise critical awareness about the work. As we know, online distribution is still sorting itself out as different companies compete to perfect the technologies and to reach new audiences. I do believe that we will eventually access much, if not all, of our content via the web, especially once we can connect it adequately to the television.
For these reasons, I am a believer that there will be new opportunities for documentary distribution. By opening up the marketplace in a way that allows smaller, but specific audiences to find the content they are seeking, documentaries will reach their greatest potential. Certainly, creative marketing will be required to get heard through the noise.
Another very important area for documentaries that is often overlooked when discussing digital distribution is institutional and educational sales. For documentaries, this is typically the most lucrative marketplace for your work. Educational institutions are still buying DVDs in large numbers, but they are starting to look toward a future of digital distribution. The field is wide open at this point. Since reaching the educational market is important to Reframe, much attention is currently focused on DVD sales. This will likely change as the distribution ecology further evolves.
Viva Doc:Do you find yourself watching more films on the computer screen, the TV screen, or the big screen?
Yeager: I watch all three pretty equally. I recently bought my first LCD TV in order to bring the Internet connection to the tube. Still, I hope the big screen stays around for a long time, for both the cinematic experience and for hosting community screenings.
Viva Doc:How has working on the distribution-side helped you as a filmmaker?
Yeager: I have learned so much about the creative ways one can reach audiences. Conversely, I work in digital distribution because I want to represent the perspective of content makers. I believe that we should be very involved in the development of this burgeoning marketplace, as it will have a dramatic effect on our creative opportunities as well as our incomes.
Viva Doc:Any words of wisdom for students looking to submit to Tribeca Film Festival?
Yeager: Programmers at the Tribeca Film Festival say it is most important to make the strongest film possible and resist sending a premature cut of that film for consideration. You get one chance to make a first impression and, at the very least, this first impression needs to elicit a champion for your film so that it will get a second look.
Viva Doc: List your top five documentary films.
Yeager: For a cross-section of documentary styles, here are some personal favorites:
Who Killed Vincent Chin?
To Be and To Have