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Default Can the Internet Save Indie Film?

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There was a time in the indie film business when specialty houses from the major studios stalked the earth, reaching into deep pockets to acquire the rights to distribute the buzziest films at the coolest festivals -- notably Sundance.
Lately, however, the indie situation is so dire that industry savant Mark Gill bemoaned its fate in a keynote address at the current Los Angeles Film Festival. His talk has been linked to across a wide spectrum of blogs, less for its hopeful closing notes than for its array of forlorn statistics about tanking indies.
If part of the problem is the growing primacy of the Web in consumer culture, could that same Web be part of the answer?
Matt Dentler of Cinetic Rights Management insists it's so. He was to be seen recently in a crowded Starbucks a few steps from the indie-minded crowds populating the LAFF, explaining why the new digital film rights venture he's a key part of is being embraced by just about anybody -- internet portals, cable and satellite operators, wireless and telephone providers, etc. -- who's got an interest in purveying the content that has been flunking in the cinemas.
"There is very little bitterness in this realm because everyone wants it to work," Dentler said. "It's the next big hope for the film business."
He's speaking, mind you, only of specialty films. The big international business in action films and other popcorn fare is having quite a healthy season in the cinemas -- Paramount just hit $1 billion in box office for the year. (To emphasize how well mainstream studio fare is doing, LAFF kicking off its skein of screenings with the premiere of the gut-punching kineticism of the blockbuster-scale Wanted.)
But as Gill bleakly noted in his talk ("If you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9 percent chance of failure"), the 5,000 or so films submitted to Sundance each year are more than likely headed to oblivion whether they're tossed in a programmer's rejection pile or greeted with huzzahs on opening night.
Enter Cinetic Rights Management, the Dentler-energized digital arm of John Sloss's New York-based Cinetic Media.
As the leading representative of a host of quality indie films over the past few years, the firm was looking for a way to revive the marketplace for the kinds of virtuous indie films they have long represented -- for something under 15 percent, a figure that will push toward 50 percent under the new model -- and in many ways, curated.
A welcome aspect of this push, for movie lovers, is the reissue of certain titles that Cinetic will pluck from the archives. "We're already repping Hoop Dreams, Slacker, American Job -- some of these perennial American indies," says Dentler, "films that came out at a time when things like on line video and Web journalism didn't really exist, and would have benefited from all that."
There's something of the crusader in Dentler, down to the squared-off features and alert gaze. Raised in the Rio Grande Valley before migrating to Austin as a film major at the University of Texas, he ran the South by Southwest Film Festival for five years before Sloss lured him away in April. He's generally credited with putting SXSW on the map.
Logically, part of Dentler's mandate is to beat the drum for the new enterprise -- "It's not unlike a political campaign in a way ... very similar to when I used to go pound the pavement on behalf of SXSW to prove to the world we were worth a damn."
The vote he's now trying to get out is that burgeoning online constituency that doesn't respond to typical marketing ploys. "It's really going to be about tapping into the audience that's already living on line, then making a film [viewing] just a click away," he said.
The process is very different from using the Web to sell theater tickets or even DVDs. "Companies always wonder why they don't see more tangible results" from using social networking or viral videos to promote traditional films, he said. "It's because you are asking people who live their entire life online to then leave their computer, go out of the house, go to a theater, and buy a ticket."
Dentler and C.R.M. recognize that the tipping point for online film consumption hasn't been reached yet, though they anticipate rapid growth soon. (In this, they're not alone. The Web video site Jaman boldly, if somewhat self-servingly, predicts that the online video distribution business worldwide will grow to $12 billion a year by 2012 from the current $2 billion.)
"It is certainly being utilized, but primarily by younger consumers, college kids or recent college graduates," Dentler said. "I think Christmas 2008 is going to be an incredibly big season for the acceptance and the accessibility of a lot of this material and a lot of this hardware because giant HD televisions are going to have this capability programmed in."
(For now, the $100 Roku box, with access to 10,000 streamed Netflix titles, will have to suffice.)
Dentler said he's "agnostic" about whether his films will be distributed by iTunes, Joost, Netflix, or Jaman.
What he and his company want to do is partner with the various outlets to steer viewers to an array of online extras, such as filmmaker interviews, on their own website, which is now being developed.
Cinetic may buy advertising for particularly promising specialty films, he added, but the ads are more likely to be viral campaigns on the Internet than full-page ads in the major newspapers.
As Dentler rises to go to his panel, one of four public events they LAFF lumped onto his schedule when they'd head he would be in own, his energy seems undimmed. Later he'll do dinner with film folk and a post for his blog.
As CRM's chief operating officer Janet Brown says: "For anyone in this indie business, the clock never stops -- and Matt embodies that to the fullest."


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