With thousands of feature films being made each year, helping them connect to an audience has quickly become one of the biggest challenges facing the independent filmmaker today. Nandan Rao, the cinematographer behind The International Sign for Choking, Green, and the director of 2012's The Men of Dodge City, offers his contribution to the distribution sphere in the form of Simple Machine: an online platform that connects filmmakers directly with venues to screen their films. The kicker? Anyone can list their film and anyone can be a venue. Read on to learn about how it works and why you should give it a try.
"Curation is everything."
NFS: How was the idea for Simple Machine born and what are your goals for it?
Nandan Rao: The original germination for it was in the film tent at Maryland Film Festival (which is amazing, by the way.) There was lot of discussion about a seemingly common situation: a successful festival film going to do a small theatrical run in several cities. Opening night, the director would show up to do a Q&A, and there would be a full house. The rest of the week, however, would be completely empty.
So I thought, okay: theaters show movies for a whole week for what reasons? And I came to the conclusion that there is a big logistical process in booking a film: you have to find the film, sign the film, talk with the distributor, etc. So I was thinking if we could make that logistical process easier we could suddenly free up the system a lot to be more flexible.
So this all started as just a film trafficking tool, a way to move digital film prints into theaters, making the physical process easier, but I quickly realized that it wasn't the physical process that was holding anybody down. Theaters were so bogged down in the bureaucratic processes and political relationships necessary to run their business, that despite expressing enthusiasm about the idea of single-night films and more eventized screenings, they couldn't actually get their shit together to commit to anything. At which point I realized that I wanted to make this available to anybody who wants to show a movie off their laptop.
That's the way all disruptive technologies happen: things come in as more convenient but lower quality, and then eventually the quality ramps up. At the end of the day it's super easy to show a movie off your laptop and a projector, the quality is already decent and will only improve with time, and so why accommodate anything else? I assume that that is the future.
NFS: And a PA, right? Gotta have a PA.
Nandan Rao: Yeah you gotta have a good sound system too, which luckily there are a lot of good PAs out there, like somebody's garage band always has a nice PA. But it was like: wait a minute, that's what it's about. It's about being able to create a system that lowers the barrier of entry so low that anybody can become a theater. And then it's not just about logistics, it's about how you help people find these movies and communicate with these movies. And that's what Simple Machine is about. It is a way of discovery that changes who can enter the game.
And I like that, I like opening up the exhibition space to allow anyone to take a crack at it -- I like amateur-ism, I like amateur art, and that's what I think we're doing as filmmakers, we're straight up amateurs -- we jump in and make these feature films for no money and I don't think that's a bad thing.
NFS: How does the process for Simple Machine work for a filmmaker vs. someone who is not a filmmaker?
Nandan Rao: Yeah, so one thing I did really intentionally with the site is that everyone registers the same and everyone is treated the same, whether you're making movies or showing movies. In my perfect world people are doing both, maybe not always at the same time, but why shouldn't filmmaker show movies too?
For a filmmaker it's pretty straightforward: anybody can register for the site, then you add your film and there's a little 6-step wizard to create a profile page for your film. You also have the option to link a secure Vimeo screener with a password, so if someone wants to watch your film they can request to watch it, and you can also upload a Blu-ray-quality Quicktime file that others can download for exhibition purposes when you've arranged a screening.
The next step is that you start showing other people's films: create a screening series or festival of your own. But beyond just being a booking tool I'm interested in people using their page as an online EPK, so that every time you get into a new festival you don't have to open up your Adobe Creative Suite and edit your PDF -- it's a dynamic profile page that you can continue to update with new information about your film.
Also, one thing about sales agent's is that they essentially act as a wall to get festivals to pay you a screening fee for your movie. Simply by existing, by being the way through which a festival contacts the film, they validate the value of a film. A festival knows that if they're contacting an agent, they might expect to pay a screening fee -- and they will have to make a case for why they shouldn't have to pay one if they don't want to. In other words, it flips the expectations for payment for a festival film.
So I think the site could also act as that wall and give festivals a way to offer you money. After you premiere you can send it to festivals and say "hey, check out this site, book me through this site." And they can book you for free through the site, but they could also book you for a fee, the option is in front of them, and therefore they will have to make their case if they don't want to offer you anything.
NFS: Yeah, so how does the financial component of the site come into play?
Nandan Rao: When you book a film as a venue -- and anybody can create a venue -- you say: "Hey film, here's a time and date," you give the filmmaker a description of what it's gonna be, and then you have 3 profit options:
Option 1 is "no-profit": I wanna screen the movie and money isn't changing hands through our site. We're screening the film for orphans in Uganda or something and there's no profit.
Option 2 is "profit share": I'm gonna host the event, some money will come in and I will give you some percentage of that. This could be a lot of things: you could do a free screening, collect donations, and give the filmmaker all of the money, or you could charge for tickets and split it with the filmmaker. The point is, you don't actually know how much you will make, but you'll give the filmmaker their cut, whatever that is.
Option 3 is "up-front": I'm gonna give you $50, or $250, or whatever it is, a set amount of money to show the film.
"The price of a streaming a digital file is essentially zero, so asking people to pay a lot for it will always be a bit of a disconnect."
Whenever money is moved through our site, we take 10%, some of that is Paypal and money-moving fees and part of that is our profit model. A venue could propose anything to a filmmaker and the filmmaker either accepts or rejects. The main goal is to make a tool that people can use in different ways. I want people to innovate ways to use it, which is what I'm most excited about. And it could be used by someone in their backyard who wants to show movies or by the biggest film festival in the world, or the most legitimate theater. My hope is that it is just a valid and useful way to find and book movies.
NFS: This reminds me of a line from 'Gabi' about how 'creativity should be an approach to life' and not just be on a wall somewhere. I feel like your platform feeds into this philosophy and opens the doors for a lot of new voices.
Nandan Rao: Yeah, y'know with the way movies in a theater are expected to be shown, they show for a whole week and can be picked up at our convenience; they are a product like at a supermarket. But the type of films we're talking about, generally more difficult films, require a more specific context to be made for that film. That's why I think that, to some degree, film festivals are successful. They provide a very different context than the traditional theatrical experience.
And going further, I think even more can be done to provide context, and I think the person who is best equipped to do that is someone in that local community. The screening process is part of the art -- you're not consuming these things in a vacuum, and to be able to offer people a way to have more creativity and control over that is, in my opinion, valuable.
NFS: It just sounds like so much fun: getting together with a bunch of people you love and watch movies you love.
Nandan Rao: Movies are an excuse to get together at the end of the day and this is a way to throw an event. And just in terms of our film industry, there's an economic saying, "In a perfectly competitive market, profit margins trend towards zero." If we think about film on iTunes, there's so many films, it's a very competitive market, so the profit the filmmakers are gonna make for each of those views is very, very slim. So how do we create smaller, more intimate markets?
The price of a streaming a digital file is essentially zero, so asking people to pay a lot for it will always be a bit of a disconnect. That price will always trend smaller with competition -- will trend towards zero, but the price of a physical event will always be higher. People are always gonna be paying money for a physical event.
That fact that your film can stream is not a valuable asset, a lot of things can stream, but that fact that your film can create an event, can gather people together and give them a shared experience, is probably the most economically valuable trait it has, the trait that people are most willing to pay for, currently and historically, and to leverage that makes sense.
NFS: Like the music industry, filmmakers are gonna be touring around with their films in that back of their Suburus, and a lot of filmmakers might see that as failure, but I see that as the future.
Nandan Rao: I don't really see making independent filmmaking an economically viable proposition at this point, and I don't know if it's ever gonna be from the payments of end-consumers. The effort of building the context for people, of educating and establishing connections and relevance, is probably always gonna be more than what you're making back.
But that's pretty normal for art, right? That's why it's a system of non-profits and government funding everywhere in the world. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I think it's important to think about the difference between an entertainment industry and an art industry and what we are as film, and whether than is changing, especially for narrative and documentary film (whereas experimental and now video/installation/multimedia forms of filmmaking have aways placed themselves squarely in the art category.)
So do we treat the funding model as we would any other art form? As much as I'd like it, I don't think filmmakers are gonna make a living through Simple Machine. Sure they might make a few extra bucks that they wouldn't without it, but it's really more about the event being better, the context being better, and getting more, intellectually and emotionally, out of the connection between curator, audience, and filmmaker.
"When you have all the rights to your film worldwide it makes things really simple to screen anywhere, and that's an advantage."
NFS: It's a contribution and a step in the right direction. What stage are you in?
Nandan Rao: Things are just starting. A website is very different from a film -- I'm loving it. What you see is not final. It's not my baby, it's a first draft that can be used. Our first step was to get a bunch of films on there, and that happened, and then the next step was to try to reach out to people and see who can create a screening.
And we've had several users, a cool screening above a video store in Memphis, a screening in an art supply store in Olympia, a backyard in LA, etc. We're talking to a lot of university film clubs too, which once the school year starts will come into play.
We're doing more redesigns to the site, making everything clearer and within the next few months I have two goals really: one is to get films earlier in their natural festival life cycle and find out how we can be useful to that world, and two is, moving forward, talking to traditional theaters and doing more eventized screenings with them.
And also internationally, anybody can show a film anywhere. We're talking to people in London, Indonesia, Melbourne, and it'll be really interesting to see how that changes things too. We're working with Factory 25 and a few other awesome distributors, which I'm grateful for. But when you have all the rights to your film worldwide, and we have the internet, it makes things really simple to screen anywhere, and that's an advantage.
NFS: How are the screenings advertised? Is it a public thing? Is it on the venue to advertise?
Nandan Rao: After the screening we create an event page just for that event, but another thing we're working on is adding features to this page in order to support the event-host and their whole process. We want to make these pages more public-faced so users showing films in their space can advertise that page and their audience can learn about and register for the event. We're also working on ways to help the audience interact with each other and with the filmmaker after the event is over through this same event page.
NFS: I've been drawing a parallel between the themes of your film and the theme of your website. Creating a place for people to go, for art to live, or the dream of that at least.
Nandan Rao: [Laughs] I don't know if I've ever thought about that. In The Men of Dodge City, I relate to the characters' situation in my personal art. But for the website I think it is similar; the people in the film are both idealistic and jaded at the same time and that's how I am towards the whole industry.
If Simple Machine would support itself economically then that would mean that I would have created a whole new market for these films -- and that's crazy. That's pretty idealistic. But at the same time it comes from frustration and feeling like things could change. I don't think it's gonna solve our problems with this industry, but it's something. So yeah it is similar, though I wanna say I'm more hopeful about Simple Machine than I ever was about my own personal art. It's easy to doubt your personal project and what the purpose of it is, whereas with Simple Machine I can see clearly some effect that it could have. It's more tangible.
NFS: What do you see 5 or 10 years in the future?
Nandan Rao: I think one thing that will continue to happen is the value of the curator will continue to increase, because there will be more content made, and there will be more quality content made. The fact that Sundance takes a particular kind of film and Rotterdam takes a particular kind of film is important currently, but I think that will continue to be more and more important as they grow as brands and continue to define and differentiate themselves in a global ecosystem, where the location is no longer so important.
I like the idea of different communities within the film world, different genres of sort, and I hope we can continue to innovate and create an environment that supports those artistic movements, rather than an environment that suppresses those by putting everything in the same box and saying "There is one kind of independent film and if you do it really well we'll give you a contract for a real movie."
I would really like to see in the next 5-10 years a support structure for these different kinds of movies to evolve, and an economic structure so that it is viable and sustainable. It's an optimistic view but maybe it will move in the that direction.
I plan on personally trying this service out to create events in my hometown, reach out to filmmakers and add back some context that I find is missing from the traditional theater experience. What do you guys think? Will you try Simple Machine? As a filmmaker, is it appealing to have your film on this site? Let us know in the comments below.