The Position and Power of the Filmmaker in the Distribution Ecosystem

By Barbara Twist

The Now in Virtual Cinema Digest will go on hiatus after this month (December titles below), yet in the five months of roundups, we’ve already shared 60 films that have had a virtual cinema release. A year ago, we couldn’t have imagined that 60, let alone any films, would be distributed in this manner. What began as a temporary patch for the “weeks” that exhibitors would be closed, turned into an ever-changing, months-long disruption that has potentially yielded more innovation in the last eight months for the future of cinema than in the last eight years. Case in point: two articles that came out yesterday that point to the opportunities producers and filmmakers have in rebalancing the dynamics of the distribution and exhibition model.

The first is a survey published in IndieWire, which was developed by Jon Fitzgerald, Brian Newman of SubGenre, and Lela Meadow-Conner of Film Festival Alliance (full disclosure: I work for Film Festival Alliance). While the sample size is limited in scope, there was an overwhelming unanimity to responses on questions of data and a clear mandate around revenue-sharing. 

The survey reveals that “95 percent of filmmakers said they received no data from festivals.” We know that data has value, not just for the filmmaker, but for leverage in negotiating distribution deals. It is critical that filmmakers demand data such as zip codes, number of views, and basic demographic information. The virtual cinema platforms being used capture this data, so there is no excuse for a festival to not make it available to the film team. Understanding who is watching your film at a festival not only helps with marketing strategies for your current film, but sharing this data also helps filmmakers better understand general audience dynamics. Who is watching what, how they access the content, and how much are they willing to pay for it, is information the streamers already have on your films and now the exhibitors and festivals do as well – why shouldn’t you have that info on your own film?

Having access to audience data for your film also puts you in a better position to negotiate festival revenue-sharing. Certainly, there are festivals where rev sharing and screening fees are not financially possible – the survey notes that 54% of festival budgets come from donations and sponsorships and there are reasons for filmmakers to participate in lieu of fees: broadening your community, traveling to a new city, and seeing great films that might not make it to a bigger audience. However, there are plenty of festivals who have the capacity to consider a filmmaker revenue model. Perhaps it’s a choice between paying for travel or a screening fee, or maybe the screening fee is modest. Regardless, as the filmmaker, you have the right to be involved in that decision and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask to be paid for your work. The pandemic has disrupted the model and finances of the traditional film festival, and before things “go back to normal,” we need to rebalance our position as the creators of the films that attract the audience that exhibitors cultivate; and that position demands consideration.

The second article is the announcement from Warner Bros that their entire 2021 slate will be released on HBOMax and in theaters simultaneously for one month before shifting to theaters exclusively for a period of time, followed by traditional windowing. I’ll start by saying I think this is an interesting model for certain films. Releasing a film should balance the interest of the filmmaker, the audience, and the distributor/exhibitor, and this year has been unbalanced for everyone. It’s challenging to balance the needs of all the partners involved: does the audience’s desire to see the films outweigh the filmmaker’s desire in how the film is seen? Does the studio’s need to keep its stock price up outweigh the theater chains’ financial need to maintain the first position release? Ann Sarnoff, Chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Network Groups remarked, “We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.” We’ve built a trillion-dollar industry around the argument that “new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition,” but what if that is at the core of the imbalance? What if audiences don’t need a constant barrage of new titles, but actually time to engage with a film? This model of day-and-date to build word-of-mouth, followed by an exclusive theatrical engagement, could offer this kind of time.

We need to stop seeing the life of a film’s release as linear, where it moves from beginning to completion. We don’t remove a painting from display in a museum after it’s been made into a print, or stop listening to a song after it’s been on Spotify for a year; like other forms of art, a film builds on itself, every viewing is an expansion of its life. The concept that an audience casts off a film because it isn’t shiny and new doesn’t hold up when you look at the successes of repertory theatrical screenings, the legacy of the video rental market, physical media market, or even repeat viewings on streaming services. Our distribution model is built on freshness and exclusivity, while the work of indie exhibitors, curators, and critics is in developing audiences and building moviegoing habits. While these aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re certainly not working effectively together. The fallacy in the freshness and exclusivity model is that there is a shortage of movies that are new to people. However, just because a film has been released doesn’t guarantee the moviegoer has seen it. It is with the necessary work of the exhibitor, curator, and critic that films are seen, often long after they’ve been first released.

All of this comes back to the position and power of the filmmaker in the distribution ecosystem and at the proverbial table. The power that comes from a filmmaker knowing the value of their film, financially, critically, and culturally, leads to a more informed negotiation about the method of distribution, which in turn leads to the opportunity for innovation in distribution. While audience data and a revenue split from a festival may not seem like enough leverage to make an impact on the way things are, it is a building block to a new model, to bringing balance back (or perhaps for the very first time) to the distribution and exhibition of a film. 


Release Date: 12/4/20
Distributor: MTuckman Media
76 Days is a 2020 American documentary film directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous. Set in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it captures the struggles and human resilience in the battle to survive the pandemic in Wuhan.
Trailer: 76 Days – Official Trailer
Find participating theaters here

Release Date: 12/4/20
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
A cinematic exploration of Shane MacGowan’s story, Julien Temple’s film CROCK OF GOLD details Shane’s explosive existence, from his salad days, growing up in Ireland, to time spent on the mean streets of London and embracing the punk scene. To forming the Pogues and the conquering the known universe, we discover MacGowan’s passions, his humor & deep knowledge of music, history, spirituality & popular culture. For this is Shane’s story. A vision of the world through the eyes of the great punk poet himself and an intimate cast of close friends and family members, all channeled through Temple’s inimitable and eternally vibrant lens. 
Trailer: Crock of Gold – A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan – Official Trailer
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Release Date: 12/4/20
Distributor: Janus Films
A visionary work of Eastern Bloc science fiction, this mesmerizing Czechoslovak adaptation of a novel by Stanisław Lem melds Cold War ideology and utopian futurism into a tour de force of space-age modernism. In the year 2163, a band of astronauts embarks on a fifteen-year voyage deep into outer space, in hopes of discovering life in another galaxy. It’s a perilous journey during which they will confront the wreckage of the twentieth century, the chilling vastness of the cosmos, and their own mortality. A triumph of avant-garde production design that served as a model for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ikarie XB 1—long known internationally only through a mangled and dubbed reedit—is a singular sci-fi landmark that finds both terror and wonder in the unknown.
Find trailer & participating theaters here

Release Date: 12/4/20
Distributor: Utopia
Attempting to surpass his father’s legacy, a reclusive neuroscientist becomes entangled in his own experiment, pitting ten fragments of his consciousness against each other.
Trailer: Minor Premise | Official Full Length Trailer
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Release Date: 12/4/20
Distributor: Participant Media
Sing Me a Song, the new feature from acclaimed documentary filmmaker Thomas Balmès (Babies, Happiness), follows Peyangki, a young monk living in a rural monastery in Bhutan. When TV and the Internet eventually come to the remote country, Peyangki is lured by the power of smartphones, which now compete with the structured daily rituals of monastery life.  Unexpected and profound, Peyangki’s journey challenges us to reassess our own perceptions of relatedness and self-worth in an age of unparalleled connectivity.
Trailer: Sing Me A Song – Official Trailer
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Release Date: 12/4/20
Distributor: Janus Films
Find trailer & participating theaters here 

Release Date: 12/11/20
Distributor: Music Box Films
A few days after Christmas, half-sisters Ida and Tuva set out on a winter dive in a remote part of the Norwegian coastline. Towards the end of the dive, a rockslide traps Tuva under water. As Ida surfaces to call for help, she discovers that the rockslide has struck above water as well, burying their equipment, phones and car keys–they are completely cut off from any chance of outside rescue. As the frantic race for survival unfolds, Ida is put to the ultimate test of character and forcefulness. During Ida’s fight to save Tuva, a fractured sisterhood is exposed, and when all seems lost, the stakes rise beyond simple survival.
Trailer: Breaking Surface – Official Trailer
Find participating theaters here

Release Date: 12/11/20
Distributor: Altered Innocence
Trailblazing artists, activists, and everyday people from across the spectrum of gender and sexuality defy social norms and dare to shine in this kaleidoscopic view of LGBTQ+ culture in contemporary Japan. From glossy pride parades to playfully perverse underground parties, Queer Japan pictures people living brazenly unconventional lives in the sunlight, the shadows, and everywhere in between.
Trailer: Queer Japan – US Trailer on Vimeo
Find participating theaters here

Release Date: 12/18/20
Distributor: MTuckman Media
Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese student, comes to the U.S. to study. In her detailed and beautiful diaries, the aspiring young scientist and teacher is full of optimism, hoping to also be married and a mother someday. Within weeks of her arrival, Yingying disappears from the campus. Through exclusive access to Yingying’s family and boyfriend, Finding Yingying closely follows their journey as they search to unravel the mystery of her disappearance and seek justice for their daughter while navigating a strange, foreign country. But most of all, Finding Yingying is the story of who Yingying was: a talented young woman loved by her family and friends.
Find trailer and participating theaters here

Release Date: 12/18/20
Distributor: Artmattan Productions
Growing up in the Moroccan village of Tazzeka, Elias learned the secrets of traditional Moroccan cuisine from his grandmother who raised him. Years later, meeting a top Paris chef and a young woman named Salma inspires him to leave home.  In Paris, Elias faces unstable work and financial hardship as an undocumented immigrant. But he also finds friendship with Souleymane, who helps revive his passion for cooking.
Trailer: Tazzeka – Official Trailer
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Distrib Films
THREE SUMMERS | Find tickets here

Film Movement

Janus Films
FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (4K Restoration) | Find tickets here
INTERVISTA (4K Restoration) | Tickets available at Film Forum

Magnolia Pictures
ALONE | Find tickets here 
AMULET | Find tickets here
COLLECTIVE | Find tickets here
THE FIGHT | Find tickets here
JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE | Find tickets here
OUT STEALING HORSES | Find tickets here
RBG | Find tickets here
ZAPPA | Find tickets here

Outsider Pictures
DIVINE LOVE | Find tickets here

Verdugo Entertainment
ACTION U.S.A. | Find tickets here

Virgil Films

Zipporah Films
CITY HALL | Find tickets here