Image: Hollywood by Davidson Cole premiered at the Perth Revelation Film Festival in 2015.
You know how filmlovers can access the greatest works at the touch of a button? How we live in a deluge of fabulous movie experiences, with lifetimes of the most wonderful cinema art coded and ready to pour into your life?
Sorry, that is bullshit. It is true that most of the classic films are on DVD and it is easy to dismantle great works scene by scene - a far cry from the days when critics could only sit in cinemas and watch them in real time.
But probably two thirds of all films run in Australian major festivals disappear forever. Local rights get locked away, the Australian territory never gets bought, or a great film never gets a sales agent. Back catalogue from less Western cultures is particularly hard to find. It is no surprise we pirate or get illegal copies in Asian markets.
Meanwhile, film festivals are evolving quickly in the face of huge changes, according to Richard Sowada, who has been deeply involved with the Perth Revelation Film Festival since 1997.
Starting in 2015, he has been patiently building REVonDemand, a streaming service which combines free films with pay to view and pay to own. He has around 130 features on the site, and two hundred shorts, and is adding to them at the rate of four to six extra titles per month.
It is designed to cater for that challenging market for which there are no other outlets, though at the moment thirty of the films are also carried by sites like Madman or iTunes.
‘We are building up a head of steam,’ he said. ‘We are selling maybe three films a day, or ninety transactions a month. I am not in it to make money. It is an experiment with the technologies that are there and seeing how people behave and that sort of thing. Streaming is a long game but on demand for me is not a long game in itself.
‘The important thing is to be in the space and see how it works. If you are not playing and exploring you are going to be left behind. It is challenging - it has taken two years to get this far from a standing start. It is part of the film festival movement moving and playing and experimenting and this approach seems to be working.
Sowada is specifically after films which don’t have rights on sale in the conventional sense, or where the campaigns have gone dead. He doesn’t deal with sales agents because they want money up front, which he and the festival simply don’t have. He uses the simplest deal documents and legals he can devise, he is happy to share rights, he splits income 50:50 from first dollar so there is no problem about covering his costs first.
There is no marketing, he won’t digitise material from scratch, he accepts Standard or High Definition footage, does all the transcoding and uploading and provides the written assets to go with the program.
He has two powerful assets - three if you count his determination to commit his own time as a way of learning and experimenting. The whole system is a simple interface with the most basic membership of Vimeo, which in turn makes the legals and returns as simple as possible. He loads titles up, configures the landing page, and off it goes, with quarterly reports which are provided to the filmmaker.
And the films have all been in the Revelation Festival. He has gone back across his programs and contacts, hunting out the producers and directors, inducing them to sign up for a deal which is no trouble and takes no time, beyond supplying digitised assets.
‘They know what we stand for’, he explained. ‘It’s a fairly easy negotiation really but it is incredibly time consuming - it takes a lot of negotiation to get four titles a month. For every one you get at least three or four films where you can’t find the producer or the director and there is no trail. So there is a lot of detective work.
‘Some of the filmmakers are amazed that someone is still interested. They are over the moon and don’t take much convincing. There are other ones with films in the area who want to remaster or re-edit. No bother, leave it, just give it to me. Their response has been really great. A few people say no, hoping to exploit the film in other ways.
Because the films come from Revelation he is using and expanding a highly defined brand. It tilts towards pure cinema and dedicated art, aesthetics and surprise, but includes titles which never made it to Perth in any other way. They are more accessible.
‘It is Interesting to see what audiences are interested in - probably the harder films, the more experimental films - Dial History and Double Take and Tribulation 99 are quite experimental films. They like interesting, hard to get films about hip hop and music especially. Subculture and counter culture and conspiracy theories.
The festival audience and membership base provides a core audience so he does not have to create attention and search out an initial audience. He works in a defined community of enthusiasts with their own social media activity so he is not building artificial campaigns.
What is more, the festival has an international reputation and an identity. He is operating one of the very few, if any, sites of that kind, scale and coherent identity. With minimal limits on the non-exclusive rights, working with films outside the usual streaming market, he is effectively a world centre.
‘We have built stage one of a distribution and broadcast business based in WA. It can go in a lot of directions but it is a broadcast business.
‘The whole traditional notion of territoriality is finished in my view and this is a way of exploring territoriality in a new way. And the change in that vision of access. Locking down the digital rights in this territory for five years, so that you don’t own it any more once it comes to me is exactly the opposite.
‘It is saying lets co-own the thing and sell to whoever we like and whenever we like.’
Because he is responsible only to the festival and the efficient use of his own time, he can do whatever he wants with the catalogue. The brand is broad, and he can work with fllmmakers on their wider catalogue, and collaborate with other festivals. He is already experimenting with packages of short films in education, aimed often at emerging filmmakers.
‘It’s ticking over quite well - it is certainly cost efficient and most of the films there are not available anywhere else and the producers are over the moon. Not all of them are geoblocked to Australia so there are a lot of films that would never see the light of day and can be shown around the world.
‘When I’ve got all the films up there I’ve negotiated, the plan is to go out quite hard and broad with it. Its very kind of its not going to make anyone a million but that is not the point.’
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