Distribution in a New Digital Age

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by Rachel Baron | March 8th, 2021

Movie theaters across New York City are turning their lights back on, but they re-open in a landscape where the netted relationship between filmmaker, distributor, and audience has fundamentally changed. Caitlin Burke, an Emmy-winning producer, as well as the supervising producer at IF/Then Shorts, sees potential, even freedom, in this hybrid form. We chatted with Caitlin to hear more about her work and where the future of independent film is headed.

Caitlin leads our Digital Distribution workshop at the end of this month.

Rachel Baron: What has your experience been like producing?

Caitlin Burke: I started my career in nonfiction television: from the terrible recreation shows where someone stares out a window and you can only see two thirds of their face up to documentary series. After about five years of that, I started producing doc feature shorts and television scripted shorts and have been working with IF/Then Shorts for the past 3 years. We have a strong emphasis on multi-platform distribution. Before I started IF/Then, I thought you either made a film for a platform or you put it up on Vimeo and hoped someone would watch. I would say as folks are trying to figure out what a totally online landscape looks like it’s very much in the filmmaker’s favor to position their film well so it can actually reach an audience.

RB: How do you think this last year of virtual programming affected filmmakers and distributors?

CB: I think it’s been really stressful because everyone is figuring out everything together and for established filmmakers that’s very confusing because there’s been one route to success. The pandemic has definitely changed that up. But like I said, that very much works in the favor of filmmakers. I think that digital theatrical is still sort of an uneven model. You don’t have to follow the rules anymore. People are getting really creative in how they’re distributing their film. It’s led to incredible breakthroughs in access. Since there’s no physical space to fill, theaters are making bolder program choices because it doesn’t take up any physical bandwidth for them to run a movie for a couple weeks. The appetite for programming is really ravenous.

RB: Any shoutouts for new docs or programming that might not have had such wide audiences a few years ago?

CB: I’ll talk about two films, they both exist in a creative doc space. They’re using experimental techniques or they’re engaging with the form a little differently than a traditional film. Truth or Consequences is a film that would have a really hard time in the US because it just doesn’t follow the rules. That film living in a space where there are no rules is incredible and I think it’s one of the most exciting movies that’s come out in a long time. They had a really substantial festival run, did a series at UnionDocs, and are now working with Sentient Art to do a different online theatrical, but more tailored to a creative community.

A director I worked with, Mo Scarpelli, released her film El Father Plays Himself this year and she did a creative distribution lab with Torino. She’s kind of simultaneously releasing the film while it’s playing at festivals, which I think is another happening that’s a shift in the field. The old rules used to be like everything had to fall in line and now we’re stacking, which is very filmmaker-friendly because you can be in more places at once.

RB: Can you tell me a little about the projects you’ve been working on?

CB: My main focus is IF/Then Shorts and I work with them in the capacity of a Supervising Producer so I have 15-20 projects that are all short documentaries that are at different stages of their life. Most of them are entering the festivals phase. And so I’m having these distribution conversations for short films pretty much every day.

And then in terms of personal work, the three films I had out last year are reaching the end of their tour, which is cool. I had a scripted film called Fourteen that premiered at Berlin in 2019. It had a nice festival run, did some international distribution, and then was set to premiere in the US last spring and for obvious reasons didn’t, but at most we were playing at like 90 old theaters in the United States. And we’re sort of wrapping up an award season – we won a Gotham Award for best screenplay, which was awesome, and that's a similarly micro-budget film that felt like it had an international arthouse audience that actually played better than it possibly could have ever played if we needed to fill a room. We were working with Grasshopper Films on that project so we actually had a distributor. At the same time, Anbessa, another Mo Scarpelli, is a creative documentary feature that also premiered at Berlin in 2019. That film had an international distributor, we did international television broadcasts. We’ve gone on Mubi for a few weeks, which was very cool and now we’re self-distributing through Vimeo On Demand.

RB: That makes me curious, what virtual spaces are you interested in right now?

CB: What’s exciting to me is that I’m seeing more places playing nicely with each other. The opportunity for us to be playing at a movie theatre in Maryland, and also on our Vimeo, and also on Mubi; layering these opportunities so you’re not looking for someone who has one subscription service.

Topic is wonderful, Criterion Channel, now that they exist, is doing some of the most outrageous, robust programming and really expanding beyond what I would conceive as a Criterion film. I think that their brand has always been the best cinema, but a little more restoration and preservation. It’s such a testament to Ash Clark who started programming there. With the vastness of the internet, they’re programming shorts, new collections of filmmakers, and doing it non-exclusively so the films can live elsewhere. It’s also bringing nice energy into older work, which has been really cool. Mubi has always been wonderful and it’s exciting to see that just this week they hired someone specifically for US distribution.

RB: Where are you finding inspiration these days? How are you structuring your time in this new virtual world?

CB: It’s a really challenging time to be an artist. I’m managing it by having a really tidy inbox. This is such a producer thing and I’ve thought about it when I looked into doing residency work. I was like ‘well my creative practice is just sending emails so what’s the point of doing residency because I would just be sending emails from the woods’. So now I’m just sending emails from my house. But the hard thing is that the projects that would have been in production are stalled. I think that that’s giving us some space to really think about creative development and shoring up resources so that folks can actually take the time to make a film. But the other sort of way I’m dealing with this and staying creative is honestly staying on top of Covid protocol so I can be a good resource if folks do want to shoot to find a way to do that safely.

RB: What have you noticed with the shifting needs of Covid protocol?

CB: It’s so hard just because we don’t know. We don’t know how things are transmitting. I started one shoot with like 10 gallons of disinfectant spray. And the reality is, if everyone is masked, you’re not transmitting it that way. I feel a lot of obligation as the Producer to be the advocate for safety and that shouldn’t come at the expense of the film. I managed to make one movie that wasn’t a Covid movie during this summer and it was puppets. The great thing is that puppets don’t get Covid and our puppeteers are already wearing cowls to obscure their faces. We were able to shoot like 90% of the movie without acknowledging the pandemic because everyone's face was covered anyway.

RB: Without giving too much away, what do you hope students take away from our workshop?

CB: I hope that there’s a feeling of empowerment. I think that distribution is an intentionally mystifying element of film work, especially for someone earlier in their career. It can be really daunting to think of what you’re supposed to do when it’s done and also really challenging when all those rules are changed. We all sort of understand the model of premiering at festivals and then someone buys your movie. But there’s the question of who brokers the deal, who is having this conversation, and what you owe them. The focus is going to be on different ways of distributing your film and really having that be audience-focused. And that there isn’t only one right path for every project and there isn’t one way of success. There are multiple successes and there’s success for the filmmaker going forward in their career because some of what we’ll talk about is how to best serve each project, but also serving the creator so that they can make their next project.

I think that just the emphasis that there isn’t one checklist to success, but hopefully the workshop will give folks the vocabulary to be able to navigate what the best choices might be to their own project, whatever stage they’re at. Because it’s never a good decision to make a project specifically for one distribution platform, but it is good to start thinking about your audience while you’re making your film so you can kind of shape those expectations.

Just a few spots left in Digital Distribution with Caitlin Burke. Check out our roster of offerings at dctvny.org/workshops/all. DCTV is also currently screening Truth or Consequences in our Virtual Cinema!