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The Seed&Spark Blog

Emily Best at Art House Convergence

January 26, 2016

• Emily Best

Seed&Spark CEO and Founder Emily Best delivered the closing keynote address at Art House Convergence in Midway, Utah, on Thursday, January 21st. Here’s what she said:

Wow. Thank you so much to Barbara and Russ and the Convergence team for this honor. Thank you to Box Office Magazine for putting my name on Leo DiCaprio's beard. Thank you all for your next 15 minutes, as I'm sure your heads are currently spinning with tactics to take home and eventize millennials with technology and social media.

I was a senior in high school the first time I made a conscious choice to go to see an "arthouse" film. It was at the Tower Theater in Sacramento, California. My younger, but much cooler, friend Amber asked me if I wanted to see this Iranian film with her. In truth, I was too embarrassed to admit that I had no desire to watch a film in Farsi. But simultaneously, I was thrilled by how cool I'd feel if I went. And I was 17, so of course cool won out.

That evening I sat down to watch a film called Gabbeh—with absolutely no idea what to expect. When the film finished, the credits rolled, and the lights came up, I couldn't move. I was, quite literally, mesmerized. I had no idea that a film could contain so few words, so many colors, and convey so much feeling and experience. When I finally walked out of the theater and back into suburban Sacramento, I literally wept on the street. The world was forever different to me. To my great surprise, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a man I'd never heard of, from a country 12,000 miles away, had made me really care about film for the first time. Like Hossain Sabzien in Kiarostami's Close-Up, I felt Makhmalbaf had made a film that was somehow about my experience, or what my experience could be—even though he'd showed me a perspective that couldn't have been more different from mine.

I'd seen this eye-opening film at a time when, in Sacramento, the Tower Theater name represented independent and foreign film quality. And while it was competing already with commercial movie theaters, it wasn't competing yet with the comic book sequel storm, and it wasn't competing with the internet. But the Tower was still primarily an exhibitor, dependent on cinephiles to come of their own volition. If I hadn't known Amber, and if Amber hadn't been seeking out foreign film, I never would've seen Gabbeh. Hold onto that idea, because I'm coming back to it.

When Barbara asked me to speak to you, I was conscious that my experience in the arthouse world is mostly as a loving consumer, and when I've lived in the right city, as a sustaining member. (A Cinefamily membership is part of the compensation package at Seed&Spark.) But I believe my work at Seed&Spark dovetails nicely with the future of the arthouse cinema. My team and I are dedicated to two core values that I believe, increasingly, must influence theater programming if we want to show great films to big crowds: sustainability for artists, and diversity of content for audiences.

I got into filmmaking because I was tired of the way women were represented on screen. But in making my first film—Like the Water—I faced what distributors still consider an inflexible fact: There's no audience for a film about strong female friendships that doesn't have sex and, according to one sales agent, "at least a little lesbian erotica." Because these gatekeepers knew there was no audience for our film, we were essentially blocked from making any real money off it. And yet, when we took our film to nearly 20 festivals on the international circuit, we were told at Q&A's by women of all ages: "Thank you! I’ve been waiting to see a film like this my whole life." And it wasn't because Like the Water was in any way the best new film. It was because it was filling a void by telling an under-represented story. We wouldn't have known that, though, if festivals around the US hadn't facilitated a conversation between us and our audience. Exhibitor becomes curator becomes facilitator. See where I'm going?

As the filmmakers behind Like the Water, we were attempting to speak to an under-served audience of women interested in complex stories about women, whose very existence conventional wisdom questioned. Which is why what I want to do today is challenge some conventional wisdom, and maybe ask us all to face some hard facts -- starting with our faces.

Everyone take a moment, please, to look to your left and right. Do you notice a few astoundingly common similarities amongst everyone you see? It's okay. I'm aware that this is all going to make us really uncomfortable for a moment, myself included. We're pretty much all white. What else do you notice? Gender? Age?

I think it's essential to bring up homogeneity, not because it's the topic du jour, but because I believe we have to be willing to admit that if we all look a lot alike, and we're all working in the same business, we may all be subject to a certain "conventional wisdom" that could be killing our bottom lines.

And that's the other thing I really want to talk about today: the bottom line.

If you looked in your program and thought it was weird to see me listed on the same page as Cheryl Boone Isaacs — who is, you know, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—you're not alone. Most of you probably haven't heard of me. I founded Seed&Spark, a crowdfunding and distribution platform for independent content creators. (And I say "content creators" because we're not limited to film; we also help fund series, VR experiences, film festivals, and even helped the Texas Theatre get a 4k projector!) We also publish BRIGHT IDEAS, possibly the world's most self-important film magazine, but also a publication that expresses our vision of the hyper-innovative, diverse future of cinema. And just today we announced a new theatrical distribution experiment called BRIGHT IDEAS Pictures—which is helping bring crowdfunded films, with pre-constructed audiences, to theaters around the country.

As I've mentioned, we're dedicated to two core values at Seed&Spark: sustainability for filmmakers and diversity of content for audiences. These two values are the rails on which we guide all our decision-making. In order to serve these values, we have to get the buy-in of a lot of other kinds of businesses serving independent content creators. We believe that in order to truly deliver sustainability for artists and diversity of content for audiences, we have to fundamentally shift the way filmmakers come to work.

The idea of the filmmaker-as-entrepreneur has been exhausted at festivals and conferences over the last 5 years, but I don't actually think the implications have entirely sunk in. Film schools are still educating filmmakers to try to make the best—or most commercial—film they can, and then wait to be picked. And if we look at the last batch of Oscar films, we see who tends to get picked time and time again. Waiting to be picked has ensured #OscarsSoWhite for the last, you know, 87 years. Waiting to be picked means subjecting yourself to a curatorial voice that is '6% white, 76% male, and largely over the age of 60. It's ok to acknowledge you might be part of that problem. That also means you’re in a position of privilege to be a part of the change.

That wait-to-get-picked attitude simply isn't good business—not with the explosion of technologies allowing creators to take control of their careers. Filmmakers can fund their films, make their films, connect directly to their fans, and over time, foster a sustainable, direct relationship to their audiences.

But this isn't a one-way street. If filmmakers are suddenly empowered to connect with their audiences, inversely, audiences are empowered to choose what they want to see.

And when you empower audiences with that kind of choice, when you give them the opportunity to vote for what gets made at the funding stage, what they’re funding by and large is not the upper middle class white angst movies the Academy voters love so much. They're not funding everyone trying to make the next Little Miss Sunshine (and god are people still trying to make the next Little Miss Sunshine. THAT WAS TEN YEARS AGO). NO. They're funding Dear White People and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Money&Violence and I Am Thalente. They're funding the weird and the wonderful, the socially important and the under-represented: In other words, the stuff they can't get anywhere else. They're funding what they’re hungry for. But that, of course, is only the inlet of the pipeline. Want to guess who the outlet is?

That's right. It's you. It's your theaters. And if you haven't already, it's time to start listening.

I'm sure you're thinking: I listened all fucking weekend, and a lot of this stuff is out of my control! And you're right: You can't control how rapidly technology is evolving, or how demographics are shifting, or how young people consume content. But you can control how you develop and expand your audience.

It may require you to fundamentally expand what "your audience" means to you. But if you begin to think of the diversity of your community as your greatest asset, the future starts to look really bright.

If you're chasing hits that come with their own buzz and multi-million-dollar P&A campaigns—like Brooklyn or The Revenant — you're limited to what others choose for you to show. You have no power to expand your audience. But if you become an active facilitator, like the Doris Duke Theater at the Honolulu Museum of Art, things start to get really exciting. If you're not familiar with their "unconventional" programming, I'm thrilled to share with you what they're doing.

Literally twelve times a year, the Doris Duke Theatre facilitates a separate month-long film festival focusing on a different ethnic, religious, or cultural subset of the Honolulu community. From Bollywood in January, to Jewish films in March, to an LGBT spotlight in August, to Japanese cinema in October, Abigail Algar has done the difficult—but highly rewarding—work of inviting a broad swath Oahu's communities to participate in her programming schedule. And we know that Taylour Chang will continue her great work.

What does this mean from an economic perspective? It means that instead of trying to activate one large, but diffuse, audience for a cavalcade of broad films over and over again, she gets to shift her focus to a new, highly-motivated group every month. It means she has partners—real, true, motivated, diverse partners—to help develop and promote her slate. Last year they on-boarded 10 community partners for the Filippino film festival, and doubled attendance to well over 1,000 tickets sold. They’ve boosted and diversified museum membership through their outreach.

Now you might be thinking, "Sure, she can do that in Hawaii because Honolulu is 100 times more diverse than Athens, OH." Sorry for picking on you, Athena Cinema. I actually don't know much about your programming, and for all I know, you're actually planning to do in real life what I'm about to hypothetically suggest.

But hear me out—all of you. Athens is a town of roughly 24,000, and it's 86% Caucasian, and a college town. However, there are 32 churches within city limits that range, denominationally, from Baptist to Unitarian. I mention the faith community in Athens because there's an incredible film coming out this spring that many of you have had an opportunity to watch this week, and a few of you came to hear about the incredibly motivated marketing push they’re ready to help you make. Rodrigo Garcia's Last Days in the Desert (which we covered in the latest issue of BRIGHT IDEAS, coming out tomorrow in Park City) is a stunning, highly nuanced film about Christ's spiritual exploration in the weeks before his crucifixion. It is somehow both neutral and religious—a film without agenda that supports myriad perspectives and interpretations.

Do you see where I'm going?

What if Athena Cinema – in addition to the young Bobcats and their professors who will no doubt be excited for the film – what if they brought in a different church to sponsor a screening of Last Days every day for a week? On Friday it's the Lutherans, on Saturday it's the Pentecostals, and on Sunday it's the Methodists — each hosting a different conversation about the film tailored to their congregations. Suddenly, from a town that isn't particularly ethnically diverse, we've activated an incredibly diverse group of people, and turned Last Days into a hit for a Midwestern arthouse theater in a small market.

Courtney Sheehan at the Northwest Film Forum – and I hope you were there to see her on a very smart panel about engaging Millennials – relies on diversity of programming to sustain her theater – across film, music, dance and other live shows. She spoke on Tuesday so importantly about redefining and reshaping the cultural association of the arthouse cinema. She has made of the Northwest Film Forum a place that many different communities consider their space. She is much more than a curator; she acts as a facilitator – allowing community leaders of all kinds bring in their audiences to watch and discuss what really matters to them. She understands that her own curatorial voice could, in fact, be limiting. And by allowing many other – let’s call them community curators – to come in and take ownership of the space, she has sustaining audiences that come out for annual events from across the state. In the first 90 days of 2015 she made 43% of her box office revenue from 17 individual events that included these audiences who came to see films like BLACK PANTHERS VANGUARD OF A REVOLUTION, THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS DARKLY, and WINTER IN THE BLOOD. But she’s selling out film, dance, and live events year round. She calls it "eventizing with substance." It’s thinking about diversity not as a range of skin colors, or genders and sexual identities, but a diversity of experiences that can make of your theaters a cultural center that belongs to everyone.

In 2016, exhibition is no longer enough. Traditional notions of curation narrow the lens when what we really need to be doing is widening it. Facilitation is about inviting the community to co-curate and take ownership of your space along with you. I know there are days when being white, or owning a theater or running a festival – doesn't feel like a privilege. But I challenge you to recognize the incredibly powerful tool for sharing stories, organizing, commiserating, activating and celebrating – and share ownership of that power more widely. That's what an ally does in 2016 who says he cares about diversity. It's also what a business owner does who cares about the bottom line.

Does your current team represent a range of diverse experiences that allows you a broader reach into your community? Or are you already just speaking the same language to the same folks? Can you hire an Amber – a young woman like my high school friend who dragged me to my first arthouse film (see, I TOLD you I'd come back to this) who knows how to convince her friends? She might also know how to find the people like her in other segments of your community.

Are you really looking at who actually lives in your city, reaching out to the leaders of those groups and influencers in those communities—whether they're pastors, museum curators, community organizers, or cool kids—and starting a conversation about the stories they feel aren't getting told? That's where you find the films, conversations, experiences that fill that void.

It's a collaborative process as creative as making the films themselves.

So we at Seed&Spark will continue the push to educate our filmmakers on how to build and activate audiences as a part of the fundraising and production process so films arrive to your theaters with marketing materials and data down to email addresses and zip codes. If you make the effort to really engage your whole community, I think we'll both come back here next year with numbers to brag about.

Enjoy your meal, enjoy the company, and enjoy your Sundance if that’s where you're heading. Thank you very much for your time today.

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Emily Best

Emily Best, Founder and CEO of Seed&Spark

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