The Future of FilmThere was much hand-wringing about the film industry's future, with ebbing attendance at theaters nationwide and fear of piracy at a fever pitch. But the industry in general and documentary filmmakers in particular could also be poised to reach broad new audiences if they can figure out how to bond with the iPod generation and make quality films for mobile phones. "The future is wild," said Nancy Buirski of the Full-Frame Documentary Film Festival, at a panel discussion about documentary filmmaking in the 21st century. "It's the new frontier, and we're all wondering what's going to happen." The Sundance Channel, the cable-television arm of the Sundance Institute, is reaching new audiences with a screening room on Second Life, the online game community with more than 1 million users. Strange Culture, a documentary about the legal plight of a Buffalo art professor accused by the federal government of bioterrorism after he called 911 to report his wife's death and local medics became suspicious about materials used in his art, premiered simultaneously in both Second Life and in Park City. But new means of film distribution have created unexpected pressures, too, especially on documentary filmmakers. The documentary film forum actually turned rowdy over the issue of distribution. Efforts by Sundance officials to quell the discord by changing the subject repeatedly failed, though, as one filmmaker after another stood up to share tales of unfair deals or labors lost. If the price of a theatrical release for a film is the loss of DVD revenue or unknown future income streams, what should the filmmaker choose? If a film is streamed online, they pointed out, the filmmaker potentially could reach large audiences, but the film is less likely to be purchased for broadcast or theatrical distribution. With so much change and so much at stake for filmmakers, simply being ambitious, creative or talented is not sufficient. The key to success, according to Buirski and others, is for documentary filmmakers to be well informed about the business and technology.
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