Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

POLLYWOOD | Fade in: Filmanthropy

Ted Leonsis is a man on a mission. He is delivering his keynote speech at the SILVERDOCS film festival on a quiet Thursday afternoon to a small audience of filmmakers and industry folk. The distributors and network execs are sweating. Why? Because they’re listening to a man known for finishing what he starts. Today he is outlining his vision for how the Internet can reshape the filmmaking industry, encourage creativity and create a more efficient distribution system. Leonsis sat down with WL to discuss this and his concept of “filmanthropy.”

WASHINGTON_LIFE__What is your assessment of the business of filmmaking?

TED LEONSIS The business model is broken, particularly for documentary filmmakers. Basically, the way it’s set up today, everyone in the value chain gets the money, except for the guy who makes the movie. Let’s say you create a documentary that makes $10 million dollars at the box office – that means about a million people saw it. That would make it one of the top 10 documentaries of all time. But given the economics of moviemaking, that filmmaker will likely lose money. However, if you could get five million people to watch your documentary for free on the Internet, you can do a million dollars in revenues through advertising. If you made it for half a million, you’d be profitable.

WL It’s amazing to think that documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth still lose money in a scenario like this. Is this a result of what you refer to as the film industry’s “snail mail” mentality?

TL Exactly. In the old days, if you wanted to send a letter, you’d have to sit down and write it, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and walk it to a little blue box. A stranger would come once a day, open the blue box, take the letter to a big concrete box, process it, put it on a truck to another concrete box. Then put it into a bag and drive or walk it to another house. There were thousands of touchpoints. That’s what happens today when you make a movie. You make a movie and it gets printed. They put the film into canisters, send them to a shipping depot. The film goes into a truck and gets delivered into a theater. That theater owner threads a

film projector and they show it, advertise it, and hope people come in to see it and buy some popcorn. In the movie business, we already have the digital product – since movies are shot on HD. Now we need to find a way to get it to the millions and millions of people online, instead of in a couple hundred theaters. AOL is already starting to do that with “True Stories,” a site devoted to showing new documentaries.

WL What are the impediments to modernization?

TL The incumbents don’t want change because they make money regardless. Someone needs to get in and transform the business from outside the industry and apply different models and different rules.

WL Is that where “Filmanthropy” comes in?

TL The most important thing about filmanthropy is the metrics of success. Imagine if I looked at my movie, Nanking, like I did other business investments. I’m going to spend two years of my life, travel to China, go to film festivals, work my ass off, put a couple million dollars of my own money into it and get no revenues back? You wouldn’t do it. So if box office and revenues are your metric of success, you’d never make another film. But if righting a wrong, changing a perception, activating healthy debate and generating c h a r i t a b l e giving is what your definition of success is, then you’d make more films. What I’d like to do is create a platform, a studio and a distribution means that can make it easy for other people to m a k e f i l m s.



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