Power to the Pixel: Discovering the Potential of the Digital

By Nikki Nime


Independent filmmakers have persevered for decades, trying to sustain their craft in an industry designed by Hollywood bigwigs for mass marketed, big budget productions. Gatekeepers, or as some are called – distributors, have controlled the movie industry for decades, leaving independents with no choice but to vie for their approval, surrender to their theatrically led model, compete in their venues and play by their rules, all in hopes of gaining access to their most guarded resource – audiences. After such ongoing struggle, independent filmmakers unlocked the miracle of the digital. Today, digital technology renders rewards far more significant than the obvious lower costs, greater choice and increased flexibility. With the ability to distribute high quality feature films anywhere in the world via the Web, the digital also provides filmmakers with direct access to global audiences. Consequently, independents are using technology to invalidate the theatrically led system and design sustainable new models.

To illuminate these new models, Power to the Pixel, an organisation headed by Director Liz Rosenthal, hosted a series of cutting-edge digital media events, called The Digital Distribution and Film Innovation Forum, which ran alongside the 2008 London Film Festival. The programme included a conference, over 30 workshop sessions, two screenings, a cross-media pitching forum and a think tank. For three days, innovators, filmmakers and entrepreneurs from around the world came together to share ideas about emerging business models and the ways independents can successfully navigate the transforming digital media landscape. To summarise the key theme, Rosenthal explained, “all the speakers put the audience and the internet at the heart of their business models – not as add-ons to a theatrical model.”

For example, director Timo Vuorensola knew from the start that his epic sci-fi comedy, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, had little chance for widespread distribution on the big screen – the dialogue was spoken entirely in Finnish. Instead, he relied on a pool of 3000 online fans (whom had previously helped with aspects of the film’s production – including its outstanding special effects) to freely publicise the film online. As a result, Star Wreck was downloaded 8 million times and then picked up for dvd distribution by Universal (www.starwreck.com). Another example of audience-guided distribution is Moviemobz, a ‘cinema on demand’ service that networks 200 digital art house screens in 26 cities in Brazil. Co-founder Fabio Lima explained how the audiences programmed screenings through the website (www.moviemobz.com) by choosing a venue, a film and a show time. If users mobilised enough friends and family members to agree to attend, the cinema would announce the screening and start selling tickets. This democratic design significantly reduces film marketing expenses and delivery costs, enabling even a single screening of a film to return a profit.


The value of generating audience demand echoed as a key theme, which critically acclaimed filmmaker Lance Weiler reiterated when he discussed the cross-media approach he used for his second feature, Head Trauma(www.headtraumamovie.com). To enrich the audience’s experience, Weiler created a story world that used an interactive graphic novel, physical comics, alternate sound tracks, phone calls and text messages to extend his film to other media formats and new audiences. Explaining his motivation for using cross-media, Weiler remarked, “the fragmentation of the digital space is a perfect opportunity to tell stories in new ways. And I can honestly say it has presented me with an interesting and cost effective way to reach and engage my audience.” By the time Warner’s released the film on VOD, Weiler had created a separate web series, complete with an online game, which ultimately reached over 2.5 million people – far more than a traditional theatrical release would likely have summoned. Weiler shares the experience and knowledge he has gained as a digital innovator in both cross-platform and alternative distribution on his website The Workbook Project (www.workbookproject.com).

Ultimately, The Digital Distribution and Film Innovation Forum offered more than 400 delegates, and 10,000 viewers who tuned in for the live webcast, insight into how the independent film community can harness the web and new digital platforms to build a sustainable industry. Formalising the dialogue from the previous two days, Power to the Pixel concluded its London events with a private think tank that included many of the speakers and a few special guests. The brainstorm discussion that emerged from this event will take the shape of an online mind map, hosted on the Power to the Pixel website. In the think tank, and all the events, one main point stands out. Rosenthal summarises, “as audiences begin to access stories on different media platforms and devices we are beginning to see new possibilities for storytelling as films are no longer bound to 90 minute formats. This has brought about a rapid emergence of user-generated content and fan and remix culture with a whole new generation of audiences who are no longer just passive viewers of media but active creators, collaborators, distributors and even financiers.”

Videos from The Digital Distribution and Film Innovation Forum are archived on www.powertothepixel.com

Nikki Nime blogs for the Power to the Pixel website. She is currently working towards her PhD in Media Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London.