A Utopian idea yes, and while you may be pondering if this could ever happen, we can stop you in your tracks and say - it already did! This scenario became a reality when Brazilian director, Bruno Vianna released his first full-length feature film, Cafuné.
Vianna chose to use several innovative distribution strategies for his debut release. Firstly, he licenced his film under a Creative Commons licence. He then released the film in cinemas and on the web, with two different endings. Furthermore, he encouraged the internet downloaders to create new conclusions for the work, thus encouraging the audiences' creative expression and involvement in the work.
Cafuné not only introduced a new way of distributing Brazilian movies, but also showed the world that this type of distribution can succeed too.
Two months after the première of the film on 25 August, Vianna chatted with Oona Castro and reflected on the paths he chose to distribute his film, the impact of these decisions, and the repercussions for the future.
Public funding and free culture
Cafuné received a prize from the Brazilian Ministry of Culture in a competition that they held for low budget films. Vianna received R$600 000 ($280 000) and, according to the competition rules, was not allowed to raise further funds for his movie.
"It doesn't make sense to not make a work that is supported by public investment widely available," says Vianna. Luckily for him, Cafuné was fully paid for on the day filming concluded.
Many people question the use of investment of public funds into the Brazilian film industry because of the fact that the majority of these movies attract small audience. There are others who argue that the distribution of these resources is fundamental to fostering national cinematography talent, even though it attracts small audiences. There are also those who support the idea that, if few people are seeing a film, then it should be made accessible to all. What's the sense of creating something if only a few will have access to it?
According to Vianna, in Brazilian cinema, filmmakers could not find a solution to this issue: "[What is] intended to create a self-sustainable audiovisual industry. According to this logic, we could not 'give away' the film if a production office invests money in it. But now, if one makes a film with governmental money through incentive laws, and finds it already paid on its conclusion day, everything that comes from the ticket office will be a profit, even with only a few spectators." Vianna does not see the sense then, in not setting the artwork free, mostly when it is all about public funds. "It is the return of investment in culture," he reaffirmed.
Obviously there are many creators who do not wish to share their works, and there is pressure, as in any field, for this type of sharing not to occur. However, new business models are emerging that today may be considered 'alternative', but tomorrow, may be adopted as 'mainstream'.
A director knows the limitations that the industry can impose on the distribution of open films, especially those based on 'Hollywood' filmmaking distribution models. A film usually belongs not only to its director, but also to the producer and distributor. This condition imposes limits to the decisions that can be made by the filmmaker. When a production office invests in the work, for example, it is much harder to propose free licensing. Vianna believes that if he had worked with a more 'commercial' production office, or an international distributor, he would not have had the opportunity to implement this innovative distribution method.
But he states that even if he had made a big and commercially viable movie, he would have given up the benefits drawn by copyright, in case there were no restrictions imposed by the other work "owners".
Audience and distribution
The audience took advantage of the distribution in theatres and on the internet. One still cannot calculate the effects of the decision to release the film on the internet, in relation to sales from the ticket office. It is difficult to know exactly how many people downloaded the film, as it was not made available on a central server. However, Vianna made a quick visit to p2p networks, one month after the premiere, and found 80 copies all over eMule. Two weeks after this, we checked the downloads from the Overmundo website, which totaled 490 whole copies downloaded.
This meant that Cafuné not only reached cinema theatres and p2p networks, but also cinema clubs, festival exhibitions, universities and schools. There is no doubt that this strategy provided more exposure to the movie than if it had been traditionally released.
According to Filme B, a Brazilian company that analyses the film market in Brazil, Cafuné made it onto the list of the 20 most-watched movies in Brazil on certain weeks – not bad for a new filmmaker and for the small number of theatres in which the movie was released.
The film was initially exhibited in five theatres in Rio de Janeiro and only one in São Paulo. Two weeks after the première, the number of cinema theatres it was shown in was reduced to a single theatre in Rio and the other in São Paulo. However, after another two weeks, this "little big movie" returned to three theatres in Rio de Janeiro!
"Those who want to see the movie in the cinema go there because of the ritual, not because of the film. And the number of spectators increased as time passed," said Vianna.
Julia Levy, from the distributor and exhibitor Group Estação, explains that this was possibly due to the fact that at the time, there were not many new films being released. But she also recognizes that, if there were no demand, the film would not have returned to the big screen. After three weeks with the film available on p2p networks, the tide of 'big screen movie-and-popcorn' enthusiasts did not exchange the box office lines for their computers. It is possible to presume that Cafuné 's presence on the internet had, contrary to what some may think, actually contributed to its success.
When a cultural product is released on the web with a Creative Commons licence, the economics of the benefits versus the loss is very simple. If X is the number of people who won't watch the movie in theatres due to access to the film though online distribution, and Y is the number of people who would never have bought the work if there was no online distribution, the effort is always worthwhile when Y is bigger than X. This equation was positive, for example, for Cory Doctorow's books or for Lawrence Lessig's books, all of them licenced under Creative Commons.
Since 1990, the Estação group has been releasing classics from international cinema, independent films and less-diffused cinematography. But it was this year that Estação began distributing Brazilian films, giving priority to productions classified, by them as "innovative and alternative" small and medium budget movies. Starting with the release of Cafuné, this is the beginning of a new phase for this group. The distributor is making every effort to discover and develop new distribution formats which are both more creative and compatible with the market reality; and more attractive and accessible to the public.
Levy says that Cafuné's distribution methods were exhaustively debated amongst distributors, directors and the production office, Raccord Productions. Their references were the stories of films boycotted by exhibitors in the U.S., like Steven Sordenbergh's "Bubble", which was simultaneously released on cable TV, DVD and in cinema theatres. But Estação had a trump: it is both a distributor and exhibitor – so it would not boycott itself.
Levy says that it took them uncountable meetings to discuss how the distribution would take place. It was in these meetings, for example, that the distributors proposed that Vianna should shoot different endings. The director's boldness and the distributor's predisposition for adopting new models, as well as the permanent dialog amongst the different players determined the parameters of the model and the subsequent results of the work.
Despite the fact that anyone can download Cafuné from the internet and burn it onto disk, Vianna will still release the film as a DVD. He believes that the exclusive value-added content such as the making of the movie clip, commentary on the film and other bonus features, are appealing to those who buy the DVD.
Of course, every artist likes to earn a living and as the Open Business project aims to investigate open business models, we asked Vianna what would be the best way to assure access to culture while still earning profits.
The director's answer reflected experiences from others' business models and distribution methods - from websites that give away their content for free but show advertisements before each exhibition, to viral networks - there are a range of alternatives. It is possible to make available low-resolution versions of the film, but charge for a better resolution version - a method defended by Joi Ito, chairman of the iCommons board.
Other possible methods for an open film industry could involve incentives for the users to participate in a viral network. This scheme could result not only in a massive distribution of the work, but also in the inclusion of new agents into the production chain. Spectators would also become distributors and would participate in the work's income. "Maybe it would be more interesting to the spectator-user to share the film with more people if he or she earned a percentage through distribution," reflects Vianna.
Where to from here?
Vianna studied new technologies in New York, and is always open to possible innovations: "I think a lot about convergence now; some projects work for theatres and others for the internet. I don't want people to spend two hours in front of a computer. Cafuné is a movie to be downloaded, burned to DVD and watched on TV".
As a matter of fact, Vianna has already revealed his ideas for his next film, ideas that are bigger and better than the ones used by Cafuné. "I'm starting to develop a project that will be like a digital cinema: live editing, me being my own film's VJ." The film will be shot in various parts, to be combined in different ways according to each exhibition, which will depend on the director inside the theatre, editing and exhibiting in real time. "I couldn't do that with Cafuné, that is not a movie to be watched in parts; it is for 'couch' viewing".
You must be wondering - what if everyone undertakes the same distribution strategies as Vianna? Is the visibility of this film based on Vianna's pioneering initiatives?
It is reasonable to think that the uniqueness of the project has contributed to the 'hype' of the movie. But we shouldn't limit our praise to this alone. There is the potential for innovative business models for film production and distribution, the limits of which are still unknown. And it is in this unknown dimension that we will find the future of the Brazilian filmmaking industry or even the world's filmmaking, and the industry's solid growth.