The Top Five Reasons to Give Your Soundtrack Away for Free

By Ryan Gielen 

On Feb 1, 2008 Mark Cuban posted to his blog about a far-fetched, impossible-to-execute marketing concept that he desperately wanted film studios to adopt, in order to leverage the value of free giveaways to combat the crumbling theatrical marketplace. Digital was exploding, distribution was becoming a fractured nightmare, and studios were scrambling to adapt.

The idea was staggeringly simple: give away the film’s soundtrack for free.

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Doc Trends In The Digital Age

By Amanda Lin Costa

Lower costs in pro-consumer digital equipment, the crowd-funding phenomenon and new online and mobile distribution models have opened the door the past few years to many first time documentary filmmakers in the United States.  Independent filmmaking is on the rise and with that a trend for more personalized storytelling.

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Keys to a Successful Film Launch: Part 1

By Jon Reiss & Sheri Candler

For the past six months, my company, Hybrid Cinema, has been working on the release of Bob Hercules’s new documentary film Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, about the history of the Joffrey ballet. This is a capsule post to explain the highlights of launching a documentary into the marketplace when working with a modest budget. Future posts will go more in depth on certain aspects of this release.

Joffrey Ballet

Courtesy of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

With at least 35,000 feature films on the film festival circuit every year, by some estimates, very few films are going to premiere at one of the top 5 film festivals. When that happens, filmmakers need to decide what is the best launch for their film. We concluded that in the case of the Joffrey film (and we feel that this is the case for many films), some form of robust live event premiere would help to create awareness for the film in the oversaturated media landscape. Live events are great publicity generators, allowing you to focus marketing efforts on a specific event. Festivals are great partners for these types of events – even if you don’t get into a top 10 festival – because you can create a unique experience by partnering with an open minded and adventurous festival that is already connected to press and audiences. 

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Tips For Connected Documentarians

Editor’s note: Today, many filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of storytelling with the creative uses of technology. This post was originally written for The Connected Documentary graduate seminar at NYU ITP. Connected Documentary is a place where those boundaries are constantly being explored. It makes technical references that might confuse many while delighting a few. Most importantly it shows how the documentary form can be reconceived for the always connected viewer of today.

This is an emerging field. But for filmmakers hacking on web-based stories, it basically boils down to this:

You have to commit to the fact the “thing” you are making is not a linear, unchanging video with a discrete runtime (even if your users will experience it as such). For all intents and purposes, you’re making a web app.

And you wouldn’t go about making a web app the same way that you make a traditional film. You have to start in pre-production with the “thing” in mind; conduct and store your research the right way; and have the right mental model.

You can’t tack on “connectedness” after you’ve produced something completely disconnected. Here are some specific tips to help you, starting in pre-production.

#1: Always stay in service of story.

Your number one job is to tell a story. Never forget!

Technology can serve as inspiration, but never substitute for story.Technical possibilities can certainly serve as inspiration. The Pixar artists on Up were inspired by the challenges of rendering thousands of balloons with rainbows and refraction techniques using computer graphics. But the movie succeeded because those technologies helped captivate viewer imaginations and better tell the story. And, frankly, all the beautiful rainbows in the world won’t make up for the lack of a strong story.

Up

Credit: Pixar

Your creative process should start with a strong, compelling story, with characters who have real motivations (or motivating circumstances).

Start from the story, think about how you’d want your user to experience that story. Then—and only then!—you should start to figure out the specific technology steps you need to take to make your vision become reality.

#2: To thrive on the web, adopt “systems thinking.”

After telling a compelling story, your second job is to create a technical framework and system through which to tell the story.

This will be a different process for each story. But there are two concepts that almost everyone will need to wrap their head around: information architecture and procedural storytelling.

Information architecture refers to the way your app is structured. If you were making a traditional documentary, you’d need a basic information architecture to keep track of your notes, research, and footage. But the finished film requires no such architecture, since it’s a flat 90 minute film.

A connected documentary is a web app, so it needs an information architecture. If, for example, your connected documentary brings images into the page: you need to have a mental model of where those images are stored, and how they’re retrieved.

Procedural storytelling refers to a way of designing stories so they’re different every time. Procedural storytellers write the rules once and trust a computer to actually execute the story. Chris Milk’s The Wilderness Downtown is a procedural story, in that it changes depending on the viewer’s address. Modern videogames are procedural stories, in that they respond to player actions. Madlibs are a kind of procedural story. Here’s an example:

[User] watched [favorite documentary] and really liked it.

This is a horrible story, because it a very weak (i.e., nonexistent!) dramatic arc. But bear with me.

Let’s say that in order to tell this story, you require your user to authenticate to the Facebook social graph. In so doing, you can get information about the user’s favorite movies, and fill in the variables in your procedural story. Depending on who watches, your story might be told like this:

[Amanda] watched [Supersize Me] and really liked it.

or like this:

[Ben] watched [Manufactured Landscapes] and really liked it.

or like this:

[Chris] watched [#null#] and really liked it.  <——(careful, procedural stories can backfire! Design them to fail gracefully.)

Or take another story:

Today, [today’s date], it is [local temperature] in [user’s city]

You could fill in the variables in this procedural story by getting the date from a web server, using the browser’s geolocation API to get a zipcode, and looking up the weather by that zipcode. You can achieve this in a few lines of Javascript, and fill in the variables for a result like:

Today, [February 14], it is [65°] in [New York City].

Conceptually, that’s pretty neat. But what makes it powerful in a connected documentary is the way it supports your story. What if you incorporated the previous procedural story into the title card for a documentary about the worst winter in New York City’s history? It might read:

Today, [February 14], it is [65°] in [New York City]. But in the Great Winter of 1936, the temperature fell to lows of -6 degrees—a cold that froze the very soul!

This is a pretty big shift in thinking. Please don’t be that cheesy. But do consider how you can use the medium of the web to tell more engaging stories.

In some cases, your web documentary may never be finished. In others, it will be finished, but will always be experienced differently. That’s up to you. The good news is, since it lives on the web, you can evolve it whenever you want. Update your code and deploy.Which brings us to #3…

#3: Always be shippin’.

Filmmakers are in the habit of polishing their work until it’s meticulously crafted and extremely shiny.

Don’t do that. You’re making software. And in the software world, we like to say that you should “always be shipping.” Always have a version of your project available for testing. Give the evolving versions of your project point numbers if you want (0.1, 0.2, 0.3). But release at least every week. Release every day if you can.

This is a major difference between developers and filmmakers. Filmmakers are afraid of showing things that are half done. Filmmakers do a lot of iteration, but it usually happens in private—they continue to tighten your edit to test the flow, tempo, and rhythm of a certain cut. But to adapt to the web, filmmakers have to be willing to do this kind of iteration in public.

You’re making software. And in the software world, we like to say “if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version, you waited too long.”

It takes one day to make something cool. Two days to make something interesting. A week to make something great, and a year to make something that will change the world. So take it one step at a time. Be iterative. Show your work, and your process in real-time. Because “usage is oxygen for ideas.” See, we have a lot of sayings.

#4: Be an auteur, and work backwards from your user experience.

In film theory, an auteur is the person whose pure creative vision shapes the film. Though many people may work on a film, the auteur’s voice is distinct enough to shine through through the collective process and to a final cut.

A great example of auteurism in action is Chris Milk, who directed the Google Creative Lab in the creation of The Wilderness Downtown. He created this animatic to cull out the vision that was living in his head. It helped the people on the production team to understand and build his vision.

Credit: Chris Milk

You should work similarly. Start with a story—not a set of themes, but an actual story about actual people and their motivations. Then have a vision for how you can tell that story more effectively using the web. Then, and only then, figure out the specific technologies you will use to implement this vision. Rinse and repeat.

Credit: Ben Moskowitz

Connected docs need to be imagined for the web. But you need to imagine them the right way: story first.

#5: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Get Help.

If you can at all avoid it, don’t waste your time writing code. The beauty of open source is that often, someone has already solved your problem.

It’s much smarter to spend time repurposing and mashing together code, rather than starting from scratch.

Here’s some useful resources, especially if you end up building your doc with HTML5 (which I really recommended):

Popcorn.js: The glue for any HTML5-based connected doc.

Badass JS: A gallery of badass, open source JavaScript to incorporate.

MDN: Developer reference for HTML5, CSS3, and other open web tech.

What If You Could Tip A Filmmaker?

By Chris Dorr

At the end of 2011 Louis CK pulled something off that a few years ago would have seemed like an impossible dream. He created a video of his own standup comedy show, put it up on his own site to download at a low price (1/4 of the price of an equivalent DVD) and used social media (at no cost) to market to his fans.

Tip Your Filmmaker

The result is well known. 

Louis CK got over 200,000 downloads in the first 10 days.  No middleman, no deductions—all the monies went to him. 

He took a risk and made a lot of money.  Another great example of an artist who went directly to his fans and achieved artistic and financial success. 

We will see other artists achieve similar success as the Internet continues its relentless and disruptive drive to flatten traditional production, marketing and distribution models.

But this is not the only model we can imagine where an artist could receive direct payment for her work.

In fact, we must continue to imagine new ways to bring audiences and artists together that financially reward the artist.  These new models will also be enabled by the Internet’s inherent multi directionality that allows consumers to connect with other consumers as well as the artist.

Here is a “what if” idea that exploits that potential and uses Netflix as a test bed.

Let’s assume you are one of Netflix’s 20 million+ subs. 

At the end of every month you are presented with a list of each movie or TV show you have seen over the prior month. In addition you can access the key artistic categories for each movie and TV show.  Imagine the Emmy categories for TV and the Oscar categories for movies. So you in addition to Best Picture, you also have Best Costume Designer, Best Actor, etc.

Now you are given the chance to vote for up to 5 people across all the movies and TV shows you have seen that month. 

Say you saw a movie where you really liked the editing, another where the supporting actor was brilliant, and yet another where the writing was superb and yet another where the musical score was inspiring or another where the production was great in every respect. You get the picture. 

Now you combine this voting feature with a payment scheme.

There could be two ways to imagine this.

1. Netflix allows you to allocate $.50 of your monthly subscription to this “artists direct payment program” and with each vote a proportional part of your $.50 gets allocated and paid directly to the artist you select.

2.  Netflix gives you the ability to pay an additional amount that goes to pay artists directly.  I for one would be happy to add $1.00 per month to my streaming Netflix streaming fee if I could reward artists directly for their work. 

With each method you get to reward up to five artists per month with additional monies for their great work.

Now add two more steps that are crucial. 

1. Combine my voting with my social graph. So, every time I vote I automatically let my social graph (pick the platform—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) know how I voted. So everyone sees what I am willing to put my money behind.

2. Netflix anonymously aggregates the data across all the voting and publishes a list of who received what votes and what monies they received. All Netflix subscribers (and the world for that matter) get to know who Netflix subscribers think are worthy of consideration.

These two steps accelerate the program and cause more people to jump in and vote with their money, thus increasing the votes and money flow to individual artists.

This imagined model is potentially very powerful as it enables users to pay artists directly in a way that assures that no middleman takes any cut. (OK maybe Netflix takes 5 percent for handling the payment. We will allow that.)

The deep distrust of the machinery of Hollywood is eliminated because I know as a user that my money is going directly to the artist—just as Louis CK fans knew. 

And now all the creators of movies and TV shows are further incentivized to connect with their fans and encourage them to see their work. A virtuous circle is created.

And at scale, large dollar amounts for individual artists can be generated.

Is this imagined model easy to pull off? Is Netflix the right vehicle for such a thing? Who knows? There are no easy answers to these and other questions.

But someone should try.

_______________________________________________

Chris Dorr

Chris Dorr is a digital media consultant. His clients include MTV Networks, Samsung Electronics of America and the Tribeca Film Festival. He can be followed on Twitter @chrisdorr.

The Resistable Rise of the Mockumentary

By Rider Strong

Watching Ricky Gervais host the Golden Globes last month reminded me how amazing The Office was when I first saw it in 2001. Today, the mockumentary form is as conventional as a laugh track. But back then, coming at the tail end of an era of hugely successful, and more obvious, American sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld, it was refreshing to see the volume of television humor turned down.

I once heard someone say that for every joke, there’s a scale of 1 to 10: 1 being the most subtle version of the joke, in which you don’t give any indication that there even is a joke, and 10 being the most hacky, obvious, in-your-face version of the joke. Friends operated at about an 8 or a 9. With The OfficeRicky Gervais was giving us a 3.

And yeah, despite proclaiming, “These go to 11,” the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap maintains a steady 2 on the joke-o-meter.

Paranormal+Activity

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Because that’s the primary benefit of the mockumentary form: subtlety. Even on the horror end of the spectrum, where the Paranormal Activity films earn their suspense solely from night-vision shots in which absolutely nothing happens. Besides a rumbling noise in the background. Maybe a plate falls, and we jump a mile.

With the recent box-office success of The Devil Inside, and looking ahead to the superpowers-based Chronicle, the mockumentary is no longer a rare, cool filmic style. It’s become a standard approach to storytelling. As new directors, my brother and I have had lots of meetings in the industry recently, and during every single one, the phrase, “found footage” has been uttered.

Hollywood wants to cash in. Genre doesn’t matter anymore. Expect mockumentary romantic comedies (mock-doc-rom-coms?), mockumentary musicals, mockumentary westerns…

But should this be the case?

Before the onslaught continues, (and before my brother and I throw in the towel and make one of our own) I thought I’d take a moment to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the form. How it’s been used… and often abused.

From a filmmaking perspective, the popularity of the mockumentary makes a whole lot of sense. For both studios and independent producers, these films cost way less money, all you need is some cheap cameras and some no-name actors. There’s more to it than that, though. Creatively, it’s very liberating for directors. After all, it’s required that the technical elements be a few steps behind, that there are a few “pretty mistakes” thrown in— you know, that it looks a bit like crap. Likewise, it’s an actor’s dream: freed from the challenge of forcing naturalism into the demands of plot, actors are able to relax, to languish in the quirks and habits of character.

But the mockumentary has its challenges, too.

The biggest hurdle is the suspension of disbelief. The irony of a “normal” fiction film is that we accept its tricks and conventions without hesitation (assuming it’s well made). Whereas when a film declares upfront that it is “real,” it has to keep earning our trust over and over again. The lens of a mockumentary is easier to create, but harder to maintain.

For instance, once people start getting killed, or aliens start invading, the obvious question these movies beg is, "Why the hell would someone keep filming?" The stock solution is the conceit of the “film geek who’s obsessed with capturing everything.” That’s getting old (unfortunately, I think Chroniclefollows this path).

Chronicle

Credit: Alan Markfield/Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

So the real heavy lifting of the form rests on the writer’s shoulders. It’s the writer’s job to cram a traditional narrative into an anti-narrative structure; to allow the film to stumble into a story.

Sometimes, they don’t even try. Especially in the subgenre of “found footage,” there’s rarely much narrative. These movies haven’t really evolved since The Blair Witch Project, putting characters in worse and worse situations until the screen goes black and we’re left to contemplate “what happened?” Like the Norwegian film, Trollhunter, which, despite some awesome effects, doesn’t twist its story beyond the initial reveal that trolls exist. It just keeps showing the same basic scene over and over. Let’s go over here and hunt a troll. Then head over here to… hunt another troll. Black screen!

Other films go to great lengths to be as traditionally narrative as possible. Such is the case with Cloverfield, which integrates flashbacks via the idea that the footage we’re watching was taped over existing footage— which just-so-happens to be informative back-story. I think this is actually pretty brilliant, but too clever by half. There wasn’t anyway to appreciate the story without simultaneously appreciating the crafty way they slipped it.

Or then there’s the approach of District 9, which sidesteps a lot of problems by giving up the mockumentary structure early on, but sticking with the look. This is an interesting approach, and one that requires a level of audience habituation that I don’t think would have been possible pre-reality TV. We’re so used to handheld cameras, zooms, and other cinema verite techniques, that films can leap between omniscient and camera-crew P.O.V., yet stylistically remain the same. Arrested Development operated on the same principle: It was shot like a mockumentary, but no one ever looked into camera, and the show contained a complex web of flashbacks and scenes that would’ve been impossible for a documentary crew to capture.

Call it mock-mockumentary style.

District+9

Courtesy of Sony

For all its iterations, though, the current popularity of the mockumentary has very little to do with artistry. The truth is that the rise of the form is sign of our economically polarizing times in Hollywood.

As the industry becomes more top heavy, the mockumentary is becoming the best— and maybe only— way for indie filmmakers to compete. Or, more accurately, to opt out of competing. How else can a tiny budget stack up against slick, $100 million films, replete as they are with gigantic crews, famous casts, and computer imaging?

And for established studios, the mockumentary has become a unique marketing tool. It’s the perfect way to market subtlety, regardless of whether a film is actually subtle. For most of us, if we’re going to pay to see something on the big screen, we demand spectacle. With its “bad filming”— its shaky hand-held look, its zooms, its whip pans, its lens flares— the mockumentary informs us, upfront, to not seek spectacle… even when it’s actually there.

By lowering our expectations of spectacle and story, we don’t feel as duped when we walk out having only seen one ghost for thirty seconds (well, unless its really bad). Or if not much happens, story-wise, once the body count starts adding up.

Expectation of subtlety used to be the norm. People would go to the theater to yes, watch a film where adults talked to each other about tough subjects, and maybe, if it were a really graphic and violent film, there would be a shoot out at the end.

I don’t think anyone’s to blame for the shift to more spectacle-based cinema. The lazy, shorthand history is that great filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg are responsible for elevating B-movies— while at the same time, home video became the realm for subtle, talky films. Even if we agree with that version of events, I think it’s undeniable that, on the whole, the craft of filmmaking has gotten better, not worse.

But we should remember that the craft of filmmaking is, by definition, superficial. The aims of craft and technique are making something that looks and sounds good. Looks and sounds pleasing. Appreciating such beauty is only one part of the film-going experience. What a movie has to say, what its story makes us feel or think about— we should be open to the idea that a non-spectacle film can achieve greatness in these areas. Especially without resorting to the “look-at-how-subtle-my-story-is” lens of the mockumentary.

When I was in college, I was in a class with a kid who once went on a tirade against the exclamation point (you read that correctly). He believed it to be superfluous punctuation— because it was either redundant, and therefore unnecessary, or it was too forceful. Telling you how to read a sentence! Telling you to push! He said if a sentence needed an exclamation point to indicate how to read it, it should be re-written so it doesn’t need the exclamation point to begin with.

I think he was being a little too forceful himself— and soooo 19 years-old— but if I apply his logic inversely to the mockumentary form, I think there’s something to it.

Because for Hollywood, the mockumentary is becoming the anti-exclamation point. The way for studios to tell us to think of this as a home movie that just maybe, mmmmaaaybe if we look close enough, might contain a story… boo!

But if a movie’s story is already a big spectacle (like, say, a group of kids who get superpowers), then does it need to be a mockumentary? Why not simply make a good-looking movie with a full-fledged story? Or, if it needs the mockumentary form, then I think filmmakers face a tough question: are they using the form in order to rescue an otherwise impoverished narrative?

Spinal Tap

Courtesy of MGM

I’ll take a stand to say that none of the recent mockumentaries, despite their innovations in approach, tone, or structure, have really been able to beat Spinal Tap (Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts is a close second). Of course, Spinal Tap had the benefit of being one of the first, but I also think it is an example of a perfect marriage of subject and form.

Which is something that Spinal Tap alum Christopher Guest has always been careful to do: select a subject matter that involves a certain level of spectacle already— a folk concert, a dog show, a local theater production— something that a documentary crew would conceivably cover, that is entertaining to watch in itself. Importantly, however, such subjects evolve from character, not external action (i.e., there’s no disease wiping out humanity). By placing the demands of spectacle outside of the story, but still tying them to the personalities on screen, the idiosyncrasies of setting and character become primary.

In other words, just because mockumentaries can “go to 11,” we probably don’t need to turn them up that high.

Hypnotized by the cost and convenience of the form, I’m afraid Hollywood— and in response, audiences — are forgetting that an emphasis on setting and character is precisely the point of the mockumentary.

It is, in fact, the only point.

(Let me try that again.)

It’s the only point!

Originally posted on Huffington Post

5 Rules of Casting For The Indie Filmmaker

By Rider Strong

As an actor-turned-filmmaker, I’m often mystified by how fellow directors think about actors. I know one director who considers Clint Eastwood the greatest actor of all time. I think my friend is insane. Sure, Clint’s got amazing presence, but acting?

          

                                      Rider Strong/Credit: Tribeca Film

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10 Top Future of Film Posts for 2011

Posted by Chris Dorr

We had a lot of great posts in 2011. Our many contributors covered the multiple ways that film is being transformed as the Internet completely reshapes our media environment.

They detailed how innovative filmmakers are taking the reins of social media and altering the fundamental relationship between the creator and the audience. Others made the case that movie theaters should transform themselves so they remain places where we can experience grand stories on the silver screen. Some pointed to the emergence of new story telling techniques and narrative forms that multiple screens and technology now enable. One recent post showed how Twitterhas become a main method of communication for the documentary community. The list goes on.

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One Thing is Certain: Everything is Changing

By Geoffrey Gilmore 

Over the last several weeks I’ve had the opportunity to be a participant on several panels and roundtables focusing primarily on the subject of the future of film, particularly on innovations in distribution and how to reach the marketplace.

Geoffrey+Gilmore

Firstly, at this past Toronto Film Festival, a panel discussion with such industry heavyweights as Todd Wagner, (co-owner of Magnolia), Chris McGurk (ex-head of MGM and current CEO of Cinedign), and John Fithian (head of the National Association of Theater Owners) where the debate centered on the status quo of traditional theatrical exhibition vs. new strategies.  Then, the following week there was a special Independent Film Project panel where I discussed the future of film festivals, distribution, and exhibition with the Sundance Institute’s Keri Putnam and The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rose Kuo.

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Who Are Today’s Curators? And Where The Hell Are The Rest Of Them?!!

By Ted Hope

In this Age Of SuperAbundance, one of the things we need more than anything is trusted filters. How do we prioritize what to watch? How to discover new work? How do we escape our echo chambers to be reminded of how expansive our taste really is?

Ted+Hope%3A+Where+Are+All+the+Curators%3F

We need folks whom we trust to lead us to where we would not go on our own. Ideally, these people will do more than just lead us to good work; they will expand our mind, and widen our social circles. But where are they?

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Our Obligation To Share

By Ted Hope

There is no denying that the Indie Film World has changed. In many ways, “independence” is a true option now—in every step of the process. Yet, we certainly have a long way to go in achieving that dream.


Our+Obligation+to+Share
We all strive for quality, funding, access, distribution, marketing in creating our films and reaching audiences with them. These aspects all keep getting better. We have been finding answers—incredibly great solutions—regularly as of late. But let’s be honest here: we want more and we need it fast. Despite the improvements, the increase in participants and the fracturing of the marketplace (two great occurrences, in my opinion) unfortunately also make it harder to earn a living or sustain a community than ever before. We have to do something about it.

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The Film Industry Must Risk Its Present to Find Its Future

By Billy Goldberg

Big news was made halfway through the 2011 edition of CinemaCon, the annual trade-show sponsored by the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). After months of speculation, Warner Bros, Sony, Universal, and Fox announced they would be the first studios to offer selected films on video on demand (VOD) 60 days after their release in theaters. This model effectively shortens the theatrical window, which is traditionally at least 90 days. At the end of April, DirecTV became the first television service to allow customers to view newly released films in the comfort of their own homes for $30 a-piece for 24 hours. Comcast and other companies are expected to follow suit. 

The+Film+Industry+Must+Risk+Its+Present+to+Find+Its+Future
The announcement hasn’t been met with enthusiasm. At CinemaCon to support the release of the Warner Bros’ film The Hangover Part II, director Todd Phillips told the crowd, “If I had wanted to make movies for television, I would have been a TV director.” Cinemark Holdings’ CEO Alan Stock echoed this sentiment last month when, as quoted in The Hollywood Reporter, he said: “We’re not there to display and show made-for-TV movies. So, if you are making a made-for-TV movie, then take it to the TV.”

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