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cinema-i: DVD for Art's Sake
Posted Apr 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Smalltime filmmakers with independent films long on artistry and short on financial backing often seem to get swept away by the tidal wave that is Hollywood. And even with a warm reception at film festivals like Sundance—which for all the attention it draws would seem to be a sure-fire road to the big-time—there seems to be no room for the independent film artist in the movie business. "Your film can get great reviews at Sundance and still get no distribution," says Michael Jacobs.

That's why Jacobs says he founded cinema-i, an independent DVD outlet that aims to rectify this problem and to tap the "untapped pool of independent features" that languish each year. cinema-i.com is an online retail site that showcases obscure independent, foreign and documentary DVDs, alongside traditional art house hits. It is an online store—a virtual Blockbuster for the non-blockbuster film.

Jacobs believes cinema-i can do for the film business what online self-publishing has done for the print world: diversify it and create some wiggle room for the independent artists whose fare is creative, artistic, and otherwise out of the mainstream.

"Filmmaking today is at a stage where music making was five years ago and print publishing was in the late eighties," Jacobs observes. "Self-publishing has become a legitimate road for independent musicians to break into the business. Self-published books have become bestsellers, and major publishers frequently purchase the right to re-publish self-published works. We want to help launch similar opportunities for filmmakers."

Jacobs has been involved in the Los Angeles-area movie business for about 12 years and has screenwriting credits on three feature films. He began mixing the film world with the online world in 1995 when he worked for America Online as a senior producer for AOL's promotional movie site and was responsible for creating AOL's "first animated comic strip," he says. The idea for cinema-i has been percolating in his brain for the past few years.

What browsers find on the virtual shelves of the cinema-i store are films in four major categories: American, Foreign, Animation, and Documentary. Most of the films are feature length. Jacobs says he's chosen not to stock short films because he feels that category is already well served by many other Web sites such as Atom Films and IFILMS.

On cinema-i.com, you'll find such non-commercial fare as The Acid House, described as a "surreal triptych" by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, and Little Otik, a surreal film based on a Czech legend about a tree root whittled into the shape of a baby (a sort of macabre Pinocchio). Then there's some edgy urban American stuff like Bellyfruit, a drama about teenage Los Angelino mothers that features a "hip hop, R&B, funk, and techno-rave soundtrack." Documentaries include The Saltmen of Tibet and Modern Tribalism, which is described as "a journey into America's primitive soul."

cinema-i is a DVD-only store; it does not sell films on VHS, VideoCD, or anything other than DVD. "My original idea when I started cinema-i was that technology could be used not just to shoot and edit films, but also to distribute them more effectively. I wanted to use DVD to open up a new distribution window," says Jacobs. Besides, there was no realistic alternative: "I didn't see a great future for VHS, noticed that most feature film sales are going to DVD, and figured that the penetration of DVD players, though still not equal to VCRs, was close enough," says Jacobs.

Engaging the online filmmaking community, the cinema-i store will also provide resources to filmmakers to make self-distribution easier and more professional. cinema-i will work with filmmakers to create professional-quality DVDs and packaging. Plans are underway to offer filmmakers access to graphic artists at reasonable rates. The site has negotiated with vendors to provide reasonable packaging, DVD authoring, and duplication services as well.

Jacobs says that while most filmmakers are DVD-savvy, many of them have no direct hands-on experience with the medium. Also, he sees a lot of confusion currently surrounding DVD, thanks to ongoing issues with incompatible recordable DVD standards. "Just getting a DVD disc to play in your PC isn't good enough," says Jacobs. "You need it to play in every player all over the world."

Jacobs believes that packaging is a major key to the successful sale of DVD movies. "As with books, people judge movies by their covers," he says. "We want our packages to be indistinguishable from the professional packages that the major studios produce."

Again, Jacobs compares the cinema-i approach to print publishing. "The trend in desktop publishing has been to self-publish limited-run, but professional-looking books for eventual submission to editor or publishers," he says. "And writers have had much better success submitting a real, professional-looking book with a few quotes on the back cover than submitting a typewritten manuscript. They are too easy to dismiss. We think the same thing is true for a DVD movie—the look is important to the sale. You can't submit something that looks like a bootleg CD."

Jacobs says his marketing strategy is "two-pronged," aimed at both consumers (via the cinema-i online DVD store) as well as at studio executives/ distributors. He aims to get the attention of the major studios in the hope that they will discover great unsung independent films on his Web site, buy the rights to them, and put their marketing muscle behind them. He claims that though he hopes to make money with cinema-i, the profit motive is not the only thing driving him. "I'm not really looking at maximizing profits, but at developing a small but sympathetic community to support independent filmmakers."

Another benefit to filmmakers who choose to sell their films through cinema-i is that they do not have to surrender any rights. "We are a store," says Jacobs. "We just want to be that store where you can get films you read about in festival reports. The more we can help to bring filmmakers together with their potential fans inside and outside the industry, the more we will succeed."

Filmmakers wishing to sell their films at cinema-i can visit the site for submission information at www.cinema-i.com.

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