Distributing Remarkable Films in a Changing Environment: Some Observations from an Avid (and Frustrated) Viewer (by Karen Heller Key)

In recent times, my sister Amy Heller and I — yes, the remarkable Amy of this wonderful company, Milestone — have had many conversations about the changing realities of film distribution, shaped by the increasing dominance of digital platforms, the impact of these platforms on the business models through which distribution can be sustainable and even marginally profitable — and now, of course, the devastating impact of COVID-19.  In every conversation I’m speaking from the point of view of a film lover, viewer and customer, and we explore the changing landscape by talking across our different vantage points. I learn a lot from Amy — about film distribution and many, many other topics.

In a recent discussion, I was voicing my frustration about not being able to access new films I’m interested in and want to pay to view from home, as my household is severely restricted because of extremely high risk for COVID-19 complications. As Amy has heard me say, I often learn of films as I read about and explore a range of topics I care about, and then look for ways to see new films that can open up and deepen my thinking, take me inside other perspectives and lived experiences, and enrich my life. I hasten to say that I’m inalterably opposed to finding ways to bypass payment.  I want to pay to view films, because I understand that filmmaking and film distribution are costly, and films that are outside the mainstream urgently require support to be able to reach audiences.  I also am very keenly aware of what the notion of “free” has cost us in recent years —  as is so often said in references to “social media” (which I would argue is actually antisocial and not in fact media in the sense of journalism) — that is, when a service is free, you are the product.
In recent days I’ve been looking at new films being released by BIPOC filmmakers and finding quite a few I’d very much like to watch. Frustratingly, they are currently in distribution only via film festivals, and those film festivals are geo-blocked, making it impossible for me to pay to watch a festival screening. While I understand in principle why geo-blocking is used, in the current environment where most people would not physically go to a festival even if it were nearby, and in which many people like myself and my husband can only see films via streaming, the model seems ill-suited to the times. Even if geo-blocked festival viewing somehow makes sense, wouldn’t it also make sense to allow paid streaming of these films by those of us who are not within the geographic area of any upcoming festivals at which a film will be shown?
My husband I stream films via our beloved local nonprofit theater, the Avalon, but those choices are limited and don’t include the films I’m hoping to see now. As an avid film viewer and reader, my circle of friends and family expects to get recommendations from me — I am a bit of a self-appointed curator, and choose my recommendations carefully, but would love to not only be able to see some of these new films but also to encourage others to watch them.  Yet I can’t.

To give just one example, I am eager to see a new documentary called Coded Bias, about the way racial and gender and other biases are built in to the design of the technology we use, from facial recognition software that fails to recognize African American faces as faces, to TSA high tech screening that scans bodies based on a gender binary that makes all trans people suspect.  After trying to view the film while it was screening at the Virginia Film Festival (I’m in DC) and being geo-blocked, and chatting and emailing to try to see if I could be allowed to see the film, I ended up finding a talk given by the thinker and activist featured in the film, Joy Buolamwini, and shared that with friends I knew would want to know about her work.  I, then, missed the opportunity to see the film and to recommend it to others (I did join her NGO, though, because I was so blown away by her). 


My sister and brother-in-law understand the film distribution business and I do not, but when she offered me the opportunity to write something about this to her e-newsletter audience I thought I’d take her up on it. What I'm asking, in essence, is are there ways for film distributors and also those who book and show films to make it easier for those of us who want to pay for viewing and promote wonderful, lesser-known films?

When it comes to the world of journalism, devastated by environmental changes and the role of the digital platforms, I am now seeking out opportunities to pay for SubStack e-newsletter subscriptions that provide me access to the writers and thinkers I most deeply respect. These writers are using a paid subscription model to see whether it can help support their work in addition to what they end up publishing in the NY Times, or the New Yorker, or the Atlantic, with all the tradeoffs involved in writing for that kind of outlet.

Are there ways for viewers like me to be able to co-create with you new ways to bridge the barriers between distributors and venues who want audience members and audience members who want to watch challenging, beautiful, exciting new films?  I don’t presume to know the answer but appreciate the opportunity to ask the question.