December 1, 2000

'Home' on the Web: The Tale of an Digital Distribution Pioneer

Editor’s note—It seems so many moons ago—but it was only last year—when filmmaker Doug Block took that one giant leap for filmkind and launched his doc Home Page on the Web as well as in the theaters. He reflects on the experience here.

Home Page has been acclaimed as a groundbreaking landmark movie, but, truth be told, that's the last thing I set out for it to be. When it first premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, all I wanted was what every filmmaker dreams about—a fat distribution deal.

Sure, I knew there were elements that were, well, different. The film is a first-person doc that follows the fortunes of several pioneering online diarists during the early, giddy days of the web. Shortly into the shooting, I started keeping my own online diary, www.d-word.com, which chronicled the process of making the film, but inevitably grew alarmingly personal. It was 1996, and filmmakers just weren't doing that yet.

My Web site started getting a good deal of traffic and attention, and certainly influenced the film to take a more personal direction. By the time the film was finished, I realized it would, in a sense, never really be finished, because it was merely the opening chapter of a much richer, non-linear narrative involving all of the film’s characters that continues to play out on the Web.

I knew I was in trouble after the first Sundance screening when I found myself describing Home Page as an "interactive multimedia experience," rather than just a movie, then looked up to find a horrifying number of glazed eyeballs and open mouths. I knew I was in real trouble when I checked out the Web site of the only theatrical distributor to show serious interest and found it hadn't been updated in well over a year.

Home Page had a couple of other commercial strikes against it, as well. First, it's a documentary—the dreaded d-word—and there's only room for maybe one or two of those a year to succeed in the marketplace. Second, it had HBO funding, which meant it had to premiere on TV before it could go out theatrically—a huge, though not insurmountable obstacle. Finally, in the year that digital video became all the rage, I'd made a film in good ol' Hi-8 (though shot with my ten digits, I'd constantly remind everyone). It couldn't even ride the wave of DV hype.

On the other hand, some enlightened e-media folks were beginning to call the interactivity between the film and the Web “revolutionary”. Well, so be it. Co-producer, Esther Robinson, and I blew off the distribution offer and put our faith in the Web as a means for somehow getting the film out there. It was a wonderfully liberating decision. Rather than having Home Page's uniqueness to be a negative, we simply embraced it. Rather than seeing our month-long HBO Signature airings last July as an obstacle, we saw it as a chance to gather press attention, positive reviews and, if possible, gobs of sponsorship money from a large dot commie or two.

It was no longer a matter of breaking the rules. The combination of film and the Web Internet was so new, there were no rules to break.

E-commerce was just hitting its stride and streaming video, while it looked fairly horrendous, was beginning to be taken seriously as a showcase for filmmakers. Why not combine a high profile streaming of Home Page, I we thought, and link viewers to where the video could be bought easily and inexpensively? The Webcast would attract viewers, and its poor quality would actually work in its favor by driving them to the video. It was essentially the bookstore model: give people enough time to browse and check out the product and hopefully they'll want to buy it.

Being a pioneer wasn't easy, by any means. Rounds of arduous negotiations with numerous high tech companies kept us on a madcap rollercoaster ride. Everyone loved what we were doing and loved the value of a tie-in to an HBO broadcast, but then promises of serious funding would get pulled mysteriously at the last moment. Both Amazon and Reel.com wanted to be proud sponsors and exclusive video retailers, then changed business plans on a dime. About.com got a new marketing head the very day of our meeting to close the deal, and suddenly Home Page no longer fit their brand image. The CEO of Tripod got cold feet as the lab was literally splicing his Executive Producer credit into our festival film prints. In the end, we couldn't pull our e-commerce initiative together in time for the broadcast, and it became all too depressingly clear that we were going to have to do everything on a shoestring.

At that point, the irreplaceable Esther, who had stayed on a year beyond my ability to pay her, left for greener pastures (the Creative Capital Foundation). No, Web distribution wasn’t so damn appealing to me last that summer.

Luckily, a couple of happier circumstances finally came together. Ever since Sundance, a scrappy streaming start-up called iFilm had been pestering me with e-mails, which I consistently ignored. Suddenly, everywhere I looked I was reading about deals they were making. They didn't have much of an audience, but they sure were developing an industry profile.

At the same time, Ed Arentz, who runs the Cinema Village theater in Manhattan, offered to give Home Page a two-week run. I told him I was only interested if we could begin streaming the film on iFilm, and as well as sell the home video off the Web, the week BEFORE the run started. We'd then be the first feature ever to be released on the Internet in its entirety before its theatrical release. I didn't have the money to open in New York. But if we were making history, at least we'd have a way to promote it.

iFilm, at the time, was pretty much streaming any ol' thing filmmakers sent to them. They were thrilled to have a theatrical film lending legitimacy to their site and agreed to pay for the cost of a publicist for the opening.

The last piece in the puzzle was solved when BigStar.com came aboard as the exclusive video retailer. As with iFilm, the exclusivity would last only a month, at which time I was free to make any other deals I wanted. Along with iFilm and Nerve, BigStar sponsored a premiere party, attended by over a thousand people, which took on a life of its own and threatened to overwhelm the actual distribution effort. But with no advertising budget, this is how dot-coms spread the word: e-mails and parties. Meanwhile, I worked on getting my own mass e-mails out to the more than 5,000 people who had personally e-mailed me during the making of the film.

With three distribution efforts—and sometimes three competing interests— converging all at once, things got pretty hairy. But when Roger Ebert, an early champion, featured Home Page as the Video Pick of the Week on his national television show, calling it a groundbreaking film and mentioning iFilm, BigStar and the theatrical opening, well, guess what? Everyone was ecstatic.

I was exhausted. After the film opened, I just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for six months. Esther continually reminded me that I needed to move on with my life. And for the most part I have. Over the past year, I've been shooting and co-producing an extraordinary ITVS-funded documentary, more than ten years in the making, by first-time filmmaker Jennifer Dworkin, about the struggles of an inner city family in Brooklyn. I've been working on a documentary about the thirty-year aftermath of Attica for Lumiere Productions. I've developed a convergence project with Nerve.com. And I've shifted the focus of my website from inward to outward by co-founding and hosting The D-Word Community, an online discussion area for documentary filmmakers and professionals worldwide. Last July, Home Page was the premiere presentation of the Independent Film Channel’s broadcast and broadband initiative, DV Theater. And now bringing Home Page to DV Theater gives me a really satisfying feeling. Seeing it given a state-of-the-art broadband release was a particularly satisfying feeling. Anything that cuts the distance down between audiences seeing the film and navigating the websites of the characters in the film is the ideal. The visual quality of broadband isn't where we'd all like it to be, but it's getting there. Hopefully, when that time comes, the backbreaking work that went into getting Home Page recognized as a groundbreaking film will truly pay off. when that time comes.

If nothing else, I hope it's seen as capturing for posterity that fleeting moment of time in the Internet's early history when the playing field was level, and individuals explored the medium in the spirit of fun and experimentation rather than profit.

Everyone says those days are over. Personally, I plan on continuing to experiment and have fun.

Originally published in ifcRANT.com, an IFC publication, September/October 2000. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher. Copyright 2000 Bravo Company. All rights reserved.

 

Doug Block is an AIVF board member and an IDA member. As a producer, director and cameraman, his extensive documentary credits include: The Heck With Hollywood!,Silverlake Life, Jupiter's Wife, A Perfect Candidate and Home Page. He is currently supervising a supervising producer of The D-Word Community's first collaborative film project, a collection of short video essays about documentary filmmaking. If you're interested in contributing, or joining The D-Word Community, visit: www.dword.com/invite.html.

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