“The making of laws is like the making of sausages—the less you know about the process the more you respect the result.” That’s a famous quote often attributed to Otto Von Bismarck, but more likely uttered by a member of the Illinois legislature in 1898. Either way, it might as well be attributed to the film industry as well. No matter how much you like that slow art house jam with all the actors you’ve never heard of, chances are you wouldn’t want to see what they went through to get it on a screen in front of you.
Rao graduated from New York University’s prestigious film program in 2010, and moved back to his hometown in 2011. Since then he’s been steadily making independent films, working in real estate, and trying to save the independent film financing model. It’s a tall order for the Crescent Valley High alum.
“Independent film is at a weird economic place right now…” he says contemplatively as he sips on a lemonade in Squirrel’s tavern on a warm June evening.
He’s talking about the founding of his company, Simple Machine, and the future of film distribution. Simple Machine can be most easily described as Airbnb for movies. People sign up to host screenings and fill out a profile including how many people they can host, what kind of TV/screen they have, what kind of refreshments (if any) they want to serve, etc. Then they can choose from an array of partnered films from the Simple Machine website and contact the filmmakers to say, “Hey, I wanna show your movie at my house, you down?”
Turns out there is a sea of cinema artists who are down for the adventure.
The idea first came to Rao at the 2011 Maryland Film Festival in a “talking tent” where filmmakers and festival attendees had an open discussion. Many of the independent filmmakers were lamenting the hardships of getting their movies in front of people.
Under the current system, there are basically two ways a movie makes it to screen. Either the studios make it from scratch, including all the product placement, cheesy endings, and lack of challenging material that entails, or a finished product hits the festival markets, where a distributor picks up a film property and then gets it into a number of theaters for regular screening.
“One night would go really well, then the rest of the week would be dead,” says Rao of some independent features in the current system. ”The movies I show are, generally, critically well received but no one sees them. Where’s the disconnect?”
The answer is the distributor. The distributors are a business trying to make money, just like the studios. In a sense, the “independent film” you see in the average art house movie theater is every bit as calculated for profit as Transformers 4 will be. If the distributor doesn’t think the movie will draw a crowd, it won’t see the light of day.
Bringing film directly to the people is the only way to unlock the potential of our creativity. That’s why Rao loves the comparison with Airbnb, the wildly popular Internet site that matches tourists with people willing to host them.
“People can be more creative than hotels can ever be,” he says with a smile.
That’s exactly what he’s looking for with Simple Machine. Want to have 40 people in your backyard for a barbeque and group of short films? Do it. Want to make a three-course dinner and have five people over for an intimate movie and discussion with a challenging avant-garde documentary? Why not!
There’s even monetization for everyone. If you want to show the film for free and the filmmaker agrees, you can go that route. Or you can come to an agreed-upon cover charge and split the profits with the filmmakers, and go that way instead.
The ambitious project launched officially earlier this year at the South by Southwest festival.
“I don’t think it’s going to make independent film viable,” he says, acknowledging the juggernaut of the standard film market. But he’s okay with that.
For now, he just hopes sausage making will become less disgusting.
You can sign up to join the revolution at https://beta.smplmchn.com/ or attend one of Nandan Rao’s Simple Machine screenings, the New American Film Series, every other Monday at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Corvallis (www.newamericanfilmseries.com).
By Ygal Kaufman