By Lucas Shaw
NEW YORK (TheWrap.com) - Are filmmakers vain for wanting theatrical distribution? At a Wrap panel at the Sundance FIlm Festival on Monday, filmmaker Lynn Shelton and other indie veterans crossed swords with digital distribution executives in a debate about the future of independent film and how it can find profitability.
"I'm a sucker for the theatrical experience," said Shelton, whose "Touchy Feely" premiered in competition on Saturday. "I understand less and less people are watching films in theaters, but all the films I've made have been for a theatrical release. I'm thinking of them being on the big screen."
Shelton joined a panel of six indie experts at TheWrap's panel Monday on "How to Make and Sell Your Independent Film in the Digital Age," co-hosted with UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television.
Chris Williams, chief development officer at Maker Studios, responded that the idea of the theatrical experience is "a lot of vanity."
"You can distribute across myriad platforms, self-distribute and raise financing through digital," Williams said. "In a large way, a theatrical release is about a director who must see it on that big screen."
Rick Rosenthal, a veteran director and producer and founder of Whitewater Films, took exception to that. "I really disagree," Rosenthal said. "Film was the outgrowth of theater, which was a tradition of gathering a community, telling a story and experiencing it as a group. As our society becomes more and more wired, we think we're being wired together, and in fact we're being wired apart."
The debate has been playing out throughout the festival with several veteran producers and filmmakers, including Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of "Toy's House," telling TheWrap that they are adamant about making their movies for the theater.
While filmmakers are still resistant to embrace this new world, they have acknowledged some benefits of the changes.
Williams works for Maker, a company founded as the result of frustration with Hollywood, which cuts out the studio middleman and democratizes the production and release of videos. It now operates one of the most expansive networks on YouTube, and Williams provoked a strong reaction from some on the panel, which included Rosenthal; Scilla Andreen, CEO of Indieflix; Jonathan Dana, an independent producer and financier; and Duncan Cork, CEO of Slated.
The panel was co-hosted by UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, and was moderated by TheWrap founder and CEO Sharon Waxman.
"I'm grateful for Netflix streaming. Way more people have seen ‘Humpday' because of that," Shelton said, referring to her 2009 film starring Mark Duplass.
Still, she cautioned that watching a movie on your phone or computer only suits a certain type of movie. "'Lawrence of Arabia,' wouldn't work," she said.
The digital executives at TheWrap's panel argued that because the younger generation has taken to watching videos at home on TVs, tablets and phone, filmmakers must accept watching almost any video there.
"Audiences grow up," said Cork, who co-founded Slated. "The guys going to Maker's page are getting older."
"It doesn't mean there's less of an opportunity to tell great stories," Williams added.
Regardless of where the movies appear, their future comes down to the same question - how do you make enough money to do it again?
Williams insisted that Distribution companies like Netflix, Amazon and IndieFlix and new financing companies like Slated and Kickstarter are helping more people see more movies -- by offering alternatives to seeing films in theaters - a supposed boon for independent filmmakers.
Andreen's business model is a new one, using a revenue-per-minute model to pay independent filmmakers for being part of the IndieFlix library. Subscribers pay a monthly fee.