Decentralized Hollywood? Good luck with that

Roman Coppola’s Decentralized Pictures made headlines when the American film director Steven Soderbergh announced he was jumping on board with a $300,000 fund. Is this the start of a decentralized movement to break the Hollywood machine?

A few days ago, Soderbergh’s production company Extension 765 announced it was launching the Andrews/Bernard Award to support up-and-coming filmmakers who struggle to make ends meet as they finalize fiction features and shorts.

Capped at $300,000, the funds will be distributed among multiple recipients in cooperation with Decentralized Pictures (DCP), a non-profit co-founded by Roman Coppola to support independent filmmakers using a blockchain protocol. Filmmakers can submit their proposals via the DCP platform, and the DCP community, known as T4L3NT, will review the submissions. The selection process is open to everyone.

Announcing his decision to partner with Coppola, Soderbergh stressed that the goal of the Andrews/Bernard Award was to help filmmakers finish projects that have “exhibited a highly valuable skill set,” but need “a little help getting across the finish line.” In other words, the award is not meant to fund half-baked ideas, but rather support those who already have “something MADE on their own.”

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Soderbergh is best known for his Ocean’s trilogy starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Julia Roberts. He also received three Best Director Academy Award® nominations, and won once, for Traffic, in 2001. (To be fair, he couldn’t have won all three times anyway, because in 2001, he had two nominations, one for Traffic and one for Erin Brockovich.)

How decentralized are Decentralized Pictures?

Enough about Sorderbergh. Let’s talk about Coppola.

Son of Francis Ford and brother of Sofia, Roman Coppola belongs to a dynasty of filmmakers whose influence is difficult to overstate. Roman’s career started in the 1990s with a production company specializing in music videos. Back in the day, he made clips for Daft Punk, Moby, Green Day, The Strokes, and Fatboy Slim. He later directed CQ and A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, and co-wrote the stories for Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and The French Dispatch.

Perhaps more than anything else, Coppola is a producer, and so the DCP is at its core a production company. It connects underrepresented filmmakers with fans, creatives, and industry professionals through a blockchain-based community that earns FILMCredits for reviewing submissions. Those who provide accurate and quality reviews are rewarded with a high reputation score, which can influence the weight of their votes, and those who win enough support receive funding to bring their ideas to fruition.

The DCP is primarily a “democratic film fund” geared towards struggling artists, but successful candidates can also get help from industry mentors as they deal with creative hurdles and distribution headaches. Apart from the core activities, the DCP is active on multiple crypto fronts, minting NFTs and developing its own Tezos-based blockchain to launch more decentralized art projects, including one that bears the enigmatic name of “a virtual studio.”

Decentralized Pictures isn’t the only crypto project focused on filmmaking. There’s A-NATION, MovieCoin, FilmCoin, Mogul Productions. Crypto-powered art crowdfunding is nothing new. But the name Coppola strikes a special chord, doesn’t it?

Fair warning for those who’ve made it this far: if you want to leave this page feeling good about the future of decentralized filmmaking, skip to the last paragraph.

Decentralizing movies won't be easy

So, the great Francis Ford Coppola’s son wants to decentralize the film industry. So, an Academy Award® winner donated $300,000 to independent filmmakers. It all sounds lovely, but is it really that much of a deal?

Fantastic Beasts 3 alone had a budget of $200 million. Even semi-independent films cost otherworldly sums to make, mostly because major actors request dizzying salaries. Don’t Look Up, the apocalyptic climate crisis metaphor starring the vocal climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio, cost $110 million, with $30 million going to Leo himself. Knives Out gulped $40 million, a modest budget for a film starring the current James Bond.

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The hard truth is that no matter how generous independent funds are, it’s unlikely they’ll ever threaten the Hollywood establishment. People like Roman Coppola or Steven Soderbergh are simply no match for the film industry.

And yes, I am taking into account the fact that they’re not alone. Who wouldn’t want to let some fresh air into the greedy Hollywood studios, where even semi-independent creators pretty much don’t exist, franchises are milked to the last drop with mediocre reboots, and everything from uncomplicated romance to sarcastic capitalism satire is commodified with the same ruthless ease?

And yet the advocates of film industry decentralization are still lone wolves, whether or not they dig crypto.

Hope is not lost, though, because Hollywood is fighting another, much stronger enemy: streaming. After decades of symbiosis between the box office and the TV screen, a symbiosis that benefited both sides, streaming services emerged as a threat to both. Companies like Netflix, HBO, or Hulu are not afraid to spend millions to produce a show or movie, and more and more people are ditching the big screen for the comfort of their sofas. The Covid-19 pandemic may have been the breaking point, putting the weaknesses of traditional cinema on display and fueling “Netflix and chill” beyond all expectations.

This columnist has been following blockchain-powered art projects for a while now, and I can tell you challenging the centralized dominance of Hollywood is one of the most ambitious goals I’ve seen, but if mainstream cinema ends up capitulating to streaming platforms, its ruins could make the future of decentralized filmmaking, with its strong communities and its democratized funding process, a little brighter.

Let’s hope we, meaning the world, Roman Coppola, and myself, live to see it.