Self financed Film Distribution in the Context of European Territories

Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.Last May, TFC released the second book in our series called Selling Your Film Outside the US. As with everything in the digital space, we are trying to keep track of a moving target. Netflix has now launched in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. iTunes continues its transactional VOD domination by partnering with Middle East film distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment to give Arabic and Bollywood films a chance to have simultaneous releases in eight countries: UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait. Amazon has just launched several new original series in the US and UK, including critical darling Transparent, to a line up that includes returning series Alpha House and Betas.

But what does DIY Distribution mean in the context of European territories? The following is an excerpt included in the book:

Here are a few tips for any filmmaker who is thinking about doing digital distribution in general, but especially in multiple territories:

-If your film is showing at an international film festival, ask if they are producing subtitles, and, if so, negotiate that the produced file be part of your festival fee. It may need to be proofed again or adjusted at a subtitling and transcription lab later on, but as a first pass it could prove very valuable down the road. See more about the kind of file you need in this post;

-When you are producing your master, create a textless version of your feature. Apple and probably other platforms will not allow external subtitles on any films that already have burn-ins. If your film, for example, has a few non-English lines of dialogue, instead of burning-in English subtitles into your film, a better method would be to create an external English-language subtitle file (separate from closed captioning) in a proper format and submit it with your master. Different aggregators may require different formats, and if you are going to a Captioning/Transcription/Translation Lab to do your closed captioning and subtitling work, be smart about which questions you ask and negotiate a price for everything, including transcoding from one format to another because you may not know exactly what you will need for all your deals right away.

Subtitles need to be timed to masters, so make sure your time code is consistent. When choosing a lab, ascertain whether they are capable of fulfilling all your current and future closed captioning and subtitling needs by verifying that they can output in the major formats, including (but not limited to) SubRip (.srt), SubViewer 1 & 2 (.sub), SubStation Alpha (.ssa/.ass), Spruce (.stl), Scenarist (.scc) and iTunes Timed Text (.itt);

-You may want to band together with films that are similar in theme or audience and shop your products around as bundled packages. Many digital services, including cable VOD, have thematic channels and your bundle of films may be more attractive as a package rather than just one film;

-Put the time in toward building your brand and your fanbase. Marketing still is the missing piece of the puzzle here. As it gets easier and easier to get onto platforms, so too does it get more difficult for audiences to find the films that are perfectly suited to their interests. This is especially true when talking about marketing one’s film outside one’s home territory. If you are accessing platforms for your film on your own, YOU are the distributor and the responsibility of marketing the film falls entirely to you.

To download a FREE copy of the entire book, complete with case studies of films distributed in Europe, visit sellingyourfilm.com.

Battle for festival supremacy-TIFF vs Sundance

A knockout victory

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is just behind us and films submitted for Sundance are a month away from their acceptance call. While the difference between Toronto/Sundance and SXSW/Tribeca is pretty clear, what separates Toronto from Sundance might surprise you.

I looked at the data from the last two year’s of each festival and came up with one big conclusion. Sundance is the bigger festival for North American distribution on just about every measurable level I could come up with.

How could this be? Toronto is the more mainstream fest, right? Not so much.

Let’s start with some comparative info that would clearly skew things in Toronto’s favor:

-62.5% of films from TIFF 2013 have US distribution

-81.3% of films from SUNDANCE 2014 have US distribution (and remember this was accomplished in 9 months compared to TIFF’s 13 months)

But what about the box office performance?

Sundance has a higher percentage of films that grossed over $1 Million, $500,000, and $100,000 than TIFF. This is including non world premiere films which would give TIFF an advantage.

But what about the size of the deals? Isn’t TIFF where the big money is? Hardly

11 films from TIFF 2014 generated 7 figure deals, 11 films from TIFF 2013 did the same. The difference is TIFF screens 2.5x as many films. Even eliminating the # of films with US distribution before TIFF started and cutting out foreign language films, producers were still twice as likely to get a seven figure deal at Sundance.

tiff vs sundance

The Documentary King

TIFF is a much more diverse slate, but sorely lacking in docs. Roughly 1/3 of Sundance films are documentaries, while only about 1/10 of TIFF films are. Even then, docs were more likely to get distribution out of Sundance than TIFF and by a very wide margin. 90% vs 52%. The majority of docs that made the Oscar shortlist came from Sundance, as have a majority of nominees in the last five years.

Foreign Language Problem

In contrast to their #1 status as a place to launch documentaries, Sundance’s World Cinema lineup is far from a sure bet.

While only 41% of Sundance 2014 World Dramatic films have US distribution, that percentage is still higher than foreign language films that screened at TIFF. The % is higher even if we include all foreign language films and not just world or international premieres at TIFF. So even in Sundance’s weakest area your odds are still better than at TIFF.

That all noted, TIFF receives some high profile foreign language films that will ultimately generate bigger deals and make a dent in the US box office, but those are few and far between in an already very unprofitable arena.

So What Does a TIFF Screening Mean? 

TIFF does two things that Sundance does not. It functions as a worldwide market and it is a frequent must for awards buzz films.

Sundance films do better on a domestic level. TIFF films are more likely to generate some form of worldwide interest and the majority of major worldwide players are in attendance.

Sundance has an international presence, but nothing on the same level of going into the Hyatt and taking the United Nations tour of film booths.

Sundance also doesn’t take studio films, which TIFF does. I would argue this is part of the problem TIFF films face. The competition for attention is so much higher with studio films in the mix that many simply get lost in the shuffle.

The DIY Mindset

In the age of DIY options at very low cost, one has to wonder why so many films at TIFF didn’t take advantage of Vimeo’s $10k offer in 2013. In fact, 55 world premieres still lack US distribution, which means with 100% certainty they turned down $10k to chase a pipe dream of success.The worldwide sales agent aspect at TIFF makes it a lot harder to discuss DIY options, but things are slowly starting to change.

This year was the first time multiple filmmakers were willing to openly discuss DIY options for release with me during the fest.

Sundance has their Artist Services program and some very notable DIY success stories (Detropia, Indie Game: The Movie, Upstream Color etc). But the biggest difference is Sundance is early in the year. There are tons of festivals left with which to build exposure going into release.

While it is almost always advisable to hit the festival circuit running, if one didn’t do that at Sundance, it’s easier to rev up the process than at TIFF when the year is nearly finished. If you don’t pursue additional festival screenings right away, your film would play TIFF and not screen anywhere until the following year. Remember there aren’t a lot of festivals in November/December. By that point people have moved onto Sundance and don’t even remember what they saw at TIFF.

The Take Away

Don’t buy into the hype about a festival without carefully looking at the info. While many Oscar winners have come from TIFF, the stats don’t lie. For domestic success, your odds are better with Sundance. This doesn’t make TIFF a bad festival, it’s easily the 2nd best launch pad in North America, but it’s important to know that your film is more likely to get a distribution deal out of Tribeca than TIFF if you have a documentary.

The consensus from this year’s TIFF was that there weren’t too many hidden gems, but with 288 features would any of us even know? At a certain point size is a liability and I think that TIFF needs to shrink its slate or get more creative when it comes to highlighting world premieres without big names.

Reminder: EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL & THE CIRCLE

The Spike Lee executive produced Evolution of a Criminal opens in NYC Friday October 10th at IFC Center. They are also crowdfunding to support their nationwide theatrical release. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/948417025/evolution-of-a-criminal-theatrical-release

In partnership with Wolfe Releasing, TFC Direct will be theatrically releasing Switzerland’s Oscar entry, The Circle. It opens November 21st in NYC and will be expanding through beginning of 2015.

 

DCP failure rate is extraordinarily high. Should you make one?

In two prior posts, I chronicled how rapid technological change was impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this was affecting filmmakers and their post-production and delivery choices. In January 2013, in a post called “The Independent’s Guide to Film Exhibition and Delivery” I discussed the rise of the DCP in independent exhibition, and the potential dangers it posed to filmmakers on a budget. And later that year, I posted “Digital Tape is Dead” in which I gave further evidence that it was possible to resist the rise of DCP…at least for the time being… and the reasons for doing so.

photo credit: Bradley Fortner via photopin cc

photo credit: Bradley Fortner via photopin cc

It’s a little over a year later, so I am returning to the topic to take stock of what a difference another year makes. And as always, the main goal of this exercise is to help you, as filmmakers, to make the best post and delivery choices in finishing and exhibiting your films.

Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services is booking our clients’ and members’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc.  Every year, this work hits a peak frenzy in October, which is unquestionably THE month of the year with the largest number of film festivals. By simply comparing our booking format totals from October 2013 to October 2014, I can see that once again the landscape of booking has evolved substantially in the last 12 months.

BOOKINGS IN OCTOBER 2013 (total 195 booking engagements):

BLURAY: 144

DVD: 25

DCP: 12

HDCAM: 10

Digibeta: 2

Quicktime File:  2

BOOKINGS IN OCTOBER 2014 (total 268 booking engagements)

BLURAY: 162

DCP: 84

DVD: 12

HDCAM: 6

Quicktime File: 4

Other than the fact that we are obviously a busy company (!), the main takeaway here is that the DCP’s slow and seemingly inevitable rise to the top is continuing, although the actual majority of venues (especially in the U.S.) are still trying to cut costs by the use of BluRay. In Europe, the DCP has already overtaken all other formats, and is nearly impossible to resist if you want to play in any reputable festivals or venues. And after DCP and BluRay, all other formats are now nearly dead worldwide, at least for now.

There are many reasons why this isn’t good news for independent filmmakers (which we’ll go into)…but the first and most obvious problem is that all of the filmmakers we work with are still making multiple HDCAMs! From the data above it is clear, STOP MAKING HDCAMS PEOPLE! I know many companies that have stopped producing them entirely, and are providing only on DCP, BluRay, and DVD.

Usually, an independent filmmaker’s first worry about DCPs is the initial price – indeed it is the most expensive exhibition format to make since the 35mm print. However, the good news is that it has already dropped in price quite a bit from 2013…now if you look around you are sure to be able to get an initial one made for $1,000 – $1,500 (compared to around $2,500 a year ago).

Now there is the really weird situation with the subsequent DCPs…and what you should pay to make additional copies. If you’ve seen DCPs, you’ll know that they often come in these elaborate and heavy “Pelican Cases” with a “Sled” hard drive with USB adaptors and power supplies. That’s the kind the studios use, and they will usually run you around $400 per additional DCP…which is expensive.

The strange thing is that every tech-savvy person I know tells me that this is all window-dressing, and that a regular “Office Depot style drive” USB 3 Drive for $100 serves exactly the same purpose and is actually a bit more reliable since it has less moving parts. Add to this the simple charge for copying the DCP (for which our lab charges only $50), and you’ve got subsequent DCPs at only $150 each…which of course is even cheaper than old tape-based formats like HDCAM and Digibeta.

If someone out there knows why one SHOULDN’T go with the more inexpensive option, I’m all ears. Call me, tweet us @filmcollab, leave a comment on our Facebook page! ‘Cause I haven’t heard it yet.

Of course, its still not a super-cheap $10 BluRay, but the truly annoying thing about the DCP and all its solid state technology and its fancy cases is that it is HEAVY, surpassing everything except old 35mm prints in weight. As a result, the cost of SHIPPING becomes a major issue for independents, and more than $100 every time you send since you obviously aren’t going to put your pristine file in regular mail.  If you’ve been booking and playing films for a long time, you’ll know that $100 in shipping is often the difference between a profitable screening a not-so-profitable one…and so the cost adds up quickly.

It’s truly the cost of shipping that makes me sad that the BluRay is doomed as a major exhibition format. At one point, when filmmakers and distributors made “P&A” assessments for their films, the biggest cost in the “P” analysis was the cost of shipping heavy prints. For a brief and shining moment….from like mid 2013 to mid 2014… the lightweight BluRays took that part of the “P” out of the equation entirely…and that sure was nice.

But the (dirty and secret) truth is that COST isn’t the main problem with DCP. It is the RELIABILITY of the format. The horrible fact is that DCP is the most unreliable format in terms of playability that we have ever had….bar none that I can think of. BluRays used to have the reputation for failing often, but they were easy to include a back-up copy with, and they have drastically improved in the last two years such that they almost never fail. DCPs, however, now fail ALL THE TIME, at an alarming rate, and for an alarming number of reasons.

Rather than go into the deep tech-geek reason for DCP failures in venues all over the world…I am going to copy a few recent emails from labs, festivals, and venues I have been communicating with in the last couple of weeks. I promise you…all of this is just in the last two weeks! And all of these are all different films and different DCPs!

[EXAMPLE] On September 16th, XXXX wrote:

So, bad news guys, we couldn’t access the hard drive on this DCP, so it’s our thoughts that it is dead.

[EXAMPLE} On September 18th, XXXX wrote:

Nothing over here is recognizing this DCP. The drive appears to be EXT3 formatted and I think this may be why it’s not recognizing as a usable hard drive. Generally, we use NTFS and EXT2 formatted drives. This one does have a bluray backup, but if you can try to get us another DCP, that’d be cool.

[EXAMPLE} On September 17th, XXX wrote

We just got the DCP and the sled was loose and the final screw holding it came off. It’s the plastic thing that pops out. Just now I noticed that most of the screws on it are loose. It won’t play because I think we need to replace the screws?

[EXAMPLE} On September 22,, XXXX wrote

We are facing difficulties with the DCP as our Server does not seem to recognize the drive. We have spoken to your lab and we think it’s because our server cannot recognize Linux Files. We have about 100 DCPs in our festival, and this is happening to about 10 of our films. Can you offer any advice?

It is this last example that really cracks me up….if you happen to know anything about DCP you know that Linux was chosen as the best format for DCI-complaint files. So the fact that a festival could not read Linux, but could still read 90 out of 100 of their DCPs is absolutely mid-boggling, as I thought Linux was in fact the common denominator.

But I digress.

As filmmakers, is any of this what you want to be doing with your time? Do you really want to know about EXT3 and EXT2, and do you seriously want to worry about replacing loose screws on a drive? Do you want to reduce your whole filmmaking experience as to whether a venue can read Linux or not? Do you have time for this?

Just this weekend, we had a screening in North Hollywood where the sound on the DCP went out for the last 5 minutes of the film, all the way through the credits. Is  this acceptable? I thought not.

It was better before. We don’t like to think that evolution is like this….getting worse rather than better….but in truth it often is. And this is one of those times.

The truth is, I will never trust this format.  The DCP was created by a 7-member consortium of the major multinational studios called the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI). It represented only the major studios…and created a format best suited to their needs. They have since adapted all the major venues to their needs. Is it any wonder that these needs do not represent the needs of independent filmmakers? Do we have any doubt that that any “consortium” would actively seek to suppress the needs of its competition? It created encryption codes only they can functionally work with. It put all the rest of us in danger, in my opinion. Let’s just talk about their unworkable encryption technology if we want to start somewhere. KDMs on independent films are a joke….leaving us more vulnerable to piracy than ever.

So, here is why the “P” matters more than ever. And why there is still GREAT reasons to hope. Just when you thought I was writing a depressing post, I am going to flip this b*itch. And I mean “b*itch” in the best manner possible.

The truth is…the age of cloud based computing, the no shipping, the no P in “P&A” reality is finally nearly upon us.

The truth is…it will not be long before we can use cloud-based services to deliver our films to venues all over the world. Of course, it is happening now….but it is not a mature system yet. But my guess is that it WILL be very soon. Definitely less than 5 years.

With all the new services like Google Drive, WeTransfer, DropBox, Vimeo, etc all rapidly evolving…..we are only months (if not years) from really delivering our films without help from middle men like Technicolor and FED EX. And that will be a good thing. A great thing really. I believe it will increase our indie profits many fold.

Already, every single day, I have numerous festivals asking me to DropBox them the films we are working with. In truth, I haven’t figured out really how to do that yet in quality levels I am comfortable with that also make financial sense. I am in constant dialogue with our lab and our tech people as to how to make this work in terms of uploading time, server space, and quality of presentation.

But it is clear to me that it IS happening over time….if anyone knows the secrets…again, I am ALL ears!  Please call me! Because I truly believe that when we can remove the P from the P&A equation….and I mean truly remove it such that any number of prints and all shipping can be eliminated as easily as sending someone a link to an FTP or whatever…..we will re-enter an age where independent film distribution will make real financial sense. Imagine that, for a moment.

And the weirdest thing is I think it is truly happening… any day now.

NOTE: Step 4 in this blog series will be an analysis of how to deliver your film digitally and via The Cloud. We aren’t there yet….BUT that is what I will cover in the next post of this series. Hopefully new updates will happen by the end of the year!

 

 

Is this mic on? Stop making these well worn filmmaking mistakes

I’m back to blogging after a long (2 years!) hiatus in law school and the first thing I want to discuss is something that frustrates us about the filmmaker consultations we give. At The Film Collaborative (TFC), it is shocking how much of what we said 5 years ago when we first started the company and what we continue to say over and over again has not trickled down and stuck to filmmakers.

While we like to think that we are changing minds and getting filmmakers to be more proactive about making their own decisions regarding distribution of their films, sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case in the majority. The same issues keep coming up (no you probably won’t be getting a 7 figure deal for distribution…no your film is not a fit for Sundance…no you shouldn’t just sign any deal that slides across the table).

Maybe you’re afraid of letting go of the notion that your job is only to make a good film and someone will buy it for big sums and you can move on fast to your next film.

Maybe you’re worried that if you cannot look an investor in the eye and say that the odds of selling and making all the film’s money back within a year or two are good, you won’t be able to make films.

Maybe you aren’t actually following any of the information currently coming out of every festival panel and industry publication about how the distribution world stands today.

But that doesn’t mean new information isn’t available and the independent film world still works like it did in 2008.

This is information we analyze daily at TFC. Clinging to the old mythology just makes it easier for distributors to cling to non-transparency in how money is made in distribution and it’s all a vicious and unsustainable cycle. You need to know the real story on how deals are structured now, what kinds of revenue is being recouped and why, and what role audience data plays in the continuation of your filmmaking career. This is not some 90’s pipe dream of make a film, reap immediate millions.

In law, they call that “willful blindness” where a person seeks to avoid liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting his or herself in a position where he or she will be unaware of facts that would render him or her liable. It’s not pretty to see, especially after all this time of talking about properly laying ground-work for self financed distribution. It has to stop and it will eventually because someone who is willfully blind won’t be working as a filmmaker for much longer.

Of course it’s not all about money, it’s also about building your audience and having your film seen and developing your career.  These are actually all quite connected, much more often than not.

Here’s a list of things we have been saying for years and keep saying. Please let this stuff stick, it’s good for you! And the more people practice it, the healthier this will be for artists and for the business in general.

Top 15 mistakes made by filmmakers that shouldn’t keep happening are:

Making a horror film and only start thinking in August about how to release it by October of the same year. If you are planning a digital release, you need about a 4-6 month lead time.

Not building community around your film until after you premiered it at a festival (or worse, completed the circuit) such that then you squandered opportunities to build buzz, demonstrate and test audience appeal, and build awareness and marketing or organizational partnerships for future release before your buzz is gone.

Not clearing music rights believing that your distributor will be happy to pay for clearance. Profit margins are already slim for distributors, so they aren’t going to outlay for this expense. Plus, it makes you look unprofessional and extremely misinformed if you don’t have all of your clearances. Plan to work with a music supervisor.

Stealing money from your marketing and distribution budget to feed your production budget even though both are needed. In fact, if you can’t market and distribute your film, you probably shouldn’t even make it. Stop with assuming you won’t need to market and distribute your film. You will at least need to build up some kind of audience awareness and it will be smart for you to start getting immediate revenue from direct distribution.

Making your first documentary largely out of stock footage, which is probably the most expensive kind of documentary you can make. Stock footage is expensive to clear and if you have no track record of success in filmmaking, it is better to steer clear of making an expensive film as your first attempt.

Making a film with no notable names, no clearly identifiable audience, and no plan for how to distribute or market the title. This is an especially bad idea if you were planning to have someone else buy it and distribute it because it has virtually no market value.

Relying on box office gross as an indicator of the commercial success of a film, and using those numbers for the business plan of your film. Box office revenue is only top line revenue, not net revenue and certainly not an indicator of profit.

Believing that MGs in the 6-7 figure range are common for films without A-list talent. Read the trades after a major festival or film market and see what MGs are paid and for what level of talent in the film. If you don’t have this level, you aren’t getting that MG.

Skipping taking good photography on set and thinking frame grabs of the cast and crew will cut it when formulating key art and meeting deliverable requirements from buyers. Here is our post on what is needed for making key art. Still images are absolutely imperative to film sales and film promotion, but also to populate social media channels. Don’t skimp on photography.

Having a 4-minute trailer.  Really? Please don’t. Also related, letting your intern or the editor of your film cut your trailer. Please hire a professional trailer editor because it is that important to gaining audience interest in seeing your film.

Forgetting that artwork on digital platforms is small, not theatrical poster size. It demands clear imagery with no extra text (laurels, URLs, credit block, rating etc).

Conflating “distributor” with “aggregator” and even with “platform” – they are different, the deals will be different, your expectations should be different, etc.  This leads filmmakers to make bad or incomplete decisions. See our post on distribution terms.

Many filmmakers drastically “overthink” their festival strategy, and hold back from festival invitations for fear that actions taken now will overexpose the film and hurt its chances with press and distributors later. The truth is that INACTION is the far greater danger. By all means, you should obsess about the right world and international premieres …after that, just identify the best festival opportunities in each local market and let it fly, making sure to also address the festivals that cater to your niche along the way.

Hiring a lawyer who does not know the film business to handle your film deals. Okay, that’s a shameless plug since I’m an attorney now. But truly, as much as knowing the law matters, knowledge of what can be negotiated in a film distribution deal matters so much when it comes to monetizing rights and protecting your work.

Conducting screenings of your film (test screening as well as festivals) and not having a system for collecting email contact details so you can keep in touch about the progression of the release. When will you have another chance to contact these people again? Maximize your ability to keep in contact. There are now some text to subscribe services you can use rather than pass the clipboard.

A lot of film consultants, industry bloggers, film festival panelists, and others all saying the same thing so it’s time to realize what they are telling you is true.  Can you hear me? Is this mic still on? It’s time not just to hear, but to listen and follow the advice people are freely telling you. You should no longer continue to make these mistakes.

 

Wishing you all the good things in your filmmaking career.

 

Orly

Uncertain state of distribution

At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, veteran independent film distributor Bob Berney gave a state of the industry address on distribution. TIFF was kind enough to make his keynote video available on Youtube (you can find it below), but here are some of the highlights if you don’t have 30 minutes to spare watching it.

-We’re in a chaotic, disruptive state right now with bigger studios making fewer, but massively budgeted films that involve huge risk.

-On the flip side, there are many more outlets now available to get a film into the market. The challenge as a producer is how to get revenue from these outlets in order to fund your next work.

-There are now well funded entities coming to major festivals and buying films without any real plan about how to release them.

-Open Road and Relativity Media are now distributing wide release theatrical films, sometimes as service deals (the production pays them to release, instead of the distribution company paying for rights).

-But platform release films, ones that start with opening in only 2-4 cities and then keep expanding their theatrical runs, are starting to have a tougher time finding a home, a company that will take them on. Fewer distributors are taking the traditional theatrical route and there are now more companies taking the day and date or VOD first route. Films that want a traditional release far outweigh the distribution companies that are willing to take on films for that kind of release.

-Berney believes that a theatrical release is the only way for a film to truly break out in the market in a big way.

-The bar for films that warrant having a large theatrical release has really been raised. The expense to release those films, even if using digital marketing, is big and the market is very competitive. Distributors who fund the marketing and distribution costs for those films are very wary about the ability to recoup.

-This summer there were many indie films that played in theaters against the studio blockbusters and did well. Boyhood, Magic in the Moonlight, Chef, Belle, Begin Again all surpassed expectations about how they would fare against the studio films. Berney believes it was because there was nothing else to see. Either superhero films or these and nothing in between. He guesses that the market could have taken even 4-5 more indie films this summer. People went to see some of those successful titles 2-3 times because there wasn’t much to choose from. Theatrical companies could have picked up more. The Fall season is crowded, but the summer could have used a few more releases.

-Because the deals are so different and the numbers come in sporadically, releasing VOD numbers is still not common.Also there aren’t very many success stories being reported from day and date or VOD only releases.

-Many European companies or smaller indie division within the studio units are not finding deals on their films very viable now. P&Ls for sales coming domestically (US) often have a 0 in the profit column. Sales can’t be counted on any more. Budgets have had to shrink accordingly because large deals aren’t happening so much any more.
Many of the newer players in the digital and VOD arena are constantly looking for content to fill their channels. Those films can play for a while until the audience gets more discerning.

-For any avenue chosen for distribution, the release has to create the feeling of an event to catch an audience’s attention. There is just too much in the market.
There is no one size fits all marketing and distribution plan. Each film needs to have its own plan handcrafted.

-Given the risk and expense, distributors are going to be much more discerning about what films they are passionate about and believe in before offering a deal.They want to be very sure there is an audience for a theatrical release before committing to such a deal.

-The Blu Ray market is still huge for certain types of films. Genre including family, horror, sci fi still do business on disc for Walmart and Redbox.

-Certain theaters are catching onto the idea of making the cinema an experience. Food, bigger seats, more varied showtimes, 4D seats are all increasing the feeling of an event in the cinema.

-Theaters are still resisting the idea of day and date. Regal and Cinemark chains are adamant about preserving the theatrical window. But AMC is more open to experimentation as long as the distributor will pay a 4 wall fee to rent their theaters. IFC and Magnolia own their own theater chains so they have been the most aggressive about trying Ultra VOD and day and date release. IFC buys about 50 films a year that they run though VOD and day and date releases.

-Due to regulation, Canada has not been able to experiment with this kind of releasing model yet.

-Berney still believes in the power of the theatrical release to affect an audience and that it is the best way to make a film break out.

-Netflix has been the savior for films that may not get a pay TV deal. Essentially, subscription VOD is on par with selling to HBO or Showtime. But Netflix takes far more films than those broadcasters.

-Social media advertising is allowing a more targeted and lower cost alternative to traditional advertising, plus providing much needed data on which to base strategic marketing decisions. Also these tools allow filmmakers to get clips, trailers, images etc to get out more widely for a lower cost and build pre release awareness that wasn’t even possible 10 years ago.

-There are just so many more opportunities now to get a film out, but it will take some time for the business side, the money making side, to catch up. That’s the uncertainty we are dealing with now.

3 Nitty Gritty Tips About Independent Film Deliverables

Whether engaging in digital distribution via a distributor or on one’s own (DIY), the burden of producing deliverables is increasingly shifting onto filmmakers.

At TFC, when we speak of empowerment through education, we are often talking about the digital landscape as a whole. However, there is also a lot to be learned in the details. I’m sure every filmmaker can rattle off a list of annoyingly small screw-ups with deliverables and assets that ended up throwing multiple members of his or her team into a tizzy for an entire day, wasting precious time, manpower and financial resources.

Accordingly, arming yourself with a little more knowledge about how the industry works, and, in particular, how technology works, can help you dodge a few more bullets down the road. Here are 3 nitty gritty tips we’d like to pass on:

1) Trailers

It’s very easy to put your trailer up on YouTube or Vimeo these days. So easy in fact that filmmakers often forget that these platforms are anomalies when it comes to requirements for eligibility.

For other mainstream digital platforms, pretty much any time there is a digital storefront, whatever is outside of the pay wall needs to be viewable for all audiences: free of foul language, nudity, excessive violence, etc.

I can’t tell you the number of trailers we have seen with words like fuck and shit still in them…iTunes is not going to take a trailer with any language that needs to be bleeped out on television. Neither will it accept scenes with a butt shot, a sex toy, naked breasts…the list is long and can get murky real quick, and, like MPAA ratings, may be quite subjective and potentially unfair.

We totally get it…filmmakers want to be as provocative as possible, don’t like being inhibited, and want their trailers to represent as closely as possible the tone of their film. And they usually make their trailers long before they ever have to think about digital distribution. But if you don’t want to have to go back and recut your trailer down the road, you need to think about these things. If you want two versions of your trailer, that’s fine, but at least one one of them has to be no more than, let’s say, PG.

photo credit: CaptMikey9 via photopin cc

photo credit: CaptMikey9 via photopin cc

2) Closed Captioning and Subtitles

Many platforms, including iTunes and Netflix, now require that all new films be submitted with closed captioning for the hearing impaired. Closed captioning is different from subtitling in that it sometimes includes descriptions of non-speech elements, like sound effects or music. Captioning costs run from $350 to $800 per title.

Most filmmakers send their films out to a captioning/subtitling lab, or use rather expensive software to do it themselves (more information about these labs/software can be found on the ResourcePlace section of our website). Usually, filmmakers receive a small, emailable, external file from the lab and submit to their distributor/aggregator without giving it much additional thought.

However, we have seen a number of cases where mistakes have been made, which can result in a rejection of your content by the platforms and a delay in your scheduled release date. There are many closed captioning requirements, particularly regarding things like when captions come on and how long they stay on screen, and we have seen some problems in this area.

But by far the biggest cause of rejection is when closed captioning covers some of the lower thirds in the film. This is especially true in documentaries, where subjects are interviewed and their names appear as text graphics on screen. In those cases, the offending line of closed captioning must be moved (usually to the top of the screen).

There are two ways that these errors can be prevented. One is to go through your film and note the approximate time codes of all your lower thirds and ask your captioning lab to pay special attention to these areas.

The second way is to check the lab’s work before submitting to a distributor/aggregator. The most common file extension for closed captioning is .SCC (Scenarist Closed Caption). This is the file you are going to submit. However, it is not possible to view this file alongside your film in QuickTime or VLC. So you should ask your lab to convert it into a subtitle file and send that to you as well (this file would be solely for checking purposes…it shouldn’t be submitted to anyone).

The catch is that the most common form of subtitle file, .SRT (SubRip), does not hold placement, so while it is OK to ask for this file type merely for checking timing and accuracy of dialogue, you will not see any difference between lines that are on the bottom or those that have been moved to the top—they will all appear on the bottom. So the key is to ask for a different file format if you have dialogue spoken over lower thirds. Subtitle file types that hold placement are .STL (Spruce subtitle format) or iTunes Timed Text (iTT), a subset of TTML. For more on subtitling than you ever want to know, visit <a “href= http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subtitle_(captioning) “>Wikipedia.

Lastly, speaking of subtitle files, we have seen many filmmakers obtain subtitle files from international film festivals (especially Spanish) and want to know if they can submit that as an extra to their North American release.

The answer is yes as long as it, like closed captioning, doesn’t cover up the lower thirds, and as long as your English master is textless (i.e. no burnt-in English subtitles). An important lesson here is that if your film has any lower thirds where dialogue is spoken over it, you will not be able to use .SRT files for any of your localized languages…use one of the other formats (.STL or .ITT).

So if someone produced an .SRT file for you, and you have lower thirds with dialogue spoken over them, you’ll need to get it converted and fixed before submitting to digital platforms.

Knowing exactly what you need will help you save time and get the best deal from your Subtitling Lab., because you will have pre-negotiated what you need in advance.

3) Digital Output

One of our members from Australia asked us about getting all of their lab deliverables taken care of at once so that they could qualify for The Producer Offset, which is a refundable tax offset (rebate) for producers of Australian feature films, television and other projects. While this credit may not apply to filmmakers who are not down under, I’d like to reiterate here what I told him: that producing deliverables too soon can cost you more in the long run.

If you produce a DCP or HDCAM, which can cost $2K or more, and approximately $350, respectively, before you sell your film, what happens when your distributor asks you to submit deliverables with their logo in front of it? You have to go back and do it again.

As far as DCP goes, until you are SURE that your film is playing at a top-notch festival, or that your film is even going to have a theatrical release, it may be best for you to wait, and only produce deliverables like ProRes, Blu-Ray and DVD in the short-term.

And by way of conclusion, speaking of DCP, TFC’s head of Festival Distribution, Jeffrey Winter, has offered a post on DCP headaches HERE.

Managing the self-financed theatrical release of Born to Fly

The Film Collaborative is working with a number of filmmakers who have decided to handle their own theatrical tours. Our colleague in charge of managing these theatrical tours is Bryan Glick and he shares the reasoning behind the cities and theaters chosen for the upcoming release of Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs Gravity opening September 10 in New York City.

Anything that is too safe is not action!

-Elizabeth Streb

Born To Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity is the latest DIY Hybrid-theatrical that The Film Collaborative is managing. I was lucky enough to see a rough cut just before SXSW and was truly blown away by how visual the film is. It demands to be seen on the big screen in order to fully appreciate the daring exploits of these athletic dancers.

Film Forum clearly agreed and by the time SXSW arrived, venerable New York cinema had already secured a week long engagement for “BTF” in September. With that glowing endorsement in place, we moved forward to draft a self financed Theatrical plan for the film which was made up of festival screenings and cinemas, both of which will provide revenue opportunities.

On the festival front, the film has since played at Full Frame, Sheffield, and  Frameline LGBT along with 20+ others. The festival circuit serves a dual purpose for the film 1) to boost interest in the theatrical and secure further bookings in that space and 2) the festival screening fees may be much more than what the film would take in from a theatrical run in some cities.

theatrical release of Born to Fly

“Gauntlet” Photo by Tom Caravaglia

Elizabeth Streb and her dance company are based in Brooklyn, New York so it was clear NYC is where the film should start its release. We fully anticipate NYC to be the biggest theatrical total of any of the markets. While that’s not unique, our grosses are likely to be abnormally tilted towards the NYC numbers. We saw a similar phenomenon with Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On,” (the film is set in Manhattan) which played for almost two months in NYC.

Having a several month head start, the filmmakers, TFC, and Streb reached out to a number of potential groups to take advantage of the $7.50 group discount at Film Forum. We now have over $5,000 in pre-sales for our engagement and multiple sold out screenings. In addition, we are “eventizing” these screenings by scheduling several Q&A’s with the filmmaker and central subject of the film. This strategy is being duplicated in LA and San Francisco where we open two weeks later. We are having a special free preview at The Hammer Museum in LA to boost word of mouth in Los Angeles ahead of a run at Laemmle’s NoHo where Elizabeth and the film’s director, Catherine Gund, will both be present for opening weekend. We also will have them Skype in for the San Francisco screenings during opening weekend at Vogue Theatre. In knowing our target audience, we chose this theater in Presidio Heights because it serves an older, well educated clientele with interest in the arts. The Vogue regularly shows special dance screenings from Ballet/Modern companies and comes at a much lower cost point than Landmark Theatres with none of the hassle.

In an effort to keep costs down and maximize revenue, we are relying on the strength of Inclusive PR to secure prominent press coverage and reviews; an in-house email database with 1000′s of contacts collected over the years; grassroots outreach to dance companies, arts organizations, senior organizations and the LGBT community; and social media. We are also avoiding chains like Landmark that require specially created DCP’s and bigger traditional print ad buys which, for a niche film of this nature, would not be targeted enough and enable the film to recoup the costs let alone see profit.

The theatrical rollout is intentionally slow, only adding 1-3 cities each week so as not to get overwhelmed by all of the support each city would need. We have a lean team and a lean budget so we are allocating a few hundred dollars in social media and digital ads and large markets may get highly targeted print ads. So far, we’ve saved thousands of dollars by not four walling at a single venue! As such, the release will cost comfortably less than $50k.

Elizabeth Streb is well known in the dance world, but it still takes time to build up word of mouth for this film. We are relying on a mix of lesbian, dance, and senior organizations for support. As with every specialty release, it is important to know your niche(s). While TFC usually avoids print ads when possible, in this case a limited amount make sense. Our audience skews older, educated and is more likely to read the newspaper. Our social media is geared specifically towards Facebook which, while falling out of fashion with millennials, is still prime territory for the 45+ group. We are sending regular email updates and blasts while consciously monitoring our paid media budget.

Added to these screenings, we will also incorporate theatrical on demand and have the film available on TUGG. That tool may be used by fans to bring the film to some smaller towns where Elizabeth Streb and her dancers have toured to in the past.

We anticipate somewhere around 20 markets for the theatrical in addition to festival screenings and a separate Canadian theatrical. The goal is to build a presence for the film that will feed the VOD/Digital/TV releases while minimizing the potential for loss that is often the hallmark of an indie film theatrical release. No easy task in the theatrical industry, but a challenge we happily embrace.

 

Approaching Indie Film As An Actual Business

photo credit: Kevin H. via photopin cc

photo credit: Kevin H. via photopin cc

I was speaking with a producer friend of mine this week, and she told me a disturbing (if familiar) story, with a surprisingly inspiring conclusion.

She recently exec produced one of 2014’s “bigger” independent films…which is set for theatrical release soon. They did just about everything right. The film is written and directed by a well known, highly respected auteur on the indie scene, with a  long career. It stars two very well-known character actors, who are just about household names if not quite “movie stars.” The budget was modest. It premiered at one of the pinnacle A-level film festivals. There it was bought by one of the biggest mini-majors in the business, and has since sold 18 territories worldwide. Even before theatrical release, the investors have all made a significant percentage of their money back…albeit not all of it (and certainly no profit).

She was lunching with one of the films other producers recently and she asked him… “If the film grosses 1 million dollars theatrically, do you think we’ll see any more money?” He said, “probably not.” So she said, “Ok what if it grosses 3 million?” And he said “probably not.” “10 million?” “Probably not.”

She said that’s when it dawned on her…. producing and selling an independent film the traditional way (i.e. selling all rights out of a festival premiere) is simply not a business. (BOOM…head exploding). In any other business, making back a percentage of your investment is not a success story. In indie film, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s the way it goes” and move on to the next one.

The lack of a sound business model in independent film is what we at TFC have been trying to address all along. The “old way” of producing and selling indie films is actually a shell game at best, a way of moving money from one spot to the next that is equal part a gambling game and equal part a con-job. Sure, there are a few unmitigated success stories every year…just enough to create a delusional atmosphere that casts a spell over thousands of filmmakers who think they can just make their movie and walk away as it magically finds its way into the world and fills their pockets with cash.

Anyway, it just so happens that my producer friend is currently working on a new film, and with the production schedule being the way it is, she knows for sure it won’t be done for at least another year. And after that, of course the inevitable wait for the right Festival premiere, which can take several additional months. As such, she figures that this time she has plenty of time to re-imagine the traditional model, and approach the film as an actual business. My producer friend comes from an entrepreneurial background, where she created and sold tech companies.

This time, this film, she vows, she is going to approach the distribution and marketing of the film the way she did with her tech companies in the past, and build it like an actual business. Not wait around for some other company to come in later and supposedly do it for her.

My producer friend and I plan to sit down in the next few months and have detailed conversations about what that actually looks like, but for now, I am going to use this post to outline some of the basics….and (hopefully) create the beginnings of a road map that others can follow.

NOTE: I am aware that I have been vague with the particulars of the first film mentioned in this post…which may annoy some readers. This was intentional of course, A) I don’t have permission to reveal the details, and B) the basic principals and outcomes are transferable to most every film that has received distribution offers out of a major festival in recent years.

In any case, here we go…some of my basic guidelines to approaching an independent film like the building of any other business.

1) Break down and list every source of potential revenue for the film – and plan how to capitalize on them all. This may seem self-evident, but I’ll wager this is the most overlooked of all independent distribution strategies. That’s because most filmmakers want to sell their film outright, and count on the distribution company to do all the right things. But most distribution companies only do a few things well (if any), and they will inevitably leave numerous stones unturned.

Start with a comprehensive list of every way you can see your film making money, i.e festival screening fees, domestic sales, international sales, theatrical-on-demand (i.e. GATHr or TUGG), community screenings, traditional theatrical, DVD sales at live events, other merchandising, digital downloads etc. Then figure out how many of these you can do yourself, and where you’ll need help from others.

2) Know from the beginning who your audience is – and have a strategy for how to reach them. I know, I know, this is dismaying to most filmmakers. Most filmmakers see themselves as artists first, motivated by self-expression, and actually hope that their film is for everyone, not just a select target group. But remember, just by making an independent film, you are de facto not making a film for everyone (unless you have movie stars)…since the vast majority of the global population doesn’t consume independent film on any kind of regular basis.

In independent film, niche is king AND queen, and you need to think of your target audience as your core customer base. Approach them like any business would…who am I selling to and how do I reach them? And if your core customers love your product, then they’ll tell others about it too. Think long and hard and soul search on this question…if you don’t know who your film is for, you run the risk that it will be for no-one at all.

3) Smart marketing is everything. Hollywood studios find their audiences by essentially buying them, spending vulgar multi-millions on TV ads, billboards, publicity firms to access late night TV talk shows etc….basically putting their product in front of everyone who doesn’t live in a cave. But chances are you can’t do that.

Smart marketing actually stems from question 2…who is your core audience and how do you reach them? And here’s where the important question comes…where do those people congregate such that you can actually speak to them? If you determine that your audience is “women between the age of 30 and 40,” that isn’t particularly useful because that’s too disparate to reach. Not ALL of them congregate in the same place. But if you determine there is a certain set of bloggers and websites that your audience reads and by obtaining coverage or placing ads, you can reach them there, well that’s something you can wrap your head around.

I usually advise that filmmakers start well in advance and build a big excel grid of every organization, every website, every blogger, every tastemaker, every everything they can think of and methodically reach out to them with news about their film. You usually can’t do this until you’ve actually starting shooting..so you can at least share images and teasers etc…but please don’t wait until you are finished with the film. This process takes too long… often by then it is too late.

I shouldn’t have to mention that this is of course where social media comes in as well. You want your social media strategy to start on Day One of shooting if possible. And, as always, you’ll want your social media strategy to be as interactive and engaging as possible…not just a platform for naked self-promotion.

4) Have a rigorous and vigorous approach to crowdfunding. Independent filmmaking can seem downright depressing at times…but it’s times like this we should thank our lucky stars for the relatively recent phenomenon of crowdfunding. What a miracle it is….and the best part of all….you don’t have to give the money back. Plus you are building up an audience that is motivated to see your film succeed.

These days it seems reasonable…for the right project…to launch crowdfunding campaigns in pre-production, for finishing funds, and to jumpstart your distribution, as long as you have a compelling message to impart to the world. And a great video of course… it all comes down to the video (and to a lesser extent the perks). Remember, however, that a crowdfunding campaign is hard work…its like a whole other job, which can certainly seem daunting during production. But if you don’t work hard at it…it won’t work. The good news is, if you DO work hard at it, the success rate is amazing!

5) Explore the granting world. Like crowfunding money, grant money is money you won’t have to pay back (meaning the best kind). Grant money is usually a better fit for documentaries of course, but we’ve also worked on plenty of narrative features with a theme or message that attracted grantees. Also, don’t forget that there are also (some) grants for outreach/distribution, for films with an important social message. To pursue grants, you’ll probably also need a fiscal sponsoring organization to back you, which can be The Film Collaborative or a number of other independent film non-profits. To read more about TFC’s fiscal sponsorship progam, go HERE.

6) Pre-sell as little as possible. This is a quandary for many filmmakers. You need the money to finish the film, but then when it’s finished, those rights are tied up and you can’t exploit them in a way that you’d like to. And, again, unless you have bona fide movie stars, your film will be infinitely less valuable before you finish it than when it is premiering at a major festival like Sundance etc. Time and time again I hear filmmakers say, “I pre-sold my film to x territory (usually broadcast) because I needed the money, now I wish I could just give them the money back.”

7) Parcel off your rights in as many pieces as possible. This is something that TFC’s founder Orly Ravid has specialized in….i.e. engaging as many different companies as possible to handle as many different rights categories as possible. This goes back to what I said earlier, different companies are better at different things. This “parceling” is particularly important because many all-rights holders are using many middle-men companies to get to various platforms etc. You want to be as DIRECT AS POSSIBLE with your various points of sale, cutting out as many middle-men as possible.

8) Explore Transmedia. This is admittedly difficult for the vast majority of independent, character-driven narrative features…although there are some notable exceptions. But for genre/sci-fi features this is an area rich with possibility, through games, contests, spin-off stories etc. And most often overlooked is the potential for documentaries to explore transmedia, especially since most documentaries have countless hours of footage they aren’t using in the finished film itself. And for issue-oriented docs, there is usually a wealth of other sources, both scholarly and journalistic, that can be folded into your website. For documentaries, your website should be an equal “entry-point” into the issues raised by the documentary, and should ultimately lead to more viewers/consumers of the film. That is the very essence of transmedia…multiple entry points into the larger experience.

9) Have a well-thought out strategy for digital distribution. My aforementioned producer friend was in the tech business, so her focus is on possibly creating her own portal where her target audience can download the film directly, thereby cutting out all middle-men entirely.

Nonetheless, in today’s world you have to expect (hope) that the most viewers for your film will be paying customers in the digital realm. And thankfully, just getting your film onto a few big digital platforms these days isn’t particularly difficult (to read more about the digital distribution offered by The Film Collaborative, go HERE. But here is where #2 (target audience) and #3 (smart marketing) come in most importantly….if you just throw your film onto iTunes, how is anyone going to know it’s there?

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of great companies you can hire that work for very little money to assist you with the marketing part. So this may be yet another job you and your team might have to do for yourselves.

10) Keep the budget as low as possible. This may seem like the most obvious point of all, and yet it is incredibly subjective. I can’t tell you how many times I cringe when hear filmmakers say “we kept our costs down…it only cost 1 million dollars!” Well, a million dollars isn’t what it used to be….and I mean that in the reverse way it is traditionally meant. With the plethora of cheap digital cameras and desktop editing leading to an explosion in independent film, supply WAY outstrips demand… and a million dollars is quite an expensive indie movie these days. Most importantly, at a million dollars chances are there is probably no amount of DIY distribution techniques that will recoup your investment, and you’ll be back in the initial quandary, meaning you will NEED a significant traditional sale from a distributor to have any chance of making most of your money back.

So, when I say keep your budget low…to be honest I am talking more like $100,000. And I know that’s not always possible. So if you can’t do it for something in the low six-figures, you’re back to that place where you need to start thinking about movie stars.

11) Put a minimum of 10 – 15% of your budget aside for marketing and distribution costs. This is a VERY small percentage of your budget that really will only enable you to start building a core audience, but a core audience can grow wider if word of mouth is active.

Again, I know this is easier said than done. Even if you line-item that with the best intentions, many filmmakers will pilfer along the way for a few extra days of shooting, etc. But chances are you’ll find yourself with a finished film with no more money to get it out into the world….no money for festival trips, no money for smart marketing, no money to hire a publicist, etc. Recognizing that even the initial stages of marketing and distribution require capital, we at TFC implore you not to fall into the trap of being cash-strapped right at the time you need it most.

Most of all of what I have outlined above fall under the producer’s responsibilities, and are sometimes referred to the work of what might be called the PMD or “Producer of Marketing and Distribution.,” and are crucial to development of a producer business model for indie film.

Interestingly, sometimes I think there is a clearer business model for directors of independent film. Directors have a clearer path to a business model that makes sense…direct an indie gem, premiere it at Sundance to great acclaim, and then get hired by Hollywood to direct commercial TV and film (think Christopher Nolan, who seemingly went directly from Memento to Batman). But producers seem to start at step 1 with every script.

It is my hope that by following the guidelines listed in this post, at least some of the groundwork to planning a profitable business model for an independent film can be laid out in advance.

 

All Stars of the Theatrical Self Release for Independent Films

self funded film release

 

Handling self funded theatrical distribution for TFC clients, I find myself wondering why more filmmakers don’t consider the self releasing option from a long-term career standpoint and the potential upside that comes from receiving the bulk of the revenue from the release. I am continually intrigued, pleased and surprised by the success of many who do.

Here are pristine recent examples of self funded releasing. These films each found specific ways to tap into their audience and often opted to do something outside the norm. For the sake of transparency I only am listing films that are admittedly self released in their approach. I would argue Middle of Nowhere is in fact a self funded release as it is a solid example of building and controlling a filmmaker’s brand, but I didn’t include it in this list.

While Gathr have a number of films that have done very well using their demand a screening platform (such as Anonymous People which TFC advised on), no TOD (theatrical on demand) release was as monumentally successful as Girl Rising. The film was aided by many factors such as funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, partnerships with Intel, the United Nations and World Vision as well as a small army of political and grassroots influencers, technologists and publicists. The documentary featured Hollywood A-list narrators like Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys and Selena Gomez.and reached a fever pitch of screenings via the Gathr platform in the Spring of 2013. The film was also picked up by CNN Films for broadcast.

Much of the self funded distribution space is about the value of name recognition. Louis CK has such a loyal audience that he can get away with only selling his Live stand up docs on his website that are DRM free and asking fans not to upload it for free online. The films do so well that he is making seven figures in profit and will keep distributing them this way. His level of sales success, of course, is not realistic for most indie filmmakers, but it shows the value of brand developed over time. If you build up a loyal base and treat them with respect, they will follow you and as a result you can cut out the middle man.

Detropia world premiered at Sundance, won the editing award and came from two Oscar nominated directors. But they found distributors were wary to take on the film and/or didn’t get what the directors were trying to do. After a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to self distribute, the film went on to gross over $300k+ theatrically. The filmmakers made the wise choice to open the film in a suburb of Detroit instead of NYC and the film grossed over $20k from that single screen at Landmark Royal Oak, far more than they would have launched with in NYC. They embraced their target audience and much like Escanaba in Da Moonlight pushed very heavily to a hometown crowd.

Sound City world premiered at Sundance 2013 and decided to do a day and date release less than a month after premiere. No distributor would have agreed to that. Dave Grohl himself promoted the film heavily (again the value of a fan base will pay off) and the film launched as the #1 doc on iTunes and grossed over $400k theatrically. It’s the highest grossing release from service theatrical company Variance to date. While fellow music recording doc Muscle Shoals may have grossed more money at the box office, they have to split the revenue with the distributor, Magnolia. Sound City likely made quite a bit more money back into their pockets.

Particle Fever has grossed over $850k to become the highest grossing Abramorama service release. They creatively tapped into the science community and quickly and quietly bypassed other more high profile docs like “Life Itself”. Using support from a community with solid internet leverage meant a lower P&A and this film, just shy of a $1 Mil grosser, can easily be called a success on all cylinders. It also doesn’t hurt that it scored a 95% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is now available for paid streaming on their website powered by VHX.

I Am Divine had a self funded theatrical release handled by The Film Collaborative. The film grossed $82k on a $8,000 release budget. This was run just as the film was finishing its 200+ festival screenings tour around the world for which the filmmaker has made 10’s of thousands from screening fees. We let social media and the Divine brand do much of the work as the colorful character inspired many around the world and they were excited to see his life story on the big screen. The film spent multiple weeks as the #1 Doc on ITunes when Wolfe Releasing put it out this year. A rare film to be profitable in every viewing arena.

God’s Not Dead again shows the value of a niche demographic that can be reached with the help of deep online data analysis. Working with Freestyle Releasing to open on 780 screens nationwide, the religious right pandering film has theatrically outgrossed Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which at its widest played over 1400 screens. This technically makes it the highest domestic grossing indie release this year. It’s passed $62 million on only a $2 Million budget  production budget. The production worked with Ash Greyson’s Ribbow Media to handle a sizable social media advertising campaign directed toward Duck Dynasty, Kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain and Shane Harper fans and limited TV advertising on the 700 Club, Up TV and Pandora radio. It was a highly coordinated gamble that paid off handsomely. Lionsgate picked up the rights to distribute the movie through  VOD (video on demand), SVOD (subscription video on demand) Pay-Per-View and television across the U.S. this month.

Upstream Color was the long awaited follow up from indie auteur Shane Carruth. He vetted offers while planning months in advance for a self funded release that launched out of the film’s Sundance premiere. Carefully planned and executed to reduce costs, Carruth’s intention was to give the film just enough of a theatrical release to legitimize and raise awareness for the film before sending it out to the online platforms where it would find actual significant revenue. For a while the film continued to play theaters simultaneously with the digital sales option, a feat almost unheard of in the Spring of 2013, but becoming a much more accepted and savvy practice now. Though lacking star wattage and a less than commercial story approach, Upstream Color amassed $444k and while Carruth kept full control of the release. The film is now widely available digitally.

Some honorary mentions for great self financed releases go to The Anonymous People (second highest grossing Gathr release despite no fest exposure), Spark: A Burning Man Story (Over $77k on another TOD service called TUGG with surcharged Burning Man tickets, over six figures theatrical and digital), Kids for Cash (Launched at 4 theaters in PA and grossed six figures), and Under the Electric Sky (a TUGG release with six figures, but curiously controlled by a traditional distributor, Focus Features).

Of this list, a vast number of the TOD releases are for documentary, some with star names attached and all with some kind of cause or niche audience interest to tap into and they all clearly did tap into that. Also, funds were raised to accomplish a theatrical release, hence the name self financed release. This should indicate to you that making a film meant for self funded release you NEED to have an identifiable brand, a social cause or a niche audience interest base to tap into. Think very carefully about how that film will be released successfully because these are the same considerations a distributor will look for when evaluating the release of a film.

 

Distribution preparation for independent filmmakers-Part 5 Financial realities

By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler

piggy bank

In this final post of our series about distribution preparation for independent films, we wanted to stress the fact that a balance between artistic expression and financial responsibility must be achieved. A lot of independent filmmaking comes from a passion to tell stories and emotional fulfillment. No one person’s work is any more or less valid than any other. But it is necessary to acknowledge that no one is automatically entitled to an audience or to make a living from their artistic work. The work and the business acumen must be strong. Strive to achieve both or surround yourselves with people who supply whichever strength you personally lack.

The distribution marketplace is so fluid and challenging, even the best planning can result in a loss. It’s natural to have high expectations at the outset of development and many of these find their way into lofty business plans that show returns on films based only on box office statistics. Did you know that reported box office numbers are often inflated? Are you aware that the rights holder (either the distributor or the self financed producer) only receives 35%-45% of those returns from the exhibitor? And if there is a sales agent involved, that entity then receives 15% or more of the revenue after all of the expenses and fees come out from the distributor…for the life of the agreement? Always learn about fees and costs of intermediaries such as sales agents, aggregators and distributors because their fees and costs reduce the amount of revenue that flows back to the original investors. Many filmmakers and investors do not understand the complexity of these deductions and wonder why money doesn’t flow back into their pockets just a few months after initial release. If you are fortunate enough to receive a strong advance upon signing your distribution agreement, at least you will see immediate revenue. It may be a long time before you see more.

A recent article on the Media Redefined blog written by Liam Boluk and Prashob Menon cited these very sobering statistics: “71% of [independent] films generate between $5,000 and $1,000,000 in box office revenue; 50% will fail to cross $250,000.” Again, these numbers are NOT what the original investors received.  One would hope the theatrical release helped to land bigger deals in the home video and broadcast space, but normally statistics on ancillary deals are not available publicly. Obviously, this makes the accuracy of business plan financials difficult to determine in advance.

A very revealing recent interview with indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg in Filmmaker Magazine showed how precarious the life of an independent creator can be…and Swanberg is largely considered a success! Some of the figures he quotes for digital license revenue will surprise you.

He has spoken to many a filmmaker whose film was released and appeared to make money, but the production never received a dime from distribution. He also talked about the need for having business and artistic sense and checking with distributors before going headlong into production on a passion project

…before you make the movie, say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this. Is this something that you guys have a place for in your slate of movies?’ If the answer is no, maybe that’s not the best thing to spend a lot of money on making next.

Probably the biggest takeaways from that article were about the importance of long term relationships in the industry and Swanberg’s comment about the artistic freedom that comes from knowing the business side of your work.

I think that there is a notion that for artists to think about business is to corrupt the art process. As soon as you start considering market factors and numbers and all of that stuff, you’re not being a true artist, you’re not following your true vision. To some extent, maybe that’s true, but I think that by knowing the marketplace before I go into a movie, once I’m there, I’m completely free to do whatever I want because [there’s not that] giant question mark of whether there’s an audience for that thing.

We hope this series will help prepare you (and your investors) for what lies ahead when your film comes to market. It is advisable to map out your goals, both short term and long term, before heading into production and make sure everyone is in agreement. Opportunities may change or new ones present themselves over the course of production, but if everyone remains positive and committed to what is being created, filmmaking can be a great experience for all involved.

To visit part 1 Know the marketplace, part 2 Festivals, part 3 Terms, foreign and windows, part 4 Deliverables 

 


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