What Nobody Will Tell You About Getting Distribution For Your Film; Or: What I Wish I Knew a Year Ago.
By Smriti Mundhra
Smriti Mundhra is a Los Angeles-based director, producer and journalist. Her film A Suitable Girl premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and is currently playing at festivals around the world, including Sheffield Doc/Fest and AFI DOCS. Along with her filmmaking partner Sarita Khurana, Smriti won the Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
I recently attended a panel discussion at a major film festival featuring funders from the documentary world. The question being passed around the stage was, “What are some of the biggest mistakes filmmakers make when producing their films?” The answers were fairly standard—from submitting cuts too early to waiting till the last minute to seek institutional support—until the mic was passed to one member of the panel, who said, rather condescendingly, “Filmmakers need to be aware of what their films are worth to the marketplace. Is there a wide audience for it? Is it going to premiere at Sundance? Don’t spend $5 million on your niche indie documentary, you know?”
Immediately, my eyebrow shot up, followed by my hand. I told the panelist that I agreed with him that documentaries—really, all independent films—should be budgeted responsibly, but asked if he could step outside his hyperbolic example of spending $5 million on an indie documentary (side note: if you know someone who did that, I have a bridge to sell them) and provide any tools or insight for the rest of us who genuinely strive to keep the marketplace in mind when planning our films. After all, documentaries in particular take five years on average to make, during which time the “marketplace” can change drastically. For example, when I started making my feature-length documentary A Suitable Girl, which had its world premiere in the Documentary Competition section of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Netflix was still a mail-order DVD service and Amazon was where you went to buy toilet paper. What’s more, film festival admissions—a key deciding factor in the fate of your sales, I’ve learned—are a crapshoot, and there is frustratingly little transparency from distributors and other filmmakers when it comes to figuring out “what your film is worth to the marketplace.”
Sadly, I did not get a suitable answer to my questions from the panelist. Instead, I was told glibly to “make the best film I could and it will find a home.”
Not acceptable. The lack of transparency and insight into sales and distribution could be the single most important reason most filmmakers don’t go on to make second or third films. While the landscape does, indeed, shift dramatically year to year, any insight would make a big difference to other filmmakers who can emulate successes and avoid mistakes. In that spirit, here’s what I learned about sales and distribution that I wish I knew a year ago.
As any filmmaker who has experienced the dizzying high of getting accepted to a world-class film festival, followed by the sobering reality of watching the hours, days, weeks and months pass with nary a distribution deal in sight can tell you, bringing your film to market is an emotional experience. This is where your dreams come to die. A Suitable Girl went to the Tribeca Film Festival represented by one of the best agent/lawyers in the business: The Film Collaborative’s own Orly Ravid (who is also an attorney at MSK). Orly was both supportive and brutally honest when she assessed our film’s worth before we headed into our world premiere. She also helped us read between the lines in trade announcements to understand what was really going on with the deals that were being made – because, let’s face it, who among us hasn’t gone down the rabbit hole of Deadline.com or Variety looking for news of the great deals other films in our “class” are getting? Orly kept reminding us that perception is not reality, and that many of these envy-inducing deals, upon closer examination, are not as lucrative or glamorous as they may seem. Sometimes filmmakers take bad deals because they just don’t want to deal with distribution, have no other options, and can’t pursue DIY, and by taking the deal they get that sense of validation that comes with being able to say their film was picked up. Peek under the hood of some of these trade announcements, and you’ll often find that the money offered to filmmakers was shockingly low, or the deal was comprised of mostly soft money, or—even worse—filmmakers are paying the distributors for a service deal to get their film into theaters. There is nothing wrong with any of those scenarios, of course, if that’s what’s right for you and your film. But, there is often an incorrect perception that other filmmakers are somehow realizing their dreams while you’re sitting by the phone waiting for your agent to call.
Depressed yet? Don’t be, because here’s the good news: there are options, and once you figure out what yours are, making decisions becomes that much easier and more empowering.
Start by asking yourself the hard questions. Here are 12+ things Orly says she considers before crafting a distribution strategy for the films she represents, and why each one is important.
- At which festival did you have your premiere? “Your film will find a home” is a beautiful sentiment and true in many ways, but distributors care about one thing above all others: Sundance. If your film didn’t beat the odds to land a slot at the festival, you can already start lowering your expectations. That’s not to say great deals don’t come out of SXSW, Tribeca, Los Angeles Film Festival and others, but the hard truth is that Sundance still means a lot to buyers. Orly also noted that not all films are even right for festivals or will have a life that way, but they can still do great broadcast sales or great direct distribution business – but that’s a specific and separate analysis, often related to niche, genre, and/or cast.
- What is your film’s budget? How much of that is soft money that does not have to be paid back, or even equity where investors are okay with not being paid back? In other words, what do you need to net to consider the deal a success? Orly, of course, shot for the stars when working on sales for our film, but it was helpful for her to know what was the most modest version of success we could define, so that if we didn’t get a huge worldwide rights offer from a single buyer she could think creatively about how to make us “whole.”
- What kind of press and reviews did you receive? We hired a publicist for the Tribeca Film Festival (the incomparable Falco Ink), and it was the best money we could have spent. Falco was able to raise a ton of awareness around the film, making it as “review-proof” as possible (buyers pay attention if they see that press is inclined to write about your film, which in many cases is more important to them than how a trade publication reviews it). We got coverage in New York Magazine, Jezebel, the Washington Post and dozens of other sites, blogs, and magazines. Thankfully, we also got great reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and even won the Albert Maysles Prize for Best New Documentary Director at Tribeca. Regardless of how this affected our distribution offers, we know for sure we can use all this press to reignite excitement for our film even if we self-distribute. On the other hand, if you’re struggling to get attention outside of the trades and your reviews are less than stellar, that’s another reason to lower expectations.
- What are your goals, in order of priority? Are you more concerned with recouping your budget? Raising awareness about the issues in your film (impact)? Or gaining exposure for your next project/ongoing career? And don’t say “all three”—or, if you do, list these in priority order and start to think about which one you’re willing to let go.
- How long can you spend on this film? If your film is designed for social impact, do you intend to run an impact/grassroots campaign? And can you hire someone to handle that, if you cannot? Do you see your impact campaign working hand in hand with your profit objectives, or separately from them? The longer you can dedicate to staying with your film following its premiere, the more revenue you can squeeze out of it through the educational circuit, transactional sales, and more. But that time comes at a personal cost and you need to ask yourself if it’s worth it to you. Side note: touring with your film and self-distributing are also great ways to stay visible between projects, and could lead to opportunities for future work.
- Does your film have sufficient international appeal to attract a worldwide deal or significant territory sales outside of the United States? If you think yes, what’s your evidence for that? Are you being realistic? By the way, feeling strongly that your film has a global appeal (as I do for my film) doesn’t guarantee sales. I believe my film will have strong appeal in the countries where there is a large South Asian diaspora—but many of those territories command pretty small sales. Ask your agent which territories around the world you think your film might do well in, and what kinds of licensing deals those territories tend to offer. It’s a sobering conversation.
- Does your film fit into key niches that work well for film festival monetization and robust educational distribution? For example, TFC has great success with LGBTQ, social justice, environmental, Latin American, African American, Women’s issues, mental health. Sports, music, and food-related can work well too.
- Does your film, either because of subjects or issues or both, have the ability to command a significant social media following? A “significant” social media following is ideally in the hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, but is at least in the high five figures. We know the last thing you want to think about when you’re trying to lock picture, run a crowdfunding campaign, deal with festival logistics, and all the other stress of preparing for your big debut is social media. But don’t sleep on it. Social media is important not only to show buyers that there is interest in your film, but also ideas on how to position your film and which audiences are engaging with it already. Truth be told, unless you’re in the hundreds of thousands or millions of followers range, social media probably won’t make or break your distribution options, but it can’t hurt. And, in our case, it actually helped us get a lot of interest from educational distributors, who were inspired by the dialogue they saw brewing on our Facebook page.
- How likely is your film to get great critic reviews, and thus get a good Rotten Tomatoes score? Yeah, not much you can do to predict this one. However, a good publicist will have relationships with critics who can give you some insight into what the critical reaction to your film might be, before you have to read it in print. They also reach out to press who they think will like your film, keep tabs on reactions during your press and industry screenings, and monitor any press who attend your public screenings. This data is super useful for your sales representatives.
- How likely is your film to perform theatrically (knowing that very few do), sell to broadcasters (some do but it’s very competitive), sell to SVOD platforms (as competitive as TV), and sell transactionally on iTunes and other similar services (since so many docs do not demand to be purchased)? While these questions are easy to pose and hard to answer, start by doing realistic comparisons to other films based on the subject, name recognition of filmmakers, subject, budget, festival premiere status, and other factors indicating popularity or lack thereof. Also adjust for industry changes and changes to the market if the film you are comparing to was distributed years before. Furthermore, adjust for changes to platform and broadcaster’s buying habits. Get real data about performance of like-films and adjust for and analyze how much money and what else it took to get there.
- Can your film be monetized via merchandise? Not all docs can do this, but it can help generate revenue. So, go for the bulk orders of t-shirts, mugs, and tote bags during your crowdfunding campaign and sell that merch! Even if it just adds up to a few hundred extra dollars, for most people it’s pretty easy to put a few products up on their website.
- Does your film lend itself to getting outreach/distribution grants, or corporate sponsorship/underwriting? With the traditional models of both film distribution and advertising breaking down, a new possibility emerges: finding a brand with a similar value set or mission as your film to underwrite some portion of your distribution campaign. I recently spoke to a documentary filmmaker who sold licenses to his film about veterans to a small regional banking chain, who then screened the film in local communities as part of their outreach effort. The bank paid the filmmakers $1000 per license for ten separate licenses without asking them to give up any rights or conflict with any of their other deals—that’s $10,000 with virtually no strings attached. Not bad!
Sadly, Netflix is no longer the blank check it once was (or that I imagined it to be) and the streaming giant is taking fewer and fewer risks on independent films. Thankfully, Amazon is sweeping in to fill the gap, and their most aggressive play has been their Festival Stars program. If you’re lucky enough to premiere in competition at one of the top-tier festivals (Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca for now, but presumably more to come), then you already have a distribution deal on the table: Amazon will give you a $100,000 non-recoupable licensing fee ($75,000 for documentaries) and a more generous (double) revenue share than usual per hour your film is streamed on their platform for a term of two years. For many independent films, this could already mean recouping a big chunk of your budget. It also provides an important clue as to “what your film is worth to the marketplace”—$100,000 seems to be the benchmark for films that can cross that first hurdle of landing a competition slot at an A-list festival.
I’ll admit, I was a snob about the Amazon deal when I first heard about it. I couldn’t make myself get excited about a deal that was being offered to at least dozen other films, sight unseen, with no guarantee of publicity or marketing. A Facebook post by a fellow filmmaker (who had recent sold her film to a “legit” distributor) blasting the deal as “just a steep and quick path to devalue the film” left me shaken. But again, appearances proved to be deceiving.
I discussed my concerns with Orly, and she helped me see that with so few broadcast and financially meaningful SVOD options for docs, having a guaranteed significant platform deal with a financial commitment and additional revenue share is actually a great thing. Plus, one can build in lots of other distribution around the Amazon deal and end up with as robust a release as ever there could be. Orly says one should treat Amazon as a platform (online store) but as a distributor and that can provide for all the distribution potential. If one does manage to secure an all-rights deal from a “legit” distributor (we won’t name names, but it’s the companies you might see your friends selling their films to), oftentimes that distributor is just taking the Amazon deal on your behalf anyway, and shaving off up to 30% of it for themselves. So the analysis needs to be what is that distributor doing, if anything, to create additional value that merits taking a piece of a deal you can get on your own? Is it that much more money? Is it a commitment to do a significant impactful release? Are the terms sensible in light of the added value and your recoupment needs? Can you accomplish the same via DIY? Perhaps you can, but don’t want to bother. That’s your choice. But know what you are choosing and why.
Independent filmmakers are, yet again, in uncharted territory when it comes to distribution. Small distributors are closing up shop at a rapid pace. Netflix and Hulu are buying less content out of festivals, and creating more of it in house. Amazon’s Festival Stars program was just announced at Sundance this year (2017) and doesn’t launch until next Spring, so the jury is out as to whether it will really be the wonderful opportunity for filmmakers that it claims to be. By this time next year, several dozen films will have inaugurated the program and will be in a position to share their experiences with others. I hope my fellow filmmakers will be willing to do so. Given the sheer variety of films slated to debut on the platform, this data can be our first real chance to answer the question that the funder on the panel I attended refused to: “What is my film worth to the marketplace?”
Orly adds that the lack of transparency is, of course, in great part attributable to the distributors and buyers, who maintain a stranglehold on their data, but it’s also due to filmmakers’ willful blindness and simple unwillingness to share details about their deals in an effort to keep up appearances. That’s totally understandable, but if we can break the cycle of competing with each other and open up our books, we will not only have more leverage in our negotiations with buyers, but will be equipped to make better decisions for our investors and our careers. Knowledge is power, and if we all get real and share, we’ll all be informed to make the best choices we can.
admin July 5th, 2017
Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution, Distribution Platforms, DIY, education, Film Festivals, Hulu, International Sales, iTunes, Marketing, Netflix, Publicity, Theatrical
by Dan Habib
Dan Habib is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including Samuel (2008), Who Cares About Kelsey? (2012), Mr. Connolly Has ALS (2017), and many other films on disability-related topics. Habib’s films have been broadcast nationally on public television, and he does extensive public speaking around the country and internationally. Habib’s upcoming documentary Intelligent Lives (2018) features three pioneering young adults with disabilities who navigate high school, college, and the workforce—and undermine our nation’s sordid history of intelligence testing. The film includes narration from Academy award-winning actor Chris Cooper and is executive produced by Amy Brenneman. Habib, who was a photojournalist from 1988-2008, is a filmmaker at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.
About 14 years ago, I sat at my son Samuel’s bedside in the ICU as he lay in a medically induced coma. He had developed pneumonia from complications following surgery. Samuel’s neurologist encouraged me to use my skills as a photojournalist in the midst of my fear. “You should document this,” he said. Samuel, who has cerebral palsy, recovered from this emergency, and I took the doctor’s advice. Four years later, I released my first documentary, Including Samuel, which includes a scene from that hospital room. The film aired nationally on public TV in 2009, and we created a DVD with 17 language translations.
Along with the film’s launch, I started discussing my experiences as a parent of a child with a disability at film screenings, which led to a 2013 TEDx talk called Disabling Segregation.
I am now directing/filming/producing my third feature length documentary and am honored that The Film Collaborative asked me to share a few things I’ve learned along the way about DIY fundraising, distribution and outreach.
- Diversify your funding streams.
Although I made Including Samuel on a shoestring while I was still working fulltime as a newspaper photography editor, I’ve been able to raise about $1 million for each of my last two films—a budget which covers my salary and benefits, as well as all production costs. I’ve received essential support from The Fledgling Fund, but the vast majority of my funding comes from sources that don’t typically fund films:
- NH-based foundations that are interested in supporting the advancement of the issues I cover in my films (disability/mental health/education).
- National and regional foundations and organizations that focus on tangible outcomes. The Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation is the lead $200,000 supporter of my current project. MEAF funds efforts to increase the employment rates for young people with disabilities.
- Each year I typically take on one outside contract (around $75,000) from a non-profit to create a documentary film short (18-25 min.) on specific disability or education issues. These films have focused on areas like the restraint and seclusion of students or inclusive education , and help me meet my overall budget needs.
- For the last ten years, the most stable source of income has been my speaking fees, which average about $75,000/year and go back into my project budget at UNH. I do about 15 paid speaking gigs per year, and charge $5000 per 24-hours away from home (plus travel expenses). We don’t do any paid advertising—the gigs almost always come from word of mouth (see #5 below).
- Build buzz from the get-go
For some docs, secrecy is essential for editorial reasons, or the filmmaker may just prefer to keep it close to the vest. I’ve never gone that route, because I’ve felt a pragmatic need to build up an audience and donor base early in the project. For each of my films, I’ve cut a 10-14 minute ‘preview’ early in the project’s production (about 2 years before completion), which has been critical for fundraising pitches, generating buzz in social media, and for use in my public speaking presentations.On the temporary website for my Intelligent Lives project, the 14-minute preview is accessible only after completing a name/email sign in form (I also have an unlisted YouTube link to share with VIPs and funders). I’m sure some people have been turned off by this, but more than 6000 people have provided their name and email—which will be a huge asset when we launch a crowdfunding campaign in the fall to complete (I hope!) our production fundraising.Facebook has been the most active and successful platform for reaching our largest audience—educators and families—with Twitter a distant second. For the current project, we have plans to dive into Instagram and other platforms more deeply—primarily with video clips. We also see LinkedIn as a platform that can help us achieve one of the outreach goals for the new film—connecting young adults with disabilities with potential employers through virtual career fairs.
- Partner up early
I’ve spent hundreds of hours initiating and developing strong partnerships with national organizations that focus on the issues that my films address. For all three of my documentaries, I’ve held national strategy summits in Washington, DC, to bring together dozens of these National Outreach Partners (NOPs) to help develop a national outreach and engagement campaign to accompany each film (campaigns include I am Norm for Including Samuel and I Care By for Who Cares About Kelsey?) We are currently developing the campaign for the Intelligent Lives film.The NOPs also typically show my docs at their national conferences and blast the word out about key developments in the film’s release (like community screening opportunities). Our relationships with NOPs are reciprocal. We discuss how the films will shine a bright light on their issues; how they can fundraise off of screenings; and how they can use the entire film—or shorter clips that we can provide—to support their advocacy.I plan to continue to explore the vast topic areas of disability and education, and continually build on the partnerships, funders and audiences we have established (while also working hard to make films that are engaging to the general public).
- Establish your DIY distribution goals early and stay the course
When I started work on Who Cares About Kelsey?, my documentary about a high school student with ADHD who had a history of homelessness and family substance abuse, I knew I wasn’t going to try for theatrical release, but instead would focus on broadcast, an educational DVD kit and a national community screening campaign. We presented all of our would-be funders and NOPs with a specific set of outreach strategies for the film’s release that were mostly under our control—not reliant on the buzz and opportunities that would come only by getting into a major film festival. For the Intelligent Lives project, my outreach coordinator Lisa Smithline and I have been working towards a broadcast, festivals, an event theatrical and community screening campaign, VOD, online events and other distribution plans.
- Speaking of festivals…do college and conference screenings provide more bang for the buck?
I submit my films to the major fests (no luck so far), as well as mid-level and smaller film festivals, and we’ve had dozens of FF screenings (including Woodstock, Sedona, Thessaloniki, Cleveland). I always have a blast when I can be there. But I also start booking and promoting major events around the country at national conferences and colleges early in a film’s life. Although I know these events might jeopardize admission to some prominent film festivals, my experience has been that these conferences and university screenings usually have a significant, lasting impact: high volumes of DVD sales, tremendous word-of-mouth and social media upticks, and more invitations to do paid public speaking (see above). We also try to collect names and email addresses from attendees at every event, so our e-blast list (21,000+) has become a powerful outreach tool for all of my docs.
- Jam-pack the educational DVD and website
In addition to the feature length documentary, I typically create a range of short, freestanding “companion” films that I distribute both on the educational DVD kit and also for free (linked through the film’s website but hosted on YouTube and/or Vimeo). I went a bit overboard for Who Cares About Kelsey?, creating 11 mini-films on related topics. But the benefits were multifold: funders loved (and supported) these free resources, the shorter length (10-14 minutes) made them highly useful educational tools, and the free films bring traffic to the website.I also work with national experts in the topic areas covered in the feature length film and mini-films to develop extensive educational material that is packaged with the educational DVD kit. Combined with reasonable price points ($95-$195, depending on the intended audience), we have generated gross sales in the high six-figures for my last two films combined. We also produce an individual DVD, and have been selling VOD through Amazon (very low revenue compared to DVD sales, but given how much the VOD world has changed since I made “Kelsey,” we are looking at different models of online distribution for Intelligent Lives). We primarily self-distribute these products through the UNH Institute on Disability bookstore, which keeps the profits close to home.
- Seek professional help
I maintain a small field production crew (just me and an audio engineer), but my production and distribution budgets are still tight. So I’m grateful for people like Chris Cooper, Amy Brenneman and the musician Matisyahu who are donating their time and creative talents to my latest project. But there is still plenty of specialized talent I need to hire—whether it’s for editing, music scoring, fundraising, graphic art, website design and outreach consulting. And for Intelligent Lives, I’m planning to work with a distribution consultant and sales agent(s).I look for collaborators who share my values and vision that films can be a catalyst for advancing human rights…but they’ve still got to get paid!Return to strategy #1.
admin June 28th, 2017
Tags: American independent film, Amy Brenneman, Dan Habib, DIY film distribution, documentary films, documentary outreach, DVD distribution, educational distribution for films, film distribution, Fledgling Fund, Lisa Smithline, The Film Collaborative
by Orly Ravid, Founder, The Film Collaborative and Attorney, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP)
The following the final part of a three-part series on Educational Distribution. Part 1: “Get Educated About Educational Distribution,” by Orly Ravid, Founder, The Film Collaborative • February 18, 2016. Part 2: “Fair Use Is Not Fair Game,” by Jessica Rosner, Media Consultant & Orly Ravid, Founder, The Film Collaborative, Attorney, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP • June 1, 2016. It was offered as a handout at the Low Down on Educational Distribution Panel that took place as part of the SXSW Film Festival on March 12, 2017.
Educational distribution is often part of “Non-Theatrical” rights and generally refers to distribution to schools and libraries (not film festivals, airlines, ships, or hotels, for example). Traditional educational distribution is focused on educational institutions at the university and K-12 level. It can also cover private organizational and corporate screenings. It can involve both physical media (DVDs/Blu-rays) either sold or rented and streaming (via licenses for a term, typically 1-3 years). Not all educational distributors cover the same turf or have the same business models. Below is a summary of some companies and how they define and handle educational distribution. You’ll notice differences and a range of what the companies do within the space. This document also covers revenue ranges, technology differences and industry changes, use of middlemen, best practices, and release examples. I often use the company’s own words to explain how they work. I did not interview filmmakers who have worked with the panelists or other companies, and always recommend checking references and asking around. For any follow-up questions please feel free to contact the distributors or panel moderator Orly Ravid.
Educational Distribution: What is it?
Companies explain their take on educational distribution:
Alexander Street: Offers both streaming and DVD options across its catalog. Focus is on institutional selling and providing both university librarians and university faculty with options ranging from single title streaming and DVD, to demand-driven models and wide access to packages of 60,000 or more titles.
Kanopy: We define educational distribution as sharing important stories with the next generation. Films have the power to engage and challenge like no other medium, and with students watching more film than any other resource, it’s more important than ever before that these films reach this important demographic. We take our relationships with the college librarians very seriously as they are our paying customers and work tirelessly to understand and promote Kanopy to their patrons.
We are lucky to work with such a progressive market of librarians that believed in our new model, Patron Driven Acquisition, whereby libraries only pay for what is watched. This model is now the benchmark for libraries globally and has revolutionized the industry by promoting educational streaming as a viable channel for filmmakers while offering excellent ROI for libraries.
Passion River: Selling or licensing public performance rights for films to schools, colleges, libraries, and community centers/organizations.
Ro*co Films: Distributing content (in our case, top-tier documentary films) to schools, organizations, and corporations for instructional and/or screening purposes.
Outcast Films: Sales and rentals on campuses, academic conferences, campus activities and student film festivals. There are times when we also partner with non-profit organizations both on and off campus. We want to work in collaboration with filmmakers and their outreach efforts to maximize opportunities so we can be flexible. Because the educational market is our only focus, we believe we are the best to handle and coordinate.
The Video Project: ‘Educational and Institutional’ market means all schools, home schools, school districts, offices of education, learning centers, education and research institutions, colleges and universities, libraries, NGOs, nonprofit organizations, corporations, government agencies and offices.
Collective Eye: Thinks of Educational Distribution as any film media sales and licensing made for educational intent. Collective Eye Films is very clear in defining rights to carry a film as certain types of Products; these are generally products that include Public Performance Rights (defined in the below link), Campus & Community Screening Licenses, Public Library licenses and Educational Streaming licenses. Collective Eye covers the traditional educational institutions and offers PPR licenses to non-profits and Government agencies. The company finds that “Community Screening” licenses are very beneficial to filmmakers. Because we are non-exclusive we always discuss the filmmakers’ rights and how our distribution would or would not impact their other distribution deals already in place. Public Libraries as a media right generally come within Home-Entertainment markets, so Collective Eye carries these as a service to filmmakers that do not have other home-entertainment distribution. Since we are non-exclusive we can also provide this as a product alongside another non-exclusive home-use distributor if amenable to both parties. A full list of how we define our licensing types can be found here: http://www.collectiveeye.org/pages/film-licenses.
Summary Info About the Panelists and Other Educational Distributors in Their Own Words:
What They Do in The Educational Distribution Space, and An Estimate of How Much of Their Company’s Business Is Educational Distribution
Alexander Street: We are a 17-year-old company dedicated to making silent voices heard to support scholarly inquiry. In 2006 we launched our first streaming video product and we have been innovating in streaming video to university libraries ever since. Because our roots are in providing databases to university libraries, we understand better than most how to package, price and deliver streaming video to universities. Our approach is multi-channel, allowing content creators to distribute their content on a title-by-title basis or in packages with multiple pricing options from one-year subscriptions to life-of-file sales. Because we offer these multiple models, we are able to satisfy the collection development approaches of all librarians while also meeting the budget capacity (or lack thereof) of all libraries. Simply put, because we offer multiple purchase models we are best positioned to generate more revenue for premium films, because premium films can easily be leveraged across all models. We work with hundreds of individual filmmakers as well as with organizations large and small, including First Run Features, Kino Lorber, Milestone Films, the Smithsonian Institute, PBS, Sony Pictures Classics, The Criterion Collection, NBC-Universal, the BBC, and many others. We are the leaders, with more than 12,000 universities worldwide using our platform to access video, text, music, images and data sets. Our focus is primarily on licensing great content and offering tools to make the content come alive for faculty and students for research and learning.
- 95% of our business is to educational institutions, with the remaining 5% in public libraries, government agencies, historical societies and the like.
- Territory Covered: Worldwide
Kanopy: Kanopy is a video streaming solution for colleges and public libraries delivering one of the largest curated collections of classic cinema, festival documentaries, and movies in the world through the best-in-class user interface. Kanopy streams to over 2,500 of the top colleges and universities across 100 countries. Millions of students, professors and public library members can watch The Criterion Collection, indulge in festival indie, world cinema and acclaimed documentaries sourced from award-winning filmmakers globally or learn about every subject imaginable from The Great Courses and PBS. Kanopy’s unrivaled collection contains over 30,000 curated films. Unlike other platforms, we preserve the integrity of the collection and only accept films that we know will be watched and in demand.
Kanopy is now the most watched video streaming platform in higher education due to our relentless pursuit of excellence in user experience and unwavering commitment to a democratic relationship with filmmakers. We ensure each film performs on its own merit, overcoming the problem of incumbent collection sales model where thousands of films were bundled together and sold into institutions at discounted rates.
Filmmakers receive a clean 50% of each sale with no deductions and are provided with a dashboard to track their audience’s viewing behavior and associated sales.
We are proud of being privately owned which is very rare in the library vendor world where most companies get bought out quickly by the large multi-national library conglomerates. By being independent, we are free to take risks and change the status quo to deliver on our mission of creating a sustainable economy for our filmmakers. Part of our DNA is having the user at the heart of all decisions we make to ensure we are offering an unparalleled viewing experience that is relevant and engaging.
Over half of our operating budget is dedicated to our Product & Engineering team who listen to our incessant customer feedback and continue to raise the benchmark of video streaming platforms in education.
- Last year, the majority of our business was educational and although this distribution channel continues to grow rapidly, we are seeing exponential growth in our public library business. We anticipate our business to be fairly evenly split between education and public library channels by the end of the year.
- Territory Covered: The key markets for any US video platform are English speaking territories. We work with pretty much every viable institution in the US, Australia and NZ and most in the UK. We do have customers on every continent too, but our main focus is obviously English markets.
Passion River: Passion River Films is a distribution company for DVD, digital, non-theatrical, and educational markets. Their diverse catalog of films has won a variety of the most prestigious awards and has also screened at every major film festival in the world. We market, sell, & license films to educational buyers & community/organization leaders.
- 20% of Passion River’s business overall is educational, but educational sales are 80%+ of its revenue.
- Territory Covered: Worldwide, but primary focus is North America.
Collective Eye: Collective Eye Films is an educational film distribution company that represents compelling documentaries that explore untold stories of our time. Our films build bridges between cultures and provide unique perspectives by exploring social, political, environmental and spiritual issues to bring provocative and entertaining stories to the screen. We provide documentaries to campuses, classrooms, libraries and through community screenings. We believe that film is a medium that can present critical issues, challenge audiences, and raise important questions. Keeping true to the notion that documentary films are powerful tools for change, we strive to unearth stories that make a difference.
We are a distributor primarily for Educational Rights, including DVD with Public Performance Rights for University and K-12/Government/Non-profit, Digital Site Licenses, Public and Campus Screenings, and Public Libraries. We will carry home-use DVD when the filmmaker desires an outlet to satisfy demand, but this is not our primary market. We are one of the few non-exclusive Educational Distributors in the educational ecosystem. As a boutique distributor, we specialize in Environmental subjects, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, and offer films specific to the Pacific Northwest and by Pacific Northwest filmmakers. Our films are generally character-driven, and carry a strong advocacy angle. Because of the emphasis on films that advocate for an issue, and that “make a difference,” we offer Community Screenings and emphasize our keen ability to navigate and negotiate licensing questions with interested audiences who need support in planning their screenings. Jon Betz, Collective Eye Films director, has over a decade of experience as an independent documentary filmmaker and is a strong filmmaker advocate, often speaking with filmmakers in depth about their distribution strategies when partnering on the films we distribute.
- Collective Eye is primarily an Educational Distributor. About 75-80% of our revenue is from licensing Educational DVD Public Performance Rights, Digital Site Licenses, K-12/Non-Profit/Government PPR and Campus Screenings. The remaining 20-25% is from Community Screening licenses and Public Library sales.
- Territory Covered: Our primary reach is the US, including US institutions abroad. We also reach colleges and universities in Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia.
Ro*co Films: A leader in the documentary distribution world, ro*co films understands that a compelling real-life story can educate, entertain, and engage diverse audiences around emotionally gripping, universally important themes. A growing division of ro*co films international, ro*co educational launched in 2009 with the mission to advocate for documentary film as an educational tool, to bring these stories to schools, libraries, and other instructional environments across the country, and to broaden the impact and influence of our films by mobilizing communities to host, organize, and execute their own public screening events. Whether you are striving to illuminate a topic or issue, create change, or simply start a conversation, showing a compelling film is the best way to do it. The films represented by ro*co educational are inspiring, provocative, and challenging —connecting us to human experiences well beyond the boundaries of our own.
We are a boutique educational distributor, which means that we stay small by choice. We take on only 10-12 films per year, and have become a trusted curator and source for the best of the best in documentary film. Our films are highly-acclaimed, festival award winners, selected with their production quality, academic relevance, and impact potential in mind. For each film that we add to our collection, we produce a high quality and proprietary educational package that includes the feature film, any shorter or ‘chapterized’ versions that are available and would be valuable in an educational setting, curriculum or discussion guide, and screening kit. Subscription streaming services are also available through our exclusive digital portal, Film Platform. We bring all of these options to our network of over 50,000 active educational buyers, with a focus on public screenings and community engagement. In addition, we design custom distribution campaigns for each film we release, where we go beyond traditional marketing to find unique audiences and income streams — to not only elevate impact but also to provide the highest possible returns to our filmmakers.
- Ro*co Films’ business is approximately 50% educational (we also do sales).
- Territory Covered: Worldwide
Outcast Films: Outcast Films is a distribution company that assists filmmakers in capitalizing on the educational market. Focused on social justice and environmental issues, our company actively engages educators, community leaders and activists to become personal advocates for your film through targeted outreach and one-on-one engagement. We work in collaboration with producers to develop and implement strategic marketing and sales initiatives aimed at academic and public library markets as well as community-based organizations. Outcast Films can work with filmmakers in one of two ways: (1) traditional percentage split contract where Outcast Films would hold the exclusive educational rights or (2) a fee-for-hire business model, in which, you, the filmmaker, maintain 100% of your project’s rights and 100% of the profits. The educational market is vast and lucrative but can be daunting for those new to it. Outcast Films and our experienced staff will help maximize your opportunities while minimizing the time it takes to reach your goals. Our goal is not only to distribute great documentaries, but position them as catalysts for change in the community. We do this by providing filmmakers the ability to directly connect with students and teachers through multiple outreach activities.
Outcast Films will oversee the production and design of all the elements needed to manufacture the exclusive educational DVD including cover and menu design. This will be done in cooperation with the filmmaker: (i) Ordering processing and fulfillment; (ii) Organize and schedule live event screenings; DVD and DSL (Digital Site License) Educational Sales; (iii) Organize and promote screenings in academic conferences; (iv) Solicit blurbs and reviews from professors, instructors, and subject specialists that focus on and teach the core subjects that are relevant to our films for use on the DVD cover, website, and promotional materials; (v) Launch email blasts for new release announcements, awards, reviews, or relative current event news; (vi) Monitor and post news related to the film to media librarians, pertinent academic listservs and throughout our social network; (vii) Submit titles to academic journals, reviewers, bloggers and other on-line and print journals for possible review; and (viii) Assist filmmaker with outreach to NGO’s and other non-profit organizations; Provide a Platform for Enhanced Educational Opportunities through our “Research Centers” and Website. Because college classes are generally 50 minutes long, the ideal running time to teach a film in the classroom is less than 60 minutes. In addition, many states require universities to purchase films that are closed captioned so we require all of our films to be captioned.
- Outcast is 100% focused on educational distribution. We are a small but mighty! We only pick up 6-8 films a year and focus solely on the educational market.
- Territory Covered: Ask for worldwide but okay with just North America.
The Video Project: The Video Project was founded in 1983 by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Vivienne Verdon-Roe (Women for America, For the World) and Oscar nominee Ian Thiermann (In the Nuclear Shadow: What Can the Children Tell Us). Our mission is to provide the best media programming available on critical social and global issues to classrooms and communities to help advance awareness and encourage action on the most important concerns of our times. The Video Project collection features programs for all ages from over 200 independent filmmakers, including Oscar and Emmy winners, as well as films that aired on Showtime, HBO and PBS. Our films are regularly honored with top festival awards and with critical praise from major review publications. More recently, we are focused on impact distribution, combining traditional distribution with impact campaigns. On the impact campaign side, we prepare the strategies (fee based) and implement the campaigns. The Video Project only takes on 15-18 films/year and believes in the films that we distribute. They are all cause based.
The Video Project does direct DVD sales to an email list of over 10k, and works with streaming partners Kanopy and ASP. We also do email and social media marketing to reach media buyers, faculty, and students, and phone calls to media buyers, outreach to and attendance at relevant conferences, seek published reviews, organize film festival submissions, arrange publicity through partner organizations, and do sales through sub-distributors.
- A large percentage of The Video Project’s work is educational, and we also do direct U.S. broadcast sales and facilitate digital sales. The impact distribution is becoming a larger piece of our business.
- Territory Covered: Primarily North America, also Worldwide thru sub-distributors.
The Educational Distributors’ Customers
Alexander Street: In short, we work with every key customer group on campus: librarians, faculty, students, administration, curriculum development specialists, centers for online learning, and departments of continuing education and lifelong learning.
Kanopy: We have a variety of different customers we work with:
- We have a whole team dedicated to B2B (our college and public librarians) to ensure we continue to deliver transparent usage information, relevant content and the associated ROI.
- Professors are a very important segment to Kanopy – they are influencers and tend to be power users on Kanopy, embedding thousands of videos into learning management systems each year for mandatory viewing.
- Of course Higher Ed students are one of the toughest demographics to reach and engage with, so we are proud of how well the Kanopy brand resonates with this market. One of the most rewarding parts of the work we do is to have student feedback declaring how Kanopy films have changed the way they see and think about the world they are living in.
- The public library audience is managed by a separate team at Kanopy because the users are obviously motivated to watch Kanopy for completely different reasons.
Passion River: Professors, Librarians, Community Event Organizers, & Students
Collective Eye: We work with a variety of customers that generally fall into the following categories: Media, Acquisition & Subject Librarians; Professors, Students and Campus Groups; Non-profits, Advocacy leaders; and Film series coordinators, and community members of all kinds who seek to arrange community-based screenings.
Ro*co Films: Educators, Administrators, Students, Non-profits, Corporations, Individuals, Places of Worship, Community groups, PTAs.
Outcast Films: We work with teachers, campus organizations and student groups, department chairs, administrators.
The Video Project: Educational media buyers at colleges & universities, NGOs, businesses, government agencies, pubic libraries, and other organizations.
Technology Used & Media
I asked these educational distributors to explain the technology used and media:
Alexander Street: Alexander Street Press provides on-demand streams through a proprietary platform we’ve developed in-house. We support IE9+ on PCs, and Safari on Mac OS X, and any browser with Flash 8 or higher support can generally access our service. Generally we provide SD and HD video using the following encodings:
- Adobe Flash FLV format using the On2VP6 codec (we are phasing out the use of this codec
- H.264 Baseline Profile (for older mobile devices)
- H.264 Main Profile level 3.1 (for all devices that support it)
- HLS (for our mobile application and tablet devices that support it)
- MPEG-DASH (for DRM-protected content)
Kanopy: We strive to have Kanopy available anywhere on any device. We have just launched a channel on Roku but ultimately, if you have a device with internet connection, we aren’t doing our jobs right if you can’t watch Kanopy like you watch any other streaming platform.
Passion River: DVD & Digital
Collective Eye: DVD, Blu-ray, Digital Site Licenses (Files hosted on institution servers) & Educational Streaming through Streaming Partners.
Ro*Co Films: DVDs, Blu-rays, Subscription EVOD streaming services
Outcast Films: DVDs and streaming. We use Vimeo as our streaming platform.
The Video Project: DVD and streaming as described above.
Price Points for Educational Distributors
Alexander Street: Standard pricing per title is:
- $149 for a 1-year subscription
- $299 for a 3-year subscription
- $499 for life-of-the-file
This is our recommended pricing. Individual providers are free to establish preferred pricing.
Kanopy: Each Kanopy film can be purchased for a one-year license for $150 or a 3 year license for $350 per institution. Once expired, it must be renewed at the same price. Over 90% of our edu customers have adopted our Patron Driven Acquisition (PDA) model whereby once a film is watched 4 times, a one-year license is automatically triggered. This is fair for the libraries who are only paying for films that are watched and for filmmakers who are rewarded by merit. Libraries can also opt to license a film upfront a la carte.
Passion River: Public Performance Rights (PPR) licensing at: $199-$399. We may lower or start the pricing at $49-$99 if no PPR is included.
Collective Eye: They vary depending on filmmaker specifications, but generally are listed as:
- $295 – Educational DVD w/ PPR
- $295 – Digital Site Licenses
- $125 Non-Profit/K-12/Gov w/ PPR
- $250 Community Screening
- $450 Campus Screening
Ro*Co Films: $95-$580 depending on format and license term.
- $29.99 for home video
- $325 for DVD w/PPR (public performance rights)
- $595 for DSL (digital site license in perpetuity
The Video Project: Generally, for features with (w/PPR)
- Colleges (DVD with digital site license) $395
- Colleges, Businesses, Other Institutions $295
- K-12, Public Libraries, Community Groups $89
Alexander Street: 50/50 for single title PDA and can be case-by-case.
Kanopy: Filmmakers receive a clean 50% of each sale with no deductions and are provided with a dashboard to track their audience’s viewing behavior and associated sales.
Passion River: 50-60% depending.
Collective Eye: We generally operate on a 50% split to filmmakers with a zero expense system, meaning the filmmakers receive their percentage of revenue from all sales immediately.
Ro*Co Films: 50% split with filmmakers.
Outcast Films: 50/50 on DVD+DSL sales and rentals; 75/25 (producer/distributor) for filmmaker appearances; 50/50 on Expenses. All major expenses will be discussed with the filmmaker. More details in attached document.
The Video Project: Just the cost of creating the DVD (Cover art, closed captions, DVD authoring). And we will use the filmmaker’s assets as much as possible to minimize those costs. We typically offer 30% royalty to the Producer.
Show Me the $$$:
Revenue Analysis: Gross and Net Revenue Ranges for Films and Factors that Influence
Alexander Street: The gap between gross and net is not really significant as the vast majority of our sales are direct without distributor fees or other fees. Our best-selling titles can generate as much as $25,000 in a single year across models. With nearly 70,000 titles in our catalog, the long-tail is definitely in effect. There are a few factors that can impact revenue range, such as whether the film fills a gap in coverage or establishes an authority resource in a subject area, but the biggest impact we see is where a film is adopted into a specific course. Where films can potentially become part of a syllabus is where we are focused.
Kanopy: Our best-performing films recoup over $35K per annum (the filmmaker receives 50% of this in royalties). These tend to be mandatory viewing documentaries that also resonate with themes to a wider market. The beauty of our model is that the longer a film is licensed with Kanopy, its revenue grows over the years (tends to be an opposite trend with other edu and home video platforms). A well-produced documentary that has high awareness (a festival presence, perhaps a theatrical release) and themes that resonate with an educational audience will probably recoup on average $10-15K in year one, $15-20K in year two and grow from there. Some of our best performing films didn’t have a festival release but have been marketed well by the filmmakers or distributors, making our job much easier in terms of rolling out a promotional plan.
Passion River: In terms of “units” sold, a gross range of sales can be 100+ at PPR pricing. Net can be 1/2 of what’s collected. Influences are festival runs, reviews, buzz, value of topic to community, price point, release date, and price point exclusivity.
Collective Eye: We see a wide range in revenue, from under $5,000 in gross revenue per film to over $50,000 and beyond in gross revenue. However, because we are non-exclusive we know that on some lower-performing titles, we are only seeing a piece of the sales, because the filmmaker is selling directly to their audience. Some films that we have low numbers for, the filmmakers are very happy about, because they have a hybrid strategy that is working well for them. In other cases, with our higher grossing films, we are solely handling Educational DVD and Community Screenings Sales (and in some cases home-use sales as well). Aside from carrying more or less rights, or sharing more or less of the sales with the filmmakers’ own efforts–we find that films that have performed well across the board in the mainstream arenas, from film festivals to theatrical release and broadcast, tend to perform much better in the Educational realm. It is still true that students and professors are often the ones demanding the film be purchased by an institution, and they will hear about it through traditional marketing efforts, filmmaker or distributor-driven outreach campaigns, and grass-roots marketing efforts. Films with strong Facebook follows, active audiences, and more visible releases perform categorically better in the educational sphere as well.
Ro*Co Films: $10K-$1M. Influencing factors include release windows, exclusivity of content, availability of proprietary educational materials (like curriculum, shorter versions, discussion guides, action kits, etc.), and release of other formats (TVOD, SVOD, etc.).
Outcast Films: $30-$50K
The Video Project: Gross Range is $5k-$80k. Net would be about $1.5k to $24k. The best films have some of the following: festival award winners, first in a new genre (mindfulness in schools), strong NGO support, famous people/famous VO narrator, release coincides with cultural wave/interest.
Middlemen: Who Uses Them?
I asked each company to note if they use Middlemen:
- Alexander Street: No middlemen.
- Kanopy: Part of Kanopy’s success is due to the great relationships we have fostered directly with our customers so no, we do not use middlemen.
- Passion River: No middlemen but work with partner companies that can help us expand our reach.
- Collective Eye: Our primary sales revenue is direct to Educational Buyers. We work with wholesalers to public libraries, as well as a few third-party distributors to Educational & K-12 Institutions. For Educational Streaming, we offer Digital Site Licenses directly and also work with an Educational Streaming Partner.
- Ro*Co Films: No middlemen.
- Outcast Films: We only use two: Kanopy assists us with streaming but we only release our films to them after a year of exclusivity with Outcast Films (we also offer streaming services). We use one sub-distributor who works only with public libraries. They do a lot of other work that public libraries require, like cataloging, which Outcast does not do.
- The Video Project: Yes, we use several sub-distributors to reach most public libraries and colleges that prefer to deal with one sub-distributor.
Markets the Educational Distributors & Services Attend in Effort to Reach Their Customers
Alexander Street: We attend nearly one hundred conferences a year exhibiting to reach librarians and faculty. We do daily email marketing to faculty and librarians to promote exceptional titles. We do extensive direct mail of catalogs and title announcement pieces. We are data-driven and use the results of these hundreds of campaigns and millions of contacts to adapt and refine our marketing strategy. Co-marketing with video content providers is in our DNA. We work with you to feature the content you know is best received by university customers based on your knowledge and your experience.
Kanopy: Kanopy attends all the key librarian conferences and has targeted email marketing to faculty, but our strongest way to reach our users is on-screen (personalized content and messaging), social as well as personalized emails. Our most successful form of onboarding is users referring the platform to each other – possibly the most important way to onboard new users.
Passion River: Library conferences, National Media Market, ALA Midwinter, ALA Annual, EDNET, & regional specialty markets.
Collective Eye: No Response Provided
Ro*Co Films: Varies by year and new release strategy.
Outcast Films: We work with all the academic conferences: ALA, Women’s Studies, SCMS, Charleston, and other subject-specific academic conferences.
The Video Project: National Media Market, various conferences.
Best Practices for Best Results and Best Practices Examples
The panelists and others comment on best practices for best results, windowing and distribution timing:
Alexander Street: The most important practice for film providers is to identify the titles with the highest likelihood of success for educational streaming. Many distributors know titles that have been requested by faculty and librarians. Second, by working closely with our marketing team to craft and deliver targeted faculty-specific marketing for email, social media and conference participation the chances of success accelerate. Maximizing total return requires a strategy of leveraging the different packaging and pricing models to leverage high price point single title sales for new content along with wide-catalog sales across the backlist in packages and collections.
- Best performance examples: Basic Attending Skills, a counseling and therapy title, has routinely sold in excess of $20,000 a year for more than a decade across multiple editions. We have an anthropology catalog of several hundred films that generated more than $1m in revenue in a five-year span.
Kanopy: We have been trialing day and date releases with some distributors to leverage the awareness they are generating through theatrical releases and associated press. To be honest, windowing doesn’t have a big impact on Kanopy – if we have the film and the subject matter resonates with our audience, we will perform well regardless when we have it. The sooner we have it, the faster we are paying growing royalties to the rights owners!
- Best performance examples: Some of our best performing documentary films include Killing us Softly, Miss Representation, and Race –The Power of an Illusion. These films have performed well as the universal themes they deal with around women’s issues and race are timeless. They have also had the benefit of streaming on Kanopy for many years so are well into their growth curve. The Criterion Collection is of course a top performer as it is mandatory viewing at all the film schools, and historically their DVDs have been part of nearly every university’s permanent collection. New Day Films and documentaries of that caliber also tend to perform well on Kanopy.
Passion River: Make PPR available as soon as possible. Take advantage of awareness starting from the film’s first public screening. Once the film is released “wide” (to consumers), expect higher price point sales to drop because if there are lower pricing options available ($19.99 SRP vs. $299 PPR), buyers may acquire at the lower price. So delaying a consumer release can help maximize higher-priced educational sales.
- Best performance example: Rich Hill – 1,024 units sold
Collective Eye: It is helpful to have a strong launch in tandem or prior to Educational sales, such as a theatrical or screening tour/and multiple film festival selections/awards prior to or during the Educational Release to create initial community, audience and professor/student demand. If the film is a known entity to students and professors alike, it stands out when it is released. The more cities your film actively screens in during its educational release, the better it is for institutional sales, always. Broadcasts don’t hurt either, either before or during the release window. Because we are non-exclusive, we work with filmmakers’ existing outreach campaigns to launch educational sales on a timeline that allows the filmmakers to benefit from the arrangement all-around. In best-case scenarios we exist in the area between a theatrical launch and a home-entertainment release. Existing prior to VOD and DVD Home-Use prevents cannibalization and the possibility that professors may acquire a home-use for direct peer-to-peer teaching, and also maximizes screening sales at a time when screenings are the only way to watch the film outside of an educational institution or theatrical run. We do work with filmmakers who are just releasing their film educationally, at a time when other rights have already been released, so it is not required that we work in this window before home-entertainment release; we just find it is a stronger potential revenue when we come in at that time. In all cases, distributing films that have active campaigns and active filmmaking teams who are championing their film throughout the first year of release makes a huge difference in overall sales revenue.
- Best performance examples: We’ve had a number of stand-out titles across many categories. A few highlights include:
- Watershed – Executive Produced and Narrated by Robert Redford and Directed by award-winning filmmaker Mark Decena, WATERSHED tells the story of the threats to the once-mighty Colorado River and offers solutions for the future of the American West. (Played at over 35 Film Festivals and won numerous awards).
- The Greenhorns, a powerful grass-roots-driven film that follows young farmers across the U.S.; Monoculture, monopoly, cheap food and poor diets– these are the consequences of an agricultural system gone awry, driven by policy and corporate control. These young farmers have vision: a prosperous, satisfying, sustainable food system. It is ambitious, it will take work, but it won’t be boring. (Very strong grass-roots following).
- Girls in the Band – tells the poignant, untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their fascinating, history-making journeys from the late 30s to the present day. (Good mix of Filmmaker DIY distribution savvy and good curriculum uptake, as well as an entertaining and uplifting story that plays well for community screenings.)
- Broken on All Sides – Mass incarceration has emerged as America’s new caste system. How could this happen? With Philadelphia as an entry point, BROKEN ON ALL SIDES explores the intersection of race and poverty within the criminal justice system. (Strong inclusion in many departments’ curriculum.)
- SEED: The Untold Story – In the last century, 94% of our seed varieties have disappeared. As biotech chemical companies control the majority of our seeds, farmers, scientists, lawyers, and indigenous seed keepers fight a David and Goliath battle to defend the future of our food. (Theatrical Release, US Broadcast PBS Independent Lens, Strong grass-roots following.)
- Girl and a Gun – Reaching far beyond Hollywood’s hypersexualized femme fatales, the film candidly explores the modern American woman through intimate portraits encompassing issues of protection, power, feminism, and violence. (Theatrically released by First Run Features, unique content that provides a new subject to Women’s Studies curriculum.)
- Get the F&#% Out – Sparked by a public display of sexual harassment in 2012, GTFO pries open the video game world to explore a 20 billion dollar industry that is riddled with discrimination and misogyny. (SXSW, timely subject and unique approach that provided an important subject for Women’s Studies curriculum and taps into gaming subculture.)
- Starfish Throwers – Worlds apart, a five-star chef, a twelve year-old girl, and a retired schoolteacher discover how their individual efforts to feed the poor ignite a movement in the fight against hunger. This documentary tells tale of these remarkable individuals and the unexpected challenges they face. (13 Film Festival Awards, Strong and meaningful story that found demand with community screening audiences.)
Ro*Co Films: Always exclude educational distribution from any larger deal where educational rights may not be exploited. Maintain exclusive educational window for as long as possible before available elsewhere (TV, TVOD, SVOD, Home DVD, etc.).
- Best Performance Examples: Executed successful distribution campaigns for films like Trapped, Life, Animated, Do Not Resist, Miss Representation, The Hunting Ground, Chasing Ice, A Place at the Table, Inequality For All, Girl Rising, This Changes Everything, Poverty, Inc. and The Music of Strangers. (See Orly’s previous blog that discusses revenue ranges. Ro*Co can be on the higher end and works with a select few pedigree films often from top festivals.)
Outcast Films: Ideally, we would like to begin working with the filmmakers during their initial festival run. The academic market is slow, so the sooner we can begin the process the better. We ask for a 6-month (at least one semester) hold back from streaming and home video. It really helps educational sales if the filmmakers are involved in the process and that other markets are exploited. For example: the films we distribute that also have a good festival run, limited theatrical, or a broadcast deal ALWAYS do better that films that don’t exploit those other markets.
- Best Performance Examples: Big Men, Shored Up, She’s a Boy I Knew
The Video Project: Windowing and timing: for best results we prefer to release educational with a 6-month window before the consumer release. Better results in educational if the film is already available in time for tentpole marketing events such as a broadcast or digital premier. Best times to market are Jan-May, and Aug-Dec.
- Best Performance Example: Room To Breathe – $80k+, first really good film on mindfulness, strong NGO support, it caught the “wave of interest” in the educational world.
What Has Changed and What Is Changing in This Category of Distribution?
Alexander Street: The consumer market for streaming video products and access models is having an outsize influence on the models institutional customers in the library are expecting. This, coupled with data-driven access models and usage analysis systems to inform cost-per-use and return-on-investment decisions, are the major forces we see at work shaping distribution and access.
Kanopy: The major shift in educational video distribution is without doubt the demand coming from the audience. It’s not ok any more to have a corporate-looking platform with no UX and videos that don’t play well. In terms of technology, we don’t see ourselves competing with library vendors any more, but with home video platforms. Our audience demands Kanopy to be as cutting-edge as, say, Netflix, which keeps us developing, innovating and upsetting the status quo in the name of bringing an even better viewing experience to our users.
Passion River: Buyers are getting smaller budgets every year for buying media, so they’re unable to acquire everything they want. Also streaming is impacting the market by offering additional options to buyers.
Collective Eye: No specifics about change in industry.
Ro*Co Films: While DVD continues to be the preferred format for much of the educational market, demand for streaming is growing year over year.
Outcast Films: Like the rest of the markets in film distribution, libraries are moving more towards streaming, although most of our business still lies in selling DVDs. With the flood of films in the educational market, it’s getting harder and harder to make noise and get noticed. Also, teachers do not have to have the PPR to show the film in their classroom which is driving down the average price. We market to both teachers at the home video price and to institutions who need the PPR.
The Video Project: Steaming is becoming more prevalent. Access to media is much easier, so films need to be of very good quality and marketed well to reach their audience.
Other educational distributors or companies that do educational distribution are: Film Sprout, Zeitgeist, Kino Lorber, First Run Features, Icarus Films, California Newsreel, Women Make Movies and Swank Digital Campus. These companies, and a few others, are listed on the ResourcePlace™ section of the Film Collaborative website: thefilmcollaborative.org/resourceplace.
Orly Ravid March 23rd, 2017
I read once, years ago, that the circular nature of the experience at the Berlin International Film Festival…plodding from meetings at the European Film Market (EFM) at the Martin-Gropius-Bau (MGB), to meetings at the EFM offices at the Marriot Hotel, to festival screenings at the Cinestar Sony Center, to market screenings at the CinemaxX, and back to meetings at the MGB tend to remind Industry professionals of the cyclical nature of their lives…stretched across years and years of travelling from market to market all over the world. It’s a plodding cycle that’s compounded by the relentless gray and cold of Berlin in February, and a reminder that as “glamorous” as this Industry seems to some…it is also quite a difficult and often bewildering business filled with precipitous highs and even lower lows.
As I negotiate these circles myself, I have the visceral audio/visual experience that Berlin is the most “international” of all festivals (Sundance being distinctly American, Cannes being dominated by the French). The Berlinale is a dizzying array of languages and cultures from everywhere, which makes particular sense since if you imagine the world as a traditional flat map, Berlin is roughly in the center of it. It makes a lot more sense for film business folks from many countries to travel to the Berlinale rather than say, the snowy mountains in Utah for Sundance (and a lot less expensive). As a result of this glorious diversity, I often find it a lot more difficult in Berlin to figure out the overall climate of what is going on business wise, as folks are chatting around you in a myriad of languages I can’t understand, and it is a lot harder than most places to gauge what they are talking about and experiencing.
It is precisely the uber-international nature of the Berlinale that also seems to contribute, year after year, to the uneven nature of the programming, i.e. the quality of the films. As the name of the most independent section of the festival implies, the Berlin Panorama, it is a wide-angle view of world cinema from far-flung countries not often known for the strength of their film industries. Although no-one would ever say so in public, one has the distinct feeling that some of the best films from countries that produce the majority of films (especially English and French languages), are not being selected in favor of films from countries not often represented on the international stage…especially those from Eastern Europe and the like. As a result, programming at the Berlinale is notoriously hit and miss.
There are certainly gems to be found, often from the unexpected corners of the world. Take for example, Una mujer fantasica (A Fantastic Woman), a Chilean transgender narrative bought by Sony for North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Or the Teddy special jury award Karera ga honki de amu toki wa (Close Knit), another trans-themed film from Japan. Prolific and world-famous director Agnieska Holland dropped her latest Spoor, a murder mystery deemed as a sort of Polish Fargo. Or happily for us at TFC, the Teddy Award winner for Best Documentary which went to Ri chang dui hua (Small Talk), a slow burn gem from Taiwan that is happily a Film Collaborative film. Or Chavela, a luminous bio-doc from director Catherine Gund about legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas (also happily a Film Collaborative film). These are all films that pushed the boundaries in ways that are typically Berlin….so called “exotic” stories from locales usually outside of the international spotlight.
Disappointingly this year, it seemed at least to me and those who I spoke to, that the most talked about films at the Berlinale had already premiered a few weeks ago at Sundance. Without going into names, it seemed that the festival lacked a great number of distinct break-out hits world premiering in Berlinale as a whole. There was a heavier reliance of Sundance hits than usual, and as someone who had attended Sundance just a couple of weeks before, this was underwhelming.
Of course, as most of us know by now, the 2017 Sundance Festival was distinguished by a flood of sales mostly buoyed by the tremendous influx of new money from digital platforms and the bizarrely strong U.S. Dollar. While not nearly as profoundly buoyant, the 2017 Berlinale was still marked by the same trends. From what I could tell, the Hollywood majors drove the market, with MGM setting a new Berlin market record with a $17.5 million pick-up for a Dwayne Johnson wresting pic called Fighting With My Family and U.S. mini-majors like Sony Classics and Lionsgate being unusually active. All in all, the business seemed to continually improve over recent years for the market in general.
However, at least it seems to me, that conditions are getting harder and harder for small independents…and by that I mean both the small indie films and the small indie distributors in particular. As price pressure rises from the incredibly deep pocketed digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon, it seems that there is more uncertainty than ever. Price pressure is rising for small distributors…who can no longer afford to bid with big guys on the block (I heard tell that Amazon now stands to be the most deep pocketed film buyer in the history of the world…which makes sense as they can draw from all their other revenue to fuel their film buying).
Films that once might have been safely projected in terms of revenue potential are now more confusing as a product than ever….as they might sell for some astronomical fee backed by a worldwide deal, or maybe not at all…depending on market whims that seem hard to predict. And the strong dollar is making international buyers increasingly conservative…as the price in euros and all other currencies just seems to be more and more prohibitive for the international players. I heard one Turkish buyer say to a U.S. seller that if they offered USD $10,000 for a film…the buyer needed to understand that that was the equivalent of the Turkish buyer offering $40,000 in their own currency….as the exchange rate is that bad. And as a result, although the buyer planned to make offers to said U.S. seller, they would need to be much lower than in recent years.
As such, from high to low, I submit that the Berlin 2017 experience lived in shades of gray. From the weather, to the programming, to the business, to the overall experience…it goes up and down…and exists mostly in between.
Jeffrey Winter February 22nd, 2017
Posted In: Film Festivals
By Mark Hiraide, who is a partner at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP. He defends directors and officers in securities litigation and counsels companies in corporate financing transactions.
The final tremor of a monumental shift in federal securities laws took place in May 2016, and when the shaking stopped, entrepreneurs had gained unprecedented access to capital. For the first time in the history of federal securities regulation in the United States, emerging businesses may raise capital from the general public without registering a securities offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission. This expansion of the funding universe is the heart and soul of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act of 2012. The JOBS Act removed restrictions making it easier for entrepreneurial clients to fund their ventures using OPM (other people’s money).
The JOBS Act legalized equity crowdfunding, fostered private peer-to-peer lending, created a new regime for regulating “mini-IPOs,” and paved the way for the SEC to create new sources of liquidity for early-stage investors through secondary “venture markets.” The law already has spawned new and innovative financial intermediaries dispensing capital to startup and growing businesses. It has been heralded as “democratizing” access to capital by “disintermediating” Wall Street from the process of selling securities. Many hail the JOBS Act, in particular its provisions for equity crowdfunding, as allowing everyday people to invest in an asset class previously reserved for venture capitalists—crowds of small investors now may directly fund startup businesses that pique their interest. Yet others are skeptical. There is concern that the new regime for raising capital from unsophisticated investors lacks sufficient investor protections.
Prior to the JOBS Act, companies could not publicly solicit any investor unless they registered and subjected the offering to scrutiny by the SEC and/or state securities regulators. The JOBS Act’s elimination of the regulatory burdens on private offerings, and the associated reduction in cost, will make public capital markets attractive to many. No longer will early-stage financing be reserved for those few with the resources to attract and engage Wall Street investment bankers and lawyers. This “uberization” of capital markets will make capital more readily accessible to every budding entrepreneur.
The strict federal securities laws that regulate raising investment capital—well-intentioned in the aftermath of The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression—made the ambition of successfully raising capital for startups unattainable for most people. It relegated entrepreneurs to raising seed capital from friends and family and others with whom the entrepreneur had the requisite relationship.
Title III of the JOBS Act: Regulation CF – Equity Crowdfunding
The term “crowdfunding” generally describes campaigns that accept relatively small amounts of money from large numbers of people. Modern crowdfunding started with campaigns soliciting donations for social causes or new business ventures; in exchange for a donation, individuals typically received a token of appreciation for their donation, a t-shirt, a first opportunity to purchase a product, or a movie-production credit. A stark example of the difference between non-equity and equity crowdfunding is illustrated by the crowdfunding campaign of virtual-reality pioneer Oculus VR. Many of the 9,522 people who contributed to Oculus’s non-equity crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter may have been surprised to learn that they would not share in Oculus’ gains two years later when Facebook announced in March 2014 that it was acquiring Oculus for $2 billion.
Promulgated under Title III of the JOBS Act is the new Regulation CF, commonly known as the “equity crowdfunding” exemption. Effective last May 26, this regulation enables entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million during any 12-month period from anyone who wants to invest, subject to certain dollar limits on the amount of the individual investment. There is no requirement that the investor be accredited or sophisticated. If the investor’s net worth or income is below $100,000, he or she is subject to an investment cap of the greater of $2,000 or 5 percent of the lesser of the investor’s annual income or net worth. If both net worth and annual income are at least $100,000, the investment cap is 10 percent of the lesser of the investor’s annual income or net worth, not to exceed an amount sold of $100,000. These caps reflect the aggregate amount an investor may invest in all offerings under Regulation CF in a 12-month period across all issuers.
An offering statement is required, which must include general information about the issuer, officers and directors and significant shareholders, the intended use of proceeds, the company’s ownership and capital structure and financial statements for the two most recently completed fiscal years. If the offering amount is greater than $100,000 but less than $500,000, the financial statements must be reviewed by an independent accountant. If the offering amount is greater than $500,000, the financial statements must be audited, unless the company is conducting its first Regulation CF offering, in which case the financial statements need only be reviewed. For offerings less than $100,000, the financial statements need only be certified by the issuer’s principal officer. The offering statement must be filed with the SEC, but it is not reviewed by the agency. Once the offering statement is filed with the SEC, the offering may immediately commence and the company may accept investor subscriptions. The issuer is required to set forth a minimum or target offering amount, and proceeds must be deposited in a third-party escrow account until the minimum is reached.
A significant limitation under Regulation CF is that all offerings must be conducted through a single Internet portal, which must either be registered with the SEC as a broker-dealer or as a new form of regulated entity, a “financing portal.” There are limits to advertising an offering and, given the potential liabilities, consultation with good legal counsel is a must.
In theory, Regulation CF enables anyone to reach out to capital sources and raise seed levels of money. No doubt, without the benefit of professional financial intermediaries, such as investment bankers, entrepreneurs on their own will face challenges raising capital. What the JOBS Act offers, however, is a pathway for companies to access capital previously available only to the most privileged few. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
Orly Ravid February 2nd, 2017
Sheri Candler is a digital marketing strategist and TFC’s social media advisor.
The question I hear the most out of filmmakers and others in the film community has to do with social media success. What is the point of posting to social media? What is reasonable to expect out of these daily efforts?
Though much of the guesswork is disappearing from social media when it comes to marketing, most filmmaking teams are not collecting and analyzing their own social media data in order to evaluate what is making an impact, why it is working and what they can stop doing either for the immediate future or stop all together. Without data or feedback on what’s happening on your social channels, you’re in the dark about what is and isn’t working in the day to day and whether your business goals will be successful in the long term.
We’ve never had this much access to information about what your audience is interested in, how they are responding to your work and what other media they are consuming. This data can help you make your work more relevant and interesting to the audience you are trying to reach and to instill stronger loyalty and engagement for the long term—rather than short-term “awareness” building and pushing for sales. Unfortunately, most in the film industry ignore this and prefer to run short term, expensive campaigns meant to build up a large looking following that will be abandoned once the next project comes along. Often what they do on social media does not even accomplish the sales goal, the main reason they are even running an account. What a waste of money and effort!
But how do you know if your social media efforts are working? You won’t if you don’t have a set of goals you are working toward and aren’t measuring the data that indicates whether you are on target to that goal on a weekly and monthly basis. Making data-driven decisions doesn’t replace creativity, but it can provide a direction and a way to know if your creativity is of interest to anyone.
Start with Goals
There are many stages that your social media efforts will go through when you are using it to build an audience for your work. I don’t really like to think of social media as a campaign effort because campaigns usually have a beginning and an end, but social media is 24-7-365 for years. It is really a business function that needs to be performed daily; just as sending email, making phone calls and having meetings are part of your daily, professional routine.
One of the first and ongoing goals is growth of your audience, or building a progressively bigger audience for your work. The purpose of setting this as a goal is to help you see how big of an audience you able to reach through social media. The follower number is usually public so it also lets sales agents, distributors, broadcasters and other potential audience know how much impact your film is making through social media.
Building up an authentic following is a slow process and requires patience, but it can be sped up by the use of a steady budget for paid promotion. On a weekly basis, you should be auditing each of your social media accounts to see how much your account has grown and match that to your efforts (how often you are posting, how much money has been spent to grow the audience, how many unfollows your account might experience). In Facebook, you will find this information under the INSIGHTS tab–>Likes. On Twitter, you will find this under the ANALYTICS tab–>Audiences. On Instagram, you will find this on your business profile page>symbol that looks like a bar graph.
To help you keep track, set up a Google Sheet or Excel sheet with columns that show New Followers, Old Followers, Change in Followers (use the Autosum function that subtracts new followers from the old ones), number of posts that week, amount of money spent on any follower growth campaign that you have conducted that week for each of your social media accounts. On another tab, enter in rows for each account (Facebook, Twitter, etc) and columns for each week in the year and fill in information on rate of growth and spend.
The next important goal to track is the Engagement on your accounts. These include Likes (or Reactions), Comments and Shares, and if applicable, video views, of the content you are posting. Twitter metrics would include favorites (hearts), @mentions and retweets. Instagram would include likes and comments. Pinterest will include repins and likes. Most of this information is available through the insights provided for free with your social media account. Some social media platforms have very limited insights, but this can change as more and more businesses demand analytics in order to continue using a platform for marketing. You should do a weekly report of the average number of likes, comments, shares per post your account is achieving and keep track of this on the same sheet as your follower numbers. Ideally, you want to see these numbers to slowly increase over time.
For a sample idea of what your spreadsheet could look like, see this link.
See this post about accessing analytics on the main social media platforms and what each metric means.
Since I post up to 20 times a day on the accounts I run, I do not compile and compute weekly and monthly reports manually because there is too much data to collect, calculate and analyze. I have been using this tool to keep track: https://www.truesocialmetrics.com/ In addition to telling me my Engagement metrics, it also helps guide when my best posting times are, which types of posts are my best and worst so I have guidance on what to continue to do and what needs to be changed, and who my most engaged followers are. For $30 per month, you can track up to 3 different accounts per platform so it is very affordable and this one tool brings in insights from all major social media platforms so I don’t have to visit each one individually in order to compile management reports.
A few words about Reach and Impressions
Typically, a publicity firm or social media agency will present their metric reports by leading with impression numbers on social media posts and media hits (for example, on a news story in a publication). These numbers are usually very high and thus, impressive to their client. But be aware, these numbers mainly deal with possibility, not actual success. I think of them largely as “squishy” metrics because they do not show real impact like a comment, a share or a “like” which means that a person actually saw and engaged with your post in some way. An impression number denotes the number of times a post from your account was displayed in the newsfeed of the social media platform, whether it is actually seen by your audience at that time or not. It shows that your content had the possibility of being seen. Reach, on the other, hand speaks to the number of people who actually viewed your content. A reach number is typically smaller than an impression number. Both of these stats provide a sense of how wide your posting is spreading, they just don’t give feedback on whether anyone cares.
Eventually, your goal should be Traffic. Traffic deals with sending your follower to another place on the internet where they will find out how to buy something.
In my work now, one of the biggest goals is traffic to our website. If you are in the distribution phase of your production, you should be tracking traffic too. How do you know if your social media is leading to sales if you aren’t tracking traffic? For most of you, the only kind of traffic you can truly track leads back to your own website because you have access to the analytics on your own site (for example, through Google Analytics). You won’t have access to traffic stats on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, or theater websites etc., only the sales reports and those will not show you what tactics are driving your sales. So, it is important to have a mechanism for sales from your website. While there are several cool configurations in Google Analytics that can be set up, those who are not proficient in coding and setting up different tags, triggers, variables may just want to stick with using utm codes. To track traffic back to your website, you will have to use a utm code (universal tag manager) on each link you post to social. It is useless for you to put utm tags on URLs that lead to other websites if you don’t have a way to access their analytics to see traffic stats.
An easy to use one can be found here. In the first field, paste in the URL link you are planning to post. In the next field (labeled Source), name the platform you are posting this link to (your Facebook page, your Twitter account, a link in an email you are sending out etc). In the next field (labeled Medium), name the medium (i.e., social, email, banner ad etc). In the final field (labeled Campaign), put in an identifier for WHO is posting this link. Is this link being posted by the production? Then put in a short name that denotes this (for example, I use tfc for links that lead back to The Film Collaborative website if I am posting these links to The Film Collaborative social media accounts. I use sheri as the campaign name if I am posting links that lead back to The Film Collaborative website on my own social media accounts). If the link is being posted by a third party, such as an organization that has agreed to help promote your film, or the stars of your film who are posting this link on their own accounts, put in an identifying name so that you can differentiate between the traffic generated by the production’s efforts and those by third parties. When looking at Google Analytics, under Acquisition>Campaign you will be able to see what traffic to your website was generated by your social media efforts and what traffic came from each third party (provided that they keep the utm coded link intact, so tell them not to change any link that you send for them to post).
If you are particularly interested in knowing more about the basic functions of Google Analytics for your website, this is a good post to read and mostly still accurate.
Other useful metrics for your social media efforts
You can also glean information about the audience you are reaching through your social media insights. Through Facebook Ad Manager, you can see data based on interests, education levels, job titles and industries, other Facebook pages your audience follows, and the spending habits of your audience. This can help determine what kind of content you should be posting and what keyword parameters to use in paid promotion to help expand on the audience you have started to gather.
By now, all of you should be aware that running accounts on the big social media platforms requires promotional spend. On Facebook, organic (unpaid) reach has plummeted to a meager 6%, meaning that for every 100 followers you have, only 6 of them are going to see your content. Also there are more than 3 million links shared every hour on Facebook so the chances of your followers seeing most of your posts in their newsfeed are very low. To make sure you are both growing your targeted audience base and reaching that audience with your updates, it will be important to spend on promoted posts. Since Facebook also owns Instagram, the same advice holds. If you aren’t using the paid promotion tools on Twitter, chances are great that your tweets will be lost in the stream and your following will grow very slowly.
Does this mean you can’t get any organic lift on your posts? No, that is possible on occasion, especially if one of your post gets a lot of shares, but if you are seeking to make an impact on a continued basis, you will have to pay to make sure your posts are reaching your followers in their newsfeed.
In a future post, I will cover the latest developments on the major social media platforms over the last year and what changes are coming soon. I will also discuss what platforms are useful for reaching certain audiences and the kind of content that should be optimized for success on the major platforms.
Sheri Candler January 12th, 2017
Posted In: Uncategorized
Bryan Glick is director of theatrical distribution at TFC
I love film festivals by-in-large and they have done great things for many of our films. In fact, we have multiple films this year that have generated over $50K in revenue on the festival circuit. Many companies cling to the myth that playing festivals hurts distribution deals and revenue, yet most of our top festival performers still received six figure distribution deals while continuing to generate revenue, awards and exposure on the circuit.
While The Film Collaborative is perhaps best known for monetizing the film festival universe, we provide just as much support in creating an overall festival strategy (which frequently includes playing some top festivals that don’t pay).
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “When/how do we determine that a festival is not worthwhile?” And, frequently, I see filmmakers making similar mistakes in terms of what festivals they say yes to. So with that in mind, here are real world examples of when and why (and often where) film festivals should be avoided.
The first three things we ask when determining whether or not a film festival should pay are:
- Do the domestic and/or international industry attend?
- Do the domestic and/or international press attend?
- Are other film festivals going to look to this festival’s lineup to fill their slate?
If the answer is yes to all 3 of the above questions, the festival probably doesn’t need to pay you a fee (and won’t offer it either), as they are providing significant additional benefits. These are the festivals we call impact festivals…and, in truth, there are not very many of these.
However, if they are not fitting the above criteria, then we believe they should be paying you a fee, as they are not what we call an impact festival and therefore need to offer compensation for their screenings. An exception of course is when major travel could be involved—though it is important to note that many festivals will pay a screening fee and cover travel. We don’t include festival travel or perks in our revenue totals but we have filmmakers that don’t pay rent the entire year and simply travel from festival to festival.
With this basic information in mind let’s pivot to festival no-go’s.
Over the summer, a film that I’ll be releasing theatrically next year got accepted to the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival. The festival mandated that the filmmaker (who lives in NYC) attend the screening and refused to pay a screening fee. They also made it clear that they would not pay for print traffic or travel. Meanwhile, they would put the film in an auditorium that seats several hundred people. There was no way we were about to give away $5,000 worth of tickets and have to pay for the privilege to do so for a non-impact festival. If the film was capable of selling out in L.A., we’d rather apply that to the theatrical, or, for less money, do a special preview screening for an invited audience of maybe 100 people. Looking to those 3 questions above, I could honestly say the answer was “no” to all 3. There was a tiny bit of downtown only press but we were not going to get a THR or Variety review by playing this particular venue. And the festival demands were beyond absurd. If they can’t afford to even cover someone’s shipping, they should not be operating.
Perhaps the bigger issue, however, is that the festival is in the second largest city in America. If you plan to have a theatrical release you have to weigh the pros and cons of playing any fests in those 5-10 top target theatrical markets.
Along those lines, I was advising on another film whose central subject lives in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island International Film Festival had invited the film, but this festival also refuses to pay screening fees. It was not going to be the festival that would be causing the film to sell out, but rather the appeal of the subject, and all of us recognized this. Not only would Rhode Island not pay, but they were very unpleasant to deal with, and so the filmmakers wisely took the film to another festival that would give them just as much (if not more) exposure in the market. This other festival also paid a screening fee and they truly worked with the filmmakers so that they would still be able to use their capital accordingly when the time came for theatrical.
While both of these examples were obvious no go’s we frequently run into the more complicated matter of whether or not a film should play a bigger festival in a city that does not pay, hold until theatrical, and/or play a festival that does pay but is less prestigious. Perhaps the most common manifestation of this is broader international film festival (think the enormous Seattle International Film Festival) vs a niche specific fest (Like Seattle Translations). In this case it really depends on time and strategy but again if the filmmaker holds huge sway in that city it’s almost never worth giving it away for free. In these cases filmmakers really need to look at the size of their audience in the market.
With our film Tab Hunter Confidential, I was clear early on that I did not want the film to play any festival in Palm Springs. Tab Hunter is a former matinee idol and gay icon. The combo of which made it clear to me that despite its population of 100,000, Palm Springs would be our top theatrical market. The Palm Springs Film Festival is a truly amazing festival but since our brand awareness within our target demo was high, it allowed us to create an event arguably bigger than what the fest could provide. Cinema Diverse, which is Palm Springs LGBT festival, is run by a true mensch who I knew would still support the film’s theatrical even if we declined his admittedly well-paying festival. Skipping the festival opportunities allowed us to sell out a 500-seat theater and generate over $10,000 in box office in Palm Springs. Tab is a great example of assessing value all the way around, as TFCD made the choice with the producers to walk away from a distribution offer and instead self-release on iTunes where the film peaked at #2. You can read more about that release in my colleague David Averbach’s blog article from last month.
We had a different situation with (T)ERROR, when we opted to play two festivals in Manhattan. Following the film’s Sundance premiere, we took it to Tribeca and Human Rights Watch New York. Tribeca allowed us to continue the awards/prestige trajectory and (T)ERROR was the opening night film at Human Rights Watch, which enabled us to position the film with several politically-oriented festivals. It was smart for this title, but it admittedly made booking a theater in NYC quite complicated. Several venues did not want the film, as they thought it had exhausted its audience. The film played for 3 weeks at IFC Center and went on to win IDA and Cinema Eye Awards. If this film had been a world premiere at Tribeca, I likely would have turned down Human Rights Watch, not because it doesn’t have value, but because of possible future theatrical issues.
In the city of San Francisco these choices are constant as the city has some of the top festivals of almost every niche (Jewish, LGBT, Asian, Environmental, etc.) in addition to the well-respected San Francisco International. In that market, if there is a niche we can position film for, that option is almost always better in the long run than playing a San Francisco Film Festival. Screening at Frameline can be the difference between a 5 figure LGBT festival run and being passed over by the entire LGBT circuit. This is where knowing the audience for the film is so important in evaluating festivals. And I encourage every filmmaker to figure out what niches the film can be positioned for and what the top 2-3 fests are for those niches.
More recently, I’ve dealt with a simple reality of time. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is figure out when a festival is too demanding compared to what it is they offer. For the Love of Spock is one of our top festival and theatrical bookers of the year and, with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek in September and 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s easy to see why. I admittedly found myself quite frustrated that non-impact festivals in rural towns of less than 50,000 were offering chump change and asking for crazy requests like having the director attend their festival during the first weekend of the film’s theatrical release. With one festival in particular I turned them down three times only to have them try and go around my back. The filmmakers were responsible enough to let me know what was going on and we ultimately passed. If a festival is being unreasonable compared to what they offer, it is perfectly fine to say no. Your time has value after-all.
The most likely reason that we will say no, though, is premiere status. Holding out for a top European premiere (Berlin, Locarno, etc.) instead of launching at the first fest that says yes in that region. Most festivals are understanding when it comes to navigating premiere status, but beyond the World, International, European, North American premieres of a film, most of the other obligations are really stretching it. And if there’s 4 festivals in New Mexico that will pay for a film ahead of one that’s asking for the Florida premiere we will usually say take the 4 paying festivals. This is the one area, however, where we see filmmakers turning down festivals that they should be saying yes to. Every year I see filmmakers pulling films out of festivals after Sundance in a hope that Cannes will take their film. And most of the time it hurts the film as they sit out dozens of festivals only to get rejected by Cannes and be subsequently forgotten after all the other fests like Berlin, SXSW and Tribeca have passed. Once the filmmakers get the rejection letter from Cannes they try to reroute course, but some of the festivals that fought for the film months earlier will hold a grudge and instead turn the film down.
Luckily, most festivals are welcoming places and 9/10 a festival that says yes can and will be a positive notch in the film’s exposure belt. But when fests are not willing to pay or are a huge drain of time and resources, that’s when you have to be prepared to say no. Of course keep your theatrical release in mind but you only need to focus on the top few target markets. As you look at the fests in those markets, figure out what your brand awareness is and how the festivals can or cannot help you connect with an audience. The truth is most festivals happily will promote their alumni titles when they open.
Bryan Glick October 27th, 2016
David Averbach is Creative Director and Director of Digital Distribution Initiatives at The Film Collaborative.
When distributing your film, a lot of time is spent waiting for answers. Validation can come only intermittently, and the constant string of “no”s is an anxiety-ridden game of process of elimination. Which doors open for your film and which doors remain closed determines the trajectory of its distribution, whether it’s festival, theatrical, digital, education or home video (until that’s dead for good).
I work with filmmakers, way down-wind of this long and drawn-out process, who, after exhausting all other possibilities, have “chosen” DIY digital distribution as a last resort.
TFC’s DIY digital distribution program has helped almost 50 filmmakers go through the process of releasing their film digitally over the past 5 years and with most of them, I have often felt as though I were giving a pep-talk to the kid who got picked last for the dodgeball team. “Hang in there, just stick to it…you’ll show them all.”
Is DIY Digital Distribution anything more than a last resort? Perhaps not…
DIY vs. DOA
Since TFC was formed over six and a half years ago, we have optimistically used “DIY” as a term of empowerment, where access and transparency had finally reached a point where one could act as one’s own distributor. After all, we tell these (literally) poor, exhausted filmmakers, “no one knows your film better than you do”, so “no one can do a better job of marketing it.” With a little gumption, a few newsletters and handful of paid Facebook posts, you, too, might prove all the haters wrong and net even more earnings than Johnny next door who sold his film to what he thought was a reputable distributor but never saw a dime past the MG (minimum guarantee) in his distribution agreement. We even wrote two case study books about it.
It’s not that I’m being untruthful with these filmmakers. Nor is it the case that these films are necessarily of poor quality. What they have in common is a lack of visibility. Most had some sort of festival run, and only a handful were released theatrically, usually with one- or two-day engagements in a handful of cities. Occasionally, we’ll get a film that has four-walled in New York or Los Angeles for a week. Or sometimes ones that have played on local PBS affiliates or even on Showtime. But their films are not even close to being household brand names. So without the exposure or the marketing budget, they can do little more than to deliver their film to TVOD platforms like iTunes and hope for the best.
So what happens to these films? The news, as a whole, is not good. Based on what I’ve seen from these films in the aggregate, and all things being equal, if you DIY/dump your film onto only iTunes/Amazon/GooglePlay with moderate festival distribution but no real money left for marketing, you will be lucky to net more than $10K on TVOD platforms in your film’s digital life.
And the poorer the filmmaking quality of your film, or the less recognizable the cast, or the less “niche” your film is, the more likely it will be that you won’t even earn much more revenue than what is required to pay off the encoding and delivery fees to get your film onto these platforms in the first place (which is around $2-3K).
Which is why, as of late, I’ve been aggressively suggesting to filmmakers that holding off on high profile TVOD platforms and instead trying to drive traffic to their websites and offering sales and rentals of their film via Vimeo On Demand or VHX, two much cheaper options, might be a better use of their limited remaining funds.
But am I down on DIY? Not necessarily.
Granted, there are a lot of films out there for which The Film Collaborative can do very little for in the area of digital distribution other than hold filmmakers’ hands. But what about for films working at the “next level up” from last-resort-DIY? Films who have either gotten a no-MG or modest-MG distribution offer?
Many distributors and aggregators working at this level will informally promise some sort of marketing, but many times those marketing efforts are not specifically listed contractually in the agreement. So when filmmakers ask me whether going with a no-MG aggregator is better than doing DIY, this is my answer…
It’s important to remember that, once a film is on iTunes, no one will care how it got there. And by this I mean with no featured placement, just getting it on to the platform. So, if that’s all a distributor/aggregator is doing, this is not the kind of deal that a filmmaker can dump into someone else’s hands and move on to their next project. In fact, many aggregators will send you a welcome packet with tips and suggestions on how to market your film on social media, such as Facebook. In other words, they are literally expecting you to do your own marketing. Not just do but pay for. So, it is entirely possible that all that an aggregator or distributor is doing is fronting your encoding costs, which they will later recoup from your gross earnings, but only after they take their cut off the top. And if your distributor is offering you a modest MG, you must be prepared for the possibility that that MG may be all the earnings you are ever going to see. Certainly, we have seen many, many filmmakers in this position.
So the question remains: Is DIY still too risky for all but films that have run out of options?
It’s a hard question to answer, mostly because there is no ONE answer. Undoubtedly, some films will be helped with such an arrangement and some films will not.
A View from the Other Side…
Distributors, of course, will stick to the sunny side of the street. They will tell you that DIY is too risky for the vast majority of films, and remind you that distribution is more than getting a film on to one or two platforms.
When I asked Gravitas Ventures founder Nolan Gallagher, a veteran in distribution and whose co-execs have a combined 50+ years in distribution experience, about his feelings regarding DIY, he was quick to point out that the main difference between a proven distributor and DIY is that while much of the work in DIY happens in year 1, distributors can help in year 3 or year 5 or beyond. He believes that DIY individual filmmakers will be shut out from new revenue opportunities (i.e. the VOD platforms of the future) that will be launched by major media companies or venture capital backed entrepreneurs in the years to come because these platforms will turn to established companies with hundreds or thousands of titles on offer.
This is a fair point, in theory, but I honestly cannot recall a single instance of one of our filmmakers from 2010-2013 jumping for joy over that fact that his or her distributor had suddenly found a meaningful new VOD opportunity in years 3-5, nor have we heard of any specific efforts or successes down the line. But it’s good to know one can expect this if signing with a distributor.
He also mentioned that many of Gravitas’ documentarians receive multiple 5 figures in annual revenue over 5 years after a film first debuted.
That’s nice for those filmmakers…But what about the ones that don’t? It would be ludicrous to suggest that any decent film, with the proper marketing and industry connections, can become a respectable grosser on iTunes.
By no means am I singling out Gravitas in order to pick on them in any way. For many films, clearly they do a terrific job.
But does that mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers that have gone through aggregators like Gravitas or other smaller distributors that many TFC films have worked with, such as The Orchard, A24, Oscilloscope, Virgil, Wolfe, Freestyle Digital Media, Breaking Glass Pictures, Amplify, Wolfe, Zeitgeist Films, Dark Sky Films, Tribeca Films, Sundance Selects, who are not entirely convinced that they were well served by their distributor? Of course not.
The Million Dollar Question…
The question I really wanted to know was more of a hypothetical one than one that assigns blame: if these so-called “borderline films” that went through aggregators/distributors had done DIY instead, how close could they have come netting the same amount of earnings in the end? Is it possible that they could have gotten more?
This is a hard question—or, should I say, a nearly impossible question—to answer, because no one has a crystal ball. But also because of the continued lack of transparency surrounding digital earnings, despite initiatives like Sundance Institute’s The Transparency Project, and because the landscape is continually evolving.
A recent article in Filmmaker Magazine, entitled “The Digital Lowdown,” discusses how independent filmmakers struggle to survive in an overcrowded digital marketplace and “admits” that niche-less festival films will only gross in the range of $100K-$200K, and that, in fact, talks about a “six-figure goal.” But in almost the same breath, there is a caveat. Sundance Artist Services warns that “…if a filmmaker spends about $100,000 in P&A to finance a theatrical run, they’re probably going to be making that much from digital sources.”
I have heard many stories of distributors and filmmakers alike, who put “X” dollars combined into P&A for both theatrical and digital only to make a similar amount back in the end. So what’s the point? If you look at distribution from the perspective of paying back investors, are a good portion of filmmakers netting close to nothing, no matter whether they do DIY or whether they gear up for a theatrical and digital distribution via a distributor? If a film does not succeed monetarily, is the consolation prize merely visibility and exposure? (Which is not nothing, but it’s not $$ either).
A few months ago, my colleague Bryan Glick posted a terrific piece on our blog that questioned the ROI of an Oscar®-qualifying run, given the unlikelihood of being shortlisted. Bryan implies that because filmmakers like hearing “yes,” and like having their egos stroked, when publicists, publications, screening series, cinemas, and private venues all lure filmmakers with a possibility of an Oscar®, something takes over and they lose perspective at the very moment they need it most.
Could the same be true for a distribution strategy? Are filmmakers so happy to be offered a distribution deal at all that they are unable to walk away from that distribution deal, even if they suspect that it undervalues their film? And could a viable DIY option change that?
Evaluating Success with DIY
Last fall, I began to think about what a “successful” DIY digital release could look like. On the low end, we’ve heard about a magical $10K figure that I discussed above…in the context of MGs paid to Toronto official selections via Vimeo on Demand, and Netflix offers to Sundance films via Sundance Artists Services. So it would have to be at least greater than $10K. And on the high end, it would have to be at least $100K that the filmmaker gets to net over a 10-year period.
Working backwards, how can this be achieved and is it possible to recreate that strategy via DIY?
One thing that gave me hope was when my colleague Orly Ravid, acting as sales agent, negotiated a licensing low-six-figure deal with Netflix for the film Game Face, about LGBTQ athletes coming out. The film won numerous audience awards at film festivals, but had no theatrical release. Timing, as well as the sports and LGBT niche, made this film perfect for a DIY release. The only catch was the Netflix insisted on a simultaneous SVOD & TVOD window, so Netflix and iTunes releases started within one day of each other. TFC serviced the deal through our flat-fee program via Premiere Digital Services.
Lessons Learned from the DIY Release of Tab Hunter Confidential
This past Spring, TFC spearheaded the digital release of Tab Hunter Confidential, a film for which we also handled festival and theatrical distribution, as well as sales. Truth be told, this film almost went through a distributor. In the end, however, after a protracted period of negotiation, an offer was made, but knowing how much Netflix was willing to offer, Orly advised the filmmaker to walk away from the deal and try our hand at a DIY release. The filmmaker agreed, and we serviced the Netflix deal via Premiere. However, as Netflix wanted the film for June, which is Gay Pride Month, we had a limited amount of time in which to do iTunes, and I was determined to make the most of it.
So what were the goals? And how could we get there?
I had been trolling both the “Independent” and “Documentary” sections on iTunes for months in preparation for what has now become this article on DIY. I had been noticing that while it is easy to get a film into the “New & Noteworthy” section in “Documentaries,” which contains at hundreds of films, the similar section in “Independent” is limited to about 32. So how could one get there? And how could one’s film be featured in the top carousel in “Independent” or in any of the genre categories? Would it help to offer iTunes exclusivity? Would it help to do iTunes Extras? Could we contact Apple and try and schedule something? What else could be done? These are the questions that I set out figure out on my own, or to ask our aggregator, Premiere Digital Services.
How can I get my film to be one of the 30+ films in the “Independent” Section of iTunes? This section is populated at Apple’s discretion. Their iTunes division is based in L.A., not Silicon Valley, and they attend film festivals and are very up-to-date on the indie film landscape. It’s clear, however, that while they do speak with distributors and aggregators about what’s coming down the pipeline, most of the decisions about what is to receive placement in this section occur within a week or two of the release date in question, and are decided ultimately by iTunes. I informed Premiere Digital that we were very interested in being placed in Independent, and they told me that they have weekly calls with iTunes and that—closer to the date of release—they would mention the film to them. In the end—spoiler alert—we did manage to get Tab into this section. But there were no back room deals to get that to happen…so I can hereby confirm that it is possible to be featured on the iTunes store based solely on your film and the specifics of its release.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Out of approximately 100 films that appeared from late November 2015 to early February 2016 (which I kept track of manually, so the following is not completely scientific), about 50 of those had a “fresh” rotten tomatoes score. About 40 of those 50 had RT scores over 80%, and many of those were Certified as Fresh. Of the remaining 50 films, about 20 had “rotten” RT scores, and about 30 had no score at all. Luckily, Tab Hunter Confidential has an RT score of 87%, so I knew I was safe from that perspective. But while I was investigating, I was particularly interested in those films without a score. I noticed that many of them had star power attached, and a few of them were holiday-themed. A few of them were Lionsgate titles. And a few sports-related and horror titles, which always seem to rise to the top. I glanced at the Independent section for this week (third week in August), and these numbers pretty much bear out, save the holiday ones. The takeaway here was that if your film did not have a theatrical (and therefore perhaps does not have a RT score), if it doesn’t have famous people in it, it’s not about sports or is not in the horror genre, your chances of appearing in this section as a DIY film going through an aggregator seem pretty slim.
Check in, check out dates. As many of you know, films always end up in one of Apple’s genre sections. They stay there a few weeks or even a few months until they are bumped out of that category by newer items. But those sections are very glutted. The “Independent” section is a second placement, one that is curated by Apple, of only three rows of films. One thing that I became acutely aware of was the high turnaround in this section. Films seemed to be refreshed twice a week: once on Tuesdays (release day), and then again on Fridays. This was more or less consistent, although I got the feeling that on a few occasions things were a bit early or a bit late.
At any rate, it was very clear that if films were not pulling their weight, they would be booted from the “Independent” section for something else. At least 1/3 of the films were gone after only a few days. After all, Apple is in the business of making money off these films too. What occurred to me is that if filmmakers are doing distribution deals to get placement, and their films only last 3 days in the “Independent” section, and that measly placement is what amounts to the big perk/payoff of going through a distributor, it’s a pretty sad day for either the filmmaker, the distributor, or both.
How can I get my film featured in the top carousel? It turned out to be the same answer as for the Independent section in general, but I can admit it now…I was a pest: I asked multiple people at Premiere this question. I was told over and over that Apple will make a request for layered artwork if they are interested in featuring the film. Two weeks before the release date I had not heard anything. But less than a week before, Premiere received the request for artwork from Apple. We ended up being featured in both the “Independent” and “Documentary” sections.
Why did they pick us? I am not completely sure, but here are my guesses: We had a great film festival run. The film was based on a bestselling book. We had a high RT score; we did a 40+ city theatrical; we had a lot of press, and we had a publicist; the film was apparently not doing terribly in the iTunes Pre-Order section, Tab Hunter did many interviews when the theatrical came out; Tab Hunter is freaking Tab Hunter; the film spans both LGBT genres and the genre of women of a certain age who came of age in the 1950s and still remember Tab’s poster on their bedroom walls; the artwork was classy; it was almost June; we gave them an exclusive (although I don’t think they ever advertised it as such); we did an international release on iTunes (we were told that Apple likes films to have more than one territory to be featured, which is kind of strange, because it wasn’t featured in any other iTunes store, like Canada or UK); and lastly, we did some iTunes custom artwork and iTunes Extras.
Walking the walk. Speaking of customization, one thing that I noticed about every film in the “Independent” section was that most detail pages contained customized promotion background artwork. Apple likes this. It gives the film branding, credibility. Apple has two different kinds of background art one for the iTunes store and one for AppleTV. We opted to do just the iTunes store art, which is an extra $75 conformance fee at Premiere. We also did iTunes Extras basic package, for about $700 extra, which offers a chance to include bonus features, such as outtakes and other exclusive video. Since we were planning on including bonus interviews on our DVD, we included that file, as well as 10 minutes of interviews for which iTunes is the only place that they are available. I’m not sure if Extras helped the featured placement, since we were literally down to the wire on having them appear on the store in time for the release. (At the last minute, we needed a looping background audio for iTunes, which we didn’t realize was mandatory, so if you go the Extras route, don’t forget that that audio file is needed).
Results. All in all, we did everything we could, and it paid off. We were featured in both the carousels of the “Independent” and “Documentary” genre sections, and stayed in the “Independent” carousel for a full week and in “Documentary” carousel for two weeks. We stayed in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Independent” for several weeks. At its peak, we reached #2 in Documentaries, being surpassed only by Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, which months later is still in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Independent.” We made sure Tab Hunter Confidential shows up in both the iTunes Extras section and the “LGBT Movies” Collection section. The more places to find the film, after all, the more chance of it being rented or purchased.
After over 3 months, around the third week of August, Tab Hunter Confidential was the 12th All-Time Bestselling LGBT Doc in the iTunes store. As of the date of this blog, it has dipped down the 14th. It is still in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Documentaries,” although to be fair that section contains hundreds of films.
Regrets? Could we have stayed longer in the iTunes carousels? Two things worked against us. First, although there was a social media push when the film was released, it was pretty limited, as we had only a small P&A budget. With more of a spend, we could have gotten more attention during the second week, and perhaps sales would have warranted the film sticking around for longer. Other films, such as Gravitas’ Requiem for the American Dream, for which TFC handled the Theatrical, featuring Noam Chomsky, have done a much better job surfing this wave. Fortuitous timing with Bernie Sanders, but that is a story for another day.
Although we offered TVOD exclusivity to Apple until June, it was unclear whether they really cared about that, as they never promoted it as such, and we probably should have released on Amazon, GooglePlay and Vudu on the same day as iTunes.
(Speaking of Amazon and GooglePlay, I once asked someone who used to work at Premiere how one gets featured on those other platforms’ stores. What they told me was shocking: Amazon and GooglePlay basically copy content ideas from the iTunes store. This was about a year ago, so who knows if this is still happening, or if it was even true at all. But I was kind of blown away by this.)
Conclusion. There are undoubtedly things one could immediately try and recreate from the steps that were taken with Tab Hunter Confidential. However, who is to know if they could work a second time, with a different film and different timeframe?
I am not suggesting in this article that distribution deals are unnecessary. Many companies have a ton of industry connections and experience that one might not be able to recreate with DIY.
But in this case, the filmmaker is thrilled, and my TFC team believes that dollar for dollar, the filmmaker walked away with a guaranteed net that is more than they would have received had they taken the distribution deal that was offered to them by a distributor.
So should DIY be considered a dirty word? Only you can decide if it is right for you film. As a whole, the jury might still be out, but, at the very least, I suspect that we’re going to get more filmmakers interested in iTunes background art.
Be sure to look out for Tab Hunter Confidential, on digital platforms, and now on DVD and Blu-Ray, which have recently been released by our friends at FilmRise.
David Averbach September 6th, 2016
We are gearing up for a big article on DIY Digital Distribution, which will be posted very soon. In the meantime, we liked this No Film School case study article on DIY DVD Distribution so much that we had to link to it on our blog as well as SM. Enjoy!
Orly Ravid August 17th, 2016
by Jessica Rosner (Media Consultant) and Orly Ravid (Founder, The Film Collaborative and Attorney, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP)
This month’s blog is co-written by Jessica Rosner, who has been a film booker in the theatrical, nontheatrical and educational markets since the days of 16mm. Recent titles include Jafar Panahi’s THIS IS NOT A FILM and John Boorman’s QUEEN AND COUNTRY.
One area of film revenue that is both increasing exponentially but often neglected by rights holders is the educational streaming market, which basically allows institutions to stream films to students for classes. Old models of showing films during classes or having students watch copies in the library are being largely overtaken by instructors wanting students to watch films wherever they are from a dorm room to a Starbucks. Unfortunately, while tens of thousands of films, both feature and educational, are being legally streamed, there are others that are being illegally streamed and many thousands that rights holders are not making available. In both cases revenue is being lost. Major rights holders represented by the MPAA have been overreaching by attempting to prevent academic use of clips from DVDs. And, they are ineffectual by refusing to directly challenge claims by some academic institutions and organizations, including the American Library Association, that they can stream an entire film without a license.
Films ranging from shorts produced for the educational market to feature films from studios have been used in classes for decades, first largely in 16mm (rented or purchased from rights holders) and then in a variety of video and digital formats. When videos started in the 1970s a special provision of the copyright law known as the “face-to-face” teaching exemption was enacted that allowed any legally produced video (and later DVD) to be shown to students in physical classrooms supervised by an instructor. (U.S.C. § 110 “Limitations on exclusive rights: Exemption of certain performances and displays”). Few instructors now want to use class time to show films and few students want to go to the library to view or check out physical copy of a film so streaming has become the most popular way to use films for classes. There are many platforms and companies which are servicing this growing market, notably Swank, which handles many of the major studios, and a few that handle independent films, such as Kanopy, Alexander Street Press, Films Media Group, and, for documentaries, Docuseek2. While the vast majority of streaming films done legally through licensed platforms or contracts, there is a segment of the academic community including many influential institutions and organizations which have asserted that under “fair use” they can stream entire films without paying right holders. “Fair use”1 is a long established part of American copyright law which allows portions of copyrighted works to be used in a variety of contexts including education, satire and creating new works. (U.S.C. § 107 “Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use.”)
In 2010, UCLA (Regents of the University of California) was caught streaming thousands of films from studio features to documentaries, they used in classes without any payment or license to rights holders. When sued by Ambrose Video Publishing (an educational video producer) and the Association for Information Media and Equipment (a consortium of educational media companies) for unlawful copying and reformatting DVDs of BBC productions Shakespeare’s plays and putting them online for students (on UCLA’s own system), the case was initially dismissed due to issues involving lack of standing (Ambrose was not the rights holder) and sovereign immunity. UCLA’s claim that streaming an entire film was acceptable under “fair use” was never actually fully litigated. See Ass’n for Info. Media & Equip. v. Regents of the Univ. of California, No. CV 10-9378 CBM MANX, 2011 WL 7447148, at *1 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 3, 2011); Ass’n for Info. Media & Equip. v. Regents of the Univ. of California, No. 2:10-CV-09378-CBM, 2012 WL 7683452, at *11 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 20, 2012). UCLA also had streamed hundreds of major studio films not included in the lawsuit. The court noted in 2012 that “no Court has considered whether steaming videos only to students enrolled in classes constitutes fair use, which reinforces the ambiguity of the law in this area.” Although no precedent was set by this case because it was dismissed, the failure of other rights holders to challenge this has left their films vulnerable to the claim that streaming an entire feature film for a class is “fair use.”
However recent decisions involving publishers rejected the legal claim that putting an entire work online for a class is “fair use.” In both the Google Books and Georgia State cases, Federal courts ruled that only portions from “snippets” to chapters could be posted online for academic use not an entire book.2
On October 27 the Library of Congress issued an update to Digital Millennium Copyright Act which is the key law on copyrights of digital materials. It allowed far broader access by the academic and non-profit community to numerous digital formats for a variety of “fair use” activities over the strong of objections of the MPAA which had not wanted to allow the breaking up encryption even for legitimate “fair use” such as clips. However, the Library of Congress flatly and clearly rejected the request of representatives of the educational community to be allowed to access entire works stating it was “declined due to lack of legal and factual support for exemption. ”
Despite the recent court rulings and the new DMCA rules, various educational institutions and organizations continue to assert that entire films can be streamed without permission or payment to rights holders. One of the more novel claims is that since feature films were made for “entertainment” and they are now being solely used for “education,” thus transforming their use to qualify as “fair use.” The latter claim is without precedent and directly contradicts numerous precedents in copyright cases that creative works are given a higher level of fair use protection than factual works. E.g. Cambridge Univ. Press, supra, 769 F.3d at1268; Sony Corp. of Am. v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417, 497, 104 S. Ct. 774, 816, 78 L. Ed. 2d 574 (1984). Moreover, such a claim would then justify scanning and streaming online a swath of modern fiction books used for courses.
It is crucial for distributors and filmmakers to engage the academic community to protect their rights. It is equally important that they make their films available for legal streaming. Many colleges are frustrated because they are trying to pay and legally license the material only to find that, while a title is available on DVD and some digital platforms, they can’t license that same title for use by students in classes via streaming. Most schools would prefer to license a title directly to ensure availability and not force students pay for Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu memberships even if film is available on those services. Some substantial libraries from Sony Pictures Classics, HBO and a variety of small distributors and individual filmmakers have not allowed their films to be available for streaming by universities. Not being able to access Leviathan, Still Alice, 4 Little Girls, etc. via direct streaming is a major problem for educational institutions. While the license for an individual film to one school might only be $100-$200, there thousands of potential institutions for a wide variety of films. Streaming of feature films for educational use is only going to keep growing.
The film community, from distributors to producers, needs to work with the academic community to make sure all films are directly available to students via their school in the highest quality streaming formats, while also ensuring that rights holders are fairly compensated.
1The U.S. Copyright Office has now launched its “fair use” index—a (free) searchable database of U.S. court opinions on copyright fair use dating back to Folsom v. Marsh (1841)…
Here is their description of the database:
Welcome to the U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index. This Fair Use Index is a project undertaken by the Office of the Register in support of the 2013 Joint Strategic Plan on Intellectual Property Enforcement of the Office of the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC). Fair use is a longstanding and vital aspect of American copyright law. The goal of the Index is to make the principles and application of fair use more accessible and understandable to the public by presenting a searchable database of court opinions, including by category and type of use (e.g., music, internet/digitization, parody).
Here is the link to the Fair Use Home Page.
And here is the actual link to the Searchable Case Database—you can filter it by federal circuits and/or by types of works (literary works, films etc.).
2 See Authors Guild v. Google, Inc., No. 13-4829-CV, 2015 WL 6079426, at *20 (2d Cir. Oct. 16, 2015) (Second Circuit affirming the finding of fair use as to Google’s unauthorized digitizing of copyrighted works, creation of a search functionality and “display of snippets” because the “purpose of the copying is highly transformative, the public display of text is limited, and the revelations do not provide a significant market substitute for the protected aspects of the originals” and that Google is providing digitized copies to libraries that had the books with the understanding that the libraries will follow copyright law.) See also Cambridge Univ. Press v. Patton, 769 F.3d 1232, 1283 (11th Cir. 2014) (three publishers sued Georgia State University for scanning and posting portions of books and journals for students to access via the university’s e-reserves; Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded, instructing the lower court to apply the fair use factors more holistically and give more weight to the threat of market substitution). The case (still partly on appeal) is important because it maintains that only a portion of a work may be digitized for fair use.
Orly Ravid June 1st, 2016
Posted In: Legal