For the next several weeks, we will feature information for filmmakers who want to get started in using social media for their personal career and for their projects. These posts will be very basic in nature as we have realized that many members are confused/apprehensive/non tech savvy and we want to encourage them to be excited and proactive about sharing their work with an audience. At the heart of all social network marketing is the authentic, human need to connect and communicate with like minded people. This first post will prime you for the mentality change you need to succeed in using social channels. Quick jump to subsequent posts MythsFacebookTwitterYoutube

Changing the mindset and finding the time

Before starting with questions like which is better, Facebook or Twitter, we need to recognize that the whole idea of sharing online and communicating directly with an audience takes a monumental shift in thinking. While it was the accepted norm that an artist would be separated from her audience and expected to create away from the public eye, only allowing them to see the work when it was launched into the market, this is no longer the case. Artists, and all people and companies really, are now expected to be open, accessible and willing to speak with the public.

Whether one agrees with this expectation is immaterial, it is a fact and those unwilling to accept it are quickly falling behind. Are there well known artists who haven’t accepted this, who still enjoy popularity despite being inaccessible? Yes, for the time being. But 99% of artists reading this post do not fall into that category and cannot compare themselves to these personalities. Even within that category of artists, there is a changing mindset with very prominent directors (ie., Ron Howard, William Friedkin, Darren Aronofsky, Spike Lee etc), cinematographers (Roger Deakins, Matthew Libatique), producers (Frank Marshall, Dana Brunetti, Gale Anne Hurd) and screenwriters (John August, Craig Mazin, Roger Avary) actively using social channels on a consistent basis. If they can find time in THEIR schedules, so can you and you must.

audience shouldn't be disposable

Ending the disposable audience mentality

Every project you make is a startup product, but meant to further the whole of your career in the future. Your body of work should build on itself, growing in experience and helping to push out to the wider world with each successive project . However, it is a mistake to think that audiences also have to be looked at as a new startup with each new project. I would like to do away with the practice of discarding the audience after a film has run through its release windows. This goes for artists as well as distributors. It is extremely wasteful and even rude to court an audience for a period of time and then drop them only to start up again in a year or two or to regard them as mere receptacles for your one way advertising messages. The audience is growing used to expecting access on a near constant basis with brands (if you are an artist, you are a brand) and your brand needs to be more than a logo. It has to be a personality, an identity, it has to show the world what you believe if you expect any loyalty or relationship.The days of viewing your audience as some abstract entity or eyeballs with wallets are over and the days of thinking that all you have to do is make great work and it will just be found are over. Artists need to start cultivating their own audiences for a sustainable living.

Starting from Open, Random and Supportive*

Closed, Selective and Controlling. This is the mindset we have been used to in most aspects of the arts and in business. We have been operating mostly away from the public, hidden behind a logo and faceless entities we hired to speak for us (distributors, managers, agents and publicists). We listened to selective voices and we allowed only a selective group behind our closed doors of creation. We controlled all access in how our work was seen, experienced and who could talk about it or share it. This is NOT the world we live in any longer.

we're open

We need to open ourselves up to meeting all kinds of people and listening to all kinds of voices. Openness helps us grow. Be Open in accepting that this change in how people communicate has already happened, no matter how much you wish it hadn’t or how much you think it is just a phase. A major change in human communication has happened and the days of closed, selective and controlling are not returning.

Accept Random information. There is an endless supply of information streaming at us every day and the answer is not to cut yourself off from it. Learning to filter the noise, analyze the random in order to find the relevant is becoming a human skill that we will need in order to evolve and survive. Our children are already learning to do this, we need to catch up.

The Internet operates best in an open environment where sharing information, educating people, and building a large number of connections breeds success. Rather than thinking from greed and competition, think about how much faster you can grow your success by being Supportive of others and giving instead of only figuring out how to take from them.

Social channels are only tools

No matter which channels you choose, know that they are only tools to help accomplish your goals. When evaluating the tools, be realistic about the strengths you are going to bring to them yourselves. If you aren’t much of a writer, blogging probably won’t be a good tool for you I don’t care how much people say you should blog. Having a poorly maintained blog is worse than having no blog. If shooting video or photos is more your speed, then using Youtube, Instagram, Vine etc are tools on which to concentrate. If you would rather engage in short, pithy dialogue, Twitter will be your best tool. Not only will you need social accounts, you will need to populate these channels regularly. If you pick a tool that is torture to maintain, you won’t do it and you won’t accomplish much with it.

Goals to accomplish**

One goal for artists is to secure funding and one of the biggest opportunities in funding art projects is crowdfunding. You know what is at the foundation of successful crowdfunding? Having online connections with a core group of supporters.  Crowdfunding can help you expand an audience, but it is extremely rare to have a successful campaign starting at zero connections. If you don’t have an active presence online, it will be exceedingly difficult to raise money this way.

Another goal is industry networking. I haven’t met a first time or unknown filmmaker yet who didn’t say they wanted their work to be a calling card to lead to future work. While you can tour the festival circuit or hit all of the pitchfests in hopes of making industry connections, you can also accomplish this by following prolific industry executives online and interacting with them in a valuable way. Valuable in this instance meaning how you show your value to them, not how they can be valuable to you. We’ll talk about adding value in subsequent posts.

Reaching a group of interested people. While you can do this only through releasing remarkable work, you can do this on a daily basis as well. In sharing what drives you artistically, professionally, you can pull in those who have the same sensibilities as yourself. You can also be a catalyst for meaningful dialog and change. If the thing that drives you as an artist is to raise awareness or give a voice to the voiceless through your work in a visual medium, you can do the same thing on social channels every day. You can mobilize communities and create change.

In the next post, I will talk about the main myths behind social network marketing and you may recognize a few that you believe to be true. In subsequent posts I will highlight the main social channels in use today. Bear in mind that new channels are being adopted and existing ones are being replaced every day. Also there are near constant changes to the capabilities on existing channels. Such is the challenge to using these tools, but the core of what you are trying to do with them is not changing. Connecting and relationship building with an audience will become a cornerstone of your creative success no matter what online tools you use.

*based on this talk from Thomas Power.

**based on Jon Reiss’ 5 goals common to filmmakers when releasing their work




May 29th, 2013

Posted In: crowdfunding, Marketing, Social Network Marketing

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Yes the above title is a reference to my favorite Baz Luhrman film.  The fact is that The Cannes Film Festival is truly in its own class. For domestic distribution, it is arguably the best launch pad for foreign language films and can be a high profile place to premiere English language movies too. The problem is that many of the American films are star driven, have large budgets by indie standards and/or have distribution secured before arriving. If your American film isn’t a massive media machine, you will not be premiering at Cannes and honestly you wouldn’t want to.

Cannes signs

In looking at how the films from Cannes 2012 festival have performed, one has to note that over 60% of the films acquired for US came from 5 distribution companies (and their subsidiaries). TWC, SPC, IFC, Strand Releasing, and Film Movement dominated the acquisitions zone.

Moonrise Kingdom (Focus, worldwide gross $68, 263, 166), Lawless (TWC, worldwide gross $53, 676, 580), and Killing Them Softly (TWC, worldwide gross $37, 930, 465) all had distribution deals attached when they premiered. All are three of the highest grossing independent films from 2012, but only Moonrise Kingdom could be classified as a hit. In fact Killing Them Softly is arguably a massive failure, failing to recoup its budget in its US theatrical and getting a rare F Cinemascore. TWC’s pick up from Cannes 2012, The Sapphires, has been a modest performer in its 8 weeks of theatrical release so far this year grossing just over $2 mil.

Sony Picture Classics (SPC) has long been a dominant distributor of high art foreign films and they acquired Amour, No, and Rust and Bone. All the films grossed $2,000,000 + in the US however the titles are a mixed bag. Amour grossed less than prior year’s foreign language Oscar entry, but still was a $6 mil plus performer stateside. Rust and Bone failed to get an acting nomination for Marion Cotillard and ended its domestic run with $2,062,027. Internationally, Rust and Bone slightly outperformed Amour, but both had international grosses of around $20 mil. Only No exceeded expectations. Though it has done less than ¼ of what Rust and Bone has internationally, it has actually out grossed it here in the US and it’s still playing in theaters! It’s a rare box office success for a Director’s Fortnight selection. That said, all three are the three highest grossing foreign language films acquired out of Cannes. If you’re foreign, GO FOR SPC! GO FOR SPC! GO FOR SPC! I repeat GO FOR SPC!

IFC/IFC Midnight/Sundance Selects combined for a whopping 10 acquisitions! That’s more than many companies release in a year! They chose not to report grosses though for Antiviral and The Taste of Money which is an alarming sign, even for their VOD business model. Clandestine Childhood failed to gross $10k and none of their films managed over $1,000,000. Their highest grosser (On The Road) has leveled off at over $720k so far, but was not day and date VOD and considering the film played in as many as 107 theaters in a given week, it is clearly a disappointing performer. The Ken Burns directed,The Central Park Five managed just under ½ that with $325k and surprisingly missed the Oscar documentary short list. It will likely have a long life on other platforms. Someone in Love, The Angels Share and Beyond the Hills all grossed over $100k, but only The Angels Share (conveniently in English) could be considered a modest hit as it just crept past $250k. Sightseers was released a week and a half ago and does not look likely to pass $50k. The horror remake Maniac comes out later this year.

Behind IFC is Strand Releasing who acquired 6 films! Though Strand has been around for 20 years+ this is an unprecedented amount. In The Fog, Polluting Paradise, and Mekong Hotel have yet to be released. White Elephant failed to break $10k, and Post Tenebras Lux and Paradise: Love are still in the early stages of release with neither likely passing $50k domestically.

Other low end performers include Cinema Guild’s Night Across the Street with $13,035 domestically and Well Go USA’s Dangerous Liaisons which has reported $54,000 in box office. Both films were in the Director’s Fortnight which often gets overshadowed by the main competition. Think of it as the difference between being in the Next section and the US Dramatic section at Sundance.

Performing on the low end of the main competition films is Oscilloscope’s Reality which has yet to break six figures. The director’s prior film, Gomorrah, grossed over $1.5 mil in the US.

Performing better was Holy Motors handled by the now defunct distribution division of Indomina. It grossed $641,000 despite being literally impossible to describe. However, that is less than half the gross of Samuel Goldwyn’s Renoir which is still averaging over $100,000 a weekend. Despite never playing in more than 100 theaters, this film  has quietly amassed a total of $1,484,197, making it the highest grossing film from Un Certain Regard’s program last year. It has also done more than double the box office of Entertainment One’s Cosmopolis and Lee Daniels surprise awards contender The Paperboy. Both films suffered from mediocre reviews and the fact that Zach Efron and Robert Pattinson’s fanbase can’t legally see an R Rated film by themselves.

Films yet to be released include four Film Movement acquisitions (Three Worlds, Alyah, Broken, and La Sirga), Breaking Glass has Laurence Anyways which is easily its biggest acquisition to date, Magnolia has best actor winner The Hunt, and Gkids took the animated Ernest and Celestine.

Now all of this brings me to Mud. The Matthew McConaughey and and Reese Witherspoon starrer has been something of a breakout and looks poised to pass $20 mil by the end of its theatrical run.  It has grossed over $2,000,000 for four weekends in a row now and has yet to play on over 1,000 screens. This film did not win any awards at the festival and in fact left the festival without US distribution. It did not get a pick up until August 2012 and was introduced to US audiences at the Sundance Film Festival 2013. With an A list cast, strong reviews and a distributor (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions) who knows exactly how to handle this kind of film, it did finally find its way. Its international grosses are just barely over $3 mil, but that’s only from two territories.

Less than half of the films from the Critic’s Week, Un Certain Regard, and Director’s Fortnight have received distribution in the US. Many never will. All but one of the Competition films has yet to find one which helps pad the totals. If you have a foreign film, this is arguably your best bet to launch for a Stateside distribution deal. If you’ have an American film, it can provide great publicity, but create bad press to last a lifetime leading up to your release. American bigger budget indie tent poles will continue to use TIFF and Cannes to launch, but for every Moonrise Kingdom or Silver Linings Playbook,  there are easily 3x as many Killing Them Softly’s. The Cannes endorsement on a foreign film especially though can drive up arthouse audiences in digital environments and older audiences at this thing called a video store. A few even still exist.

A look back at last year’s Cannes titles:

Film Distributor Gross Program Section
Post Tenesbras Lux Strand Releasing $7,096 Competition
Clandestine Childhood IFC $9,017 Director’s Fortnight
White Elephant Strand Releasing $9,673 Un Certain Regard
Night Across the Street Cinema Guild $13,035 Director’s Fortnight
Augustine Music Box Films $13,616 Critic’s Week
Paradise: Love Strand Releasing $17,356 Competition
Sightseers IFC $19,037 Director’s Fortnight
In Another Country Kino Lorber $25,079 Competition
The We and the I Paladin $42,172 Director’s Fortnight
Dangerous Liaisons Well Go USA $54,000 Director’s Fortnight
Reality Oscilloscope $72,577 Competition
Beyond the Hills Sundance Selects $110,490 Competition
Like Someone In Love IFC $222,695 Competition
The Angels Share IFC $248,567 Competition
The Central Park Five Sundance Selects $325,653 Special Screening
Holy Motors Indomina $641,000 Competition
The Paperboy Millenium Entertainment $693,286 Competition
On The Road IFC Films/Sundance Selects $720,828 Competition
Cosmopolis Entertainment One $763,556 Competition
Renoir Samuel Goldwyn $1,079,000 Un Certain Regard
The Sapphires TWC $2,015,509 Midnight
Rust and Bone SPC $2,060,565 Competition
No SPC $2,163,379 Director’s Fortnight
Amour SPC $6,732,661 Competition
Mud Roadside Attractions $11,656,971 Competition
Killing Them Softly TWC $15,026,056 Competition
Lawless TWC $37,400,127 Competition
Moonrise Kingdom Focus Features $45,512,466 Competition
Antiviral IFC Midnight BO NOT Reported Un Certain Regard
Trashed Blenheim Films BO NOT Reported Special Screening
The Taste of Money IFC Midnight BO NOT Reported Competition
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! Kino Lorber Competition
Maniac IFC Midnight Midnight
Laurance Anyways Breaking Glass Un Certain Regard
The Hunt Magnolia Competition
Thérèse Desqueyroux MPI Pictures Out of Competition
In the Fog Strand Releasing Competition
La Sirga Film Movement Director’s Fortnight
Mekong Hotel Strand Releasing Special Screening
Polluting Paradise Strand Releasing Special Screening
Ernest and Celestine Gkids Director’s Fortnight
Broken Film Movement Critic’s Week
Alyah Film Movement Critic’s Week
Three Worlds Film Movement Un Certain Regard

May 23rd, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, International Sales

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Today we have a guest post from filmmaker/educator Kyle Henry 

Someone told me years ago that sex sells.   Unfortunately, when I started making my anthology of short sex tales feature FOURPLAY four years ago, I thought that if a little sex sells then A LOT of sex would REALLY sell.  Although the director side of my brain was motivated by a lot of high-minded reasons (e.g. showing sex as a positive force; providing understanding for characters participating in “deviant” sex acts; rescuing cinematic sex from titillation for catharsis), the producer side of my brain thought that by providing a product that would fill a need (e.g. an adult explicit film about sex that isn’t porn) somehow axiomatically would pull off a hat trick of making a profit AND getting away with subversive cultural critique.  Well, we’ll see about that later part because just finding distribution has been a long and winding road depending almost exclusively on our persistence and ingenuity.  Both were needed to prove the film’s potential to a very risk averse market for narrative NC-17 equivalent films dealing with sex even in our libertine digital age.

FourPlay poster

We didn’t start out five years ago making FOURPLAY thinking this would be such a struggle.  I’ve always been interested and motivated to tell stories that challenge dominant frameworks of understanding.  It’s the old activist in me still rearing its authority challenging head, but I thought that our four tales, which were mostly comedies, would hit that sweet spot of entertaining subversion.  First word of warning:  be wary of thinking your milieu of friends is representative of the general public as a whole. 

Turns out, I live in a bit of a freak bubble.  Now, there’s nothing wrong in making your work for yourself and your friends, just try to be aware how large that base is and don’t fool yourself that everyone is going to love your gang-bang heretical bathroom farce (e.g. our Tampa segment) or your cross-dressing sex-worker meets quadriplegic man for spiritual union melodrama (e.g. our San Francisco segment).  I was very lucky to find grant money from the Austin Film Society, the wickedly funny producer Jason Wehling who likes doing things on the very cheap, and support from patron angel executive producers Michael Stipe and Jim McKay, who lent monetary and name support to the project via their C-Hundred Film Corp so we didn’t come off as complete yahoo wackos.  Second word of warning:  if you’re going to make a subversive work that will challenge the body politic and marketplace, make it on the cheap!  All of these factors, plus the extreme desire to never again dip into my credit cards to make films, lead us to keep the budget under six figures, which gave us the ability to be not too desperate and come up with alternate strategies when hit with the brick wall of distributors saying “no thank you.”

Well, we were a little desperate in the beginning or perhaps a little too “creative” in our distribution thinking.  There is a distributor out there who will go unnamed whose major selling point to filmmakers is a transparent “back-end” for their on-line sales of both DVDs and streaming content.  That means when someone buys your content, you instantly see the sale by logging into their producer portal.  We had the “clever” idea of releasing three of the four shorts that comprise FOURPLAY at both festivals and online as we finished them, with the idea being we’d make a little scratch along the way of production.

Production of the four shorts was strung out over the course of two years, basically whenever I had breaks from both teaching and editing, which I do also concurrent to directing to make a living because I don’t have a trust fund.  Third word of warning:  if you want to make subversive independent cinema in America have other skills that pay the bills or have a trust fund. No one that I know who is making this kind of work (and I know A LOT of filmmakers) is making a living exclusively from their directing projects.

Getting back to this unnamed distributor. After we finished the first short, our San Francisco sex-worker segment which premiered at Outfest in 2010, we signed up with this distributor and started streaming the segment.  It was gratifying to see the hundreds of sales rack up on their “open architecture” site, but it was frustrating and irritating beyond belief never to get a check from them.   One quarter, then two quarters went by with no payment.  Emails and letters were sent, never to be replied to on their part.  Finally, I had to get a lawyer friend involved, who luckily I met after making Room in 2005 and would only charge me poverty charity rates, but I still sunk around $500 that I didn’t have into legally harassing said distributor to get first payment and then rights back to the project when they never paid up and were flagrantly in breach of contract.  Fourth word to the wise:  have an entertainment lawyer friend!

Turns out, this distributor had not paid a lot of people. One filmmaker friend of mine literally had to march into their NYC offices and camp out in their lobby, refusing to leave until he got a check from them, or so the story goes.   Fifth word to the wise word:  always ask your filmmaker/producer friends for the straight dirt on a potential distributor before signing a deal.  I wish we had done more research before falling for their “because you see it on our site you’ll definitely get paid” baloney.  Digital transparency doesn’t equal material cash.

The second segment, our gang-bang farce in Tampa, hit the festival jackpot of premiering both at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight 2011 and Sundance 2012.  This raised the project’s artistic street cred, but … as our most explicit, outrageous and heretical segment, I think it scared off any distributor that might have been attracted by those festival laurels.  It has a lot of cock on display, fake prosthetic cock, but still enough showing to scare both the horses and the largest and most profitable online distributor of streaming content, who will also go unnamed.  Luckily we have a friend inside said organization who took a gander at the film and told us straight out “too much cock” so we didn’t waste time or money trying to alter the work or submit via an aggregator.

The final anthology feature with all four segments premiered at Frameline last summer, and again I threw a final curve ball to another potential type of distributor, those who specialize in LGBT content, by including a “straight sex” and a lesbian bestiality segment.  Granted, in the “straight” segment a couple conceives in a gay video porno arcade, and our bestial segment is more about sublimation than doing the nasty with doggie, but it didn’t help anyone narrow down who would be interested in our film.  It’s seems we had something to both interest … but also offend everyone.   So, another string of no thank you’s from everyone, and I mean everyone, as we played the festival circuit throughout the summer and fall in 2012.


By early fall, I knew if anyone was going to want to see the film, we had to find a cheap way of getting some reviews and attention to back up our assertion that the work would gain enough publicity and digital markers to direct traffic to at least our own DIY efforts (e.g. making a self-produced DVD available off our site, streaming via Distrify, et al) … but just maybe one of those no’s would become a yes.  Going back to my activist days, I hired two former student interns to put together a database of every independent cinema in North America that had screened NC-17 content in the last few years.  We then sent out e-mails to around 300 theaters, followed up with phone calls, mailed press-kits/dvds to 100 theaters who expressed interest, and persistently bugged for over five months a narrow set who didn’t say no out-right to end up with the twelve who screened the film either as full week (e.g. Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, Denver’s Sie Film Center), multi-night (e.g. Portland’s Clinton, Seattle’s NW Film Forum, Chicago’s Siskel) or one-off runs (e.g. LA’s Egyptian, NYC’s LGBT Center, Longbeach’s Art Cinema).  Since all prints were digital, I either delivered on Blu-Ray, DCP or QT file, all generously discounted by a very cheap institutional FedEx rate, one of the perks of academia.  Finally, my partner Carlos Treviño is not only the brilliant writer of three of the four shorts, but is also a talented graphic designer who designed not only our DVD case but also our web-site, based on a great (and highly discounted) poster designed by filmmaker/designer Yen Tan.  I’m also an editor by trade, so I designed the DVD.  Sixth word:  directors, have some skills and partner up with people with skills beyond directing! Doing everything in-house is A LOT cheaper than hiring a bunch of free-lancers.  In all, we spent around $15K to do our limited theatrical and first batch of 1,000 DVDs, which also includes the cost of me traveling for Q&A’s to all twelve venues.

One of the biggest line-items was hiring a real publicist for theatrical, Matt Johnstone, who also publicized the festival launch of both the San Francisco segment at Outfest, the Tampa segment at Sundance and the final feature at both Frameline and Outfest in 2012.  Matt was with the project for almost three years from that first festival launch and became quite invested in selling the project.  We wisely chose Austin, my former hometown, as the site to launch our theatrical tourSeventh word:  build from your base, which doesn’t have to be NYC or LA.  I got the idea from the way Rick Linklater built distribution for both Slacker and many years later Bernie.  By opening in Austin, we got both huge feature articles in both the daily and weekly, but also great reviews (not a guarantee, but I was thankful) and additional TV and radio interviews.  It was about as saturated of media coverage as we were ever going to get and it paid off not only with a modest box-office to help immediately repay some of the debt I had incurred, but also we instantly showed up on Rotten Tomatoes with two boffo reviews!

This is where persistence comes into play.  Everyone told us that doing theatrical was stupid for a no-budget sex-film, but in this day and age you still need reviews and digital ink from reputable sources to get anyone to want to see your film on whatever platform you end up on.  I couldn’t blow a lot of money on it though.  Filmmakers routinely spend $30- $50K hiring a booker, paying to four-wall and hiring a publicist for LA and NYC markets only for the privilege of reviews.   I did this in minor-markets for a third to a fifth of that cost to accumulate markers from decent sources, although not the NY Times, but there’s no guarantee the Times would’ve liked the film anyway.   These great reviews attracted the attention of a person in the DVD division of TLA Releasing, one of those distributors who said no last year, but because the film was proving itself in the market-place of ideas, now was interested in re-selling our DVD.  Because it cost them nothing to manufacture, and no advertising on their part, we were able to negotiate a decent straight up purchase of a sum of DVDs that instantly repaid me what I spent to manufacture the first 1000.  Up on their site, pre-sales were available before the end of our theatrical, so press attention continued to drive up sales, allowing us to sell them another batch of DVDs that now has put us into profit on the DVD before its official release date.  That certainly wasn’t the case for my first feature ROOM’s DVD deal.  Finally, I think it just made sense for TLA, one of the major distributors of LGBT content, that the film was getting spotlighted for it’s LGBT boundary pushing creds and whatever negatives there were with varied content wouldn’t undermine the major critical take-aways they could sell.

Finally, our publicist came up with the great idea of selling TLA on VOD rights also, since we were doing a press-release for the DVD launch and all traffic could be directed to one site.  Again, this was a win-win situation for the distributor, as it required almost no work on their part, guaranteed sales, and provided us with the legitimacy of having a one-stop-shop on a press-release so sales could be maximized through focusing on one link in reviews instead of confusing consumers by sending them to multiple platforms. The legitimization we earned through good press during our limited theatrical lead to confidence being built that there actually was an audience for our weirdo film and gave everyone publicity ammunition to prove this assertion.  No one was going to make this happen for us, we had to do this ourselves, and that’s my Final Word of Advice:  DIY is here to stay for independent filmmakers.

When I first got into Sundance and Cannes in 2005 with my feature Room, I thought I had “arrived” and that upon being purchased by an international sales agency the film would sell itself.  Although Celluloid Dreams poured a decent amount of money into sales, publicity and advertising to sell the film to various markets, the experience taught me that your job as a filmmaker is to CONSTANTLY sell your film once its made, no matter who picks it up or in what form for distribution.  Distribution and sales companies are like roulette tables.  They put down many chips on the table and if the ball lands on a number, all the other numbers lose, and the company will naturally follow a winner to the exclusion of all the “losers.”  You want your film to win by being seen and, ideally, also make back a bit of you and your investor’s money.  By keeping my production costs low, but producing my work with a combination of grants, crowd-source funding, and small investments from what I’d deem as “patron” investors who are far more interested in whatever “cause” my film is promoting than in returning a profit, I had the flexibility to be persistent.

That persistence was also fueled on the cheap, with: dogged interns who gained valuable insight into the distribution process while not breaking my bank; through a long six-month booking process that allowed said interns to work for cheap because it was only part time while they worked their real jobs to survive; through my academia network, which built relationships with presenting non-profits in every market to build audience and outreach for discussion on issues surrounding sexuality just like a doc filmmaker would organize; and through building long terms relationships with professionals who are also friends, like our publicist, our producers and my lawyer, who stick with me and the film on bargain rates because in some way they support me and the work as a team.

This has been the real hat trick, not only finding distribution and some sort of on-line home for an NC-17 equivalent film, but continuing to build long term relationships with other creatives who might be down for yet another subversive adventure when the next film inspiration strikes.


FOURPLAY is now available on DVD/VOD streaming from TLA here

FOURPLAY official web-site

Kyle Henry is a filmmaker, editor and educator.  His narrative feature Room debuted at Sundance and Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight in 2005.  He is also the editor of the Emmy Award winning 2011 documentary Where Soldiers Come From, as well as this year’s SXSW premier doc Before You Know It.  He currently teaches film production at Northwestern University.

May 15th, 2013

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, Marketing, Publicity, Theatrical

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Just prior to SXSW, I was contacted by a new digital distribution outfit called Devolver Digital Film who were launching during the festival. I rolled my eyes as I opened the email because frankly, digital distributors are becoming a dime a dozen and few offer anything that differentiates their services. Yes, they are all non exclusive, but most do not have much to offer in the way of audience recognition of the platform.

Film distribution in some fashion isn’t difficult to obtain anymore…but getting an audience to know a film is available, actively seek it out AND getting them to watch it is another story. So, I was intrigued to find out that Devolver is planning to help solve that problem. Devolver Digital Films is a company expansion out of video game publishing and distribution. Devolver is primarily known for the Serious Sam series of games and their success within the video game industry coupled with founder Mike Wilson’s filmmaking interests lead to a desire to use the same successful game marketing techniques for independent films.

The company’s first title, Cancerpants, is described as “a story about life, love, and a young woman’s journey with breast cancer.” Cancerpants is currently available on VOD networks Verizon and Frontier, and will reach Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and Dish Online on June 4th. Local theatrical screenings are planned for May 30th in several cities including Grass Valley, CA (hosted by the filmmaker), Los Angeles, Austin, Houston, Oakland, and New York City.

Cancerpants film

I spoke with Andie Grace, VP of Acquisitions, and Mike Wilson, Partner and filmmaker, to hear what lead to Devolver’s foray into independent film distribution and what they plan to offer that other digital distributors don’t.

AG: “The experience that motivated the creation of Devolver Digital Films comes from the games space.  Mike is also a filmmaker and he knows what it is like to run up against the wall of getting distribution. After spending years of making the film, getting your own network together, hitting the festival circuit and landing a distributor and then they put it out, but do little to support it. Devolver Digital would never put out a game that way and now there are so many films on the digital shelves too, a small film that is great could do a lot better with a little help.

When a filmmaker’s own network is exhausted, they themselves are exhausted and ready to move on to another project, they just need a partner to be interested enough to work the title and we saw it as a niche to be filled.”

SC: “Speaking of a niche, does Devolver have a niche audience that they are serving with films? My main problem with film distributors is they don’t really have an audience for their company. They are used to speaking to other businesses (exhibitors, video stores, broadcasters), but not speaking directly to any audience for their titles. Their titles are so diverse that they don’t even really know who is watching. Will this be a unique aspect for Devolver? Is there a Devolver audience?”

AG: “Genre fans definitely stick with a label because of what the label brings them. This is definitely true in the games space. We now have many gamers saying ‘What is my favorite game label going to do with movies?’ So our aim is to keep that fanbase alive and choose films we think they will like.

A lot of counter culture films are coming our way and I definitely look at those films and say ‘I know where to find people who will like this, I know how to organize events around this.”

MW: “Our brand will be built on films that we believe we can make bigger than they would have been without our help. Decisions on films will be based purely on what we think we can do with the network we already have in place. It won’t be according to genr. Inevitably everyone wants us to do films that are considered ‘gamer’ fare.  But people who are outside of the gamer world don’t realize that gamers aren’t only into zombie movies or sci fi movies. The independent gamer tends to like lots of independent entertainment. Independent music, independent films, they tend to look a little further past the mainstream. More interesting, less predictable.  So that is what we will specialize in.”

SC: “Is there something that the filmmaker has to bring with the project? Do they have to have a certain mentality? Do you want the filmmaker to be an active participant in marketing his/her work, or are you fine with them leaving it with you to make it successful?”

MW: “There are 2 kinds of filmmakers. Those that are exhausted from making the film and just want someone to take care of the rest for them.  Some of those are very good films, but there is no promotional hook, and no niche we can tap easily. If they just want it out there, use our service to get it into the world, we’ll put it out for you and you can move on with your life.”

AG: “But we regard this as a partnership. We amplify what they have already started doing on their own. Anyone who wants to just turn tail and walk is probably not going to work well with us. Now, we do understand that by the time the film is ready for distribution, the filmmaker has already exhausted their network and they have done all they know how to do with their Facebook page or Twitter account and they need someone to help them, do it with them. It’s better for them to stay present, be there for the interviews, help craft the story, and use the opportunity to build their own brand as a filmmaker by working with us in a promotional partnership.”

SC: “What will be the range of services Devolver offers? I was thinking it was just digital distribution platforms, but you are working with Tugg to do events too?”

AG: “We will offer cable VOD and internet VOD right now. Being from the games world, we also have our eyes on gaming consoles. We will talk about the total distribution strategy based on the film. It may include using tools like Tugg to do some live event screenings rather than spending time exclusively on the festival circuit. Events can help power the VOD sales.  We also will talk about the marketing and publicity, some of the more traditional tactics. We will motivate our own networks to help with promoting screenings. By having the film on VOD when it is in theaters, we can get it highlighted in the ‘in theaters now’ sections of Amazon Instant and such.”

MW: “We are going to be direct to the platforms when that is possible, but until we build up our catalog, it isn’t realistic to think we will be big enough to negotiate direct deals with the bigger players.  With our zero overhead, we will be competitive with the percentages we take even when a third party is involved.  Plus, we’re going to help promote it which should make the revenue bigger than it would if you went through an aggregator who isn’t doing that.”

devolver logo

SC: “Do you take rights over the film or do those stay with the artist?”

MW: “We wouldn’t take all rights like broadcast network rights, or international rights at the moment. But to the extent that we do put time in to exploit on certain platforms, we want exclusivity on those. It is just bad business for everyone if you have several companies pitching the same film. As a filmmaker, I know there are distributors who want to take all rights just in case in future they want to do something with them. That is not the case with us. Our reason for existence is to avoid that scenario, we have all experienced it as filmmakers ourselves.”

“We do ask for a minimum of one year with options to extend. Most cable operators do want a 5 year minimum. We have found on the games side that there are opportunities for digital bundles and we will want to include our films in bundles without having to keep going back to ask permission. We aren’t going to be releasing 30 movies a month or anything. The films we do have are precious to us and we will be working harder to make the small amount work for us and for the filmmaker.”

SC:”Advertising and promotion aren’t free, they often make up the majority of any kind of film release. Is this a service deal agreement where the filmmaker fronts the money for Devolver to spend or is this more like a traditional distribution situation where Devolver will front the money and recoup from revenue before the filmmaker sees any profit?”

MW: “This won’t be a six figure M&A budget. It is more like soft dollars from us in our organization and network of already existing connections. This is what helps support our games as well.  Filmmakers will also be expected to help each other when they are on our label. So anything we provide from this network is just the cost of us doing business and we provide that.”

“Then, if there is an opportunity to buy into a promotional program or whatever, we’ll agree it with the filmmaker and write the check up front and share that cost. If the filmmaker gets a 60% split with us, we share the cost of the promotion.That’s the way we work in games too, it is purely situational. To the extent that they want to be involved, the filmmaker will sign off on any promotion we want to participate in and they will know the whole cost.”

“Another thing we feel is important is being completely transparent. If we do have to go through another distributor to get to a certain outlet,  I will forward every royalty statement we get from that distributor so that the filmmaker knows what the revenues were. There has just been too much damage done by ‘Hollywood accounting,’ I use that term to mean all entertainment. The games industry is as bad as any.  The little things we can do to remove any doubt about whether we are on the filmmakers team, we will do. The world may not need another VOD distributor, but one thing we will provide that others do not is transparency.  There is always room for that.”

SC: “When is the best time for a filmmaker to approach you? In preproduction? Production? Post?”

MW: “I would say in post. We’re not a production company and we aren’t trying to influence the outcome of a movie. We can’t really have a conversation about a film until we know the level of quality it will be.  Most of the people we are talking to are in fine cut or have a festival version that they still want to trim.”

AG: “We are having conversations now with people who are in post and it is pretty obvious who their audience is.  We are also talking to people who are not going on the festival circuit, they are launching straight into distribution.”

MW: “We have many dream producers coming to us who get this online promotion stuff. We want to network them all together and help to promote each other.”

SC: “How will you bring them together?”

MW: “Google Hangouts I envision. I want just these producers who all have great ideas and are on the same label to get together and brainstorm with each other. Their films are all coming out near the same timeframe so I think some great creativity and excitement will come from it. I don’t think they imagine for a minute that helping someone else will hurt their own projects. It just makes their own network bigger, by aggregating everyone’s together.These are all young, smart, tech savvy producers who want to learn from each other.”

SC: “Well, that is definitely a differentiator for Devolver! Most distributors don’t bother themselves with bring together the filmmakers  to help work with all the projects in the catalog. It means you really want to work with filmmakers who are giving, tech savvy and want to help make everyone’s work successful.”

MW: “The filmmaking process just sucks everything out of you, you are totally exhausted when finished and often you are the last man standing. The crew disappears after the wrap party. It will be great to have a company that knows this, pulls together a group of filmmakers in the same situation about to release their films and supports everyone.”

“It is really fun to be coming in at a time when we aren’t having to undo our skills. You go to industry panels where these veteran people are completely unsure of what is happening and frustrated at having to relearn everything because they are used to doing things in a certain way for many years. For us, it is exciting because it is wide open.”

I will be keeping an eye on this young and enthusiastic company. If you have a project you would like to approach Devolver Digital Films about, contact Andie Grace:

films [at] devolverdigital dot com


May 9th, 2013

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution, iTunes, Netflix

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Although DVD distribution revenue has by all accounts declined significantly since the start of home video and the development of the format, most film distributors still distribute DVDs.  Sales are down, but there are profits to be had for more commercial or popular fare that is strongly supported with marketing spend, whether studio, indie, or niche.
vendor street sign with dvd's on sale

We always advise filmmakers to conduct Direct Distribution of DVDs to their audience even when we or someone else is handling licensing deals for them.  Often though, if a distributor takes on Home Video (i.e. DVD), the expenses associated with the release and the diminishing revenues are the explanation for why digital rights must be licensed to the distributor along with the rights to release the film on traditional physical formats.  Digital rights, at least many of them, rightly belong in the home video category,but here’s the rub. While the distributor has more money and more connections and ability to get a DVD into retail stores, they likely take a bigger commission on digital platform sales than an aggregator who is paid a flat fee or a smaller percentage. Of course, even direct digital distribution (streaming from your own site) requires some service or other that takes a fee. It’s just usually less costly than a conventional distributor’s fee. Back to the rub.

So a well heeled distributor gets a big retailer to order your DVDs when you could not have achieved that on your own and probably more money is spent marketing it than you ever could afford to spend. But note that’s also more money to be recouped before you see a return.  The DVDs that don’t sell come back. And what comes back gets credited. It should be noted, many conventional distributors take their sales fee off of initial sales, regardless of returns.

So the distributor has the muscle to move the units to a retailer, but not enough muscle to get the public to buy them. They did their best, and even risked their expenses and time and staff energy. But the units come back just the same. Their sales fee is calculated off the top and the net left over for the filmmaker can be paltry. You may or may not be worse off than having done all the distribution yourself.

It is something to think about before you push for traditional distribution where there is not a big enough advance, or none, to recoup your initial investment in the project and you might have been better going it alone, still holding the rights over your film. These things are indeed a calculation of your time and money vs the distributor’s. At least check your contract for language that allows the distributor to keep the sales fee even for the sum of sales attributed to units ultimately returned and refunded. Perhaps compare potential results. Insist on a direct distribution clause so at least you have the chance to make the direct sales to the fan base you have worked so hard to build on your own. Or get clear about what your distributor can do for you that you cannot do for yourself, if anything, and what that is worth to you.  Then make sure the contract comports accordingly.

May 2nd, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Marketing, Retailers

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