Sundance has come and gone and already Berlinale is a week away and SXSW announced the bulk of their slate today! We’ve now had a few days to reflect on the chaos that is arguably America’s most important film festival for indie film and here’s what we think.

Last year’s fest included a number of smaller foreign doc deals early on which is sorely lacking from this year. Only three docs have sold so far though all were decent sized deals and for films in the US Doc section. Interestingly, none of them won awards, but a number of other docs had TV deals arranged before the festival.

6 of the 16 US Dramatic films and 2 of the NEXT films sold. Sony/SPC, A24, Lionsgate/Roadside, Radius-TWC, Fox Searchlight, IFC, Magnolia all snapped up multiple films. However, previous players absent thus far are Anchor Bay, The Weinstein Company, CBS Films, Relativity Media, Sundance Selects, and Magnet. New distribution companies like Amplify did not make a single Sundance Deal nor did formally expanded ones such as Gravitas Ventures. This is probably the most alarming thing as every year a new distributor typically makes a big push for a film right out of the festival.

Before I get to the list of sales deals, I would like to talk about what I saw as a HUGE mistake! Consistently while attending documentary screenings at the festival, the filmmakers would say during the Q&A that they already had a team in place to arrange for special screenings or planning a self financed distribution scenario. NOT ONCE did this come up with the narrative filmmakers! One of the things TFC does is handle festival distribution for films, and most especially our service is applicable for films that premiered at a world class festival like Sundance. It is incredibly foolish not to capitalize on the publicity received at a world class festival by not planning for at least further festival screening revenue that will come right away. Should your film be in the lucky position of receiving a seven figure deal upfront, you might be able to afford to pull it from the festival circuit and forego further revenue, but with very FEW receiving those offers, why not plan for scooping up that immediate revenue potential?

I am not saying you have to go with TFC for festival distribution (though even traditional distributors turn to us to handle their films on the festival circuit and they take their cut of the screening fees), but I am saying you should have some sort of team in place to take advantage of those opportunities right away. By the time SXSW is finished in March, your film could already have booked $5k in festival screening fees on the circuit. Blood Brother had a dozen festivals under its belt by that point last year and many of the films at this year’s festival could do the same. Why aren’t they?

Sundance filmmaker Q&A

Now…on to the deals.

DOMESTIC/NORTH AMERICAN

Dead Snow Red vs. Dead: Well Go USA picked up US rights. The film will be released in an all English version.
Love is Strange: Sony Picture Classics (SPC) snagged Ira Sach’s follow up to Keep the Lights On
The One I Love: Radius-TWC paid about $2 Mil
Fed Up: Radius-TWC paid under  $2 Mil for worldwide rights. This is bigger than what any documentary sold for at last year’s Sundance.
The Babadook; IFC Midnight
Cold in July: IFC took North American rights for $2 Mil
God’s Pocket: IFC has US rights
Calvary: Fox Searchlight signed on for the US and a few other territories for $2.5 mil
Obvious Child: A24 signed for low 7 figures for North America
I Origins: Fox Searchlight took worldwide rights for $3mil to Mike Cahill’s follow up for the splendid and under appreciated Another Earth
The Skeleton Twins: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions/SPW joined together for $3.5 mil
Land Ho!: SPC took worldwide rights to the film that should travel well in European territories.
Frank: Magnolia saw through the fake head and bought it for North America for  low 7 figures
Life After Beth: A24/DirectTV joined up for $3.5 Mil for US rights
Cooties: Lionsgate will spread the infection throughout North America.
Whiplash: SPC felt the beat for just under $3 Mil and Sony Worldwide has most international territories
Wish I was Here: the newly rebooted Focus Features took for $2.75 Mil (Film was partially financed on Kickstarter)
Laggies: A24 acquired domestic rights for roughly $2 Mil
Cesar’s Last Fast: Participant Media/Univision sold TV rights for Mid 6 figures
Dinosaur 13: Lionsgate/CNN went in for about $1 Mil
Happy Christmas: Magnolia/Paramount couldn’t say no to Swanberg. Magnolia also distributed his film Drinking Buddies.

PRE BUYS

Mitt: Netflix will release it in a week
Wetlands: Strand
The Raid 2: SPC
Love Child: HBO
Private Violence: HBO
The Case Against 8: HBO
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart: HBO
Ivory Tower: CNN Films
Life Itself: CNN Films
Remembering the Artist: HBO
The Trip to Italy: IFC
The Signal: Focus

FOREIGN

Love is Strange: Pretty Pictures made a six figure deal for French distribution
The Green Prince: Curzon and Madman Entertainment brokered for UK, Australia, and New Zealand

January 30th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, International Sales

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Sundance narrative films are the ones that get the bulk of the media attention; their star power or discovery or indie cred frequently send some of these gems into financial success. But last year’s majority resulted in distributors overpaying for titles, titles going for next to nothing, or even failing to secure distribution. Frequently, the filmmakers and/or the distributors were in the red.

For all the talk of the slower fest this year, there are now 10 films that have secured seven figure deals. Last year’s fest had 14 or 15 (one has conflicting dollar amounts in reports). While this year’s deals are nowhere near the $9.75 Mil paid for The Way Way Back, it does suggest a healthier marketplace with sane sales prices. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how last year’s slate performed.  Over 80% secured domestic distribution.

Ryan Coogler Fruitvale Station win at Sundance

photo credit Punk Toad

AWARDS POWER FOR US DRAMATIC

Last year’s US Dramatic award winners were also the top indie box office performers.

The highest grossing competition film, Fruitvale Station, won the Audience and Grand Jury awards. Though it failed to get an Oscar nomination, TWC managed a healthy $16 Mil + theatrically. That is notably better than the previous year’s jury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The second highest grossing film from the US Dramatic section was The Spectacular Now. A24 which has tailored itself to films for younger demos (VERY VERY BOLD MOVE given how hard it can be to reach the under 25 audience for indies). The $1.5 Mil acquisition grossed $6.85 Mil theatrically.

Roadside Attractions snagged the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award Winner In A World, which surprised many with a gross of just under $3 Mil.  Afternoon Delight, which won last year’s Directing Award, made $174k with Film Arcade doing the theatrical and Cinedigm handling digital. Shane Carruth’s self-distributed Upstream Color won a special jury prize for sound. The film is the highest grossing DIY release from last year’s festival with a total of $444k and a very healthy iTunes total, however, it  is likely that Gravitas Ventures pushed Sound City into the ultimate #1 spot. Never under-estimate the power of a music doc. Mother of George and Ain’t them Bodies Saint’s shared the cinematography prize. Mother Of George was Oscilloscope’s highest grossing release last year at over $157k and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made $371K under the direction of IFC. That total is arguably a disappointment with all of the hype surrounding the film, stellar critical praise and the seven figure acquisition price.

In contrast, the films that did not win awards had very mixed results. Many of these films (award winners included) had $1-8 Million production budgets and, in fact, most failed to recoup from their initial distribution deals. Perhaps their investors will see money back eventually.

The non-award-winners include C.O.G. and Concussion.  Both finished with around $50k theatrically. Focus World/Screen Media can’t be happy with the performance of C.O.G., the first David Sedaris short story turned into a film. Concussion was day and date release and Radius TWC has said the film was a top performer on digital platforms. Without publicly available data, we have to take their word for it. Meanwhile, Kill Your Darlings just barely passed the $1 Mil mark for SPC, who paid around $2 Mil for the film. They acquired a number of other territories and the film will obviously be stronger on digital platforms. It is the second year in a row that SPC acquired a film featuring a younger cast, then held onto it to screen 8 months later at Toronto International Film Festival and failed to earn back ½ of their acquisitions cost in theatrical release. The strategy of waiting to launch out of TIFF and going for the younger American audience clearly isn’t working for them and should be rethought. I personally think it’s a mix of both. In this day and age, I can think of very few reasons where waiting 8 months between festivals makes any sense.

Also underperforming to the acquisitions price was SPC’s Austenland. It has grossed $2.15 Mil in the US and is the highest grossing non award winning US Dramatic film. However SPC paid $4.5 Mil in partnership with SPWA. The additional territories and better digital viewing could possibly pull the film to break even, still well below what one wants from that kind of high profile buy.

Far on the other side of the spectrum are the D.O.A.’s The Lifeguard and Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. The former released by Screen Media and the latter by Tribeca Film and Well Go USA. In both cases, bad reviews clearly harmed these films which both had semi-marketable casts. Even with solid digital revenue, both films, which were likely acquired for under six figures, can be called flops.  The same can be said for Magnolia’s Touchy Feely which managed $36k, not even 1/15th of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday. The 35% enthusiasm rating on Rotten Tomatoes indicates how the film was received.

CBS Films acquired Kings of Summer (originally called Toy’s Attic). Though they stated in their original acquisitions announcement that the film would open wide, it never did, so one has to assume they tried to cut their losses and the $1.315 Mil it made theatrical was nowhere near what they were anticipating. The film has much of the same demo as The Spectacular Now, but with none of the star power or awards profile attention.

WORLD DRAMATIC FAILURE

75% of the World Dramatic slate lacks domestic distribution as of this post. The other three films include one yet to be released (despite it winning an Award at Sundance and being UK’s Oscar submission (Metro Manila), one that failed to crack $15k (Il Futuro) and one modest performing success. Crystal Fairy is the only world dramatic film to have any kind of traction in the US.  The Day one selection made $192k theatrically in the care of IFC.

NEXT STRUGGLES

Unlike when Sleepwalk With Me became a hit for IFC, 2013’s NEXT crop of films were largely modest to middling performers. A Teacher failed to crack $10k in the hands of Oscilloscope, Pit Stop (which TFC handled for festival distribution) went to DVD/Digital with Wolfe, Milkshake and Newlyweeds barely made a whimper with Phase 4. Audience Award Winner, This is Martin Bonner couldn’t pass $15k and Strand Releasing’s I Used to be Darker stopped short of $25k. Blue Caprice fell just short of $100k for IFC/Sudance Selects.  At one point, it was in 36 theaters. For a film that received such a nice marketing push, it is safe to call it an underperformer at the box office, even more so with its low seven figure acquisitions price which didn’t finalize until March after the festival.

I have already written about Escape From Tomorrow and it’s self financed theatrical/digital performance with Producer’s Distribution Agency. The film has failed to make back its budget through the combined total, and that doesn’t factor in any P&A spent or revenue splits. The one real bright spot is Computer Chess. Kino Lorber had one of its best theatrical runs for a narrative film, solid festival exposure and wisely kept the film in the press and turned down an offer from TIFF that would have made them take a break. The film quietly passed the $100k mark which, given its no-name cast, low fi production values, and vintage style, is quite an accomplishment.

MIDNIGHT SLACKS

While genre films consistently perform better on VOD/Digital, the theatrical realities of last year’s midnight slate is nothing short of a total flop. The Rambler (Anchor Bay), Hell Baby (Millennium), Ass Backwards (Gravitas Ventures), In Fear (Anchor Bay), Magic Magic (Sony Pictures Worldwide) wound up going direct to DVD/Digital, grossing under $10k theatrically, or not reporting box office totals at all. V/H/S 2 barely passed $21k in the hands of Magnolia, a far cry from how it’s predecessor did. Again these films often performed quite well digitally, but for the festival that launched the Saw franchise, none of the entries really made a dent.

We Are What We Are (EOne) is the only Midnight film to pass $50k. Kink, which The Film Collaborative is handling for festivals, was just acquired by MPI Media. Virtually Heroes has yet to make a deal.

PREMIERE FLOPS

Sweetwater, Big Sur, and Charlie Countryman all failed to make a dent at the box office and were either DIY or their distributor did not report the acquisitions price. Each had some form of star power and must be huge disappointments for their financiers. The Look of Love also failed to register theatrically for IFC. The film was Day/Date and if any company can make money back on the digital it would be them. But it’s far from what one wants to see for a seven figure acquisition.

PREMIERE BIG DEALS

Don Jon was bought for $4 Mil by Relativity Media with a $25 Mil P&A.  The film has failed to gross $25 Mil at the box office though it is the highest grossing film from last year’s fest. Likely it will barely break even. The Way Way Back was the highest selling direct acquisition at the fest, bought for an estimated $9.75 mil for North American rights and several other territories, but the P&A is unknown. The film exceeded $21 Mil making it ultimately a modest performer for Fox Searchlight though it far outshined previous acquisitions, Stoker and The East, which they acquired pre-fest and neither of which managed over $2.5 Mil.

SPC snagged Before Midnight and the film is the highest grossing of the trilogy with slightly over $8 Mil. It also was just nominated for an Oscar. Closing night film jOBS, on the other hand, only saw a 27% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has a Razzie Award nod and their self financed release with Open Road failed to recoup their costs. Worldwide, the film has grossed almost $36 mil likely on the strength of the Ashton Kutcher name.

We’re anxious to see how this year’s crop performs in release. Already, one World Documentary film, Sepideh Reaching for the Stars, has launched simultaneously with its US premiere on iTunes in the US and Canada, which is a first.

January 24th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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It’s a new year, Oscar Campaigning is in full swing and that must mean one thing….Sundance is upon us!

There is no doubt that Sundance is the best launching pad for documentaries in the US if not the world. 10 of the 15 Oscar Shortlisted Docs premiered at Sundance, including the highest grossing doc of the year, 20 Feet from Stardom. Furthermore almost 90% of all docs had some form of domestic distribution secured.

There has been a lot of chatter about the recent New York Times article talking about too many films entering into a shrinking marketplace. I am usually quite the pessimist and cynic, but in this instance it is one of the best things that could have happened for film. THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE DISTRIBUTION.

I REPEAT…

THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE DISTRIBUTION. Looking at the films from last year’s festival, it becomes clear that the options are endless. And many films have combined approaches for their DIY. Netflix is distributing the audience award winner, The Square starting January 17. The film had a small DIY theatrical with the help of Participant Media, but that’s not the end of it. When it debuts on Netflix, it will also be available on GATHR only expanding the film’s reach.

With all this said, every filmmaker should be making distribution plans from the beginning. Put money aside to cover a festival premiere (publicist, lodging, travel, prints, etc) and for the strong possibility of a self financed release. Perhaps you’ll never have to use it. But it is better to be prepared.

Now with my rant out of the way, here’s a look at how the film’s from last year’s festival fared in distribution.

EVERY SINGLE US DOCUMENTARY and DOCUMENTARY PREMIERE selection had some form of domestic distribution, but multiple world doc films have yet to line something up in the States.

____________________________________________________________________

DOCUMENTARY WINNERS

TV DOCS  (HBO, SHOWTIME, CNN):

HBO acquired TV rights to or produced 7 documentaries from last year’s festival.

Gideon’s Army, Life According to Sam (whose subject passed away this week), Manhunt, and Valentine Road all world premiered in the US Documentary Competition. The Crash Reel and Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington screened as documentary premieres and the network acquired world doc entry Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer for $1,000,000.

Not only does the network connect these films with far more viewers than they could reasonably expect in a theatrical release, but these films are also some of the critical favorites. Four of the seven films are on the Oscar shortlist for documentaries and a fifth won an Emmy.

HBO is not the only TV player in town.

Showtime aired History of the Eagles Part One and The World According To Dick Cheney which were both in the Documentary Premieres section. The Eagles Doc was also an Emmy Award Winner.

CNN Films partnered with Magnolia on Blackfish. The film has been seen by over 20,000,000 people worldwide and grossed north of $2,000,000 in the US. It made the Oscar Shortlist and has been cited as a key reason Sea World’s revenue is down over 30% this year. The acquisition was for $1,000,000, split between the network and Magnolia and certainly profitable for the latter. The company also had Pandora’s Promise which grossed $66k theatrically, but got hundreds of thousands more views on the TV screen via the broadcaster.

sundance docs 2013

MUSIC DOCS 

Three of the five highest grossing Sundance docs from last year were about singers/musicians (3 of the top 5 were also sold by Submarine and 4 of the top 5 were distributed by Radius-TWC or Magnolia) Clearly, they are resonating with a larger audience and the top players in documentaries recognize this. What’s truly impressive though is two of these films were day and date releases.

Sound City was a self financed release and dominated iTunes while also grossing over $400,000 in the care of Variance Releasing. While Variance handled the theatrical release of Sound City and Dave Grohl and his team did their own direct distribution through VHXGravitas Ventures handled the traditional VOD release of the film both in North America and internationally, including on iTunes.  The film has grossed north of 7 figures on VOD since Gravitas Ventures launched it almost a year ago. Muscle Shoals has managed just under $700,000 with Magnolia at the helm, but theirs is a traditional distribution situation and the acquisition amount was not stated. Twenty Feet From Stardom also had a traditional release and has grossed just under $5 million and is RADIUS-TWC highest grossing film to date. The film, acquired for just over a $1 million, is also a top performer digitally and has been selling well internationally.

SELF FINANCED IS POPULAR

Over 25% of Sundance 2013 docs pursued some form of self-distribution.

Running From Crazy, Blood Brother, The Square, God Loves Uganda, American Promise, Linsanity, When I Walk, Sound City, Pandora’s Promise and the yet to be released Citizen Koch all went for self financed theatricals.

Linsanity and Citizen Koch both raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter for their theatrical releases.  Linsanity has made $299,408 in cinemas. This more than justifies the DIY campaign and assuming they didn’t pour extra money into the release would net them just over $100,000 before digital and other ancillary are factored in.

The Square, which is the first Netflix Documentary pick up, had a small Oscar Qualifying run that turned into a little bit more and helped the film make the shortlist. It has grossed over $50,000 to date. That threshold was also exceeded by fellow shortlist film God Loves Uganda. Variance is releasing God Loves Uganda and should either film make the final Oscar cut you can expect additional revenue. That said, neither release appears to be profitable on its own. Variance said a few years ago they wouldn’t do a release for under $20,000 and cinemas do take a large chunk of revenues. Add the cost of Oscar Campaigning and the absence of the Netflix deal and God Loves Uganda clearly needs the Oscar nomination to boost its bottom line for digital (It will air on PBS later this year).

Running From Crazy quietly earned $33k, When I Walk did not report totals and Blood Brother has grossed over $50,000, but all through TUGG screenings.  Blood Brother’s total is at once impressive and instantly disappointing. The film won the audience and grand jury awards, but failed to generate major buyer interest. ITVS has TV and Cinedigm has digital rights, but the film has become one of the lower grossing performer’s for a major festival award winner. At the same time, it screened at festivals left and right and, while skipping week long engagements, has screened at churches and small towns around the country. It may ultimately reach $100,000 via TUGG.

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DOCUMENTARY UNDERPERFORMERS

While Sundance continues to push for a lot of political docs, they are far from the best performers at the box office. After Tiller is a great film, but hardly a Friday night date movie. Festival revenue has provided a boost for the Oscilloscope release, but with under $70k in theatrical and a solid push for Oscar (it was not shortlisted) feels like a disappointment.  Similarly award winners The Square and Blood Brother also are far from the top of the pack at the box office.

Meanwhile, over 1/3 of the World Doc films have nothing lined up for the States and Fire in the Blood is the lowest grossing Sundance Doc from last year that reported box office totals. It still has made about $20k and much of it from TUGG.

Other underperformers include Cutie and the Boxer, which was not day and date, and The Summit, which was one of the biggest doc deals at low 7 figures from Sundance Selects, but failed to pass $300k theatrically. Compared to films like Dirty Wars (IFC) which pulled in $371, 245 and Inequality for All (Radius-TWC) grossing $1.1 million, the buy was a bust.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how the narrative films from Sundance 2013 fared in release.

January 15th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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How much to spend on developing key art, and when to spend that money, is one of the many important decisions a filmmaker has to make. Yet like many aspects of the filmmaking process, there is no one-size-fits-all standard. When we were discussing the prospect of my writing this post, one of my colleagues at TFC remarked that for a film that costs, say, $250K to make, a $10-20K or more spend on developing key art (and mind you, this is separate from a marketing budget where you have to pay to get that key art out into the world, and separate still from designing and maintaining a web site) is not unreasonable, assuming one wanted to hire a top agency. Other filmmakers get someone they know to do it for free, if for no other reason than they are out of funds. Most micro-budget indie filmmakers will undoubtedly fall in between these two polar extremes in terms of what they will end up paying, but in the end, what you produce, and when you produce it, is a decision that should not be rushed or taken lightly.

Most filmmakers would agree that good key art is essential…it can be the factor that decides whether somebody will click further to watch your trailer, or move on to another film. If it is carried over to your website effectively, it should inspire confidence in your brand. Good key art can endure and even come to possess an iconic existence of its own that will represent with your film for years or even decades to come.

But good key alone is probably not going to work miracles. If your trailer, website, official reviews, or word of mouth is disappointing, or if insufficient marketing prevents people from even knowing that your film is out there, hiring a top creative film and spending that $10-20K at the expense of everything else doesn’t make any sense. So while key art is too important to take short cuts on, its value won’t be fully realized if the rest of your budget cannot support it.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you don’t have that 10-20K or more lying around for key art. Now, I have worked with dozens of filmmakers to either design (or consult with and/or assist them in developing) their key art. When I have an initial discussion with a filmmaker, I can tell right away which clients probably don’t even have $1K to devote to their the key art. How? Because the first question they ask me (after they see samples of my work) is how much I would charge to produce a poster.

This question always surprises me, especially when it comes from filmmakers for whom this is not their first film, because it reminds me that filmmakers often do not ask the right questions when producing key art.

For example, how can I give them a quote without knowing what shape is their art in, how much time it is going to take to get up to speed about the film…watch it, discuss it, understand it, determine what is possible based on the art that they have, come up with several different directions and mock them up, fail a few times until we come up with something we like, and then go through several refinement stages, figure out printing, cost, logistics? And this doesn’t include mocking each possible direction to pixel-perfection, uprezzing, retouching, or producing style sheets or ancillary artwork, like a top agency would do.

Not appropriately accounting for key art development (and overall marketing strategy) as a line item in their film budgets forces filmmakers into a situation whereby they can only order the services that will fit their budget, rather than coming from a place of asking what will be best for their projects.

So we go through this dance of whittling away steps to cut costs, and in the end, I provide only a range based on an hourly rate, with phases built in, so we can periodically access if we are going over our budget range. This way, how many hoops I jump through will ultimately be up to the filmmaker as we move through the collaborative process.

Another important thing to remember is that you can’t always determine the cost of developing a piece of key art just by looking at it. Oftentimes, the prevailing concept itself might not look all that expensive to produce, but you never know how many twists and turns were required for the creative team to reach that final product.

So, how can a filmmaker get back to asking the right questions?

Producing key art is about ideas and talent, good photography, and a solid understanding of one’s film and how it fits into the marketplace.

It’s also about patience.

This is a scenario we have seen more than a few times: let’s say your film gets into Sundance or Slamdance or Berlin or SXSW and you are racing to finish your film. You haven’t budgeted all that much for key art in the first place, but you feel like you need something to show at the festival. You have a website, but it’s the one that’s been up since your crowdfunding campaign, and it’s not all that pretty. What should you do?

Certainly, there is no one right answer. We have seen filmmakers produce amazing things in a very short amount of time. On the other hand, we have seen other filmmakers really fail miserably, and actually do their film a disservice by making too many decisions too quickly.

But let’s say your first instinct it to produce a poster. Your second instinct should be to make sure your first instinct is correct.

DO YOU EVEN NEED A FULL-SIZE POSTER?

Posters are, technically speaking, quite hard to produce if you don’t have the right art. I’m talking about resolution.

Last year, I wrote a series called Rethinking your Key Art Game Plan, where I discussed the technical requirements for producing a standard 27×40 (or 27×39) inch poster. In particular, I noted how pulling stills from a 1920x1080px master isn’t going to produce enough resolution for a poster, unless you are going for a grainy or blown-out look. These days, more and more filmmakers are working with 4K cameras, which helps quite a bit in this area.

Yet while using 1920×1080 stills to promote your film may not be ideal for a poster, they are perfect for other uses. For example, you can produce 4×6 postcards or a great website background. These might actually reach more people throughout the festival as a whole than a poster that merely hangs for a few hours in a marquee lightbox on the day of your screening.

Title Treatments

Create a proper title treatment using a vector-based program such as Adobe Illustrator, turn it into an Outline shape (rather than editable lines of type), and save it as an .eps file so it can be reproduced consistently.

(If you didn’t catch all of that last part, just convey to your designer. If your designer doesn’t get it either, hire a new designer.)

Another dilemma we’ve seen filmmakers run into is that they only have very limited still photography at the time they enter the film festival circuit, and don’t have the time or budget to do a photo shoot. Rather than force these images into a full-size poster that you have mixed feelings about, it might be better to take frame grabs from your film and produce something that’s 1440x2100px (the size needed for iTunes…VOD art generally needs to be 2:3 proprotions) and that you are satisfied with. This size would also be OK for a 4×6 postcard. You can worry about a 27×40 poster later.

Alternatively, many filmmakers simply brand a few press images from the film with their title. Work with a designer to create a great Title Treatment (the design of the title of your film) and brand the film that way, so there will be consistency when you do swing back to the key art.

SHORT-TERM OR LONG-TERM KEY ART

But let’s say you do have the art to do a full-size poster. There’s still a question of whether you design for the short term or the long term. More and more films are being released digitally without much theatrical play. Moreover, what you produce for a theatrical may not even be suitable for VOD. A panel at IFP last fall addressed this exact question, and there was apparently much disagreement:

“This panel drove home several completely contradictory messages, all in the space of one engaging hour. The first was that now you need more art than ever, to keep your audience engaged through daily social media updates both before and after your film is released. The second was that films should adhere to the same few images, so that they become recognizable brand markers. What’s a filmmaker to do?

[…]

Another catch-22 discussed during the panel was VOD vs. theatrical art. As much as it benefits a film to project a singular identity, it’s rare for a single design to suit both purposes well.

The experience of viewing a poster inside a lightbox at the theater is very different from the experience of browsing titles on Netflix, and key art must adjust accordingly. Besides the obvious (smaller space, bigger images) the VOD art typically focuses more on celebrity, genre, and easily conveyed aspects of the storytelling.”

They provided the following graphic as an example of the differences between theatrical art and key art for VOD.

theatrical_vod
Sawyer Studios Theatrical vs. VOD Digital Art Slide

It is quite clear that the some of the theatrical posters do not work very well for VOD. But I am not convinced that at least some of the VOD posters here could not have worked for theatrical (apart from the fact that a few of ones for VOD are just plain bad). These days, even as one is doing a theatrical, the same poster can be seen all over the Internet, and perhaps on postcards too. So whatever you produce, you should think about how the image looks when it is viewed at a variety of sizes, and pay special attention to the iTunes size and the Netflix size.

Perhaps the designers of the theatrical posters in this graphic did not consider this when they were designing. (Or perhaps a marketing team came along and wanted something else for VOD.) The point is, think as far ahead as possible and aim towards producing key art that will work for both theatrical and for VOD. Because if it does need to be redesigned, there’s a good chance that you will be the one paying for it, one way or another.

THE HIDDEN COST OF USING POSTERS ON THE FILM FESTIVAL CIRCUIT

Many of you know that TFC also offers Festival Distribution as one of our services. We get asked all the time for posters. Sometimes three, or five, are requested. But we generally do not send them for every festival. Here’s why:

Digital Printing
Printing fewer than 15 posters

We have used Uprinting in the past and recommend them for one-off digital printing.

So let’s say your film gets into Sundance or Slamdance and you need to print a few posters. You can get 3 posters printed and sent directly to the festival for $80. That’s not going to break the bank. But if you commit to doing that for every festival thereafter, you must be prepared to lose at least $40 (the cost of 1 to print and ship) of your festival fee each time you book somewhere.

If you are thinking that you can simply print a bunch of posters and send to festivals yourself, there also a few things to remember. First, poster tubes cost money (although Fedex will supply their own packaging, but their shipping rates are expensive), and when all is said and done, mailing them yourself doesn’t cost all that much less than having a printer ship directly. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Offset Printing
Printing more than 100 posters

America’s Printer has always done a great job for us with 4 color printing, and can even ship them individually for you.

In terms of printing, you also may not want to order too many at once (for example, you can have them printed in 4-color offset printing in quantities from 100-1000, which will cost $600-$800 ) because you will undoubtedly want to add additional laurels (for art house films) or awards or even quotes to the one sheet as you get further into the festival circuit. Printing too many will lock you into something you may not wish to use forever. But printing as few as 30 digitally will cost as much as printing 500 using an offset printer, so there’s a bit of a “doughnut hole” here.

And many filmmakers just don’t have that much loose cash to spend.

Our recommendation is to only get a large quantity of posters made if you have a theatrical. In the meantime, you may want to limit the festivals to which you have posters sent to Industry festivals where buyers are present. For the other festivals, supply them with a link to the hi-res version of your one-sheet: many festivals will print on their own. This is especially helpful for international festivals. They may not print larger as large as 27×40, but at least the cost comes out of their budget, not yours.

TIPS ON LANDING ON THE RIGHT CONCEPT

I was asked to write this article to address the question of how one decides on the best visual representation for one’s film. In other words, what should you put in your poster?

The short answer is, there is not just one answer. You can ask 5 different people and they might each tell you something slightly different. But let me try to break it down with a few tips.

  1. Whatever you do, it should be polished and look like some thought was put into it. You would think that I’d be setting the bar a little higher as the first tip. But no. If someone whose film were premiering at a A- or B- list festival showed me the their poster, and it looked like the VOD poster for Arthur Newman or The English Teacher in the graphic above, I would tell them to either scrap it and start over, or to leave it at home.
  2. Know your marketing strategy before you start designing. I could write a blog just on this topic. More than one, actually. The number one problem that filmmakers have in this regard is that they are too close to their own film. So first, it’s important to talk to your team, and to others outside your team (shameless plug alert: also a perfectly good thing to talk about when you are consulting with TFC via one of our membership packages) about where your film fits into the market and who is going to be buying it…literally…which distributors, which niche market. If you feel that your film has crossover potential to a second niche audience, find a way to cater to both, but don’t dilute the message to serve two masters. Make sure you have the art to support whatever strategy you come up with. A designer can help you evaluate this, but this whole process might have to be repeated if the art comes up short. The task is for buyers to see the market potential. If you feel like a concept “cheapens” your film, don’t dismiss it completely until you’ve talked to somebody who can give you some perspective. Take your time and don’t rush. Build your brand thoughtfully. You are making key art to sell your film, not so you can hang a cool poster in your office.
  3. Hire a real designer. Don’t just get someone who knows Photoshop to do it for you for free. Make sure there is budget for this before you make your film. Ditto a web designer. Get someone who knows the industry. Someone who will watch your film and discuss ideas at length and who can at least talk through several directions with you before committing. Loop this person into the market strategy discussions.
  4. Your art should stand out but not be too obscure. What do I mean by this? Two tests: (1) Get a reality check—before you brainstorm, take a look at the artwork in the Criterion Collection. This is an example of what NOT to do. These films are mostly classics that are being rebranded in a pretty pretentious way. It’s fine for them. But not for you. You do not want to make a poster like this. Maybe some day. Not now. (2) Take the key art that your designer mocks up and paste it in a screen shot of the iTunes Store in the “Independent” genre (or a more specific genre in the store). Make it look like it were in the store already. How does it stand up? Would you notice it? Is the title completely readable? Would anyone recognize that *one* slightly recognizable star you have in your film at this size?
  5. Look at existing key art in the genres your film is attempting to target. Grab these poster images off the web, and give those to your designer as a reference. For certain type of films, it’s OK to be reductive. Others, you’ll want to be more original. For example, for docs and horror, go for originality and/or quirkiness. For foreign language narrative films set in exotic locales, go for scenic beauty plus audience identification with the protagonists. For LGBT films, go for sex or edge. For non-LGBT narrative films, put the most famous actor you have on the poster. For comedies: it better be amusing. For romance: it better be romantic. For thriller: it better thrill. Some of this seems obvious, but it also can be a lot easier said than done. There is no one right way, but there are many wrong ways. It’s important that you know what those are.
  6. Make a great trailer to go with your art. Hooking them with a poster does no good if the trailer they watch right afterward underwhelms. Think about your niche when producing this trailer. Think about how your poster gives folks a preview of what they will see in the trailer, and then exceed their expectations. Produce a trailer that’s PG. You can also produce another one that’s not, but you will need one that has no nudity, curses, drugs or sex toys for digial platforms. So now you’ve been warned. Encorporate your Title Treatment into the trailer to tie in your branding.

Another reason to take your time with your key art: use it as a way to get your audience involved. Maybe they haven’t heard from you since your Kickstarter campaign. Maybe you’ll pick up some Facebook fans at your first couple of festival screenings. Why not find a creative way to create a dialogue with the people who are supporting you?

As I stated at the beginning of this post, you will encounter a lot of opinions out there along the way. And “success” when it comes to key art is nearly impossible to measure objectively…is your campaign successful if people like it (even if they don’t really love your film)? If a buyer ends up using it? If your film does well in the marketplace? While there are many films that industry peeps can point to and credit key art for that film’s success, the vast majority of films will not fall into this category. Nor will they be offered a 7-figure deal from a major studio at Sundance. In the end, though, one of the toughest transitions a filmmaker has to make is the switch from proud parent to business person. Put yourself in the mindset of someone who knows nothing about your film: does the key art you produced really make people want to see your film? And will they even remember your brand when the time comes when they actually can see it? Everything else, as they say, is crap.

January 8th, 2014

Posted In: Key Art

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