Filmmakers often ask me how long they should keep their films on the festival circuit. For years now, I’ve been saying that for any film that is performing well on the circuit (meaning getting accepted into a significant number of festivals on a more or less regular basis), there is a general rule you can follow.
Most films will see their festival bookings continue robustly for 1 year from the date of the world premiere, and then significantly drop off (but still trickle in) in months 12 – 18. After 18 months, festival bookings will nearly cease worldwide, except for those films that have a perennial hook (i.e. a film about black history during the annual Black History Month, a film about the AIDS crisis on World AIDS day, etc).
Given that general rule, I am going to go ahead and call that 18 months the Festival “window.” Now, of course, most Hollywood companies don’t consider the festival circuit as a window akin to the “traditional” windows of theatrical, broadcast, DVD, VOD etc. For studios and mini-majors, a long festival run isn’t always necessary…they have the money and staff to market the film in other ways, and any potential revenue the film can make on the festival circuit is relatively meaningless given the scale of the budgets they work with. In many cases, larger distributors see festivals as really just giving away free tickets to their movie, and therefore limit any festival participation to only the largest, most prestigious and best publicized festivals in the world, and simply ignore all the rest.
But for individual filmmakers without the benefit of studio/mini-major release, and also for many small distribution companies, the festival window is invaluable and irreplaceable in terms of the marketing/publicity value it can afford, and the modest revenue that can be generated. For many films of course, the festival window IS the theatrical release of the film – meaning it’s the way the largest number of people can actually see the film in a theater. Even those indie films that do get a traditional theatrical release are usually limited to a few big cities, meaning festivals are the only way the films are ever going to be screened beyond New York, L.A., and few other cities. Since most individual filmmakers and small distributors work on a modest budget, any and all revenue the film can bring in is significant. Additionally, the free marketing/publicity that a festival offers is just about the only kind of marketing the film may ever get.
So – and this is back to the original question – when filmmakers ask me how long they should keep their film on the festival circuit if it is doing well, my initial answer is always “at least one year.” Given that you only have 12 – 18 months for your film to be seen this way, why not take advantage of it?
Filmmakers have a lot of fears around this; often they feel in a rush to get their movie available for theatrical or home purchase as soon as possible. Often they fear that people are going to “forget” about their film if they don’t release it as soon as possible after the premiere. Often they regard the festival circuit as a lot of work, and they just want their film released so they can move onto their next thing. Even more often, they are in great financial need following all the money invested into the film, so they feel the need to get it out quickly so they can start making money from it. I can say with great confidence that all of these fears are bad reasons to release a film – and many of the worst release failures I have ever seen comes from exactly these fears (both on the studio/mini-major level AND individual filmmaker level).
First of all, unless you’ve been extremely successful in attracting people to your social media, very few people actually know about your film when it first premieres…so rather than fear those people will forget about your film, your job is to get the film out as wide as possible so you can grow your audience awareness – both through repeated festival marketing and social media. Secondly – yes, it is true that the Festival circuit is a lot of work, but independent filmmakers need to understand that distribution is a business, and you need to commit yourself to it the way you would to any other business endeavor you would undertake and expect to be successful. A business takes time to grow.
The most vexing reason for rushing a film into release – needing to make your money back as quickly as possible – is a perfectly understandable human need and a situation many filmmakers find themselves in. I can just all but guarantee you that if you haven’t taken the time to grow your audience in all the ways possible, your release won’t succeed, and you won’t be making back your money anyway.
Despite all this – despite everything I have laid out in this post thus far – in 2014 I find more and more films going into release and off the festival circuit faster and faster than ever before. The reason for this trend is simple, technological, and perhaps inexorable – and of course it is the continuing rise of Video On Demand (VOD).
Think about how it worked in the (not so) old days. Until very recently, if your film was lucky enough to get a theatrical release offer, it would take the distributor many months to get their marketing/publicity ducks in a row, book theaters, and release the film into theaters. All this time, the film could play festivals. Then, upon theatrical release, a few cities would be lost to festivals…just the usual NY, LA, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle etc. of a traditional indie release. But for the many months between the theatrical release and the DVD release, the film could continue to play all festivals outside of the major cities…because DVD release is a physically demanding process of authoring, dubbing, shipping, shelf space, store stocking, etc. As such, it was completely normal for DVD release to be at least a year after the premiere…just because it all took time. Once the DVD was released, the overwhelming majority of festival programmers would no longer consider the film, so the festival window was all but shut at that point.
But in 2014, day-and-date VOD release with the theatrical release is commonplace, and becoming even more so. So, its not that distributors are any faster in getting the film into theaters (they’re not), but once New York and L.A. open (or shortly after), chances are that the film is also available on various VOD platforms, meaning it becomes available all at once in most North American homes (via cable VOD, application like Apple TV, or various internet platforms). And once that happens, the majority of festival programmers no longer will consider the film, believing (perhaps incorrectly) that the VOD release will cannibalize their audiences and they will no longer be able to fill their theaters with patrons willing to go to see a film at a festival when they can just watch it at home.
In addition, there is a rise in the number of cable TV channels seeking exclusive content for their VOD platforms (i.e. CNN, DirectTV, Starz, etc.) who are acquiring films with or without theatrical releases, and are in a haste to get those films out to their audiences. Exclusive content is the currency of premium platforms these days (there is no better evidence of this than the incredible success of HBO exclusive content of course), and so more and more of these companies are making offers to indie films, largely driven by the VOD.
I am not sure there is a lot independent filmmakers can do to change this trend. Filmmakers are going to continue to want distribution deals and this just may be what distribution deals look like moving forward. Of course, filmmakers can ASK that distributors put off the release as long as possible (as discussed, approx. a year after world premiere), but many distributors may not have reason to agree to that. Keep in mind that the distributor may not have complete control over that release date, in many cases the biggest VOD companies (esp. the big cable providers like Comcast, Time Warner etc.) will also tell the distributors when THEY think the film should be released, and resist the pushback…especially as they tend to want the VOD release to be closely timed with the theatrical.
That doesn’t mean I think filmmakers should cave easily….by all means try to make the distributor understand why you want to control your own festival “window.” Personally, I am consistently impressed with how much the various arms of Public Television (ITVS, Independent Lens, etc.) seem to get this, and basically allow filmmakers to set their own broadcast window relatively far into the future.
So despite my musings to this point, some of you may still be asking, “Why does all this matter? Isn’t being released into the majority of North American homes a good thing?” The biggest problem is that we simply don’t know….because VOD numbers are very rarely publicly reported, in fact almost never.
My strong suspicion is films that are rushed into VOD release perform far less on VOD than they would if they were given the time to find their audience via organic word-of-mouth methods (including festivals). I have certainly seen that with other windows, especially theatrical. As we all know now, a digital release is not enough…a film that is released into the digital marketplace without adequate marketing is just a tree falling in the forest. But ultimately I cannot support that argument with figures because so few companies (nearly none), will tell us what kind of numbers they do on VOD with their films.
Until we get real numbers that allow us to see what VOD numbers really look like for festival-driven independent films….and we can truly assess the marketing impact on those VOD numbers…we will all remain in the dark on this topic to the detriment of independent filmmakers trying to make distribution decisions. I can say for sure that films performing well on the festival circuit are forfeiting their festival revenue by going onto VOD….but until I can compare it with the VOD numbers I cannot determine whether losing that festival revenue is worth it or not.
So, is VOD collapsing the Festival window? Yes, that part is for sure, and we at The Film Collaborative have handled festival distribution on films in the last two years that bear this fact out. Is that a net negative for independent filmmakers? That part I cannot answer yet….although I suspect I already know the answer.
Let this be one more call to our Industry to release the VOD numbers. I would absolutely love to be proven wrong on this.
Jeffrey Winter June 26th, 2014
Ed note: TFC colleague Bryan Glick is taking a look at how officially selected films have performed in release since their premieres at the major Spring film festivals SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes 2013. In this second post, he covers the narrative films. His look at documentaries can be found HERE.
There is no better worldwide platform launch than Cannes. For foreign language films, it is arguably the best place to solicit North American interest. 20 World Premieres (or 25% of selected films) from Cannes 2013 grossed over $100k and 10 of those grossed over $1 Million theatrically in North America. These films also frequently perform much better internationally. Four foreign language films managed over $1 Mil and 11 over $100k. No fest has such a strong record for non-English Language content. Additionally Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Missing Picture, The Great Beauty, All is Lost, and Omar all found their way to Oscar Nominations. And another 9 films from the fest were official Oscar submissions from their country. Cannes has the perception of the ultimate endorsement. It is one of not even a handful of laurels that automatically adds value to a film.
However, less than 2/3 of world premieres got any sort of North American distribution. This is below the % from Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and only slightly above the behemoth of TIFF. Naturally, the films performing at the top of the box office are primarily from those selected for main competition and are most likely to facilitate distribution deals.
Turning to this year’s festival, a little over 30 films currently have North American distribution. 1/3 of those are from Sony Picture Classics! They have a whopping 10 films. They went into the fest with competition award winners Mr. Turner (Best Actor) and Foxcatcher (Best Director) pre-attached. Prior to the fest they also snagged Coming Home and Red Army. On top of that, they added Wild Tales, Saint Laurent, Jimmy’s Hall, and Best Screenplay winner Leviathan from the main competition. In addition, they took the doc The Salt of the Earth.
Not far behind was IFC with 6 films. They arrived with competition titles Clouds of Sils Maria, and Two Days, One Night. They added to their impressive tally Bird People and The Blue Room from Un Certain Regard and wrapped it up with The Salvation from the midnight lineup.
Those two companies combined for ½ of all Cannes 2014 films with distribution in the US! They also indirectly highlight what was clearly missing from this year’s Cannes crop. No studio presence in any competitive sections. Warner Bros technically has Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, but multiple reports suggest the distributor is trying to pawn it off to a smaller company and cut their losses.
A number of distributors though still had reason to be happy. Radius-TWC, TWC, Cohen Media Group, Magnolia. And A24 each have a pair of titles.
A24 took the critically panned, but star heavy The Captive and just opened The Rover last Friday to a US opening weekend gross of over $69K in 5 theaters. The film is performing much better in France, Australia and Belgium though.
TWC had opening night Grace of Monaco and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby which screened as two different films at TIFF and will be released as three different films in the Fall. The genre heavy and younger skewing Radius-TWC took two films from Critic’s Week, the American horror film It Follows and When Animals Dream.
Magnolia took the top two prize winners from Un Certain Regard Force Majeure and White God. Cohen Media Group continues their trend into foreign cinema with Timbuktu and In the Name of My Daughter (screened out of competition).
Other companies to acquire include Strand Releasing (Girlhood), Saban Films (The Homesman), Music Box Films (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsallem), WellGo USA (These Final Hours), and EOne (Map to the Stars)
Many of these films have very good prospects in North America and around the world.
Admittedly, Tribeca is frequently a dump off site for Sundance narrative rejects. Multiple people have opined that the fest would do better to just focus on docs. The performance of last year’s narrative lineup shows that there is some life left for their non doc films, but not much.
The English Teacher which was pre-bought by Cinedigm was the only scripted fare at last year’s fest to pass $100k (which it barely accomplished). French specialty arm Distrib Films pushed Just a Sigh to just over $71k with only a few small venues left to play.
Lagging behind are Focus World/Screen Media’s day and date release of A Birder’s Guide to Everything ($48k), Strand Releasing’s Bicycling with Moliere ($49k) and Israeli genre fare Big Bad Wolves which managed $33k as a day and date with Magnolia.
What the fest proved to do last year though was highlight a number of films in their North American premiere. Berlin titles Broken Circle Breakdown, The Rocket and Reaching for the Moon all were met with some success. ‘Broken’ secured an Oscar Nomination and grossed $154k through Tribeca Films. Kino Lorber got the Australian made, but Laos set Rocket to manage $54k and Wolfe Releasing saw $45k for Reaching on top of massive festival exposure. The Film Collaborative handled grassroots marketing and fests on the latter.
Nothing else grossed over $25k in theatrical relase, though many films performed well digitally in the hands of IFC, Anchor Bay, Oscilloscope, Vertical Entertainment, Tribeca Films, XLRator Media, Samuel Goldwyn, and Dark Sky Films. Notably, The Machine is currently in the top 10 on ITunes. In all, over 70% of the narrative films that premiered at Tribeca have some form of domestic distribution confirmed. Only Sundance had a higher rate of distribution. But, American films from Tribeca rarely played well internationally.
Turning to Tribeca 2014 the big deals were once again for docs, but there some notable narrative acquisitions. About 20% of films available when the fest was announced have since been acquired
IFC took Extraterrestrial, 5 to 7, and Match. Likely all three will be VOD focused. Magnolia took Life Partners, Film Movement opted for Human Capital, and Zeitgeist has Zero Motivation.
Additionally About Alex went to Screen Media, Summer of Blood sold to MPI, and The Canal will be working with The Orchard.
Where SXSW has an advantage over Tribeca is that there is a clear sense of programming and demographics. Tribeca is often the back up to Sundance, while SXSW is the place for younger, edgier, hipper fare. Naturally, many of the narrative deals from SXSW this year were for genre films.
Magnet took Honeymoon which is the rare film to premiere at SXSW and screen at Tribeca. Lionsgate bought Exists, Cinedigm peeked into Open Windows, and Radius-TWC invested in Creep. IFC Midnight went for Home and the time traveling teen sexy comedy Premature and mainstay label IFC bought Kelly and Cal. XLRator bought Housebound and The Mule and Oscilloscope took Buzzard.
Radius-TWC has already released this year’s 13 Sins and Magnet released Stage Fright.Both were ultra VOD releases with so-so digital performance and middling box office.
Additionally, the fest was the world premiere choice for Chef which has become the 3rd highest grossing indie this year so far and Veronica Mars is the highest grossing day and date release so far this year.
Last year’s fest saw the massive breakout Short Term 12 gross over $1 Mil in the hands of Cinedigm and dominate critic’s lists. Magnolia did over $343k with Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies. The latter was day and date. Both films outgrossed all of the Tribeca Premieres from 2013.
Also performing somewhat well was Drafthouse Films Cheap Thrills which did $59K at the box office and Variance’s service release of The Retrieval which will pass $50k this week. Variance also did $62k with John Sayle’s Go For Sister which had its North American premiere at the fest.
A large number of films from the fests last year went digital only, had small theatricals, and/or set up self financed releases. Tribeca has started to take notice and this year a number of films premiering there opted for this route.
Cannes continues to be the one major festival holdout where films premiere and wait it out for distribution offers.
Bryan Glick June 19th, 2014
Ed note: TFC colleague Bryan Glick will spend these 2 weeks taking a look at how officially selected films have performed in release since their premieres at the major Spring film festivals SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes 2013. In this first post, he cover the documentaries.
TRIBECA IS RULED BY DOCUMENTARIES
The three highest grossing films and 7 of the top 10 grossing films from last year’s Tribeca were documentaries. As you follow the list of films, it should become clear how important Tribeca is to the doc world and how little of a presence Cannes has in documentaries.
IFC/Sundance Selects released the bio-doc Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me which has grossed over $305k in North America. That tops all SXSW docs from last year. IFC Also shined on a light on the cute kids of Dancing in Jaffa, which, despite being a day and date film, has grossed $136k domestically and $297k worldwide at the box office. Additionally, IFC is releasing TFC film Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia in theaters right now. In only 10 days in NYC, it has grossed $33k and is likely to be one of the top five films from last year’s batch when it’s all said and done. TFC handled fests for the film placing it in 50+, a healthy reminder that festivals only help your release (and an added reason to use a company like TFC to maximize fest exposure and revenue).
Closing night film Mistaken for Strangers is the only other doc from Tribeca to pass the $100k mark. It had a mix of week long and special engagements via Abramorama in addition to instantly going to the top of ITunes. Never underestimate the power of a music documentary to find a strong audience.
Zeitgeist saw $64k with the all archival footage doc Let the Fire Burn and right behind it Kino Lorber’s release of The Trials of Muhammad Ali topped out at $59k in a maximum of only 10 theaters, but a long run of 19 weeks. Big Men has grossed $42k in its service theatrical release with Abramorama which, given their advertising buys, has got to be below expectations. Oscilloscope has done well digitally with Teenage and slowly built up to $40k with another couple of venues left in the release.
Aatsinki:The Story of Arctic Cowboys, Flex is Kings, and Lenny Cooke all had small DIY releases. The Motivation opted for a release through GoDigital and multi award winner Oxyana did an exclusive with Vimeo.
Bridegroom is the rare doc to get into Redbox, but the film’s largest audience was on OWN. Showtime took Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. HBO trumped all networks with Gasland Part II, Inside Out:The People’s Art Project and the acquisitions of Herblock: The Black and the White and I Got Something’ To Tell You.
Circling back to this year, ½ of the acquisitions from April’s Tribeca Film Festival were documentaries including Keep on Keepin’ On which Radius-TWC bought for over $1,000,0000! Radius-TWC also snagged the lego doc Beyond the Brick while Magnolia was entranced by Ballet 422. Another highbrow doc, Dior and I, sold to EOne and opening night hip hop Nas doc Time Is Illmatic went to Tribeca Films. Morgan Spurlock Presents (A new partnership with Spurlock, Virgil Films and Abramorama) will release A Brony Tale this summer and just after the fest, Kevin Spacey released the doc Now in the Wings On a World Stage off of his personal site powered by VHX and in a few theaters. It’s now passed $50k at the box office.
CANNES CANT TALK DOC!
While Cannes may be unrivaled as a launchpad for narrative films, it continues to largely ignore documentaries. Of the four (that’s right…only 4) documentaries that world premiered at Cannes, none could be considered breakout hits.
Jodorowsky’s Dune, an admittedly somewhat fringe film to begin with, got the maximum play humanly possible in the hands of Sony Picture Classics. It’s still in theaters and has racked up just under $600,000 domestically. That is more than any documentary out of last year’s SXSW, LAFF or Tribeca.
While scoring a best foreign language film Oscar nomination, French/Cambodian doc The Missing Picture only limped over $50k at the hands of Strand Releasing in its domestic release. It’s international box office revenue doesn’t bring the film’s total to even $100k. Its performance is well below the performance of the other four foreign nominees (or the 5 Best Doc nominees for that matter) despite an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 99%.
With an overwhelming 220 minute run time, The Last of the Unjust maxed out at just over $40k theatrically which is on the low end for the holocaust subject matter, but given the massive length should be considered somewhat impressive. Internationally though it did even worse than The Missing Picture. The one other doc, James Tobak’s Seduced and Abandoned premiered on HBO.
Which lands us back at this year’s SXSW 2014. The festival saw a little movement in the doc acquisitions department with Gaiam TV buying TFC repped doc The Immortalists and Netflix nabbing exclusive rights to Print the Legend. Oscilloscope took advantage of BFI marketing matching funds and acquired Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets which will also screen at the upcoming Sheffield DocFest.
TFC was quite active at the festival this year. We arrived with two docs for festival rights (The Dog and The Immortalists) and have since added Song From the Forest and Born To Fly for festival distribution. Born to Fly has already been placed on the programs at Full Frame, SIFF, Sheffield, and Frameline and we will release it theatrically in a hybrid-DIY release. It launches September 10th in NYC at Film Forum and then comes to Los Angeles September 26 before expanding throughout the fall. Programmers may contact us directly about theatrical bookings of this film or message Jeffrey Winter about festival engagements for any of our 4 SXSW Docs.
Bryan Glick June 4th, 2014