I’m back to blogging after a long (2 years!) hiatus in law school and the first thing I want to discuss is something that frustrates us about the filmmaker consultations we give. At The Film Collaborative (TFC), it is shocking how much of what we said 5 years ago when we first started the company and what we continue to say over and over again has not trickled down and stuck to filmmakers.
While we like to think that we are changing minds and getting filmmakers to be more proactive about making their own decisions regarding distribution of their films, sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case in the majority. The same issues keep coming up (no you probably won’t be getting a 7 figure deal for distribution…no your film is not a fit for Sundance…no you shouldn’t just sign any deal that slides across the table).
Maybe you’re afraid of letting go of the notion that your job is only to make a good film and someone will buy it for big sums and you can move on fast to your next film.
Maybe you’re worried that if you cannot look an investor in the eye and say that the odds of selling and making all the film’s money back within a year or two are good, you won’t be able to make films.
Maybe you aren’t actually following any of the information currently coming out of every festival panel and industry publication about how the distribution world stands today.
But that doesn’t mean new information isn’t available and the independent film world still works like it did in 2008.
This is information we analyze daily at TFC. Clinging to the old mythology just makes it easier for distributors to cling to non-transparency in how money is made in distribution and it’s all a vicious and unsustainable cycle. You need to know the real story on how deals are structured now, what kinds of revenue is being recouped and why, and what role audience data plays in the continuation of your filmmaking career. This is not some 90’s pipe dream of make a film, reap immediate millions.
In law, they call that “willful blindness” where a person seeks to avoid liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting his or herself in a position where he or she will be unaware of facts that would render him or her liable. It’s not pretty to see, especially after all this time of talking about properly laying ground-work for self financed distribution. It has to stop and it will eventually because someone who is willfully blind won’t be working as a filmmaker for much longer.
Of course it’s not all about money, it’s also about building your audience and having your film seen and developing your career. These are actually all quite connected, much more often than not.
Here’s a list of things we have been saying for years and keep saying. Please let this stuff stick, it’s good for you! And the more people practice it, the healthier this will be for artists and for the business in general.
Top 15 mistakes made by filmmakers that shouldn’t keep happening are:
Making a horror film and only start thinking in August about how to release it by October of the same year. If you are planning a digital release, you need about a 4-6 month lead time.
Not building community around your film until after you premiered it at a festival (or worse, completed the circuit) such that then you squandered opportunities to build buzz, demonstrate and test audience appeal, and build awareness and marketing or organizational partnerships for future release before your buzz is gone.
Not clearing music rights believing that your distributor will be happy to pay for clearance. Profit margins are already slim for distributors, so they aren’t going to outlay for this expense. Plus, it makes you look unprofessional and extremely misinformed if you don’t have all of your clearances. Plan to work with a music supervisor.
Stealing money from your marketing and distribution budget to feed your production budget even though both are needed. In fact, if you can’t market and distribute your film, you probably shouldn’t even make it. Stop with assuming you won’t need to market and distribute your film. You will at least need to build up some kind of audience awareness and it will be smart for you to start getting immediate revenue from direct distribution.
Making your first documentary largely out of stock footage, which is probably the most expensive kind of documentary you can make. Stock footage is expensive to clear and if you have no track record of success in filmmaking, it is better to steer clear of making an expensive film as your first attempt.
Making a film with no notable names, no clearly identifiable audience, and no plan for how to distribute or market the title. This is an especially bad idea if you were planning to have someone else buy it and distribute it because it has virtually no market value.
Relying on box office gross as an indicator of the commercial success of a film, and using those numbers for the business plan of your film. Box office revenue is only top line revenue, not net revenue and certainly not an indicator of profit.
Believing that MGs in the 6-7 figure range are common for films without A-list talent. Read the trades after a major festival or film market and see what MGs are paid and for what level of talent in the film. If you don’t have this level, you aren’t getting that MG.
Skipping taking good photography on set and thinking frame grabs of the cast and crew will cut it when formulating key art and meeting deliverable requirements from buyers. Here is our post on what is needed for making key art. Still images are absolutely imperative to film sales and film promotion, but also to populate social media channels. Don’t skimp on photography.
Having a 4-minute trailer. Really? Please don’t. Also related, letting your intern or the editor of your film cut your trailer. Please hire a professional trailer editor because it is that important to gaining audience interest in seeing your film.
Forgetting that artwork on digital platforms is small, not theatrical poster size. It demands clear imagery with no extra text (laurels, URLs, credit block, rating etc).
Conflating “distributor” with “aggregator” and even with “platform” – they are different, the deals will be different, your expectations should be different, etc. This leads filmmakers to make bad or incomplete decisions. See our post on distribution terms.
Many filmmakers drastically “overthink” their festival strategy, and hold back from festival invitations for fear that actions taken now will overexpose the film and hurt its chances with press and distributors later. The truth is that INACTION is the far greater danger. By all means, you should obsess about the right world and international premieres …after that, just identify the best festival opportunities in each local market and let it fly, making sure to also address the festivals that cater to your niche along the way.
Hiring a lawyer who does not know the film business to handle your film deals. Okay, that’s a shameless plug since I’m an attorney now. But truly, as much as knowing the law matters, knowledge of what can be negotiated in a film distribution deal matters so much when it comes to monetizing rights and protecting your work.
Conducting screenings of your film (test screening as well as festivals) and not having a system for collecting email contact details so you can keep in touch about the progression of the release. When will you have another chance to contact these people again? Maximize your ability to keep in contact. There are now some text to subscribe services you can use rather than pass the clipboard.
A lot of film consultants, industry bloggers, film festival panelists, and others all saying the same thing so it’s time to realize what they are telling you is true. Can you hear me? Is this mic still on? It’s time not just to hear, but to listen and follow the advice people are freely telling you. You should no longer continue to make these mistakes.
Wishing you all the good things in your filmmaking career.
Orly Ravid September 24th, 2014
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, veteran independent film distributor Bob Berney gave a state of the industry address on distribution. TIFF was kind enough to make his keynote video available on Youtube (you can find it below), but here are some of the highlights if you don’t have 30 minutes to spare watching it.
-We’re in a chaotic, disruptive state right now with bigger studios making fewer, but massively budgeted films that involve huge risk.
-On the flip side, there are many more outlets now available to get a film into the market. The challenge as a producer is how to get revenue from these outlets in order to fund your next work.
-There are now well funded entities coming to major festivals and buying films without any real plan about how to release them.
-Open Road and Relativity Media are now distributing wide release theatrical films, sometimes as service deals (the production pays them to release, instead of the distribution company paying for rights).
-But platform release films, ones that start with opening in only 2-4 cities and then keep expanding their theatrical runs, are starting to have a tougher time finding a home, a company that will take them on. Fewer distributors are taking the traditional theatrical route and there are now more companies taking the day and date or VOD first route. Films that want a traditional release far outweigh the distribution companies that are willing to take on films for that kind of release.
-Berney believes that a theatrical release is the only way for a film to truly break out in the market in a big way.
-The bar for films that warrant having a large theatrical release has really been raised. The expense to release those films, even if using digital marketing, is big and the market is very competitive. Distributors who fund the marketing and distribution costs for those films are very wary about the ability to recoup.
-This summer there were many indie films that played in theaters against the studio blockbusters and did well. Boyhood, Magic in the Moonlight, Chef, Belle, Begin Again all surpassed expectations about how they would fare against the studio films. Berney believes it was because there was nothing else to see. Either superhero films or these and nothing in between. He guesses that the market could have taken even 4-5 more indie films this summer. People went to see some of those successful titles 2-3 times because there wasn’t much to choose from. Theatrical companies could have picked up more. The Fall season is crowded, but the summer could have used a few more releases.
-Because the deals are so different and the numbers come in sporadically, releasing VOD numbers is still not common.Also there aren’t very many success stories being reported from day and date or VOD only releases.
-Many European companies or smaller indie division within the studio units are not finding deals on their films very viable now. P&Ls for sales coming domestically (US) often have a 0 in the profit column. Sales can’t be counted on any more. Budgets have had to shrink accordingly because large deals aren’t happening so much any more.
Many of the newer players in the digital and VOD arena are constantly looking for content to fill their channels. Those films can play for a while until the audience gets more discerning.
-For any avenue chosen for distribution, the release has to create the feeling of an event to catch an audience’s attention. There is just too much in the market.
There is no one size fits all marketing and distribution plan. Each film needs to have its own plan handcrafted.
-Given the risk and expense, distributors are going to be much more discerning about what films they are passionate about and believe in before offering a deal.They want to be very sure there is an audience for a theatrical release before committing to such a deal.
-The Blu Ray market is still huge for certain types of films. Genre including family, horror, sci fi still do business on disc for Walmart and Redbox.
-Certain theaters are catching onto the idea of making the cinema an experience. Food, bigger seats, more varied showtimes, 4D seats are all increasing the feeling of an event in the cinema.
-Theaters are still resisting the idea of day and date. Regal and Cinemark chains are adamant about preserving the theatrical window. But AMC is more open to experimentation as long as the distributor will pay a 4 wall fee to rent their theaters. IFC and Magnolia own their own theater chains so they have been the most aggressive about trying Ultra VOD and day and date release. IFC buys about 50 films a year that they run though VOD and day and date releases.
-Due to regulation, Canada has not been able to experiment with this kind of releasing model yet.
-Berney still believes in the power of the theatrical release to affect an audience and that it is the best way to make a film break out.
-Netflix has been the savior for films that may not get a pay TV deal. Essentially, subscription VOD is on par with selling to HBO or Showtime. But Netflix takes far more films than those broadcasters.
-Social media advertising is allowing a more targeted and lower cost alternative to traditional advertising, plus providing much needed data on which to base strategic marketing decisions. Also these tools allow filmmakers to get clips, trailers, images etc to get out more widely for a lower cost and build pre release awareness that wasn’t even possible 10 years ago.
-There are just so many more opportunities now to get a film out, but it will take some time for the business side, the money making side, to catch up. That’s the uncertainty we are dealing with now.
Sheri Candler September 19th, 2014
The Film Collaborative is working with a number of filmmakers who have decided to handle their own theatrical tours. Our colleague in charge of managing these theatrical tours is Bryan Glick and he shares the reasoning behind the cities and theaters chosen for the upcoming release of Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs Gravity opening September 10 in New York City.
Anything that is too safe is not action!
Born To Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity is the latest DIY Hybrid-theatrical that The Film Collaborative is managing. I was lucky enough to see a rough cut just before SXSW and was truly blown away by how visual the film is. It demands to be seen on the big screen in order to fully appreciate the daring exploits of these athletic dancers.
Film Forum clearly agreed and by the time SXSW arrived, venerable New York cinema had already secured a week long engagement for “BTF” in September. With that glowing endorsement in place, we moved forward to draft a self financed Theatrical plan for the film which was made up of festival screenings and cinemas, both of which will provide revenue opportunities.
On the festival front, the film has since played at Full Frame, Sheffield, and Frameline LGBT along with 20+ others. The festival circuit serves a dual purpose for the film 1) to boost interest in the theatrical and secure further bookings in that space and 2) the festival screening fees may be much more than what the film would take in from a theatrical run in some cities.
Elizabeth Streb and her dance company are based in Brooklyn, New York so it was clear NYC is where the film should start its release. We fully anticipate NYC to be the biggest theatrical total of any of the markets. While that’s not unique, our grosses are likely to be abnormally tilted towards the NYC numbers. We saw a similar phenomenon with Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On,” (the film is set in Manhattan) which played for almost two months in NYC.
Having a several month head start, the filmmakers, TFC, and Streb reached out to a number of potential groups to take advantage of the $7.50 group discount at Film Forum. We now have over $5,000 in pre-sales for our engagement and multiple sold out screenings. In addition, we are “eventizing” these screenings by scheduling several Q&A’s with the filmmaker and central subject of the film. This strategy is being duplicated in LA and San Francisco where we open two weeks later. We are having a special free preview at The Hammer Museum in LA to boost word of mouth in Los Angeles ahead of a run at Laemmle’s NoHo where Elizabeth and the film’s director, Catherine Gund, will both be present for opening weekend. We also will have them Skype in for the San Francisco screenings during opening weekend at Vogue Theatre. In knowing our target audience, we chose this theater in Presidio Heights because it serves an older, well educated clientele with interest in the arts. The Vogue regularly shows special dance screenings from Ballet/Modern companies and comes at a much lower cost point than Landmark Theatres with none of the hassle.
In an effort to keep costs down and maximize revenue, we are relying on the strength of Inclusive PR to secure prominent press coverage and reviews; an in-house email database with 1000’s of contacts collected over the years; grassroots outreach to dance companies, arts organizations, senior organizations and the LGBT community; and social media. We are also avoiding chains like Landmark that require specially created DCP’s and bigger traditional print ad buys which, for a niche film of this nature, would not be targeted enough and enable the film to recoup the costs let alone see profit.
The theatrical rollout is intentionally slow, only adding 1-3 cities each week so as not to get overwhelmed by all of the support each city would need. We have a lean team and a lean budget so we are allocating a few hundred dollars in social media and digital ads and large markets may get highly targeted print ads. So far, we’ve saved thousands of dollars by not four walling at a single venue! As such, the release will cost comfortably less than $50k.
Elizabeth Streb is well known in the dance world, but it still takes time to build up word of mouth for this film. We are relying on a mix of lesbian, dance, and senior organizations for support. As with every specialty release, it is important to know your niche(s). While TFC usually avoids print ads when possible, in this case a limited amount make sense. Our audience skews older, educated and is more likely to read the newspaper. Our social media is geared specifically towards Facebook which, while falling out of fashion with millennials, is still prime territory for the 45+ group. We are sending regular email updates and blasts while consciously monitoring our paid media budget.
Added to these screenings, we will also incorporate theatrical on demand and have the film available on TUGG. That tool may be used by fans to bring the film to some smaller towns where Elizabeth Streb and her dancers have toured to in the past.
We anticipate somewhere around 20 markets for the theatrical in addition to festival screenings and a separate Canadian theatrical. The goal is to build a presence for the film that will feed the VOD/Digital/TV releases while minimizing the potential for loss that is often the hallmark of an indie film theatrical release. No easy task in the theatrical industry, but a challenge we happily embrace.
Bryan Glick September 2nd, 2014
Tags: Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs Gravity, Bryan Glick, Catherine Gund, Elizabeth Streb, Film Forum, Frameline, Full Frame, Hammer Museum, laemmle's noho, self distribution of indie film, self financed theatrical release, Sheffield DocFest, SXSW, The Film Collaborative, Tugg, Vogue Theater