I read once, years ago, that the circular nature of the experience at the Berlin International Film Festival…plodding from meetings at the European Film Market (EFM) at the Martin-Gropius-Bau (MGB), to meetings at the EFM offices at the Marriot Hotel, to festival screenings at the Cinestar Sony Center, to market screenings at the CinemaxX, and back to meetings at the MGB tend to remind Industry professionals of the cyclical nature of their lives…stretched across years and years of travelling from market to market all over the world. It’s a plodding cycle that’s compounded by the relentless gray and cold of Berlin in February, and a reminder that as “glamorous” as this Industry seems to some…it is also quite a difficult and often bewildering business filled with precipitous highs and even lower lows.

As I negotiate these circles myself, I have the visceral audio/visual experience that Berlin is the most “international” of all festivals (Sundance being distinctly American, Cannes being dominated by the French). The Berlinale is a dizzying array of languages and cultures from everywhere, which makes particular sense since if you imagine the world as a traditional flat map, Berlin is roughly in the center of it. It makes a lot more sense for film business folks from many countries to travel to the Berlinale rather than say, the snowy mountains in Utah for Sundance (and a lot less expensive). As a result of this glorious diversity, I often find it a lot more difficult in Berlin to figure out the overall climate of what is going on business wise, as folks are chatting around you in a myriad of languages I can’t understand, and it is a lot harder than most places to gauge what they are talking about and experiencing.

It is precisely the uber-international nature of the Berlinale that also seems to contribute, year after year, to the uneven nature of the programming, i.e. the quality of the films. As the name of the most independent section of the festival implies, the Berlin Panorama, it is a wide-angle view of world cinema from far-flung countries not often known for the strength of their film industries. Although no-one would ever say so in public, one has the distinct feeling that some of the best films from countries that produce the majority of films (especially English and French languages), are not being selected in favor of films from countries not often represented on the international stage…especially those from Eastern Europe and the like. As a result, programming at the Berlinale is notoriously hit and miss.

There are certainly gems to be found, often from the unexpected corners of the world. Take for example, Una mujer fantasica (A Fantastic Woman), a Chilean transgender narrative bought by Sony for North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Or the Teddy special jury award Karera ga honki de amu toki wa (Close Knit), another trans-themed film from Japan. Prolific and world-famous director Agnieska Holland dropped her latest Spoor, a murder mystery deemed as a sort of Polish Fargo. Or happily for us at TFC, the Teddy Award winner for Best Documentary which went to Ri chang dui hua (Small Talk), a slow burn gem from Taiwan that is happily a Film Collaborative film. Or Chavela, a luminous bio-doc from director Catherine Gund about legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas (also happily a Film Collaborative film). These are all films that pushed the boundaries in ways that are typically Berlin….so called “exotic” stories from locales usually outside of the international spotlight.

Disappointingly this year, it seemed at least to me and those who I spoke to, that the most talked about films at the Berlinale had already premiered a few weeks ago at Sundance. Without going into names, it seemed that the festival lacked a great number of distinct break-out hits world premiering in Berlinale as a whole. There was a heavier reliance of Sundance hits than usual, and as someone who had attended Sundance just a couple of weeks before, this was underwhelming.

Of course, as most of us know by now, the 2017 Sundance Festival was distinguished by a flood of sales mostly buoyed by the tremendous influx of new money from digital platforms and the bizarrely strong U.S. Dollar. While not nearly as profoundly buoyant, the 2017 Berlinale was still marked by the same trends. From what I could tell, the Hollywood majors drove the market, with MGM setting a new Berlin market record with a $17.5 million pick-up for a Dwayne Johnson wresting pic called Fighting With My Family and U.S. mini-majors like Sony Classics and Lionsgate being unusually active. All in all, the business seemed to continually improve over recent years for the market in general.

However, at least it seems to me, that conditions are getting harder and harder for small independents…and by that I mean both the small indie films and the small indie distributors in particular. As price pressure rises from the incredibly deep pocketed digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon, it seems that there is more uncertainty than ever. Price pressure is rising for small distributors…who can no longer afford to bid with big guys on the block (I heard tell that Amazon now stands to be the most deep pocketed film buyer in the history of the world…which makes sense as they can draw from all their other revenue to fuel their film buying).

Films that once might have been safely projected in terms of revenue potential are now more confusing as a product than ever….as they might sell for some astronomical fee backed by a worldwide deal, or maybe not at all…depending on market whims that seem hard to predict. And the strong dollar is making international buyers increasingly conservative…as the price in euros and all other currencies just seems to be more and more prohibitive for the international players. I heard one Turkish buyer say to a U.S. seller that if they offered USD $10,000 for a film…the buyer needed to understand that that was the equivalent of the Turkish buyer offering $40,000 in their own currency….as the exchange rate is that bad. And as a result, although the buyer planned to make offers to said U.S. seller, they would need to be much lower than in recent years.

As such, from high to low, I submit that the Berlin 2017 experience lived in shades of gray. From the weather, to the programming, to the business, to the overall experience…it goes up and down…and exists mostly in between.

February 22nd, 2017

Posted In: Film Festivals

This post is part 4 of an ongoing series of posts chronicling how rapid technological change is impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this affects filmmakers and their post-production and delivery choices. The prior three can be found at the following links: January 2013August 2013October 2014

DCPs can be proprietary hard drives. Alternatively (not shown), then can look virtually identical to external hard drives

When I started this series back in 2013, a fairly new exhibition format called DCP was starting to significantly impact independent exhibition and distribution, and I was very afraid. I was sure that the higher costs associated with production, the higher encryption threshold, and the higher cost of shipping would significantly impact the independents, and heavily favor the studios.

Flash forward to today, and of course DCP has taken over the world. And thankfully we independents are still here. Don’t get me wrong…I still kinda hate DCP…especially for the increased shipping price and their often bulky complicated cases and how they are so easily confused with other kinds of hard drives…but they are a fact of life that we can adapt to. Prices for initial DCP creation have dropped to more manageable rates in the last two years, and creating additional DCPs off the master are downright cheap. And most importantly, they don’t fail nearly as often as they used to…apparently the technology and our understanding of it has improved to the point where the DCP fail rate is relatively similar to every other format we’ve ever used.

While DCPs rule on the elite level….at all top festivals and all major theatrical chains…filmmakers still need to recognize that a wide array of other formats are being requested by venues and distributors every day. Those include BluRays, ProRes Files on Portable Hard Drives, and, most significantly, more and more requests for downloadable files from the cloud.

To track the evolution of formats over the last two years, please refer to the booking charts of Film Collaborative films below. Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services is booking our clients’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc. October is always the busiest month of the year…as it is the month of the year with the most film festivals. By comparing the last three Octobers, we can see quite clearly how venue deliverables have changed over the last two years.

Quick observations of the above include:

  • Bluray use for exhibition has remained relatively constant over the last three years in terms of total Blurays used, although its percentage rate has declined by about 23% from last year.
  • DCP use for exhibition has increased from 6.1 percent in 2013 to 31% in 2014 to 39% in 2015. It should be noted that the vast majority of high-end bookings such as top festivals or top theatrical chains require DCP now, and the vast majority of Bluray bookings are at the smaller venues.
  • Digital tape formats, such as HDCAM and Digibeta, have entirely disappeared to 0. As we said in our last post to this effect….stop making these entirely!
  • Requests for Quicktime files on hard drive format are on the rise…and the only reason their numbers above seem so low is because we resist booking them whenever we can—because they are an additional cost. So the 8 listed for October 2015 means in those cases we determined we had no other choice. We should discuss this further in this post.
  • For the first year ever, our company is now offering downloadable vimeo links to festivals to show the film from electronic files delivered over the internet. This is a radical direction that has much to be discussed, and we shall do so later in this post. To date we are only offering these in extraordinary situations….mostly for emergency purposes.

While DCP is certainly the dominant format at major venues for now and the foreseeable future, I still maintain my caution in advising filmmakers to make them before they are needed. Nowadays, I hear filmmakers talk about making their DCP master as part of their post process, well before they actually know how their film will be received by programmers and venue bookers. Lets face it, a lot of films, even a lot of TFC member films, never play major festivals or theatrical venues, and their real life is on digital platforms. Remember that DCP is a theatrical format, so if your film is never going to have life in theatrical venues, you do not need to spend the money on a DCP.

If and when you do make your DCP(s), know that DCPs still do on occasion fail. Sometimes you send it and the drive gets inexplicably wiped in transit. Sometimes there is a problem with the ingest equipment in the venue, which you can’t control. Film festivals in particular know this the hard way….even just a year ago DCP failure was happening all the time. A lot (most) festivals got spooked, so now they ask for a DCP plus a Bluray backup. That can be a significant problem for distributors such as TFC, since it can mean multiple shipments per booking which is expensive and time-consuming. However for individual filmmakers this should be quite do-able….just make a Bluray and a DVD for each DCP and stick them in the DCP case so they travel with the drive (yes I know they will probably eventually get separated…sigh). And the Golden Rule remains….that is never ever ever travel to a festival without at least a Bluray and a DVD backup on your person. It never ceases to amaze me how many (most) filmmakers will fly to a foreign country for a big screening of their film and simply trust that their film safely arrived and has been tech checked and ready to go. If your DCP fails at a screening that you are not at…well that sucks but you’ll live. If you travel to present your film at a festival and you are standing in a crowded theater and your film doesn’t play and everyone has to go home disappointed, that, in fact, is a disaster.

As mentioned previously, more and more venues that cannot afford to upgrade to DCP projection are choosing to ask for films to be delivered as an Apple ProRes 422 HQ on a hard drive. Since this is not a traditional exhibition format, a lot of filmmakers do not think they need to have this ready and are caught unawares when a venue cannot or will not accept anything else. At The Film Collaborative, we keep a hard drive of each of our films ready to go at our lab…as mentioned we do not prefer to use them because of the extra shipping cost (DCPs are trafficked from festival to festival so at no shipping cost to us, while hard drives are not used often enough to keep them moving like this). However we do find we often need them in a pinch. So do keep one handy and ready to go out. This should not be a big deal for filmmakers, since the Apple ProRes 422 HQ spec is the most important format you’ll need for nearly all types of distribution deliveries, whether it be to distributors or digital aggregators or direct to digital platforms. So, if you plan to have any kind of distribution at all, this is a format you are almost certainly going to need. Make a couple to be safe.

Is the Future in the Cloud?

As I have touched on before, the Holy Grail of independent film distribution would seem to live in the cloud, wherein we could leave physical distribution formats behind and simply make our films available electronically via the internet anywhere in the world. This would change the economics of independent film radically, if we could take the P out of Prints & Advertising and save dramatically on both format creation and format shipping. Unfortunately today’s reality is far more complicated, and is not certain to change any time soon.

I can’t begin to tell you how often…nearly every day…small festivals looking to save on time and shipping will ask me if I can send them the film via Dropbox or WeTransfer or the like. The simple answer is no, not really. So every time they ask me, I ask them back…exactly how do you think I can do that? What spec do you need? What is the exact way you think this can work? And they invariably answer back…“We don’t know…we just hoped you’d be able to.” It is utterly maddening.

Here’s the tech-heavy problem. Anyone can get a professional-sized Dropbox these days…ours is over 5,100 gigs (short for Gigabytes, or GB) and an average 90 minute Apple ProRes 422 HQ is around 150 gigs…so that doesn’t seem like a problem. Clearly our Dropbox can fit multiple films.

The current problem is in the upload/download speed. At current upload speeds, a Apple ProRes 422 HQ is going to take several days to upload, with the computer processing the upload uninterrupted all the time (running day and night). Even this upload time doesn’t seem too daunting, after all you could just upload a film once and then it would be available to download by sending your Dropbox info. However, the real problem is the download…that will also take more than a day on the download side (running day and night) and I have yet to ever come across a festival or venue even close to sophisticated enough to handle this. Not even close. Think of the computing power at current speeds that one would need to handle the many films at each festival that this would require. And to be clear, I am told that WeTransfer is even slower.

To make this (hopefully) a little clearer…I would point out four major specs that one might consider for digital delivery for exhibition.

  1. Uncompressed Quicktime File (90 mins). This would be approx. 500 gigs. Given the upload/download math I’ve given you above, you can see why 500 gigs is a non-starter.
  2. Apple ProRes 422 HQ (90 mins). Approx 150 gigs. Problematic uploaded/download math given above. Doesn’t seem currently viable with today’s technology.
  3. HD Vimeo File made available to download (90 mins). Approx 1.5 – 3 gigs. This format is entirely doable—and we now make all our films available this way if needed. This format looks essentially the same as Bluray on an HD TV, but not as good when projected onto a large screen. This can be instantaneously emailed to venues and they can quickly download and play from a laptop or thumb-drive or even make a disc-based format relatively inexpensively. However, there are two major problems…a) most professional venues that value excellent presentation values and have large screens find this to be sub-par projection quality and b) this is a file that is incredibly easy to pirate and make available online. For these reasons, we currently use these only for emergency purposes…when we get last minute word that a package hasn’t arrived or an exhibition format has failed. It is quite a shame…because this is incredibly easy to do, so if we could find the right balance of quality and security…we would be on this in a heart-beat.
  4. Blu-Ray-Quality File (Made available via Dropbox)(90 mins). This spec would be just around the same quality as a Bluray (which is quality-wise good enough for nearly all venues) and made available via Dropbox or the like. It is estimated that this file would be around 22 – 25 gigs. This would be slow, but potentially doable according to our current upload/download calculations. This is the spec we at TFC are currently looking at…but to be clear we have NOT ever done this yet. Right now it is our pipe dream…and our plan to implement in 2016. I will follow up on this in further posts!

To conclude, where we stand now, we have yet to find a spec that is reasonably made available to venues via the internet, both in terms of quality and safety protocols…but a girl can dream.

It is critical to note that the folks I am talking to recently are saying this may NOT change in the foreseeable future…because internet speeds worldwide might need to quintuple (or so) in speed to make this a more feasible proposition. Nobody that I know is necessarily projecting this right now. And that’s a sobering prospect that might leave us with physical deliverables for quite a while now. And for now, that would be the DCP with Bluray back-up. If this changes, you can be sure we will write about it here.

But hey, maybe that Quantum Computer I’ve heard about will sudden manifest itself? Gosh, that would be cool. In the meantime…how about a long-range battery that runs an affordable electric car and is easy to recharge? That would be super cool too. We can save the world and independent film at the same time.

In the meantime…if you think I am missing the point on any of the nerdy details included in this post, or you know anything about how digital delivery of exhibition materials that I might have missed, please email me. Trust me….we want to hear from you!

November 24th, 2015

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In two prior posts, I chronicled how rapid technological change was impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this was affecting filmmakers and their post-production and delivery choices. In January 2013, in a post called “The Independent’s Guide to Film Exhibition and Delivery” I discussed the rise of the DCP in independent exhibition, and the potential dangers it posed to filmmakers on a budget. And later that year, I posted “Digital Tape is Dead” in which I gave further evidence that it was possible to resist the rise of DCP…at least for the time being… and the reasons for doing so.

photo credit: Bradley Fortner via photopin cc

photo credit: Bradley Fortner via photopin cc

It’s a little over a year later, so I am returning to the topic to take stock of what a difference another year makes. And as always, the main goal of this exercise is to help you, as filmmakers, to make the best post and delivery choices in finishing and exhibiting your films.

Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services is booking our clients’ and members’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc.  Every year, this work hits a peak frenzy in October, which is unquestionably THE month of the year with the largest number of film festivals. By simply comparing our booking format totals from October 2013 to October 2014, I can see that once again the landscape of booking has evolved substantially in the last 12 months.

BOOKINGS IN OCTOBER 2013 (total 195 booking engagements):

BLURAY: 144

DVD: 25

DCP: 12

HDCAM: 10

Digibeta: 2

Quicktime File:  2

BOOKINGS IN OCTOBER 2014 (total 268 booking engagements)

BLURAY: 162

DCP: 84

DVD: 12

HDCAM: 6

Quicktime File: 4

Other than the fact that we are obviously a busy company (!), the main takeaway here is that the DCP’s slow and seemingly inevitable rise to the top is continuing, although the actual majority of venues (especially in the U.S.) are still trying to cut costs by the use of BluRay. In Europe, the DCP has already overtaken all other formats, and is nearly impossible to resist if you want to play in any reputable festivals or venues. And after DCP and BluRay, all other formats are now nearly dead worldwide, at least for now.

There are many reasons why this isn’t good news for independent filmmakers (which we’ll go into)…but the first and most obvious problem is that all of the filmmakers we work with are still making multiple HDCAMs! From the data above it is clear, STOP MAKING HDCAMS PEOPLE! I know many companies that have stopped producing them entirely, and are providing only on DCP, BluRay, and DVD.

Usually, an independent filmmaker’s first worry about DCPs is the initial price – indeed it is the most expensive exhibition format to make since the 35mm print. However, the good news is that it has already dropped in price quite a bit from 2013…now if you look around you are sure to be able to get an initial one made for $1,000 – $1,500 (compared to around $2,500 a year ago).

Now there is the really weird situation with the subsequent DCPs…and what you should pay to make additional copies. If you’ve seen DCPs, you’ll know that they often come in these elaborate and heavy “Pelican Cases” with a “Sled” hard drive with USB adaptors and power supplies. That’s the kind the studios use, and they will usually run you around $400 per additional DCP…which is expensive.

The strange thing is that every tech-savvy person I know tells me that this is all window-dressing, and that a regular “Office Depot style drive” USB 3 Drive for $100 serves exactly the same purpose and is actually a bit more reliable since it has less moving parts. Add to this the simple charge for copying the DCP (for which our lab charges only $50), and you’ve got subsequent DCPs at only $150 each…which of course is even cheaper than old tape-based formats like HDCAM and Digibeta.

If someone out there knows why one SHOULDN’T go with the more inexpensive option, I’m all ears. Call me, tweet us @filmcollab, leave a comment on our Facebook page! ‘Cause I haven’t heard it yet.

Of course, its still not a super-cheap $10 BluRay, but the truly annoying thing about the DCP and all its solid state technology and its fancy cases is that it is HEAVY, surpassing everything except old 35mm prints in weight. As a result, the cost of SHIPPING becomes a major issue for independents, and more than $100 every time you send since you obviously aren’t going to put your pristine file in regular mail.  If you’ve been booking and playing films for a long time, you’ll know that $100 in shipping is often the difference between a profitable screening a not-so-profitable one…and so the cost adds up quickly.

It’s truly the cost of shipping that makes me sad that the BluRay is doomed as a major exhibition format. At one point, when filmmakers and distributors made “P&A” assessments for their films, the biggest cost in the “P” analysis was the cost of shipping heavy prints. For a brief and shining moment….from like mid 2013 to mid 2014… the lightweight BluRays took that part of the “P” out of the equation entirely…and that sure was nice.

But the (dirty and secret) truth is that COST isn’t the main problem with DCP. It is the RELIABILITY of the format. The horrible fact is that DCP is the most unreliable format in terms of playability that we have ever had….bar none that I can think of. BluRays used to have the reputation for failing often, but they were easy to include a back-up copy with, and they have drastically improved in the last two years such that they almost never fail. DCPs, however, now fail ALL THE TIME, at an alarming rate, and for an alarming number of reasons.

Rather than go into the deep tech-geek reason for DCP failures in venues all over the world…I am going to copy a few recent emails from labs, festivals, and venues I have been communicating with in the last couple of weeks. I promise you…all of this is just in the last two weeks! And all of these are all different films and different DCPs!

[EXAMPLE] On September 16th, XXXX wrote:

So, bad news guys, we couldn’t access the hard drive on this DCP, so it’s our thoughts that it is dead.

[EXAMPLE} On September 18th, XXXX wrote:

Nothing over here is recognizing this DCP. The drive appears to be EXT3 formatted and I think this may be why it’s not recognizing as a usable hard drive. Generally, we use NTFS and EXT2 formatted drives. This one does have a bluray backup, but if you can try to get us another DCP, that’d be cool.

[EXAMPLE} On September 17th, XXX wrote

We just got the DCP and the sled was loose and the final screw holding it came off. It’s the plastic thing that pops out. Just now I noticed that most of the screws on it are loose. It won’t play because I think we need to replace the screws?

[EXAMPLE} On September 22,, XXXX wrote

We are facing difficulties with the DCP as our Server does not seem to recognize the drive. We have spoken to your lab and we think it’s because our server cannot recognize Linux Files. We have about 100 DCPs in our festival, and this is happening to about 10 of our films. Can you offer any advice?

It is this last example that really cracks me up….if you happen to know anything about DCP you know that Linux was chosen as the best format for DCI-complaint files. So the fact that a festival could not read Linux, but could still read 90 out of 100 of their DCPs is absolutely mid-boggling, as I thought Linux was in fact the common denominator.

But I digress.

As filmmakers, is any of this what you want to be doing with your time? Do you really want to know about EXT3 and EXT2, and do you seriously want to worry about replacing loose screws on a drive? Do you want to reduce your whole filmmaking experience as to whether a venue can read Linux or not? Do you have time for this?

Just this weekend, we had a screening in North Hollywood where the sound on the DCP went out for the last 5 minutes of the film, all the way through the credits. Is  this acceptable? I thought not.

It was better before. We don’t like to think that evolution is like this….getting worse rather than better….but in truth it often is. And this is one of those times.

The truth is, I will never trust this format.  The DCP was created by a 7-member consortium of the major multinational studios called the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI). It represented only the major studios…and created a format best suited to their needs. They have since adapted all the major venues to their needs. Is it any wonder that these needs do not represent the needs of independent filmmakers? Do we have any doubt that that any “consortium” would actively seek to suppress the needs of its competition? It created encryption codes only they can functionally work with. It put all the rest of us in danger, in my opinion. Let’s just talk about their unworkable encryption technology if we want to start somewhere. KDMs on independent films are a joke….leaving us more vulnerable to piracy than ever.

So, here is why the “P” matters more than ever. And why there is still GREAT reasons to hope. Just when you thought I was writing a depressing post, I am going to flip this b*itch. And I mean “b*itch” in the best manner possible.

The truth is…the age of cloud based computing, the no shipping, the no P in “P&A” reality is finally nearly upon us.

The truth is…it will not be long before we can use cloud-based services to deliver our films to venues all over the world. Of course, it is happening now….but it is not a mature system yet. But my guess is that it WILL be very soon. Definitely less than 5 years.

With all the new services like Google Drive, WeTransfer, DropBox, Vimeo, etc all rapidly evolving…..we are only months (if not years) from really delivering our films without help from middle men like Technicolor and FED EX. And that will be a good thing. A great thing really. I believe it will increase our indie profits many fold.

Already, every single day, I have numerous festivals asking me to DropBox them the films we are working with. In truth, I haven’t figured out really how to do that yet in quality levels I am comfortable with that also make financial sense. I am in constant dialogue with our lab and our tech people as to how to make this work in terms of uploading time, server space, and quality of presentation.

But it is clear to me that it IS happening over time….if anyone knows the secrets…again, I am ALL ears!  Please call me! Because I truly believe that when we can remove the P from the P&A equation….and I mean truly remove it such that any number of prints and all shipping can be eliminated as easily as sending someone a link to an FTP or whatever…..we will re-enter an age where independent film distribution will make real financial sense. Imagine that, for a moment.

And the weirdest thing is I think it is truly happening… any day now.

NOTE: Step 4 in this blog series will be an analysis of how to deliver your film digitally and via The Cloud. We aren’t there yet….BUT that is what I will cover in the next post of this series. Hopefully new updates will happen by the end of the year!

 

 

October 1st, 2014

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

photo credit: Kevin H. via photopin cc

photo credit: Kevin H. via photopin cc

I was speaking with a producer friend of mine this week, and she told me a disturbing (if familiar) story, with a surprisingly inspiring conclusion.

She recently exec produced one of 2014’s “bigger” independent films…which is set for theatrical release soon. They did just about everything right. The film is written and directed by a well known, highly respected auteur on the indie scene, with a  long career. It stars two very well-known character actors, who are just about household names if not quite “movie stars.” The budget was modest. It premiered at one of the pinnacle A-level film festivals. There it was bought by one of the biggest mini-majors in the business, and has since sold 18 territories worldwide. Even before theatrical release, the investors have all made a significant percentage of their money back…albeit not all of it (and certainly no profit).

She was lunching with one of the films other producers recently and she asked him… “If the film grosses 1 million dollars theatrically, do you think we’ll see any more money?” He said, “probably not.” So she said, “Ok what if it grosses 3 million?” And he said “probably not.” “10 million?” “Probably not.”

She said that’s when it dawned on her…. producing and selling an independent film the traditional way (i.e. selling all rights out of a festival premiere) is simply not a business. (BOOM…head exploding). In any other business, making back a percentage of your investment is not a success story. In indie film, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s the way it goes” and move on to the next one.

The lack of a sound business model in independent film is what we at TFC have been trying to address all along. The “old way” of producing and selling indie films is actually a shell game at best, a way of moving money from one spot to the next that is equal part a gambling game and equal part a con-job. Sure, there are a few unmitigated success stories every year…just enough to create a delusional atmosphere that casts a spell over thousands of filmmakers who think they can just make their movie and walk away as it magically finds its way into the world and fills their pockets with cash.

Anyway, it just so happens that my producer friend is currently working on a new film, and with the production schedule being the way it is, she knows for sure it won’t be done for at least another year. And after that, of course the inevitable wait for the right Festival premiere, which can take several additional months. As such, she figures that this time she has plenty of time to re-imagine the traditional model, and approach the film as an actual business. My producer friend comes from an entrepreneurial background, where she created and sold tech companies.

This time, this film, she vows, she is going to approach the distribution and marketing of the film the way she did with her tech companies in the past, and build it like an actual business. Not wait around for some other company to come in later and supposedly do it for her.

My producer friend and I plan to sit down in the next few months and have detailed conversations about what that actually looks like, but for now, I am going to use this post to outline some of the basics….and (hopefully) create the beginnings of a road map that others can follow.

NOTE: I am aware that I have been vague with the particulars of the first film mentioned in this post…which may annoy some readers. This was intentional of course, A) I don’t have permission to reveal the details, and B) the basic principals and outcomes are transferable to most every film that has received distribution offers out of a major festival in recent years.

In any case, here we go…some of my basic guidelines to approaching an independent film like the building of any other business.

1) Break down and list every source of potential revenue for the film – and plan how to capitalize on them all. This may seem self-evident, but I’ll wager this is the most overlooked of all independent distribution strategies. That’s because most filmmakers want to sell their film outright, and count on the distribution company to do all the right things. But most distribution companies only do a few things well (if any), and they will inevitably leave numerous stones unturned.

Start with a comprehensive list of every way you can see your film making money, i.e festival screening fees, domestic sales, international sales, theatrical-on-demand (i.e. GATHr or TUGG), community screenings, traditional theatrical, DVD sales at live events, other merchandising, digital downloads etc. Then figure out how many of these you can do yourself, and where you’ll need help from others.

2) Know from the beginning who your audience is – and have a strategy for how to reach them. I know, I know, this is dismaying to most filmmakers. Most filmmakers see themselves as artists first, motivated by self-expression, and actually hope that their film is for everyone, not just a select target group. But remember, just by making an independent film, you are de facto not making a film for everyone (unless you have movie stars)…since the vast majority of the global population doesn’t consume independent film on any kind of regular basis.

In independent film, niche is king AND queen, and you need to think of your target audience as your core customer base. Approach them like any business would…who am I selling to and how do I reach them? And if your core customers love your product, then they’ll tell others about it too. Think long and hard and soul search on this question…if you don’t know who your film is for, you run the risk that it will be for no-one at all.

3) Smart marketing is everything. Hollywood studios find their audiences by essentially buying them, spending vulgar multi-millions on TV ads, billboards, publicity firms to access late night TV talk shows etc….basically putting their product in front of everyone who doesn’t live in a cave. But chances are you can’t do that.

Smart marketing actually stems from question 2…who is your core audience and how do you reach them? And here’s where the important question comes…where do those people congregate such that you can actually speak to them? If you determine that your audience is “women between the age of 30 and 40,” that isn’t particularly useful because that’s too disparate to reach. Not ALL of them congregate in the same place. But if you determine there is a certain set of bloggers and websites that your audience reads and by obtaining coverage or placing ads, you can reach them there, well that’s something you can wrap your head around.

I usually advise that filmmakers start well in advance and build a big excel grid of every organization, every website, every blogger, every tastemaker, every everything they can think of and methodically reach out to them with news about their film. You usually can’t do this until you’ve actually starting shooting..so you can at least share images and teasers etc…but please don’t wait until you are finished with the film. This process takes too long… often by then it is too late.

I shouldn’t have to mention that this is of course where social media comes in as well. You want your social media strategy to start on Day One of shooting if possible. And, as always, you’ll want your social media strategy to be as interactive and engaging as possible…not just a platform for naked self-promotion.

4) Have a rigorous and vigorous approach to crowdfunding. Independent filmmaking can seem downright depressing at times…but it’s times like this we should thank our lucky stars for the relatively recent phenomenon of crowdfunding. What a miracle it is….and the best part of all….you don’t have to give the money back. Plus you are building up an audience that is motivated to see your film succeed.

These days it seems reasonable…for the right project…to launch crowdfunding campaigns in pre-production, for finishing funds, and to jumpstart your distribution, as long as you have a compelling message to impart to the world. And a great video of course… it all comes down to the video (and to a lesser extent the perks). Remember, however, that a crowdfunding campaign is hard work…its like a whole other job, which can certainly seem daunting during production. But if you don’t work hard at it…it won’t work. The good news is, if you DO work hard at it, the success rate is amazing!

5) Explore the granting world. Like crowfunding money, grant money is money you won’t have to pay back (meaning the best kind). Grant money is usually a better fit for documentaries of course, but we’ve also worked on plenty of narrative features with a theme or message that attracted grantees. Also, don’t forget that there are also (some) grants for outreach/distribution, for films with an important social message. To pursue grants, you’ll probably also need a fiscal sponsoring organization to back you, which can be The Film Collaborative or a number of other independent film non-profits. To read more about TFC’s fiscal sponsorship progam, go HERE.

6) Pre-sell as little as possible. This is a quandary for many filmmakers. You need the money to finish the film, but then when it’s finished, those rights are tied up and you can’t exploit them in a way that you’d like to. And, again, unless you have bona fide movie stars, your film will be infinitely less valuable before you finish it than when it is premiering at a major festival like Sundance etc. Time and time again I hear filmmakers say, “I pre-sold my film to x territory (usually broadcast) because I needed the money, now I wish I could just give them the money back.”

7) Parcel off your rights in as many pieces as possible. This is something that TFC’s founder Orly Ravid has specialized in….i.e. engaging as many different companies as possible to handle as many different rights categories as possible. This goes back to what I said earlier, different companies are better at different things. This “parceling” is particularly important because many all-rights holders are using many middle-men companies to get to various platforms etc. You want to be as DIRECT AS POSSIBLE with your various points of sale, cutting out as many middle-men as possible.

8) Explore Transmedia. This is admittedly difficult for the vast majority of independent, character-driven narrative features…although there are some notable exceptions. But for genre/sci-fi features this is an area rich with possibility, through games, contests, spin-off stories etc. And most often overlooked is the potential for documentaries to explore transmedia, especially since most documentaries have countless hours of footage they aren’t using in the finished film itself. And for issue-oriented docs, there is usually a wealth of other sources, both scholarly and journalistic, that can be folded into your website. For documentaries, your website should be an equal “entry-point” into the issues raised by the documentary, and should ultimately lead to more viewers/consumers of the film. That is the very essence of transmedia…multiple entry points into the larger experience.

9) Have a well-thought out strategy for digital distribution. My aforementioned producer friend was in the tech business, so her focus is on possibly creating her own portal where her target audience can download the film directly, thereby cutting out all middle-men entirely.

Nonetheless, in today’s world you have to expect (hope) that the most viewers for your film will be paying customers in the digital realm. And thankfully, just getting your film onto a few big digital platforms these days isn’t particularly difficult (to read more about the digital distribution offered by The Film Collaborative, go HERE. But here is where #2 (target audience) and #3 (smart marketing) come in most importantly….if you just throw your film onto iTunes, how is anyone going to know it’s there?

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of great companies you can hire that work for very little money to assist you with the marketing part. So this may be yet another job you and your team might have to do for yourselves.

10) Keep the budget as low as possible. This may seem like the most obvious point of all, and yet it is incredibly subjective. I can’t tell you how many times I cringe when hear filmmakers say “we kept our costs down…it only cost 1 million dollars!” Well, a million dollars isn’t what it used to be….and I mean that in the reverse way it is traditionally meant. With the plethora of cheap digital cameras and desktop editing leading to an explosion in independent film, supply WAY outstrips demand… and a million dollars is quite an expensive indie movie these days. Most importantly, at a million dollars chances are there is probably no amount of DIY distribution techniques that will recoup your investment, and you’ll be back in the initial quandary, meaning you will NEED a significant traditional sale from a distributor to have any chance of making most of your money back.

So, when I say keep your budget low…to be honest I am talking more like $100,000. And I know that’s not always possible. So if you can’t do it for something in the low six-figures, you’re back to that place where you need to start thinking about movie stars.

11) Put a minimum of 10 – 15% of your budget aside for marketing and distribution costs. This is a VERY small percentage of your budget that really will only enable you to start building a core audience, but a core audience can grow wider if word of mouth is active.

Again, I know this is easier said than done. Even if you line-item that with the best intentions, many filmmakers will pilfer along the way for a few extra days of shooting, etc. But chances are you’ll find yourself with a finished film with no more money to get it out into the world….no money for festival trips, no money for smart marketing, no money to hire a publicist, etc. Recognizing that even the initial stages of marketing and distribution require capital, we at TFC implore you not to fall into the trap of being cash-strapped right at the time you need it most.

Most of all of what I have outlined above fall under the producer’s responsibilities, and are sometimes referred to the work of what might be called the PMD or “Producer of Marketing and Distribution.,” and are crucial to development of a producer business model for indie film.

Interestingly, sometimes I think there is a clearer business model for directors of independent film. Directors have a clearer path to a business model that makes sense…direct an indie gem, premiere it at Sundance to great acclaim, and then get hired by Hollywood to direct commercial TV and film (think Christopher Nolan, who seemingly went directly from Memento to Batman). But producers seem to start at step 1 with every script.

It is my hope that by following the guidelines listed in this post, at least some of the groundwork to planning a profitable business model for an independent film can be laid out in advance.

 

August 19th, 2014

Posted In: crowdfunding, Digital Distribution, Distribution, DIY, Long Tail & Glut of Content, Marketing, transmedia

Tags: , , , , ,

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).

Festival VOD

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.

 

 

 

 

 

June 26th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, Marketing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Written by Keo Woolford, edited by Jeffrey Winter

EDITORS NOTE: Anyone who has read the TFC blog or heard us speak in public knows that strategies for monetizing independent film through audience engagement, focused niche marketing, grassroots outreach and DIY/hybrid release techniques are the tenets of what we teach and preach. Too many filmmakers get lost in the dream that their film should be seen by everyone, so they forget to identify and target (or they willfully ignore) the core demographic for their film. 

Every once in a while, however, a film comes along that grows organically from a community, and through careful nurturing by the filmmakers, manages to excite true buzz in its core audience. TFC member film THE HAUMANA, a 2013 film about a high school boy’s hula troupe by filmmaker/actor/hula dancer Keo Woolford, is a perfect model for this kind of niche DIY strategy, born from genuine community spirit.

This month on the blog, we have been advising those headed into the Winter and Spring festivals. If you still haven’t identified the core audience of your film, this post should give you something to think about.

As an actor, I’ve lived and worked in London, New York and Los Angeles. Wherever I go, I take my culture and home with me. I am a proud hula dancer and I would get a little defensive when people would flap their hands at me or ask me, “Where’s your hoop?” It was amazing to me how little people knew about hula and that men even danced hula. This perspective was coming from intelligent and esteemed circles of people, including educators at the University level.

I was blessed to have been commissioned to write and perform a one-man show, directed by Roberta Uno and supported by other sympathetic people and organizations in New York that would expose the struggle of holding on to tradition in post-modern Hawai`i, far from the misconception and misrepresentation of our culture in the global mass media. The show toured for about three years across the United States and also to Manila. Inevitably, audience members would ask if I was going to make a movie about this.

Seed planted.

Cut to a few years later, in between acting gigs, and the conception of the screenplay was born. I originally wrote the lead role for myself. But as time for production crept up, I knew it was my responsibility to oversee the project to keep my vision intact.

The screenplay and film were created for the culture I feel so proud to be a part of; the hula community, both in Hawai`i and outside of Hawai`i. It was also for the local Hawai`i population and the diaspora of Hawaiians and former residents of Hawai`i who still maintain a strong connection to their home and for the people who want to know a little bit more about our culture. It was a goal of mine to show this side of our culture from an insider’s perspective versus someone’s “idea” of what our culture is about. At the same time, I wanted to entertain the audience and not be didactic or documentary about the approach.

Haumana movie

I won’t say too much about the budget except that this would be considered a micro-budget feature. I put up most of the money and my best friend helped me raise the bulk of the rest by getting friends to invest for producer points. We did an Indiegogo campaign, which raised a couple of thousand extra. More than anything, though, it was the generosity of the community, crew and cast that kept our budget so low. Everyone worked for reduced or base rates, and the rest of the resources, work, time and talents were enthusiastically “donated.”

This was my first venture in such an undertaking. I have no college or film school degree, and no previous experience in writing, directing or producing such a project. I just had the burning passion to show the world a little more about our culture and assumed the hula and Hawaiian community at home and at large felt the same way about seeing something like that. Therefore, although I didn’t think about it much at first, I always knew that there was a core audience I could draw on, and hoped this film would speak to them.

My initial idea was to get into all the big festivals. Deadlines were coming up quickly and I sent them unfinished versions of the film (which I will never, ever, ever do again, even if they say they accept unfinished submissions). One by one, I was denied. I didn’t mind so much. It drove me to make the film better and gave me that much more time to finish my film the way I wanted. And in the end, I realized I needed every extra minute.

Finally, a programmer named Anderson Le who works for both the Hawaii International Film Festival and Los Angeles Asian-Pacific Film Festival approached me about submitting to these two festivals [editor’s note: Hawaii International (HIFF) and LAAPFF are unquestionably two of the most important showcases for Asian/Asian-American/Pacific Islander film in North America. HIFF also includes many other kinds of cinema as well, but is particularly well known as a “gateway to Asia.” It is important to remember that many “niche” films may find better premieres in specialty festivals than in the large, generic ones.] At that point, I had really become gun shy about submitting an unfinished cut, but ended up giving him the latest version to screen. This time proved to be a charm.

Haumana key art

THE HAUMANA was accepted into both festivals and ended up winning the Audience Award at both festivals. It made history at HIFF by being only the second film to ever sell out the 1400-seat Hawaii Theatre (the first was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and it was HIFF’s Official Closing Night Film. We also won a Special Jury Prize for Best First Feature from LAAPFF. Since then, it has played in a handful of other film festivals and won another Audience Award at the Philadelphia Asian Film Festival and was nominated for Best Film and Best Ensemble at the Orlando Film Festival.

With the support of these festivals, the word of mouth has spread quickly. From the success we garnered at HIFF, the film was picked up for a run at a small theatrical cinema on O`ahu, where the opening weekend gross was around $10,000. It just completed it’s 9th week at the theater. It is also available On-Demand to all Hawai`i residents

The parent company of the theater in O’ahu (Pearlridge Consolidated) was so enthusiastic about the numbers that they also invited the film to open at a theater they own in New York City, the well-known Village East Cinema. I originally assumed they wanted it for a single screening, but then they told me they wanted it for a one-week limited engagement! And then it was extended for a second week! I don’t have the grosses at the moment, but hope they will give them to me soon.

In addition, the film has also been playing a combination of four-wall screenings and Gathr screenings across the county, selling out the majority of the screenings where the average net is approximately $1500-$2000 per four-wall event.

The strategy has been simple. Hit the core target audience of the film and let the word of mouth carry it even further. Wherever the film has played, the word of mouth has been incredibly strong. The community is passionate about their culture and hungry for work that represents them in a positive and authentic light. I know this, because I am one of them. I have the same passion and hunger for my culture.

Most of the marketing has come from social media. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I didn’t start a Facebook page until about a year after we wrapped principle photography! But once I realized the power of social media, I went all in and I am amazed at how quickly the word spread about the film through Facebook alone. I also have a dear friend, Tracy Larrua, who is my PR person. She has been extremely hardworking and effective in getting the news out about the film into TV and press in various forms. And I had a trailer made as a teaser and then as a 30-second TV spot that played Hawai’i for 5 weeks, which has also been well-received on YouTube.

Through Facebook, I had been getting many inquiries on our page about screenings in a bunch of locations around the world. I did some research on four-walling and once the film made it’s Hawai`i premiere, I wanted to get it out to as many places as I could. The handful of festivals the film was invited to didn’t reach many areas the inquiries were coming from, so I put up a page on our website that allowed anyone who wanted to set up a screening or fundraiser event to contact us to arrange one.

The emails flooded in. Most were from Hālau (hula schools) around the country who wanted to use the film as a fundraiser to raise awareness about hula and our culture. There are several thousand hula schools across the U.S. alone, and these have been an invaluable resource for four-walled community screenings of the film. In general for fundraisers, we split the cost of the theater and then split the revenue from ticket sales. The average costs of the theaters have been about $850. The average net from the screenings has been about $1200. [Editor’s note: on an earlier film TFC worked on, another Hawaii-themed film called PRINCESS KAIULANI, we also used the Halau network for word-of mouth outreach. You can get a taste of what that network looks like at http://www.mele.com/resources/hula.html. It was easily found via Google. It is worth noting that many niche films have some sort of network like this that can be identified, although certainly not always as loyal as this one!]

I was also very fortunate to have a grant from the Ford Foundation pay for the flights and accommodations for the screenings when my travel wasn’t paid. Now we are signed with Gathr, a Theatrical On-Demand company that arranges screenings anywhere in the country. I still do the fundraiser model for the groups that still want to do those.

As of this writing, I plan to continue to do Gathr and fundraiser/four-wall screenings across the country and then pursue a similar model in Japan and Mexico where the hula communities are even larger than in the United States. I have been getting requests on our website and Facebook page from around the world about the film and hope to reach them somehow as well. A DVD release is planned sometime in the middle of 2014 for the States, after we get the word out a little bit more through the screenings and grassroots tour. There are a couple of other festivals that the film will play in as well.

In the beginning, I was just hoping the film would get into a couple of festivals. And now I am traveling to so many places and seeing how people are affected by the film. It has turned out to be so much more than I had expected in so many ways. I am continually humbled and overwhelmed by the response of the film and am so grateful for every experience it has brought me.

EDITOR’S POSTSCRIPT: We posted this blog not to try and trick anyone into thinking that ALL indie films can find niche success in this manner – of course not all films lend themselves to this kind of passionate niche marketing. But rather THE HAUMANA serves as a mirror that all films should at least take a long look into, asking yourself the all-important question….who is the audience for my film?

December 30th, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, Marketing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Next week (September 15 – 19) marks IFP’s annual “Independent FIlm Week” in NYC, herein dozens of fresh-faced and “emerging” filmmakers will once again pitch their shiny new projects in various states of development to jaded Industry executives who believe they’ve seen and heard it all.

conference

Most of you reading this already know that pitching a film in development can be difficult, frustrating work…often because the passion and clarity of your filmmaking vision is often countered by the cloudy cynicism of those who are first hearing about your project. After all, we all know that for every IFP Week success story (and there are many including Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, Dee Rees’ Pariah, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, Stacie Passon’s Concussion etc…), there are many, many more films in development that either never get made or never find their way into significant distribution or, god forbid, profit mode.

So what keeps filmmaker’s coming back year after year to events like this? Well, the simple answer is “hope” of course….hope, belief, a passion for storytelling, the conviction that a good story can change the world, and the pure excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.

Which is why I found a recent poll hosted on IFP’s Independent Film Week website [right sidebar of the page] so interesting and so telling….in part because the result of the poll runs so counter to my own feelings on the state of independent film distribution.

On its site, IFP asks the following question:

IFP voting

 

Before you view results so far, answer the question….Which excites YOU the most? Now go vote and see what everyone else said.

** SPOILER ALERT — Do Not Read Forward Until You’ve Actually Voted**

 

IFP result

What I find so curious about this is in my role as a independent film distribution educator at The Film Collaborative, I would have voted exactly the other way.

I suspect that a key factor in IFP Filmmakers voting differently than I has something to do with a factor I identified earlier, which I called “the pure excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.” I’m guessing most filmmakers called the thing most “exciting” that they knew the least about. After all 1) “Crowdsourcing” seems familiar to most right now, and therefore almost routine to today’s filmmakers….no matter how amazing the results often are. 2) “Television As a Platform for Auteurs” is also as familiar as clicking on the HBO GO App….even despite the fact that truly independent voices like Lena Dunham have used the platform to become household names. 3) Cross Media Story Telling remains a huge mystery for most filmmakers outside the genre sci-fi and horror realms….especially for independent narrative filmmakers making art house character-driven films. It should be noted that most documentary filmmakers understand it at least a little better. And 4) Digital Distribution Opportunities…of course this is the big one. The Wild West. The place where anything and everything seems possible…even if the evidence proclaiming its success for independents STILL isn’t in, even this many years after we’ve started talking about it.

But still we hope.

From our POV at The Film Collaborative, we see a lot of sales reports of exactly how well our truly independent films are performing on digital platforms….and for the most part I can tell you the results aren’t exactly exciting. Most upsetting is the feeling (and the data to back it) that major digital distribution platforms like Cable VOD, Netflix, iTunes etc are actually increasing the long-tail for STUDIO films, and leaving even less room than before for unknown independents. Yes, of course there are exceptions — for example our TFC member Jonathan Lisecki’s Gayby soared to the top of iTunes during Gay Pride week in June, hitting #1 on iTunes’ indie charts, #3 on their comedy charts, and #5 overall—above such movie-star-studded studio releases as Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained. But we all know the saying that the exception can prove the rule.

Yes, more independent film than ever is available on digital platforms, but the marketing conundrums posed by the glut of available content is often making it even harder than ever to get noticed and turn a profit. While Gayby benefited from some clever Pride Week-themed promotions that a major player like iTunes can engineer, this is not easily replicated by individual filmmakers.

For further discussion of the state of independent digital distribution, I queried my colleague Orly Ravid, TFC’s in house guru of the digital distro space. Here’s how she put it:

“I think the word ‘exciting’ is dangerous if filmmakers do not realize that platforms do not sell films, filmmakers / films do.

What *is* exciting is the *access*.

The flip side of that, however, is the decline in inflation of value that happened as a result of middle men competing for films and not knowing for sure how they would perform.

What I mean by that is, what once drove bigger / more deals in the past, is much less present today. I’m leaving theatrical out of this discussion because the point is to compare ‘home entertainment.’

In the past, a distributor would predict what the video stores would buy. Video stores bought, in advance often, based on what they thought would sell and rent well. Sure there were returns but, in general, there was a lot of business done that was based on expectation, not necessarily reality. Money flowed between middle men and distributors and stores etc… and down to the sellers of films. Now, the EXCITING trend is that anyone can distribute one’s film digitally and access a worldwide audience. There are flat fee and low commission services to access key mainstream platforms and also great developing DIY services.

The problem is, that since anyone can do this, so many do it. An abundance of choice and less marketing real estate to compel consumption. Additionally, there is so much less of money changing hands because of anticipation or expectation. Your film either performs on the platforms or on your site or Facebook page, or it does not. Apple does not pay up front. Netflix pays a fee sort of like TV stations do, but only based on solid information regarding demand. And Cable VOD is as marquee-driven and not thriving for the small film as ever.

The increasing need to actually prove your concept is going to put pressure on whomever is willing to take on the marketing. And if no one is, most films under the impact of no marketing will, most likely, make almost no impact. So it’s exciting but deceptive. The developments in digital distribution have given more power to filmmakers not to be at the mercy of gatekeepers. However, even if you can get into key digital stores, you will only reach as many people and make as much money as you have marketed for or authentically connected to.”

Now, don’t we all feel excited? Well maybe that’s not exactly the word….but I would still say “hopeful.”

To further lighten the mood, I’d like to add a word or two about my choice for the emerging trend I find most exciting — and that is crowdsourcing. This term is meant to encompass all activities that include the crowd–crowdfunding, soliciting help from the crowd in regard to time or talent in order to make work, or distributing with the crowd’s help. Primarily, I am going to discuss it in terms of raising money.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still remember the day (like a couple of years ago) when raising the money to make a film or distribute it was by far the hardest part of the equation. If filmmakers work within ultra-realistic budget parameters, crowd-sourcing can and usually does take a huge role in lessening the financial burdens these days. The fact is, with an excellently conceived, planned and executed crowdsourcing campaign, the money is now there for the taking…as long as the filmmaker’s vision is strong enough. No longer is the cloudy cynicism of Industry gatekeepers the key factor in raising money….or even the maximum limit on your credit cards.

I’m not implying that crowdsourcing makes it easy to raise the money….to do it right is a whole job unto itself, and much hard work is involved. But these factors are within a filmmaker’s own control, and by setting realistic goals and working hard towards them, the desired result is achieved with a startling success rate. And it makes the whole money-raising part seem a lot less like gambling than it used to….and you usually don’t have to pay that money back.

To me, that is nothing short of miraculous. And the fact that it is democratic / populist in philosophical nature, and tends to favor films with a strong social message truly thrills me. Less thrilling is the trend towards celebrities crowdsourcing for their pet projects (not going to name names here), but I don’t subscribe to a zero-sum market theory here which will leave the rest of us fighting over the crumbs….so if well-known filmmakers need to use their “brand” to create the films they are most passionate about…I won’t bash them for it.

In fact, there is something about this “brand-oriented” approach to crowdsourcing that may be the MOST instructive “emerging trend” that today’s IFP filmmakers should be paying attention to…as a way to possibly tie digital distribution possibilities directly to the the lessons of crowdsourcing. The problem with digital distribution is the “tree-falls-in-the-forest” phenomenon….i.e. you can put a film on a digital platform, but no-one will know it exists. But crowdsourcing uses the exact opposite principal….it creates FANS of your work who are so moved by your work that they want to give you MONEY.

So, what if you could bring your crowdsourcing community all the way through to digital distribution, where they can be the first audience for your film when it is released? This end-to-end digital solution is really bursting with opportunity…although I’ll admit right here that the work involved is daunting, especially for a filmmaker who just wants to make films.

As a result, a host of new services and platforms are emerging to explore this trend, for example Chill. The idea behind this platform (and others) is promising in that it encourages a “social window” to find and engage your audience before your traditional digital window. Chill can service just the social window, or you can choose also to have them service the traditional digital window. Crowdfunding integration is also built in, which offers you a way to service your obligations to your Kickstarter or Indiegogo backers. They also launched “Insider Access” recently, which helps bridge the window between the end of the Kickstarter campaign and the release.

Perhaps it is not surprising therefore, that in fact, the most intriguing of all would be a way to make all of the “emerging trends” work together to create a new integrated whole. I can’t picture what that looks like just yet…and I guess that is what makes it all part of the “excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.”

Jeffrey Winter will be attending IFP Week as a panelist and participant in the Meet the Decision Makers Artists Services sessions.

September 12th, 2013

Posted In: crowdfunding, Digital Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, iTunes, Long Tail & Glut of Content, Marketing

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[updated comment below-August 28, 2013]

Back in January, I wrote a post called The Independent’s Guide to Film Exhibition and Delivery 2013 examining how rapid technological change was impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this was affecting  filmmakers’ post-production choices and delivery budgets. At the time, I worried that the solid state digital formats emerging as pre-eminent were simply adding cost to delivery and, in fact, creating a new hierarchy in which Studios were grabbing an even larger share of the market simply by virtue of the fact that the available exhibition real-estate was shifting so rapidly to DCP that it might price out both smaller films and smaller venues unable to afford the changeover to DCP.

But surveying the landscape even seven months ago, it seems I underestimated two critical developments that have overtaken the Industry at a breathtaking rate, seemingly changing the world of exhibition and delivery forever. And lest you think my lack of clairvoyance didn’t matter – I can sum it up this way: had I known what I know now, I would never have invested so much early 2013 money in HDCAMs for our Film Collaborative films.

screening

Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services, is booking our clients’ and members’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc. When we first got into doing this, of course most of our films had 35mm prints. And of course, those days are long past…digital tape has been the mainstay for some time now…most notably the HDCAM and the Digibeta before it. Disc-based formats (mostly DVD and recently BluRay) had been largely relegated to preview screeners and the smallest of festivals and venues.

As recently as the Sundance Film Festival (January 2013), all of our films showed at that Festival on HDCAM; DCP was still the exception at Sundance; and BluRay was still nearly unthinkable as a respectable format for a major Film Festival anywhere (note: many of the filmmakers we work with still think BluRay is an unacceptable exhibition format). And the general buzz before, during and after Sundance was that DCPs were creating a lot of technical problems at Festivals, and that BluRays of course were even worse.

Now flash forward to the impending Fall 2013, and everything is remarkably different. And I don’t mean subjectively different…as in I think it is different. I mean objectively, measurably, data-driven different, as evidenced by a rather simple breakdown of the data available to us.

Anyone who has had a film on the Festival circuit knows that October is the height of the booking season, the time when all the venues that can’t compete with Berlin or Cannes or Toronto before them, but don’t want to run into the end-of year Holidays typically stage their events (not to mention the flood of Oscar-bait films that are released by the Studios at the end of the year). As such, October offers the best window into the “generic” state of independent exhibition, and is in fact the largest sample size of data available during the year.

This being already late August, most October festivals and venues are locking their October schedules now. And The Film Collaborative films are featured heavily in the Fall 2013 programming schedules, as evidenced by the 195 separate bookings we have secured for our films scheduled thus far for October. I don’t mean 195 screenings mind you, I mean 195 separate engagements across all our films ranging from one day bookings to full theatrical runs.

Of our 195 bookings, the exhibition formats being used for these engagements are as follows (in descending order of frequency): 

BLURAY 144
DVD 25 
DCP 12
HDCAM 10
Digibeta 2
Quicktime File 2

The takeaway here is staggeringly obvious…in the current independent marketplace –especially in the United States — the BluRay rules far and away above all others. And this is NOT because we are forcing BluRays on venues….in every case we tell Festivals and venues what formats we have AVAILABLE, and largely let them make their choice. And for ALL of our films, we have at least two HDCAMS available….they just aren’t getting used for almost anything! As such, they are just piling up on my shelves…feeling more and more obsolete every day. And I’ll tell you they weren’t exactly cheap to make…especially the ones with fabulously mixed 5.1 sound!

I should clearly note that we do NOT have DCP available for all our films, largely because they are expensive to master and we’ve been able to get away without putting all our films on DCP. But I maintain that this is CRITICAL information for all indie filmmakers who face similar budget choices….clearly one is NOT FORCED by current booking practices to have DCPs available. I can guarantee you we have not lost a single booking due to a festival telling us they can ONLY play DCP (although MANY will tell you they prefer it, especially in Europe).

There is no doubt that if we DID have DCPs available for all our films, that number of DCPs being used in October would change. But I doubt it would shift more than 10%…. Maybe BluRays would go to somewhere like 130 bookings and DCPs to 40 bookings. The difference between the frequency of both formats would still be stark.

I’d also like to say to the naysayers, you’ll note that having CLEAN EXHIBITION QUALITY DVDS are still very important…in fact second most after BluRay. That’s especially true if you wish to show on the University or Gallery or Church or Community Center circuit….a valuable circuit for most niche-oriented independent film. And I’d especially offer this chart to the Festival programmer who electronically yelled at me via email today saying… “DVD is not an exhibition format!” Clearly, a large percentage of venues disagree.

Some of you will ask….why does this matter? Well, the answer (as always) is largely financial…and offers a fascinating look at how the independent film world continues to adapt to the economic realities of competing in a largely studio and movie star-driven industry.

From the venue side of the equation, HDCAM and other tape-based decks were never cheap to rent, so when suddenly given the choice to opt out entirely in favor of a consumer-priced technology like BluRay…the majority of festivals went running to the shallower (cheaper) side of the pool. Clearly, the added stability of showing HDCAMs (which are incredibly reliable) has not been enough to counter-balance the cost-benefit analysis, particularly because BluRays look and sound damn good when projected even across large throws and large rooms. I know that this cost-benefit analysis will remind many of our older readers of the Betamax/VHS era…when it was well known that Betamax was better quality and more reliable, but the cheaper VHS won out completely because of economics.

Add to this the fact that, with current technology, it is DCPs that are the least reliable common exhibition format, and currently lead to the most delayed and cancelled screenings. To date, software ingestion issues, subtitle problems, and encryption code dramas plague independent DCP exhibition…and almost all festivals showing DCPs in fact require BluRay or DVD backups as well!

From the filmmaker side of the equation, the economic forces swaying the state of delivery and exhibition are even more profound. Until recently, it was a given that independent filmmakers were finishing their films on HDCAM and investing in multiple HDCAM copies for exhibition as well as delivery to distributors and broadcasters, platforms etc. But examining the data above, and given that most distributors and platforms prefer now hard drive delivery anyway…why go to HDCAM at all?

Perhaps a post-supervisor could better answer this question, but one conclusion at least remains true from our January 2013 posting….”For the time being, it seems to wisest to counsel that we deliver films as a Quicktime ProRes 422 file available for quick turnaround at a trusted lab with multi-format output capacity. From there, we can be assured of the ability to take our opportunities whenever and wherever they may lead us.”

Back in those old days of January 2013, I made the following statement…”In 2013, the needs of your exhibition formats and delivery formats will likely be determined by how successful your film turns out to be. If your film turns out to be truly theatrical, you will likely need a combination of DCPs and HDCAMs and BluRays to meet the demands.” But as we near the end of 2013, I’m thinking that maybe we don’t need spend all that money quite yet. Lets go a little slower investing in contemporary formats….and check back in at the beginning of 2014 for the third part in this series….and see where we stand then.

 

Comment:

Hey Jeffrey,

Enjoyed your latest post. Sadly most of it rings true. You struck a nerve touting BluRay. I’m a film festival and post production veteran. You are correct B/R’s are now omnipresent. The demise of tape is tragic actually. Dbeta, HDCAM, SR all bullet proof exhibition formats. You could be reasonably certain if the film was delivered on a pro tape format, some professional editors, colorists etc., had a hand in the film.

Now people deliver exhibition copies on a 33 cent piece of plastic. You are lucky if it comes in a sleeve. Don’t expect labels with TRT’s, audio or aspect ratio information either. If you ask me, the Fukushima accident killed HDCAM and SR, you couldn’t find tape stock so people found another way, but I digress.My concern is the dreaded “can’t read disc” or “no disc” message. We have multiple players for this very frequent occurrence. I need to tell to the film maker I’ve played it in 6 different machines and none of them will read it. I, of course, follow this up with “did you provide a DVD B/U?” I always hear..”well it played on my mac” OMG!

Having spent over a decade as an editor and post supervisor, I am dismayed that film makers spend thousands and thousands of dollars and perhaps years of their lives on a doc or feature and deliver on a B/R! I do exhibition for a living now and you can ask any of the seven projectionists on staff here and they will tell you B/Rs are the bane of our existence. I’ve been the Technical Director for SILVERDOCS for 10 years, now AFIDOCS. We still don’t accept B/Rs, we ran I believe 3 DCPs this year. That said, it was a huge struggle this year getting professional media from all the FM’s. I don’t buy the “we can’t afford tape.” Really? Does you premiere mean that little to you? Drop the $150 bucks and have your editor knock out a digital cut to HDCAM.Our experience with DCPs is limited.

I will say this, we don’t have any issues when the DCP comes from Deluxe or Technicolor or a reputable post house. When you get the WD passport 1TB drive shipped in bubble wrap that was created by some guy in the film makers spare bedroom on DVD- o- Matic, that’s when things get dicey. In defense of DCP, the player will at least verify the file. The B/R on the other hand may play flawlessly at first, then throw up pixels all over a 40′ screen the second screening. Both of these formats are problematic from a festival perspective.

You can’t really do a thorough quality control check on DCP’s or B/R’s unless you have unlimited access to the venue and lots of time before the festival. Tape on the other hand can be QCed in a dark room frame by frame or spot checked. Or if time is short, FFWD to the end and jot down the TRT and time code out! Damn I’m gonna miss tape. The archive scenario is even scarier. Possibly subject mater for you and a future post! With camera acquisition largely file based, I see film makers do a good job backing up camera original files while in production. They get to post, edit, maybe color correct, maybe some sound design, render for hours and hours burn a few discs and they think they are done. Finally, the film maker may have their project backed up on some external drive purchased at Newegg or TigerDirect. Some form of spinning disc that more than likely will crap out when he/she needs it. 

We are in a era where hundreds of hours of material are being lost. DP’s and editors I’ve worked with for years have countless horror stories. So maybe we shouldn’t kill off tape so fast? Maybe you dump your select evergreen camera originals, your unmixed masters on a chunk of HDCAM. Put it on a shelf, and if you can find a machine to play it on it twenty years it will look as good as the day you shot it. (The B/R will have returned to dust) There isn’t a good answer out there yet, LTO perhaps or solid state drives when they become affordable. My next festival will be in eight different venues, not all DCP equipped, but all have HDCAM and B/R’s.

What’s a technical director to do?

Regards,

JOHN SUMMERS | Operations Manager 

AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center | American Film Institute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 22nd, 2013

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Theatrical

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The simple answer is “yes..wellsometimes.” Like most questions in this business, there is a simple answer for casual conversation, and a truer answer for a more in-depth analysis.

laurel winner

It would be nice to say that all film festival awards are valuable for independent film distribution, but the truth is that it mostly comes down to what Festival it is (what actual award it is is less important for the most part). The simplest rule is, if a particular Festival matters, then an Award from that Festival matters even more. If a particular festival doesn’t show up on anyone’s radar, then the Award won’t either. The easiest comparison to draw is the use of press/publicity quotes in marketing…i.e. nobody cares about a glowing review from a press outlet they’ve never heard of. But if a respected journalist at a respected publication gives you a great review…well that matters a great deal.

We’ve worked on a lot of seemingly “small” films, like CONTRACORRIENTE by Javier Fuentes, VALLEY OF SAINTS by Musa Sayeed, A RIVER CHANGES COURSE by Kalyanee Man, and THE INVISIBLE WAR by Kirby Dick that jumped up hugely in prestige and profile when they won big awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Suddenly “everyone that’s anyone” had heard of these films even though they paid no attention to them just two days before. By getting the ultimate stamp of approval, they suddenly became “serious” films in the minds of those who pay attention to such things.

But let’s not exaggerate…  as much as they changed the general perception of the films, I don’t think they really changed the acquisitions picture for any of these particular titles. Maybe the PRICES went up for those that did get bought, but I don’t think it radically changed the number of buyers interested in the titles. And not all of those ever got serious acquisition offers anyway.

I think there are three major ways that festival awards matter. First of all, it distinguishes you from the glut of available titles at any given festival as one of the films that one should pay attention to first. Meaning, if you are the kind of person (Industry, press, or consumer) who is paying attention to a particular festival, then of course one easy way to determine what one should see first is by starting with the ones that have won the awards. I think this is PARTICULARLY true for OTHER film festival programmers, who face the daunting task of pouring through thousands of available titles and submission to their festival. Why NOT start with the ones that are winning awards? Its just good triage technique.

Secondly, if someone is a discerning film consumer looking to discover new films to watch, why wouldn’t you pay attention to the films that are winning the awards? To that end, I think the right Festival Awards have tremendous marketing value…but really only for the discerning consumer. So, that’s not the majority of consumers, but there ARE a lot of cinephiles out there. And they are the first audience any independent filmmaker wants to reach.

Let me give you a simple marketing example….I am on the e-newsletter of LOTS of films that send me updates on their progress all the time…and for the most part I pay no attention to them. But if I start to notice that the film is winning a lot of great awards…which can be easily put in the subject line and the header of the email….of course I take note of that and of course I become more interested in the film. Suddenly it changes in my mind from one of a million films vying for my attention to one that must deserve my attention…because it is being validated by “tastemakers” I have heard of and have some respect for.

On the subject of the marketing value of Festival Awards, there are a couple of truisms I’d like to address:

1) The general perception is that Audience Awards matter more than Jury Awards, because they reflect the will of the people (which more closely resembles your eventual target audience), while Jury Awards reflect the view of the elite (those select insiders chosen by festivals to judge according to their own snobby tastes). In truth, I don’t think this theory stands up to rigorous analysis of the data. Sometimes it is the opinions of the jury that most closely mirror the press and taste-makers that propel a film onto greater success after its Festival run.

2) Part of the problem with Audience Awards is that in many ways they are popularity contests, not dissimilar to high school president elections. Because of the way Audience Awards are voted on by everyone in a given screening, sometimes its just the film that packs the house with the most crew and friends and close-knit community that wins the Award. Sometimes even a great Q&A can swing the results. And enterprising filmmakers should take note of this….as it is not unusual for a small film in a small theater to win an Audience Award because the filmmaker simply had more friends in attendance than anyone else did.

Unfortunately, the dominance of digital distribution in today’s independent market has made the marketing value of film festival awards a lot LESS relevant than they used to be….and that’s because iTunes, cable VOD et al don’t really offer much marketing space where you can actually SEE any of the Festival awards. When you used to browse through a video store and pick up the box cover, you could actually SEE all the laurels and rent it for that reason. Now you’re going to have to see the laurels in an email or banner ad or hear about it in a review or something…and then go LOOK for the film. That’s a lot less immediate than it used to be, and it makes the job of marketing a lot harder.

Finally, lets not downplay the fact that a lot of Festival Awards come with MONEY! There are some staggeringly large Festival awards out there…Dubai, Heartland etc…but I don’t advocate submitting to festivals just to go after the award money. That’s just gambling and your odds are probably better on a slot machine. But when a film starts to rack up a few awards, it can certainly get into the five figures of revenue…..and in this market that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at!

 

August 1st, 2013

Posted In: Film Festivals

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written with input from Recreation Media’s Ariel Veneziano and TFC’s Bryan Glick

I remember reading an article in the trades a couple of years ago that described the way that the film executives at the Berlin International Film Festival typically trudge through the German winter in endless circles from the EFM market building to their screenings and back again actually “reminds them metaphorically of their miserable existence travelling in circles around the globe from one market to the next, doing the same trips and seeing the same people, year after year.”

European film market sales floor

Of course, its arguable that being in a business that takes one from fabulous locations such as Sundance, Rotterdam, Berlin, Cannes, Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, Guadalajara etc. should be called miserable. But I knew exactly what the journalist meant. After all, it is really cold Berlin in February, and in truth so many of the movies are truly bad. And even the best movies are usually artsy stuff that is challenging commercially – so it’s enough to drive a business executive truly mad.

So I tried to avoid that this year. I tried to use the vast tapestry of the sprawling, thriving, constantly evolving German capitol as a canvas for private meetings in cafes, restaurants, and bars at least a little off the beaten track (once you know the subway system, it only takes 10 minutes to get anywhere anyway). I tried to go to movies ONLY after they had been recommended to me – so as to cut down on the number of movies I would stay only a few minutes in before I walked out. And amongst all the trudging, there are certainly sufficient networking parties and events – not as many as say Sundance or Cannes by any means – but still plenty to enjoy and use as opportunities to get caught up with important contacts and valuable intel on the state of the Business.

Given the difficult the independent film business has been in the last few years – especially given the precipitous decline in the DVD business – what emerged from Berlin…in a positive sense…was at least the feeling of a business that has found its bottom and is holding steady. Not necessarily progressing…but not regressing either.

In certain ways, Berlin appears to be getting more important as a European market than ever. Because of the tough business climate, less and less European companies make the annual trip to relatively far-flung markets like AFM in Los Angeles. As such, Berlin has become an even more important trip for European companies looking to license product…and this extends beyond the usual “high-art” companies that typically frequent the Berlinale and further into the TV and ancillary market that has traditionally done its business at more expensive markets like Cannes and AFM. There is still a paucity of companies from both Latin America and Asia at the Berlinale, but in fact the representation of companies from Europe is actually better than ever, largely due to the economics.

Also tied into the need to save money, is the continuing trend that the market gets shorter and shorter every year…such that the market that begins on a Thursday afternoon is largely over by Tuesday afternoon. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing…actually it is probably the opposite. Because of today’s cloud-base communication technology, long gone are the days when a buyer goes into a sellers booth to “discover” what they are offering and sits down to long meetings of watching trailers and learning about the films for the first time. Today, we all arrive at our meetings having watched trailers and screeners online, knowing what we are interested in, and having highly focused, more productive meetings than ever before.

If any themes emerge from these meetings, it is mostly the same stuff we’ve been hearing for several years now….namely the questionable future of VOD/digital platforms in Europe. While VOD markets are relatively mature in the United States now, they are still nascent and unproven in Europe…but represent the direction our business MUST go if a truly healthy business will re-emerge for independent film. Unlike a few years ago, European companies no longer look down their noses at the digital distribution models…they all recognize their necessity moving forward. But still there is no PROOF that an emerging digital distribution network will be able to replace traditional distribution networks, and so what we find is more HOPE than EVIDENCE or hard numbers to back up the supposition that VOD is really the way of the future. This fact seems to weigh heavily over most discussions of independent film distribution in Europe, as we look to new sources of revenue.

From a traditional Acquisitions perspective — focusing on U.S acquisitions – sales of world premieres at the Berlinale were slow. Roadside Attractions nabbed Gloria and The Weinstein Company took US and English speaking Canadian rights to opening night film The Grandmaster. Cohen Media group acquired Elle S’En Va (On My Way). 

One should expect to see sales for other Berlinale films announced at SXSW, Tribeca, and Toronto as distributors get a chance to discover the films and when the asking prices are more reasonable for small indie outlets. Expect to see the award winners eventually receive distribution and any of the first time filmmakers who wind up getting into 2nd tier festivals here in the US can reasonably expect distribution.

However, following the sales rush of Sundance and the sheer volume of films at EFM, many films from Berlin are slower to sell and even more will not get picked up for distribution in North America. From last year’s competition slate only about 60% have North American distributors, including Oscar nominees War Witch and A Royal Affair.

While the odds of Berlinale films breaking out into North America are slim, the numbers (especially for foreign films) can be quite rewarding when they do happen. Marley, A Royal Affair, and Farewell My Queen grossed over $1,00,000 in the US out of the Berlinale. But those films are of course exceptions to the rule.

I will end with a final thought for now. For those of us immersed in the film festival business, the Berlinale is still an unmatched hub for Festival programmers and festival enthusiasts. Unlike Sundance and Cannes, it is anything but crazy…and there is an unmatched confluence of colleagues able to sit down together in a productive environment to strategize our ways of moving forward together. In that way…it continues to be a truly vital environment for creating community and change in a business context. Even if it is REALLY cold!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 5th, 2013

Posted In: Film Festivals, International Sales

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