A recent online web series featured our founder, Orly Ravid, as well as some powerhouse guests in indie film producing and distribution, hosted by WestDocOnline. Here is what we learned from the 1 hour+ panel, primarily focused on documentaries.
- Music clearance is important. Surprisingly, many new filmmakers do not realize that any music used in a film must be licensed, both the publishing (the person who wrote the song) and the master (the entity that recorded the song) rights must be secured. Distribution contracts cannot be signed if music clearance has not been secured on your film. This is especially crucial for anyone looking to make a music documentary. For a good primer on this, visit this article: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Music Licensing .
- A devoted core fanbase can make a film successful. Richard Abramowitz named several documentaries that his company has theatrically distributed that had an excited and motivated fanbase that could be tapped into with less marketing money than a wide audience film.
- There is value in having a global marketing campaign, rather than one territory at a time. Cristine Dewey of ro*co films champions the idea that if your domestic distributor is already launching a marketing campaign, much of which will be found by audiences outside of the U.S. because of online marketing, it makes sense to time theatrical releases in other countries to coincide.
- Revenues from documentary sales. Netflix will pay anywhere from low 5 figures to high 6 or even 7 figures for documentaries. It depends on the film’s pedigree. Also, Amazon Festival Stars program was offering $200,000 to filmmakers at the Toronto International Film Festival in exchange for making Amazon Video Direct the exclusive SVOD home for the film. Filmmakers can wait up to 18 months to upload to the platform, allowing for further festival and theatrical revenue.
- Distribution is a business. While it is all great and good to produce a film using credit cards, an iPhone and the good will of your friends, distribution is an integral part of the process and needs a budget. “In what world would someone say I have a great idea for a pencil. I’m going to raise $100,000 to make pencils. Then you have a warehouse filled with pencils, and then think about how you will get these into Staples? That’s not a business plan, that’s lunacy. But every day, people do that because this is art. Hope is not a strategy. You have to have a plan and you have to have a budget,” says Richard Abramowitz. “What’s the point of making the film if no one sees it?Marketing and distribution budgeting is the only way to assure the film will get seen and make an impact, short of an excellent marketing commitment by an honest distributor, something so relatively few documentary films enjoy,” said Orly Ravid.
To watch the full panel, find it below.
Sheri Candler January 10th, 2018
Last month, TFC invited a select group of Los Angeles-based filmmakers to share their knowledge and specific details about how they marketed and distributed their independent films. We learned a lot and we thank those who took part that day. Now, we want to open up this opportunity to all creators, whether you make features, short films, or web series, so that we all may learn from each other in an anonymous, but factual way.
We know, many other entities have tried to compile statistics and details and have invited independent creators to contribute, but we think a lot of that information has been less than forthcoming or distributed within only a small subsection of creators who participate in closed labs or mentoring sessions. We propose to do something different.
For the next month, we are asking any creator who has actually participated in the marketing and distribution of their project (this is a requirement) to come forward and fill out this 10 question survey in detail. No questions will be asked about the identity of the creator or of the project which should allow participants to be completely honest about their efforts and results. The results will be compiled into a whitepaper of best practices and charts showing budget levels and revenue levels that will benefit the creators operating in this turbulent and confusing period of plenty of consumer choice, but creator uncertainty about the financial viability of their work. The whitepaper will be published online, for all to download for free.
We sincerely hope you will agree to help us, all of us, by participating. Our aim is to have the whitepaper ready for distribution by the beginning of the new year. TFC mailing list members will be notified first, so if you want a first look, please join that list here. Everyone will have access via this blog once the document is published.
We’re really excited to learn what creators are doing and we know you will find their insight invaluable. Thanks for participating!
Sheri Candler September 11th, 2017
Sheri Candler is a digital marketing strategist and TFC’s social media advisor.
The question I hear the most out of filmmakers and others in the film community has to do with social media success. What is the point of posting to social media? What is reasonable to expect out of these daily efforts?
Though much of the guesswork is disappearing from social media when it comes to marketing, most filmmaking teams are not collecting and analyzing their own social media data in order to evaluate what is making an impact, why it is working and what they can stop doing either for the immediate future or stop all together. Without data or feedback on what’s happening on your social channels, you’re in the dark about what is and isn’t working in the day to day and whether your business goals will be successful in the long term.
We’ve never had this much access to information about what your audience is interested in, how they are responding to your work and what other media they are consuming. This data can help you make your work more relevant and interesting to the audience you are trying to reach and to instill stronger loyalty and engagement for the long term—rather than short-term “awareness” building and pushing for sales. Unfortunately, most in the film industry ignore this and prefer to run short term, expensive campaigns meant to build up a large looking following that will be abandoned once the next project comes along. Often what they do on social media does not even accomplish the sales goal, the main reason they are even running an account. What a waste of money and effort!
But how do you know if your social media efforts are working? You won’t if you don’t have a set of goals you are working toward and aren’t measuring the data that indicates whether you are on target to that goal on a weekly and monthly basis. Making data-driven decisions doesn’t replace creativity, but it can provide a direction and a way to know if your creativity is of interest to anyone.
Start with Goals
There are many stages that your social media efforts will go through when you are using it to build an audience for your work. I don’t really like to think of social media as a campaign effort because campaigns usually have a beginning and an end, but social media is 24-7-365 for years. It is really a business function that needs to be performed daily; just as sending email, making phone calls and having meetings are part of your daily, professional routine.
One of the first and ongoing goals is growth of your audience, or building a progressively bigger audience for your work. The purpose of setting this as a goal is to help you see how big of an audience you able to reach through social media. The follower number is usually public so it also lets sales agents, distributors, broadcasters and other potential audience know how much impact your film is making through social media.
Building up an authentic following is a slow process and requires patience, but it can be sped up by the use of a steady budget for paid promotion. On a weekly basis, you should be auditing each of your social media accounts to see how much your account has grown and match that to your efforts (how often you are posting, how much money has been spent to grow the audience, how many unfollows your account might experience). In Facebook, you will find this information under the INSIGHTS tab–>Likes. On Twitter, you will find this under the ANALYTICS tab–>Audiences. On Instagram, you will find this on your business profile page>symbol that looks like a bar graph.
To help you keep track, set up a Google Sheet or Excel sheet with columns that show New Followers, Old Followers, Change in Followers (use the Autosum function that subtracts new followers from the old ones), number of posts that week, amount of money spent on any follower growth campaign that you have conducted that week for each of your social media accounts. On another tab, enter in rows for each account (Facebook, Twitter, etc) and columns for each week in the year and fill in information on rate of growth and spend.
The next important goal to track is the Engagement on your accounts. These include Likes (or Reactions), Comments and Shares, and if applicable, video views, of the content you are posting. Twitter metrics would include favorites (hearts), @mentions and retweets. Instagram would include likes and comments. Pinterest will include repins and likes. Most of this information is available through the insights provided for free with your social media account. Some social media platforms have very limited insights, but this can change as more and more businesses demand analytics in order to continue using a platform for marketing. You should do a weekly report of the average number of likes, comments, shares per post your account is achieving and keep track of this on the same sheet as your follower numbers. Ideally, you want to see these numbers to slowly increase over time.
For a sample idea of what your spreadsheet could look like, see this link.
See this post about accessing analytics on the main social media platforms and what each metric means.
Since I post up to 20 times a day on the accounts I run, I do not compile and compute weekly and monthly reports manually because there is too much data to collect, calculate and analyze. I have been using this tool to keep track: https://www.truesocialmetrics.com/ In addition to telling me my Engagement metrics, it also helps guide when my best posting times are, which types of posts are my best and worst so I have guidance on what to continue to do and what needs to be changed, and who my most engaged followers are. For $30 per month, you can track up to 3 different accounts per platform so it is very affordable and this one tool brings in insights from all major social media platforms so I don’t have to visit each one individually in order to compile management reports.
A few words about Reach and Impressions
Typically, a publicity firm or social media agency will present their metric reports by leading with impression numbers on social media posts and media hits (for example, on a news story in a publication). These numbers are usually very high and thus, impressive to their client. But be aware, these numbers mainly deal with possibility, not actual success. I think of them largely as “squishy” metrics because they do not show real impact like a comment, a share or a “like” which means that a person actually saw and engaged with your post in some way. An impression number denotes the number of times a post from your account was displayed in the newsfeed of the social media platform, whether it is actually seen by your audience at that time or not. It shows that your content had the possibility of being seen. Reach, on the other, hand speaks to the number of people who actually viewed your content. A reach number is typically smaller than an impression number. Both of these stats provide a sense of how wide your posting is spreading, they just don’t give feedback on whether anyone cares.
Eventually, your goal should be Traffic. Traffic deals with sending your follower to another place on the internet where they will find out how to buy something.
In my work now, one of the biggest goals is traffic to our website. If you are in the distribution phase of your production, you should be tracking traffic too. How do you know if your social media is leading to sales if you aren’t tracking traffic? For most of you, the only kind of traffic you can truly track leads back to your own website because you have access to the analytics on your own site (for example, through Google Analytics). You won’t have access to traffic stats on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, or theater websites etc., only the sales reports and those will not show you what tactics are driving your sales. So, it is important to have a mechanism for sales from your website. While there are several cool configurations in Google Analytics that can be set up, those who are not proficient in coding and setting up different tags, triggers, variables may just want to stick with using utm codes. To track traffic back to your website, you will have to use a utm code (universal tag manager) on each link you post to social. It is useless for you to put utm tags on URLs that lead to other websites if you don’t have a way to access their analytics to see traffic stats.
An easy to use one can be found here. In the first field, paste in the URL link you are planning to post. In the next field (labeled Source), name the platform you are posting this link to (your Facebook page, your Twitter account, a link in an email you are sending out etc). In the next field (labeled Medium), name the medium (i.e., social, email, banner ad etc). In the final field (labeled Campaign), put in an identifier for WHO is posting this link. Is this link being posted by the production? Then put in a short name that denotes this (for example, I use tfc for links that lead back to The Film Collaborative website if I am posting these links to The Film Collaborative social media accounts. I use sheri as the campaign name if I am posting links that lead back to The Film Collaborative website on my own social media accounts). If the link is being posted by a third party, such as an organization that has agreed to help promote your film, or the stars of your film who are posting this link on their own accounts, put in an identifying name so that you can differentiate between the traffic generated by the production’s efforts and those by third parties. When looking at Google Analytics, under Acquisition>Campaign you will be able to see what traffic to your website was generated by your social media efforts and what traffic came from each third party (provided that they keep the utm coded link intact, so tell them not to change any link that you send for them to post).
If you are particularly interested in knowing more about the basic functions of Google Analytics for your website, this is a good post to read and mostly still accurate.
Other useful metrics for your social media efforts
You can also glean information about the audience you are reaching through your social media insights. Through Facebook Ad Manager, you can see data based on interests, education levels, job titles and industries, other Facebook pages your audience follows, and the spending habits of your audience. This can help determine what kind of content you should be posting and what keyword parameters to use in paid promotion to help expand on the audience you have started to gather.
By now, all of you should be aware that running accounts on the big social media platforms requires promotional spend. On Facebook, organic (unpaid) reach has plummeted to a meager 6%, meaning that for every 100 followers you have, only 6 of them are going to see your content. Also there are more than 3 million links shared every hour on Facebook so the chances of your followers seeing most of your posts in their newsfeed are very low. To make sure you are both growing your targeted audience base and reaching that audience with your updates, it will be important to spend on promoted posts. Since Facebook also owns Instagram, the same advice holds. If you aren’t using the paid promotion tools on Twitter, chances are great that your tweets will be lost in the stream and your following will grow very slowly.
Does this mean you can’t get any organic lift on your posts? No, that is possible on occasion, especially if one of your post gets a lot of shares, but if you are seeking to make an impact on a continued basis, you will have to pay to make sure your posts are reaching your followers in their newsfeed.
In a future post, I will cover the latest developments on the major social media platforms over the last year and what changes are coming soon. I will also discuss what platforms are useful for reaching certain audiences and the kind of content that should be optimized for success on the major platforms.
Sheri Candler January 12th, 2017
Posted In: Uncategorized
Last May, TFC released the second book in our series called Selling Your Film Outside the US. As with everything in the digital space, we are trying to keep track of a moving target. Netflix has now launched in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. iTunes continues its transactional VOD domination by partnering with Middle East film distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment to give Arabic and Bollywood films a chance to have simultaneous releases in eight countries: UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait. Amazon has just launched several new original series in the US and UK, including critical darling Transparent, to a line up that includes returning series Alpha House and Betas.
But what does DIY Distribution mean in the context of European territories? The following is an excerpt included in the book:
Here are a few tips for any filmmaker who is thinking about doing digital distribution in general, but especially in multiple territories:
-If your film is showing at an international film festival, ask if they are producing subtitles, and, if so, negotiate that the produced file be part of your festival fee. It may need to be proofed again or adjusted at a subtitling and transcription lab later on, but as a first pass it could prove very valuable down the road. See more about the kind of file you need in this post;
-When you are producing your master, create a textless version of your feature. Apple and probably other platforms will not allow external subtitles on any films that already have burn-ins. If your film, for example, has a few non-English lines of dialogue, instead of burning-in English subtitles into your film, a better method would be to create an external English-language subtitle file (separate from closed captioning) in a proper format and submit it with your master. Different aggregators may require different formats, and if you are going to a Captioning/Transcription/Translation Lab to do your closed captioning and subtitling work, be smart about which questions you ask and negotiate a price for everything, including transcoding from one format to another because you may not know exactly what you will need for all your deals right away.
Subtitles need to be timed to masters, so make sure your time code is consistent. When choosing a lab, ascertain whether they are capable of fulfilling all your current and future closed captioning and subtitling needs by verifying that they can output in the major formats, including (but not limited to) SubRip (.srt), SubViewer 1 & 2 (.sub), SubStation Alpha (.ssa/.ass), Spruce (.stl), Scenarist (.scc) and iTunes Timed Text (.itt);
-You may want to band together with films that are similar in theme or audience and shop your products around as bundled packages. Many digital services, including cable VOD, have thematic channels and your bundle of films may be more attractive as a package rather than just one film;
-Put the time in toward building your brand and your fanbase. Marketing still is the missing piece of the puzzle here. As it gets easier and easier to get onto platforms, so too does it get more difficult for audiences to find the films that are perfectly suited to their interests. This is especially true when talking about marketing one’s film outside one’s home territory. If you are accessing platforms for your film on your own, YOU are the distributor and the responsibility of marketing the film falls entirely to you.
To download a FREE copy of the entire book, complete with case studies of films distributed in Europe, visit sellingyourfilm.com.
Sheri Candler October 15th, 2014
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, veteran independent film distributor Bob Berney gave a state of the industry address on distribution. TIFF was kind enough to make his keynote video available on Youtube (you can find it below), but here are some of the highlights if you don’t have 30 minutes to spare watching it.
-We’re in a chaotic, disruptive state right now with bigger studios making fewer, but massively budgeted films that involve huge risk.
-On the flip side, there are many more outlets now available to get a film into the market. The challenge as a producer is how to get revenue from these outlets in order to fund your next work.
-There are now well funded entities coming to major festivals and buying films without any real plan about how to release them.
-Open Road and Relativity Media are now distributing wide release theatrical films, sometimes as service deals (the production pays them to release, instead of the distribution company paying for rights).
-But platform release films, ones that start with opening in only 2-4 cities and then keep expanding their theatrical runs, are starting to have a tougher time finding a home, a company that will take them on. Fewer distributors are taking the traditional theatrical route and there are now more companies taking the day and date or VOD first route. Films that want a traditional release far outweigh the distribution companies that are willing to take on films for that kind of release.
-Berney believes that a theatrical release is the only way for a film to truly break out in the market in a big way.
-The bar for films that warrant having a large theatrical release has really been raised. The expense to release those films, even if using digital marketing, is big and the market is very competitive. Distributors who fund the marketing and distribution costs for those films are very wary about the ability to recoup.
-This summer there were many indie films that played in theaters against the studio blockbusters and did well. Boyhood, Magic in the Moonlight, Chef, Belle, Begin Again all surpassed expectations about how they would fare against the studio films. Berney believes it was because there was nothing else to see. Either superhero films or these and nothing in between. He guesses that the market could have taken even 4-5 more indie films this summer. People went to see some of those successful titles 2-3 times because there wasn’t much to choose from. Theatrical companies could have picked up more. The Fall season is crowded, but the summer could have used a few more releases.
-Because the deals are so different and the numbers come in sporadically, releasing VOD numbers is still not common.Also there aren’t very many success stories being reported from day and date or VOD only releases.
-Many European companies or smaller indie division within the studio units are not finding deals on their films very viable now. P&Ls for sales coming domestically (US) often have a 0 in the profit column. Sales can’t be counted on any more. Budgets have had to shrink accordingly because large deals aren’t happening so much any more.
Many of the newer players in the digital and VOD arena are constantly looking for content to fill their channels. Those films can play for a while until the audience gets more discerning.
-For any avenue chosen for distribution, the release has to create the feeling of an event to catch an audience’s attention. There is just too much in the market.
There is no one size fits all marketing and distribution plan. Each film needs to have its own plan handcrafted.
-Given the risk and expense, distributors are going to be much more discerning about what films they are passionate about and believe in before offering a deal.They want to be very sure there is an audience for a theatrical release before committing to such a deal.
-The Blu Ray market is still huge for certain types of films. Genre including family, horror, sci fi still do business on disc for Walmart and Redbox.
-Certain theaters are catching onto the idea of making the cinema an experience. Food, bigger seats, more varied showtimes, 4D seats are all increasing the feeling of an event in the cinema.
-Theaters are still resisting the idea of day and date. Regal and Cinemark chains are adamant about preserving the theatrical window. But AMC is more open to experimentation as long as the distributor will pay a 4 wall fee to rent their theaters. IFC and Magnolia own their own theater chains so they have been the most aggressive about trying Ultra VOD and day and date release. IFC buys about 50 films a year that they run though VOD and day and date releases.
-Due to regulation, Canada has not been able to experiment with this kind of releasing model yet.
-Berney still believes in the power of the theatrical release to affect an audience and that it is the best way to make a film break out.
-Netflix has been the savior for films that may not get a pay TV deal. Essentially, subscription VOD is on par with selling to HBO or Showtime. But Netflix takes far more films than those broadcasters.
-Social media advertising is allowing a more targeted and lower cost alternative to traditional advertising, plus providing much needed data on which to base strategic marketing decisions. Also these tools allow filmmakers to get clips, trailers, images etc to get out more widely for a lower cost and build pre release awareness that wasn’t even possible 10 years ago.
-There are just so many more opportunities now to get a film out, but it will take some time for the business side, the money making side, to catch up. That’s the uncertainty we are dealing with now.
Sheri Candler September 19th, 2014
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In this final post of our series about distribution preparation for independent films, we wanted to stress the fact that a balance between artistic expression and financial responsibility must be achieved. A lot of independent filmmaking comes from a passion to tell stories and emotional fulfillment. No one person’s work is any more or less valid than any other. But it is necessary to acknowledge that no one is automatically entitled to an audience or to make a living from their artistic work. The work and the business acumen must be strong. Strive to achieve both or surround yourselves with people who supply whichever strength you personally lack.
The distribution marketplace is so fluid and challenging, even the best planning can result in a loss. It’s natural to have high expectations at the outset of development and many of these find their way into lofty business plans that show returns on films based only on box office statistics. Did you know that reported box office numbers are often inflated? Are you aware that the rights holder (either the distributor or the self financed producer) only receives 35%-45% of those returns from the exhibitor? And if there is a sales agent involved, that entity then receives 15% or more of the revenue after all of the expenses and fees come out from the distributor…for the life of the agreement? Always learn about fees and costs of intermediaries such as sales agents, aggregators and distributors because their fees and costs reduce the amount of revenue that flows back to the original investors. Many filmmakers and investors do not understand the complexity of these deductions and wonder why money doesn’t flow back into their pockets just a few months after initial release. If you are fortunate enough to receive a strong advance upon signing your distribution agreement, at least you will see immediate revenue. It may be a long time before you see more.
A recent article on the Media Redefined blog written by Liam Boluk and Prashob Menon cited these very sobering statistics: “71% of [independent] films generate between $5,000 and $1,000,000 in box office revenue; 50% will fail to cross $250,000.” Again, these numbers are NOT what the original investors received. One would hope the theatrical release helped to land bigger deals in the home video and broadcast space, but normally statistics on ancillary deals are not available publicly. Obviously, this makes the accuracy of business plan financials difficult to determine in advance.
A very revealing recent interview with indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg in Filmmaker Magazine showed how precarious the life of an independent creator can be…and Swanberg is largely considered a success! Some of the figures he quotes for digital license revenue will surprise you.
He has spoken to many a filmmaker whose film was released and appeared to make money, but the production never received a dime from distribution. He also talked about the need for having business and artistic sense and checking with distributors before going headlong into production on a passion project
…before you make the movie, say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this. Is this something that you guys have a place for in your slate of movies?’ If the answer is no, maybe that’s not the best thing to spend a lot of money on making next.
Probably the biggest takeaways from that article were about the importance of long term relationships in the industry and Swanberg’s comment about the artistic freedom that comes from knowing the business side of your work.
I think that there is a notion that for artists to think about business is to corrupt the art process. As soon as you start considering market factors and numbers and all of that stuff, you’re not being a true artist, you’re not following your true vision. To some extent, maybe that’s true, but I think that by knowing the marketplace before I go into a movie, once I’m there, I’m completely free to do whatever I want because [there’s not that] giant question mark of whether there’s an audience for that thing.
We hope this series will help prepare you (and your investors) for what lies ahead when your film comes to market. It is advisable to map out your goals, both short term and long term, before heading into production and make sure everyone is in agreement. Opportunities may change or new ones present themselves over the course of production, but if everyone remains positive and committed to what is being created, filmmaking can be a great experience for all involved.
Sheri Candler July 31st, 2014
Posted In: Distribution
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In the past 3 posts, we have covered knowing the market BEFORE making your film, how to incorporate the festival circuit into your marketing and distribution efforts and understanding terms, the foreign market and release patterns. In this post, we will discuss the items that will be required by sales agents, distributors (primarily digital distributors) and even digital platforms (if you are thinking of selling directly to your audience with less middlemen) before a deal can be signed and the film can be distributed.
Know your deliverables
Distribution is an expensive and complicated process and all distribution contracts contain a list of required delivery items (often attached at the end of the document as an exhibit) in order to complete the agreement. Without the proper items, sales agents and distributors will not be interested in making a deal. Your film must have all proper paperwork, music licenses, and technical specifications in order and these delivery items will incur additional costs to your production. Make sure to include a separate budget for deliverables within the cost of your production.
US sales agents and distributors will require insurance covering errors and omissions (E&O) at minimum levels of $1,000,000 per occurrence, $3,000,000 in the aggregate with a deductible of $10,000, in force for three years. E&O insurance protects the producer and distributor (usually for the distributor’s catalog of films) against the impact of lawsuits arising from accusations of libel, slander, invasion of privacy, infringement of copyright etc and can cost the producer in the range of $3,000 to $5,000. E&O insurance is required BEFORE any deal is signed, not after, and can take 3-5 days to obtain if all rights and releases, a title report and music clearances can be supplied.
Digital aggregators in general do not require E&O insurance unless it is for cable VOD and Netflix (these do). However, they do require closed captioning (around $900), subtitling (if you intend to distribute in non English speaking territories, usually costs around $3 per minute) and a ratings certificate (if distributing in some foreign territories, prices vary according to run time and ratings board).
The production will need to supply a Quality Control (QC) report, preferably from a reputable encoding house. If you film fails QC for iTunes and other digital platforms, it can be costly to fix the problems with the file and it will lead to a delay of the film’s release. MANY problems can be found in the QC process so whatever you think you are saving by encoding yourself or via a less reputable company, you will more than make up for in having to redo it. The most common problems arise from duplicate frames or merged frames as a result of changing frame rates; audio dropouts or other audio problems; sync problems from closed caption or subtitling files.
Distributors will accept a master in Apple ProRes HQ 422 file on an external hard drive or HD Cam. By far, the digital drive is preferable to tape and unless your distributor specifically requests HD Cam, do not go to the expense of creating this. The master should NOT have pre roll advertising, website URLs, bars/tones/countdowns, ratings information, or release date information. For digital files, content must begin and end with at least one frame of black.
Other delivery items required by sales agents/distributors include: trailer (preferably 2 minutes) in the same aspect ratio as the film with no nudity or profanity; chapter points using the same time code as the master file; key art files as a layered PSD or EPS with minimum 2400 pixels wide at 300 dpi; at least 3-5 still images in high resolution (traditional distributors often require as many as 50 still images) and already approved by talent; DVD screeners; press kit which includes a synopsis, production notes, biographies for key players, director, producer, screenwriter, and credit list of both cast and crew; pdf of the original copyright document for the screenplay and the motion picture; IRS W-9 form or tax forms from governments of the licensor; music cue sheet and music licenses.
There are technical specifications that need to be met as far as the video and audio files. Most post production supervisors are aware of these. It is also not unheard of to be asked to supply 35 mm prints for foreign distribution if a theatrical release is desired or contractually obligated.
Sometimes if your film is considered a hot property, a distributor might be willing to create the delivery items at their expense in exchange for full recoupment and/or a greater cut of the revenues. But do not count on this. We have heard from many filmmakers who didn’t clear music rights for their films, assuming a distributor would take on this expense, and were sorely disappointed to find none would do that. If you can’t supply the delivery list, no agreement will be signed.
Sheri Candler July 23rd, 2014
Tags: deliverables, Digital Distribution, digital film distribution, distribution contracts, film distribution, film distributors, independent film, Orly Ravid, preparing for film distribution, Sheri Candler
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In the past 2 posts, we have covered knowing the market BEFORE making your film and how to incorporate the festival circuit into your marketing and distribution efforts. This post will cover terms you need to know; whether a foreign distribution agreement is in your film’s future and what to do if it isn’t; the patterns, or windows, that need to be considered in your release. Just to be clear, we are targeting these posts mainly to filmmakers who seek to self finance and actively control their distribution. If that is not your plan, the usefulness of these posts may vary.
Distributors; platforms; aggregators; self hosting sites; applications
If you are new to the distribution game, here are some terms you now need to be familiar with.
Distributors (ie. A24, Oscilloscope, Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, The Weinstein Company, Roadside Attractions) take exclusive rights to your film for a negotiated period of time and coordinate its release. These companies often acquire independent films out of the most prestigious film festivals and pay decent advances for ALL RIGHTS, sometimes even for ALL TERRITORIES. A signed and binding contract takes all responsibility for the film away from its creator and places it with the distributor to decide how to release it into the public. Distribution through these entities entails theatrical, digital, DVD, educational, leisure (airline/hotel/cruiseship).
Platforms (ie. iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Netflix, cable VOD) are digital destinations where customers watch or buy films. Viewing happens on a variety of devices and some allow for worldwide distribution. Mainly platforms do not deal directly with creators, but insist on signing deals with representative companies such as distributors or aggregators.
Aggregators (ie. Premiere Digital, Inception Media Group, BitMAX, Kinonation) are conduits between filmmakers/distributors and platforms. Aggregators have direct relationships with digital platforms and often do not take an ownership stake. Aggregators usually focus more on converting files for platforms, supplying metadata, images, trailers to platforms and collecting revenue from platforms to disperse to the rights holder. Sometimes distributors (Cinedigm, FilmBuff) also have direct relationships with digital platforms, helping reduce the number of intermediaries being paid out of the film’s revenue.
Self hosting sites (ie. VHX, Distrify, Vimeo on Demand) are all services that allow filmmakers to upload their films and host them on whatever website they choose. Vimeo on Demand also hosts the video player on its own central website and has just integrated with Apple TV to allow for viewing on in-home TV screens.
Applications for many digital platforms can be found on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets),Over the Top (OTT) internet-enabled devices like Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Playstation and Xbox and on smart TVs. Viewers must add the applications to their devices and then either subscribe or pay per view to the platforms in order to see the film.
What about international?
In the latest edition of our Selling Your Film book series, Amsterdam based consultant Wendy Bernfeld goes into great depth about the digital distribution market in Europe. Many low-budget, independent American films are not good candidates for international sales because various international distributors tend to be attracted to celebrity actors or action, thriller and horror genre fare that translate easily into other languages.
Rather than give all of your film’s rights to a foreign sales agent for years (often 7-10 years duration) just to see what the agent can accomplish, think seriously about selling to global audiences from your own website and from sites such as Vimeo, VHX, Google Play and iTunes. The volume of potential viewers or sales it takes to attract a foreign distributor to your film is often very high. But just because they aren’t interested doesn’t mean there is NO audience interest. It simply means audience interest isn’t high enough to warrant a distribution deal. However, if you take a look at your own analytics via social media sites and website traffic, you may find that audience interest in foreign territories is certainly high enough to warrant self distributing in those territories. Look at this stats page on the VHX site. There are plenty of foreign audiences willing to buy directly from a film’s website. Why not service that demand yourself and keep most of the money? Plus keep the contact data on the buyers, such as email address?
Often, sales agents who cannot make foreign deals will use aggregators to access digital platforms and cut themselves into the revenue. You can save this commission fee by going through an aggregator yourself. In agreements we make with distributors for our Film Collaborative members, we negotiate for the filmmaker to have the ability to sell worldwide to audiences directly from their website. If you are negotiating agreements directly with distributors, the right to sell directly via your own website can be extremely beneficial to separate and carve out because sales via your website will generate revenue immediately. However, this tactic is now being scrutinized by distributors who are allowing direct to audience sales by filmmakers, but asking in their agreement for a percentage of the revenue generated. It is up to the filmmaker to decide if this is an acceptable term.
If you do happen to sell your film in certain international territories, make sure not to distribute on your site in a way that will conflict with any worldwide release dates and any other distribution holdbacks or windowing that may be required per your distribution contracts. An example: You have signed a broadcast agreement that calls for a digital release holdback of 90 days-6 months-1 year or whatever. You cannot go ahead and start selling via digital in that territory until that holdback is lifted. Instead, use a hosting service that will allow you to geoblock sales in that territory.
Know your windows.
If you do decide to release on your own, it’s important to know how release phases or “windows” work within the industry and why windowing was even created.
The release window is an artificial scarcity construct wherein the maximum amount of money is squeezed from each phase of distribution. Each window is opened at different times to keep the revenue streams from competing with each other. The reason it is artificial is the film continues to be the same and could be released to the audience all at one time, but is purposely curbed from that in order to maximize revenue and viewership. The Hollywood legacy window sequence consists of movie theaters (theatrical window), then, after approximately 3-4 months, DVD release (video window). After an additional 3 months or so, a release to Pay TV (subscription cable and cable pay per view) and VOD services (download to own, paid streaming, subscription VOD) and approximately two years after its theatrical release date, it is made available for free-to-air TV.
Now, there is a lot of experimentation with release windows. Each release window is getting shorter and sometimes they are opened out of the traditional sequence. Magnolia Pictures has pioneered experimentation with Ultra VOD release, the practice of releasing a film digitally BEFORE its theatrical window and generally charging a premium price; and with Day and Date, the practice of releasing a film digitally and theatrically at the same time. Many other distributors have followed suit. Radius-TWC just shortened the theatrical only window for Snowpiercer by making it available on digital VOD within only 2 weeks of its US theatrical release. During its first weekend in US multiplatform release, Snowpiercer earned an estimated $1.1 million from VOD, nearly twice as much as the $635,000 it earned in theaters.
So, while there are certainly bends in the rules, you will need to pay attention to which release window you open for your film on what date. For example, it might be enticing to try to negotiate a flat licensing fee from Netflix (Subscription VOD or SVOD window) at the start of release. However, from a filmmaker’s (and also distributor’s) perspective, if the movie has not yet played on any other digital platforms, it would be preferable to wait until after the Transactional VOD (TVOD) window in order to generate more revenue as a percentage of every TVOD purchase, before going live on Netflix. If the transactional release and subscription release happen at the same time, it cannibalizes transactional revenue.
Also, sites like Netflix will likely use numbers from a film’s transactional window purchases to inform their decision on whether to make an offer on a film and how big that offer should be. Subscription sites such as Netflix also pay attention to general buzz, theatrical gross, and a film’s popularity on the film’s website. There is value in gathering web traffic analytics, email database analytics and website sales data in order to demonstrate you have a sizable audience behind your film. This is useful information when talking to any platform where you need their permission to access it. Caution: Netflix is not as interested in licensing independent film content as it once was. If your film is not a strong performer theatrically, or via other transactional VOD sites; does not have a big festival pedigree; or does not have notable actor names in it, it may not achieve a significant Netflix licensing fee or they may refuse to license it for the platform. Netflix is no longer building its brand for subscribers and it has significant data that guides what content it licenses and what it produces.
Also be aware that some TV licensing will call for holding back Subscription VOD (SVOD) releases for a period of time. If your film is strong enough to achieve a broadcast license deal, you will need to wait before making a subscription release deal. On the other hand, holding out too long for a broadcast distribution offer might cause the publicity and interest you’ve generated for your film to dissipate.
If your film is truly a candidate for theatrical release, most cinemas will not screen a film that is already available on TVOD or SVOD services. In fact, most of the chain cinemas will not screen a film that is available in any other form prior to or at the same time as theatrical release.
The way you choose to release your film is a judgment call in order to reach your particular goal. All decisions have consequences and you will have to live with the decisions you make in releasing your film. Like all decisions, you base them on what you know at the time with no guarantee as to how they will turn out.
Sheri Candler July 16th, 2014
Tags: aggregators, Distrify, independent film distribution, Orly Ravid, release windows, Sheri Candler, SVOD, The Film Collaborative, theatrical distribution, TVOD, VHX, Vimeo on Demand, Wendy Bernfeld
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
We continue this month’s series covering the practicalities behind successfully marketing and distributing an independent film with limited resources. Please see Part 1 on knowing the market for your film HERE.
Part 2-Temper festival expectations and don’t wait too long to release.
While you may be targeting top-tier festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Telluride and SXSW (Austin’s South by Southwest) where acquisition executives attend and search for films to acquire, your film may not be chosen for these festivals. Be prepared for this disappointment and have a backup plan. If your film fails to be selected, your distribution options are likely to change as well. The best acquisition prices are paid by the most reputable companies for films out of these top tier fests. While you may receive offers for distribution even if your film doesn’t have this type of premiere, those offers will be lower in scope and usually from either up and coming companies (ie, start ups with little money) or companies whose reputations are not as prominent.
Should you continue submitting to other festivals and stay on the circuit? TFC colleague Jeffrey Winter has handled festival distribution for countless films, but mainly the films TFC picks up for festival distribution either come from A list festivals or have some kind of specific niche appeal. He advises “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. Given that general rule, I am going to go ahead and call that 18 months the ‘Festival Window.’”
“For filmmakers and 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 certain kinds of films (prestige festival films, films that fit within the programming of specific niche festivals), especially if they can secure European festival placement. When working with 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.”
Assuming you achieve regional festival screenings, will you use it as a form of theatrical tour, gathering press coverage and fans in regional areas in order to fuel your digital sales? If so, how to transition that coverage and word of mouth into the digital rollout, when is that rollout going to happen and who is going to coordinate it? These questions need to be answered.
Leaving too much time between a regional festival premiere and eventual digital and DVD sales is a mistake many independent filmmakers make. When publicity and good word of mouth recommendations are being generated from your festival screenings, set a firm deadline on when digital distribution will have to start should your distribution savior not appear. Don’t hold out indefinitely for distribution opportunities that may not come. Often, we are contacted by filmmakers who insist on spending a year or more on the festival circuit, without making any revenue and without significant distribution offers in sight. They are wasting revenue potential by continuing to hope a distribution savior will appear and refusing to move ahead with plans for the next phase of release (that will probably be handled on their own) because they didn’t budget for this situation or they have no idea of the options available. Note, it can take up to 4 months to go live on iTunes and other well known digital platforms. If you’re thinking of having a digital self release, plan accordingly.
If chosen for a festival, take full advantage of the screening as a marketing opportunity. It is imperative not only to enjoy face to face compliments at your screenings, but encourage people to use their social media accounts to tell others how great your film is. Many times filmmakers tell us about their sold out screenings at regional fests (or even pre release screenings) and how many people came up to them with kind words to say about the film. But in looking for those kind words online, sometimes we find very little or nothing being said. This is a troubling sign. No bump in Facebook Likes, Twitter followers, trailer views or website traffic? No one using a hashtag or @mention on Twitter or Instagram? No comments or shares of the film’s trailer from Youtube? Kind words in person are great for your personal morale, but in order to have beneficial word of mouth, people have to want to share news of your film and the normal outlet for doing that today is online. It is trackable too! Word of mouth won’t help with digital sales if no one is talking so make sure everyone you meet is aware of the film’s home online, its social media accounts, and where a trailer exists to be shared. You can’t MAKE people speak, you can only encourage it.
If you’re brash during a post screening Q&A, take a selfie à la Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars and tell everyone you will post it to the film’s Twitter or Instagram account and what that account handle is. They are more likely to retweet or share it if you make it super easy and they are more likely to follow your account, visit the film’s website (so make sure the About section includes that URL link), maybe even sign up for your email alerts. Also, think a little differently about your film’s festival catalog description. If you want people to follow you as an artist and your film’s actors (a social media following is important for their career!), add Twitter handles/Instagram handles/FB page name etc to the paragraph you are asked to submit about your film. Technically, ALL festivals should want this kind of information included just as they now post website URLs. If audience members like the film performances, they also might like to follow the humans who gave them and the humans who made the film possible.
Instead of using a clipboard method to collect email addresses from your festival audience, look into using a text-to-subscribe service associated with your email provider. Mailchimp’s MobileChimp (UK, USA, Australia, Spain, France & Netherlands) and Constant Contact (US only) both have this capability. Put the keyword you choose to associate with your account on any printed material and be sure to say it out loud during your Q&A. An email database is worth its weight in gold throughout your release and further into your future work so don’t neglect to grow one while you are touring your film.
Add festival laurels from the most important/recognizable film festivals to your marketing materials. While we know the temptation is to put every laurel from every festival on your website banner, key art, postcards etc. it starts looking cluttered and inconsequential. The festivals with the most impact on your audience are the ones to include because they will have the most impact on purchases. Don’t forget the pull quotes to favorable critical reviews as well.
In going back to the discussion about digital release, is this release going to be worldwide or only in your home country? If your film has played festivals worldwide, it doesn’t make much sense to only release it within your own country, especially if you have all territories still open for sales. If you have signed agreements in some formats or in some territories, then those warrant compliance. But hoping for a foreign deal when you don’t have one even in your home country is unrealistic. Seriously consider releasing digitally worldwide when your launch comes.
In the next part of the series, we’ll take a look at the different players in film distribution and how to work with them.
Sheri Candler July 9th, 2014