What Nobody Will Tell You About Getting Distribution For Your Film; Or: What I Wish I Knew a Year Ago.
By Smriti Mundhra
Smriti Mundhra is a Los Angeles-based director, producer and journalist. Her film A Suitable Girl premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and is currently playing at festivals around the world, including Sheffield Doc/Fest and AFI DOCS. Along with her filmmaking partner Sarita Khurana, Smriti won the Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
I recently attended a panel discussion at a major film festival featuring funders from the documentary world. The question being passed around the stage was, “What are some of the biggest mistakes filmmakers make when producing their films?” The answers were fairly standard—from submitting cuts too early to waiting till the last minute to seek institutional support—until the mic was passed to one member of the panel, who said, rather condescendingly, “Filmmakers need to be aware of what their films are worth to the marketplace. Is there a wide audience for it? Is it going to premiere at Sundance? Don’t spend $5 million on your niche indie documentary, you know?”
Immediately, my eyebrow shot up, followed by my hand. I told the panelist that I agreed with him that documentaries—really, all independent films—should be budgeted responsibly, but asked if he could step outside his hyperbolic example of spending $5 million on an indie documentary (side note: if you know someone who did that, I have a bridge to sell them) and provide any tools or insight for the rest of us who genuinely strive to keep the marketplace in mind when planning our films. After all, documentaries in particular take five years on average to make, during which time the “marketplace” can change drastically. For example, when I started making my feature-length documentary A Suitable Girl, which had its world premiere in the Documentary Competition section of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Netflix was still a mail-order DVD service and Amazon was where you went to buy toilet paper. What’s more, film festival admissions—a key deciding factor in the fate of your sales, I’ve learned—are a crapshoot, and there is frustratingly little transparency from distributors and other filmmakers when it comes to figuring out “what your film is worth to the marketplace.”
Sadly, I did not get a suitable answer to my questions from the panelist. Instead, I was told glibly to “make the best film I could and it will find a home.”
Not acceptable. The lack of transparency and insight into sales and distribution could be the single most important reason most filmmakers don’t go on to make second or third films. While the landscape does, indeed, shift dramatically year to year, any insight would make a big difference to other filmmakers who can emulate successes and avoid mistakes. In that spirit, here’s what I learned about sales and distribution that I wish I knew a year ago.
As any filmmaker who has experienced the dizzying high of getting accepted to a world-class film festival, followed by the sobering reality of watching the hours, days, weeks and months pass with nary a distribution deal in sight can tell you, bringing your film to market is an emotional experience. This is where your dreams come to die. A Suitable Girl went to the Tribeca Film Festival represented by one of the best agent/lawyers in the business: The Film Collaborative’s own Orly Ravid (who is also an attorney at MSK). Orly was both supportive and brutally honest when she assessed our film’s worth before we headed into our world premiere. She also helped us read between the lines in trade announcements to understand what was really going on with the deals that were being made – because, let’s face it, who among us hasn’t gone down the rabbit hole of Deadline.com or Variety looking for news of the great deals other films in our “class” are getting? Orly kept reminding us that perception is not reality, and that many of these envy-inducing deals, upon closer examination, are not as lucrative or glamorous as they may seem. Sometimes filmmakers take bad deals because they just don’t want to deal with distribution, have no other options, and can’t pursue DIY, and by taking the deal they get that sense of validation that comes with being able to say their film was picked up. Peek under the hood of some of these trade announcements, and you’ll often find that the money offered to filmmakers was shockingly low, or the deal was comprised of mostly soft money, or—even worse—filmmakers are paying the distributors for a service deal to get their film into theaters. There is nothing wrong with any of those scenarios, of course, if that’s what’s right for you and your film. But, there is often an incorrect perception that other filmmakers are somehow realizing their dreams while you’re sitting by the phone waiting for your agent to call.
Depressed yet? Don’t be, because here’s the good news: there are options, and once you figure out what yours are, making decisions becomes that much easier and more empowering.
Start by asking yourself the hard questions. Here are 12+ things Orly says she considers before crafting a distribution strategy for the films she represents, and why each one is important.
- At which festival did you have your premiere? “Your film will find a home” is a beautiful sentiment and true in many ways, but distributors care about one thing above all others: Sundance. If your film didn’t beat the odds to land a slot at the festival, you can already start lowering your expectations. That’s not to say great deals don’t come out of SXSW, Tribeca, Los Angeles Film Festival and others, but the hard truth is that Sundance still means a lot to buyers. Orly also noted that not all films are even right for festivals or will have a life that way, but they can still do great broadcast sales or great direct distribution business – but that’s a specific and separate analysis, often related to niche, genre, and/or cast.
- What is your film’s budget? How much of that is soft money that does not have to be paid back, or even equity where investors are okay with not being paid back? In other words, what do you need to net to consider the deal a success? Orly, of course, shot for the stars when working on sales for our film, but it was helpful for her to know what was the most modest version of success we could define, so that if we didn’t get a huge worldwide rights offer from a single buyer she could think creatively about how to make us “whole.”
- What kind of press and reviews did you receive? We hired a publicist for the Tribeca Film Festival (the incomparable Falco Ink), and it was the best money we could have spent. Falco was able to raise a ton of awareness around the film, making it as “review-proof” as possible (buyers pay attention if they see that press is inclined to write about your film, which in many cases is more important to them than how a trade publication reviews it). We got coverage in New York Magazine, Jezebel, the Washington Post and dozens of other sites, blogs, and magazines. Thankfully, we also got great reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and even won the Albert Maysles Prize for Best New Documentary Director at Tribeca. Regardless of how this affected our distribution offers, we know for sure we can use all this press to reignite excitement for our film even if we self-distribute. On the other hand, if you’re struggling to get attention outside of the trades and your reviews are less than stellar, that’s another reason to lower expectations.
- What are your goals, in order of priority? Are you more concerned with recouping your budget? Raising awareness about the issues in your film (impact)? Or gaining exposure for your next project/ongoing career? And don’t say “all three”—or, if you do, list these in priority order and start to think about which one you’re willing to let go.
- How long can you spend on this film? If your film is designed for social impact, do you intend to run an impact/grassroots campaign? And can you hire someone to handle that, if you cannot? Do you see your impact campaign working hand in hand with your profit objectives, or separately from them? The longer you can dedicate to staying with your film following its premiere, the more revenue you can squeeze out of it through the educational circuit, transactional sales, and more. But that time comes at a personal cost and you need to ask yourself if it’s worth it to you. Side note: touring with your film and self-distributing are also great ways to stay visible between projects, and could lead to opportunities for future work.
- Does your film have sufficient international appeal to attract a worldwide deal or significant territory sales outside of the United States? If you think yes, what’s your evidence for that? Are you being realistic? By the way, feeling strongly that your film has a global appeal (as I do for my film) doesn’t guarantee sales. I believe my film will have strong appeal in the countries where there is a large South Asian diaspora—but many of those territories command pretty small sales. Ask your agent which territories around the world you think your film might do well in, and what kinds of licensing deals those territories tend to offer. It’s a sobering conversation.
- Does your film fit into key niches that work well for film festival monetization and robust educational distribution? For example, TFC has great success with LGBTQ, social justice, environmental, Latin American, African American, Women’s issues, mental health. Sports, music, and food-related can work well too.
- Does your film, either because of subjects or issues or both, have the ability to command a significant social media following? A “significant” social media following is ideally in the hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, but is at least in the high five figures. We know the last thing you want to think about when you’re trying to lock picture, run a crowdfunding campaign, deal with festival logistics, and all the other stress of preparing for your big debut is social media. But don’t sleep on it. Social media is important not only to show buyers that there is interest in your film, but also ideas on how to position your film and which audiences are engaging with it already. Truth be told, unless you’re in the hundreds of thousands or millions of followers range, social media probably won’t make or break your distribution options, but it can’t hurt. And, in our case, it actually helped us get a lot of interest from educational distributors, who were inspired by the dialogue they saw brewing on our Facebook page.
- How likely is your film to get great critic reviews, and thus get a good Rotten Tomatoes score? Yeah, not much you can do to predict this one. However, a good publicist will have relationships with critics who can give you some insight into what the critical reaction to your film might be, before you have to read it in print. They also reach out to press who they think will like your film, keep tabs on reactions during your press and industry screenings, and monitor any press who attend your public screenings. This data is super useful for your sales representatives.
- How likely is your film to perform theatrically (knowing that very few do), sell to broadcasters (some do but it’s very competitive), sell to SVOD platforms (as competitive as TV), and sell transactionally on iTunes and other similar services (since so many docs do not demand to be purchased)? While these questions are easy to pose and hard to answer, start by doing realistic comparisons to other films based on the subject, name recognition of filmmakers, subject, budget, festival premiere status, and other factors indicating popularity or lack thereof. Also adjust for industry changes and changes to the market if the film you are comparing to was distributed years before. Furthermore, adjust for changes to platform and broadcaster’s buying habits. Get real data about performance of like-films and adjust for and analyze how much money and what else it took to get there.
- Can your film be monetized via merchandise? Not all docs can do this, but it can help generate revenue. So, go for the bulk orders of t-shirts, mugs, and tote bags during your crowdfunding campaign and sell that merch! Even if it just adds up to a few hundred extra dollars, for most people it’s pretty easy to put a few products up on their website.
- Does your film lend itself to getting outreach/distribution grants, or corporate sponsorship/underwriting? With the traditional models of both film distribution and advertising breaking down, a new possibility emerges: finding a brand with a similar value set or mission as your film to underwrite some portion of your distribution campaign. I recently spoke to a documentary filmmaker who sold licenses to his film about veterans to a small regional banking chain, who then screened the film in local communities as part of their outreach effort. The bank paid the filmmakers $1000 per license for ten separate licenses without asking them to give up any rights or conflict with any of their other deals—that’s $10,000 with virtually no strings attached. Not bad!
Sadly, Netflix is no longer the blank check it once was (or that I imagined it to be) and the streaming giant is taking fewer and fewer risks on independent films. Thankfully, Amazon is sweeping in to fill the gap, and their most aggressive play has been their Festival Stars program. If you’re lucky enough to premiere in competition at one of the top-tier festivals (Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca for now, but presumably more to come), then you already have a distribution deal on the table: Amazon will give you a $100,000 non-recoupable licensing fee ($75,000 for documentaries) and a more generous (double) revenue share than usual per hour your film is streamed on their platform for a term of two years. For many independent films, this could already mean recouping a big chunk of your budget. It also provides an important clue as to “what your film is worth to the marketplace”—$100,000 seems to be the benchmark for films that can cross that first hurdle of landing a competition slot at an A-list festival.
I’ll admit, I was a snob about the Amazon deal when I first heard about it. I couldn’t make myself get excited about a deal that was being offered to at least dozen other films, sight unseen, with no guarantee of publicity or marketing. A Facebook post by a fellow filmmaker (who had recent sold her film to a “legit” distributor) blasting the deal as “just a steep and quick path to devalue the film” left me shaken. But again, appearances proved to be deceiving.
I discussed my concerns with Orly, and she helped me see that with so few broadcast and financially meaningful SVOD options for docs, having a guaranteed significant platform deal with a financial commitment and additional revenue share is actually a great thing. Plus, one can build in lots of other distribution around the Amazon deal and end up with as robust a release as ever there could be. Orly says one should treat Amazon as a platform (online store) but as a distributor and that can provide for all the distribution potential. If one does manage to secure an all-rights deal from a “legit” distributor (we won’t name names, but it’s the companies you might see your friends selling their films to), oftentimes that distributor is just taking the Amazon deal on your behalf anyway, and shaving off up to 30% of it for themselves. So the analysis needs to be what is that distributor doing, if anything, to create additional value that merits taking a piece of a deal you can get on your own? Is it that much more money? Is it a commitment to do a significant impactful release? Are the terms sensible in light of the added value and your recoupment needs? Can you accomplish the same via DIY? Perhaps you can, but don’t want to bother. That’s your choice. But know what you are choosing and why.
Independent filmmakers are, yet again, in uncharted territory when it comes to distribution. Small distributors are closing up shop at a rapid pace. Netflix and Hulu are buying less content out of festivals, and creating more of it in house. Amazon’s Festival Stars program was just announced at Sundance this year (2017) and doesn’t launch until next Spring, so the jury is out as to whether it will really be the wonderful opportunity for filmmakers that it claims to be. By this time next year, several dozen films will have inaugurated the program and will be in a position to share their experiences with others. I hope my fellow filmmakers will be willing to do so. Given the sheer variety of films slated to debut on the platform, this data can be our first real chance to answer the question that the funder on the panel I attended refused to: “What is my film worth to the marketplace?”
Orly adds that the lack of transparency is, of course, in great part attributable to the distributors and buyers, who maintain a stranglehold on their data, but it’s also due to filmmakers’ willful blindness and simple unwillingness to share details about their deals in an effort to keep up appearances. That’s totally understandable, but if we can break the cycle of competing with each other and open up our books, we will not only have more leverage in our negotiations with buyers, but will be equipped to make better decisions for our investors and our careers. Knowledge is power, and if we all get real and share, we’ll all be informed to make the best choices we can.
admin July 5th, 2017
Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution, Distribution Platforms, DIY, education, Film Festivals, Hulu, International Sales, iTunes, Marketing, Netflix, Publicity, Theatrical
by Dan Habib
Dan Habib is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including Samuel (2008), Who Cares About Kelsey? (2012), Mr. Connolly Has ALS (2017), and many other films on disability-related topics. Habib’s films have been broadcast nationally on public television, and he does extensive public speaking around the country and internationally. Habib’s upcoming documentary Intelligent Lives (2018) features three pioneering young adults with disabilities who navigate high school, college, and the workforce—and undermine our nation’s sordid history of intelligence testing. The film includes narration from Academy award-winning actor Chris Cooper and is executive produced by Amy Brenneman. Habib, who was a photojournalist from 1988-2008, is a filmmaker at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.
About 14 years ago, I sat at my son Samuel’s bedside in the ICU as he lay in a medically induced coma. He had developed pneumonia from complications following surgery. Samuel’s neurologist encouraged me to use my skills as a photojournalist in the midst of my fear. “You should document this,” he said. Samuel, who has cerebral palsy, recovered from this emergency, and I took the doctor’s advice. Four years later, I released my first documentary, Including Samuel, which includes a scene from that hospital room. The film aired nationally on public TV in 2009, and we created a DVD with 17 language translations.
Along with the film’s launch, I started discussing my experiences as a parent of a child with a disability at film screenings, which led to a 2013 TEDx talk called Disabling Segregation.
I am now directing/filming/producing my third feature length documentary and am honored that The Film Collaborative asked me to share a few things I’ve learned along the way about DIY fundraising, distribution and outreach.
- Diversify your funding streams.
Although I made Including Samuel on a shoestring while I was still working fulltime as a newspaper photography editor, I’ve been able to raise about $1 million for each of my last two films—a budget which covers my salary and benefits, as well as all production costs. I’ve received essential support from The Fledgling Fund, but the vast majority of my funding comes from sources that don’t typically fund films:
- NH-based foundations that are interested in supporting the advancement of the issues I cover in my films (disability/mental health/education).
- National and regional foundations and organizations that focus on tangible outcomes. The Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation is the lead $200,000 supporter of my current project. MEAF funds efforts to increase the employment rates for young people with disabilities.
- Each year I typically take on one outside contract (around $75,000) from a non-profit to create a documentary film short (18-25 min.) on specific disability or education issues. These films have focused on areas like the restraint and seclusion of students or inclusive education , and help me meet my overall budget needs.
- For the last ten years, the most stable source of income has been my speaking fees, which average about $75,000/year and go back into my project budget at UNH. I do about 15 paid speaking gigs per year, and charge $5000 per 24-hours away from home (plus travel expenses). We don’t do any paid advertising—the gigs almost always come from word of mouth (see #5 below).
- Build buzz from the get-go
For some docs, secrecy is essential for editorial reasons, or the filmmaker may just prefer to keep it close to the vest. I’ve never gone that route, because I’ve felt a pragmatic need to build up an audience and donor base early in the project. For each of my films, I’ve cut a 10-14 minute ‘preview’ early in the project’s production (about 2 years before completion), which has been critical for fundraising pitches, generating buzz in social media, and for use in my public speaking presentations.On the temporary website for my Intelligent Lives project, the 14-minute preview is accessible only after completing a name/email sign in form (I also have an unlisted YouTube link to share with VIPs and funders). I’m sure some people have been turned off by this, but more than 6000 people have provided their name and email—which will be a huge asset when we launch a crowdfunding campaign in the fall to complete (I hope!) our production fundraising.Facebook has been the most active and successful platform for reaching our largest audience—educators and families—with Twitter a distant second. For the current project, we have plans to dive into Instagram and other platforms more deeply—primarily with video clips. We also see LinkedIn as a platform that can help us achieve one of the outreach goals for the new film—connecting young adults with disabilities with potential employers through virtual career fairs.
- Partner up early
I’ve spent hundreds of hours initiating and developing strong partnerships with national organizations that focus on the issues that my films address. For all three of my documentaries, I’ve held national strategy summits in Washington, DC, to bring together dozens of these National Outreach Partners (NOPs) to help develop a national outreach and engagement campaign to accompany each film (campaigns include I am Norm for Including Samuel and I Care By for Who Cares About Kelsey?) We are currently developing the campaign for the Intelligent Lives film.The NOPs also typically show my docs at their national conferences and blast the word out about key developments in the film’s release (like community screening opportunities). Our relationships with NOPs are reciprocal. We discuss how the films will shine a bright light on their issues; how they can fundraise off of screenings; and how they can use the entire film—or shorter clips that we can provide—to support their advocacy.I plan to continue to explore the vast topic areas of disability and education, and continually build on the partnerships, funders and audiences we have established (while also working hard to make films that are engaging to the general public).
- Establish your DIY distribution goals early and stay the course
When I started work on Who Cares About Kelsey?, my documentary about a high school student with ADHD who had a history of homelessness and family substance abuse, I knew I wasn’t going to try for theatrical release, but instead would focus on broadcast, an educational DVD kit and a national community screening campaign. We presented all of our would-be funders and NOPs with a specific set of outreach strategies for the film’s release that were mostly under our control—not reliant on the buzz and opportunities that would come only by getting into a major film festival. For the Intelligent Lives project, my outreach coordinator Lisa Smithline and I have been working towards a broadcast, festivals, an event theatrical and community screening campaign, VOD, online events and other distribution plans.
- Speaking of festivals…do college and conference screenings provide more bang for the buck?
I submit my films to the major fests (no luck so far), as well as mid-level and smaller film festivals, and we’ve had dozens of FF screenings (including Woodstock, Sedona, Thessaloniki, Cleveland). I always have a blast when I can be there. But I also start booking and promoting major events around the country at national conferences and colleges early in a film’s life. Although I know these events might jeopardize admission to some prominent film festivals, my experience has been that these conferences and university screenings usually have a significant, lasting impact: high volumes of DVD sales, tremendous word-of-mouth and social media upticks, and more invitations to do paid public speaking (see above). We also try to collect names and email addresses from attendees at every event, so our e-blast list (21,000+) has become a powerful outreach tool for all of my docs.
- Jam-pack the educational DVD and website
In addition to the feature length documentary, I typically create a range of short, freestanding “companion” films that I distribute both on the educational DVD kit and also for free (linked through the film’s website but hosted on YouTube and/or Vimeo). I went a bit overboard for Who Cares About Kelsey?, creating 11 mini-films on related topics. But the benefits were multifold: funders loved (and supported) these free resources, the shorter length (10-14 minutes) made them highly useful educational tools, and the free films bring traffic to the website.I also work with national experts in the topic areas covered in the feature length film and mini-films to develop extensive educational material that is packaged with the educational DVD kit. Combined with reasonable price points ($95-$195, depending on the intended audience), we have generated gross sales in the high six-figures for my last two films combined. We also produce an individual DVD, and have been selling VOD through Amazon (very low revenue compared to DVD sales, but given how much the VOD world has changed since I made “Kelsey,” we are looking at different models of online distribution for Intelligent Lives). We primarily self-distribute these products through the UNH Institute on Disability bookstore, which keeps the profits close to home.
- Seek professional help
I maintain a small field production crew (just me and an audio engineer), but my production and distribution budgets are still tight. So I’m grateful for people like Chris Cooper, Amy Brenneman and the musician Matisyahu who are donating their time and creative talents to my latest project. But there is still plenty of specialized talent I need to hire—whether it’s for editing, music scoring, fundraising, graphic art, website design and outreach consulting. And for Intelligent Lives, I’m planning to work with a distribution consultant and sales agent(s).I look for collaborators who share my values and vision that films can be a catalyst for advancing human rights…but they’ve still got to get paid!Return to strategy #1.
admin June 28th, 2017
Tags: American independent film, Amy Brenneman, Dan Habib, DIY film distribution, documentary films, documentary outreach, DVD distribution, educational distribution for films, film distribution, Fledgling Fund, Lisa Smithline, The Film Collaborative
by Orly Ravid, Founder, The Film Collaborative and Attorney, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP)
The following the final part of a three-part series on Educational Distribution. Part 1: “Get Educated About Educational Distribution,” by Orly Ravid, Founder, The Film Collaborative • February 18, 2016. Part 2: “Fair Use Is Not Fair Game,” by Jessica Rosner, Media Consultant & Orly Ravid, Founder, The Film Collaborative, Attorney, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP • June 1, 2016. It was offered as a handout at the Low Down on Educational Distribution Panel that took place as part of the SXSW Film Festival on March 12, 2017.
Educational distribution is often part of “Non-Theatrical” rights and generally refers to distribution to schools and libraries (not film festivals, airlines, ships, or hotels, for example). Traditional educational distribution is focused on educational institutions at the university and K-12 level. It can also cover private organizational and corporate screenings. It can involve both physical media (DVDs/Blu-rays) either sold or rented and streaming (via licenses for a term, typically 1-3 years). Not all educational distributors cover the same turf or have the same business models. Below is a summary of some companies and how they define and handle educational distribution. You’ll notice differences and a range of what the companies do within the space. This document also covers revenue ranges, technology differences and industry changes, use of middlemen, best practices, and release examples. I often use the company’s own words to explain how they work. I did not interview filmmakers who have worked with the panelists or other companies, and always recommend checking references and asking around. For any follow-up questions please feel free to contact the distributors or panel moderator Orly Ravid.
Educational Distribution: What is it?
Companies explain their take on educational distribution:
Alexander Street: Offers both streaming and DVD options across its catalog. Focus is on institutional selling and providing both university librarians and university faculty with options ranging from single title streaming and DVD, to demand-driven models and wide access to packages of 60,000 or more titles.
Kanopy: We define educational distribution as sharing important stories with the next generation. Films have the power to engage and challenge like no other medium, and with students watching more film than any other resource, it’s more important than ever before that these films reach this important demographic. We take our relationships with the college librarians very seriously as they are our paying customers and work tirelessly to understand and promote Kanopy to their patrons.
We are lucky to work with such a progressive market of librarians that believed in our new model, Patron Driven Acquisition, whereby libraries only pay for what is watched. This model is now the benchmark for libraries globally and has revolutionized the industry by promoting educational streaming as a viable channel for filmmakers while offering excellent ROI for libraries.
Passion River: Selling or licensing public performance rights for films to schools, colleges, libraries, and community centers/organizations.
Ro*co Films: Distributing content (in our case, top-tier documentary films) to schools, organizations, and corporations for instructional and/or screening purposes.
Outcast Films: Sales and rentals on campuses, academic conferences, campus activities and student film festivals. There are times when we also partner with non-profit organizations both on and off campus. We want to work in collaboration with filmmakers and their outreach efforts to maximize opportunities so we can be flexible. Because the educational market is our only focus, we believe we are the best to handle and coordinate.
The Video Project: ‘Educational and Institutional’ market means all schools, home schools, school districts, offices of education, learning centers, education and research institutions, colleges and universities, libraries, NGOs, nonprofit organizations, corporations, government agencies and offices.
Collective Eye: Thinks of Educational Distribution as any film media sales and licensing made for educational intent. Collective Eye Films is very clear in defining rights to carry a film as certain types of Products; these are generally products that include Public Performance Rights (defined in the below link), Campus & Community Screening Licenses, Public Library licenses and Educational Streaming licenses. Collective Eye covers the traditional educational institutions and offers PPR licenses to non-profits and Government agencies. The company finds that “Community Screening” licenses are very beneficial to filmmakers. Because we are non-exclusive we always discuss the filmmakers’ rights and how our distribution would or would not impact their other distribution deals already in place. Public Libraries as a media right generally come within Home-Entertainment markets, so Collective Eye carries these as a service to filmmakers that do not have other home-entertainment distribution. Since we are non-exclusive we can also provide this as a product alongside another non-exclusive home-use distributor if amenable to both parties. A full list of how we define our licensing types can be found here: http://www.collectiveeye.org/pages/film-licenses.
Summary Info About the Panelists and Other Educational Distributors in Their Own Words:
What They Do in The Educational Distribution Space, and An Estimate of How Much of Their Company’s Business Is Educational Distribution
Alexander Street: We are a 17-year-old company dedicated to making silent voices heard to support scholarly inquiry. In 2006 we launched our first streaming video product and we have been innovating in streaming video to university libraries ever since. Because our roots are in providing databases to university libraries, we understand better than most how to package, price and deliver streaming video to universities. Our approach is multi-channel, allowing content creators to distribute their content on a title-by-title basis or in packages with multiple pricing options from one-year subscriptions to life-of-file sales. Because we offer these multiple models, we are able to satisfy the collection development approaches of all librarians while also meeting the budget capacity (or lack thereof) of all libraries. Simply put, because we offer multiple purchase models we are best positioned to generate more revenue for premium films, because premium films can easily be leveraged across all models. We work with hundreds of individual filmmakers as well as with organizations large and small, including First Run Features, Kino Lorber, Milestone Films, the Smithsonian Institute, PBS, Sony Pictures Classics, The Criterion Collection, NBC-Universal, the BBC, and many others. We are the leaders, with more than 12,000 universities worldwide using our platform to access video, text, music, images and data sets. Our focus is primarily on licensing great content and offering tools to make the content come alive for faculty and students for research and learning.
- 95% of our business is to educational institutions, with the remaining 5% in public libraries, government agencies, historical societies and the like.
- Territory Covered: Worldwide
Kanopy: Kanopy is a video streaming solution for colleges and public libraries delivering one of the largest curated collections of classic cinema, festival documentaries, and movies in the world through the best-in-class user interface. Kanopy streams to over 2,500 of the top colleges and universities across 100 countries. Millions of students, professors and public library members can watch The Criterion Collection, indulge in festival indie, world cinema and acclaimed documentaries sourced from award-winning filmmakers globally or learn about every subject imaginable from The Great Courses and PBS. Kanopy’s unrivaled collection contains over 30,000 curated films. Unlike other platforms, we preserve the integrity of the collection and only accept films that we know will be watched and in demand.
Kanopy is now the most watched video streaming platform in higher education due to our relentless pursuit of excellence in user experience and unwavering commitment to a democratic relationship with filmmakers. We ensure each film performs on its own merit, overcoming the problem of incumbent collection sales model where thousands of films were bundled together and sold into institutions at discounted rates.
Filmmakers receive a clean 50% of each sale with no deductions and are provided with a dashboard to track their audience’s viewing behavior and associated sales.
We are proud of being privately owned which is very rare in the library vendor world where most companies get bought out quickly by the large multi-national library conglomerates. By being independent, we are free to take risks and change the status quo to deliver on our mission of creating a sustainable economy for our filmmakers. Part of our DNA is having the user at the heart of all decisions we make to ensure we are offering an unparalleled viewing experience that is relevant and engaging.
Over half of our operating budget is dedicated to our Product & Engineering team who listen to our incessant customer feedback and continue to raise the benchmark of video streaming platforms in education.
- Last year, the majority of our business was educational and although this distribution channel continues to grow rapidly, we are seeing exponential growth in our public library business. We anticipate our business to be fairly evenly split between education and public library channels by the end of the year.
- Territory Covered: The key markets for any US video platform are English speaking territories. We work with pretty much every viable institution in the US, Australia and NZ and most in the UK. We do have customers on every continent too, but our main focus is obviously English markets.
Passion River: Passion River Films is a distribution company for DVD, digital, non-theatrical, and educational markets. Their diverse catalog of films has won a variety of the most prestigious awards and has also screened at every major film festival in the world. We market, sell, & license films to educational buyers & community/organization leaders.
- 20% of Passion River’s business overall is educational, but educational sales are 80%+ of its revenue.
- Territory Covered: Worldwide, but primary focus is North America.
Collective Eye: Collective Eye Films is an educational film distribution company that represents compelling documentaries that explore untold stories of our time. Our films build bridges between cultures and provide unique perspectives by exploring social, political, environmental and spiritual issues to bring provocative and entertaining stories to the screen. We provide documentaries to campuses, classrooms, libraries and through community screenings. We believe that film is a medium that can present critical issues, challenge audiences, and raise important questions. Keeping true to the notion that documentary films are powerful tools for change, we strive to unearth stories that make a difference.
We are a distributor primarily for Educational Rights, including DVD with Public Performance Rights for University and K-12/Government/Non-profit, Digital Site Licenses, Public and Campus Screenings, and Public Libraries. We will carry home-use DVD when the filmmaker desires an outlet to satisfy demand, but this is not our primary market. We are one of the few non-exclusive Educational Distributors in the educational ecosystem. As a boutique distributor, we specialize in Environmental subjects, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, and offer films specific to the Pacific Northwest and by Pacific Northwest filmmakers. Our films are generally character-driven, and carry a strong advocacy angle. Because of the emphasis on films that advocate for an issue, and that “make a difference,” we offer Community Screenings and emphasize our keen ability to navigate and negotiate licensing questions with interested audiences who need support in planning their screenings. Jon Betz, Collective Eye Films director, has over a decade of experience as an independent documentary filmmaker and is a strong filmmaker advocate, often speaking with filmmakers in depth about their distribution strategies when partnering on the films we distribute.
- Collective Eye is primarily an Educational Distributor. About 75-80% of our revenue is from licensing Educational DVD Public Performance Rights, Digital Site Licenses, K-12/Non-Profit/Government PPR and Campus Screenings. The remaining 20-25% is from Community Screening licenses and Public Library sales.
- Territory Covered: Our primary reach is the US, including US institutions abroad. We also reach colleges and universities in Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia.
Ro*co Films: A leader in the documentary distribution world, ro*co films understands that a compelling real-life story can educate, entertain, and engage diverse audiences around emotionally gripping, universally important themes. A growing division of ro*co films international, ro*co educational launched in 2009 with the mission to advocate for documentary film as an educational tool, to bring these stories to schools, libraries, and other instructional environments across the country, and to broaden the impact and influence of our films by mobilizing communities to host, organize, and execute their own public screening events. Whether you are striving to illuminate a topic or issue, create change, or simply start a conversation, showing a compelling film is the best way to do it. The films represented by ro*co educational are inspiring, provocative, and challenging —connecting us to human experiences well beyond the boundaries of our own.
We are a boutique educational distributor, which means that we stay small by choice. We take on only 10-12 films per year, and have become a trusted curator and source for the best of the best in documentary film. Our films are highly-acclaimed, festival award winners, selected with their production quality, academic relevance, and impact potential in mind. For each film that we add to our collection, we produce a high quality and proprietary educational package that includes the feature film, any shorter or ‘chapterized’ versions that are available and would be valuable in an educational setting, curriculum or discussion guide, and screening kit. Subscription streaming services are also available through our exclusive digital portal, Film Platform. We bring all of these options to our network of over 50,000 active educational buyers, with a focus on public screenings and community engagement. In addition, we design custom distribution campaigns for each film we release, where we go beyond traditional marketing to find unique audiences and income streams — to not only elevate impact but also to provide the highest possible returns to our filmmakers.
- Ro*co Films’ business is approximately 50% educational (we also do sales).
- Territory Covered: Worldwide
Outcast Films: Outcast Films is a distribution company that assists filmmakers in capitalizing on the educational market. Focused on social justice and environmental issues, our company actively engages educators, community leaders and activists to become personal advocates for your film through targeted outreach and one-on-one engagement. We work in collaboration with producers to develop and implement strategic marketing and sales initiatives aimed at academic and public library markets as well as community-based organizations. Outcast Films can work with filmmakers in one of two ways: (1) traditional percentage split contract where Outcast Films would hold the exclusive educational rights or (2) a fee-for-hire business model, in which, you, the filmmaker, maintain 100% of your project’s rights and 100% of the profits. The educational market is vast and lucrative but can be daunting for those new to it. Outcast Films and our experienced staff will help maximize your opportunities while minimizing the time it takes to reach your goals. Our goal is not only to distribute great documentaries, but position them as catalysts for change in the community. We do this by providing filmmakers the ability to directly connect with students and teachers through multiple outreach activities.
Outcast Films will oversee the production and design of all the elements needed to manufacture the exclusive educational DVD including cover and menu design. This will be done in cooperation with the filmmaker: (i) Ordering processing and fulfillment; (ii) Organize and schedule live event screenings; DVD and DSL (Digital Site License) Educational Sales; (iii) Organize and promote screenings in academic conferences; (iv) Solicit blurbs and reviews from professors, instructors, and subject specialists that focus on and teach the core subjects that are relevant to our films for use on the DVD cover, website, and promotional materials; (v) Launch email blasts for new release announcements, awards, reviews, or relative current event news; (vi) Monitor and post news related to the film to media librarians, pertinent academic listservs and throughout our social network; (vii) Submit titles to academic journals, reviewers, bloggers and other on-line and print journals for possible review; and (viii) Assist filmmaker with outreach to NGO’s and other non-profit organizations; Provide a Platform for Enhanced Educational Opportunities through our “Research Centers” and Website. Because college classes are generally 50 minutes long, the ideal running time to teach a film in the classroom is less than 60 minutes. In addition, many states require universities to purchase films that are closed captioned so we require all of our films to be captioned.
- Outcast is 100% focused on educational distribution. We are a small but mighty! We only pick up 6-8 films a year and focus solely on the educational market.
- Territory Covered: Ask for worldwide but okay with just North America.
The Video Project: The Video Project was founded in 1983 by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Vivienne Verdon-Roe (Women for America, For the World) and Oscar nominee Ian Thiermann (In the Nuclear Shadow: What Can the Children Tell Us). Our mission is to provide the best media programming available on critical social and global issues to classrooms and communities to help advance awareness and encourage action on the most important concerns of our times. The Video Project collection features programs for all ages from over 200 independent filmmakers, including Oscar and Emmy winners, as well as films that aired on Showtime, HBO and PBS. Our films are regularly honored with top festival awards and with critical praise from major review publications. More recently, we are focused on impact distribution, combining traditional distribution with impact campaigns. On the impact campaign side, we prepare the strategies (fee based) and implement the campaigns. The Video Project only takes on 15-18 films/year and believes in the films that we distribute. They are all cause based.
The Video Project does direct DVD sales to an email list of over 10k, and works with streaming partners Kanopy and ASP. We also do email and social media marketing to reach media buyers, faculty, and students, and phone calls to media buyers, outreach to and attendance at relevant conferences, seek published reviews, organize film festival submissions, arrange publicity through partner organizations, and do sales through sub-distributors.
- A large percentage of The Video Project’s work is educational, and we also do direct U.S. broadcast sales and facilitate digital sales. The impact distribution is becoming a larger piece of our business.
- Territory Covered: Primarily North America, also Worldwide thru sub-distributors.
The Educational Distributors’ Customers
Alexander Street: In short, we work with every key customer group on campus: librarians, faculty, students, administration, curriculum development specialists, centers for online learning, and departments of continuing education and lifelong learning.
Kanopy: We have a variety of different customers we work with:
- We have a whole team dedicated to B2B (our college and public librarians) to ensure we continue to deliver transparent usage information, relevant content and the associated ROI.
- Professors are a very important segment to Kanopy – they are influencers and tend to be power users on Kanopy, embedding thousands of videos into learning management systems each year for mandatory viewing.
- Of course Higher Ed students are one of the toughest demographics to reach and engage with, so we are proud of how well the Kanopy brand resonates with this market. One of the most rewarding parts of the work we do is to have student feedback declaring how Kanopy films have changed the way they see and think about the world they are living in.
- The public library audience is managed by a separate team at Kanopy because the users are obviously motivated to watch Kanopy for completely different reasons.
Passion River: Professors, Librarians, Community Event Organizers, & Students
Collective Eye: We work with a variety of customers that generally fall into the following categories: Media, Acquisition & Subject Librarians; Professors, Students and Campus Groups; Non-profits, Advocacy leaders; and Film series coordinators, and community members of all kinds who seek to arrange community-based screenings.
Ro*co Films: Educators, Administrators, Students, Non-profits, Corporations, Individuals, Places of Worship, Community groups, PTAs.
Outcast Films: We work with teachers, campus organizations and student groups, department chairs, administrators.
The Video Project: Educational media buyers at colleges & universities, NGOs, businesses, government agencies, pubic libraries, and other organizations.
Technology Used & Media
I asked these educational distributors to explain the technology used and media:
Alexander Street: Alexander Street Press provides on-demand streams through a proprietary platform we’ve developed in-house. We support IE9+ on PCs, and Safari on Mac OS X, and any browser with Flash 8 or higher support can generally access our service. Generally we provide SD and HD video using the following encodings:
- Adobe Flash FLV format using the On2VP6 codec (we are phasing out the use of this codec
- H.264 Baseline Profile (for older mobile devices)
- H.264 Main Profile level 3.1 (for all devices that support it)
- HLS (for our mobile application and tablet devices that support it)
- MPEG-DASH (for DRM-protected content)
Kanopy: We strive to have Kanopy available anywhere on any device. We have just launched a channel on Roku but ultimately, if you have a device with internet connection, we aren’t doing our jobs right if you can’t watch Kanopy like you watch any other streaming platform.
Passion River: DVD & Digital
Collective Eye: DVD, Blu-ray, Digital Site Licenses (Files hosted on institution servers) & Educational Streaming through Streaming Partners.
Ro*Co Films: DVDs, Blu-rays, Subscription EVOD streaming services
Outcast Films: DVDs and streaming. We use Vimeo as our streaming platform.
The Video Project: DVD and streaming as described above.
Price Points for Educational Distributors
Alexander Street: Standard pricing per title is:
- $149 for a 1-year subscription
- $299 for a 3-year subscription
- $499 for life-of-the-file
This is our recommended pricing. Individual providers are free to establish preferred pricing.
Kanopy: Each Kanopy film can be purchased for a one-year license for $150 or a 3 year license for $350 per institution. Once expired, it must be renewed at the same price. Over 90% of our edu customers have adopted our Patron Driven Acquisition (PDA) model whereby once a film is watched 4 times, a one-year license is automatically triggered. This is fair for the libraries who are only paying for films that are watched and for filmmakers who are rewarded by merit. Libraries can also opt to license a film upfront a la carte.
Passion River: Public Performance Rights (PPR) licensing at: $199-$399. We may lower or start the pricing at $49-$99 if no PPR is included.
Collective Eye: They vary depending on filmmaker specifications, but generally are listed as:
- $295 – Educational DVD w/ PPR
- $295 – Digital Site Licenses
- $125 Non-Profit/K-12/Gov w/ PPR
- $250 Community Screening
- $450 Campus Screening
Ro*Co Films: $95-$580 depending on format and license term.
- $29.99 for home video
- $325 for DVD w/PPR (public performance rights)
- $595 for DSL (digital site license in perpetuity
The Video Project: Generally, for features with (w/PPR)
- Colleges (DVD with digital site license) $395
- Colleges, Businesses, Other Institutions $295
- K-12, Public Libraries, Community Groups $89
Alexander Street: 50/50 for single title PDA and can be case-by-case.
Kanopy: Filmmakers receive a clean 50% of each sale with no deductions and are provided with a dashboard to track their audience’s viewing behavior and associated sales.
Passion River: 50-60% depending.
Collective Eye: We generally operate on a 50% split to filmmakers with a zero expense system, meaning the filmmakers receive their percentage of revenue from all sales immediately.
Ro*Co Films: 50% split with filmmakers.
Outcast Films: 50/50 on DVD+DSL sales and rentals; 75/25 (producer/distributor) for filmmaker appearances; 50/50 on Expenses. All major expenses will be discussed with the filmmaker. More details in attached document.
The Video Project: Just the cost of creating the DVD (Cover art, closed captions, DVD authoring). And we will use the filmmaker’s assets as much as possible to minimize those costs. We typically offer 30% royalty to the Producer.
Show Me the $$$:
Revenue Analysis: Gross and Net Revenue Ranges for Films and Factors that Influence
Alexander Street: The gap between gross and net is not really significant as the vast majority of our sales are direct without distributor fees or other fees. Our best-selling titles can generate as much as $25,000 in a single year across models. With nearly 70,000 titles in our catalog, the long-tail is definitely in effect. There are a few factors that can impact revenue range, such as whether the film fills a gap in coverage or establishes an authority resource in a subject area, but the biggest impact we see is where a film is adopted into a specific course. Where films can potentially become part of a syllabus is where we are focused.
Kanopy: Our best-performing films recoup over $35K per annum (the filmmaker receives 50% of this in royalties). These tend to be mandatory viewing documentaries that also resonate with themes to a wider market. The beauty of our model is that the longer a film is licensed with Kanopy, its revenue grows over the years (tends to be an opposite trend with other edu and home video platforms). A well-produced documentary that has high awareness (a festival presence, perhaps a theatrical release) and themes that resonate with an educational audience will probably recoup on average $10-15K in year one, $15-20K in year two and grow from there. Some of our best performing films didn’t have a festival release but have been marketed well by the filmmakers or distributors, making our job much easier in terms of rolling out a promotional plan.
Passion River: In terms of “units” sold, a gross range of sales can be 100+ at PPR pricing. Net can be 1/2 of what’s collected. Influences are festival runs, reviews, buzz, value of topic to community, price point, release date, and price point exclusivity.
Collective Eye: We see a wide range in revenue, from under $5,000 in gross revenue per film to over $50,000 and beyond in gross revenue. However, because we are non-exclusive we know that on some lower-performing titles, we are only seeing a piece of the sales, because the filmmaker is selling directly to their audience. Some films that we have low numbers for, the filmmakers are very happy about, because they have a hybrid strategy that is working well for them. In other cases, with our higher grossing films, we are solely handling Educational DVD and Community Screenings Sales (and in some cases home-use sales as well). Aside from carrying more or less rights, or sharing more or less of the sales with the filmmakers’ own efforts–we find that films that have performed well across the board in the mainstream arenas, from film festivals to theatrical release and broadcast, tend to perform much better in the Educational realm. It is still true that students and professors are often the ones demanding the film be purchased by an institution, and they will hear about it through traditional marketing efforts, filmmaker or distributor-driven outreach campaigns, and grass-roots marketing efforts. Films with strong Facebook follows, active audiences, and more visible releases perform categorically better in the educational sphere as well.
Ro*Co Films: $10K-$1M. Influencing factors include release windows, exclusivity of content, availability of proprietary educational materials (like curriculum, shorter versions, discussion guides, action kits, etc.), and release of other formats (TVOD, SVOD, etc.).
Outcast Films: $30-$50K
The Video Project: Gross Range is $5k-$80k. Net would be about $1.5k to $24k. The best films have some of the following: festival award winners, first in a new genre (mindfulness in schools), strong NGO support, famous people/famous VO narrator, release coincides with cultural wave/interest.
Middlemen: Who Uses Them?
I asked each company to note if they use Middlemen:
- Alexander Street: No middlemen.
- Kanopy: Part of Kanopy’s success is due to the great relationships we have fostered directly with our customers so no, we do not use middlemen.
- Passion River: No middlemen but work with partner companies that can help us expand our reach.
- Collective Eye: Our primary sales revenue is direct to Educational Buyers. We work with wholesalers to public libraries, as well as a few third-party distributors to Educational & K-12 Institutions. For Educational Streaming, we offer Digital Site Licenses directly and also work with an Educational Streaming Partner.
- Ro*Co Films: No middlemen.
- Outcast Films: We only use two: Kanopy assists us with streaming but we only release our films to them after a year of exclusivity with Outcast Films (we also offer streaming services). We use one sub-distributor who works only with public libraries. They do a lot of other work that public libraries require, like cataloging, which Outcast does not do.
- The Video Project: Yes, we use several sub-distributors to reach most public libraries and colleges that prefer to deal with one sub-distributor.
Markets the Educational Distributors & Services Attend in Effort to Reach Their Customers
Alexander Street: We attend nearly one hundred conferences a year exhibiting to reach librarians and faculty. We do daily email marketing to faculty and librarians to promote exceptional titles. We do extensive direct mail of catalogs and title announcement pieces. We are data-driven and use the results of these hundreds of campaigns and millions of contacts to adapt and refine our marketing strategy. Co-marketing with video content providers is in our DNA. We work with you to feature the content you know is best received by university customers based on your knowledge and your experience.
Kanopy: Kanopy attends all the key librarian conferences and has targeted email marketing to faculty, but our strongest way to reach our users is on-screen (personalized content and messaging), social as well as personalized emails. Our most successful form of onboarding is users referring the platform to each other – possibly the most important way to onboard new users.
Passion River: Library conferences, National Media Market, ALA Midwinter, ALA Annual, EDNET, & regional specialty markets.
Collective Eye: No Response Provided
Ro*Co Films: Varies by year and new release strategy.
Outcast Films: We work with all the academic conferences: ALA, Women’s Studies, SCMS, Charleston, and other subject-specific academic conferences.
The Video Project: National Media Market, various conferences.
Best Practices for Best Results and Best Practices Examples
The panelists and others comment on best practices for best results, windowing and distribution timing:
Alexander Street: The most important practice for film providers is to identify the titles with the highest likelihood of success for educational streaming. Many distributors know titles that have been requested by faculty and librarians. Second, by working closely with our marketing team to craft and deliver targeted faculty-specific marketing for email, social media and conference participation the chances of success accelerate. Maximizing total return requires a strategy of leveraging the different packaging and pricing models to leverage high price point single title sales for new content along with wide-catalog sales across the backlist in packages and collections.
- Best performance examples: Basic Attending Skills, a counseling and therapy title, has routinely sold in excess of $20,000 a year for more than a decade across multiple editions. We have an anthropology catalog of several hundred films that generated more than $1m in revenue in a five-year span.
Kanopy: We have been trialing day and date releases with some distributors to leverage the awareness they are generating through theatrical releases and associated press. To be honest, windowing doesn’t have a big impact on Kanopy – if we have the film and the subject matter resonates with our audience, we will perform well regardless when we have it. The sooner we have it, the faster we are paying growing royalties to the rights owners!
- Best performance examples: Some of our best performing documentary films include Killing us Softly, Miss Representation, and Race –The Power of an Illusion. These films have performed well as the universal themes they deal with around women’s issues and race are timeless. They have also had the benefit of streaming on Kanopy for many years so are well into their growth curve. The Criterion Collection is of course a top performer as it is mandatory viewing at all the film schools, and historically their DVDs have been part of nearly every university’s permanent collection. New Day Films and documentaries of that caliber also tend to perform well on Kanopy.
Passion River: Make PPR available as soon as possible. Take advantage of awareness starting from the film’s first public screening. Once the film is released “wide” (to consumers), expect higher price point sales to drop because if there are lower pricing options available ($19.99 SRP vs. $299 PPR), buyers may acquire at the lower price. So delaying a consumer release can help maximize higher-priced educational sales.
- Best performance example: Rich Hill – 1,024 units sold
Collective Eye: It is helpful to have a strong launch in tandem or prior to Educational sales, such as a theatrical or screening tour/and multiple film festival selections/awards prior to or during the Educational Release to create initial community, audience and professor/student demand. If the film is a known entity to students and professors alike, it stands out when it is released. The more cities your film actively screens in during its educational release, the better it is for institutional sales, always. Broadcasts don’t hurt either, either before or during the release window. Because we are non-exclusive, we work with filmmakers’ existing outreach campaigns to launch educational sales on a timeline that allows the filmmakers to benefit from the arrangement all-around. In best-case scenarios we exist in the area between a theatrical launch and a home-entertainment release. Existing prior to VOD and DVD Home-Use prevents cannibalization and the possibility that professors may acquire a home-use for direct peer-to-peer teaching, and also maximizes screening sales at a time when screenings are the only way to watch the film outside of an educational institution or theatrical run. We do work with filmmakers who are just releasing their film educationally, at a time when other rights have already been released, so it is not required that we work in this window before home-entertainment release; we just find it is a stronger potential revenue when we come in at that time. In all cases, distributing films that have active campaigns and active filmmaking teams who are championing their film throughout the first year of release makes a huge difference in overall sales revenue.
- Best performance examples: We’ve had a number of stand-out titles across many categories. A few highlights include:
- Watershed – Executive Produced and Narrated by Robert Redford and Directed by award-winning filmmaker Mark Decena, WATERSHED tells the story of the threats to the once-mighty Colorado River and offers solutions for the future of the American West. (Played at over 35 Film Festivals and won numerous awards).
- The Greenhorns, a powerful grass-roots-driven film that follows young farmers across the U.S.; Monoculture, monopoly, cheap food and poor diets– these are the consequences of an agricultural system gone awry, driven by policy and corporate control. These young farmers have vision: a prosperous, satisfying, sustainable food system. It is ambitious, it will take work, but it won’t be boring. (Very strong grass-roots following).
- Girls in the Band – tells the poignant, untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their fascinating, history-making journeys from the late 30s to the present day. (Good mix of Filmmaker DIY distribution savvy and good curriculum uptake, as well as an entertaining and uplifting story that plays well for community screenings.)
- Broken on All Sides – Mass incarceration has emerged as America’s new caste system. How could this happen? With Philadelphia as an entry point, BROKEN ON ALL SIDES explores the intersection of race and poverty within the criminal justice system. (Strong inclusion in many departments’ curriculum.)
- SEED: The Untold Story – In the last century, 94% of our seed varieties have disappeared. As biotech chemical companies control the majority of our seeds, farmers, scientists, lawyers, and indigenous seed keepers fight a David and Goliath battle to defend the future of our food. (Theatrical Release, US Broadcast PBS Independent Lens, Strong grass-roots following.)
- Girl and a Gun – Reaching far beyond Hollywood’s hypersexualized femme fatales, the film candidly explores the modern American woman through intimate portraits encompassing issues of protection, power, feminism, and violence. (Theatrically released by First Run Features, unique content that provides a new subject to Women’s Studies curriculum.)
- Get the F&#% Out – Sparked by a public display of sexual harassment in 2012, GTFO pries open the video game world to explore a 20 billion dollar industry that is riddled with discrimination and misogyny. (SXSW, timely subject and unique approach that provided an important subject for Women’s Studies curriculum and taps into gaming subculture.)
- Starfish Throwers – Worlds apart, a five-star chef, a twelve year-old girl, and a retired schoolteacher discover how their individual efforts to feed the poor ignite a movement in the fight against hunger. This documentary tells tale of these remarkable individuals and the unexpected challenges they face. (13 Film Festival Awards, Strong and meaningful story that found demand with community screening audiences.)
Ro*Co Films: Always exclude educational distribution from any larger deal where educational rights may not be exploited. Maintain exclusive educational window for as long as possible before available elsewhere (TV, TVOD, SVOD, Home DVD, etc.).
- Best Performance Examples: Executed successful distribution campaigns for films like Trapped, Life, Animated, Do Not Resist, Miss Representation, The Hunting Ground, Chasing Ice, A Place at the Table, Inequality For All, Girl Rising, This Changes Everything, Poverty, Inc. and The Music of Strangers. (See Orly’s previous blog that discusses revenue ranges. Ro*Co can be on the higher end and works with a select few pedigree films often from top festivals.)
Outcast Films: Ideally, we would like to begin working with the filmmakers during their initial festival run. The academic market is slow, so the sooner we can begin the process the better. We ask for a 6-month (at least one semester) hold back from streaming and home video. It really helps educational sales if the filmmakers are involved in the process and that other markets are exploited. For example: the films we distribute that also have a good festival run, limited theatrical, or a broadcast deal ALWAYS do better that films that don’t exploit those other markets.
- Best Performance Examples: Big Men, Shored Up, She’s a Boy I Knew
The Video Project: Windowing and timing: for best results we prefer to release educational with a 6-month window before the consumer release. Better results in educational if the film is already available in time for tentpole marketing events such as a broadcast or digital premier. Best times to market are Jan-May, and Aug-Dec.
- Best Performance Example: Room To Breathe – $80k+, first really good film on mindfulness, strong NGO support, it caught the “wave of interest” in the educational world.
What Has Changed and What Is Changing in This Category of Distribution?
Alexander Street: The consumer market for streaming video products and access models is having an outsize influence on the models institutional customers in the library are expecting. This, coupled with data-driven access models and usage analysis systems to inform cost-per-use and return-on-investment decisions, are the major forces we see at work shaping distribution and access.
Kanopy: The major shift in educational video distribution is without doubt the demand coming from the audience. It’s not ok any more to have a corporate-looking platform with no UX and videos that don’t play well. In terms of technology, we don’t see ourselves competing with library vendors any more, but with home video platforms. Our audience demands Kanopy to be as cutting-edge as, say, Netflix, which keeps us developing, innovating and upsetting the status quo in the name of bringing an even better viewing experience to our users.
Passion River: Buyers are getting smaller budgets every year for buying media, so they’re unable to acquire everything they want. Also streaming is impacting the market by offering additional options to buyers.
Collective Eye: No specifics about change in industry.
Ro*Co Films: While DVD continues to be the preferred format for much of the educational market, demand for streaming is growing year over year.
Outcast Films: Like the rest of the markets in film distribution, libraries are moving more towards streaming, although most of our business still lies in selling DVDs. With the flood of films in the educational market, it’s getting harder and harder to make noise and get noticed. Also, teachers do not have to have the PPR to show the film in their classroom which is driving down the average price. We market to both teachers at the home video price and to institutions who need the PPR.
The Video Project: Steaming is becoming more prevalent. Access to media is much easier, so films need to be of very good quality and marketed well to reach their audience.
Other educational distributors or companies that do educational distribution are: Film Sprout, Zeitgeist, Kino Lorber, First Run Features, Icarus Films, California Newsreel, Women Make Movies and Swank Digital Campus. These companies, and a few others, are listed on the ResourcePlace™ section of the Film Collaborative website: thefilmcollaborative.org/resourceplace.
Orly Ravid March 23rd, 2017
David Averbach is Creative Director and Director of Digital Distribution Initiatives at The Film Collaborative.
When distributing your film, a lot of time is spent waiting for answers. Validation can come only intermittently, and the constant string of “no”s is an anxiety-ridden game of process of elimination. Which doors open for your film and which doors remain closed determines the trajectory of its distribution, whether it’s festival, theatrical, digital, education or home video (until that’s dead for good).
I work with filmmakers, way down-wind of this long and drawn-out process, who, after exhausting all other possibilities, have “chosen” DIY digital distribution as a last resort.
TFC’s DIY digital distribution program has helped almost 50 filmmakers go through the process of releasing their film digitally over the past 5 years and with most of them, I have often felt as though I were giving a pep-talk to the kid who got picked last for the dodgeball team. “Hang in there, just stick to it…you’ll show them all.”
Is DIY Digital Distribution anything more than a last resort? Perhaps not…
DIY vs. DOA
Since TFC was formed over six and a half years ago, we have optimistically used “DIY” as a term of empowerment, where access and transparency had finally reached a point where one could act as one’s own distributor. After all, we tell these (literally) poor, exhausted filmmakers, “no one knows your film better than you do”, so “no one can do a better job of marketing it.” With a little gumption, a few newsletters and handful of paid Facebook posts, you, too, might prove all the haters wrong and net even more earnings than Johnny next door who sold his film to what he thought was a reputable distributor but never saw a dime past the MG (minimum guarantee) in his distribution agreement. We even wrote two case study books about it.
It’s not that I’m being untruthful with these filmmakers. Nor is it the case that these films are necessarily of poor quality. What they have in common is a lack of visibility. Most had some sort of festival run, and only a handful were released theatrically, usually with one- or two-day engagements in a handful of cities. Occasionally, we’ll get a film that has four-walled in New York or Los Angeles for a week. Or sometimes ones that have played on local PBS affiliates or even on Showtime. But their films are not even close to being household brand names. So without the exposure or the marketing budget, they can do little more than to deliver their film to TVOD platforms like iTunes and hope for the best.
So what happens to these films? The news, as a whole, is not good. Based on what I’ve seen from these films in the aggregate, and all things being equal, if you DIY/dump your film onto only iTunes/Amazon/GooglePlay with moderate festival distribution but no real money left for marketing, you will be lucky to net more than $10K on TVOD platforms in your film’s digital life.
And the poorer the filmmaking quality of your film, or the less recognizable the cast, or the less “niche” your film is, the more likely it will be that you won’t even earn much more revenue than what is required to pay off the encoding and delivery fees to get your film onto these platforms in the first place (which is around $2-3K).
Which is why, as of late, I’ve been aggressively suggesting to filmmakers that holding off on high profile TVOD platforms and instead trying to drive traffic to their websites and offering sales and rentals of their film via Vimeo On Demand or VHX, two much cheaper options, might be a better use of their limited remaining funds.
But am I down on DIY? Not necessarily.
Granted, there are a lot of films out there for which The Film Collaborative can do very little for in the area of digital distribution other than hold filmmakers’ hands. But what about for films working at the “next level up” from last-resort-DIY? Films who have either gotten a no-MG or modest-MG distribution offer?
Many distributors and aggregators working at this level will informally promise some sort of marketing, but many times those marketing efforts are not specifically listed contractually in the agreement. So when filmmakers ask me whether going with a no-MG aggregator is better than doing DIY, this is my answer…
It’s important to remember that, once a film is on iTunes, no one will care how it got there. And by this I mean with no featured placement, just getting it on to the platform. So, if that’s all a distributor/aggregator is doing, this is not the kind of deal that a filmmaker can dump into someone else’s hands and move on to their next project. In fact, many aggregators will send you a welcome packet with tips and suggestions on how to market your film on social media, such as Facebook. In other words, they are literally expecting you to do your own marketing. Not just do but pay for. So, it is entirely possible that all that an aggregator or distributor is doing is fronting your encoding costs, which they will later recoup from your gross earnings, but only after they take their cut off the top. And if your distributor is offering you a modest MG, you must be prepared for the possibility that that MG may be all the earnings you are ever going to see. Certainly, we have seen many, many filmmakers in this position.
So the question remains: Is DIY still too risky for all but films that have run out of options?
It’s a hard question to answer, mostly because there is no ONE answer. Undoubtedly, some films will be helped with such an arrangement and some films will not.
A View from the Other Side…
Distributors, of course, will stick to the sunny side of the street. They will tell you that DIY is too risky for the vast majority of films, and remind you that distribution is more than getting a film on to one or two platforms.
When I asked Gravitas Ventures founder Nolan Gallagher, a veteran in distribution and whose co-execs have a combined 50+ years in distribution experience, about his feelings regarding DIY, he was quick to point out that the main difference between a proven distributor and DIY is that while much of the work in DIY happens in year 1, distributors can help in year 3 or year 5 or beyond. He believes that DIY individual filmmakers will be shut out from new revenue opportunities (i.e. the VOD platforms of the future) that will be launched by major media companies or venture capital backed entrepreneurs in the years to come because these platforms will turn to established companies with hundreds or thousands of titles on offer.
This is a fair point, in theory, but I honestly cannot recall a single instance of one of our filmmakers from 2010-2013 jumping for joy over that fact that his or her distributor had suddenly found a meaningful new VOD opportunity in years 3-5, nor have we heard of any specific efforts or successes down the line. But it’s good to know one can expect this if signing with a distributor.
He also mentioned that many of Gravitas’ documentarians receive multiple 5 figures in annual revenue over 5 years after a film first debuted.
That’s nice for those filmmakers…But what about the ones that don’t? It would be ludicrous to suggest that any decent film, with the proper marketing and industry connections, can become a respectable grosser on iTunes.
By no means am I singling out Gravitas in order to pick on them in any way. For many films, clearly they do a terrific job.
But does that mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers that have gone through aggregators like Gravitas or other smaller distributors that many TFC films have worked with, such as The Orchard, A24, Oscilloscope, Virgil, Wolfe, Freestyle Digital Media, Breaking Glass Pictures, Amplify, Wolfe, Zeitgeist Films, Dark Sky Films, Tribeca Films, Sundance Selects, who are not entirely convinced that they were well served by their distributor? Of course not.
The Million Dollar Question…
The question I really wanted to know was more of a hypothetical one than one that assigns blame: if these so-called “borderline films” that went through aggregators/distributors had done DIY instead, how close could they have come netting the same amount of earnings in the end? Is it possible that they could have gotten more?
This is a hard question—or, should I say, a nearly impossible question—to answer, because no one has a crystal ball. But also because of the continued lack of transparency surrounding digital earnings, despite initiatives like Sundance Institute’s The Transparency Project, and because the landscape is continually evolving.
A recent article in Filmmaker Magazine, entitled “The Digital Lowdown,” discusses how independent filmmakers struggle to survive in an overcrowded digital marketplace and “admits” that niche-less festival films will only gross in the range of $100K-$200K, and that, in fact, talks about a “six-figure goal.” But in almost the same breath, there is a caveat. Sundance Artist Services warns that “…if a filmmaker spends about $100,000 in P&A to finance a theatrical run, they’re probably going to be making that much from digital sources.”
I have heard many stories of distributors and filmmakers alike, who put “X” dollars combined into P&A for both theatrical and digital only to make a similar amount back in the end. So what’s the point? If you look at distribution from the perspective of paying back investors, are a good portion of filmmakers netting close to nothing, no matter whether they do DIY or whether they gear up for a theatrical and digital distribution via a distributor? If a film does not succeed monetarily, is the consolation prize merely visibility and exposure? (Which is not nothing, but it’s not $$ either).
A few months ago, my colleague Bryan Glick posted a terrific piece on our blog that questioned the ROI of an Oscar®-qualifying run, given the unlikelihood of being shortlisted. Bryan implies that because filmmakers like hearing “yes,” and like having their egos stroked, when publicists, publications, screening series, cinemas, and private venues all lure filmmakers with a possibility of an Oscar®, something takes over and they lose perspective at the very moment they need it most.
Could the same be true for a distribution strategy? Are filmmakers so happy to be offered a distribution deal at all that they are unable to walk away from that distribution deal, even if they suspect that it undervalues their film? And could a viable DIY option change that?
Evaluating Success with DIY
Last fall, I began to think about what a “successful” DIY digital release could look like. On the low end, we’ve heard about a magical $10K figure that I discussed above…in the context of MGs paid to Toronto official selections via Vimeo on Demand, and Netflix offers to Sundance films via Sundance Artists Services. So it would have to be at least greater than $10K. And on the high end, it would have to be at least $100K that the filmmaker gets to net over a 10-year period.
Working backwards, how can this be achieved and is it possible to recreate that strategy via DIY?
One thing that gave me hope was when my colleague Orly Ravid, acting as sales agent, negotiated a licensing low-six-figure deal with Netflix for the film Game Face, about LGBTQ athletes coming out. The film won numerous audience awards at film festivals, but had no theatrical release. Timing, as well as the sports and LGBT niche, made this film perfect for a DIY release. The only catch was the Netflix insisted on a simultaneous SVOD & TVOD window, so Netflix and iTunes releases started within one day of each other. TFC serviced the deal through our flat-fee program via Premiere Digital Services.
Lessons Learned from the DIY Release of Tab Hunter Confidential
This past Spring, TFC spearheaded the digital release of Tab Hunter Confidential, a film for which we also handled festival and theatrical distribution, as well as sales. Truth be told, this film almost went through a distributor. In the end, however, after a protracted period of negotiation, an offer was made, but knowing how much Netflix was willing to offer, Orly advised the filmmaker to walk away from the deal and try our hand at a DIY release. The filmmaker agreed, and we serviced the Netflix deal via Premiere. However, as Netflix wanted the film for June, which is Gay Pride Month, we had a limited amount of time in which to do iTunes, and I was determined to make the most of it.
So what were the goals? And how could we get there?
I had been trolling both the “Independent” and “Documentary” sections on iTunes for months in preparation for what has now become this article on DIY. I had been noticing that while it is easy to get a film into the “New & Noteworthy” section in “Documentaries,” which contains at hundreds of films, the similar section in “Independent” is limited to about 32. So how could one get there? And how could one’s film be featured in the top carousel in “Independent” or in any of the genre categories? Would it help to offer iTunes exclusivity? Would it help to do iTunes Extras? Could we contact Apple and try and schedule something? What else could be done? These are the questions that I set out figure out on my own, or to ask our aggregator, Premiere Digital Services.
How can I get my film to be one of the 30+ films in the “Independent” Section of iTunes? This section is populated at Apple’s discretion. Their iTunes division is based in L.A., not Silicon Valley, and they attend film festivals and are very up-to-date on the indie film landscape. It’s clear, however, that while they do speak with distributors and aggregators about what’s coming down the pipeline, most of the decisions about what is to receive placement in this section occur within a week or two of the release date in question, and are decided ultimately by iTunes. I informed Premiere Digital that we were very interested in being placed in Independent, and they told me that they have weekly calls with iTunes and that—closer to the date of release—they would mention the film to them. In the end—spoiler alert—we did manage to get Tab into this section. But there were no back room deals to get that to happen…so I can hereby confirm that it is possible to be featured on the iTunes store based solely on your film and the specifics of its release.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Out of approximately 100 films that appeared from late November 2015 to early February 2016 (which I kept track of manually, so the following is not completely scientific), about 50 of those had a “fresh” rotten tomatoes score. About 40 of those 50 had RT scores over 80%, and many of those were Certified as Fresh. Of the remaining 50 films, about 20 had “rotten” RT scores, and about 30 had no score at all. Luckily, Tab Hunter Confidential has an RT score of 87%, so I knew I was safe from that perspective. But while I was investigating, I was particularly interested in those films without a score. I noticed that many of them had star power attached, and a few of them were holiday-themed. A few of them were Lionsgate titles. And a few sports-related and horror titles, which always seem to rise to the top. I glanced at the Independent section for this week (third week in August), and these numbers pretty much bear out, save the holiday ones. The takeaway here was that if your film did not have a theatrical (and therefore perhaps does not have a RT score), if it doesn’t have famous people in it, it’s not about sports or is not in the horror genre, your chances of appearing in this section as a DIY film going through an aggregator seem pretty slim.
Check in, check out dates. As many of you know, films always end up in one of Apple’s genre sections. They stay there a few weeks or even a few months until they are bumped out of that category by newer items. But those sections are very glutted. The “Independent” section is a second placement, one that is curated by Apple, of only three rows of films. One thing that I became acutely aware of was the high turnaround in this section. Films seemed to be refreshed twice a week: once on Tuesdays (release day), and then again on Fridays. This was more or less consistent, although I got the feeling that on a few occasions things were a bit early or a bit late.
At any rate, it was very clear that if films were not pulling their weight, they would be booted from the “Independent” section for something else. At least 1/3 of the films were gone after only a few days. After all, Apple is in the business of making money off these films too. What occurred to me is that if filmmakers are doing distribution deals to get placement, and their films only last 3 days in the “Independent” section, and that measly placement is what amounts to the big perk/payoff of going through a distributor, it’s a pretty sad day for either the filmmaker, the distributor, or both.
How can I get my film featured in the top carousel? It turned out to be the same answer as for the Independent section in general, but I can admit it now…I was a pest: I asked multiple people at Premiere this question. I was told over and over that Apple will make a request for layered artwork if they are interested in featuring the film. Two weeks before the release date I had not heard anything. But less than a week before, Premiere received the request for artwork from Apple. We ended up being featured in both the “Independent” and “Documentary” sections.
Why did they pick us? I am not completely sure, but here are my guesses: We had a great film festival run. The film was based on a bestselling book. We had a high RT score; we did a 40+ city theatrical; we had a lot of press, and we had a publicist; the film was apparently not doing terribly in the iTunes Pre-Order section, Tab Hunter did many interviews when the theatrical came out; Tab Hunter is freaking Tab Hunter; the film spans both LGBT genres and the genre of women of a certain age who came of age in the 1950s and still remember Tab’s poster on their bedroom walls; the artwork was classy; it was almost June; we gave them an exclusive (although I don’t think they ever advertised it as such); we did an international release on iTunes (we were told that Apple likes films to have more than one territory to be featured, which is kind of strange, because it wasn’t featured in any other iTunes store, like Canada or UK); and lastly, we did some iTunes custom artwork and iTunes Extras.
Walking the walk. Speaking of customization, one thing that I noticed about every film in the “Independent” section was that most detail pages contained customized promotion background artwork. Apple likes this. It gives the film branding, credibility. Apple has two different kinds of background art one for the iTunes store and one for AppleTV. We opted to do just the iTunes store art, which is an extra $75 conformance fee at Premiere. We also did iTunes Extras basic package, for about $700 extra, which offers a chance to include bonus features, such as outtakes and other exclusive video. Since we were planning on including bonus interviews on our DVD, we included that file, as well as 10 minutes of interviews for which iTunes is the only place that they are available. I’m not sure if Extras helped the featured placement, since we were literally down to the wire on having them appear on the store in time for the release. (At the last minute, we needed a looping background audio for iTunes, which we didn’t realize was mandatory, so if you go the Extras route, don’t forget that that audio file is needed).
Results. All in all, we did everything we could, and it paid off. We were featured in both the carousels of the “Independent” and “Documentary” genre sections, and stayed in the “Independent” carousel for a full week and in “Documentary” carousel for two weeks. We stayed in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Independent” for several weeks. At its peak, we reached #2 in Documentaries, being surpassed only by Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, which months later is still in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Independent.” We made sure Tab Hunter Confidential shows up in both the iTunes Extras section and the “LGBT Movies” Collection section. The more places to find the film, after all, the more chance of it being rented or purchased.
After over 3 months, around the third week of August, Tab Hunter Confidential was the 12th All-Time Bestselling LGBT Doc in the iTunes store. As of the date of this blog, it has dipped down the 14th. It is still in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Documentaries,” although to be fair that section contains hundreds of films.
Regrets? Could we have stayed longer in the iTunes carousels? Two things worked against us. First, although there was a social media push when the film was released, it was pretty limited, as we had only a small P&A budget. With more of a spend, we could have gotten more attention during the second week, and perhaps sales would have warranted the film sticking around for longer. Other films, such as Gravitas’ Requiem for the American Dream, for which TFC handled the Theatrical, featuring Noam Chomsky, have done a much better job surfing this wave. Fortuitous timing with Bernie Sanders, but that is a story for another day.
Although we offered TVOD exclusivity to Apple until June, it was unclear whether they really cared about that, as they never promoted it as such, and we probably should have released on Amazon, GooglePlay and Vudu on the same day as iTunes.
(Speaking of Amazon and GooglePlay, I once asked someone who used to work at Premiere how one gets featured on those other platforms’ stores. What they told me was shocking: Amazon and GooglePlay basically copy content ideas from the iTunes store. This was about a year ago, so who knows if this is still happening, or if it was even true at all. But I was kind of blown away by this.)
Conclusion. There are undoubtedly things one could immediately try and recreate from the steps that were taken with Tab Hunter Confidential. However, who is to know if they could work a second time, with a different film and different timeframe?
I am not suggesting in this article that distribution deals are unnecessary. Many companies have a ton of industry connections and experience that one might not be able to recreate with DIY.
But in this case, the filmmaker is thrilled, and my TFC team believes that dollar for dollar, the filmmaker walked away with a guaranteed net that is more than they would have received had they taken the distribution deal that was offered to them by a distributor.
So should DIY be considered a dirty word? Only you can decide if it is right for you film. As a whole, the jury might still be out, but, at the very least, I suspect that we’re going to get more filmmakers interested in iTunes background art.
Be sure to look out for Tab Hunter Confidential, on digital platforms, and now on DVD and Blu-Ray, which have recently been released by our friends at FilmRise.
David Averbach September 6th, 2016
We are gearing up for a big article on DIY Digital Distribution, which will be posted very soon. In the meantime, we liked this No Film School case study article on DIY DVD Distribution so much that we had to link to it on our blog as well as SM. Enjoy!
Orly Ravid August 17th, 2016
Guest blog post by Wendy Bernfeld
The Cannes Film Festival starts today, and any Cannes season would not be complete without an update from our dear friend and colleague Wendy Bernfeld, Founder and Managing Director of Rights Stuff and co-author of our second case study book in 2014 Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. (free on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks. Wendy specializes in Library and Original Content acquisition/distribution, international strategy / deal advice, for traditional media (film, TV, pay TV), digital media (Internet/IPTV, VOD, mobile, OTT/devices), and web/cross-platform/transmedia programming, and also active on various film festival / advisory boards, such as IDFA, Binger Film Institute, Seize the Night, Outdoor FilmFest, and others, including TFC! Follow her on Twitter: @wbernfeld.
What’s happened out there in the two years since TFC first published Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. (“The Book”)?
My introductory chapter to the book, entitle, “Digital Distribution in Europe” provided a snapshot of the evolving sector at that point in time. However, by now, the sector, particularly in the area of SVOD and AdVOD, has leaped even more forward, and includes more mature services as well as new niche and thematic services out there— as well as some services with an increased appetite for foreign language, art house and documentary films/series (finally).
A. Blurred Lines — Traditional vs. Digital — Hybrid Platforms
More recent trends 2015-16 include increasingly blurred dividing lines between so-called traditional vs digital players .
- Traditionals: Many traditional players, internationally, (like telecoms, cable and free tv) have now become more digital, by either 1) bysetting up their own competing, or complementary, multi-window VOD offerings such as SVOD services (e.g. Channel 9’s STAN in Australia or Liberty Global’s MyPrime in both Switzerland and Netherlands); or 2) electing to instead “sleep with the enemy” by just hosting digital channels like Netflix, Spotify, etc. on their set-top box (e.g. Orange, ComHem Sweden, Virgin UK). Some traditionals opt to distinguish the brand identity of the VOD service from the main service, (different names); while others unite both services under one brand, such as CanalPlay (C+) or Viasat’s VIAPLAY. Recent developments include BBC announcing it will start SVOD internationally, after also migrating its Channel 3 to digital-only online offering; and ITV starting CURIO, a nonfiction SVOD in the UK.
- Digitals: Correspondingly, the so-called formerly digital-only players like Netflix, Amazon (previously more complementary or second window) are now acting a great deal like the traditional players. Think: old-fashioned commissioning broadcasters who increasingly require first-window status and exclusivity, and who are funding “originals”, getting involved competitively commissioning films from development stage etc. and fashioning game-changing windows.
Despite the complexity, this is overall great news for creators/rights-holders since it allows even more opportunity to maximize revenues and audiences per successive window, platform and region, if one takes the time to do it right.
B. VODs Per Window:
Lets look at various platforms in each window today, from TVOD, DTO, through to SVOD, AdVOD, etc. Note that many deliberately offer MULTI-model consumer services – such as Orange, Canal Plus and BSKYB (TVOD/DTO, SVOD), Amazon (Instant and Prime, for TVOD/DTO and SVOD, respectively) and Wuaki – while others (Netflix and Curio) operate under just one consumer business model.
- For the Big5 (Google, Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, PS), one still generally goes through a digital aggregator, like Juice, Cinedigm, Kinonation, and Syndicado in N.America. Outside N.America, EMEA counterparts in include one of Rights Stuff clients MOMEDIA (attractive multi-platform new biz model, lower cost for more platforms and combined with social media/marketing) – and others like DoCo/ODMedia (NL), MoviePartnership, and Under the MilkyWay.
Shop around…these aggregators they have different models and price alone shouldn’t be the only indicator. Also look at their marketing/positioning: some take your IP, others (like Rights Stuff, TFC) do not.
- Going direct to the others in TVOD/DTO:
Don’t stop at one or even all of the Big5. The play is to have multiple deals , non exclusive, staggered, in all the windows, in each region. Virtually every country has an active telecom and cable or DTH competitor in the region, as well as mobile and online /consumer electronics players who offer VOD, so licensing non-exclusive TVOD to them on top of others is a good first step in the chain.Beyond the utility companies, some other examples in TVOD/DTO include premium pay tv services or platforms like CanalPlus (France and other regions) and BSkyB, (UK, Germany, Italy, New Zealand). Also theatrical chains in some countries, such as Cineplex in Canada or Pathé in Holland, have VOD arms and thus can offer complementary marketing of films in theatrical window with the subsequent TVOD/DTO window. Also check out online VOD indie film specialist FilmDoo (well-curated indie/art house focused, now in UK/EIRE and soon expanding), and as earlier written, Curzon offers day-and-date theatrical combined with VOD in UK. Wuaki announced moves into 15 countries internationally by end of 2016, most are now TVOD/DTO but the Spain HQ is an SVOD OTT platform. The NFB in Canada started TVOD/DTO in N.America and recently in 2016 an SVOD service, and they now buy docs/films from other sources and regions, too.
- Deals: TVOD/DTO continues to be typically a rev share model and sometimes only a loss leader, but can help drive critical awareness, especially when accompanied by social media marketing and audience engagement strategies. Sometimes, film dependent (for eg if a very niche film) it saves money to skip the big5 (who require costly specs) and license direct to the other international tvod/dto platforms, as then at least one participates from day one in revenues, vs having to recoup expensive deliverables.
- For the Big5 (Google, Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, PS), one still generally goes through a digital aggregator, like Juice, Cinedigm, Kinonation, and Syndicado in N.America. Outside N.America, EMEA counterparts in include one of Rights Stuff clients MOMEDIA (attractive multi-platform new biz model, lower cost for more platforms and combined with social media/marketing) – and others like DoCo/ODMedia (NL), MoviePartnership, and Under the MilkyWay.
- SVOD/PAY – whether first and second windows:
As predicted, this window has so far overall been most remunerative since it’s usually structured by a flat fee license fee (although smaller or niche thematic platforms in the larger USA market (such as Fandor or Indieflix) are still offering just a revenue share formula, which can make the returns lackluster). We generally favor licensing to platforms that pay even a modest flat fee, upfront. Or in some cases in the ‘’back end’’ i.e. rev share to start, then if the revenues at the end of a year (or the window) don’t reach, say, $1000, the platform pays the difference. That sort of model can be attractive for startup platforms who truly believe in the power of their SVOD service but are cash-strapped at the start. So one can license to a less remunerative platform, which does a great job of curation, editorial, placement, and
also license other SVOD platforms who may be more remunerative for you.
There’s been a surge of local SVOD players popping up to compete or complement as Netflix or Amazon/competitors rolls into each new region. Some present outright competition, engaging in bidding wars for similar mainstream content offerings and price points. For instance, MNET South Africa, a premium pay tv operator, launched ShowMax locally and soon after announced further expansion. Other examples include: Videoland Plus (owned by free tv RTL/& SBS channels in the Netherlands) and Maxdome (owned by Prosieben in Germany).Others are complementary SVOD services, offering older library services in general interest. And still others exist at lower price points in narrow verticals/themes, like kids, anime, arthouse, etc. Hopster (UK/USA) is a buyer of purely kids programming, recently launched also in Iceland on Vodafone platform; similar to MinBIO (Nordic kids), which buys from international producers as well as from studios or locals, and Kidoodle (Canada svod ott). Cirkus in Nordic focuses on best of British programming (SVOD OTT).Recently in 2016 there’s a raft of SVOD platforms in developing regions like the MidEast and South East Asia: such as multi-region IFLIX and ICFLIX. As before Australia has pay and svod services such as Foxtel’s Presto (Australia); Lightbox (New Zealand), and Stan (channel 9).SVOD Deals: Producers should usually seek flat fee, but some platforms perform well on rev share. Particularly if you license multiple platforms in the same window and cross-promote so consumers find you from whichever entry point. In the lucky case where you can play off one against the other (e.g. traditional pay tv vs SVOD first-run) a stronger case can be argued for the license fees, as the buyer is “not the only game in town” anymore. In other cases, non-exclusive, multiple-platforms deals in smaller amounts still add up the revenues and audience. Prices can range from €250-2000 for an indie doc of film if old library and yet also up to 5- and 6-figure sums if a higher-end indie/doc or original/first-run. Pricing is also obviously affected by volume of the films in a deal, the number of regions, the awareness (platform, audience), popularity, critical acclaim, and language and cultural portability.
- In the USA, you’ve finally seen growth since 2015 in the SVOD sector for documentaries, including the Curiosity Stream SVOD OTT platform (by former Discovery founder, John Hendricks), whose programs tend towards educational and traditional. They are usually on a rev-share only model, whereas competitor xive.tv (SVOD OTT) also buys docs features/series, but over a wider range of topics including more populist/reality content- and xive.com works on a flat fee and/or combo deal model. And a deal with well-curated xive.tv delivers an extra ‘lift’’ in reach by providing carriage on other platforms (Hulu, Roku, Amazon, etc.).
- In EMEA/beyond, some other SVOD OTT platforms for docs and arthouse have arisen such as CURIO in UK (via ITV), Filmin (Spain, Portugal, Mexico). Mobil has now transformed its model to a curated daily film+library, a lower price and is complete with hefty investment by Chinese backers/reach into China. They also started paying some flat fees, or MGs, for select higher-end indies, as opposed to the pure rev share SVOD model of earlier days.
Although TubiTV/AdRise in USA and Hulu (multi-model in AdVOD and SVOD) are strong platforms offering solid returns to producers in the AdVOD sector, there aren’t many doing the same in EMEA. Here, again, it’s worthwhile to have your films spread on other free AdVOD platforms (vs pirate sites) so the returns are cumulative and there’s cross-promotion. Sometimes a film sampled on AdVOD can help to yield revenues from DTO (e.g. if a consumer discovers a lesser known film on an AdVOD platform and decides then to buy it on iTunes, while they’d not have bought it unknown before).Some updates on the AdVOD sector in EU: Viewster.com (27 countries in EMEA) has shifted focus (since our last reference in the book) from buying arthouse/festival films, to millennial content, including edgier, fast-paced docs, some originals and anime. In 2015 they had added an SVOD anime service, but in March 2016 shut it down, as others have become more aggressive in that space. DailyMotion, EU competitor to Youtube, were sometimes paying flat fees and sometimes commissioning series, but a recent sale by Orange to Vivendi may bring changes. Channel4 (UK) recently launched WalterPresents, an AdVOD site focused specifically on dramatic series and some films strictly from outside the UK.
- HOW TO REACH THE PLATFORMS:
As before, one goes via aggregators for Big5, but your agent/representative, or distributor/sales agent, OR YOU YOURSELF can hit up the others direct.REPS: I highly recommend interviewing your potential sales agent/distributor, with new questions such as asking 1) if they’ve been active in digital lately vs just their traditional buyers; and 2) if so, then with which types of platforms—Big5-7 or also beyond to International? If not, it doesn’t have to be a barrier, if they’re willing to allow nonexclusivity in digital, and/or to allow you or digital agents to assist and collaborate alongside.
- FUNDING (including by SVODs):
Although beyond the scope of this article, note In 2015-16 there’s been increased activity in 5-6 figure prebuying/funding of originals or premieres (film, series)—not just from English regions and not only via Netflix and Amazon, but also other international and EMEA services like OneNet Poland, IcFlix, Telenet, KPNPlay, Vimeo, Vivendi/Canal+, etc.On the Amazon front, aside from bigbudget originals via Ted Hope’s division such as ChiRaq at Berlinale and Woody Allen this Cannes, they also fund weboriginals, digital series, via prototyping schemes and audience involvement/feedback. Netflix has been intensely active in funding originals, including docs and nonfiction (while a few years ago that was a rarity); more deals in arthouse, docs and foreign will be announced at or after Cannes.In Canada there is a funding for coproduction in digital programs; And in France/EU, Vivendi (owner of Canal+ and DailyMotion) just in April 2016 launched its “Studio+” initiative &,dash; funding short-form original series for mobile and telecom operators.
As before in the 2014 Book, the following have intensified:
- Act quickly and work collaboratively (filmmakers + agents/distributors) to seize timing opportunities, particularly around certain countries where (s)VOD activities and platforms or hotly competing.
- Balance traditional and digital platforms, buyers and funders carefully in order to capture the cumulative and incremental revs in the nonexclusive deal sector, while also developing a longer term platform pipeline for future.
- Don’t stop at just one deal, unless exclusivity or funding elements are in play and worth it.
- Don’t be blocked per se by rights issues. Pragmatic business deals where others are “cut in” can help make those melt away
- Hybrid distribution: We as consultants/agents, aside from working direct for producers and platforms, now increasingly are retained by sales agents, distributors and even aggregators – as although they have the IP, they don’t always know all the others to sell to after going beyond the Big 5-7; this type of collaboration with producers and other reps on distribution yields good results (although time consuming at first) with each stakeholder getting a smaller piece but of a bigger pie. At the end of the day, 100% of zero is still zero.
- If not using a middleman at all, consider teaming up (especially if only selling a single film) with other producers to co-curate a mini-package of films around specific themes (e.g. eco, female, etc). This is particularly useful where the platforms don’t know you or your films, and it also helps program the service for their platform.
- Don’t abdicate distribution entirely to third parties, as in traditional past; now it is increasingly key to be aware of (if not participating more in) distribution and marketing (e.g. via social media). Help audiences know where to find your film!
Looking forward to seeing your films over here in EMEA!
Orly Ravid May 11th, 2016
by Orly Ravid, Founder, The Film Collaborative
Orly Ravid is an entertainment attorney at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp (MSK) and the founder of The Film Collaborative with 15-years of film industry experience in acquisitions, festival programming, sales, distribution/business affairs, and blogging and advising. She also contributed to the Sundance Artist Services initiative.
Filmmakers usually think selling their film to distributors means that they will handle the whole release including theatrical, home video, and of course now digital/VOD. One category of distribution that is often overlooked, or not fully understood, however, is educational distribution. It can be a critical class of distribution for certain films, both in terms of reaching wider audiences and making additional revenue. For a certain type of film, educational distribution can be the biggest source of distribution revenue.
What is it?
When a film screens in a classroom, for campus instruction, or for any educational purpose in schools (K-university), for organizations (civic, religious, etc.), at museums or science centers or other institutions which are usually non-profits but they can be corporations too.
This is different from streaming a film via Netflix or Amazon or renting or buying a commercial DVD. Any film used for classes / campus instruction / educational purposes is a part of educational distribution and must be licensed legally. Simply exhibiting an entire film off of a consumer DVD or streaming it all from a Netflix or Amazon account to a class or group is not lawful without the licensor’s permission unless it meets certain criteria under the Copyright Act.
Initially, this was done via 16mm films, then various forms of video, and now streaming. These days, it can be selling the DVD (physical copy) to the institution/organization to keep in its library/collection, selling the streaming in perpetuity, renting out the film via DVD or streaming for a one-time screening, or exposing the content to view and at some point (certain number of views) it is deemed purchased (a/k/a the “Patron Acquisition Model”).
What type of films do well on the educational market?
In general, best selling films for educational distribution cover topics most relevant to contemporary campus life or evergreen issues such as: multiculturalism, black history, Hispanic studies, race issues, LGBTQ, World War II, women’s studies, sexual assault, and gun violence; in general films that cover social and political issues (international and national); health and disability (e.g. autism); and cinema and the arts. A great title with strong community appeal and solid perception of need in the academic community will do best (and the academic needs are different from typical consumer/commercial tastes).
At The Film Collaborative, we often notice that the films that do the best in this space sometimes do less well via commercial DVD and VOD. This is true of films with a more historic and academic and less commercial bent. Of course, sometimes films break out and do great across the board. Overall, the more exposure via film festivals, theatrical, and/or social media, the better potential for educational bookings though a film speaking directly to particular issues may also do very well in fulfilling academic needs.
Across the board the companies doing educational distribution get their content from film festivals but also simply direct from the producers. Passion River and Kanopy, for example, note that film festival exhibition, awards, and theatrical help raise awareness of the film so films doing well on that front will generally perform better and faster but that does not mean that films that do not have a good festival run won’t perform well over time. Services such as Kanopy, Alexander Press, and Films Media Group collect libraries and get their films from all rights distributors and those with more of an educational distribution focus as well as direct from producers. These services have created their own platforms allowing librarians etc. to access content directly.
Windowing & Revenue
There are about 4,000 colleges in the US and about 132,000 schools, just to give you a sense of the breadth of outlets but one is also competing with huge libraries of films. Educational distributors such as ro*co films has a database of 30,000 buyers that have acquired at least one film and ro*co reached beyond its 30,000 base for organizations, institutions, and professors that might be aligned with a film. All rights distributors often take these rights and handle them either directly, through certain educational distribution services such as Alexander Press (publisher and distributor of multimedia content to the libraries worldwide), Films Media Group / Info Base (academic streaming service), or Kanopy (a global on-demand streaming video service for educational institutions), or a combination of both. There are also companies that focus on and are particularly known for educational distribution (even if they in some cases also handle other distribution) such as: Bullfrog Films (with focus on environmental), California Newsreel (African American / Social Justice), Frameline Distribution (LGBTQ), New Day Films (a filmmaker collective), Passion River (range of independent film/documentaries and it also handles consumer VOD and some DVD), roc*co films (educational distributor of several Sundance / high profile documentaries), Third World Newsreel (people of color / social justice), Women Make Movies (cinema by and about women and also covers consumer distribution), and Swank (doing educational/non-theatrical distribution for studios and other larger film distributors). Cinema Guild, First Run Features, Kino Lober, Strand, and Zeitgeist are a few all rights distributors who also focus on educational distribution.
Not every film has the same revenue potential from the same classes of distribution (i.e. some films are bound to do better on Cable VOD (documentaries usually do not do great that way). Some films are likely to do more consumer business via sales than rentals. Some do well theatrically and some not. So it is no surprise that distributors’ windowing decisions are based on where the film’s strongest revenue potential per distribution categories. Sometimes an educational distribution window becomes long and sales in that division will determine the film’s course of marketing. But if a film has a theatrical release, distributors have certain time restrictions relative to digital opportunities, so that often determines the windowing strategy, including how soon the film goes to home video.
The film being commercially available will limit the potential for educational distribution, and at the same time, the SVOD services may pay less for those rights if too much time goes by since the premiere. Hence it is critical to properly evaluate a film’s potential for each rights category.
Revenue ranges widely. On the one hand, some films may make just $1,000 a year or just $10,000 total from the services such as Kanopy and Alexander Street. On the other hand, Kanopy notes that a good film with a lot of awareness and relevance would be offered to stream to over 1,500 institutions in the US alone (totaling over 2,500 globally), retailing at $150/year per institution, over a 3-year period, and that film should be triggering about 25% – 50% of the 1,500 institutions. Licensors get 55% of that revenue. On average, a documentary with a smaller profile and more niche would trigger about 5-10% of the institutions over 3 years.
More extreme in the range, ro*co notes that its highest grossing film reached $1,000,000, but on average ro*co aims to sell about 500 educational licenses.
If the film has global appeal then it will do additional business outside the U.S. All rights and educational distributors comment that on average, good revenue is in the 5-figures range and tops out at $100,000 +/- over the life of the film for the most successful titles. The Film Collaborative, for example, can generate lower to mid 5-figures of revenue through universities as well (not including film festival or theatrical distribution). Bullfrog notes that these days $35,000 in royalties to licensors is the higher end, going down to $10,000 and as low as $3,000. For those with volume content, Alexander Street noted that a library of 100-125 titles could earn $750,000 in 3 years with most of the revenue being attributable to 20% of the content in that library. Tugg (non-theatrical (single screenings) & educational distribution) estimates $0-$10,000 on the low end, $10,000 – $75,000 in the mid-range, and $75,000 and above (can reach and exceed $100,000) on the high end. Factors that help get to the higher end include current topicality, mounting public awareness of the film or its subject(s), and speaking to already existing academic questions and interest. Tugg emphasizes the need for windowing noting the need for at least a 6-month window if exclusivity before the digital / home video release. First Run Features (an all-rights distributor that also handles educational distribution both directly and by licensing to services) had similar revenue estimates with low at below $5,000, mid-range being $25,000 – $50,000, and high also above $75,000.
Back to windowing and its impact on revenue—Bullfrog notes it used to not worry so much about Netflix and iTunes because they “didn’t think that conscientious librarians would consider Netflix a substitute for collection building, or that instructors would require their students to buy Netflix subscriptions, but [they] have been proved wrong. Some films are just so popular that they can withstand that kind of competition, but for many others it can kill the educational market pretty much stone dead.” Yet, theatrical release is usually not a problem, rather a benefit because of the publicity and awareness it generates.
Passion River explains that filmmakers should not be blinded by the sex appeal of VOD / digital distribution—those platforms (Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix) can and will wait for hotter films on their radar. An example Passion River offers is Race to Nowhere which sold to over 6,000 educational institutions by staying out of the consumer market for at least 3 years. This type of success in the educational space requires having the right contacts lists and doing the marketing. But I would say, consider the film, its revenue potential per rights category, the offers on-hand, and then decide accordingly.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3, which will go into the nitty gritty details of educational distribution.
The legal information provided in this publication is general in nature and should not be construed as advice applicable to any particular individual, entity or situation. Except as otherwise noted, the views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). This alert may be considered a solicitation for certain purposes.
Orly Ravid February 18th, 2016
Tags: Alexander Press, Amazon, Bullfrog Films, California Newsreel, Cinema Guild, classroom films, educational distribution for films, educational market for films, film distribution, film library, Films Media Group, First Run Features, Frameline Distribution, Kanopy, Kino Lorber, Netflix, New Day Films, Orly Ravid, Passion River, ro*co, Strand Releasing, The Film Collaborative, Third World Newsreel, Women Make Movies, Zeitgeist Films
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 2013 • August 2013 • October 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.
- 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.
- Apple ProRes 422 HQ (90 mins). Approx 150 gigs. Problematic uploaded/download math given above. Doesn’t seem currently viable with today’s technology.
- 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.
- 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!
Jeffrey Winter November 24th, 2015
Tags: Apple Pro-res, BluRay, DCP, Digital Cinema Package, digital film delivery, DVD, film deliverables, film distribution, film exhibition, HDCam, Jeffrey Winter, Prints and Advertising, The Film Collaborative
The Face-to-Face Teaching Exemption and Fair Use in Education Distribution: Clearing up some misconceptions
Written by Orly Ravid and Guest co-Author Jessica Rosner, who has been a booker in the educational, nontheatrical and theatrical markets since the days of 16mm. Recent projects include Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film and John Boorman’s Queen and Country.
A recent blog by Orly Ravid covered just a little bit about educational rights and distribution. This blog is intended to develop that in response to a comment about the “Face-to-Face” teaching exception. This exception defines what films can be shown for no license or permission by the producers or rights holders.
The Copyright Act provides for an exception to needing a copyright holder’s permission to exhibit a copyrighted such as a film. That exception, however, is only for “face-to-face teaching” activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom. That’s why it’s called the “face-to-face” exemption.
I emphasized the key words to clarify that this exception does NOT apply to social club or recreational screenings of films or any exhibition that is not in “classroom” or “similar space devoted to instruction” where there is face-to-face instruction between teacher and student and where the exhibition relates to the educational instruction. Second, not all institutions or places of learning are non-profits. All this to say, the “face-to-face” exemption is not a carte blanche free-for-all to show any copyrighted work in any context as long as there are books around within a mile radius. This is important because educators and distributors are often unclear about what can and cannot be done under this exception to proper permission to distribute or exhibit a film without permission (which often includes a fee).
Below is some key information about the state of educational distribution in 2015 and can be done lawfully without the licensor’s permission (under the Copyright Act):
Viable options for educational distribution that involves either selling physical copies, download, or licensing streaming rights or other rights and type of rights or sales, including price points, terms, limitations, etc.
It’s important to understand that “educational sales & use” is not legal term and that educational institutions have the right to purchase any film that is available from a lawful source and use it in an actual physical class under the “face-to-face” teaching section of copyright law (discussed above). Also okay is for them to keep a copy in the library and circulate as they choose.
However, if as increasingly the case, they wish to make films available via streaming or to exhibit them outside of a class they must purchase those rights. A filmmaker or distributor can charge a higher price to an institution to purchase a DVD if they control all sales but that would be a contract situation and mean the film basically has no sales to individuals. This is done but mostly with non-feature films or ones whose market is intended to be only institutions and libraries.
Streaming rights offer a real opportunity for income for filmmaker provided they are willing to sell rights to institutions in “perpetuity” (meaning, forever). They will make more money and the institution is far more willing to purchase. Many if not most universities now want to have streaming rights on films that are going to be used in classes.
Exhibition of film at universities or educational institutions that is NOT paid for (not licensed or bought from copyright holder) – when is it legitimate (lawful) and when is it not so?
It is legal to show the film in the classroom provided it is legal copy (not duped, bought from pirate site, or taped off television). Any public showings outside the classroom are illegal. Streaming entire feature films is also illegal but streaming clips of films is not.
What is the reason or rationale for the non-lawful use?
If it is a public showing (exhibition) they (and this is usually either a student group or professor, not administration) claim “they are not charging admission” and/or that “it being on a campus” makes it “educational and in extreme cases they claim that it actually IS a class. Illegal streaming is far more insidious and involves everything from claiming streaming a 2-hour film is “fair use,” (which would justify showing it without permission) or, that somehow a dorm room or the local Starbucks is really a classroom. Bottom line: not all use of film can be defended as “fair use.” Exhibiting not just clips but a whole film is usually not lawful unless the “face-to-face” teaching exemption requirements (discussed above) are met.
There is a disconnect for these educational institutions between how they treat literature vs. cinema:
All the parties involved in streaming (legal and illegal) librarians, instructors, tech people, administrators know that if they scanned an entire copyrighted book and posted on campus system for students to access it would be illegal but some of the same people claim it is “fair use” to do with a film. I actually point blank asked one of the leading proponents of this at the annual American Library Association Conference if it was legal to stream CITIZEN KANE without getting permission or license and he said yes it was “fair use” when I followed up and asked if a school could scan and post CATCHER IN THE RYE for a class he replied “that is an interesting question.” It is important to note that “fair use” has never been accepted as a justification for using an entire unaltered work of any significant length and recent cases involving printed material and universities state unequivocally that streaming an entire copyrighted book was illegal.
Remedies to unlawful exhibition of copyrighted works for distributors or licensors:
Independent filmmakers need to make their voices heard. When Ambrose Media a small educational company found out that UCLA was streaming their collection of BBC Shakespeare plays and took UCLA to court supported by many, other educational film companies, academics reacted with fury and threatened to boycott those companies (sadly the case was dismissed on technical grounds involving standing & sovereign immunity and to this day UCLA is steaming films including many independent ones without payment to filmmakers). For decades the educational community were strong supporters of independent films but financial pressures and changing technology have made this less so. (Jessica Rosner’s personal suggestion is that when instructors protest that they should not have to pay to stream a film for a class, they should be told that their class will be filmed and next year that will be streamed so their services will no longer be needed). Orly Ravid gives this a ‘thumbs up’.
Of course remedies in the courts are costly and even policing any of this is burdensome and difficult. Some films have so much educational distribution potential that a distribution plan that at first only makes a more costly copy of the film/work available would prevent any unauthorized use of a less expensive copy or getting a screener for free etc. But not all films have a big enough educational market potential that merits putting everything else on hold. And once the DVD or digital copies are out there, the use of that home entertainment copy in a more public / group audience setting arises. As discussed above, sometimes it’s lawful, and sometimes, it’s not but rationalized anyway. It is NEVER legal to show a film to a public group without rights holder’s permission. Another viable option for certain works, for example documentaries, is to offer an enhanced educational copy that comes with commentary, extra content, or just offer the filmmaker or subject to speak as a companion piece to the exhibition. This is added value that inspires purchase. Some documentary filmmakers succeed this way. It is extremely important to make sure your films are available for streaming at a reasonable price.
Parting thoughts about educational distribution and revenue:
Overall, we believe most schools do want to do the right thing but they are often stymied when they either can’t find the rights or they are not available so get the word out.
Streaming rights should be a good source of income for independent filmmakers but they need to get actively involved in challenging illegal streaming while at the same time making sure that their works are easily available at a reasonable price. It can range from $100 to allow a school to stream a film for a semester to $500 to stream in “perpetuity” (forever) (all schools use password protected systems and no downloading is allowed). TFC rents films for a range of prices but often for $300. You may choose to vary prices by the size of the institution but this can get messy. Be flexible and work with a school on their specific needs and draw up an agreement that protects your rights without being too burdensome.
Orly & Jessica
Orly Ravid August 20th, 2015