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.

asuitablegirl

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

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

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…

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.

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 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?

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.

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.

September 6th, 2016

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, case studies, Digital Distribution, Distribution, Distribution Platforms, DIY, education, iTunes, Marketing, Netflix

Guest blog post by Wendy Bernfeld

Logo TV Festival 2011 BLANC

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.

Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.

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.

  1. TVOD/DTO:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
  2. 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.

    1. 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.).
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
  3. ADVOD:
    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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. TAKEAWAYS
    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!

May 11th, 2016

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, book, case studies, Digital Distribution, Distribution, education, International Sales, iTunes, Netflix

Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.Last May, TFC released the second book in our series called Selling Your Film Outside the US. As with everything in the digital space, we are trying to keep track of a moving target. Netflix has now launched in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. iTunes continues its transactional VOD domination by partnering with Middle East film distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment to give Arabic and Bollywood films a chance to have simultaneous releases in eight countries: UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait. Amazon has just launched several new original series in the US and UK, including critical darling Transparent, to a line up that includes returning series Alpha House and Betas.

But what does DIY Distribution mean in the context of European territories? The following is an excerpt included in the book:

Here are a few tips for any filmmaker who is thinking about doing digital distribution in general, but especially in multiple territories:

-If your film is showing at an international film festival, ask if they are producing subtitles, and, if so, negotiate that the produced file be part of your festival fee. It may need to be proofed again or adjusted at a subtitling and transcription lab later on, but as a first pass it could prove very valuable down the road. See more about the kind of file you need in this post;

-When you are producing your master, create a textless version of your feature. Apple and probably other platforms will not allow external subtitles on any films that already have burn-ins. If your film, for example, has a few non-English lines of dialogue, instead of burning-in English subtitles into your film, a better method would be to create an external English-language subtitle file (separate from closed captioning) in a proper format and submit it with your master. Different aggregators may require different formats, and if you are going to a Captioning/Transcription/Translation Lab to do your closed captioning and subtitling work, be smart about which questions you ask and negotiate a price for everything, including transcoding from one format to another because you may not know exactly what you will need for all your deals right away.

Subtitles need to be timed to masters, so make sure your time code is consistent. When choosing a lab, ascertain whether they are capable of fulfilling all your current and future closed captioning and subtitling needs by verifying that they can output in the major formats, including (but not limited to) SubRip (.srt), SubViewer 1 & 2 (.sub), SubStation Alpha (.ssa/.ass), Spruce (.stl), Scenarist (.scc) and iTunes Timed Text (.itt);

-You may want to band together with films that are similar in theme or audience and shop your products around as bundled packages. Many digital services, including cable VOD, have thematic channels and your bundle of films may be more attractive as a package rather than just one film;

-Put the time in toward building your brand and your fanbase. Marketing still is the missing piece of the puzzle here. As it gets easier and easier to get onto platforms, so too does it get more difficult for audiences to find the films that are perfectly suited to their interests. This is especially true when talking about marketing one’s film outside one’s home territory. If you are accessing platforms for your film on your own, YOU are the distributor and the responsibility of marketing the film falls entirely to you.

To download a FREE copy of the entire book, complete with case studies of films distributed in Europe, visit sellingyourfilm.com.

October 15th, 2014

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, book, case studies, Digital Distribution, DIY, iTunes, Netflix

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Whether engaging in digital distribution via a distributor or on one’s own (DIY), the burden of producing deliverables is increasingly shifting onto filmmakers.

At TFC, when we speak of empowerment through education, we are often talking about the digital landscape as a whole. However, there is also a lot to be learned in the details. I’m sure every filmmaker can rattle off a list of annoyingly small screw-ups with deliverables and assets that ended up throwing multiple members of his or her team into a tizzy for an entire day, wasting precious time, manpower and financial resources.

Accordingly, arming yourself with a little more knowledge about how the industry works, and, in particular, how technology works, can help you dodge a few more bullets down the road. Here are 3 nitty gritty tips we’d like to pass on:

1) Trailers

It’s very easy to put your trailer up on YouTube or Vimeo these days. So easy in fact that filmmakers often forget that these platforms are anomalies when it comes to requirements for eligibility.

For other mainstream digital platforms, pretty much any time there is a digital storefront, whatever is outside of the pay wall needs to be viewable for all audiences: free of foul language, nudity, excessive violence, etc.

I can’t tell you the number of trailers we have seen with words like fuck and shit still in them…iTunes is not going to take a trailer with any language that needs to be bleeped out on television. Neither will it accept scenes with a butt shot, a sex toy, naked breasts…the list is long and can get murky real quick, and, like MPAA ratings, may be quite subjective and potentially unfair.

We totally get it…filmmakers want to be as provocative as possible, don’t like being inhibited, and want their trailers to represent as closely as possible the tone of their film. And they usually make their trailers long before they ever have to think about digital distribution. But if you don’t want to have to go back and recut your trailer down the road, you need to think about these things. If you want two versions of your trailer, that’s fine, but at least one one of them has to be no more than, let’s say, PG.

photo credit: CaptMikey9 via photopin cc

photo credit: CaptMikey9 via photopin cc

2) Closed Captioning and Subtitles

Many platforms, including iTunes and Netflix, now require that all new films be submitted with closed captioning for the hearing impaired. Closed captioning is different from subtitling in that it sometimes includes descriptions of non-speech elements, like sound effects or music. Captioning costs run from $350 to $800 per title.

Most filmmakers send their films out to a captioning/subtitling lab, or use rather expensive software to do it themselves (more information about these labs/software can be found on the ResourcePlace section of our website). Usually, filmmakers receive a small, emailable, external file from the lab and submit to their distributor/aggregator without giving it much additional thought.

However, we have seen a number of cases where mistakes have been made, which can result in a rejection of your content by the platforms and a delay in your scheduled release date. There are many closed captioning requirements, particularly regarding things like when captions come on and how long they stay on screen, and we have seen some problems in this area.

But by far the biggest cause of rejection is when closed captioning covers some of the lower thirds in the film. This is especially true in documentaries, where subjects are interviewed and their names appear as text graphics on screen. In those cases, the offending line of closed captioning must be moved (usually to the top of the screen).

There are two ways that these errors can be prevented. One is to go through your film and note the approximate time codes of all your lower thirds and ask your captioning lab to pay special attention to these areas.

The second way is to check the lab’s work before submitting to a distributor/aggregator. The most common file extension for closed captioning is .SCC (Scenarist Closed Caption). This is the file you are going to submit. However, it is not possible to view this file alongside your film in QuickTime or VLC. So you should ask your lab to convert it into a subtitle file and send that to you as well (this file would be solely for checking purposes…it shouldn’t be submitted to anyone).

The catch is that the most common form of subtitle file, .SRT (SubRip), does not hold placement, so while it is OK to ask for this file type merely for checking timing and accuracy of dialogue, you will not see any difference between lines that are on the bottom or those that have been moved to the top—they will all appear on the bottom. So the key is to ask for a different file format if you have dialogue spoken over lower thirds. Subtitle file types that hold placement are .STL (Spruce subtitle format) or iTunes Timed Text (iTT), a subset of TTML. For more on subtitling than you ever want to know, visit <a “href= http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subtitle_(captioning) “>Wikipedia.

Lastly, speaking of subtitle files, we have seen many filmmakers obtain subtitle files from international film festivals (especially Spanish) and want to know if they can submit that as an extra to their North American release.

The answer is yes as long as it, like closed captioning, doesn’t cover up the lower thirds, and as long as your English master is textless (i.e. no burnt-in English subtitles). An important lesson here is that if your film has any lower thirds where dialogue is spoken over it, you will not be able to use .SRT files for any of your localized languages…use one of the other formats (.STL or .ITT).

So if someone produced an .SRT file for you, and you have lower thirds with dialogue spoken over them, you’ll need to get it converted and fixed before submitting to digital platforms.

Knowing exactly what you need will help you save time and get the best deal from your Subtitling Lab., because you will have pre-negotiated what you need in advance.

3) Digital Output

One of our members from Australia asked us about getting all of their lab deliverables taken care of at once so that they could qualify for The Producer Offset, which is a refundable tax offset (rebate) for producers of Australian feature films, television and other projects. While this credit may not apply to filmmakers who are not down under, I’d like to reiterate here what I told him: that producing deliverables too soon can cost you more in the long run.

If you produce a DCP or HDCAM, which can cost $2K or more, and approximately $350, respectively, before you sell your film, what happens when your distributor asks you to submit deliverables with their logo in front of it? You have to go back and do it again.

As far as DCP goes, until you are SURE that your film is playing at a top-notch festival, or that your film is even going to have a theatrical release, it may be best for you to wait, and only produce deliverables like ProRes, Blu-Ray and DVD in the short-term.

And by way of conclusion, speaking of DCP, TFC’s head of Festival Distribution, Jeffrey Winter, has offered a post on DCP headaches HERE.

September 10th, 2014

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, DIY, iTunes, Netflix, Trailers

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HELLO SXSW! It’s hard to believe that it’s been a whole year since SXSW 2013. The film festival (and all the other things that happen) has consistently been on the cutting edge of distribution options. It is truly a one of a kind festival for a number of reasons and while they won’t pay for filmmaker travel, they do provide huge opportunity for the savvy filmmaker.

With 125+ films and the literally hundreds of panels, it can be daunting trying to get the attention of eyeballs. That said, over 2/3 of the films that world premiered here last year have secured some form of domestic distribution (on par with Tribeca and second only to Sundance).

The Film Collaborative world premiered I Am Divine at the festival last year and our release strategy is a prime example of how the fest can be a launching pad. The film went on to play over 200 festivals in less than a year (more than any other film in the world) racking up screening fee revenue. TFC also managed its theatrical release starting last October. The entire operating budget for the theatrical release was less than $10k and the film has grossed over $80,000 theatrically to date. As impressive as that is, the festival revenue surpassed the theatrical total. Meanwhile, despite never paying for a single print ad, we just passed our 50th theatrical engagement. The film has almost 40,000 Facebook Fans and will be released on DVD/Digital in April through Wolfe Releasing, and a TV premiere is scheduled for October.

SXSW 2013 films

SXSW produced two clear narrative breakouts last year, neither from a first time filmmaker. Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies was a day and date release and managed to gross $300k+, his highest grossing film to date. It has chartered quite well on iTunes and other digital platforms and is likely quite profitable for Magnolia (hence why they acquired Swanberg’s follow up out of Sundance this year).

The other narrative breakout was the critically acclaimed Short Term 12. Sundance’s loss was SXSW’s gain and the film grossed over $1 million at the US Box Office, won multiple audience and jury awards and is the highest grossing film ever for Cinedigm. The film has been in theaters non stop for over ½ a year!

12 O’Clock Boys was released day and date and is Oscilloscope’s highest grossing release in over a year. It also topped iTunes and, to date, the film has managed over $80k in revenue. In fact, the day and date strategy has not appeared to hurt other top performing SXSW Docs.

Magnolia grossed $138k with Good ‘Ol Freda  Also passing the $100k mark was Spark: A Burning Man Story. The film managed over $120k with a self financed theatrical handled by Paladin. What stood out wasn’t the total, but the fact that 70%+ came from Tugg Screenings!  FilmBuff handled the digital rights where the doc performed equally as well.  Meanwhile IFC’s The Punk Singer was a more standard release, but still a solid success passing the $120k gross mark.

Fall and Winter, Euphonia  and Some Girls all opted for digital releases via the newly established Vimeo on Demand service. This year, Vimeo is investing $10,000,000 into its service and offering $10,000 minimum guarantees in exchange for an exclusive digital distribution window to any film that has premiered at one of the 20 leading global film festivals throughout 2014. Filmmakers also may apply for marketing support. The huge thing though is that the filmmaker gets to keep 90% of the revenue, which is far better than any other notable digital platform.

Also popular amongst the filmmakers was FilmBuff. No fewer than eight world premieres were distributed digitally by them. A few of those films also had small DIY theatrical releases.

It should be noted that DIY releases cost money which might be a problem for those who did not budget ahead of time for such a release. However, cash strapped filmmakers  have raised DIY funds via Kickstarter to aid in such releases. TFC helped Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton raise over $50k. Loves Her Gun, This is Where We Live, and Love and Air Sex (AKA The Bounceback ) all raised distribution funds via crowdfunding.

Netflix took The Short Game as their first documentary acquisition and the film had a modest theatrical run via The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Pantelion passed $50k with Hours which has been a top digital performer following the death of its star, Paul Walker. First Run Features is approaching $40k with Maidentrip and companies like IFC, Magnolia, Oscilloscope, Breaking Glass, FilmBuff, and Variance all took multiple films.

On the TV side, SXSW films have premiered on Al Jazeera, CNN, Showtime, PBS, and VH1. Many of those films had some form of theatrical too. Documentaries continue to be the bulk of the festival highlights though the top two grossing films were narratives. The festival is second only to Sundance for world premiering a doc.

As we look to what the 2014 crop will offer, there are already some game changing situations. BFI is repeating their marketing match offer of up to $41k  for any distributor who acquires one of their five UK based SXSW premiere films for distribution. As pointed out earlier, Vimeo’s offer extends beyond SXSW to 19 other upcoming festivals. I encourage you to keep an open mind and craft your film strategies now! The $10K MG that Vimeo offers for such a short exclusive digital window (plus you get to keep 90% of any revenue after the MG is recouped!) is better than many advance offers made by lower profile distributors. You can always pull your title off after the MG is recouped and seek more traditional distribution routes as Cinemanovels did out of Toronto last year

SXSW is a great place to showcase your film, but without a formal market and with all the craziness that surrounds the festival from the interactive and music sides, it is unlikely that seven figure deals will pop up like they do at Sundance. Despite this, deals are still made, some choose to go into the DIY space and a few (like our release of I Am Divine) succeed in both arenas. The possibilities are endless.

 

March 10th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, iTunes, Netflix, Theatrical, Uncategorized, Vimeo

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The month of October seems a good time to look at films in the horror genre and we will be releasing a series of posts all month long that addresses the business of releasing these films.

Long the domain of ultra low budget filmmakers everywhere, horror audiences are now spoiled for choice when it comes to finding a film that terrifies. Yes, everyone with access to a digital camera and buckets of fake blood seems to be honing their craft and turning out product by the thousands. Unfortunately, most of it is high on splatter and low on story and production value. That may have made up the majority of the horror film sales 7 years ago, but distribution advances paid for such films are now exceedingly low (maybe $5K per territory, IF there is a pick up at all) and now the genre is perfect for the torrent sites.Unless you plan to make films as an expensive hobby, the pressure to produce a stellar horror film that people will talk about (see The Conjuring, Insidious, Paranormal Activity) is very high.

horror films

The trouble for filmmakers creating in this genre is there is so much being made of questionable quality, it is like asking audiences to find a needle…in a stack of needles (hat tip to Drew Daywalt). The same challenges for fundraising, marketing, and distribution that plague every production, plague horror films as well. To get good word of mouth, the film HAS to be great and have a significant marketing push.

At a recent event hosted at the LA Film School by Screen Craft entitled Horror Filmmaking: The Guts of the Craft, several involved in the horror genre talked about budgeting and distributing indie horror films. All agreed the production value bar has to be raised so much higher than everything else in the market in order to get people to part with their money for a ticket when competing with studio films. Talent manager Andrew Wilson of Zero Gravity Management pointed out that comments like the film did a lot with so little doesn’t hold water with audiences outside of the festival circuit. “You still need it to be good enough to get someone to come into a theater and pay $12…the guy who is going to pay $12 doesn’t care that you did a lot for a little bit of money. They want to see a film that is as good as the big Warner Bros release because they are paying the same amount of money to see it.” While you may be thinking, “I don’t need my film to play in a theater,” and that may be, the films seeing the most revenue in this genre are the ones that do.

The panel also addressed selling horror films into foreign territories. While horror does travel much better than American drama or comedy, there are horror films being made all over the world and some are much more innovative than their American counterparts. France, Japan and Korea were cited as countries producing fantastically creative horror films. American filmmakers with aspirations of distributing their films overseas need to be aware of the competition not just with fellow countrymen, but with foreign talent as well.

Other film distributors are candidly talking about the complete decimation of the market for horror, largely brought on by the internet and piracy, but also a change in consumer habits. Why buy a copy to own of that low grade splatterfest when you can easily stream it (for pay or not) and move on to the next one? More where that came from. There was once big money in fooling audiences to buy a $20 DVD with a good slasher poster and trailer, but now they are wise to the junk vying for their attention and don’t see the need to pay much money for it.

In a talk given last year at the Spooky Empire’s Ultimate Horror Weekend in Orlando, sales agent/distributor Stephen Biro of Unearthed Films actually warned the audience of filmmakers not to get into horror if money was what they were seeking.”The whole system is rigged for the distributors and retailers. You will have to make the movie of a lifetime, something that will stand the test of time.”  He confirmed DVD for horror is dead. Titles that might have shipped 10, 000 copies to retailers are now only shipping maybe 2,000. Some stores will only take 40 copies, see how they sell and order more if needed in order to cut down on dealing with returns. Of the big box stores left standing, few are interested in low budget horror titles. Netflix too is stepping away from low budget indie horror on the DVD side. They may offer distributors a 2 year streaming deal for six titles at $24,000 total, but there will be a cost to get them QC’d properly (which comes out of your cut, after the middlemen take their share of course!).

As for iTunes, there are standards barring graphic sex for films in the US and in some countries, they are now requiring a rating from the local ratings authority in order to sell from the iTunes Movie store. The cost of this can run into the thousands (based on run time) per country. Also, subtitling will be required for English language films, another cost.

The major companies in cable VOD (Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon etc) are now requiring a significant theatrical release (about 15 cities) before showing interest in working with a title. They are predominantly interested in titles with significant marketing effort behind them. The cable operators often do not offer advances and you must go through an aggregator like Gravitas Ventures to access. If the aggregator refuses your film, that’s it.

Selling from your own site via DVD or digital through Vimeo or Distrify is still an option, and the cut of revenue is certainly larger. But unless there is a budget and plan in place to market the site, traffic won’t just materialize. Still, for ultra, ultra low budget films (like made for less than $5,000) with a clear marketing strategy and small advertising budget, selling direct is the way to go. Certainly better than giving all rights away for free, for 7 years and seeing nothing. At least your film can access a global audience.

Here is Biro’s talk from Orlando. It runs almost an hour

If after reading this, you are still set to wade into the market with your horror film, stay tuned to future posts looking at the numbers behind some recent horror films and what options you’ll have on the festival circuit.

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/markybon/102406173/”>MarkyBon</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

 

Sheri Candler

October 3rd, 2013

Posted In: Cable, Digital Distribution, Distribution, International Sales, iTunes, Long Tail & Glut of Content, Marketing, Netflix, Theatrical

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Just prior to SXSW, I was contacted by a new digital distribution outfit called Devolver Digital Film who were launching during the festival. I rolled my eyes as I opened the email because frankly, digital distributors are becoming a dime a dozen and few offer anything that differentiates their services. Yes, they are all non exclusive, but most do not have much to offer in the way of audience recognition of the platform.

Film distribution in some fashion isn’t difficult to obtain anymore…but getting an audience to know a film is available, actively seek it out AND getting them to watch it is another story. So, I was intrigued to find out that Devolver is planning to help solve that problem. Devolver Digital Films is a company expansion out of video game publishing and distribution. Devolver is primarily known for the Serious Sam series of games and their success within the video game industry coupled with founder Mike Wilson’s filmmaking interests lead to a desire to use the same successful game marketing techniques for independent films.

The company’s first title, Cancerpants, is described as “a story about life, love, and a young woman’s journey with breast cancer.” Cancerpants is currently available on VOD networks Verizon and Frontier, and will reach Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and Dish Online on June 4th. Local theatrical screenings are planned for May 30th in several cities including Grass Valley, CA (hosted by the filmmaker), Los Angeles, Austin, Houston, Oakland, and New York City.

Cancerpants film

I spoke with Andie Grace, VP of Acquisitions, and Mike Wilson, Partner and filmmaker, to hear what lead to Devolver’s foray into independent film distribution and what they plan to offer that other digital distributors don’t.

AG: “The experience that motivated the creation of Devolver Digital Films comes from the games space.  Mike is also a filmmaker and he knows what it is like to run up against the wall of getting distribution. After spending years of making the film, getting your own network together, hitting the festival circuit and landing a distributor and then they put it out, but do little to support it. Devolver Digital would never put out a game that way and now there are so many films on the digital shelves too, a small film that is great could do a lot better with a little help.

When a filmmaker’s own network is exhausted, they themselves are exhausted and ready to move on to another project, they just need a partner to be interested enough to work the title and we saw it as a niche to be filled.”

SC: “Speaking of a niche, does Devolver have a niche audience that they are serving with films? My main problem with film distributors is they don’t really have an audience for their company. They are used to speaking to other businesses (exhibitors, video stores, broadcasters), but not speaking directly to any audience for their titles. Their titles are so diverse that they don’t even really know who is watching. Will this be a unique aspect for Devolver? Is there a Devolver audience?”

AG: “Genre fans definitely stick with a label because of what the label brings them. This is definitely true in the games space. We now have many gamers saying ‘What is my favorite game label going to do with movies?’ So our aim is to keep that fanbase alive and choose films we think they will like.

A lot of counter culture films are coming our way and I definitely look at those films and say ‘I know where to find people who will like this, I know how to organize events around this.”

MW: “Our brand will be built on films that we believe we can make bigger than they would have been without our help. Decisions on films will be based purely on what we think we can do with the network we already have in place. It won’t be according to genr. Inevitably everyone wants us to do films that are considered ‘gamer’ fare.  But people who are outside of the gamer world don’t realize that gamers aren’t only into zombie movies or sci fi movies. The independent gamer tends to like lots of independent entertainment. Independent music, independent films, they tend to look a little further past the mainstream. More interesting, less predictable.  So that is what we will specialize in.”

SC: “Is there something that the filmmaker has to bring with the project? Do they have to have a certain mentality? Do you want the filmmaker to be an active participant in marketing his/her work, or are you fine with them leaving it with you to make it successful?”

MW: “There are 2 kinds of filmmakers. Those that are exhausted from making the film and just want someone to take care of the rest for them.  Some of those are very good films, but there is no promotional hook, and no niche we can tap easily. If they just want it out there, use our service to get it into the world, we’ll put it out for you and you can move on with your life.”

AG: “But we regard this as a partnership. We amplify what they have already started doing on their own. Anyone who wants to just turn tail and walk is probably not going to work well with us. Now, we do understand that by the time the film is ready for distribution, the filmmaker has already exhausted their network and they have done all they know how to do with their Facebook page or Twitter account and they need someone to help them, do it with them. It’s better for them to stay present, be there for the interviews, help craft the story, and use the opportunity to build their own brand as a filmmaker by working with us in a promotional partnership.”

SC: “What will be the range of services Devolver offers? I was thinking it was just digital distribution platforms, but you are working with Tugg to do events too?”

AG: “We will offer cable VOD and internet VOD right now. Being from the games world, we also have our eyes on gaming consoles. We will talk about the total distribution strategy based on the film. It may include using tools like Tugg to do some live event screenings rather than spending time exclusively on the festival circuit. Events can help power the VOD sales.  We also will talk about the marketing and publicity, some of the more traditional tactics. We will motivate our own networks to help with promoting screenings. By having the film on VOD when it is in theaters, we can get it highlighted in the ‘in theaters now’ sections of Amazon Instant and such.”

MW: “We are going to be direct to the platforms when that is possible, but until we build up our catalog, it isn’t realistic to think we will be big enough to negotiate direct deals with the bigger players.  With our zero overhead, we will be competitive with the percentages we take even when a third party is involved.  Plus, we’re going to help promote it which should make the revenue bigger than it would if you went through an aggregator who isn’t doing that.”

devolver logo

SC: “Do you take rights over the film or do those stay with the artist?”

MW: “We wouldn’t take all rights like broadcast network rights, or international rights at the moment. But to the extent that we do put time in to exploit on certain platforms, we want exclusivity on those. It is just bad business for everyone if you have several companies pitching the same film. As a filmmaker, I know there are distributors who want to take all rights just in case in future they want to do something with them. That is not the case with us. Our reason for existence is to avoid that scenario, we have all experienced it as filmmakers ourselves.”

“We do ask for a minimum of one year with options to extend. Most cable operators do want a 5 year minimum. We have found on the games side that there are opportunities for digital bundles and we will want to include our films in bundles without having to keep going back to ask permission. We aren’t going to be releasing 30 movies a month or anything. The films we do have are precious to us and we will be working harder to make the small amount work for us and for the filmmaker.”

SC:”Advertising and promotion aren’t free, they often make up the majority of any kind of film release. Is this a service deal agreement where the filmmaker fronts the money for Devolver to spend or is this more like a traditional distribution situation where Devolver will front the money and recoup from revenue before the filmmaker sees any profit?”

MW: “This won’t be a six figure M&A budget. It is more like soft dollars from us in our organization and network of already existing connections. This is what helps support our games as well.  Filmmakers will also be expected to help each other when they are on our label. So anything we provide from this network is just the cost of us doing business and we provide that.”

“Then, if there is an opportunity to buy into a promotional program or whatever, we’ll agree it with the filmmaker and write the check up front and share that cost. If the filmmaker gets a 60% split with us, we share the cost of the promotion.That’s the way we work in games too, it is purely situational. To the extent that they want to be involved, the filmmaker will sign off on any promotion we want to participate in and they will know the whole cost.”

“Another thing we feel is important is being completely transparent. If we do have to go through another distributor to get to a certain outlet,  I will forward every royalty statement we get from that distributor so that the filmmaker knows what the revenues were. There has just been too much damage done by ‘Hollywood accounting,’ I use that term to mean all entertainment. The games industry is as bad as any.  The little things we can do to remove any doubt about whether we are on the filmmakers team, we will do. The world may not need another VOD distributor, but one thing we will provide that others do not is transparency.  There is always room for that.”

SC: “When is the best time for a filmmaker to approach you? In preproduction? Production? Post?”

MW: “I would say in post. We’re not a production company and we aren’t trying to influence the outcome of a movie. We can’t really have a conversation about a film until we know the level of quality it will be.  Most of the people we are talking to are in fine cut or have a festival version that they still want to trim.”

AG: “We are having conversations now with people who are in post and it is pretty obvious who their audience is.  We are also talking to people who are not going on the festival circuit, they are launching straight into distribution.”

MW: “We have many dream producers coming to us who get this online promotion stuff. We want to network them all together and help to promote each other.”

SC: “How will you bring them together?”

MW: “Google Hangouts I envision. I want just these producers who all have great ideas and are on the same label to get together and brainstorm with each other. Their films are all coming out near the same timeframe so I think some great creativity and excitement will come from it. I don’t think they imagine for a minute that helping someone else will hurt their own projects. It just makes their own network bigger, by aggregating everyone’s together.These are all young, smart, tech savvy producers who want to learn from each other.”

SC: “Well, that is definitely a differentiator for Devolver! Most distributors don’t bother themselves with bring together the filmmakers  to help work with all the projects in the catalog. It means you really want to work with filmmakers who are giving, tech savvy and want to help make everyone’s work successful.”

MW: “The filmmaking process just sucks everything out of you, you are totally exhausted when finished and often you are the last man standing. The crew disappears after the wrap party. It will be great to have a company that knows this, pulls together a group of filmmakers in the same situation about to release their films and supports everyone.”

“It is really fun to be coming in at a time when we aren’t having to undo our skills. You go to industry panels where these veteran people are completely unsure of what is happening and frustrated at having to relearn everything because they are used to doing things in a certain way for many years. For us, it is exciting because it is wide open.”

I will be keeping an eye on this young and enthusiastic company. If you have a project you would like to approach Devolver Digital Films about, contact Andie Grace:

films [at] devolverdigital dot com

 

May 9th, 2013

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution, iTunes, Netflix

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This post was originally published on the Sundance Artists Services blog on April 23, 2012. This is an interview between Rights Stuff’s Wendy Bernfeld and The Film Collaborative’s Orly Ravid on the state of digital in Europe

In the past, many new media and VOD platforms – whether based on pay-per-transaction (TVOD), subscription (SVOD), free to user/ad supported (ADVOD) or download to own (DTO) — came and went, to the disillusionment of those brave souls trying to explore and develop the new sector and audiences.

Some filmmakers, sales agents, distributors who dared to license were wonderfully pleased with surprisingly good results for particular films (and not always the same ones that were mainstream successes in traditional media), but on balance, let’s face it, most were underwhelmed with the lackluster performance or transience of the various sites, and eventually became jaded about the whole sector. But it’s no longer a viable option just to sit back.

Over the past 18 months particularly the digital/VOD sector (including internationally) has finally begun paying off well for filmmakers, producers, distributors, and sales agents… at least for those who are willing to take the time to navigate (alone or partnered with others) the complexities of the sector, play with creative ”windowing’’ while balancing opportunities from traditional media, and accept initially more modest revenues from multiple smaller deals across various platforms and regions (yielding cumulative revenues in a largely non exclusive sector).

In addition to traditional media deals and VOD deal potential with IPTV, telecom, and cable offerings, and larger American sites (e.g. Hulu, YouTube, Netflix, iTunes), your film may well find interested audiences and homes on EU/international platforms…even if not picked up in the USA.

HOW IS INTERNATIONAL DIGITAL DIFFERENT FROM THAT IN THE USA?

The EU (beyond UK) deals with multiple languages, different tastes and appetites, different windows (vs consistent release patterns/dates per country), different platforms to navigate and balance against multiple different traditional media buyers, and, to be honest in general more work for smaller potential revenues from each deal/window.

But on the plus side, films can find homes overseas in many markets and windows, even if not ending up in the mainstream or major US/UK platforms.

The UK is at the moment probably the more stable and lucrative for English (the VOD market is already very competitive, with large platforms like Netflix, Lovefilm, BSkyB, FilmFlex, iTunes, and Blinkbox) but as soon as you ripple out to EU, digital distribution will take more work and art and generate relatively less money, especially if your film is only in original English language, and not already exposed in terms of promo/PR (theatrical, DVD release in the region etc.). However, there is indeed a growing appetite by now for art house, festival, docs, quality indie films, and foreign language films, if well curated, e.g. around festivals/brands/themes rather than as one-offs.

WHO’S OUT THERE in EU and what are some of the key territories where digital is meaningful?

Digital is immediately more meaningful in the UK, France, the Nordic region, and in Benelux, where there are already pc/mobile and tech-savvy customers and a willingness to view films in English with subtitles (vs. the dubbed regions of Germany, Spain, Italy etc., where one has to invest more to get the languages to cross over).

Although publications often refer to figures noting several hundreds of VOD platforms in Europe, in my view there are only probably 100 or so that are worth talking about when discussing licensing—half of which the main revenue generators, and another half of which are still potentially significant buyers(depending on the film of course)

In Europe, as in America, transactional VOD (pay per view) platforms are more established – some regional (per country), and others multi region (e.g. Acetrax, UPC/Chello, Headweb, iTunes, Playstation Network Live, Voddler, Xbox Live). Outside of the UK, one obviously enhances possibilities if addressing customers in their own languages and tailoring content to local preferences such film classification, advertising, and general consumer and cultural tastes.

iTunes has only recently (in autumn 2011) begun to expand its footprint into Europe, including in the following EU countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Non-English stores include: Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Portugal. They also just recently launched in Brazil / Latin America as well.

NETFLIX, Amazon (via Lovefilm), and Hulu are expanding their international footprint too. Netflix, for example, recently launched in UK/Eire, and is anticipated to roll into other regions such as Spain thereafter, and has already extended its occasionally original production commissioning activities to EU (e.g. Denmark – Lillyhammer deal, and more recently France (Gaumont etc) – Hemlock Grove series funding ). Lovefilm already has a presence beyond the UK (in Germany and Nordic), and is anticipated to expand regions. Hulu has not yet launched in EU but did launch already in Japan. As part of its competition rampup (in the US against Netflix in the SVOD market, it has also began commissioning original programming, (Day in the Life – Morgan Spurlock, for example, which was just picked up by Fremantle for distribution thereafter)….and also continues seeking special films or shows to do stunts around. We understand that they are trying to acquire more Spanish rights for the US…an important strategic move for other US players trying to expand their footprint in EU as well. Meanwhile in early 2012 the UK became a hotbed of activity for SVOD, with deals that would formerly have been nonexclusive (with e.g. Netflix, Lovefilm) being now struck on a lucrative exclusive basis, following the example of the competitive SVOD vs. Pay TV market in the US.

So what are the other key EU platforms? Trends?

Various international platforms are now becoming increasingly interested in licensing more art house, niche and festival films–not just mainstream titles. It is expected that some of the larger brand sites this year (e.g. those in UK like Netflix, Lovefilm, etc.) will expand the indie/art house and festival category further, and also be open to foreign language films (dubbed or subtitled as applicable per country audience as above). Most deals for art house/fest films, where not locally versioned or released in theatres or DVD, are on a non exclusive rev share basis, and in some cases where there is particular acclaim or cast, it can be coupled with a modest upfront, while if on an SVOD basis, flat fee deals apply (similar to non-exclusive Pay TV licensing deal parameters).

But in countries where the Pay TV incumbent is competing against a new web player, such as a traditional Pay TV player “vs.” SVOD (like Netflix “vs.” HBO in the US, or Lovefilm/Amazon “vs.” BSkyB in UK), as above, the fees can be more lucrative, in the form of true flat license fees in the Pay TV range. – whether on exclusive or non exclusive basis, and thus matching or exceeding the normal price ranges before the competition. As well, when competition heats up over one category of title, it’s also not unusual to have the competitors round out, extend, or diversify their consumer offer and move into other genres, to try to distinguish themselves from the competition. This is happening in more and more countries– for example the Netherlands, where HBO /Ziggo just launched in February and the local incumbent, Film1, responded by adding a branded art house/indie thematic channel (Sundance Channel).

Key note: Deals are generally non-exclusive and thus if carefully staggered, one can license the film sequentially through various windows (TVOD, SVOD, AVOD, and if applicable, DTO) and in multiple regions.

An example: one can first license a current film for transactional VOD (TVOD) on a rev share basis to cable and telecom VOD platforms (like France Telecom/Orange, UPC, etc) as well as (simultaneously) web based players (e.g. iTunes), then to subscription -based windows (premium Pay TV (e.g. HBO, Viasat) and their corresponding “TV Everywhere” offerings, thematic Pay TV, and/or standalone SVOD services . Thereafter, the film can move to other ad-supported services (free to consumer, web based, e.g. YouTube AVOD). This pattern can apply in multiple countries.

As mentioned above, there are hundreds of local European platforms —both standalone web-based services and mainstream and/or local telecom and Cable VOD platforms that have online offerings of their own. VIASAT, for example, was historically a premium pay service, but now offers not only conventional Pay TV and ”TV Everywhere” but also standalone thematic offerings to non-subscribers (SVOD to PC). Similarly, BSkyB just announced the upcoming launch of NOW TV – also aimed at non- subscribers (“Cord Nevers, and/or Cord Cutters”) – a thematic SVOD/low pay offering of films.

Opportunities will only increase in 2012 and 2013 as more from USA players, sites, and OTT box offerings beyond Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon gradually cross over to EU/international markets particularly if the new services don’t limit themselves to mainstream offerings and tastes.

Getting to the platform: As in the United States, some of the larger platforms (such as LOVEFILM, BlinkBox, Netflix, itunes) only take larger packages of films with a minimum volume, and are unwilling to deal direct with producers and distributors for “one off” deals. Until recently, most of the larger sites also focused mainly on mainstream films. In general, these services steer filmmakers towards conventional distributors, or aggregators/digital distributors like Movie Partnership (UK); but sometimes will accept dealings direct for certain films, or will go via an agent working on a flat fee basis (like Rights Stuff / Film Collaborative). In the latter scenario, the film IP remains in the filmmaker’s/distributor’s name, the money from deals flows to them directly and they get access and paid advice through third party consultants/agents/advisors.

Up until now, having had a DVD and/or local theatrical release was quite important for enhancing deals. But increasingly now online sites are willing to handle more innovative windows, e.g. premiering films online, or Day & Date with other windows (or shortly thereafter). Lesser-known or library (catalog) films can usually find a home on a non- exclusive and on ad-supported (AVOD) basis, but more current films usually start with transactional (TVOD) basis and/or subscription platforms (SVOD)… If filmmakers have titles already encoded to the expensive iTunes spec, this can be helpful in wider distribution, but it’s not essential; many digital platforms are now willing to take delivery of indie or art house films even via DVD or a hard drive/ digital master.

In terms of deal models, some aggregators (middlemen) take larger %s but then take care of all encoding and delivery fulfillment, while others who are more in an advisory or agent role take a lower share for deal making and platform access but leave you to arrange the encoding separately. In some countries (e.g. Brazil), platforms may not take English versions unless local subtitles or dubs are available, and work with distributors who create versions where necessary. These distributors co-curate packages with filmmakers based on experience of what “moves” best in the region so as not to invest in encoding or language versioning for films that may not generate enough revenue to justify it…

A side note regarding subtitling, by the way: Film Collaborative is looking into software that helps facilitate dubbing in the same voice as the actor/speaker, but meanwhile in any case, subtitling for digital is getting less and less expensive and can be done via relatively inexpensive software or labs. If one has shown a film at a film festival in another country and plans to then distribute the film there, we’d recommend you ask the fest for access to the subtitles (if cleared for other distribution). Traditionally, Nordic, Benelux, and some other regions are fine with and prefer subtitles, while others (such as Germany, Spain, and Italy) require dubbing. However, in the higher-educated arthouse/filmfest world, one can often get away with just subtitled versions even in the dubbing countries.

As indicated above, for better platform access, one may want to pick or join with new media /digital distribution specialists – particularly if your traditional sales agent or distributor, strong in conventional media (theatrical, video etc.) is however not active or savvy in the VOD landscape above (platforms, deal terms, contacts etc). Otherwise it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy that you then ”don’t make money in digital’’. It’s a balancing act of cost vs. services, and a lot of work in international!

And filmmakers, whatever you choose to do with respect to your digital distribution, do not forget that one can also reach the whole wide world via one’s own website(s) and social networking pages by utilizing DIY digital distribution services (for more on this topic please refer to numerous past blog posts about digital distribution and DIY platforms and services at www.TheFilmCollaborative.org/blog and/or the Resource Place at www.TheFilmCollaborative.org/ResourcePlace).

As for piracy: in various cases filmmakers can tap into or derive indirect benefit from these online communities. See for e.g. Sheri Candler’s case studies in www.SellingYourFilm.com, Some filmmakers partner with Bit Torrent, Pirate Bay etc to launch their films online, tapping into the audiences already there (e.g. Nasty Old People, The Tunnel, Yes Men Fix the World).

LET’S TALK ABOUT POTENTIAL FUTURE TRENDS:

Diversification, Cross Platform/Transmedia: We believe 2012 will see continued consolidation of platforms and fuller diversification within the genres offered. Also as above, some key platforms (such as Hulu, Netflix, Yahoo, Endemol/AOL, Nokia, Canal+, Orange, ARTE, Channel4, ) are now also selectively commissioning transmedia and/or branded film opportunities (YouTube has not begun funding outside US yet). New funds and educational bodies (including MEDIA, Power to the Pixel) are increasing the emphasis on digital as a 360 proposition from inception of the film production process.

Multi-Layered Business Models: Platforms’ business models are also starting to become more multi-layered to handle different genres, consumer price points, and windows. For example, AVOD platforms such as YOUTUBE and SVOD platforms such as Lovefilm are now adding premium transactional VOD (TVOD) in order to handle current films. And as above, SVOD players are expanding their offerings beyond just library titles, beginning to buy newer and newer films in order to compete against premium PAY TV. This trend is continuing in the newer launching countries, e.g. Holland and Brazil where new PAY TV and localized SVOD and AVOD entrants have launched (e.g. YouTube regional sites). YouTube is also commissioning Made for Web content (MFW), although first in English language countries.

Festivals: Some European festivals have also recently started offering select titles on a TVOD basis. Rights Stuff recently worked with IDFA.tv to put around 100 films online—some on an AVOD basis and some on a TVOD basis—and in future more will follow. Certain other festivals (such as IFFR) have also begun to follow the US festival path of offering limited TVOD around or during the festival. This can open many doors for filmmakers, but also requires careful juggling and balancing when figuring out distribution patterns for conventional vs. online and new media….the balancing act is always key.

Traditional Players add VOD as well: As to the more traditional PAY TV players, last year after EPIX began licensing international festival documentaries it then turned its focus more to co-productions instead of acquisitions. And over 2011/12,As in the US, many traditional PAY TV platforms are going cross-platform and on multiple devices (a la “TV EVERYWHERE”, and similarly the nonlinear online channels are often seeking multiple device rights and/or at least have an App). Thus balancing traditional PAY TV sale vs. digital media requires more attention in rights grants and windows, but offers more opportunity correspondingly. In terms of trends, it still seems like the bigger funds and platforms are still more focused on more mainstream content, however as above this is starting to expand in EU to a wider net of content and genres.

REGIONAL EXAMPLES: VOD LICENSING PLAYERS AND WINDOWS in EU:

For bigger indie titles and mainstream ones, there are usually about 5-8 or so VOD outlets that one can target per country. Most of these will buy TVOD rights and sometimes also SVOD and/or AVOD. Platforms include television-related services (IPTV, Telecom/Cable companies, etc), as well as online and/or mobile sites, OTT box offerings, and consumer electronic (e.g. connected TV) portals.

For e.g. in Holland, a film or TV show can have various TVOD deals, not only with MSO like KPN, Tele2, Ziggo, and UPC, but also with web based services like Cinemalink.nl (for art house), iTunes, and the newly launched service from theatrical distributor Pathé (a Rights Stuff client), pathethuis.nl a bold move by a traditional theatrical exhibitor to also launch and embrace TVOD for a fuller offer to its film-loving audience base.

That would then be then followed by Premium PAY TV and/or SVOD sales (e.g. Film1, Ziggo/HBO, Ximon, Mubi.com), then AVOD (YouTube, IDFA.tv) with various competing players per region. The same film can also attract interest of foreign platforms not yet launched in the region but scaling up behind scenes, poised to launch there (e.g. those seeking to next move after UK into, say, Spain or other Benelux regions/Nordic). And this is on top of the broadcaster based proprietary VOD services (e.g. RTLXL and Veamer (from SBS and public TV catchup sites.

There are also various local equivalents of genre sits like Fandor or IndieFlix in certain EU regions. MUBI (www.Mubi.com) (co-owned by the rights holder to one of the most expansive libraries of art house cinema, Celluloid Dreams) is technically available everywhere, and is sometimes syndicated as an SVOD channel to telecom platforms (as in the case with Belgacom in Belgium). It is also on Sony Playstation. Last we checked, 60% of its audience was the US and most of the rest in Europe. Revenues from it for our films (TFC) have been small to-date, low 3-figures but it’s a good pedigree platform and perhaps revenues will increase.

A few others in EU include e.g. Orange, Canal Plus, (France and, multi region), Telenet, Belgacom, (in Belgium), SF Anytime, Voddler Film2home, Headweb , Viasat etc in Nordic /other regions), Telefonica, … Maxdome (Germany), Sony-related Qriocity, Daily Motion (many countries in EU), Movieeurope, Zattoo. Sales agent Wild Bunch has also recently launched a platform service called FilmoTV.

And as an aside, in Brazil/Latin America, the market has been heating up intensely in late 2011/12, with various TVOD and IPTV platform launches players, as well as competitive new PAY TV and SVOD services (eg Netflix, Netmovies, Terra) springing up or extending VOD. NewPAY TV laws (from fall 2011) are resulting in more potential competition, which is good news for filmmakers seeking new audiences over there. Our recommended approach to filmmakers seeking deals in this region is to partner locally, e.g. with ELO Distribution, with whom we work traditional and non-traditional (new media) players.

These are just a few categorical examples…there are plenty more buyers and platforms emerging internationally, including consumer electronics manufacturers (such as Samsung and tablet and connected TV manufacturers in EU and internationally who are getting into the game either on the licensing front or occasionally even funding/commissioning Transmedia or mfw (Made for Web). However, these usually license fuller sites (like a Lovefilm or Snagfilms) and not individual one –off titles.

Overall, there are a lot of small markets and platforms, and all this takes a lot of work, but if one has built community around a film and awareness then the effort may pay off and add up to a nice revenue stream. Once the first deals are in place with platforms (deal structures, relationships, contacts, contracts) it’s easier to build on that and add new films to the deals with just short amendments or riders, so the effort at the front end makes years of future dealings run smoother.

TRENDS RE: OTHER GENRES:

Aside from art house, festival indie films, and docs, one area that we expect to see more SVOD licensing around is kids’ films. Various smaller sites also have a strong appetite for gay/lesbian, martial arts, and horror programming, graphic novels, and made for web/cross platform/Transmedia original productions…but one has to be selective. As to documentaries, the combination of a large number of doc sites in the EU with the heavy exposure of docs on public and conventional TV in EU means docs can be relatively harder to monetize here, unless well curated and packaged, for e.g. under a larger brand/festival, like IDFA.

WINDOWING:

Typically films follow the sequential windowing described above when moving through the Transactional, Sell Through, Subscription, and ADVOD windows. But for certain films it it can be clever and compelling to have windows intentionally reversed or out of sequence. For example, premiering a film ONLINE or day-and-date with another cross-promoted window ahead of theatrical, and heavily emphasizing social media marketing can allow producers to build (and engage with) the audience before the film is even out. The key is to know your audience and try to tailor the marketing and distribution patterns accordingly…producers can be more active these days to heighten the chances of film success.

More and more platforms are open to this REVERSE WINDOWING (which began successfully in the US, e.g. with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia), . For example, in Holland, the film Claustrophobia launched online first and its success via social networking ultimately brought it a theatrical deal. In another case, Submarine NL’s film ‘’Molotov Alva’’ (a second life documentary released online virally first) later secured a HBO sale on premium pay tv, and in another film we worked with (the documentary Surfing and Sharks), intensive social network/audience engagement before and during the film’s festival exhibitions helped not only to enhance the potential audience for the film ahead of commercial released, but also to attract wider sponsor support. Ultimately, the visible online appetite for the film (including the number of Twitter and Facebook followers amassed in a very short time) helped result in a stronger all-rights distribution deal as well.

There are various new platforms focused on these models that are launching and expanding reach in EU– e.g. EU1 (The Makers Channel), which just launched in the Netherlands and will soon expand to other EU regions. One part of the site is business-to-business (geared towards talent, directors, actors, producers, etc.) providing for online pitches and related crowd sourcing and crowd funding (like Kickstarter). The other component is business to consumer, and allows exhibition of works online, on a rev share VOD basis… which will be coupled for the first time with TVOD exhibitions on UPC/Chello/Ziggo (the Cable TV VOD platform partners) thus giving much wider audience reach than conventional web VOD to PC. In some cases films can also combine a theatrical (conventional or event theatrical local) release for the films “day and date” with or in staggered creative windows. We are working with two English film cases in NL already, and as this site expands to other regions and to wider English crossover, this will open up many more opportunities (in some ways similar to what you see already in the USA on Tribeca/Sundance with exhibitions on cable households (TVOD).

SHOW ME THE MONEY:

Even where indie features have no theatrical or DVD release, if there is some cast and acclaim from festivals, and the film is new/current, TVOD is possible . This is usually on a rev share basis (with %s ranging from 50-50 to 70-30, with various deductions to negotiate). In SVOD/PAY TV, flat fees are normally paid instead of rev share, usually, along lines of comparable non-exclusive PAY TV license fees for indies. For example, in medium sized, non-English language EU countries, we’ve seen SVOD flat fee prices range from 5K-50K per title where it’s been theatrically or DVD released, etc, while with less exposure or more niche, sometimes the flat fees can be lower and more aligned with AVOD. In AVOD, deals are usually rev-share, (50-50 to 70-30) with sometimes a small upfront fee. In a medium-sized EU region, MG’s (Minimum Guarantees), when given at all for indie film, can range from a few hundred dollars (plus rev share) to 1-2K for higher end material. The very largest platforms may get away with no upfront fees at all due to their scale and reach, but smaller EU sites may well, depending on the film, offer something modest. When you do multiple nonexclusive deals, these can add up and help defray some costs of versioning, digitization, deliveries, etc.

As to revenues generated from VOD once the license is done: again it is platform and film specific, and one cannot generalize. We’ve seen certain cases where niche foreign language art house films yielded 40K in 2 months of non-exclusive TVOD revenues across a few platforms, , while other titles from the same distributor yielded only 1-2K in the same deals/time period. Things are similar with SVOD – fees can range in one small non-English EU country from 5k to 40k for a single SVOD window license fee (non exclusive) – so the key is still in our view still to engage in a reasonable number of deals in each country across various windows, platforms and business models.

IN SUM: SOME TIPS FOR GOOD RESULTS IN DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION:

  1. We strongly advise building audience for the film before release, even while the film is still being made. Engage in social media marketing around the themes of your film and the cast: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube (promos) etc. This not only enhances the audience and reach of your film, when it is released, but potentially your distribution and/or digital deal making as well.
  2. Once a deal is done and even after the film is sold, it still helps for the producer or distributor to take an active role in social media marketing, e.g. to direct attention (via social media etc.) to scheduled exhibitions of the films on various platforms licensed. Many platforms in EU are still showing viewers EPG’s with clumsy alphabetical “listings’’(as opposed to the type of creative Netflix/Lovefilm recommendation engines and suggestions), so helping viewers find the film will in turn increase returns.
  3. As for digital deals: We’d also recommend that individual producers who cannot afford tailored individual advice consider combining forces via producer groups to collectively fund some serious upfront advice – help each other curate more attractive packages of their better material, so easier to sell on to platforms directly or indirectly – and grouped in many different ways (theme, genre, category, audience etc.).
  4. If necessary, try to have “split rights’’ deals. If the person to whom you are entrusting the film in an “all rights” deal is less strong in digital and likely to “sit on” new media rights, you can explore splitting these rights /sharing them non exclusively with the distributor and another specialized digital distributor, case by case. Rights Stuff has often done this working with sales agents and distributors and producers directly to maximize digital distribution.
  5. Work with festivals (both traditional and online), who can play an increasing role in EU as they cross over to the digital space and VOD offerings. But be careful about the scope and duration of rights granted vs. other traditional and digital media, to maximize potential in all areas.
  6. Don’t abdicate completely, ie don’t’wash your hands of the film once you put it in someone else’s hands (the conventional sales approach) – keep involved along the way, gain as much learning as possible, split revenues, resources, knowledge base, contacts … and lever the outcomes to your next and future films.

Final notes: Pricing of films on the transactional side is relatively commensurate with that in the US, however non USA SVOD and AVOD markets are smaller with lower revenue per deal. . We did not include VIEWSTER in this article but feel free to check them out. They are a consumer-facing platform that also supplies other platforms (i.e. functions like an aggregator). They seem to favor films with cast, more commercial films and those with a bigger profile. www.Viewster.com

 

May 15th, 2012

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Distribution Platforms, Hulu, International Sales, iTunes, Netflix

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

Recently I was invited to be on a panel at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) and participate in their mentoring sessions and the lab at Cinemart.  Great experience. I am always amazed by the difference between the US and Europe. The whole government funding of films and new media initiatives as our government is about to shut down.  Well, their policies and practices do take their own financial toll too but one I think is worth it.  For all my europhileness I have to note that the Europeans can be just as guilty of not wanting to watch subtitles in fact some countries dub films instead. And of course we know that Hollywood is big business in Europe too. But all in all, art house cinema seems to reach more broadly in Europe and even some parts of Asia than it does in the US.  Films in Cannes and other top fests can sell all over Europe and never in the US or success in opening theatrically only in NY and maybe LA and overall it seems to me box office is generally down for foreign language cinema.

International filmmakers want US distribution and it was painful for me to discuss their prospects at IFFR because for so many, the prospects are slim.  But this one’s for you! (Please note this blog is focused on digital distribution and not healthy categories for foreign language cinema such as Non Theatrical including Museums, Films Festival, Colleges, Educational / Institutional).

Cable VOD was 80% of the digital revenue in the US in 2009 but it’s now declining little by little, now estimated to be in the high 70’s (approx 77%) and may decline further still. The reason for this change, which is expected to continue, is that Internet based platforms are growing.  Regarding FOREIGN LANGUAGE ON CABLE VOD: Distributors and aggregators agree that foreign language cinema is very hard to get onto Cable VOD platforms and slots for non-English cinema are reserved generally for marquee driven films and/or films with a real hook (name cast/director, highly acclaimed, genre hook).   A big independent Cable VOD aggregator notes a real struggle in getting foreign language films to perform on Cable VOD and even Bollywood titles that had wide theatrical distribution and a box office of upwards of $1,000,000 still perform poorly (poorly means 4-figure revenue, 5-figure tops). They have had some success with foreign martial arts films and will continue with those in the foreseeable future. Time Warner Cable (TWC) remains more open to foreign language cinema though it plays the fewest films, a range between 190 – 246 at any given time (with a shelf life usually of 60 days and with 2/3rd of the content seeming to be bigger studio product, and the rest indie).  By comparison Charter and AT&T play about 1,000 and Verizon plays 2,000, and Comcast plays about 4,000.  [See below for the 2010 breakdown of Cable subscription numbers.] Hence, individual titles may perform better on Time Warner Cable for obvious reasons, Comcast may have more subscribers but there’s less competition and TWC is in New York, the best demographic for art house cinema.

Generally speaking, platforms overall are far more receptive to foreign films following the recent success of DRAGON TATTOO, TELL NO ONE, IP MAN, etc.  than they have ever been before.  However as one can see from the titles noted, foreign genre films are preferred because they have the opportunity to reach broader audiences than the usual foreign film.  Genres that reportedly work include:  sci-fi, thriller/crime, action, and sophisticated horror.  Dramas have had limited success, and comedies often don’t translate, nor does most children’s content. In regard to Cable VOD – foreign box office is becoming an important proxy, because the marketing and pr tend to build US awareness on the larger titles prior to being available here.  Many companies have built very successful VOD businesses pursuing a day and date theatrical or DVD strategy.  Again, genre films work best, with horror and sci fi being the top performers.  3 of the top 10 non-studio titles in 2010 were foreign language subtitled releases.  Small art house distributors say that at most it’s a small dependable revenue stream via services such as INDEMAND http://www.indemand.com (iN DEMAND’s owners are and it services Comcast iN DEMAND Holdings, Inc., Cox Communications Holdings, Inc., and Time Warner Entertainment – Advance/Newhouse Partnership.)  Distributors and aggregators all site Time Warner as being far more open to foreign language cinema than Comcast, because it’s urban focused (NY, LA, etc) not heartland focused as Comcast is.

In terms of these titles finding their audiences on Cable VOD, Comcast announced improved search functionality by being able to search by title and Cable VOD is aware of its deficiencies and is said to be improving in terms of marketing to consumers but Cable VOD is still infamous for its lack of recommendation engines and discovery tools. Key aggregators work to have films profiled in several categories and not just the A-Z listing.

Top 25 Multichannel Video Programming Distributors as of Sept. 2010 – Source NCTA (National Cable Television Association)

Rank MSO BasicVideoSubscribers
1 Comcast Corporation 22,937,000
2 DirecTV 18,934,000
3 Dish Network Corporation 14,289,000
4 Time Warner Cable, Inc. 12,551,000
5 Cox Communications, Inc.1 4,968,000
6 Charter Communications, Inc. 4,653,000
7 Verizon Communications, Inc. 3,290,000
8 Cablevision Systems Corporation 3,043,000
9 AT&T, Inc. 2,739,000
10 Bright House Networks LLC1 2,194,000
11 Suddenlink Communications1 1,228,000
12 Mediacom Communications Corporation 1,203,000
13 Insight Communications Company, Inc. 699,000
14 CableOne, Inc. 651,000
15 WideOpenWest Networks, LLC1 391,000
16 RCN Corp. 354,000
17 Bresnan Communications1 297,000
18 Atlantic Broadband Group, LLC 269,000
19 Armstrong Cable Services 245,000
20 Knology Holdings 231,000
21 Service Electric Cable TV Incorporated1 222,000
22 Midcontinent Communications 210,000
23 MetroCast Cablevision 186,000
24 Blue Ridge Communications1 172,000
25 General Communications 148,000

FOREIGN LANGUAGE CINEMA VIA OTHER DIGITAL PLATFORMS and REVENUE MODELS:

DTO (Digital Download to Own (such as Apple’s iTunes which rents and sells films digitally) – this space has been challenging for foreign films in the past, and most services do not have dedicated merchandise sections. Thus, the only promo placement available is on genre pages, so the films need to have compelling art and trailer assets to compete.  iTunes and Vudu (now owned by WALMART – see below) are really interested in upping the ante on foreign films over the next 12 months.  Special consideration will need to be made for the quality of technical materials, as distributors have encountered numerous problems making subtitled content work on these providers.

SVOD (Subscription VOD such as NETFLIX’s WATCH INSTANTLY) – this space is probably the best source of revenue for foreign content because the audience demos skew more sophisticated and also end users are more inclined to experiment with new content niches.  Content in this space should have great assets and superior international profile (awards, box office), and overall should evoke a “premium feel” for the right titles, license fees can be comparable to high end American indies.  Appetite for foreign titles will increase as the price for domestic studio content continues to accelerate.  Genres are a bit broader than VOD/DTO, but thrillers, sci fi and action still will command larger sums ($). Good Festival pedigree (especially Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance, etc.) will also command higher prices.  Overall, it’s a great opportunity as long as platforms keep doing  exclusive deals.  NETFLIX has surpassed 20,000,000 subscribers and a strong stock price and is in a very competitive space and mood again. (See more below).  Hulu expects to soon reach 1,000,000 subscribers  “to approach” half a billion in total revenues (advertising and subscription combined) in 2011, up from $263 million in 2010. That’s from $108 million in 2009. (see more below)

AVOD (Advertising Supported VOD – such as SNAG and HULU) – Another great space for foreign content (as evidenced by the recent exclusive HULU – Criterion deal – (see below) although that deal is actually for HULU’s subscription service (Hulu Plus). These platforms are more willing to experiment with genres and content types and favor art films and documentaries over genre films. Depending on the film, annual revenues can approach low to mid four (4) figures in rev share.  SNAG recently was capitalized to the tune of $10,000,000 but seems to be spending that money on marketing and not on “acquiring” so a film’s revenue is likely to be dependent on performance and rev/share unless one strikes an exclusive deal with SNAG and manages to get an MG.  HULU’s revenues are covered above.  Films report low 4-figures but sometimes 5 and 6 figure revenues but up until now those higher performing films have been English language and appeal to younger males.

TELEVISION / BROADCAST SALES: For foreign language cinema unless one has an Oscar™ winner or nominee, or an output deal, the prospects of a meaningful license fee are slim. Even worse, if you do secure a deal, it will likely preclude participation in Cable VOD, Netflix and any of the ad-supported VOD platforms such as Hulu and Snag.

KEY SPECIFIC TOP SPECIFIC DIGITAL PLATFORMS / RETAILERS:

AMAZON reportedly is readying a service that would stream 5,000 movies and TV shows to members of its $79-per-year Prime free-shipping membership program. Amazon being corporately tied to extremely popular entertainment information service IMDB and the film festival submission service WITHOUTABOX gives it a potential edge in the market, one that has never been fully harvested but easily could be and seems to be looming. And since its inception, Amazon has let film content providers open up shop on their site directly without a middle-man. Middle man aggregators get slightly better terms. Amazon presently offers 75,000 films and television shows combined and plans to soon exceed 100,000. It should be noted Amazon VOD has been US-focused though recently bought Love Films in the UK.

FOCUS FEATURES’ NEW DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION INITIATIVE: There is not much information out on this yet but FOCUS/UNIVERSAL are launching a new digital distribution initiative that may or may not brand their own channel on iTunes etc., but does seem to be focused on niche cinema to some extent and this may speak to foreign language titles. An option to watch out for.

GOOGLE is working on encroaching into the content delivery market with its launch of GOOGLE TV, which unfortunately has not created quite the fanfare the company planned for.  It boasts: The web is now a channel. With Google Chrome and Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Google TV lets you access everything on the web. Watch your favorite web videos, view photos, play games, check fantasy scores, chat with friends, and do everything else you’re accustomed to doing online. GOOGLE TV does come with the Netflix App and others. Google partnered with some of the leading premium content providers to bring thousands of movie and TV titles, on-demand, directly to your television. Amazon Video On Demand offers access to over 75,000 titles for rental or purchase, and Netflix will offer the ability to instantly watch unlimited movies and TV shows, anytime, streaming directly to the TV.

HULU: Hulu’s numbers keep growing for certain films, which has to-date not been foreign language but that may change given the Criterion Collection announcement. Hulu is also now a subscription service (HULU PLUS) and announced the Criterion deal is for that. Criterion of course specializes in classic movies from the canon of great directors–Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, etc.–and has about 800 titles digitized so far, many of which are also available via Hulu competitor Netflix. It’s understood that this will be an exclusive deal, and that the Criterion titles that Netflix does offer will expire this year.  Hulu Plus subscribers will initially get access to 150 Criterion films, including “The 400 Blows,” “Rashomon” and “Breathless.” Hulu says the movies will run without ad interruptions, but may feature ads before the films start; the free Hulu.com service will offer a handful of Criterion titles, which will run with ads.  Hulu, owned by Comcast’s NBC, Disney’s ABC and News. Corp.’s Fox introduced the Hulu Plus pay service last year. Hulu CEO Jason Kilar says the $7.99-per-month offering is on track to reach one million subscribers in 2011. Competing for exclusive content seems to be on the rise as platforms compete for household recognition and top market share.

iTunes (APPLE): iTunes dominated consumer spending for movies in 2010 but that may not last long. One can get onto iTunes via one of its chosen aggregators such as New Video, IODA, Tune Core, Quiver…  Home Media Magazine reported the findings of an IHS Screen Digest report that showed that Apple was able to hold off challenges from competitors like Microsoft’s Zune Video (via XBOX Kinect), Sony PlayStation Store, Amazon VOD and Walmart’s VUDU.  Despite the new competition,  the electronic sellthrough and video on demand market rose more than 60% in 2010, Apple iTunes still came out on top, perhaps due in part to the release of the iPad last spring and Apple TV last fall.  Research director of digital media for IHS, Arash Amel, said, “The iTunes online store showed remarkable competitive resilience last year in the U.S. EST/VOD movie business, staving off a growing field of tough challengers while keeping pace with a dramatic expansion for the overall market.”  However, it’s important to note that although iTunes staved off competition, the overall iTunes consumer spending fell almost 10% in 2010 to 64.5%.  It was 74.4% in 2009.  Insiders predict it will not hold its market dominance for long.

Microsoft’s Zune Video was one of Apple’s biggest competitors last year, accounting for 9% of U.S. movie EST/iVOD consumer spending in 2010 but this does not seem a key platform for foreign language cinema.

MUBI:  www.Mubi.com having added Sony Playstation to its platforms reach, MUBI now has reportedly 1,200,000 members worldwide and is finally in a better position to generate revenue.  Still its own figures estimates amount to 4-figures of revenue and that’s for all its territories.  Mubi’s partnership with SONY does not extend into the US.

NETFLIX as reported in Multichannel News “as its subscriber base has swelled, Netflix has become a target for critics complaining that it is disrupting the economics of TV” is now a competitor to Cable and in fact Cable VOD companies won’t take a film if it’s already on NETFLIX’s Watch Instantly service. But Netflix is realizing it erred by losing focus on the independent and is now quietly offering bigger sums that compete with Broadcast offers and that are on par with the 5 and 6 figure revenues generated by Cable VOD for the stronger indie / art house films. Having films exclusively may be the driving force of future monetization in digital, or least in SVOD.  Regarding 2011 outlook, Netflix’s “business is so dynamic that we will be doing less calendar year guidance than in the past,” the execs said.  For the first three months of the year, Netflix expects domestic subscribers to increase to between 21.9 million and 22.8 million, with revenue between $684 million and $704 million and operating income between $98 million and $116 million. Internationally — meaning, for now, Canada — the company expects 750,000 to 900,000 subscribers with revenue of $10 million to $13 million and an operating loss between $10 million and $14 million.

REDBOX: Redbox, whose brick-red DVD vending machines are scattered across the country, is aiming to have a Netflix-like video streaming subscription service up and running by the end of 2011, company executives told investors mid February. Redbox is a wholly owned subsidiary of Coinstar. The Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based company claims to have rented more than 1 billion DVDs to date through vending machines at about 24,900 U.S. locations nationwide, including select McDonald’s, Wal-Mart Stores and Walgreens locations. It should be noted though that Redbox is very studio title focused and wide release focused but its streaming service will likely move beyond that.

WAL-MART bought VUDU and is expected to be a major player. Walmart is the world’s largest retailer with $405 billion in sales for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2010. In the U.S., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. operates more than 4,300 facilities including Walmart supercenters, discount stores, Neighborhood Markets and Sam’s Club warehouses.   VUDU, is Walmart’s recently acquired online media source where consumers can rent or buy movies and TV shows for their internet-ready HDTV, Blu-ray Disc players or PlayStation 3 consoles.  Like iTunes, there are no monthly fees.  Consumers can buy and rent movies when they want, and 2-night rentals are only $2.  It will be interesting to see how VUDU will rise as a contender in 2011 and whether iTunes will suffer as a result of their success.  Wal-Mart advertises that regarding VUDU: “from Internet-ready HDTVs to WiFi enabled Blu-ray players, you’ll find all the VUDU ready electronics you’re looking for at Walmart.com. Whether adding a flat panel TV to your dorm room or upgrading your home entertainment center, our selection of VUDU ready HDTVs has you covered. You’ll also save money on our VUDU ready products when you select items with free shipping to your home. With VUDU, you’ll be able to stream HD movies directly from the Internet to your TV in dynamic surround sound for a great low price. Shop VUDU ready HDTVs and Blu-ray players at Walmart.com — and save. “ And the retail giant makes sure all relevant devices / electronics it carries are VUDU-enabled.  2011 and beyond will be telling.  Wal-Mart caters to the average American so it remains to be seen if there is an appetite for foreign language film via VUDU in the months and years to come. In its inception VUDU was catering to early adaptors of new technology and those eager to watch HD but now it seems to be becoming more generic. New Video is a preferred aggregator to VUDU, among others.

VODO (Free / monetized Torrent): www.VODO.net: This has not been tried in the US by most distributors if any and not for foreign language cinema but it has worked for several projects such as Pioneer One which generated $60,000 USD by having the content made available for free and then getting donations in return.

Other emerging retailers entering the digital space:

Sears and Kmart are the latest over-the-top threats to pay-TV providers’ video-on-demand businesses. Sears launched its online movie download service, Alphaline Entertainment, which will let Sears and Kmart customers rent or purchase movies, including on the same day they are released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc, provided through digital media services firm Sonic Solutions.  Titles currently available to rent or buy from Alphaline include studio and successful TV shows. Under Sonic’s multiyear agreement with Sears, the companies will provide access to Alphaline services through multiple devices including Blu-ray Disc players, HDTVs, portable media players and mobile phones. Sears and Kmart, said in a statement. “We’ll continue to increase the reach and flexibility of the Alphaline Entertainment service by providing consumers on-demand access to the latest entertainment from a range of home and mobile electronics.” Sears, which merged with Kmart in 2005, is the fourth largest retailer in the U.S. The company has about 3,900 department stores and specialty retail stores in the U.S. and Canada.  It remains to be seen if they take on foreign language cinema. New Video is also an aggregator to them.

That’s all she wrote folks. Until the next time.

March 10th, 2011

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution, Distribution Platforms, Hulu, International Sales, iTunes, Netflix, Uncategorized

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