What Nobody Will Tell You About Getting Distribution For Your Film; Or: What I Wish I Knew a Year Ago.
By Smriti Mundhra
Smriti Mundhra is a Los Angeles-based director, producer and journalist. Her film A Suitable Girl premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and is currently playing at festivals around the world, including Sheffield Doc/Fest and AFI DOCS. Along with her filmmaking partner Sarita Khurana, Smriti won the Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
I recently attended a panel discussion at a major film festival featuring funders from the documentary world. The question being passed around the stage was, “What are some of the biggest mistakes filmmakers make when producing their films?” The answers were fairly standard—from submitting cuts too early to waiting till the last minute to seek institutional support—until the mic was passed to one member of the panel, who said, rather condescendingly, “Filmmakers need to be aware of what their films are worth to the marketplace. Is there a wide audience for it? Is it going to premiere at Sundance? Don’t spend $5 million on your niche indie documentary, you know?”
Immediately, my eyebrow shot up, followed by my hand. I told the panelist that I agreed with him that documentaries—really, all independent films—should be budgeted responsibly, but asked if he could step outside his hyperbolic example of spending $5 million on an indie documentary (side note: if you know someone who did that, I have a bridge to sell them) and provide any tools or insight for the rest of us who genuinely strive to keep the marketplace in mind when planning our films. After all, documentaries in particular take five years on average to make, during which time the “marketplace” can change drastically. For example, when I started making my feature-length documentary A Suitable Girl, which had its world premiere in the Documentary Competition section of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Netflix was still a mail-order DVD service and Amazon was where you went to buy toilet paper. What’s more, film festival admissions—a key deciding factor in the fate of your sales, I’ve learned—are a crapshoot, and there is frustratingly little transparency from distributors and other filmmakers when it comes to figuring out “what your film is worth to the marketplace.”
Sadly, I did not get a suitable answer to my questions from the panelist. Instead, I was told glibly to “make the best film I could and it will find a home.”
Not acceptable. The lack of transparency and insight into sales and distribution could be the single most important reason most filmmakers don’t go on to make second or third films. While the landscape does, indeed, shift dramatically year to year, any insight would make a big difference to other filmmakers who can emulate successes and avoid mistakes. In that spirit, here’s what I learned about sales and distribution that I wish I knew a year ago.
As any filmmaker who has experienced the dizzying high of getting accepted to a world-class film festival, followed by the sobering reality of watching the hours, days, weeks and months pass with nary a distribution deal in sight can tell you, bringing your film to market is an emotional experience. This is where your dreams come to die. A Suitable Girl went to the Tribeca Film Festival represented by one of the best agent/lawyers in the business: The Film Collaborative’s own Orly Ravid (who is also an attorney at MSK). Orly was both supportive and brutally honest when she assessed our film’s worth before we headed into our world premiere. She also helped us read between the lines in trade announcements to understand what was really going on with the deals that were being made – because, let’s face it, who among us hasn’t gone down the rabbit hole of Deadline.com or Variety looking for news of the great deals other films in our “class” are getting? Orly kept reminding us that perception is not reality, and that many of these envy-inducing deals, upon closer examination, are not as lucrative or glamorous as they may seem. Sometimes filmmakers take bad deals because they just don’t want to deal with distribution, have no other options, and can’t pursue DIY, and by taking the deal they get that sense of validation that comes with being able to say their film was picked up. Peek under the hood of some of these trade announcements, and you’ll often find that the money offered to filmmakers was shockingly low, or the deal was comprised of mostly soft money, or—even worse—filmmakers are paying the distributors for a service deal to get their film into theaters. There is nothing wrong with any of those scenarios, of course, if that’s what’s right for you and your film. But, there is often an incorrect perception that other filmmakers are somehow realizing their dreams while you’re sitting by the phone waiting for your agent to call.
Depressed yet? Don’t be, because here’s the good news: there are options, and once you figure out what yours are, making decisions becomes that much easier and more empowering.
Start by asking yourself the hard questions. Here are 12+ things Orly says she considers before crafting a distribution strategy for the films she represents, and why each one is important.
- At which festival did you have your premiere? “Your film will find a home” is a beautiful sentiment and true in many ways, but distributors care about one thing above all others: Sundance. If your film didn’t beat the odds to land a slot at the festival, you can already start lowering your expectations. That’s not to say great deals don’t come out of SXSW, Tribeca, Los Angeles Film Festival and others, but the hard truth is that Sundance still means a lot to buyers. Orly also noted that not all films are even right for festivals or will have a life that way, but they can still do great broadcast sales or great direct distribution business – but that’s a specific and separate analysis, often related to niche, genre, and/or cast.
- What is your film’s budget? How much of that is soft money that does not have to be paid back, or even equity where investors are okay with not being paid back? In other words, what do you need to net to consider the deal a success? Orly, of course, shot for the stars when working on sales for our film, but it was helpful for her to know what was the most modest version of success we could define, so that if we didn’t get a huge worldwide rights offer from a single buyer she could think creatively about how to make us “whole.”
- What kind of press and reviews did you receive? We hired a publicist for the Tribeca Film Festival (the incomparable Falco Ink), and it was the best money we could have spent. Falco was able to raise a ton of awareness around the film, making it as “review-proof” as possible (buyers pay attention if they see that press is inclined to write about your film, which in many cases is more important to them than how a trade publication reviews it). We got coverage in New York Magazine, Jezebel, the Washington Post and dozens of other sites, blogs, and magazines. Thankfully, we also got great reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and even won the Albert Maysles Prize for Best New Documentary Director at Tribeca. Regardless of how this affected our distribution offers, we know for sure we can use all this press to reignite excitement for our film even if we self-distribute. On the other hand, if you’re struggling to get attention outside of the trades and your reviews are less than stellar, that’s another reason to lower expectations.
- What are your goals, in order of priority? Are you more concerned with recouping your budget? Raising awareness about the issues in your film (impact)? Or gaining exposure for your next project/ongoing career? And don’t say “all three”—or, if you do, list these in priority order and start to think about which one you’re willing to let go.
- How long can you spend on this film? If your film is designed for social impact, do you intend to run an impact/grassroots campaign? And can you hire someone to handle that, if you cannot? Do you see your impact campaign working hand in hand with your profit objectives, or separately from them? The longer you can dedicate to staying with your film following its premiere, the more revenue you can squeeze out of it through the educational circuit, transactional sales, and more. But that time comes at a personal cost and you need to ask yourself if it’s worth it to you. Side note: touring with your film and self-distributing are also great ways to stay visible between projects, and could lead to opportunities for future work.
- Does your film have sufficient international appeal to attract a worldwide deal or significant territory sales outside of the United States? If you think yes, what’s your evidence for that? Are you being realistic? By the way, feeling strongly that your film has a global appeal (as I do for my film) doesn’t guarantee sales. I believe my film will have strong appeal in the countries where there is a large South Asian diaspora—but many of those territories command pretty small sales. Ask your agent which territories around the world you think your film might do well in, and what kinds of licensing deals those territories tend to offer. It’s a sobering conversation.
- Does your film fit into key niches that work well for film festival monetization and robust educational distribution? For example, TFC has great success with LGBTQ, social justice, environmental, Latin American, African American, Women’s issues, mental health. Sports, music, and food-related can work well too.
- Does your film, either because of subjects or issues or both, have the ability to command a significant social media following? A “significant” social media following is ideally in the hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, but is at least in the high five figures. We know the last thing you want to think about when you’re trying to lock picture, run a crowdfunding campaign, deal with festival logistics, and all the other stress of preparing for your big debut is social media. But don’t sleep on it. Social media is important not only to show buyers that there is interest in your film, but also ideas on how to position your film and which audiences are engaging with it already. Truth be told, unless you’re in the hundreds of thousands or millions of followers range, social media probably won’t make or break your distribution options, but it can’t hurt. And, in our case, it actually helped us get a lot of interest from educational distributors, who were inspired by the dialogue they saw brewing on our Facebook page.
- How likely is your film to get great critic reviews, and thus get a good Rotten Tomatoes score? Yeah, not much you can do to predict this one. However, a good publicist will have relationships with critics who can give you some insight into what the critical reaction to your film might be, before you have to read it in print. They also reach out to press who they think will like your film, keep tabs on reactions during your press and industry screenings, and monitor any press who attend your public screenings. This data is super useful for your sales representatives.
- How likely is your film to perform theatrically (knowing that very few do), sell to broadcasters (some do but it’s very competitive), sell to SVOD platforms (as competitive as TV), and sell transactionally on iTunes and other similar services (since so many docs do not demand to be purchased)? While these questions are easy to pose and hard to answer, start by doing realistic comparisons to other films based on the subject, name recognition of filmmakers, subject, budget, festival premiere status, and other factors indicating popularity or lack thereof. Also adjust for industry changes and changes to the market if the film you are comparing to was distributed years before. Furthermore, adjust for changes to platform and broadcaster’s buying habits. Get real data about performance of like-films and adjust for and analyze how much money and what else it took to get there.
- Can your film be monetized via merchandise? Not all docs can do this, but it can help generate revenue. So, go for the bulk orders of t-shirts, mugs, and tote bags during your crowdfunding campaign and sell that merch! Even if it just adds up to a few hundred extra dollars, for most people it’s pretty easy to put a few products up on their website.
- Does your film lend itself to getting outreach/distribution grants, or corporate sponsorship/underwriting? With the traditional models of both film distribution and advertising breaking down, a new possibility emerges: finding a brand with a similar value set or mission as your film to underwrite some portion of your distribution campaign. I recently spoke to a documentary filmmaker who sold licenses to his film about veterans to a small regional banking chain, who then screened the film in local communities as part of their outreach effort. The bank paid the filmmakers $1000 per license for ten separate licenses without asking them to give up any rights or conflict with any of their other deals—that’s $10,000 with virtually no strings attached. Not bad!
Sadly, Netflix is no longer the blank check it once was (or that I imagined it to be) and the streaming giant is taking fewer and fewer risks on independent films. Thankfully, Amazon is sweeping in to fill the gap, and their most aggressive play has been their Festival Stars program. If you’re lucky enough to premiere in competition at one of the top-tier festivals (Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca for now, but presumably more to come), then you already have a distribution deal on the table: Amazon will give you a $100,000 non-recoupable licensing fee ($75,000 for documentaries) and a more generous (double) revenue share than usual per hour your film is streamed on their platform for a term of two years. For many independent films, this could already mean recouping a big chunk of your budget. It also provides an important clue as to “what your film is worth to the marketplace”—$100,000 seems to be the benchmark for films that can cross that first hurdle of landing a competition slot at an A-list festival.
I’ll admit, I was a snob about the Amazon deal when I first heard about it. I couldn’t make myself get excited about a deal that was being offered to at least dozen other films, sight unseen, with no guarantee of publicity or marketing. A Facebook post by a fellow filmmaker (who had recent sold her film to a “legit” distributor) blasting the deal as “just a steep and quick path to devalue the film” left me shaken. But again, appearances proved to be deceiving.
I discussed my concerns with Orly, and she helped me see that with so few broadcast and financially meaningful SVOD options for docs, having a guaranteed significant platform deal with a financial commitment and additional revenue share is actually a great thing. Plus, one can build in lots of other distribution around the Amazon deal and end up with as robust a release as ever there could be. Orly says one should treat Amazon as a platform (online store) but as a distributor and that can provide for all the distribution potential. If one does manage to secure an all-rights deal from a “legit” distributor (we won’t name names, but it’s the companies you might see your friends selling their films to), oftentimes that distributor is just taking the Amazon deal on your behalf anyway, and shaving off up to 30% of it for themselves. So the analysis needs to be what is that distributor doing, if anything, to create additional value that merits taking a piece of a deal you can get on your own? Is it that much more money? Is it a commitment to do a significant impactful release? Are the terms sensible in light of the added value and your recoupment needs? Can you accomplish the same via DIY? Perhaps you can, but don’t want to bother. That’s your choice. But know what you are choosing and why.
Independent filmmakers are, yet again, in uncharted territory when it comes to distribution. Small distributors are closing up shop at a rapid pace. Netflix and Hulu are buying less content out of festivals, and creating more of it in house. Amazon’s Festival Stars program was just announced at Sundance this year (2017) and doesn’t launch until next Spring, so the jury is out as to whether it will really be the wonderful opportunity for filmmakers that it claims to be. By this time next year, several dozen films will have inaugurated the program and will be in a position to share their experiences with others. I hope my fellow filmmakers will be willing to do so. Given the sheer variety of films slated to debut on the platform, this data can be our first real chance to answer the question that the funder on the panel I attended refused to: “What is my film worth to the marketplace?”
Orly adds that the lack of transparency is, of course, in great part attributable to the distributors and buyers, who maintain a stranglehold on their data, but it’s also due to filmmakers’ willful blindness and simple unwillingness to share details about their deals in an effort to keep up appearances. That’s totally understandable, but if we can break the cycle of competing with each other and open up our books, we will not only have more leverage in our negotiations with buyers, but will be equipped to make better decisions for our investors and our careers. Knowledge is power, and if we all get real and share, we’ll all be informed to make the best choices we can.
admin July 5th, 2017
Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution, Distribution Platforms, DIY, education, Film Festivals, Hulu, International Sales, iTunes, Marketing, Netflix, Publicity, Theatrical
by Dan Habib
Dan Habib is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including Samuel (2008), Who Cares About Kelsey? (2012), Mr. Connolly Has ALS (2017), and many other films on disability-related topics. Habib’s films have been broadcast nationally on public television, and he does extensive public speaking around the country and internationally. Habib’s upcoming documentary Intelligent Lives (2018) features three pioneering young adults with disabilities who navigate high school, college, and the workforce—and undermine our nation’s sordid history of intelligence testing. The film includes narration from Academy award-winning actor Chris Cooper and is executive produced by Amy Brenneman. Habib, who was a photojournalist from 1988-2008, is a filmmaker at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.
About 14 years ago, I sat at my son Samuel’s bedside in the ICU as he lay in a medically induced coma. He had developed pneumonia from complications following surgery. Samuel’s neurologist encouraged me to use my skills as a photojournalist in the midst of my fear. “You should document this,” he said. Samuel, who has cerebral palsy, recovered from this emergency, and I took the doctor’s advice. Four years later, I released my first documentary, Including Samuel, which includes a scene from that hospital room. The film aired nationally on public TV in 2009, and we created a DVD with 17 language translations.
Along with the film’s launch, I started discussing my experiences as a parent of a child with a disability at film screenings, which led to a 2013 TEDx talk called Disabling Segregation.
I am now directing/filming/producing my third feature length documentary and am honored that The Film Collaborative asked me to share a few things I’ve learned along the way about DIY fundraising, distribution and outreach.
- Diversify your funding streams.
Although I made Including Samuel on a shoestring while I was still working fulltime as a newspaper photography editor, I’ve been able to raise about $1 million for each of my last two films—a budget which covers my salary and benefits, as well as all production costs. I’ve received essential support from The Fledgling Fund, but the vast majority of my funding comes from sources that don’t typically fund films:
- NH-based foundations that are interested in supporting the advancement of the issues I cover in my films (disability/mental health/education).
- National and regional foundations and organizations that focus on tangible outcomes. The Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation is the lead $200,000 supporter of my current project. MEAF funds efforts to increase the employment rates for young people with disabilities.
- Each year I typically take on one outside contract (around $75,000) from a non-profit to create a documentary film short (18-25 min.) on specific disability or education issues. These films have focused on areas like the restraint and seclusion of students or inclusive education , and help me meet my overall budget needs.
- For the last ten years, the most stable source of income has been my speaking fees, which average about $75,000/year and go back into my project budget at UNH. I do about 15 paid speaking gigs per year, and charge $5000 per 24-hours away from home (plus travel expenses). We don’t do any paid advertising—the gigs almost always come from word of mouth (see #5 below).
- Build buzz from the get-go
For some docs, secrecy is essential for editorial reasons, or the filmmaker may just prefer to keep it close to the vest. I’ve never gone that route, because I’ve felt a pragmatic need to build up an audience and donor base early in the project. For each of my films, I’ve cut a 10-14 minute ‘preview’ early in the project’s production (about 2 years before completion), which has been critical for fundraising pitches, generating buzz in social media, and for use in my public speaking presentations.On the temporary website for my Intelligent Lives project, the 14-minute preview is accessible only after completing a name/email sign in form (I also have an unlisted YouTube link to share with VIPs and funders). I’m sure some people have been turned off by this, but more than 6000 people have provided their name and email—which will be a huge asset when we launch a crowdfunding campaign in the fall to complete (I hope!) our production fundraising.Facebook has been the most active and successful platform for reaching our largest audience—educators and families—with Twitter a distant second. For the current project, we have plans to dive into Instagram and other platforms more deeply—primarily with video clips. We also see LinkedIn as a platform that can help us achieve one of the outreach goals for the new film—connecting young adults with disabilities with potential employers through virtual career fairs.
- Partner up early
I’ve spent hundreds of hours initiating and developing strong partnerships with national organizations that focus on the issues that my films address. For all three of my documentaries, I’ve held national strategy summits in Washington, DC, to bring together dozens of these National Outreach Partners (NOPs) to help develop a national outreach and engagement campaign to accompany each film (campaigns include I am Norm for Including Samuel and I Care By for Who Cares About Kelsey?) We are currently developing the campaign for the Intelligent Lives film.The NOPs also typically show my docs at their national conferences and blast the word out about key developments in the film’s release (like community screening opportunities). Our relationships with NOPs are reciprocal. We discuss how the films will shine a bright light on their issues; how they can fundraise off of screenings; and how they can use the entire film—or shorter clips that we can provide—to support their advocacy.I plan to continue to explore the vast topic areas of disability and education, and continually build on the partnerships, funders and audiences we have established (while also working hard to make films that are engaging to the general public).
- Establish your DIY distribution goals early and stay the course
When I started work on Who Cares About Kelsey?, my documentary about a high school student with ADHD who had a history of homelessness and family substance abuse, I knew I wasn’t going to try for theatrical release, but instead would focus on broadcast, an educational DVD kit and a national community screening campaign. We presented all of our would-be funders and NOPs with a specific set of outreach strategies for the film’s release that were mostly under our control—not reliant on the buzz and opportunities that would come only by getting into a major film festival. For the Intelligent Lives project, my outreach coordinator Lisa Smithline and I have been working towards a broadcast, festivals, an event theatrical and community screening campaign, VOD, online events and other distribution plans.
- Speaking of festivals…do college and conference screenings provide more bang for the buck?
I submit my films to the major fests (no luck so far), as well as mid-level and smaller film festivals, and we’ve had dozens of FF screenings (including Woodstock, Sedona, Thessaloniki, Cleveland). I always have a blast when I can be there. But I also start booking and promoting major events around the country at national conferences and colleges early in a film’s life. Although I know these events might jeopardize admission to some prominent film festivals, my experience has been that these conferences and university screenings usually have a significant, lasting impact: high volumes of DVD sales, tremendous word-of-mouth and social media upticks, and more invitations to do paid public speaking (see above). We also try to collect names and email addresses from attendees at every event, so our e-blast list (21,000+) has become a powerful outreach tool for all of my docs.
- Jam-pack the educational DVD and website
In addition to the feature length documentary, I typically create a range of short, freestanding “companion” films that I distribute both on the educational DVD kit and also for free (linked through the film’s website but hosted on YouTube and/or Vimeo). I went a bit overboard for Who Cares About Kelsey?, creating 11 mini-films on related topics. But the benefits were multifold: funders loved (and supported) these free resources, the shorter length (10-14 minutes) made them highly useful educational tools, and the free films bring traffic to the website.I also work with national experts in the topic areas covered in the feature length film and mini-films to develop extensive educational material that is packaged with the educational DVD kit. Combined with reasonable price points ($95-$195, depending on the intended audience), we have generated gross sales in the high six-figures for my last two films combined. We also produce an individual DVD, and have been selling VOD through Amazon (very low revenue compared to DVD sales, but given how much the VOD world has changed since I made “Kelsey,” we are looking at different models of online distribution for Intelligent Lives). We primarily self-distribute these products through the UNH Institute on Disability bookstore, which keeps the profits close to home.
- Seek professional help
I maintain a small field production crew (just me and an audio engineer), but my production and distribution budgets are still tight. So I’m grateful for people like Chris Cooper, Amy Brenneman and the musician Matisyahu who are donating their time and creative talents to my latest project. But there is still plenty of specialized talent I need to hire—whether it’s for editing, music scoring, fundraising, graphic art, website design and outreach consulting. And for Intelligent Lives, I’m planning to work with a distribution consultant and sales agent(s).I look for collaborators who share my values and vision that films can be a catalyst for advancing human rights…but they’ve still got to get paid!Return to strategy #1.
admin June 28th, 2017
Tags: American independent film, Amy Brenneman, Dan Habib, DIY film distribution, documentary films, documentary outreach, DVD distribution, educational distribution for films, film distribution, Fledgling Fund, Lisa Smithline, The Film Collaborative
David Averbach is Creative Director and Director of Digital Distribution Initiatives at The Film Collaborative.
When distributing your film, a lot of time is spent waiting for answers. Validation can come only intermittently, and the constant string of “no”s is an anxiety-ridden game of process of elimination. Which doors open for your film and which doors remain closed determines the trajectory of its distribution, whether it’s festival, theatrical, digital, education or home video (until that’s dead for good).
I work with filmmakers, way down-wind of this long and drawn-out process, who, after exhausting all other possibilities, have “chosen” DIY digital distribution as a last resort.
TFC’s DIY digital distribution program has helped almost 50 filmmakers go through the process of releasing their film digitally over the past 5 years and with most of them, I have often felt as though I were giving a pep-talk to the kid who got picked last for the dodgeball team. “Hang in there, just stick to it…you’ll show them all.”
Is DIY Digital Distribution anything more than a last resort? Perhaps not…
DIY vs. DOA
Since TFC was formed over six and a half years ago, we have optimistically used “DIY” as a term of empowerment, where access and transparency had finally reached a point where one could act as one’s own distributor. After all, we tell these (literally) poor, exhausted filmmakers, “no one knows your film better than you do”, so “no one can do a better job of marketing it.” With a little gumption, a few newsletters and handful of paid Facebook posts, you, too, might prove all the haters wrong and net even more earnings than Johnny next door who sold his film to what he thought was a reputable distributor but never saw a dime past the MG (minimum guarantee) in his distribution agreement. We even wrote two case study books about it.
It’s not that I’m being untruthful with these filmmakers. Nor is it the case that these films are necessarily of poor quality. What they have in common is a lack of visibility. Most had some sort of festival run, and only a handful were released theatrically, usually with one- or two-day engagements in a handful of cities. Occasionally, we’ll get a film that has four-walled in New York or Los Angeles for a week. Or sometimes ones that have played on local PBS affiliates or even on Showtime. But their films are not even close to being household brand names. So without the exposure or the marketing budget, they can do little more than to deliver their film to TVOD platforms like iTunes and hope for the best.
So what happens to these films? The news, as a whole, is not good. Based on what I’ve seen from these films in the aggregate, and all things being equal, if you DIY/dump your film onto only iTunes/Amazon/GooglePlay with moderate festival distribution but no real money left for marketing, you will be lucky to net more than $10K on TVOD platforms in your film’s digital life.
And the poorer the filmmaking quality of your film, or the less recognizable the cast, or the less “niche” your film is, the more likely it will be that you won’t even earn much more revenue than what is required to pay off the encoding and delivery fees to get your film onto these platforms in the first place (which is around $2-3K).
Which is why, as of late, I’ve been aggressively suggesting to filmmakers that holding off on high profile TVOD platforms and instead trying to drive traffic to their websites and offering sales and rentals of their film via Vimeo On Demand or VHX, two much cheaper options, might be a better use of their limited remaining funds.
But am I down on DIY? Not necessarily.
Granted, there are a lot of films out there for which The Film Collaborative can do very little for in the area of digital distribution other than hold filmmakers’ hands. But what about for films working at the “next level up” from last-resort-DIY? Films who have either gotten a no-MG or modest-MG distribution offer?
Many distributors and aggregators working at this level will informally promise some sort of marketing, but many times those marketing efforts are not specifically listed contractually in the agreement. So when filmmakers ask me whether going with a no-MG aggregator is better than doing DIY, this is my answer…
It’s important to remember that, once a film is on iTunes, no one will care how it got there. And by this I mean with no featured placement, just getting it on to the platform. So, if that’s all a distributor/aggregator is doing, this is not the kind of deal that a filmmaker can dump into someone else’s hands and move on to their next project. In fact, many aggregators will send you a welcome packet with tips and suggestions on how to market your film on social media, such as Facebook. In other words, they are literally expecting you to do your own marketing. Not just do but pay for. So, it is entirely possible that all that an aggregator or distributor is doing is fronting your encoding costs, which they will later recoup from your gross earnings, but only after they take their cut off the top. And if your distributor is offering you a modest MG, you must be prepared for the possibility that that MG may be all the earnings you are ever going to see. Certainly, we have seen many, many filmmakers in this position.
So the question remains: Is DIY still too risky for all but films that have run out of options?
It’s a hard question to answer, mostly because there is no ONE answer. Undoubtedly, some films will be helped with such an arrangement and some films will not.
A View from the Other Side…
Distributors, of course, will stick to the sunny side of the street. They will tell you that DIY is too risky for the vast majority of films, and remind you that distribution is more than getting a film on to one or two platforms.
When I asked Gravitas Ventures founder Nolan Gallagher, a veteran in distribution and whose co-execs have a combined 50+ years in distribution experience, about his feelings regarding DIY, he was quick to point out that the main difference between a proven distributor and DIY is that while much of the work in DIY happens in year 1, distributors can help in year 3 or year 5 or beyond. He believes that DIY individual filmmakers will be shut out from new revenue opportunities (i.e. the VOD platforms of the future) that will be launched by major media companies or venture capital backed entrepreneurs in the years to come because these platforms will turn to established companies with hundreds or thousands of titles on offer.
This is a fair point, in theory, but I honestly cannot recall a single instance of one of our filmmakers from 2010-2013 jumping for joy over that fact that his or her distributor had suddenly found a meaningful new VOD opportunity in years 3-5, nor have we heard of any specific efforts or successes down the line. But it’s good to know one can expect this if signing with a distributor.
He also mentioned that many of Gravitas’ documentarians receive multiple 5 figures in annual revenue over 5 years after a film first debuted.
That’s nice for those filmmakers…But what about the ones that don’t? It would be ludicrous to suggest that any decent film, with the proper marketing and industry connections, can become a respectable grosser on iTunes.
By no means am I singling out Gravitas in order to pick on them in any way. For many films, clearly they do a terrific job.
But does that mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers that have gone through aggregators like Gravitas or other smaller distributors that many TFC films have worked with, such as The Orchard, A24, Oscilloscope, Virgil, Wolfe, Freestyle Digital Media, Breaking Glass Pictures, Amplify, Wolfe, Zeitgeist Films, Dark Sky Films, Tribeca Films, Sundance Selects, who are not entirely convinced that they were well served by their distributor? Of course not.
The Million Dollar Question…
The question I really wanted to know was more of a hypothetical one than one that assigns blame: if these so-called “borderline films” that went through aggregators/distributors had done DIY instead, how close could they have come netting the same amount of earnings in the end? Is it possible that they could have gotten more?
This is a hard question—or, should I say, a nearly impossible question—to answer, because no one has a crystal ball. But also because of the continued lack of transparency surrounding digital earnings, despite initiatives like Sundance Institute’s The Transparency Project, and because the landscape is continually evolving.
A recent article in Filmmaker Magazine, entitled “The Digital Lowdown,” discusses how independent filmmakers struggle to survive in an overcrowded digital marketplace and “admits” that niche-less festival films will only gross in the range of $100K-$200K, and that, in fact, talks about a “six-figure goal.” But in almost the same breath, there is a caveat. Sundance Artist Services warns that “…if a filmmaker spends about $100,000 in P&A to finance a theatrical run, they’re probably going to be making that much from digital sources.”
I have heard many stories of distributors and filmmakers alike, who put “X” dollars combined into P&A for both theatrical and digital only to make a similar amount back in the end. So what’s the point? If you look at distribution from the perspective of paying back investors, are a good portion of filmmakers netting close to nothing, no matter whether they do DIY or whether they gear up for a theatrical and digital distribution via a distributor? If a film does not succeed monetarily, is the consolation prize merely visibility and exposure? (Which is not nothing, but it’s not $$ either).
A few months ago, my colleague Bryan Glick posted a terrific piece on our blog that questioned the ROI of an Oscar®-qualifying run, given the unlikelihood of being shortlisted. Bryan implies that because filmmakers like hearing “yes,” and like having their egos stroked, when publicists, publications, screening series, cinemas, and private venues all lure filmmakers with a possibility of an Oscar®, something takes over and they lose perspective at the very moment they need it most.
Could the same be true for a distribution strategy? Are filmmakers so happy to be offered a distribution deal at all that they are unable to walk away from that distribution deal, even if they suspect that it undervalues their film? And could a viable DIY option change that?
Evaluating Success with DIY
Last fall, I began to think about what a “successful” DIY digital release could look like. On the low end, we’ve heard about a magical $10K figure that I discussed above…in the context of MGs paid to Toronto official selections via Vimeo on Demand, and Netflix offers to Sundance films via Sundance Artists Services. So it would have to be at least greater than $10K. And on the high end, it would have to be at least $100K that the filmmaker gets to net over a 10-year period.
Working backwards, how can this be achieved and is it possible to recreate that strategy via DIY?
One thing that gave me hope was when my colleague Orly Ravid, acting as sales agent, negotiated a licensing low-six-figure deal with Netflix for the film Game Face, about LGBTQ athletes coming out. The film won numerous audience awards at film festivals, but had no theatrical release. Timing, as well as the sports and LGBT niche, made this film perfect for a DIY release. The only catch was the Netflix insisted on a simultaneous SVOD & TVOD window, so Netflix and iTunes releases started within one day of each other. TFC serviced the deal through our flat-fee program via Premiere Digital Services.
Lessons Learned from the DIY Release of Tab Hunter Confidential
This past Spring, TFC spearheaded the digital release of Tab Hunter Confidential, a film for which we also handled festival and theatrical distribution, as well as sales. Truth be told, this film almost went through a distributor. In the end, however, after a protracted period of negotiation, an offer was made, but knowing how much Netflix was willing to offer, Orly advised the filmmaker to walk away from the deal and try our hand at a DIY release. The filmmaker agreed, and we serviced the Netflix deal via Premiere. However, as Netflix wanted the film for June, which is Gay Pride Month, we had a limited amount of time in which to do iTunes, and I was determined to make the most of it.
So what were the goals? And how could we get there?
I had been trolling both the “Independent” and “Documentary” sections on iTunes for months in preparation for what has now become this article on DIY. I had been noticing that while it is easy to get a film into the “New & Noteworthy” section in “Documentaries,” which contains at hundreds of films, the similar section in “Independent” is limited to about 32. So how could one get there? And how could one’s film be featured in the top carousel in “Independent” or in any of the genre categories? Would it help to offer iTunes exclusivity? Would it help to do iTunes Extras? Could we contact Apple and try and schedule something? What else could be done? These are the questions that I set out figure out on my own, or to ask our aggregator, Premiere Digital Services.
How can I get my film to be one of the 30+ films in the “Independent” Section of iTunes? This section is populated at Apple’s discretion. Their iTunes division is based in L.A., not Silicon Valley, and they attend film festivals and are very up-to-date on the indie film landscape. It’s clear, however, that while they do speak with distributors and aggregators about what’s coming down the pipeline, most of the decisions about what is to receive placement in this section occur within a week or two of the release date in question, and are decided ultimately by iTunes. I informed Premiere Digital that we were very interested in being placed in Independent, and they told me that they have weekly calls with iTunes and that—closer to the date of release—they would mention the film to them. In the end—spoiler alert—we did manage to get Tab into this section. But there were no back room deals to get that to happen…so I can hereby confirm that it is possible to be featured on the iTunes store based solely on your film and the specifics of its release.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Out of approximately 100 films that appeared from late November 2015 to early February 2016 (which I kept track of manually, so the following is not completely scientific), about 50 of those had a “fresh” rotten tomatoes score. About 40 of those 50 had RT scores over 80%, and many of those were Certified as Fresh. Of the remaining 50 films, about 20 had “rotten” RT scores, and about 30 had no score at all. Luckily, Tab Hunter Confidential has an RT score of 87%, so I knew I was safe from that perspective. But while I was investigating, I was particularly interested in those films without a score. I noticed that many of them had star power attached, and a few of them were holiday-themed. A few of them were Lionsgate titles. And a few sports-related and horror titles, which always seem to rise to the top. I glanced at the Independent section for this week (third week in August), and these numbers pretty much bear out, save the holiday ones. The takeaway here was that if your film did not have a theatrical (and therefore perhaps does not have a RT score), if it doesn’t have famous people in it, it’s not about sports or is not in the horror genre, your chances of appearing in this section as a DIY film going through an aggregator seem pretty slim.
Check in, check out dates. As many of you know, films always end up in one of Apple’s genre sections. They stay there a few weeks or even a few months until they are bumped out of that category by newer items. But those sections are very glutted. The “Independent” section is a second placement, one that is curated by Apple, of only three rows of films. One thing that I became acutely aware of was the high turnaround in this section. Films seemed to be refreshed twice a week: once on Tuesdays (release day), and then again on Fridays. This was more or less consistent, although I got the feeling that on a few occasions things were a bit early or a bit late.
At any rate, it was very clear that if films were not pulling their weight, they would be booted from the “Independent” section for something else. At least 1/3 of the films were gone after only a few days. After all, Apple is in the business of making money off these films too. What occurred to me is that if filmmakers are doing distribution deals to get placement, and their films only last 3 days in the “Independent” section, and that measly placement is what amounts to the big perk/payoff of going through a distributor, it’s a pretty sad day for either the filmmaker, the distributor, or both.
How can I get my film featured in the top carousel? It turned out to be the same answer as for the Independent section in general, but I can admit it now…I was a pest: I asked multiple people at Premiere this question. I was told over and over that Apple will make a request for layered artwork if they are interested in featuring the film. Two weeks before the release date I had not heard anything. But less than a week before, Premiere received the request for artwork from Apple. We ended up being featured in both the “Independent” and “Documentary” sections.
Why did they pick us? I am not completely sure, but here are my guesses: We had a great film festival run. The film was based on a bestselling book. We had a high RT score; we did a 40+ city theatrical; we had a lot of press, and we had a publicist; the film was apparently not doing terribly in the iTunes Pre-Order section, Tab Hunter did many interviews when the theatrical came out; Tab Hunter is freaking Tab Hunter; the film spans both LGBT genres and the genre of women of a certain age who came of age in the 1950s and still remember Tab’s poster on their bedroom walls; the artwork was classy; it was almost June; we gave them an exclusive (although I don’t think they ever advertised it as such); we did an international release on iTunes (we were told that Apple likes films to have more than one territory to be featured, which is kind of strange, because it wasn’t featured in any other iTunes store, like Canada or UK); and lastly, we did some iTunes custom artwork and iTunes Extras.
Walking the walk. Speaking of customization, one thing that I noticed about every film in the “Independent” section was that most detail pages contained customized promotion background artwork. Apple likes this. It gives the film branding, credibility. Apple has two different kinds of background art one for the iTunes store and one for AppleTV. We opted to do just the iTunes store art, which is an extra $75 conformance fee at Premiere. We also did iTunes Extras basic package, for about $700 extra, which offers a chance to include bonus features, such as outtakes and other exclusive video. Since we were planning on including bonus interviews on our DVD, we included that file, as well as 10 minutes of interviews for which iTunes is the only place that they are available. I’m not sure if Extras helped the featured placement, since we were literally down to the wire on having them appear on the store in time for the release. (At the last minute, we needed a looping background audio for iTunes, which we didn’t realize was mandatory, so if you go the Extras route, don’t forget that that audio file is needed).
Results. All in all, we did everything we could, and it paid off. We were featured in both the carousels of the “Independent” and “Documentary” genre sections, and stayed in the “Independent” carousel for a full week and in “Documentary” carousel for two weeks. We stayed in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Independent” for several weeks. At its peak, we reached #2 in Documentaries, being surpassed only by Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, which months later is still in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Independent.” We made sure Tab Hunter Confidential shows up in both the iTunes Extras section and the “LGBT Movies” Collection section. The more places to find the film, after all, the more chance of it being rented or purchased.
After over 3 months, around the third week of August, Tab Hunter Confidential was the 12th All-Time Bestselling LGBT Doc in the iTunes store. As of the date of this blog, it has dipped down the 14th. It is still in the “New & Noteworthy” part of “Documentaries,” although to be fair that section contains hundreds of films.
Regrets? Could we have stayed longer in the iTunes carousels? Two things worked against us. First, although there was a social media push when the film was released, it was pretty limited, as we had only a small P&A budget. With more of a spend, we could have gotten more attention during the second week, and perhaps sales would have warranted the film sticking around for longer. Other films, such as Gravitas’ Requiem for the American Dream, for which TFC handled the Theatrical, featuring Noam Chomsky, have done a much better job surfing this wave. Fortuitous timing with Bernie Sanders, but that is a story for another day.
Although we offered TVOD exclusivity to Apple until June, it was unclear whether they really cared about that, as they never promoted it as such, and we probably should have released on Amazon, GooglePlay and Vudu on the same day as iTunes.
(Speaking of Amazon and GooglePlay, I once asked someone who used to work at Premiere how one gets featured on those other platforms’ stores. What they told me was shocking: Amazon and GooglePlay basically copy content ideas from the iTunes store. This was about a year ago, so who knows if this is still happening, or if it was even true at all. But I was kind of blown away by this.)
Conclusion. There are undoubtedly things one could immediately try and recreate from the steps that were taken with Tab Hunter Confidential. However, who is to know if they could work a second time, with a different film and different timeframe?
I am not suggesting in this article that distribution deals are unnecessary. Many companies have a ton of industry connections and experience that one might not be able to recreate with DIY.
But in this case, the filmmaker is thrilled, and my TFC team believes that dollar for dollar, the filmmaker walked away with a guaranteed net that is more than they would have received had they taken the distribution deal that was offered to them by a distributor.
So should DIY be considered a dirty word? Only you can decide if it is right for you film. As a whole, the jury might still be out, but, at the very least, I suspect that we’re going to get more filmmakers interested in iTunes background art.
Be sure to look out for Tab Hunter Confidential, on digital platforms, and now on DVD and Blu-Ray, which have recently been released by our friends at FilmRise.
David Averbach September 6th, 2016
We are gearing up for a big article on DIY Digital Distribution, which will be posted very soon. In the meantime, we liked this No Film School case study article on DIY DVD Distribution so much that we had to link to it on our blog as well as SM. Enjoy!
Orly Ravid August 17th, 2016
We thought we’d start off 2015 with a bit about digital platforms that filmmakers can utilize directly, without giving rights to a distributor and without necessarily having to go through an aggregator. When I say “platform,” what I mean is a place on the Internet that film viewers would go to consume cinema. While filmmakers are always encouraged to distribute off their own websites and social media pages, that is not the subject of this blog. To accomplish DIY off the film’s site and social media pages, filmmakers are encouraged to work with Distrify or VHX, for example. For now we cover the following distinct platforms that filmmakers can directly access: MUBI, FANDOR, VIMEO, WOLFE ON DEMAND, and DOCURAMA (just a tad, and more will be discussed in a few weeks).
MUBI is a curated video-on-demand subscription service.
MUBI describes its offering as a hand-picked selection of the best cult, classic and award-winning films from around the globe. “Every day MUBI’s in-house film experts select a great new film and you have 30 days to watch it. So there’s always 30 brilliant films to enjoy. We have a huge audience of passionate cinephiles from every corner of the planet who watch, rate, review and share great cinema.” See more at mubi.com/about.
Q: How film viewers can access it?
The service is the only subscription service available worldwide (193 territories). So whether you are in Venezuela or Vancouver you’ll be able to experience a beautiful collection of 30 hand-picked films. MUBI works on the web, mobile devices, internet-connected TVs and games consoles. On MUBI’s mobile apps you can download films and watch offline.
Financial model of platform How audiences pay (if at all) and how do filmmakers make money:
MUBI brings one new film to the platform every single day. Each film plays on the platform for a 30-day window. Revenue is split 50/50 with the filmmaker (or whomever is the rights holder) based on views over the 30-day run. A MUBI membership costs around $4.99 USD in most countries for a month or £2.99 in the UK or €4.99 in the EU.
Deals Offered to Filmmakers:
MUBI typically licenses films for a 2-year period, non-exclusive. They license by territory, but also do global deals or groups of territories.
How Films Get Onto MUBI:
MUBI takes films directly from filmmakers and also from studios, distributors and aggregators.
Q: What does your company do to drive audiences / consumers to this platform?
“Beyond the normal channels (digital, social, offline) we work in partnership with festivals and organisations [organizations] like Cannes, Berlinale, MoMa, AFI, Lomokino, Picturehouse Cinemas, we curate seasons and retrospectives, host screenings, run events… the list goes on! Also, in the UK (one of our focus countries) we have a mutli-level advertising campaign launching in 2015.”
[This question is almost never answered by any businesses so don’t hold it against MUBI for not answering.]
Speaking from experience, however, we at TFC have enjoyed seeing hundred of dollars that eventually added up to some small version of thousands for a film that did not do better business anywhere else. In fact, I would say MUBI was a source of revenue that was particularly useful for a smaller art house film that would not be sought out on the more commercial platforms such as iTunes.]
What MUBI does to market films:
“We have huge communication channels offline and off. When a title is selected as the ‘film of the day’ all these channels are directed towards promoting that film. The difference with MUBI, for the filmmaker, is that instead of your film sitting in a library of a thousand films, your film is one of just thirty. Every day we send out a dedicated ‘Film of the Day’ email to hundreds of thousands of people globally, the email features “Our Take” – the reasons why we selected the film and why it’s worth watching. We build editorial context around films rather than leaving them fighting alone. We run one of the most respected online sources for film criticism, Notebook. So if your film is on MUBI it’s less about creating a long-term revenue stream and more about exposure for the film in a targeted, well-contextualised burst which can be a great complement to (or continuation of) a theatrical or DVD release. A film is on MUBI for 30 days but for those 30 it is the centre of our attention. It works for the audiences and filmmakers alike, great films can find people that want to watch them.”
Special initiatives MUBI has brewing (this is from December 2014):
New from MUBI: iPad and iPhone App
Fandor can be accessed via apps available through iTunes (iPhone, iPad) and Google Play (Android phones and tablets including Kindle Fire), and as a channel on Roku.
Fandor offers an extensive and rich library of over 6000 films, from around the world, in over 500 genres, and of all lengths, handpicked for people who love the transforming experience of great cinema. Fandor fulfills the promise of an online cinematic experience, marrying curation with contextual information for a global community of film lovers and filmmakers.
Fandor Availability / Accessibility:
Fandor is available in the US and Canada, accessible anytime to subscribers.
Financial model of platform—How do audiences pay (if at all) and how do filmmakers make money:
Fandor members subscribe on an annual ($90) or a monthly ($10) basis. Both subscription types offer a 2-week free trial. Subscription revenue is shared, with 50% going to the film rights holders, divided based on availability and audience viewership.
Deals Given to Filmmakers:
Because our model is a revenue share, the amount that filmmakers earn will vary based on viewership. 20% of the shared revenue is split among all films on the platform; the remaining 80% is allocated based on seconds of viewing to individual films.
Fandor Gets Films Direct From Filmmakers And Distributors:
Fandor has partnerships with hundreds of distributors and approximately 125 filmmakers (direct).
What Fandor does to drive audiences / consumers to its platform:
“We have an extensive marketing program that includes advertising, social outreach to over 160K fans, public relations, personalized email and integrated promotional campaigns. We also have a network of 4 blogs that addresses Fandor customers (The Fandorian), film aficionados (Keyframe), the film industry (Hope for Film), and filmmaker-to-filmmaker (Hammer to Nail).”
Fandor’s response to our request to share revenue ranges for films on its platform:
“We’re a private company and typically don’t share our financials and membership data.”
Special initiatives Fandor has brewing:
“We have two initiatives currently targeted to film festivals (Fandor|Festival Alliance) and to filmmakers (FIX). These initiatives are part of a larger effort to build relationships across the film world as part of a larger mission to advance and preserve film art and culture.”
See the release explaining these…
An example of a Fandor marketing campaign:
“Probably the best example is the Shocktober campaign we did for October. We showcased a different horror film each day through the month of October. The campaign was integrated across our ads, our website, our social networks, and email. We also did two video trailers. I’ve attached a .gif we used for social and email, and following are links to the videos. The campaign culminated in a day/date release of the remastered THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI on Halloween.”
VIMEO ON DEMAND
Vimeo allows one to distribute films, series, and videos with all the power of Vimeo, its community, and its legendary
HD player. Anyone can use Vimeo On Demand – from established and first-time filmmakers to creators of video tutorials or video performances. “Vimeo On Demand helps creators distribute feature films, documentaries, series, episodes, TV shows, instructional videos, and more. It puts all the control in the hands of creators, who can choose to offer buy and rent options at their own prices, sell on Vimeo and their own website, worldwide or in select countries.”
Vimeo On Demand is available worldwide and allows viewers to watch films on pretty much any screen, from computers and tablets to connected TVs, all in full HD (even 4K!). Vimeo On Demand is a global, open platform where any filmmaker can sign up and start selling their videos.
Financial model of platform:
Vimeo On Demand offers creators the ability to sell their movies to rent or own. “Viewers pay by credit card or PayPal. Creators earn 90% of the net revenue from every sale—which is the best deal in the film business!”
Vimeo accepts films first-time filmmakers and distributors.
Q: What does your company do to drive audiences / consumers to Vimeo?:
“Vimeo has 170 million monthly visitors and more than 30 million registered users. We regularly promote curated selections of movies from Vimeo On Demand to this massive audience on-site, via email and on social media. We also have ongoing paid marketing campaigns and publisher partners working to bring viewers to Vimeo On Demand.”
“Vimeo On Demand has been proud to power some of the most successful direct distribution releases ever. We are not allowed to share our users’ revenue data.”
What Vimeo does on marketing front for its films:
“Our Audience Development team is actively working to market films via our own platform as well as through digital advertising, social media marketing, and a growing list of publisher partners. Vimeo On Demand is the only direct distribution platform that brings a built-in audience and markets films on the platform.”
[NOTE: My colleague David Averbach has informed me that there is a way, for filmmakers who are allowed to offer VOD off their film’s website, but not other external sites, to hide Vimeo On Demand videos from vimeo.com.]
WOLFE ON DEMAND
The worldwide LGBT digital movie-watching platform!
Accessibility / Availability:
The platform showcases more than 150 films, more than 100 of which are available worldwide.
TVOD (Transactional Video on Demand via Internet) and Streaming (rental)
$3.99 streaming and $14.99 download for features.
$2.99 streaming and $9.99 download for docs.
Revenue to Filmmakers:
WOD split is 50/50. Wolfe have also entered into a strategic relationship with Vimeo and WOD will soon live on their platform. Wolfe’s site is powered, in part, by Distrify which takes a cut of revenues, as will Vimeo. Wolfe also notes that the partnering with Vimeo will also involve additional marketing opportunities.
Direct with Filmmakers and Distributors:
“We work with all kinds of filmmakers directly as well as distributors.”
Q: What does your company do to drive audiences / consumers to this platform?:
“Wolfe has been in the business of releasing LGBT films since 1985. With 30 years in the business we have the experience, relationships community good will and connections to help connect films with the audiences who want to see them. We utilize our mailing lists, social media, advertising, PR, community outreach and creative marketing as well as a wide array of other marketing tools and strategies. Wolfe’s strength is in consumer marketing. We dedicate considerable resources to unique programs domestically and abroad to drive traffic to WolfeOnDemand.com.”
[Like the others, Wolfe did not disclose.]
Special initiatives Wolfe has brewing:
Yes, stay tuned for some exciting news to be announced in late January 2015.
We’ll be covering this one in a few weeks as information is being updated…
As the name suggests, this platform focuses on documentaries.
The channel is available on iOS, Roku, XBox, Amazon Fire, Western Digital, Opera, to name a few.
We will send proper information about Docurama in a few weeks. For now, TFC recommends working directly with these platforms when they are a fit for your film. We will update about other platforms as we learn of them, if we think they are worthy of focus.
Happy direct digital distribution,
The Film Collaborative
Orly Ravid January 14th, 2015
As 2014 draws to a close TFC reflects on five (5) film distribution lessons from 2014 in anticipation of our 5th Anniversary at Sundance 2015.
1) DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY POSITIVELY IMPACTING FESTIVAL & OTHER PUBLIC EXHIBITION DISTRIBUTION BY REDUCING COST AND HEADACHE:
As we have seen every year for several years now, we are experiencing additional technological revolution that will change our business forever. In 2014, we said adieu to the preview DVD (for festivals, distributors, exhibitors, press etc.) in favor of the online screener link. We said goodbye to the HDCAM and the final nail in the coffin of the Digibeta. We struggled with the problems of the DCP and all its imperfections and inevitability (at least for a few more years). And we are RIGHT ON THE VERGE of the greatest evolution we will experience in recent years, which will be full delivery of films for exhibition via the Internet…whether it turns out to be Vimeo or Drop Box or iCloud or other. If we can remove the SHIPPING part of the independent film business, filmmaker (and distributor) profits may greatly increase without that part of the equation. We are almost there now…
2) THE HARD-TO-ACCEPT REALITY OF MARKETING SMALL FILMS:
As much as all of us at TFC have talked about the need to identify and target niche audiences, the ones who would be the most interested and excited to see a project because it speaks to a belief or lifestyle or cause, most indie filmmakers still aren’t heeding this advice. Of the consultations I had this year, most were with filmmakers who made micro-budget dramas with no notable names and were without prestigious festival accolades. They still believed a distributor would be willing to take on their project and give it a full release. Even those who realized this wasn’t going to happen found the financial burden associated with the kind of release they envisioned too difficult to bear, especially because they were likely to never see that money again (hence why distributors weren’t willing to take on the burden).
If you’re going to work small, you need to think small, but deep. You NEED a small, but highly passionate audience that you can reach given the resources and assets you have. Their enthusiasm will help you if you can harness their attention early on. I won’t say this is easy, but before you embark on a project that could take thousands of dollars and years of your life, first think about how you will approach the audience for your work and how you will maintain it on a consistent basis. If you think someone else is going to take care of that for you, you haven’t been paying attention to the shifts in the indie film marketplace.
If you think someone else is going to [attract and maintain a niche audience] for you, you haven’t been paying attention to the shifts in the indie film marketplace.
3) WHEN BROADCASTERS WANT STREAMING RIGHTS – WHAT TO DO?:
Increasingly, broadcasters are seeking streaming rights along with traditional TV broadcast rights and they have holdbacks on streaming and SVOD at a minimum, and often on transactional digital (DTO/DTR) too. For sure they limit / prohibit cable VOD. As a filmmaker, you only have leverage to demand a higher licensing fee if your film is a hot commodity. Otherwise, while online (or in-app) streaming will possibly gut your transactional VOD sales, you can’t beat the reach a broadcaster can give to your film. Think very hard about turning down a broadcast deal that includes online streaming. Will your iTunes/Amazon/Google Play sales really be so much if very few people have heard of your film? iTunes and Amazon are not going to promote your film like a broadcaster would.
Then again, which broadcaster is it? How big is its reach? How much publicity and marketing will you get? How much digital distribution are you barred from and for how long? Not all types of films make the same money on all types of platforms so does your film demand-to-be-owned? or is a renter, at best. Not all platforms will even accept all films (e.g. all Cable VOD, Sony Playstation, Netflix). Is yours one that will digitally succeed broadly or narrowly, or at all? Will Netflix pay 6-figures like in the good ole days or a lot less, or anything? Do you have a direct-to-fan distribution strategy that you can employ in tandem so as to not need to rely on other digital platforms in the first place?
Or if you want to try it all, still, your strategy would privilege the direct sales anyway. Which is better for your goals, a film that gets national broadcast airings or a film that turns down that opportunity only to be buried in the iTunes store? Or would it not be buried? Only you can answer this as not everyone’s goals are the same and not everyone’s opportunities / potentials are the same. As we have always said, knowing your film’s ACTUAL potential and combining that with your HIERARCHY OF GOALS will help you answer these questions and decide your distribution strategy.
And while it may feel like you are giving up revenue by allowing your film to be streamed (hopefully for a limited time!) through a broadcaster’s portal, you may find this is a good career move for your next feature because people will be familiar with your work having had the opportunity to see it.
4) THE HEAVY BURDEN OF THE NARRATIVE WITH NO NAMES:
Several of us opined about the challenges facing narratives with no names.
The emerging mega strength of incredible television series available everywhere threatens narrative film even more than before, and of course, especially the smaller indie fare.
We have seen time and again how narrative dramas or comedies almost always fall flat in sales unless they have very strong names and not just C-list or B-list names. Of course there are exceptions to this rule and Sundance can be part of that, or a hot director, or simply just an exceptional break out film. But too many filmmakers look to those as the model when they are the anomaly. The pattern we, at TFC, see repeated too often is the making of a decent or good but not exceptional narrative with names that are okay but not great and then wasting time trying to make a big or even medium sale. It just does not happen. Money and time are lost and careers often not made. Again, there are exceptions, and of course certain niches such as LGBT may be one of them, but we advise discerning between passionate optimism and sheer folly.
5) TRANSPARENCY—The Kale of Film Distribution:
The big takeaway from 2014 about TRANSPARENCY is that, on the one hand, it has become a sort of new, hip standard—something cool and good, like eating kale—that more honest distributors practice and/or shadier ones pretend to because it’s more expected. On the other hand, however, we were surprised at how many filmmakers still resist it—resist sharing their data, even anonymously. And to that, all we can ask is, what are you afraid of? It’s meant to be good for the filmmaking community as a whole but maybe individually folks are scared about what the truth will bring. And some folks just want to eat bacon. We get it. Still, we encourage sharing the real data for the greater good and we will keep on working to inspire and facilitate more TRANSPARENCY.
We at TFC wish you and yours a delightful new year and we are looking forward to being even more of service to filmmakers in 2015!
Orly Ravid December 29th, 2014
Tags: audience building for films, broadcasters, DCP, direct-to-fan film distribution, distribution strategy, DVD, film distribution, film exhibition, Film Festivals, independent film distribution, independent film with no names, The Film Collaborative, Vimeo
Last May, TFC released the second book in our series called Selling Your Film Outside the US. As with everything in the digital space, we are trying to keep track of a moving target. Netflix has now launched in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. iTunes continues its transactional VOD domination by partnering with Middle East film distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment to give Arabic and Bollywood films a chance to have simultaneous releases in eight countries: UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait. Amazon has just launched several new original series in the US and UK, including critical darling Transparent, to a line up that includes returning series Alpha House and Betas.
But what does DIY Distribution mean in the context of European territories? The following is an excerpt included in the book:
Here are a few tips for any filmmaker who is thinking about doing digital distribution in general, but especially in multiple territories:
-If your film is showing at an international film festival, ask if they are producing subtitles, and, if so, negotiate that the produced file be part of your festival fee. It may need to be proofed again or adjusted at a subtitling and transcription lab later on, but as a first pass it could prove very valuable down the road. See more about the kind of file you need in this post;
-When you are producing your master, create a textless version of your feature. Apple and probably other platforms will not allow external subtitles on any films that already have burn-ins. If your film, for example, has a few non-English lines of dialogue, instead of burning-in English subtitles into your film, a better method would be to create an external English-language subtitle file (separate from closed captioning) in a proper format and submit it with your master. Different aggregators may require different formats, and if you are going to a Captioning/Transcription/Translation Lab to do your closed captioning and subtitling work, be smart about which questions you ask and negotiate a price for everything, including transcoding from one format to another because you may not know exactly what you will need for all your deals right away.
Subtitles need to be timed to masters, so make sure your time code is consistent. When choosing a lab, ascertain whether they are capable of fulfilling all your current and future closed captioning and subtitling needs by verifying that they can output in the major formats, including (but not limited to) SubRip (.srt), SubViewer 1 & 2 (.sub), SubStation Alpha (.ssa/.ass), Spruce (.stl), Scenarist (.scc) and iTunes Timed Text (.itt);
-You may want to band together with films that are similar in theme or audience and shop your products around as bundled packages. Many digital services, including cable VOD, have thematic channels and your bundle of films may be more attractive as a package rather than just one film;
-Put the time in toward building your brand and your fanbase. Marketing still is the missing piece of the puzzle here. As it gets easier and easier to get onto platforms, so too does it get more difficult for audiences to find the films that are perfectly suited to their interests. This is especially true when talking about marketing one’s film outside one’s home territory. If you are accessing platforms for your film on your own, YOU are the distributor and the responsibility of marketing the film falls entirely to you.
To download a FREE copy of the entire book, complete with case studies of films distributed in Europe, visit sellingyourfilm.com.
Sheri Candler October 15th, 2014
A knockout victory
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is just behind us and films submitted for Sundance are a month away from their acceptance call. While the difference between Toronto/Sundance and SXSW/Tribeca is pretty clear, what separates Toronto from Sundance might surprise you.
I looked at the data from the last two year’s of each festival and came up with one big conclusion. Sundance is the bigger festival for North American distribution on just about every measurable level I could come up with.
How could this be? Toronto is the more mainstream fest, right? Not so much.
Let’s start with some comparative info that would clearly skew things in Toronto’s favor:
-62.5% of films from TIFF 2013 have US distribution
-81.3% of films from SUNDANCE 2014 have US distribution (and remember this was accomplished in 9 months compared to TIFF’s 13 months)
But what about the box office performance?
Sundance has a higher percentage of films that grossed over $1 Million, $500,000, and $100,000 than TIFF. This is including non world premiere films which would give TIFF an advantage.
But what about the size of the deals? Isn’t TIFF where the big money is? Hardly
11 films from TIFF 2014 generated 7 figure deals, 11 films from TIFF 2013 did the same. The difference is TIFF screens 2.5x as many films. Even eliminating the # of films with US distribution before TIFF started and cutting out foreign language films, producers were still twice as likely to get a seven figure deal at Sundance.
The Documentary King
TIFF is a much more diverse slate, but sorely lacking in docs. Roughly 1/3 of Sundance films are documentaries, while only about 1/10 of TIFF films are. Even then, docs were more likely to get distribution out of Sundance than TIFF and by a very wide margin. 90% vs 52%. The majority of docs that made the Oscar shortlist came from Sundance, as have a majority of nominees in the last five years.
Foreign Language Problem
In contrast to their #1 status as a place to launch documentaries, Sundance’s World Cinema lineup is far from a sure bet.
While only 41% of Sundance 2014 World Dramatic films have US distribution, that percentage is still higher than foreign language films that screened at TIFF. The % is higher even if we include all foreign language films and not just world or international premieres at TIFF. So even in Sundance’s weakest area your odds are still better than at TIFF.
That all noted, TIFF receives some high profile foreign language films that will ultimately generate bigger deals and make a dent in the US box office, but those are few and far between in an already very unprofitable arena.
So What Does a TIFF Screening Mean?
TIFF does two things that Sundance does not. It functions as a worldwide market and it is a frequent must for awards buzz films.
Sundance films do better on a domestic level. TIFF films are more likely to generate some form of worldwide interest and the majority of major worldwide players are in attendance.
Sundance has an international presence, but nothing on the same level of going into the Hyatt and taking the United Nations tour of film booths.
Sundance also doesn’t take studio films, which TIFF does. I would argue this is part of the problem TIFF films face. The competition for attention is so much higher with studio films in the mix that many simply get lost in the shuffle.
The DIY Mindset
In the age of DIY options at very low cost, one has to wonder why so many films at TIFF didn’t take advantage of Vimeo’s $10k offer in 2013. In fact, 55 world premieres still lack US distribution, which means with 100% certainty they turned down $10k to chase a pipe dream of success.The worldwide sales agent aspect at TIFF makes it a lot harder to discuss DIY options, but things are slowly starting to change.
This year was the first time multiple filmmakers were willing to openly discuss DIY options for release with me during the fest.
Sundance has their Artist Services program and some very notable DIY success stories (Detropia, Indie Game: The Movie, Upstream Color etc). But the biggest difference is Sundance is early in the year. There are tons of festivals left with which to build exposure going into release.
While it is almost always advisable to hit the festival circuit running, if one didn’t do that at Sundance, it’s easier to rev up the process than at TIFF when the year is nearly finished. If you don’t pursue additional festival screenings right away, your film would play TIFF and not screen anywhere until the following year. Remember there aren’t a lot of festivals in November/December. By that point people have moved onto Sundance and don’t even remember what they saw at TIFF.
The Take Away
Don’t buy into the hype about a festival without carefully looking at the info. While many Oscar winners have come from TIFF, the stats don’t lie. For domestic success, your odds are better with Sundance. This doesn’t make TIFF a bad festival, it’s easily the 2nd best launch pad in North America, but it’s important to know that your film is more likely to get a distribution deal out of Tribeca than TIFF if you have a documentary.
The consensus from this year’s TIFF was that there weren’t too many hidden gems, but with 288 features would any of us even know? At a certain point size is a liability and I think that TIFF needs to shrink its slate or get more creative when it comes to highlighting world premieres without big names.
Reminder: EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL & THE CIRCLE
The Spike Lee executive produced Evolution of a Criminal opens in NYC Friday October 10th at IFC Center. They are also crowdfunding to support their nationwide theatrical release. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/948417025/evolution-of-a-criminal-theatrical-release
In partnership with Wolfe Releasing, TFC Direct will be theatrically releasing Switzerland’s Oscar entry, The Circle. It opens November 21st in NYC and will be expanding through beginning of 2015.
Bryan Glick October 9th, 2014
In two prior posts, I chronicled how rapid technological change was impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this was affecting filmmakers and their post-production and delivery choices. In January 2013, in a post called “The Independent’s Guide to Film Exhibition and Delivery” I discussed the rise of the DCP in independent exhibition, and the potential dangers it posed to filmmakers on a budget. And later that year, I posted “Digital Tape is Dead” in which I gave further evidence that it was possible to resist the rise of DCP…at least for the time being… and the reasons for doing so.
It’s a little over a year later, so I am returning to the topic to take stock of what a difference another year makes. And as always, the main goal of this exercise is to help you, as filmmakers, to make the best post and delivery choices in finishing and exhibiting your films.
Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services is booking our clients’ and members’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc. Every year, this work hits a peak frenzy in October, which is unquestionably THE month of the year with the largest number of film festivals. By simply comparing our booking format totals from October 2013 to October 2014, I can see that once again the landscape of booking has evolved substantially in the last 12 months.
BOOKINGS IN OCTOBER 2013 (total 195 booking engagements):
Quicktime File: 2
BOOKINGS IN OCTOBER 2014 (total 268 booking engagements)
Quicktime File: 4
Other than the fact that we are obviously a busy company (!), the main takeaway here is that the DCP’s slow and seemingly inevitable rise to the top is continuing, although the actual majority of venues (especially in the U.S.) are still trying to cut costs by the use of BluRay. In Europe, the DCP has already overtaken all other formats, and is nearly impossible to resist if you want to play in any reputable festivals or venues. And after DCP and BluRay, all other formats are now nearly dead worldwide, at least for now.
There are many reasons why this isn’t good news for independent filmmakers (which we’ll go into)…but the first and most obvious problem is that all of the filmmakers we work with are still making multiple HDCAMs! From the data above it is clear, STOP MAKING HDCAMS PEOPLE! I know many companies that have stopped producing them entirely, and are providing only on DCP, BluRay, and DVD.
Usually, an independent filmmaker’s first worry about DCPs is the initial price – indeed it is the most expensive exhibition format to make since the 35mm print. However, the good news is that it has already dropped in price quite a bit from 2013…now if you look around you are sure to be able to get an initial one made for $1,000 – $1,500 (compared to around $2,500 a year ago).
Now there is the really weird situation with the subsequent DCPs…and what you should pay to make additional copies. If you’ve seen DCPs, you’ll know that they often come in these elaborate and heavy “Pelican Cases” with a “Sled” hard drive with USB adaptors and power supplies. That’s the kind the studios use, and they will usually run you around $400 per additional DCP…which is expensive.
The strange thing is that every tech-savvy person I know tells me that this is all window-dressing, and that a regular “Office Depot style drive” USB 3 Drive for $100 serves exactly the same purpose and is actually a bit more reliable since it has less moving parts. Add to this the simple charge for copying the DCP (for which our lab charges only $50), and you’ve got subsequent DCPs at only $150 each…which of course is even cheaper than old tape-based formats like HDCAM and Digibeta.
If someone out there knows why one SHOULDN’T go with the more inexpensive option, I’m all ears. Call me, tweet us @filmcollab, leave a comment on our Facebook page! ‘Cause I haven’t heard it yet.
Of course, its still not a super-cheap $10 BluRay, but the truly annoying thing about the DCP and all its solid state technology and its fancy cases is that it is HEAVY, surpassing everything except old 35mm prints in weight. As a result, the cost of SHIPPING becomes a major issue for independents, and more than $100 every time you send since you obviously aren’t going to put your pristine file in regular mail. If you’ve been booking and playing films for a long time, you’ll know that $100 in shipping is often the difference between a profitable screening a not-so-profitable one…and so the cost adds up quickly.
It’s truly the cost of shipping that makes me sad that the BluRay is doomed as a major exhibition format. At one point, when filmmakers and distributors made “P&A” assessments for their films, the biggest cost in the “P” analysis was the cost of shipping heavy prints. For a brief and shining moment….from like mid 2013 to mid 2014… the lightweight BluRays took that part of the “P” out of the equation entirely…and that sure was nice.
But the (dirty and secret) truth is that COST isn’t the main problem with DCP. It is the RELIABILITY of the format. The horrible fact is that DCP is the most unreliable format in terms of playability that we have ever had….bar none that I can think of. BluRays used to have the reputation for failing often, but they were easy to include a back-up copy with, and they have drastically improved in the last two years such that they almost never fail. DCPs, however, now fail ALL THE TIME, at an alarming rate, and for an alarming number of reasons.
Rather than go into the deep tech-geek reason for DCP failures in venues all over the world…I am going to copy a few recent emails from labs, festivals, and venues I have been communicating with in the last couple of weeks. I promise you…all of this is just in the last two weeks! And all of these are all different films and different DCPs!
[EXAMPLE] On September 16th, XXXX wrote:
So, bad news guys, we couldn’t access the hard drive on this DCP, so it’s our thoughts that it is dead.
[EXAMPLE} On September 18th, XXXX wrote:
Nothing over here is recognizing this DCP. The drive appears to be EXT3 formatted and I think this may be why it’s not recognizing as a usable hard drive. Generally, we use NTFS and EXT2 formatted drives. This one does have a bluray backup, but if you can try to get us another DCP, that’d be cool.
[EXAMPLE} On September 17th, XXX wrote
We just got the DCP and the sled was loose and the final screw holding it came off. It’s the plastic thing that pops out. Just now I noticed that most of the screws on it are loose. It won’t play because I think we need to replace the screws?
[EXAMPLE} On September 22,, XXXX wrote
We are facing difficulties with the DCP as our Server does not seem to recognize the drive. We have spoken to your lab and we think it’s because our server cannot recognize Linux Files. We have about 100 DCPs in our festival, and this is happening to about 10 of our films. Can you offer any advice?
It is this last example that really cracks me up….if you happen to know anything about DCP you know that Linux was chosen as the best format for DCI-complaint files. So the fact that a festival could not read Linux, but could still read 90 out of 100 of their DCPs is absolutely mid-boggling, as I thought Linux was in fact the common denominator.
But I digress.
As filmmakers, is any of this what you want to be doing with your time? Do you really want to know about EXT3 and EXT2, and do you seriously want to worry about replacing loose screws on a drive? Do you want to reduce your whole filmmaking experience as to whether a venue can read Linux or not? Do you have time for this?
Just this weekend, we had a screening in North Hollywood where the sound on the DCP went out for the last 5 minutes of the film, all the way through the credits. Is this acceptable? I thought not.
It was better before. We don’t like to think that evolution is like this….getting worse rather than better….but in truth it often is. And this is one of those times.
The truth is, I will never trust this format. The DCP was created by a 7-member consortium of the major multinational studios called the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI). It represented only the major studios…and created a format best suited to their needs. They have since adapted all the major venues to their needs. Is it any wonder that these needs do not represent the needs of independent filmmakers? Do we have any doubt that that any “consortium” would actively seek to suppress the needs of its competition? It created encryption codes only they can functionally work with. It put all the rest of us in danger, in my opinion. Let’s just talk about their unworkable encryption technology if we want to start somewhere. KDMs on independent films are a joke….leaving us more vulnerable to piracy than ever.
So, here is why the “P” matters more than ever. And why there is still GREAT reasons to hope. Just when you thought I was writing a depressing post, I am going to flip this b*itch. And I mean “b*itch” in the best manner possible.
The truth is…the age of cloud based computing, the no shipping, the no P in “P&A” reality is finally nearly upon us.
The truth is…it will not be long before we can use cloud-based services to deliver our films to venues all over the world. Of course, it is happening now….but it is not a mature system yet. But my guess is that it WILL be very soon. Definitely less than 5 years.
With all the new services like Google Drive, WeTransfer, DropBox, Vimeo, etc all rapidly evolving…..we are only months (if not years) from really delivering our films without help from middle men like Technicolor and FED EX. And that will be a good thing. A great thing really. I believe it will increase our indie profits many fold.
Already, every single day, I have numerous festivals asking me to DropBox them the films we are working with. In truth, I haven’t figured out really how to do that yet in quality levels I am comfortable with that also make financial sense. I am in constant dialogue with our lab and our tech people as to how to make this work in terms of uploading time, server space, and quality of presentation.
But it is clear to me that it IS happening over time….if anyone knows the secrets…again, I am ALL ears! Please call me! Because I truly believe that when we can remove the P from the P&A equation….and I mean truly remove it such that any number of prints and all shipping can be eliminated as easily as sending someone a link to an FTP or whatever…..we will re-enter an age where independent film distribution will make real financial sense. Imagine that, for a moment.
And the weirdest thing is I think it is truly happening… any day now.
NOTE: Step 4 in this blog series will be an analysis of how to deliver your film digitally and via The Cloud. We aren’t there yet….BUT that is what I will cover in the next post of this series. Hopefully new updates will happen by the end of the year!
Jeffrey Winter October 1st, 2014