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
Guest blog post by Wendy Bernfeld
The Cannes Film Festival starts today, and any Cannes season would not be complete without an update from our dear friend and colleague Wendy Bernfeld, Founder and Managing Director of Rights Stuff and co-author of our second case study book in 2014 Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. (free on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks. Wendy specializes in Library and Original Content acquisition/distribution, international strategy / deal advice, for traditional media (film, TV, pay TV), digital media (Internet/IPTV, VOD, mobile, OTT/devices), and web/cross-platform/transmedia programming, and also active on various film festival / advisory boards, such as IDFA, Binger Film Institute, Seize the Night, Outdoor FilmFest, and others, including TFC! Follow her on Twitter: @wbernfeld.
What’s happened out there in the two years since TFC first published Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. (“The Book”)?
My introductory chapter to the book, entitle, “Digital Distribution in Europe” provided a snapshot of the evolving sector at that point in time. However, by now, the sector, particularly in the area of SVOD and AdVOD, has leaped even more forward, and includes more mature services as well as new niche and thematic services out there— as well as some services with an increased appetite for foreign language, art house and documentary films/series (finally).
A. Blurred Lines — Traditional vs. Digital — Hybrid Platforms
More recent trends 2015-16 include increasingly blurred dividing lines between so-called traditional vs digital players .
- Traditionals: Many traditional players, internationally, (like telecoms, cable and free tv) have now become more digital, by either 1) bysetting up their own competing, or complementary, multi-window VOD offerings such as SVOD services (e.g. Channel 9’s STAN in Australia or Liberty Global’s MyPrime in both Switzerland and Netherlands); or 2) electing to instead “sleep with the enemy” by just hosting digital channels like Netflix, Spotify, etc. on their set-top box (e.g. Orange, ComHem Sweden, Virgin UK). Some traditionals opt to distinguish the brand identity of the VOD service from the main service, (different names); while others unite both services under one brand, such as CanalPlay (C+) or Viasat’s VIAPLAY. Recent developments include BBC announcing it will start SVOD internationally, after also migrating its Channel 3 to digital-only online offering; and ITV starting CURIO, a nonfiction SVOD in the UK.
- Digitals: Correspondingly, the so-called formerly digital-only players like Netflix, Amazon (previously more complementary or second window) are now acting a great deal like the traditional players. Think: old-fashioned commissioning broadcasters who increasingly require first-window status and exclusivity, and who are funding “originals”, getting involved competitively commissioning films from development stage etc. and fashioning game-changing windows.
Despite the complexity, this is overall great news for creators/rights-holders since it allows even more opportunity to maximize revenues and audiences per successive window, platform and region, if one takes the time to do it right.
B. VODs Per Window:
Lets look at various platforms in each window today, from TVOD, DTO, through to SVOD, AdVOD, etc. Note that many deliberately offer MULTI-model consumer services – such as Orange, Canal Plus and BSKYB (TVOD/DTO, SVOD), Amazon (Instant and Prime, for TVOD/DTO and SVOD, respectively) and Wuaki – while others (Netflix and Curio) operate under just one consumer business model.
- For the Big5 (Google, Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, PS), one still generally goes through a digital aggregator, like Juice, Cinedigm, Kinonation, and Syndicado in N.America. Outside N.America, EMEA counterparts in include one of Rights Stuff clients MOMEDIA (attractive multi-platform new biz model, lower cost for more platforms and combined with social media/marketing) – and others like DoCo/ODMedia (NL), MoviePartnership, and Under the MilkyWay.
Shop around…these aggregators they have different models and price alone shouldn’t be the only indicator. Also look at their marketing/positioning: some take your IP, others (like Rights Stuff, TFC) do not.
- Going direct to the others in TVOD/DTO:
Don’t stop at one or even all of the Big5. The play is to have multiple deals , non exclusive, staggered, in all the windows, in each region. Virtually every country has an active telecom and cable or DTH competitor in the region, as well as mobile and online /consumer electronics players who offer VOD, so licensing non-exclusive TVOD to them on top of others is a good first step in the chain.Beyond the utility companies, some other examples in TVOD/DTO include premium pay tv services or platforms like CanalPlus (France and other regions) and BSkyB, (UK, Germany, Italy, New Zealand). Also theatrical chains in some countries, such as Cineplex in Canada or Pathé in Holland, have VOD arms and thus can offer complementary marketing of films in theatrical window with the subsequent TVOD/DTO window. Also check out online VOD indie film specialist FilmDoo (well-curated indie/art house focused, now in UK/EIRE and soon expanding), and as earlier written, Curzon offers day-and-date theatrical combined with VOD in UK. Wuaki announced moves into 15 countries internationally by end of 2016, most are now TVOD/DTO but the Spain HQ is an SVOD OTT platform. The NFB in Canada started TVOD/DTO in N.America and recently in 2016 an SVOD service, and they now buy docs/films from other sources and regions, too.
- Deals: TVOD/DTO continues to be typically a rev share model and sometimes only a loss leader, but can help drive critical awareness, especially when accompanied by social media marketing and audience engagement strategies. Sometimes, film dependent (for eg if a very niche film) it saves money to skip the big5 (who require costly specs) and license direct to the other international tvod/dto platforms, as then at least one participates from day one in revenues, vs having to recoup expensive deliverables.
- For the Big5 (Google, Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, PS), one still generally goes through a digital aggregator, like Juice, Cinedigm, Kinonation, and Syndicado in N.America. Outside N.America, EMEA counterparts in include one of Rights Stuff clients MOMEDIA (attractive multi-platform new biz model, lower cost for more platforms and combined with social media/marketing) – and others like DoCo/ODMedia (NL), MoviePartnership, and Under the MilkyWay.
- SVOD/PAY – whether first and second windows:
As predicted, this window has so far overall been most remunerative since it’s usually structured by a flat fee license fee (although smaller or niche thematic platforms in the larger USA market (such as Fandor or Indieflix) are still offering just a revenue share formula, which can make the returns lackluster). We generally favor licensing to platforms that pay even a modest flat fee, upfront. Or in some cases in the ‘’back end’’ i.e. rev share to start, then if the revenues at the end of a year (or the window) don’t reach, say, $1000, the platform pays the difference. That sort of model can be attractive for startup platforms who truly believe in the power of their SVOD service but are cash-strapped at the start. So one can license to a less remunerative platform, which does a great job of curation, editorial, placement, and
also license other SVOD platforms who may be more remunerative for you.
There’s been a surge of local SVOD players popping up to compete or complement as Netflix or Amazon/competitors rolls into each new region. Some present outright competition, engaging in bidding wars for similar mainstream content offerings and price points. For instance, MNET South Africa, a premium pay tv operator, launched ShowMax locally and soon after announced further expansion. Other examples include: Videoland Plus (owned by free tv RTL/& SBS channels in the Netherlands) and Maxdome (owned by Prosieben in Germany).Others are complementary SVOD services, offering older library services in general interest. And still others exist at lower price points in narrow verticals/themes, like kids, anime, arthouse, etc. Hopster (UK/USA) is a buyer of purely kids programming, recently launched also in Iceland on Vodafone platform; similar to MinBIO (Nordic kids), which buys from international producers as well as from studios or locals, and Kidoodle (Canada svod ott). Cirkus in Nordic focuses on best of British programming (SVOD OTT).Recently in 2016 there’s a raft of SVOD platforms in developing regions like the MidEast and South East Asia: such as multi-region IFLIX and ICFLIX. As before Australia has pay and svod services such as Foxtel’s Presto (Australia); Lightbox (New Zealand), and Stan (channel 9).SVOD Deals: Producers should usually seek flat fee, but some platforms perform well on rev share. Particularly if you license multiple platforms in the same window and cross-promote so consumers find you from whichever entry point. In the lucky case where you can play off one against the other (e.g. traditional pay tv vs SVOD first-run) a stronger case can be argued for the license fees, as the buyer is “not the only game in town” anymore. In other cases, non-exclusive, multiple-platforms deals in smaller amounts still add up the revenues and audience. Prices can range from €250-2000 for an indie doc of film if old library and yet also up to 5- and 6-figure sums if a higher-end indie/doc or original/first-run. Pricing is also obviously affected by volume of the films in a deal, the number of regions, the awareness (platform, audience), popularity, critical acclaim, and language and cultural portability.
- In the USA, you’ve finally seen growth since 2015 in the SVOD sector for documentaries, including the Curiosity Stream SVOD OTT platform (by former Discovery founder, John Hendricks), whose programs tend towards educational and traditional. They are usually on a rev-share only model, whereas competitor xive.tv (SVOD OTT) also buys docs features/series, but over a wider range of topics including more populist/reality content- and xive.com works on a flat fee and/or combo deal model. And a deal with well-curated xive.tv delivers an extra ‘lift’’ in reach by providing carriage on other platforms (Hulu, Roku, Amazon, etc.).
- In EMEA/beyond, some other SVOD OTT platforms for docs and arthouse have arisen such as CURIO in UK (via ITV), Filmin (Spain, Portugal, Mexico). Mobil has now transformed its model to a curated daily film+library, a lower price and is complete with hefty investment by Chinese backers/reach into China. They also started paying some flat fees, or MGs, for select higher-end indies, as opposed to the pure rev share SVOD model of earlier days.
Although TubiTV/AdRise in USA and Hulu (multi-model in AdVOD and SVOD) are strong platforms offering solid returns to producers in the AdVOD sector, there aren’t many doing the same in EMEA. Here, again, it’s worthwhile to have your films spread on other free AdVOD platforms (vs pirate sites) so the returns are cumulative and there’s cross-promotion. Sometimes a film sampled on AdVOD can help to yield revenues from DTO (e.g. if a consumer discovers a lesser known film on an AdVOD platform and decides then to buy it on iTunes, while they’d not have bought it unknown before).Some updates on the AdVOD sector in EU: Viewster.com (27 countries in EMEA) has shifted focus (since our last reference in the book) from buying arthouse/festival films, to millennial content, including edgier, fast-paced docs, some originals and anime. In 2015 they had added an SVOD anime service, but in March 2016 shut it down, as others have become more aggressive in that space. DailyMotion, EU competitor to Youtube, were sometimes paying flat fees and sometimes commissioning series, but a recent sale by Orange to Vivendi may bring changes. Channel4 (UK) recently launched WalterPresents, an AdVOD site focused specifically on dramatic series and some films strictly from outside the UK.
- HOW TO REACH THE PLATFORMS:
As before, one goes via aggregators for Big5, but your agent/representative, or distributor/sales agent, OR YOU YOURSELF can hit up the others direct.REPS: I highly recommend interviewing your potential sales agent/distributor, with new questions such as asking 1) if they’ve been active in digital lately vs just their traditional buyers; and 2) if so, then with which types of platforms—Big5-7 or also beyond to International? If not, it doesn’t have to be a barrier, if they’re willing to allow nonexclusivity in digital, and/or to allow you or digital agents to assist and collaborate alongside.
- FUNDING (including by SVODs):
Although beyond the scope of this article, note In 2015-16 there’s been increased activity in 5-6 figure prebuying/funding of originals or premieres (film, series)—not just from English regions and not only via Netflix and Amazon, but also other international and EMEA services like OneNet Poland, IcFlix, Telenet, KPNPlay, Vimeo, Vivendi/Canal+, etc.On the Amazon front, aside from bigbudget originals via Ted Hope’s division such as ChiRaq at Berlinale and Woody Allen this Cannes, they also fund weboriginals, digital series, via prototyping schemes and audience involvement/feedback. Netflix has been intensely active in funding originals, including docs and nonfiction (while a few years ago that was a rarity); more deals in arthouse, docs and foreign will be announced at or after Cannes.In Canada there is a funding for coproduction in digital programs; And in France/EU, Vivendi (owner of Canal+ and DailyMotion) just in April 2016 launched its “Studio+” initiative &,dash; funding short-form original series for mobile and telecom operators.
As before in the 2014 Book, the following have intensified:
- Act quickly and work collaboratively (filmmakers + agents/distributors) to seize timing opportunities, particularly around certain countries where (s)VOD activities and platforms or hotly competing.
- Balance traditional and digital platforms, buyers and funders carefully in order to capture the cumulative and incremental revs in the nonexclusive deal sector, while also developing a longer term platform pipeline for future.
- Don’t stop at just one deal, unless exclusivity or funding elements are in play and worth it.
- Don’t be blocked per se by rights issues. Pragmatic business deals where others are “cut in” can help make those melt away
- Hybrid distribution: We as consultants/agents, aside from working direct for producers and platforms, now increasingly are retained by sales agents, distributors and even aggregators – as although they have the IP, they don’t always know all the others to sell to after going beyond the Big 5-7; this type of collaboration with producers and other reps on distribution yields good results (although time consuming at first) with each stakeholder getting a smaller piece but of a bigger pie. At the end of the day, 100% of zero is still zero.
- If not using a middleman at all, consider teaming up (especially if only selling a single film) with other producers to co-curate a mini-package of films around specific themes (e.g. eco, female, etc). This is particularly useful where the platforms don’t know you or your films, and it also helps program the service for their platform.
- Don’t abdicate distribution entirely to third parties, as in traditional past; now it is increasingly key to be aware of (if not participating more in) distribution and marketing (e.g. via social media). Help audiences know where to find your film!
Looking forward to seeing your films over here in EMEA!
Orly Ravid May 11th, 2016
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In the past 3 posts, we have covered knowing the market BEFORE making your film, how to incorporate the festival circuit into your marketing and distribution efforts and understanding terms, the foreign market and release patterns. In this post, we will discuss the items that will be required by sales agents, distributors (primarily digital distributors) and even digital platforms (if you are thinking of selling directly to your audience with less middlemen) before a deal can be signed and the film can be distributed.
Know your deliverables
Distribution is an expensive and complicated process and all distribution contracts contain a list of required delivery items (often attached at the end of the document as an exhibit) in order to complete the agreement. Without the proper items, sales agents and distributors will not be interested in making a deal. Your film must have all proper paperwork, music licenses, and technical specifications in order and these delivery items will incur additional costs to your production. Make sure to include a separate budget for deliverables within the cost of your production.
US sales agents and distributors will require insurance covering errors and omissions (E&O) at minimum levels of $1,000,000 per occurrence, $3,000,000 in the aggregate with a deductible of $10,000, in force for three years. E&O insurance protects the producer and distributor (usually for the distributor’s catalog of films) against the impact of lawsuits arising from accusations of libel, slander, invasion of privacy, infringement of copyright etc and can cost the producer in the range of $3,000 to $5,000. E&O insurance is required BEFORE any deal is signed, not after, and can take 3-5 days to obtain if all rights and releases, a title report and music clearances can be supplied.
Digital aggregators in general do not require E&O insurance unless it is for cable VOD and Netflix (these do). However, they do require closed captioning (around $900), subtitling (if you intend to distribute in non English speaking territories, usually costs around $3 per minute) and a ratings certificate (if distributing in some foreign territories, prices vary according to run time and ratings board).
The production will need to supply a Quality Control (QC) report, preferably from a reputable encoding house. If you film fails QC for iTunes and other digital platforms, it can be costly to fix the problems with the file and it will lead to a delay of the film’s release. MANY problems can be found in the QC process so whatever you think you are saving by encoding yourself or via a less reputable company, you will more than make up for in having to redo it. The most common problems arise from duplicate frames or merged frames as a result of changing frame rates; audio dropouts or other audio problems; sync problems from closed caption or subtitling files.
Distributors will accept a master in Apple ProRes HQ 422 file on an external hard drive or HD Cam. By far, the digital drive is preferable to tape and unless your distributor specifically requests HD Cam, do not go to the expense of creating this. The master should NOT have pre roll advertising, website URLs, bars/tones/countdowns, ratings information, or release date information. For digital files, content must begin and end with at least one frame of black.
Other delivery items required by sales agents/distributors include: trailer (preferably 2 minutes) in the same aspect ratio as the film with no nudity or profanity; chapter points using the same time code as the master file; key art files as a layered PSD or EPS with minimum 2400 pixels wide at 300 dpi; at least 3-5 still images in high resolution (traditional distributors often require as many as 50 still images) and already approved by talent; DVD screeners; press kit which includes a synopsis, production notes, biographies for key players, director, producer, screenwriter, and credit list of both cast and crew; pdf of the original copyright document for the screenplay and the motion picture; IRS W-9 form or tax forms from governments of the licensor; music cue sheet and music licenses.
There are technical specifications that need to be met as far as the video and audio files. Most post production supervisors are aware of these. It is also not unheard of to be asked to supply 35 mm prints for foreign distribution if a theatrical release is desired or contractually obligated.
Sometimes if your film is considered a hot property, a distributor might be willing to create the delivery items at their expense in exchange for full recoupment and/or a greater cut of the revenues. But do not count on this. We have heard from many filmmakers who didn’t clear music rights for their films, assuming a distributor would take on this expense, and were sorely disappointed to find none would do that. If you can’t supply the delivery list, no agreement will be signed.
Sheri Candler July 23rd, 2014
Tags: deliverables, Digital Distribution, digital film distribution, distribution contracts, film distribution, film distributors, independent film, Orly Ravid, preparing for film distribution, Sheri Candler
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In the past 2 posts, we have covered knowing the market BEFORE making your film and how to incorporate the festival circuit into your marketing and distribution efforts. This post will cover terms you need to know; whether a foreign distribution agreement is in your film’s future and what to do if it isn’t; the patterns, or windows, that need to be considered in your release. Just to be clear, we are targeting these posts mainly to filmmakers who seek to self finance and actively control their distribution. If that is not your plan, the usefulness of these posts may vary.
Distributors; platforms; aggregators; self hosting sites; applications
If you are new to the distribution game, here are some terms you now need to be familiar with.
Distributors (ie. A24, Oscilloscope, Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, The Weinstein Company, Roadside Attractions) take exclusive rights to your film for a negotiated period of time and coordinate its release. These companies often acquire independent films out of the most prestigious film festivals and pay decent advances for ALL RIGHTS, sometimes even for ALL TERRITORIES. A signed and binding contract takes all responsibility for the film away from its creator and places it with the distributor to decide how to release it into the public. Distribution through these entities entails theatrical, digital, DVD, educational, leisure (airline/hotel/cruiseship).
Platforms (ie. iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Netflix, cable VOD) are digital destinations where customers watch or buy films. Viewing happens on a variety of devices and some allow for worldwide distribution. Mainly platforms do not deal directly with creators, but insist on signing deals with representative companies such as distributors or aggregators.
Aggregators (ie. Premiere Digital, Inception Media Group, BitMAX, Kinonation) are conduits between filmmakers/distributors and platforms. Aggregators have direct relationships with digital platforms and often do not take an ownership stake. Aggregators usually focus more on converting files for platforms, supplying metadata, images, trailers to platforms and collecting revenue from platforms to disperse to the rights holder. Sometimes distributors (Cinedigm, FilmBuff) also have direct relationships with digital platforms, helping reduce the number of intermediaries being paid out of the film’s revenue.
Self hosting sites (ie. VHX, Distrify, Vimeo on Demand) are all services that allow filmmakers to upload their films and host them on whatever website they choose. Vimeo on Demand also hosts the video player on its own central website and has just integrated with Apple TV to allow for viewing on in-home TV screens.
Applications for many digital platforms can be found on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets),Over the Top (OTT) internet-enabled devices like Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Playstation and Xbox and on smart TVs. Viewers must add the applications to their devices and then either subscribe or pay per view to the platforms in order to see the film.
What about international?
In the latest edition of our Selling Your Film book series, Amsterdam based consultant Wendy Bernfeld goes into great depth about the digital distribution market in Europe. Many low-budget, independent American films are not good candidates for international sales because various international distributors tend to be attracted to celebrity actors or action, thriller and horror genre fare that translate easily into other languages.
Rather than give all of your film’s rights to a foreign sales agent for years (often 7-10 years duration) just to see what the agent can accomplish, think seriously about selling to global audiences from your own website and from sites such as Vimeo, VHX, Google Play and iTunes. The volume of potential viewers or sales it takes to attract a foreign distributor to your film is often very high. But just because they aren’t interested doesn’t mean there is NO audience interest. It simply means audience interest isn’t high enough to warrant a distribution deal. However, if you take a look at your own analytics via social media sites and website traffic, you may find that audience interest in foreign territories is certainly high enough to warrant self distributing in those territories. Look at this stats page on the VHX site. There are plenty of foreign audiences willing to buy directly from a film’s website. Why not service that demand yourself and keep most of the money? Plus keep the contact data on the buyers, such as email address?
Often, sales agents who cannot make foreign deals will use aggregators to access digital platforms and cut themselves into the revenue. You can save this commission fee by going through an aggregator yourself. In agreements we make with distributors for our Film Collaborative members, we negotiate for the filmmaker to have the ability to sell worldwide to audiences directly from their website. If you are negotiating agreements directly with distributors, the right to sell directly via your own website can be extremely beneficial to separate and carve out because sales via your website will generate revenue immediately. However, this tactic is now being scrutinized by distributors who are allowing direct to audience sales by filmmakers, but asking in their agreement for a percentage of the revenue generated. It is up to the filmmaker to decide if this is an acceptable term.
If you do happen to sell your film in certain international territories, make sure not to distribute on your site in a way that will conflict with any worldwide release dates and any other distribution holdbacks or windowing that may be required per your distribution contracts. An example: You have signed a broadcast agreement that calls for a digital release holdback of 90 days-6 months-1 year or whatever. You cannot go ahead and start selling via digital in that territory until that holdback is lifted. Instead, use a hosting service that will allow you to geoblock sales in that territory.
Know your windows.
If you do decide to release on your own, it’s important to know how release phases or “windows” work within the industry and why windowing was even created.
The release window is an artificial scarcity construct wherein the maximum amount of money is squeezed from each phase of distribution. Each window is opened at different times to keep the revenue streams from competing with each other. The reason it is artificial is the film continues to be the same and could be released to the audience all at one time, but is purposely curbed from that in order to maximize revenue and viewership. The Hollywood legacy window sequence consists of movie theaters (theatrical window), then, after approximately 3-4 months, DVD release (video window). After an additional 3 months or so, a release to Pay TV (subscription cable and cable pay per view) and VOD services (download to own, paid streaming, subscription VOD) and approximately two years after its theatrical release date, it is made available for free-to-air TV.
Now, there is a lot of experimentation with release windows. Each release window is getting shorter and sometimes they are opened out of the traditional sequence. Magnolia Pictures has pioneered experimentation with Ultra VOD release, the practice of releasing a film digitally BEFORE its theatrical window and generally charging a premium price; and with Day and Date, the practice of releasing a film digitally and theatrically at the same time. Many other distributors have followed suit. Radius-TWC just shortened the theatrical only window for Snowpiercer by making it available on digital VOD within only 2 weeks of its US theatrical release. During its first weekend in US multiplatform release, Snowpiercer earned an estimated $1.1 million from VOD, nearly twice as much as the $635,000 it earned in theaters.
So, while there are certainly bends in the rules, you will need to pay attention to which release window you open for your film on what date. For example, it might be enticing to try to negotiate a flat licensing fee from Netflix (Subscription VOD or SVOD window) at the start of release. However, from a filmmaker’s (and also distributor’s) perspective, if the movie has not yet played on any other digital platforms, it would be preferable to wait until after the Transactional VOD (TVOD) window in order to generate more revenue as a percentage of every TVOD purchase, before going live on Netflix. If the transactional release and subscription release happen at the same time, it cannibalizes transactional revenue.
Also, sites like Netflix will likely use numbers from a film’s transactional window purchases to inform their decision on whether to make an offer on a film and how big that offer should be. Subscription sites such as Netflix also pay attention to general buzz, theatrical gross, and a film’s popularity on the film’s website. There is value in gathering web traffic analytics, email database analytics and website sales data in order to demonstrate you have a sizable audience behind your film. This is useful information when talking to any platform where you need their permission to access it. Caution: Netflix is not as interested in licensing independent film content as it once was. If your film is not a strong performer theatrically, or via other transactional VOD sites; does not have a big festival pedigree; or does not have notable actor names in it, it may not achieve a significant Netflix licensing fee or they may refuse to license it for the platform. Netflix is no longer building its brand for subscribers and it has significant data that guides what content it licenses and what it produces.
Also be aware that some TV licensing will call for holding back Subscription VOD (SVOD) releases for a period of time. If your film is strong enough to achieve a broadcast license deal, you will need to wait before making a subscription release deal. On the other hand, holding out too long for a broadcast distribution offer might cause the publicity and interest you’ve generated for your film to dissipate.
If your film is truly a candidate for theatrical release, most cinemas will not screen a film that is already available on TVOD or SVOD services. In fact, most of the chain cinemas will not screen a film that is available in any other form prior to or at the same time as theatrical release.
The way you choose to release your film is a judgment call in order to reach your particular goal. All decisions have consequences and you will have to live with the decisions you make in releasing your film. Like all decisions, you base them on what you know at the time with no guarantee as to how they will turn out.
Sheri Candler July 16th, 2014
Tags: aggregators, Distrify, independent film distribution, Orly Ravid, release windows, Sheri Candler, SVOD, The Film Collaborative, theatrical distribution, TVOD, VHX, Vimeo on Demand, Wendy Bernfeld
Today’s guest post is from Matthew Helderman, founder and CEO of Buffalo 8 Productions and BondIt, a new service that cash-flows union bond deposits for independent feature films. Having just returned from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, here are his impressions and advice for filmmakers thinking of attending the festival one day.
Cannes 2014 – Introduction
Each year tens of thousands descend upon Cannes in the south of France for the biggest and most exceptional film event of the year. From screenings of competition films, market shopping for completed films looking for additional sales opportunities and more events than one can count — the Cannes Festival is all at once incredibly exhilarating, essential for business and filmmaking endeavors and downright exhausting!
Cannes is the essential market for both new & old content — whether developing new material, finishing up post-production on others or selling international rights for ancillary one off revenues or library generating cash-flow.
Over the past few years as our feature film library has grown in size from a handful of titles to nearly 35+ titles by Cannes 2014 — our approach and experience at the festival has changed. At Buffalo 8 Productions — we represent a library of feature films ranging from micro-budgeted $100k features up to films at the $3M mark — spanning genre’s, cast strength and value.
Cannes 2014 – The Set-Up
Cannes is unique in that it offers four elements:
The most prestigious film festival in the world with in competition films typically ending up in Oscar and international award season contention. Additionally, there are a slew of films that screen out of competition that the festival honors for their efforts and merits — think “All is Lost” in 2013 or “Lost River” in 2014 — strong titles that have commercial value and artistic integrity — the essence of the Cannes appeal.
The biggest film market in the world with over 1,500 new film titles for sale and on display for the international buying community. The “Marche” is often times a difficult pill to swallow — with hundreds upon hundreds of films from across the world — the first visit to the market is hard to comprehend. Selling and buying are both relationship based communities in the film business – requiring pre-established relationships with sales agents (those who represent content internationally) and buyers (distributors in individual territories around the world).
The strongest worldwide representation at the international pavilions with each major country in the world representing their national film programs — from tax incentives, to promotions to rebates and panels — each country seeking to draw in productions offers an all inclusive look and conversation into the dealings of their specific region. Often used as meeting places (since Cannes has very limited seating areas in the Marche and festival), the pavilions serve as a landing base for much of the conversations during the 10+ days of Cannes — which offer the countries with the strongest presence an ability to market their offerings while playing host to the film community.
The most important and constant social & networking events that anyone has ever seen. From panel discussions with big name producers, directors and the like to parties at villas, clubs, beach front and yachts to the invite only exclusive dinners and hotel gatherings — Cannes offers the best opportunity year round for the filmmaking and distribution community to mingle for fun and business.
But there is a catch…
Cannes Opportunity Cost
The most difficult part about attending Cannes is deciding how best to spend your valuable time. The cost of attending is steep both financially, time wise (the travel from Los Angeles is 15+ hours door-to-door) and opportunity wise. If you spend all of your time seeing the great films you’ll miss the networking and sales opportunities. However, if you spend all your time networking and selling, you’ll miss the festival — which is a difficult pill to swallow given the strength of the titles screening at Cannes each year.
Assessing your main objectives months before you attend is crucial — are you looking for financing? If so, pre-sales discussions with sales agents in the Marche is crucial.
Are you seeking tax incentives and interested in discussing with international territories about your options? Then spending your time at the pavilions is the best option.
Regardless — you’re going to need to plan your goals well in advance, schedule your meetings 50+ days out (everyone’s schedules get ridiculously crowded) and be prepared to miss out on events you want to attend (it’s simply not possible to attend everything).
With a library of content for sale, multiple projects gearing up for production and a continued need to expand our social and business networks — we spent our time divided up among our company divisions.
Our film team at Buffalo 8 spent their days selling in the Marche and meeting new buyers to form relationships with companies we’ll be in business with for the rest of the year. An interesting piece of advice here being that if you live in Los Angeles – take meetings with people & companies that live elsewhere (similarly for NYC, Chicago, etc…) — this is your rare chance each year to be face-to-face with buyers from every corner of the world. And even in the current times of easily transferred digital files for streaming and viewing purposes – meeting with financiers, buyers and the like go a long way.
Our production team spent time meeting with financiers who cash-flow tax incentives, pre-sales and those looking for equity investment opportunities. These meetings are more difficult to come by and require advance planning to keep the momentum sustained during the craziness of Cannes.
Our BondIt team (BondIt cash-flows union deposits for independent feature films freeing up cashflow liquidity) split their time between finding companies who actively produce content between $100k – $10M budgets (the sweet spot for the BondIt application) and those looking for equity investments into media technology companies. Note here that all of these meetings — at least a large portion — were pre-planned and scheduled. Again, most of the big hitters in Cannes whether individuals or companies have packed schedules so getting in front of them is only possible if you’ve pre-scheduled.
Once you’ve attended your first major market (Berlin, Toronto, Cannes), it’s difficult not to go back for another year. The value of attending is so high from a networking, business and relationship stand point. Before attending the major markets, Buffalo 8 was a smaller boutique production entity with limited international presence — but now having attended markets for several years, our database of useful contacts and our business have grown simultaneously.
Weigh out the pro’s & con’s of attending — be self aware in what you’re seeking and who will be attending that could facilitate what you need and may be willing to grant a meeting with you. Recognize that the investments available at Cannes are insanely competitive (Martin Scorsese attended the 2013 Cannes market seeking financing for multiple productions) as the world of financing and distribution continues to get stranger and stranger (a nice way of saying it’s getting overly complicated and competitive).
Pre-plan your meetings and have a goal in mind for each contact you sit down with and leave room for those coincidental meetings that will often happen (but don’t bank on them) that could open new doors.
Cannes is the most important event of year — make the most of it and you’ll never remember why you weren’t there years before.
BondIt was founded by independent film producers Matthew Helderman & Luke Taylor of Beverly Hills based Buffalo 8 Productions. Having produced 30+ feature films, the team recognized a dilemma in the production process — union deposits — and launched BondIt to resolve the situation to assist producers & union representatives alike.
Sheri Candler May 22nd, 2014
Tags: BondIt, Buffalo 8 Productions, Cannes Film Festival, film financing, impressions of Cannes Film Festival, international sales, Marche du Film, Matthew Helderman, sales agents, union bond deposits
In this final excerpt from our upcoming edition of Selling Your Film Outside the U.S., Wendy Bernfeld of Amsterdam-based consultancy Rights Stuff talks about the current situation in Europe for independent film in the digital on demand landscape.
There have been many European platforms operating in the digital VOD space for the last 8 years or so, but recent changes to their consumer pricing structures and offerings that now include smaller foreign films, genre films and special interest fare as well as episodic content have contributed to robust growth. European consumers are now embracing transactional and subscription services , and in some cases ad-supported services, in addition to free TV, DVD and theatrical films. Many new services are being added to traditional broadcasters’ offerings and completely new companies have sprung up to take advantage of burgeoning consumer appetite for entertainment viewable anywhere, anytime and through any device they choose.
From Wendy Bernfeld’s chapter in the forthcoming Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.:
For the first decade or so of the dozen years that I’ve been working an agent, buyer, and seller in the international digital pay and VOD sector, few of the players, whether rights holders or platforms, actually made any serious money from VOD, and over the years, many platforms came and went.
However, the tables have turned significantly, and particularly for certain types of films such as mainstream theatrical features, TV shows and kids programming, VOD has been strengthening, first in English-language mainstream markets such as the United States, then in the United Kingdom, and now more recently across Europe and other foreign language international territories. While traditional revenues (eg DVD,) have dropped generally as much as 20% – 30%, VOD revenues—from cable, telecom, IPTV, etc.—have been growing, and, depending on the film and the circumstances, have sometimes not only filled that revenue gap, but exceeded it.
For smaller art house, festival, niche, or indie films, particularly overseas, though, VOD has not yet become as remunerative. This is gradually improving now in 2014 in Europe, but for these special gems, more effort for relatively less money is still required, particularly when the films do not have a recognizable/strong cast, major festival acclaim, or other wide exposure or marketing.
What type of film works and why?
Generally speaking, the telecoms and larger mainstream platforms prioritize mainstream films in English or in their local language. In Nordic and Benelux countries, and sometimes in France, platforms will accept subtitled versions, while others (like Germany, Spain, Italy, and Brazil) require local language dubs. However, some platforms, like Viewster, will accept films in English without dubbed or subtitled localized versions, and that becomes part of the deal-making process as well. This is the case, particularly for art house and festival films, where audiences are not surprised to see films in English without the availability of a localized version.
Of course, when approaching platforms in specific regions that buy indie, art house, and festival films, it is important to remember that they do tend to prioritize films in their own local language and by local filmmakers first. However, where there is no theatrical, TV exposure, or stars, but significant international festival acclaim, such as SXSW, IDFA, Berlinale, Sundance, or Tribeca, there is more appetite. We’ve also found that selling a thematic package or branded bundle under the brand of a festival, like IDFA, with whom we have worked (such as “Best of IDFA”) makes it more recognizable to consumers than the individual one-off films.
What does well: Younger (i.e., hip), drama, satire, action, futuristic, family and sci-fi themes tend to travel well, along with strong, universal, human-interest-themed docs that are faster-paced in style (like Occupy Wall Street, economic crisis, and environmental themes), rather than traditionally educational docs or those with a very local slant.
What does less well: World cinema or art house that is a bit too slow-moving or obscure, which usually finds more of a home in festival cinema environments or public TV than on commercial paid VOD services, as well as language/culture-specific humor, will not travel as well to VOD platforms.
Keep in mind that docs are widely represented in European free television, so it’s trickier to monetize one-offs in that sector, particularly on a pay-per-view basis. While SVOD or AVOD offerings (such as the European equivalents of Snagfilm.com in the US) do have some appetite, monetization is trickier, especially in the smaller, non-English regions. Very niche films such as horror, LGBTQ, etc. have their fan-based niche sites, and will be prominently positioned instead of buried there, but monetization is also more challenging for these niche films than for films whose topics are more generic, such as conspiracy, rom-com, thrillers, kids and sci-fi, which travel more easily, even in the art house sector.
However, platforms evolve, as do genres and trends in buying. Things go in waves. For example, some online platforms that were heavily active in buying indie and art house film have, at least for now, stocked up on feature films and docs. They are turning their sights to TV series in order to attract return audiences (hooked on sequential storytelling), justify continued monthly SVOD fees, and /or increase AVOD returns.
One plus these days is that conventional film platform buyers can no longer sit back with the same historic attitudes to buying or pricing as before, as they’re no longer the “only game in town” and have to be more open in their programming and buying practices. But not only the platforms have to shift their attitude.
To really see the growth in audiences and revenues in the coming year or two, filmmakers (if dealing direct) and/or their representatives (sales agents, distributors, agents) must act quickly, and start to work together where possible, to seize timing opportunities, particularly around certain countries where VOD activities are heating up. Moreover, since non-exclusive VOD revenues are cumulative and incremental, they should also take the time to balance their strategies with traditional media buys, to build relationships, construct a longer-term pipeline, and maintain realistic revenue expectations.
This may require new approaches and initiatives, drawing on DIY and shared hybrid distribution, for example, when the traditional sales agent or distributor is not as well-versed in all the digital sector, but very strong in the other media—and vice versa. Joining forces, sharing rights, or at least activities and commissions is a great route to maximize potential for all concerned. One of our mantras here at Rights Stuff is “100% of nothing is nothing.” Rights holders sitting on the rights and not exploiting them fully do not put money in your pockets or theirs, or new audiences in front of your films.
Thus, new filmmaker roles are increasingly important. Instead of sitting back or abdicating to third parties, we find the more successful filmmakers and sales reps in VOD have to be quite active in social media marketing, audience engagement, and helping fans find their films once deals are done.
To learn more about the all the new service offerings available in Europe to the savvy producer or sales agent, read Wendy’s entire chapter in the new edition of Selling Your Film Outside the US when it is released later this month. If you haven’t read our previous edition of Selling Your Film, you can find it HERE.
Sheri Candler May 15th, 2014
Sundance has come and gone and already Berlinale is a week away and SXSW announced the bulk of their slate today! We’ve now had a few days to reflect on the chaos that is arguably America’s most important film festival for indie film and here’s what we think.
Last year’s fest included a number of smaller foreign doc deals early on which is sorely lacking from this year. Only three docs have sold so far though all were decent sized deals and for films in the US Doc section. Interestingly, none of them won awards, but a number of other docs had TV deals arranged before the festival.
6 of the 16 US Dramatic films and 2 of the NEXT films sold. Sony/SPC, A24, Lionsgate/Roadside, Radius-TWC, Fox Searchlight, IFC, Magnolia all snapped up multiple films. However, previous players absent thus far are Anchor Bay, The Weinstein Company, CBS Films, Relativity Media, Sundance Selects, and Magnet. New distribution companies like Amplify did not make a single Sundance Deal nor did formally expanded ones such as Gravitas Ventures. This is probably the most alarming thing as every year a new distributor typically makes a big push for a film right out of the festival.
Before I get to the list of sales deals, I would like to talk about what I saw as a HUGE mistake! Consistently while attending documentary screenings at the festival, the filmmakers would say during the Q&A that they already had a team in place to arrange for special screenings or planning a self financed distribution scenario. NOT ONCE did this come up with the narrative filmmakers! One of the things TFC does is handle festival distribution for films, and most especially our service is applicable for films that premiered at a world class festival like Sundance. It is incredibly foolish not to capitalize on the publicity received at a world class festival by not planning for at least further festival screening revenue that will come right away. Should your film be in the lucky position of receiving a seven figure deal upfront, you might be able to afford to pull it from the festival circuit and forego further revenue, but with very FEW receiving those offers, why not plan for scooping up that immediate revenue potential?
I am not saying you have to go with TFC for festival distribution (though even traditional distributors turn to us to handle their films on the festival circuit and they take their cut of the screening fees), but I am saying you should have some sort of team in place to take advantage of those opportunities right away. By the time SXSW is finished in March, your film could already have booked $5k in festival screening fees on the circuit. Blood Brother had a dozen festivals under its belt by that point last year and many of the films at this year’s festival could do the same. Why aren’t they?
Now…on to the deals.
Dead Snow Red vs. Dead: Well Go USA picked up US rights. The film will be released in an all English version.
Love is Strange: Sony Picture Classics (SPC) snagged Ira Sach’s follow up to Keep the Lights On
The One I Love: Radius-TWC paid about $2 Mil
Fed Up: Radius-TWC paid under $2 Mil for worldwide rights. This is bigger than what any documentary sold for at last year’s Sundance.
The Babadook; IFC Midnight
Cold in July: IFC took North American rights for $2 Mil
God’s Pocket: IFC has US rights
Calvary: Fox Searchlight signed on for the US and a few other territories for $2.5 mil
Obvious Child: A24 signed for low 7 figures for North America
I Origins: Fox Searchlight took worldwide rights for $3mil to Mike Cahill’s follow up for the splendid and under appreciated Another Earth
The Skeleton Twins: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions/SPW joined together for $3.5 mil
Land Ho!: SPC took worldwide rights to the film that should travel well in European territories.
Frank: Magnolia saw through the fake head and bought it for North America for low 7 figures
Life After Beth: A24/DirectTV joined up for $3.5 Mil for US rights
Cooties: Lionsgate will spread the infection throughout North America.
Whiplash: SPC felt the beat for just under $3 Mil and Sony Worldwide has most international territories
Wish I was Here: the newly rebooted Focus Features took for $2.75 Mil (Film was partially financed on Kickstarter)
Laggies: A24 acquired domestic rights for roughly $2 Mil
Cesar’s Last Fast: Participant Media/Univision sold TV rights for Mid 6 figures
Dinosaur 13: Lionsgate/CNN went in for about $1 Mil
Happy Christmas: Magnolia/Paramount couldn’t say no to Swanberg. Magnolia also distributed his film Drinking Buddies.
Mitt: Netflix will release it in a week
The Raid 2: SPC
Love Child: HBO
Private Violence: HBO
The Case Against 8: HBO
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart: HBO
Ivory Tower: CNN Films
Life Itself: CNN Films
Remembering the Artist: HBO
The Trip to Italy: IFC
The Signal: Focus
Love is Strange: Pretty Pictures made a six figure deal for French distribution
The Green Prince: Curzon and Madman Entertainment brokered for UK, Australia, and New Zealand
Bryan Glick January 30th, 2014
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.
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
Tags: Andrew Wilson, cable VOD, Distrify, Guts of the Craft, horror films, independent film distribution, iTunes, LA Film School, Netflix, Screen Craft, Spooky Empire's Ultimate Horror Weekend, Stephen Biro, Unearthed Films, Vimeo, Warner Bros, Zero Gravity Management
Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) starts this week and I will be there for almost the entire festival where I anticipate seeing 45-50 films before I depart. TIFF is not a film festival; it is a giant marathon that is almost beyond comprehension. If you believe that more is better, then this is the place to be. Think of TIFF as an 11 course film meal anchored by spam on steroids!
Last year’s festival had 289 features (More than Sundance and SXSW combined!). Of these films, just over ½ (146) were world premieres. Less than 60% of total films at the festival, as well as fewer than 60% of world premieres, have managed to secure US distribution as of this writing. It’s important to note that the films at the fest came from 72 different countries and certain locales (USA, Israel) fared much better than others (All of Africa). Given that this is a major international festival, several films were able to secure international territories even if US distribution proved elusive.
Part of what makes the festival so large is the presence of studio films that take up a lot of the press, along with several North American Premieres from Cannes (36), Venice (16), and Locarno (9). Combined these films make up over 20% of the festival. 41 films or a little over 14% from the 2012 festival grossed over $1,000,000 theatrically in the States. While the number of films in total is quite impressive, the percentage puts it right in line with last year’s Sundance crop. Of these films, ½ a dozen were studio releases and really don’t belong in the total. Another ½ dozen premiered at Cannes, Berlin, or Sundance.
The world premieres fared slightly better with 16% surpassing the same benchmark. But if the studio films were removed from the equation, they drop to 13%, and of those, slightly more than half came to the fest with distribution attached.
So, why all the boring and headache inducing number? I think that with its start of the Oscar campaign season and studio gems, the festival often gets a distorted reputation. While it’s a great place to be if you’re a star driven vehicle, the reality is that there is an entire Sundance film festival worth of films that have yet to get distribution in the States!
The festival has a much larger international presence and many of these films have since been released in upwards of two dozen countries, even with the largest film market never coming into play. While the vast majority of these films are foreign and many are from countries that don’t have sizable diaspora populations in the States, several English language films still are struggling to find a way to release. “Detroit Unleaded” is the perfect example. It’s one of the few American films to be left behind, even though it won an award at the festival. Of course with over 4,000 submissions, the odds are still stacked against you getting into the people’s festival.
I want to talk about the two real problems of TIFF. One is easily fixable and the other is not.
First, nobody at TIFF is thinking outside the box when it comes to distribution. Almost all of the films were traditional acquisitions (“Much Ado About Nothing”) or self-funded DIY vanity projects (Snoop Dogg’s “Reincarnated”). Percentage wise, more films from Tribeca and SXSW will see the light of the day because they had a plan B or C. They were open to DIY or non-theatrical distribution. For everyone who is going to TIFF, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE don’t wait for that giant offer to come, because unless your film stars Ryan Gosling or has been deemed Oscar bait, the major payoff isn’t going to happen. Similarly, the festival is in September and there are no major US festivals till January. So you should already have your US premiere strategy thought out to help compensate for the months and months where you will not be able to generate press.
The other problem is simply the gluttony of films competing for attention. TIFF is simply not going to show fewer films. I wish they would consider it, so that movies playing can get more attention, or just cut all but one or two studio films from their roster. Since the gluttony of choices gives them major revenue and prestige, that is unlikely to happen. If you’re going to TIFF, this means you MUST have a stellar publicist and be ready to talk to anybody and everybody that you can. Promote the hell out of your film. Without fail, almost all the American non-star driven indies that go are too slow to set up their social media operation. Toronto is only a small body of water away from the States and I encourage you to let the world know early and often about your film.
I personally LOVE TIFF. Last year I saw so many incredible films there, and I’m not just talking about Oscar darling “Argo”. There were so many mind-blowingly wonderful films I stumbled upon, some of which have distribution and one film that hasn’t even screened in the States yet.
I look forward to discovering more of the hidden gems this year at the festival and am happy to meet with any filmmakers to discuss how to connect their wondrous visions with audiences around the world.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 will look at how specific films performed
Bryan Glick September 3rd, 2013
A interview with the West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference (WESTDOC) Co Founder Richard Propper. Mr. Propper is also CEO and Director, International Licensing and Acquisitions at Solid Entertainment, a sales agency specializing in documentary films.
TFC: How long have you been doing international sales and with which entities and films?
RP: “I have been licensing non-fiction programming for 19 years. It wasn’t something I fell into, I had a great desire to combine the entertainment industry and international business – and I’m a current affairs and history junkie. Having completed film school and working for a small studio for years in post production, I saw a vast number of filmmakers with great documentary films, but no knowledge of what to do next. I wanted to be the first call for filmmakers when they thought about international sales.”
“Solid Entertainment has been successfully licensing programs worldwide for almost two decades via such broadcasters as: Animal Planet, ARTE, BBC , BBC2, BBC Horizon, BSkyB, Channel 4, Canal+, The Discovery Channels (worldwide), France 2/3, France 5, HBO, History Channel, M6, NBC, NHK, NOS-EO, National Geographic Channels(worldwide), Odyssee, ORF, Orbit, Planete, Premiere, Showtime, STAR Entertainment Channel, SPIEGEL TV, STERN-TV, SBS6, SF-DRS, TaurusFilm, The Travel Channel, TSR, TV Ontario, RAI, RTI, RTP, REAL-TV, VTM, ZDF.”
“At Solid Entertainment, our deal terms are pretty standard. A flat rate of 30%. No deduction for expenses. 3 year exclusive term of representation.”
TFC: What trends do you see on sales side for documentaries? Please be specific in terms of territories, rights, prices, types of films that perform v not etc.
RP: “They love (insert doc subject here) in Japan!” – Every new filmmaker I’ve ever met. – Richard Propper
“I’m going to throw a bucket of cold water on many peoples perceptions of the international broadcast marketplace. In many ways, its tougher now than ever before. There’s a huge oversupply of programs. Technology has worked wonders for the creation of content, leading to more of it. The non-fiction broadcast marketplace has been impacted by Reality TV. Channels need ratings and they have only so many hours they can license and co-produce. The line has blurred between documentaries and reality, so channels gradually began to license more and more Reality. Most territories in Europe still license good documentaries, but license fees have been declining for a few years. Asia and Latin America continue to pay modestly. Larger US broadcasters now want all rights deals. It didn’t use to be that way, a producer could count on the international rights as his/her “back end monies.” Not anymore.”
“Today, we see around $8,000 for an hour in Germany. We used to see $20,000. France, about $7,500 and it used to be $15,000. The UK – as high as $80,000, now $25,000. Generally, all the digital, free follow along rights go with the license fee. Pay VOD is still retained by the producer. We’ve had to sell more content overall and look harder for the opportunities.”
“Uniquely, American programs don’t do very well in the international marketplace. World history, nature and wildlife, buried treasure stories, science and technology stories all do well. American social issues or narrow political issues are a much harder sale. When was the last time you saw a great Italian documentary? You haven’t. Americans think our programs should sell everywhere, but we don’t reciprocate by programming other countries films on our networks. The international marketplace looks for programs that are somehow universal. It’s an art, not a science in producing programs that are attractive to the worldwide audience. I will say that some buyers recognize a well told story, others don’t. If it’s all talking heads or about some strange subculture – it won’t sell. We look at everything that comes into our office for representation – there are always surprises. If you haven’t captured the audience within the first 10 minutes, its likely the buyers aren’t going to stick around either.”
“Running times are important. If your dream is to make a feature doc, then try to come in at 75 – 100 minutes. Have a 50 minute cut-down planned for the broadcast one-hour slots. 90% of the world broadcast slots are one-hour. If there’s only a feature version, it has to compete with every Academy nominated doc or Morgan Spurlock’s or Michael Moore’s latest feature. It a very hard road if you’re not prepared. But it’s not all bad news.”
“The digital marketplace is starting to come into its own. While broadcast is challenging, there is a long tail strategy with digital – it just needs a little more time to stand on its own two legs. It takes strategy to get a good film released onto multi-platforms and various times. These strategies are being pioneered now. That is exciting. A larger audience for many films is out there, and technically there’s a way to deliver it. You just have to find and engage that audience.”
TFC: Explain the DVD landscape.
RP: “While the general focus, and rightly so, has been on VOD and a la carte program sales, I’ve found in the last year some DVD distributors who are looking for content. Keep in mind that there’s still a huge population of people who have this machine connected to their TV that provides supplemental content. We’ve had good luck getting a 4 part limited series and larger multi-episode series into Costco and Target. It’s short term sales, but its also unexpected revenue stream. VOD and a la carte programming is great, but it requires working with the right groups to get your content out there. While filmmakers are waiting for the magic formula to distribute digitally, DVD still has a place. It’s going away, but not as quickly as you might think.”
TFC: What is WESTDOC and why should filmmakers attend?
RP: “Over nearly 2 decades of traveling to television markets and film festivals, I realized that LA needed a substantial documentary conference of its own. One that wasn’t sponsor driven, nor a fortune to attend. Chuck Braverman is a friend and producer, who for years would run into me at various conferences and ask me why there wasn’t a decent conference in LA (I was President of IDA at the time) and proposed that we start one. I begged off for a time and then thought – why not? WESTDOC was born.”
“While there are some terrific conferences in other cities, LA really has this fractured creative community. Most filmmakers belong to several organizations. But where are the conferences that bring in the decision makers? Here is a true story. I was at a conference in Cannes (MIP or MIPCOM) having a meeting with someone who worked 25 minutes away from my office. I had traveled 9,000 miles to meet her. How ridiculous. With WESTDOC we’re getting these decision makers out of their offices and into an event to connect with the LA creative community.”
“When Chuck and I first sat down, we selected the best pieces from IDFA, HOT DOCS, MIP, NATPE, and all the rest. When we were done with our mission statement and outline, we knew it would be a great conference. Luckily, between us we had really great contacts with filmmakers and broadcasters. To our surprise, everyone we asked to speak said they would show up! Looking back, just our keynote speakers are an impressive bunch; RJ Cutler, Thom Beers, Kirby Dick, Joel Berlinger. Not bad for an unknown conference! This year we have Rory Kennedy, Ondi Timoner, and Kelly Day. We have 25 panels that are in the wheelhouse of documentary, Reality, and Digital. In addition, this year we have The Sit-Down – 30 minute broadcaster overviews with 43+ different networks.”
The 2013 WESTDOC Conference will take place September 15-18 at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles, CA. For a full schedule of speakers and activities, visit their website. TFC Members will receive a promotional code for a discounted ticket. Become a TFC Member today!
About Richard Propper:
Solid Entertainment Founder and President Richard Propper is the former President of the International Documentary Association (IDA), and executive producer of over thirty internationally broadcast documentary programs. Solid Entertainment is a broadcast distribution company and one of only a handful of US specialty companies which has consistently supplied non-fiction programming to networks worldwide with a particular emphasis in Western Europe. He has spoke as an authority on development, co-production agreements, and the intricacies international distribution at: MIPDOC, HOT DOCS, IFP, AFM, Silverdocs, Realscreen Summit, NATPE, IDA, UCLA, and USC. Richard is also the co-founder of WESTDOC: The West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference. WESTDOC is a three-day event that brings together preeminent producers, directors, writers, network executives, agents and distributors for insightful and unique seminars, as well as networking opportunities.
Orly Ravid August 29th, 2013