I was speaking with a producer friend of mine this week, and she told me a disturbing (if familiar) story, with a surprisingly inspiring conclusion.
She recently exec produced one of 2014’s “bigger” independent films…which is set for theatrical release soon. They did just about everything right. The film is written and directed by a well known, highly respected auteur on the indie scene, with a long career. It stars two very well-known character actors, who are just about household names if not quite “movie stars.” The budget was modest. It premiered at one of the pinnacle A-level film festivals. There it was bought by one of the biggest mini-majors in the business, and has since sold 18 territories worldwide. Even before theatrical release, the investors have all made a significant percentage of their money back…albeit not all of it (and certainly no profit).
She was lunching with one of the films other producers recently and she asked him… “If the film grosses 1 million dollars theatrically, do you think we’ll see any more money?” He said, “probably not.” So she said, “Ok what if it grosses 3 million?” And he said “probably not.” “10 million?” “Probably not.”
She said that’s when it dawned on her…. producing and selling an independent film the traditional way (i.e. selling all rights out of a festival premiere) is simply not a business. (BOOM…head exploding). In any other business, making back a percentage of your investment is not a success story. In indie film, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s the way it goes” and move on to the next one.
The lack of a sound business model in independent film is what we at TFC have been trying to address all along. The “old way” of producing and selling indie films is actually a shell game at best, a way of moving money from one spot to the next that is equal part a gambling game and equal part a con-job. Sure, there are a few unmitigated success stories every year…just enough to create a delusional atmosphere that casts a spell over thousands of filmmakers who think they can just make their movie and walk away as it magically finds its way into the world and fills their pockets with cash.
Anyway, it just so happens that my producer friend is currently working on a new film, and with the production schedule being the way it is, she knows for sure it won’t be done for at least another year. And after that, of course the inevitable wait for the right Festival premiere, which can take several additional months. As such, she figures that this time she has plenty of time to re-imagine the traditional model, and approach the film as an actual business. My producer friend comes from an entrepreneurial background, where she created and sold tech companies.
This time, this film, she vows, she is going to approach the distribution and marketing of the film the way she did with her tech companies in the past, and build it like an actual business. Not wait around for some other company to come in later and supposedly do it for her.
My producer friend and I plan to sit down in the next few months and have detailed conversations about what that actually looks like, but for now, I am going to use this post to outline some of the basics….and (hopefully) create the beginnings of a road map that others can follow.
NOTE: I am aware that I have been vague with the particulars of the first film mentioned in this post…which may annoy some readers. This was intentional of course, A) I don’t have permission to reveal the details, and B) the basic principals and outcomes are transferable to most every film that has received distribution offers out of a major festival in recent years.
In any case, here we go…some of my basic guidelines to approaching an independent film like the building of any other business.
1) Break down and list every source of potential revenue for the film – and plan how to capitalize on them all. This may seem self-evident, but I’ll wager this is the most overlooked of all independent distribution strategies. That’s because most filmmakers want to sell their film outright, and count on the distribution company to do all the right things. But most distribution companies only do a few things well (if any), and they will inevitably leave numerous stones unturned.
Start with a comprehensive list of every way you can see your film making money, i.e festival screening fees, domestic sales, international sales, theatrical-on-demand (i.e. GATHr or TUGG), community screenings, traditional theatrical, DVD sales at live events, other merchandising, digital downloads etc. Then figure out how many of these you can do yourself, and where you’ll need help from others.
2) Know from the beginning who your audience is – and have a strategy for how to reach them. I know, I know, this is dismaying to most filmmakers. Most filmmakers see themselves as artists first, motivated by self-expression, and actually hope that their film is for everyone, not just a select target group. But remember, just by making an independent film, you are de facto not making a film for everyone (unless you have movie stars)…since the vast majority of the global population doesn’t consume independent film on any kind of regular basis.
In independent film, niche is king AND queen, and you need to think of your target audience as your core customer base. Approach them like any business would…who am I selling to and how do I reach them? And if your core customers love your product, then they’ll tell others about it too. Think long and hard and soul search on this question…if you don’t know who your film is for, you run the risk that it will be for no-one at all.
3) Smart marketing is everything. Hollywood studios find their audiences by essentially buying them, spending vulgar multi-millions on TV ads, billboards, publicity firms to access late night TV talk shows etc….basically putting their product in front of everyone who doesn’t live in a cave. But chances are you can’t do that.
Smart marketing actually stems from question 2…who is your core audience and how do you reach them? And here’s where the important question comes…where do those people congregate such that you can actually speak to them? If you determine that your audience is “women between the age of 30 and 40,” that isn’t particularly useful because that’s too disparate to reach. Not ALL of them congregate in the same place. But if you determine there is a certain set of bloggers and websites that your audience reads and by obtaining coverage or placing ads, you can reach them there, well that’s something you can wrap your head around.
I usually advise that filmmakers start well in advance and build a big excel grid of every organization, every website, every blogger, every tastemaker, every everything they can think of and methodically reach out to them with news about their film. You usually can’t do this until you’ve actually starting shooting..so you can at least share images and teasers etc…but please don’t wait until you are finished with the film. This process takes too long… often by then it is too late.
I shouldn’t have to mention that this is of course where social media comes in as well. You want your social media strategy to start on Day One of shooting if possible. And, as always, you’ll want your social media strategy to be as interactive and engaging as possible…not just a platform for naked self-promotion.
4) Have a rigorous and vigorous approach to crowdfunding. Independent filmmaking can seem downright depressing at times…but it’s times like this we should thank our lucky stars for the relatively recent phenomenon of crowdfunding. What a miracle it is….and the best part of all….you don’t have to give the money back. Plus you are building up an audience that is motivated to see your film succeed.
These days it seems reasonable…for the right project…to launch crowdfunding campaigns in pre-production, for finishing funds, and to jumpstart your distribution, as long as you have a compelling message to impart to the world. And a great video of course… it all comes down to the video (and to a lesser extent the perks). Remember, however, that a crowdfunding campaign is hard work…its like a whole other job, which can certainly seem daunting during production. But if you don’t work hard at it…it won’t work. The good news is, if you DO work hard at it, the success rate is amazing!
5) Explore the granting world. Like crowfunding money, grant money is money you won’t have to pay back (meaning the best kind). Grant money is usually a better fit for documentaries of course, but we’ve also worked on plenty of narrative features with a theme or message that attracted grantees. Also, don’t forget that there are also (some) grants for outreach/distribution, for films with an important social message. To pursue grants, you’ll probably also need a fiscal sponsoring organization to back you, which can be The Film Collaborative or a number of other independent film non-profits. To read more about TFC’s fiscal sponsorship progam, go HERE.
6) Pre-sell as little as possible. This is a quandary for many filmmakers. You need the money to finish the film, but then when it’s finished, those rights are tied up and you can’t exploit them in a way that you’d like to. And, again, unless you have bona fide movie stars, your film will be infinitely less valuable before you finish it than when it is premiering at a major festival like Sundance etc. Time and time again I hear filmmakers say, “I pre-sold my film to x territory (usually broadcast) because I needed the money, now I wish I could just give them the money back.”
7) Parcel off your rights in as many pieces as possible. This is something that TFC’s founder Orly Ravid has specialized in….i.e. engaging as many different companies as possible to handle as many different rights categories as possible. This goes back to what I said earlier, different companies are better at different things. This “parceling” is particularly important because many all-rights holders are using many middle-men companies to get to various platforms etc. You want to be as DIRECT AS POSSIBLE with your various points of sale, cutting out as many middle-men as possible.
8) Explore Transmedia. This is admittedly difficult for the vast majority of independent, character-driven narrative features…although there are some notable exceptions. But for genre/sci-fi features this is an area rich with possibility, through games, contests, spin-off stories etc. And most often overlooked is the potential for documentaries to explore transmedia, especially since most documentaries have countless hours of footage they aren’t using in the finished film itself. And for issue-oriented docs, there is usually a wealth of other sources, both scholarly and journalistic, that can be folded into your website. For documentaries, your website should be an equal “entry-point” into the issues raised by the documentary, and should ultimately lead to more viewers/consumers of the film. That is the very essence of transmedia…multiple entry points into the larger experience.
9) Have a well-thought out strategy for digital distribution. My aforementioned producer friend was in the tech business, so her focus is on possibly creating her own portal where her target audience can download the film directly, thereby cutting out all middle-men entirely.
Nonetheless, in today’s world you have to expect (hope) that the most viewers for your film will be paying customers in the digital realm. And thankfully, just getting your film onto a few big digital platforms these days isn’t particularly difficult (to read more about the digital distribution offered by The Film Collaborative, go HERE. But here is where #2 (target audience) and #3 (smart marketing) come in most importantly….if you just throw your film onto iTunes, how is anyone going to know it’s there?
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of great companies you can hire that work for very little money to assist you with the marketing part. So this may be yet another job you and your team might have to do for yourselves.
10) Keep the budget as low as possible. This may seem like the most obvious point of all, and yet it is incredibly subjective. I can’t tell you how many times I cringe when hear filmmakers say “we kept our costs down…it only cost 1 million dollars!” Well, a million dollars isn’t what it used to be….and I mean that in the reverse way it is traditionally meant. With the plethora of cheap digital cameras and desktop editing leading to an explosion in independent film, supply WAY outstrips demand… and a million dollars is quite an expensive indie movie these days. Most importantly, at a million dollars chances are there is probably no amount of DIY distribution techniques that will recoup your investment, and you’ll be back in the initial quandary, meaning you will NEED a significant traditional sale from a distributor to have any chance of making most of your money back.
So, when I say keep your budget low…to be honest I am talking more like $100,000. And I know that’s not always possible. So if you can’t do it for something in the low six-figures, you’re back to that place where you need to start thinking about movie stars.
11) Put a minimum of 10 – 15% of your budget aside for marketing and distribution costs. This is a VERY small percentage of your budget that really will only enable you to start building a core audience, but a core audience can grow wider if word of mouth is active.
Again, I know this is easier said than done. Even if you line-item that with the best intentions, many filmmakers will pilfer along the way for a few extra days of shooting, etc. But chances are you’ll find yourself with a finished film with no more money to get it out into the world….no money for festival trips, no money for smart marketing, no money to hire a publicist, etc. Recognizing that even the initial stages of marketing and distribution require capital, we at TFC implore you not to fall into the trap of being cash-strapped right at the time you need it most.
Most of all of what I have outlined above fall under the producer’s responsibilities, and are sometimes referred to the work of what might be called the PMD or “Producer of Marketing and Distribution.,” and are crucial to development of a producer business model for indie film.
Interestingly, sometimes I think there is a clearer business model for directors of independent film. Directors have a clearer path to a business model that makes sense…direct an indie gem, premiere it at Sundance to great acclaim, and then get hired by Hollywood to direct commercial TV and film (think Christopher Nolan, who seemingly went directly from Memento to Batman). But producers seem to start at step 1 with every script.
It is my hope that by following the guidelines listed in this post, at least some of the groundwork to planning a profitable business model for an independent film can be laid out in advance.
Jeffrey Winter August 19th, 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
I used to be the resident regular blogger here at The Film Collaborative, but some of you may know, I’m wrapping up a law degree and I only weigh in on the blog periodically. My colleagues at TFC have been picking up the slack, and doing an awesome job of it, if I do say so. While I am writing only sporadically these days, sometimes I just have ideas that must be written. This post has been brewing in me for a while.
I have something to say and it will not be easy to accept for many of you. I write this out of love and the hope that it will save heartache down the line. Hope is prevalent in the film industry. It can be motivating, but also it can blind filmmakers to the realities they must face in the market. The market is now over saturated with film product and this is only going to continue. Mindsets that once may have worked for the majority now have to give way to a more productive, informed and aggressive one in order to see success.
One big lesson I learned in law school is how legal theories of a claim or case involve classification of law, elements, factors etc. Being precise and persuasive is the difference between winning and losing. I have thought about this lately in terms of filmmakers’ complaints when they have chosen to give their films to traditional distributors and then were unhappy with the results. Perhaps being precise with the production’s goals and persuasive in presenting how the film will sell in the market in order to meet those goals is something that filmmakers should be practicing.
I’m weary of hearing the irrational expectations of filmmakers who did not think about the business side of their film before they made it. I want filmmakers to actively get real about what’s possible in today’s marketplace and assert some ownership of the results of the performance of the film.
You all know me and know I’m the last person to just blindly defend a traditional distributor. But I have noticed a pattern now that I find hard to justify. Many filmmakers (maybe most!) are still wishing, hoping and resorting to making all rights deals with traditional distributors and then, if the release is not handled how the production envisioned, the distributor is blamed. With all the new tools, and by now, not even new discourse about direct distribution and how it gives filmmakers the ability to handle their own releases in the manner they envision, why are so few choosing that route? Is it easier to put the blame on an entity instead of taking the responsibility from the start? Is it easier to think that if a film is chosen for pick up by a distributor, it has merit and then when that merit doesn’t materialize in the market, it must have been the fault of the entity handling it?
Again, I have no issue blaming companies for being in breach because that can definitely happen. Distributors have lots of titles in their catalogs and each will not get the same amount of attention. They will not likely tell you that when signing a deal, but it will happen to some titles. What I do want to address is the filmmaker theory that the distributor screwed up without having any coherent evidence as to how and what would have happened otherwise to making the deal.
I think if a distributor offers you no advance or a small advance for all or even part of your rights, that’s a big vote of little confidence in the title. Doesn’t that sound logical to you? If you are signing that deal, truly believing there is going to be profit that will reach you beyond what the sales agent takes, what the distributor takes, what the platform/store/exhibitor takes, you’re dreaming. Little investment in acquiring the rights to your film means little marketing effort is going to be made, and likely little will result from the release for you. A filmmaker agreeing to that arrangement should be clued in as to how likely the film will succeed. Again, I am not speaking about being in breach of promises in writing such as projections and a marketing plan that is not actualized. If big projections were made based on a clear marketing plan presented in writing outlining all efforts that will be made, then not executed, there is reason for complaint.
I find it increasingly frustrating to talk with filmmakers who have little or no evidence of their own to demonstrate their film’s appeal. Why would a film that is not going to have an impact festival premiere, has low website traffic numbers, low social network following, small or no email list to contact fans be assumed to wildly succeed? If no one on the team has done the proper marketing work and/ or the film is not a hit with the audiences who have seen it (most likely at smaller festival screenings), why do filmmakers insist their film will succeed? The tea leaves are splayed out to be read and it may be a difficult read, but filmmakers cannot just brush them aside. If you choose to give your film away to a distributor for little or no advance and no serious marketing commitment (in writing), you should not be surprised by poor results.
3 pieces of advice you should take from this:
1. Prove your film’s concept with proper marketing preparation and act on its distribution directly, or;
2. Prove your film’s concept to an outside distributor and get all of your expectations and requirements as part of a written agreement so there are no surprises and you get what you bargained for, or;
3. Own the fact that you have no proof of your film’s appeal either directly or to middle man distributors and then, reconcile that if you sign a no or low advance, all rights deal with no serious marketing commitment , you have very low expectations for its success.
Filmmakers make some common business projection mistakes like comparing their films to two totally unrelated or uncomparable films; confuse festival circuit success with an indication that there will be home entertainment success, even though the two classes of distribution are entirely different; or their measurements and requirements of success are decided without knowing the costs associated with that success. I am encouraging more practical and realistic thinking. It’s okay sometimes if films don’t recoup their budgets. Films can be, and in my opinion should be, about art and cultural connection. But if the ultimate goal is to fully recoup and/or profit, a detailed plan from the start describing how that is going to happen and what it will realistically take to make that happen really needs to be in place. The complaining and blaming needs to stop.
Orly Ravid September 26th, 2013
Next week (September 15 – 19) marks IFP’s annual “Independent FIlm Week” in NYC, herein dozens of fresh-faced and “emerging” filmmakers will once again pitch their shiny new projects in various states of development to jaded Industry executives who believe they’ve seen and heard it all.
Most of you reading this already know that pitching a film in development can be difficult, frustrating work…often because the passion and clarity of your filmmaking vision is often countered by the cloudy cynicism of those who are first hearing about your project. After all, we all know that for every IFP Week success story (and there are many including Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, Dee Rees’ Pariah, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, Stacie Passon’s Concussion etc…), there are many, many more films in development that either never get made or never find their way into significant distribution or, god forbid, profit mode.
So what keeps filmmaker’s coming back year after year to events like this? Well, the simple answer is “hope” of course….hope, belief, a passion for storytelling, the conviction that a good story can change the world, and the pure excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.
Which is why I found a recent poll hosted on IFP’s Independent Film Week website [right sidebar of the page] so interesting and so telling….in part because the result of the poll runs so counter to my own feelings on the state of independent film distribution.
On its site, IFP asks the following question:
Before you view results so far, answer the question….Which excites YOU the most? Now go vote and see what everyone else said.
** SPOILER ALERT — Do Not Read Forward Until You’ve Actually Voted**
What I find so curious about this is in my role as a independent film distribution educator at The Film Collaborative, I would have voted exactly the other way.
I suspect that a key factor in IFP Filmmakers voting differently than I has something to do with a factor I identified earlier, which I called “the pure excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.” I’m guessing most filmmakers called the thing most “exciting” that they knew the least about. After all 1) “Crowdsourcing” seems familiar to most right now, and therefore almost routine to today’s filmmakers….no matter how amazing the results often are. 2) “Television As a Platform for Auteurs” is also as familiar as clicking on the HBO GO App….even despite the fact that truly independent voices like Lena Dunham have used the platform to become household names. 3) Cross Media Story Telling remains a huge mystery for most filmmakers outside the genre sci-fi and horror realms….especially for independent narrative filmmakers making art house character-driven films. It should be noted that most documentary filmmakers understand it at least a little better. And 4) Digital Distribution Opportunities…of course this is the big one. The Wild West. The place where anything and everything seems possible…even if the evidence proclaiming its success for independents STILL isn’t in, even this many years after we’ve started talking about it.
But still we hope.
From our POV at The Film Collaborative, we see a lot of sales reports of exactly how well our truly independent films are performing on digital platforms….and for the most part I can tell you the results aren’t exactly exciting. Most upsetting is the feeling (and the data to back it) that major digital distribution platforms like Cable VOD, Netflix, iTunes etc are actually increasing the long-tail for STUDIO films, and leaving even less room than before for unknown independents. Yes, of course there are exceptions — for example our TFC member Jonathan Lisecki’s Gayby soared to the top of iTunes during Gay Pride week in June, hitting #1 on iTunes’ indie charts, #3 on their comedy charts, and #5 overall—above such movie-star-studded studio releases as Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained. But we all know the saying that the exception can prove the rule.
Yes, more independent film than ever is available on digital platforms, but the marketing conundrums posed by the glut of available content is often making it even harder than ever to get noticed and turn a profit. While Gayby benefited from some clever Pride Week-themed promotions that a major player like iTunes can engineer, this is not easily replicated by individual filmmakers.
For further discussion of the state of independent digital distribution, I queried my colleague Orly Ravid, TFC’s in house guru of the digital distro space. Here’s how she put it:
“I think the word ‘exciting’ is dangerous if filmmakers do not realize that platforms do not sell films, filmmakers / films do.
What *is* exciting is the *access*.
The flip side of that, however, is the decline in inflation of value that happened as a result of middle men competing for films and not knowing for sure how they would perform.
What I mean by that is, what once drove bigger / more deals in the past, is much less present today. I’m leaving theatrical out of this discussion because the point is to compare ‘home entertainment.’
In the past, a distributor would predict what the video stores would buy. Video stores bought, in advance often, based on what they thought would sell and rent well. Sure there were returns but, in general, there was a lot of business done that was based on expectation, not necessarily reality. Money flowed between middle men and distributors and stores etc… and down to the sellers of films. Now, the EXCITING trend is that anyone can distribute one’s film digitally and access a worldwide audience. There are flat fee and low commission services to access key mainstream platforms and also great developing DIY services.
The problem is, that since anyone can do this, so many do it. An abundance of choice and less marketing real estate to compel consumption. Additionally, there is so much less of money changing hands because of anticipation or expectation. Your film either performs on the platforms or on your site or Facebook page, or it does not. Apple does not pay up front. Netflix pays a fee sort of like TV stations do, but only based on solid information regarding demand. And Cable VOD is as marquee-driven and not thriving for the small film as ever.
The increasing need to actually prove your concept is going to put pressure on whomever is willing to take on the marketing. And if no one is, most films under the impact of no marketing will, most likely, make almost no impact. So it’s exciting but deceptive. The developments in digital distribution have given more power to filmmakers not to be at the mercy of gatekeepers. However, even if you can get into key digital stores, you will only reach as many people and make as much money as you have marketed for or authentically connected to.”
Now, don’t we all feel excited? Well maybe that’s not exactly the word….but I would still say “hopeful.”
To further lighten the mood, I’d like to add a word or two about my choice for the emerging trend I find most exciting — and that is crowdsourcing. This term is meant to encompass all activities that include the crowd–crowdfunding, soliciting help from the crowd in regard to time or talent in order to make work, or distributing with the crowd’s help. Primarily, I am going to discuss it in terms of raising money.
Call me old-fashioned, but I still remember the day (like a couple of years ago) when raising the money to make a film or distribute it was by far the hardest part of the equation. If filmmakers work within ultra-realistic budget parameters, crowd-sourcing can and usually does take a huge role in lessening the financial burdens these days. The fact is, with an excellently conceived, planned and executed crowdsourcing campaign, the money is now there for the taking…as long as the filmmaker’s vision is strong enough. No longer is the cloudy cynicism of Industry gatekeepers the key factor in raising money….or even the maximum limit on your credit cards.
I’m not implying that crowdsourcing makes it easy to raise the money….to do it right is a whole job unto itself, and much hard work is involved. But these factors are within a filmmaker’s own control, and by setting realistic goals and working hard towards them, the desired result is achieved with a startling success rate. And it makes the whole money-raising part seem a lot less like gambling than it used to….and you usually don’t have to pay that money back.
To me, that is nothing short of miraculous. And the fact that it is democratic / populist in philosophical nature, and tends to favor films with a strong social message truly thrills me. Less thrilling is the trend towards celebrities crowdsourcing for their pet projects (not going to name names here), but I don’t subscribe to a zero-sum market theory here which will leave the rest of us fighting over the crumbs….so if well-known filmmakers need to use their “brand” to create the films they are most passionate about…I won’t bash them for it.
In fact, there is something about this “brand-oriented” approach to crowdsourcing that may be the MOST instructive “emerging trend” that today’s IFP filmmakers should be paying attention to…as a way to possibly tie digital distribution possibilities directly to the the lessons of crowdsourcing. The problem with digital distribution is the “tree-falls-in-the-forest” phenomenon….i.e. you can put a film on a digital platform, but no-one will know it exists. But crowdsourcing uses the exact opposite principal….it creates FANS of your work who are so moved by your work that they want to give you MONEY.
So, what if you could bring your crowdsourcing community all the way through to digital distribution, where they can be the first audience for your film when it is released? This end-to-end digital solution is really bursting with opportunity…although I’ll admit right here that the work involved is daunting, especially for a filmmaker who just wants to make films.
As a result, a host of new services and platforms are emerging to explore this trend, for example Chill. The idea behind this platform (and others) is promising in that it encourages a “social window” to find and engage your audience before your traditional digital window. Chill can service just the social window, or you can choose also to have them service the traditional digital window. Crowdfunding integration is also built in, which offers you a way to service your obligations to your Kickstarter or Indiegogo backers. They also launched “Insider Access” recently, which helps bridge the window between the end of the Kickstarter campaign and the release.
Perhaps it is not surprising therefore, that in fact, the most intriguing of all would be a way to make all of the “emerging trends” work together to create a new integrated whole. I can’t picture what that looks like just yet…and I guess that is what makes it all part of the “excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.”
Jeffrey Winter will be attending IFP Week as a panelist and participant in the Meet the Decision Makers Artists Services sessions.
Jeffrey Winter September 12th, 2013
Tags: cable VOD, cross media storytelling, crowdfunding, Crowdsourcing, digital film distribution, Gayby, hope, IFP, Independent Film Week, iTunes, Jonathan Lisecki, Netflix, Orly Ravid, The Film Collaborative
15 comments regarding the indieWIRE panel at Film Society of Lincoln Center “15 Years of Film Distribution” and Sundance’s Distribution Announcement
The IndieWIRE panel I am commenting on was at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on July 16, 2011. indieWIRE Editor in Chief Dana Harris moderated a discussion about the past 15 years of film distribution with (left to right): Richard Abramowitz, Amy Heller, Bingham Ray, Bob Berney, Ira Deutchman, Mark Urman, Arianna Bocco and Jeanne Berney. It can be found here:
The Sundance distribution announcement was just made today.
- So glad to know, as Mark Urman noted, that even big A-list cast films have a hard time getting listed properly on Cable VOD in terms of cast. We know that Sundance indie Adventures of Power also was not always listed properly in terms of noting its full cast (namely Jane Lynch & Adrien Grenier who both have massive fan bases were sometimes left off the film’s VOD description). What will it take the MSOs to get it together? Please let’s not all name or rename our films with numbers or start with the letters A,B,C,D, or E. If Comcast can insert ads into programming surely they and all the other dozens of MSOs (Multi System Operators) can find a way to help attract an audience for films on their system by categorizing them and filling in complete descriptions even on mammoth platforms.
- The glut of content was discussed and the marketing challenges all distributors of cinema face. We all know it’s cheaper to make films now, there are more of them, they don’t die or go away, they just multiply annually and even some of the panelists spoke to younger generations not even committed to being filmmakers, but just making films because they can and it’s made to seem so cool. Indeed. And what I want someone to say, well ok I will just say it, is when the real numbers behind film distribution are revealed across the board perhaps we’ll see a trim in supply. The best, most creative and most committed will survive and thrive. Investors will be choosier because they’ll have all of the REAL information they need to make educated decisions. As for how to clear through the clutter, well, that goes back to the basics of know-your-audience, down to the “T” and don’t pretend it’s everyone. I look forward to even more lifestyle and interest oriented programming and content servicing and all the more reason for filmmakers to cultivate audiences directly, where there is no room for glut or confusion.
- They joked about no one knowing VOD numbers, except for Arianna of IFC of course and Mark sometimes when his VOD client (Tribeca Films I presume) fills him in. Well, we have some from our forthcoming case study book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and I want to challenge ALL FILMMAKERS to share your numbers and stop the madness of mystery! And I agree, it’s time that these numbers start getting tracked and reported in a more automated fashion as theatrical box office and DVD sales are now. Still those number only show gross, and not the spend needed to achieve those numbers.
- Amy of Milestone noted younger people have different habits in terms of what they want to view and how they view. So maybe we need younger folks running distribution companies now. TFC is hiring.
- Arianna of IFC notes that piracy is a huge issue and that young people do not want to pay for content. So we can either be disturbed by that, or we can work with that knowledge and release in a way that will maximize revenues, instead of forcing audiences into outdated window methods. One film we recently observed tried to monetize its distribution via sponsorship, but waited way too long to get started, tried to do so without a distribution plan in place, is having its theatrical launch 6 months after its festival premiere and cannot seem to make a decision on the rest of its distribution whilst it awaits fat-enough-offers that are not coming. That sort of paradigm is a set up for failure and leaves the film open to piracy when a clear plan from the start and an immediate release after festival premiere could have led to quicker monetization (sponsored, DIY and/or via a donation campaign on VODO). We caution against proceeding with filmmaking or distribution when there is no viable plan in place.
- A question via TWITTER that came in was: Where do you want to be 15 years from now? Richard Abramowitz is amazed he’s still in the biz now… and that’s honest in that it speaks to deep concerns about the changes in the business and the truth is, the more transparent service providers are about their numbers, the more likely they will survive. Those less transparent are not likely to sustain themselves. What I object to is the mythology in this industry and the mask of success that hides the real story of spending more than you made back because there are too many expensive services or middlemen. Who can tell me about their PROFIT? Not just for themselves, but for the filmmakers and investors they represent? Who will publicly admit the numbers on how much was spent for each service even on services they did not really need if they were better educated, and each middleman and what that yielded? When people do not, it’s largely because they want to get the next project funded and, to me, this is no better than a pyramid scheme. You know what eventually happens with those, right? See 2008 for an indication. Anyone who wants to challenge TFC on its transparency please do, I am ready.
- ‘Theatre going experience is in our DNA (like gazing at a fire)’, says Bingham Ray. The communal experience is what it’s all about. Amen. I say let’s bring back the drive-in. I especially want it for Sundance film Co-dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.
- Ira speaks to the Opera audience. He noted, as audiences get older they crave that experience (communal screening) more. I love that Ira Deutchman grew a business out of this niche. Niche is golden. A lesson for us all.
- Ira spoke to “eventizing” theatrical– several noted about adding Q&As, live music, director attendance, panel discussions– to enhance theatrical and all of those screenings do well. Indeed. We have observed the same and that speaks even more to filmmakers knowing their audience and being more engaged in their own releases. There is nothing of this that one cannot do.
- Ira ends quoting Richard Lorber “everything is possible and nothing works” harking back to 25 years ago when distribs celebrated small victories and spent little – before the rise and fall of indie bubble and the studios dressing big releases in indie clothes. My comment is regarding the “professional” the middle man, the lack of transparency even still is a burden, the fees paid excessive if one analyzes from the point of view of sustainability and healthy business. Service deals are announced like acquisitions. That’s why they say “film business” is an oxymoron but it need not be. And that’s why TFC’s resolve now is to not work with unsustainable filmmakers. We do not want to feed the habit, enable unrealistic expectations. If you spent too much on making your film, if your expectations are unreasonable, if you are not committed to being educated about both film and engaging audiences, and most of all, if you are just a money bag and not a creator but rather buying into the dream that your film (which you did not even create) is going to make you rich or richer, please go home. And now, on a less cranky and more joyous note: What I love about the Sundance distribution initiative:
11. It’s offering filmmakers a truly filmmaker friendly set up by having a good partner and fair contract terms.
12. The terms offered by a truly excellent partner like New Video were already good in general, but are now even slightly advantaged.
13. That the deal is non-exclusive and allows filmmakers proper agency and control.
14. That I partly inspired it starting in 2009 and that the folks at Sundance listened, discussed, and worked it out slowly but surely and that there is more to come.
15. The Sundance brand connected with its alumni of filmmaker’s brands and on key platforms that function as the key portals to film lovers (and yet not at the exclusion of other viable modes of DIY and traditional distribution) is the model I have always championed even before TFC launched, because it makes sense. It’s good for filmmakers; it’s good for audiences and back to # 1 and #2, initiatives like this are the way to help clear a path through the content of clutter to the curious eyes of cinema loving consumers.
Orly Ravid July 27th, 2011
Tags: Amy Heller, Arianna Bocco, Bingham Ray, Bob Berney, Dana Harris, distribution panel, film distribution, indiewire, Ira Deutchman, Jeanne Berney, Mark Urman, niche audience, Richard Abramowitz, Sundance, theatrical distribution
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Not Just a Dickens Novel. What Filmmakers want from film markets and what they can realistically get?
“Discerning the difference between a film that can actually sell well enough to justify having a third party sales agent and going to markets vs a film that is best served by DIY methods that should be planned and employed BEFORE the film’s first exhibition”
We get questioned all the time by members and others about which markets should filmmakers attend and which sales agents should they go with. Having unrealistic expectations is dangerous. It sets people up to do nothing on their own but wait for some third party to make their dreams come true.
We’re just coming off of AFM. indieWIRE reports growth attendance at the market. See this article
http://www.indiewire.com/article/2010_american_film_market_wraps_with_positive_numbers/# if you want to read the stats. They are however only relative to last year, a real low, and not addressing the question on everyone’s mind, what about the sales themselves. AFM has always been known more for genre films and cast-driven films. Troma films do well for the genre category and Henry’s Crime starring Keanu Reeves, James Caan and Vera Farmiga is a cast driven narrative being sold this year, for example.
It was decently busy from my p.o.v and buyers were there a bit more to buy than they were at say Toronto, according to our foreign sales partner, Ariel Veneziano of Re-Creation Media. But, the question is what are they there to buy and at what price? The shift in the business from the 80’s and 90’s till now is not reversing itself and I don’t think it ever will. Prices have come down, dramatically because ancillary business has shifted so much, retailers have gone under, and supply has grown. That is the case across the board.
Digital services such as Fluent, Gravitas, Distribber, Brainstorm (all of whom we work with) were all at AFM, digital is where the business is now, not in getting big MGs per territory for most films anymore, not for most art house films. Of course there is some of that business still but the people benefiting from it are the Sales Companies with big libraries and the aggregators with the same. The individual sales prices, after expenses are deducted, are more often than not, not making money for the filmmakers, not given the terms most companies offer, at least not from our vantage point, . Of course we’re not in the business of selling big genre films or cast-driven films so we are not addressing those. Docs do sell best to TV at doc markets such as Hot Docs and IDFA, to name two, and those so far still seem to be worth it and that business still has value. And of course a lucky few theatrical-potential docs sell at Sundance and TIFF etc.
Why do I bring this up? Because we get questioned all the time by members and others about which markets should filmmakers attend and which sales agents should they go with and the truth is, very often the films are not viable for a sales agent because the sales would be too small and if a sales agent did take the film on, the filmmaker would never see a dime after the sales agents recouped their expenses and fees and after one has paid for Delivery. And then the sales agent / sales company would have the right to do the DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION DIRECTLY that the FILMMAKER SHOULD BE DOING. That is the point of this blog. Discerning the difference between a film that can actually sell well enough to justify having a third party sales agent and going to markets vs a film that is best served by DIY methods that should be planned and employed BEFORE the film’s first exhibition.
Stacey Parks of Film Specific www.FilmSpecific.com recently sent this missive out to her members: “So AFM is coming to a close and the overall good news for everyone out there is that business is picking up from last year. Sales are brisk and even Pre-Sales are brisk for the right projects. I’ve met with several clients who are here at AFM and all of them are reporting good results in meeting a variety of people and companies as potential financiers for their projects, or sellers, or both.”
That’s exciting and we know Stacey knows her stuff and she’s a friend so all good. But I still want to know the numbers from everyone who sold a film, or didn’t after spending money trying, and ask all of you readers to share the real numbers, as we will of course (you will soon see), so that people can know what expectations are reasonable and what is not reasonable to expect.
Having unrealistic expectations is dangerous. It sets people up to do nothing on their own but wait for some third party to make their dreams come true. And then time goes by, months and even years, and one has done anything to build community around the film or get it out there. Then filmmakers are disappointed and blame others instead of making it happen for themselves. There is no excuse for that anymore.
We announced a partnership with Palm Springs International Film Festival to help its filmmakers distribute and we will be working with other film festivals to do the same. Filmmakers are embracing Jon Reiss and Sheri Candler’s PMD concept and that can really create success via DIY distribution or get an audience started to give leverage in negotiating a deal. The options for accessing Cable VOD and digital platform distribution and also having mobile Apps distribute the film are only growing, though of course the space gets only more glutted too.
But solutions are being worked out for that. Companies such as Gravitas are working with Cable operators vigorously to better program and highlight various categories of cinema, making it easier for audiences to find what they might be looking for. Comcast debuted a VOD search feature that imitates Google’s, and this will help in time: http://www.multichannel.com/article/459677-Comcast_Debuts_VOD_Sear
Verizon introduced Flex view to help consumers manage content on all their devices and all the players involved in digital are competing with each other to get as much good content to consumers in the most useful and user-friendly way to grow that market further, so whilst the space gets more glutted, there are more solutions in play to manage the paradox of choice a bit better and that’s why it’s imperative that filmmakers get engaged with their own success more and more, and sooner and sooner. Lastly, these days, aggregators such as Cinetic and many distributors openly rely on filmmakers to do a lot of their own community building and marketing so if you are already doing the work, you might as well keep your rights.
Again, we do sales ourselves, we know there is still value in that, but we implore you filmmakers to do the research before you give up the rights and before you just forge forward trying to figure out which market to attend or having organizations like us do that for you, for many many films, there is no market you can attend that will be worth your while. Create your own market that will pay off in the long run.
Orly Ravid November 11th, 2010
Topics on my mind: The dilemma of the long tail and social networking glut and the trends of the giants. 2010 will oversee the SVOD wars as everyone competes with Netflix for a viable subscription VOD model… Hulu, Cinema Now, Blockbuster, Amazon et al, and including Apple will compete with Cable VOD too. And of course there’s Google which I’ll cover in the next edition. According to Jon Reiss (filmmaker, blogger, and author of Think Outside the Boxoffice), ‘Studios are experimenting with releasing catalog titles via Amazon’s CreateSpace’ (which one can read about in The Digital Distribution Guide on our website: http://www.thefilmcollaborative.org/digitaldistribution.html ) — and he postures that may create an appetite in consumers and a comfort level in getting non-blockbuster content via the web. Studios are experimenting with release windows to work up consumer appetites.
Avatar is a game changer as far as the experience audiences will learn to expect. 3D film is a growing business. There’s an impact on indie cinema? Mergers continue as Comcast bought NBC Universal and rumors resurfaced of Amazon’s potential acquisition of Netflix (both covered below). Gigantic was a smaller start-up platform that did not make sense to me because it was too small and too unspecific and offered nothing special and indeed Mark Lipsky has ankled it this week. And now, in answer to Comcast, The Walt Disney Co. and CBS have expressed interest in cutting deals with Apple to offer programming as part of a monthly Internet TV subscription service. The media companies are in early discussions with Apple on the service, which is being positioned as a competitor to cable and satellite TV. (This is not new, Netflix has already had streaming video content deals with TV networks, such as Starz and MTV for example). Comcast (the leading cable company) and the bigger Cable VOD platforms are decreasing their appetite for Indie cinema, at least in the short-term, and going for the more sure things, such as studio library content, marquee driven content and TV. The rise in supply of indie cinema has made it harder for individual films to compete in a crowded market place of blockbusters and media conglomerates who cover them. I cover this more below.
Old rumors never die. In our Digital Distribution Guide we have previously covered the rumor that “Amazon may be buying Netflix”. BusinessInsider.com and Reuters reporter Anupreeta Das have all pointed to heavy trading activity on Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) call options as the speculative root of the born again rumor. Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) is the logical suitor, as always. Given Amazon’s ownership of IMDB and WithoutABox and its search technology maybe having the two merged will help the long tail films better find their audiences. Amazon, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), and Blockbuster (NYSE: BBI) have been struggling in selling digital celluloid. Cable giant Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) is losing video subscribers. In that time, Netflix is a great trusted brand that knows its customer and its customers know how to find films. Amazon needs a digital distribution solution better than its current offerings.
Speaking of Netflix which recently initiated a partnership with retail giant Best Buy, CinemaNow is now directly competing. CinemaNow’s founder went to work for Lions Gate (the studio behind the release of Precious) but CinemaNow is still in the game. The partnership between Best Buy and CinemaNow includes both physical and digital media. More particularly, the deal will allow consumers to buy DVDs from Best Buy, then watch the same movie through CinemaNow on their computers, smartphones or Blu-Ray players. It’s almost like buying a DVD and getting a digital copy on the second disc, but now you require just an Internet connection rather than the digital file. The exact details of the partnership have yet to be revealed, but it’s expected the service will launch in early 2010, just as soon as some studios jump on board. (Of course we presume some day soon Studios will be direct with customers off their own sites).
Best Buy’s plan will require a DVD to be bought, but there’s no guarantee that the DVD will stay with the buyer, or that the stream will. If it does work, however, it will add yet another streaming service to our media boxes. As it stands with Netflix, Amazon Video, Blockbuster OnDemand, Hulu among others, we already have quite a few. I expect some attrition and survival of the fittest.
Back to the topic of Long Tail and the increased competition in the indie film space. I wanted to link to an interesting article in The Economist: http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14959982
I select and quote a few key paragraphs from the article below. In summation, it’s about how the growth of “Long Tail” (as Chris Anderson of Wired coined it) has lead to a glut, a competitive crowded space where only the strongest survive, and hence its own demise. Some niche content maintains its appeal but much of the middle never makes the radar and the biggest blockbuster films continue to rise because they are the most known and talked about.
From The Economist:
“Ever-increasing choice was supposed to mean the end of the blockbuster. It has had the opposite effect “NOVEMBER 20th saw the return of an old phenomenon: the sold-out cinema. “New Moon”, a tale of vampires, werewolves and the women who love them, earned more in a single day at the American box office than any film in history. The record may not stand for long: next month “Avatar”, a three-dimensional action movie thick with special effects, will be released… There has never been so much choice in entertainment. Last year 610 films were released in America, up from 471 in 1999. Cable and satellite television are growing quickly, supplying more channels to more people across the world. More than half of all pay-television subscribers now live in the Asia-Pacific region. Online video is exploding: every minute about 20 hours’ worth of content is added to YouTube. The Internet has greatly expanded choice in music and books. Yet the ever-increasing supply of content tailored to every taste seems not to have dented the appeal of the blockbuster. Quite the opposite. This is not what was predicted by one of the most influential business books of the past few years. In “The Long Tail”, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, a technology magazine (and before that a journalist at The Economist), argued that demand for media was moving inexorably from the head of the distribution curve to the tail. That is, the few products that sell a lot were losing market share to the great many that sell modestly. By cutting storage and distribution costs, the Internet was overturning the tyranny of the shop shelf, which had limited consumers’ choices. And, by developing software that analysed and predicted consumers’ tastes, companies like Amazon were encouraging people to wallow in esoterica. Such companies did not just supply niche markets—they helped create them….” (Note: The article sites research and statistics from the music industry, television, film and books and concludes)… “In short, just because people have more choice does not mean they will opt for more obscure entertainments. That is especially clear in the book trade. But nobody knows quite what to do. The old-media world of limited choice, in which any product that was not too objectionable was guaranteed a decent audience, was a comfortable place. Pleasing a customer who can choose from several hundred films and television programmes even without getting up from the sofa, by contrast, is an unnerving prospect.”
I referenced at the beginning of this post that I wanted to cover the clutter in social network marketing as well. Huffington Post is going to offer sponsored Tweets. Every other blog or article in this business waxes prolific about Facebook and Twitter… how will unique voices continue to be heard and find more listeners when corporate brands use this space as much as they do Second Life to hock their wares. We’ll have more about this and more about digital distribution platforms (especially mobile) and opportunities for Indie Filmmakers in the next edition. One thing we can be sure of, there will always be independent filmmakers and their audiences. We’re committed to connecting them as directly, dynamically, efficiently and inexpensively as possible, always.
The Collaborative will keep the information and service support coming in 2010.
Have a happy and safe new year!
Orly Ravid December 26th, 2009