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
A knockout victory
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is just behind us and films submitted for Sundance are a month away from their acceptance call. While the difference between Toronto/Sundance and SXSW/Tribeca is pretty clear, what separates Toronto from Sundance might surprise you.
I looked at the data from the last two year’s of each festival and came up with one big conclusion. Sundance is the bigger festival for North American distribution on just about every measurable level I could come up with.
How could this be? Toronto is the more mainstream fest, right? Not so much.
Let’s start with some comparative info that would clearly skew things in Toronto’s favor:
-62.5% of films from TIFF 2013 have US distribution
-81.3% of films from SUNDANCE 2014 have US distribution (and remember this was accomplished in 9 months compared to TIFF’s 13 months)
But what about the box office performance?
Sundance has a higher percentage of films that grossed over $1 Million, $500,000, and $100,000 than TIFF. This is including non world premiere films which would give TIFF an advantage.
But what about the size of the deals? Isn’t TIFF where the big money is? Hardly
11 films from TIFF 2014 generated 7 figure deals, 11 films from TIFF 2013 did the same. The difference is TIFF screens 2.5x as many films. Even eliminating the # of films with US distribution before TIFF started and cutting out foreign language films, producers were still twice as likely to get a seven figure deal at Sundance.
The Documentary King
TIFF is a much more diverse slate, but sorely lacking in docs. Roughly 1/3 of Sundance films are documentaries, while only about 1/10 of TIFF films are. Even then, docs were more likely to get distribution out of Sundance than TIFF and by a very wide margin. 90% vs 52%. The majority of docs that made the Oscar shortlist came from Sundance, as have a majority of nominees in the last five years.
Foreign Language Problem
In contrast to their #1 status as a place to launch documentaries, Sundance’s World Cinema lineup is far from a sure bet.
While only 41% of Sundance 2014 World Dramatic films have US distribution, that percentage is still higher than foreign language films that screened at TIFF. The % is higher even if we include all foreign language films and not just world or international premieres at TIFF. So even in Sundance’s weakest area your odds are still better than at TIFF.
That all noted, TIFF receives some high profile foreign language films that will ultimately generate bigger deals and make a dent in the US box office, but those are few and far between in an already very unprofitable arena.
So What Does a TIFF Screening Mean?
TIFF does two things that Sundance does not. It functions as a worldwide market and it is a frequent must for awards buzz films.
Sundance films do better on a domestic level. TIFF films are more likely to generate some form of worldwide interest and the majority of major worldwide players are in attendance.
Sundance has an international presence, but nothing on the same level of going into the Hyatt and taking the United Nations tour of film booths.
Sundance also doesn’t take studio films, which TIFF does. I would argue this is part of the problem TIFF films face. The competition for attention is so much higher with studio films in the mix that many simply get lost in the shuffle.
The DIY Mindset
In the age of DIY options at very low cost, one has to wonder why so many films at TIFF didn’t take advantage of Vimeo’s $10k offer in 2013. In fact, 55 world premieres still lack US distribution, which means with 100% certainty they turned down $10k to chase a pipe dream of success.The worldwide sales agent aspect at TIFF makes it a lot harder to discuss DIY options, but things are slowly starting to change.
This year was the first time multiple filmmakers were willing to openly discuss DIY options for release with me during the fest.
Sundance has their Artist Services program and some very notable DIY success stories (Detropia, Indie Game: The Movie, Upstream Color etc). But the biggest difference is Sundance is early in the year. There are tons of festivals left with which to build exposure going into release.
While it is almost always advisable to hit the festival circuit running, if one didn’t do that at Sundance, it’s easier to rev up the process than at TIFF when the year is nearly finished. If you don’t pursue additional festival screenings right away, your film would play TIFF and not screen anywhere until the following year. Remember there aren’t a lot of festivals in November/December. By that point people have moved onto Sundance and don’t even remember what they saw at TIFF.
The Take Away
Don’t buy into the hype about a festival without carefully looking at the info. While many Oscar winners have come from TIFF, the stats don’t lie. For domestic success, your odds are better with Sundance. This doesn’t make TIFF a bad festival, it’s easily the 2nd best launch pad in North America, but it’s important to know that your film is more likely to get a distribution deal out of Tribeca than TIFF if you have a documentary.
The consensus from this year’s TIFF was that there weren’t too many hidden gems, but with 288 features would any of us even know? At a certain point size is a liability and I think that TIFF needs to shrink its slate or get more creative when it comes to highlighting world premieres without big names.
Reminder: EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL & THE CIRCLE
The Spike Lee executive produced Evolution of a Criminal opens in NYC Friday October 10th at IFC Center. They are also crowdfunding to support their nationwide theatrical release. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/948417025/evolution-of-a-criminal-theatrical-release
In partnership with Wolfe Releasing, TFC Direct will be theatrically releasing Switzerland’s Oscar entry, The Circle. It opens November 21st in NYC and will be expanding through beginning of 2015.
Bryan Glick October 9th, 2014
One of the absolute strongest pieces of marketing you will create for your film is its trailer. The other is the key art. I wish more filmmakers appreciated how important having a kick ass trailer is and stop trying to save money by editing it themselves or having their feature editor do it. A horror film audience is typically younger and very distracted. A trailer that fails to capture attention in less than 5 seconds is easily turned off in the quest to find something more interesting.
I spoke with professional trailer editor Michael Kurthy of Ye Olde Trailer Shoppe, Inc. about what goes into editing film trailers, especially horror trailers.
SC:What is the first thing you do when you sit down to edit? How do you evaluate the film to choose the elements that will go into a compelling trailer?
MK: “If I’m working directly with the producer, we usually collaborate on coming up with a marketing direction for the film. The producer usually has some ideas, but is so close to the film that they don’t see the ‘big’ picture on how to sell the film to a wide audience. Every film is different and requires a different approach. I will do a ‘Break down’ of the film prior to cutting the trailer. This is basically deconstructing the entire film shot by shot/dialog line by dialog line. I try to use the footage and dialog to tell a story, but if that can’t be done, I will write or hire a copy writer to tell the story with narration. The trend these days is NOT to use copy. Sometimes we will be working on a film in the early stages of production and we will indeed use a shot that may not make it into the final cut of the released feature.”
SC: Is there a difference between what goes into cutting a trailer for a horror film and cutting any other kind of narrative film? Are there “rules” or conventions that go into marketing a horror film that you follow? Does it depend on what the trailer is supposed to do (IE, sell the film to industry vs sell the film to the consumer)?
MK:”The only difference is that horror is usually paced slower, more pregnant pauses are used to accentuate a particular moment and we like to use more sound FX. When I cut the trailer for The Wizard of Gore, a remake of a 70’s Vincent Price horror film, I chose to skillfully use music and sound FX that would drive the trailer along in a frenetic manner, with lots of stops. I concluded with a high energy rock cue from the feature soundtrack because it worked so well to pull the whole trailer together at the end.”
SC: How important is music in a horror trailer? Where do you source your music from?
MK: “Music searches are really one of the most important elements in trailer making. The music will set the tone of the piece as well as the mood and what I would like the audience to feel and think. For most of the indy horror film trailers I create, I’m usually handcuffed into using the feature score from the film because of ultra low budgets.This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the score.”
SC: Are there certain fonts or motion graphics that can be used to great effect? Should you have text/graphics or should the scenes play out to demonstrate the full effect of the film? What about using festival laurels or critic quotes? What about foreign films, how do subtitles play in trailers?
MK: “The only reason you need text or graphics in a trailer is because you have to convey another story that can’t be accomplished with using dialogue from the film; or the dialogue from the film isn’t enough to tell the story.
When we use the festival laurels or critic quotes in a cut, we are trying to use the accolades of the film to our advantage. Testing shows that people do respond to awards and such. A lot of times we ‘hide’ foreign films by doing a trailer with no dialogue,it’s very difficult to sell a sub-titled foreign language movie here in the States.”
SC: How is trailer editing different from feature editing?
MK: “I almost exclusively cut just trailers. I think it really is necessary to hire a professional trailer editor who is not biased on the film. One who can step back and really see the big picture. I recently edited a feature documentary for the first time, a film called The Sound of the Surf about the origins of ‘Surf’ music. Unlike trailers, this feature’s files were so big and daunting, so many things to keep track of ie: photos, interviews, music,flyers etc. With a trailer, one simply has the 1 ½ hr film to be concerned with plus miscellaneous music, graphics and select pulls. Quite frankly, after completing this feature edit, I wonder if I could still cut a trailer for this film, after being so immersed into it.”
SC: Given the audience for horror is usually young (teens), does this dictate the length and style of the trailer? How about different lengths depending on where it is shown (online vs in theater)?
MK: “Less is more in this case. Attention spans have shrunk in recent years probably due to the obliteration of broadcast material out there.There is no official maximum length, but if your trailer is over 2m 30secs, it probably won’t get played in a theater.”
SC: How do you feel about the accusation that trailers “give away the movie”? Is that true? Are there instances where they have to in order to get bums in seats/streams sold?
MK: “A good trailer should never give away the story or ending. However, today a lot of trailers do just that. A lot of this has to do with creatives in charge at the studios.There is a lot of pressure on them to ‘Open’ a film [ie, provide a successful opening weekend of the release] because if they don’t, it’s their job on the line. Being a creative advertising exec at a studio is a very short lived career.”
SC: Now for the question all of our readers will want to know for budgeting purposes, could you give me a range for how much a professional trailer would cost? Also, how far in advance should a producer plan for trailer edit?
MK: “If you go to a trailer house (large company with many producers, editors, graphics people), you are going to be charged anywhere from $40,000 on up to $75,000. Smaller shops like mine (1 to 5 employees) can bring the price way down. My rate for an indy trailer is around $4000-$5,000.
It’s always a good idea to plan in advance, but unfortunately people wait until the last minute. I have had to cut trailers in ONE DAY!-not fun. Ideally, it takes 1 to 2 weeks to get a great trailer cut that the client likes.”
Michael Kurthy is an award-winning motion picture marketing veteran who, over a 20 year career, has created successful theatrical campaigns for dozens of block-buster hits including: “Independence Day”, “The Matrix”, and “The Lord of the Rings”.
Currently,he owns Ye Olde Trailer Shoppe Inc., a boutique trailer house, for which he creates quality advertising campaigns for major and independent features. Mike has created campaigns for many horror films including, “The Wizard of Gore”, “Cold Storage”, “Friday the 13th Part Vlll”, “Blackout”, “Close Your Eyes” and “Freddy’s Dead” all of which can be seen at www.michaelkurthy.com
Sheri Candler October 24th, 2013
Tags: Black Out, Cold Storage, film marketing, film trailers, horror film, horror trailers, independent film, Michael Kurthy, Sheri Candler, Sound of the Surf, The Film Collaborative, Wizard of Gore, Ye Olde Trailer Shoppe
Today we have a guest post from filmmaker/educator Kyle Henry
Someone told me years ago that sex sells. Unfortunately, when I started making my anthology of short sex tales feature FOURPLAY four years ago, I thought that if a little sex sells then A LOT of sex would REALLY sell. Although the director side of my brain was motivated by a lot of high-minded reasons (e.g. showing sex as a positive force; providing understanding for characters participating in “deviant” sex acts; rescuing cinematic sex from titillation for catharsis), the producer side of my brain thought that by providing a product that would fill a need (e.g. an adult explicit film about sex that isn’t porn) somehow axiomatically would pull off a hat trick of making a profit AND getting away with subversive cultural critique. Well, we’ll see about that later part because just finding distribution has been a long and winding road depending almost exclusively on our persistence and ingenuity. Both were needed to prove the film’s potential to a very risk averse market for narrative NC-17 equivalent films dealing with sex even in our libertine digital age.
We didn’t start out five years ago making FOURPLAY thinking this would be such a struggle. I’ve always been interested and motivated to tell stories that challenge dominant frameworks of understanding. It’s the old activist in me still rearing its authority challenging head, but I thought that our four tales, which were mostly comedies, would hit that sweet spot of entertaining subversion. First word of warning: be wary of thinking your milieu of friends is representative of the general public as a whole.
Turns out, I live in a bit of a freak bubble. Now, there’s nothing wrong in making your work for yourself and your friends, just try to be aware how large that base is and don’t fool yourself that everyone is going to love your gang-bang heretical bathroom farce (e.g. our Tampa segment) or your cross-dressing sex-worker meets quadriplegic man for spiritual union melodrama (e.g. our San Francisco segment). I was very lucky to find grant money from the Austin Film Society, the wickedly funny producer Jason Wehling who likes doing things on the very cheap, and support from patron angel executive producers Michael Stipe and Jim McKay, who lent monetary and name support to the project via their C-Hundred Film Corp so we didn’t come off as complete yahoo wackos. Second word of warning: if you’re going to make a subversive work that will challenge the body politic and marketplace, make it on the cheap! All of these factors, plus the extreme desire to never again dip into my credit cards to make films, lead us to keep the budget under six figures, which gave us the ability to be not too desperate and come up with alternate strategies when hit with the brick wall of distributors saying “no thank you.”
Well, we were a little desperate in the beginning or perhaps a little too “creative” in our distribution thinking. There is a distributor out there who will go unnamed whose major selling point to filmmakers is a transparent “back-end” for their on-line sales of both DVDs and streaming content. That means when someone buys your content, you instantly see the sale by logging into their producer portal. We had the “clever” idea of releasing three of the four shorts that comprise FOURPLAY at both festivals and online as we finished them, with the idea being we’d make a little scratch along the way of production.
Production of the four shorts was strung out over the course of two years, basically whenever I had breaks from both teaching and editing, which I do also concurrent to directing to make a living because I don’t have a trust fund. Third word of warning: if you want to make subversive independent cinema in America have other skills that pay the bills or have a trust fund. No one that I know who is making this kind of work (and I know A LOT of filmmakers) is making a living exclusively from their directing projects.
Getting back to this unnamed distributor. After we finished the first short, our San Francisco sex-worker segment which premiered at Outfest in 2010, we signed up with this distributor and started streaming the segment. It was gratifying to see the hundreds of sales rack up on their “open architecture” site, but it was frustrating and irritating beyond belief never to get a check from them. One quarter, then two quarters went by with no payment. Emails and letters were sent, never to be replied to on their part. Finally, I had to get a lawyer friend involved, who luckily I met after making Room in 2005 and would only charge me poverty charity rates, but I still sunk around $500 that I didn’t have into legally harassing said distributor to get first payment and then rights back to the project when they never paid up and were flagrantly in breach of contract. Fourth word to the wise: have an entertainment lawyer friend!
Turns out, this distributor had not paid a lot of people. One filmmaker friend of mine literally had to march into their NYC offices and camp out in their lobby, refusing to leave until he got a check from them, or so the story goes. Fifth word to the wise word: always ask your filmmaker/producer friends for the straight dirt on a potential distributor before signing a deal. I wish we had done more research before falling for their “because you see it on our site you’ll definitely get paid” baloney. Digital transparency doesn’t equal material cash.
The second segment, our gang-bang farce in Tampa, hit the festival jackpot of premiering both at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight 2011 and Sundance 2012. This raised the project’s artistic street cred, but … as our most explicit, outrageous and heretical segment, I think it scared off any distributor that might have been attracted by those festival laurels. It has a lot of cock on display, fake prosthetic cock, but still enough showing to scare both the horses and the largest and most profitable online distributor of streaming content, who will also go unnamed. Luckily we have a friend inside said organization who took a gander at the film and told us straight out “too much cock” so we didn’t waste time or money trying to alter the work or submit via an aggregator.
The final anthology feature with all four segments premiered at Frameline last summer, and again I threw a final curve ball to another potential type of distributor, those who specialize in LGBT content, by including a “straight sex” and a lesbian bestiality segment. Granted, in the “straight” segment a couple conceives in a gay video porno arcade, and our bestial segment is more about sublimation than doing the nasty with doggie, but it didn’t help anyone narrow down who would be interested in our film. It’s seems we had something to both interest … but also offend everyone. So, another string of no thank you’s from everyone, and I mean everyone, as we played the festival circuit throughout the summer and fall in 2012.
By early fall, I knew if anyone was going to want to see the film, we had to find a cheap way of getting some reviews and attention to back up our assertion that the work would gain enough publicity and digital markers to direct traffic to at least our own DIY efforts (e.g. making a self-produced DVD available off our site, streaming via Distrify, et al) … but just maybe one of those no’s would become a yes. Going back to my activist days, I hired two former student interns to put together a database of every independent cinema in North America that had screened NC-17 content in the last few years. We then sent out e-mails to around 300 theaters, followed up with phone calls, mailed press-kits/dvds to 100 theaters who expressed interest, and persistently bugged for over five months a narrow set who didn’t say no out-right to end up with the twelve who screened the film either as full week (e.g. Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, Denver’s Sie Film Center), multi-night (e.g. Portland’s Clinton, Seattle’s NW Film Forum, Chicago’s Siskel) or one-off runs (e.g. LA’s Egyptian, NYC’s LGBT Center, Longbeach’s Art Cinema). Since all prints were digital, I either delivered on Blu-Ray, DCP or QT file, all generously discounted by a very cheap institutional FedEx rate, one of the perks of academia. Finally, my partner Carlos Treviño is not only the brilliant writer of three of the four shorts, but is also a talented graphic designer who designed not only our DVD case but also our web-site, based on a great (and highly discounted) poster designed by filmmaker/designer Yen Tan. I’m also an editor by trade, so I designed the DVD. Sixth word: directors, have some skills and partner up with people with skills beyond directing! Doing everything in-house is A LOT cheaper than hiring a bunch of free-lancers. In all, we spent around $15K to do our limited theatrical and first batch of 1,000 DVDs, which also includes the cost of me traveling for Q&A’s to all twelve venues.
One of the biggest line-items was hiring a real publicist for theatrical, Matt Johnstone, who also publicized the festival launch of both the San Francisco segment at Outfest, the Tampa segment at Sundance and the final feature at both Frameline and Outfest in 2012. Matt was with the project for almost three years from that first festival launch and became quite invested in selling the project. We wisely chose Austin, my former hometown, as the site to launch our theatrical tour. Seventh word: build from your base, which doesn’t have to be NYC or LA. I got the idea from the way Rick Linklater built distribution for both Slacker and many years later Bernie. By opening in Austin, we got both huge feature articles in both the daily and weekly, but also great reviews (not a guarantee, but I was thankful) and additional TV and radio interviews. It was about as saturated of media coverage as we were ever going to get and it paid off not only with a modest box-office to help immediately repay some of the debt I had incurred, but also we instantly showed up on Rotten Tomatoes with two boffo reviews!
This is where persistence comes into play. Everyone told us that doing theatrical was stupid for a no-budget sex-film, but in this day and age you still need reviews and digital ink from reputable sources to get anyone to want to see your film on whatever platform you end up on. I couldn’t blow a lot of money on it though. Filmmakers routinely spend $30- $50K hiring a booker, paying to four-wall and hiring a publicist for LA and NYC markets only for the privilege of reviews. I did this in minor-markets for a third to a fifth of that cost to accumulate markers from decent sources, although not the NY Times, but there’s no guarantee the Times would’ve liked the film anyway. These great reviews attracted the attention of a person in the DVD division of TLA Releasing, one of those distributors who said no last year, but because the film was proving itself in the market-place of ideas, now was interested in re-selling our DVD. Because it cost them nothing to manufacture, and no advertising on their part, we were able to negotiate a decent straight up purchase of a sum of DVDs that instantly repaid me what I spent to manufacture the first 1000. Up on their site, pre-sales were available before the end of our theatrical, so press attention continued to drive up sales, allowing us to sell them another batch of DVDs that now has put us into profit on the DVD before its official release date. That certainly wasn’t the case for my first feature ROOM’s DVD deal. Finally, I think it just made sense for TLA, one of the major distributors of LGBT content, that the film was getting spotlighted for it’s LGBT boundary pushing creds and whatever negatives there were with varied content wouldn’t undermine the major critical take-aways they could sell.
Finally, our publicist came up with the great idea of selling TLA on VOD rights also, since we were doing a press-release for the DVD launch and all traffic could be directed to one site. Again, this was a win-win situation for the distributor, as it required almost no work on their part, guaranteed sales, and provided us with the legitimacy of having a one-stop-shop on a press-release so sales could be maximized through focusing on one link in reviews instead of confusing consumers by sending them to multiple platforms. The legitimization we earned through good press during our limited theatrical lead to confidence being built that there actually was an audience for our weirdo film and gave everyone publicity ammunition to prove this assertion. No one was going to make this happen for us, we had to do this ourselves, and that’s my Final Word of Advice: DIY is here to stay for independent filmmakers.
When I first got into Sundance and Cannes in 2005 with my feature Room, I thought I had “arrived” and that upon being purchased by an international sales agency the film would sell itself. Although Celluloid Dreams poured a decent amount of money into sales, publicity and advertising to sell the film to various markets, the experience taught me that your job as a filmmaker is to CONSTANTLY sell your film once its made, no matter who picks it up or in what form for distribution. Distribution and sales companies are like roulette tables. They put down many chips on the table and if the ball lands on a number, all the other numbers lose, and the company will naturally follow a winner to the exclusion of all the “losers.” You want your film to win by being seen and, ideally, also make back a bit of you and your investor’s money. By keeping my production costs low, but producing my work with a combination of grants, crowd-source funding, and small investments from what I’d deem as “patron” investors who are far more interested in whatever “cause” my film is promoting than in returning a profit, I had the flexibility to be persistent.
That persistence was also fueled on the cheap, with: dogged interns who gained valuable insight into the distribution process while not breaking my bank; through a long six-month booking process that allowed said interns to work for cheap because it was only part time while they worked their real jobs to survive; through my academia network, which built relationships with presenting non-profits in every market to build audience and outreach for discussion on issues surrounding sexuality just like a doc filmmaker would organize; and through building long terms relationships with professionals who are also friends, like our publicist, our producers and my lawyer, who stick with me and the film on bargain rates because in some way they support me and the work as a team.
This has been the real hat trick, not only finding distribution and some sort of on-line home for an NC-17 equivalent film, but continuing to build long term relationships with other creatives who might be down for yet another subversive adventure when the next film inspiration strikes.
FOURPLAY is now available on DVD/VOD streaming from TLA here http://www.tlavideo.com/gay-fourplay/p-350944-2
FOURPLAY official web-site http://www.fourplayfilm.com/
Kyle Henry is a filmmaker, editor and educator. His narrative feature Room debuted at Sundance and Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight in 2005. He is also the editor of the Emmy Award winning 2011 documentary Where Soldiers Come From, as well as this year’s SXSW premier doc Before You Know It. He currently teaches film production at Northwestern University.
Sheri Candler May 15th, 2013
Tags: Alamo Drafthouse, Art Cinema, Austin Film Society, C-Hundred Film Corp, Cannes, Carlos Trevino, Celluloid Dreams, Clinton, FOURPLAY, Frameline, Jason Wehling, Jim McKay, Kyle Henry, LGBT, LGBT Center, Matt Johnstone, Michael Stip, NC 17, NW Film Forum, Outfest, Room, sex positive, short films, Sie Film Center, Siskel Film Center, Sundance, TLA Releasing, Yen Tan
This article first appeared on the Sundance Artist Services blog on August 13, 2012
written by Bryan Glick with assistance from Sheri Candler and Orly Ravid
Indie Game: The Movie has quickly developed a name not just as a must-see documentary but also as a film pioneer in the world of distribution. Recently, I had a Skype chat with Co-directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot . The documentary darlings talked about their indie film and its truly indie journey to audiences.
Swirsky and Pajot did corporate commercial work together for five years and that eventually blossomed into doing their first feature. “We thought it would take one year, but it ended up taking two. I can’t imagine working another way, we have a wonderful overlapping and complimentary skill set, ” said Pajot. “We both edited this film, we both shot this film. It creates this really fluid organic way of working. It’s kind of the result of 5 or 6 years of working together. I don’t think you could get a two person team doing an independent film working like we did on day one. It’s stressful at times but the benefits are absolutely fantastic, ” said Swirsky.
According to Swirsky, Kickstarter covered 40% of the budget. “We used it to ‘kickstart’, we asked for $15000 on our first campaign which we knew would not make the film, but it really got things going. The rest of the budget was us, personal savings.” The team used Kickstarter twice; the first in 2010 asking for $15,000 and ended up with $23,341 with 297 backers. On the second campaign in 2011, they asked for $35,000 and raised $71,335 with 1,559 backers.
The hard work, dedication, and talent paid off. Indie Game: The Movie was selected to premiere in the World Documentary Competition section at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival winning Pajot and Swirsky the World Cinema Documentary Film Editing Award . “[Sundance] speaks to the independent spirit. It’s kind of the best fit, the dream fit for the film. Just being a filmmaker you want to premiere your film at Sundance. That’s where you hear about your heroes,” noted Swirsky. “Never before in our entire careers have we felt so incredibly supported…They know how to treat you right and not just logistics, it’s more ‘we want to help you with this project and help you next time.’ It was overwhelming because we’ve never had that. We’ve just never been exposed that,” interjected Pajot
They hired a sales agent upon their acceptance into Sundance and the film generated tons of buzz before it arrived at the festival resulting in a sales frenzy. The filmmakers wanted a simultaneous worldwide digital release, but theatrical distributors weren’t willing to give up digital rights so they opted for a self release. “There were a lot of offers, they approached us to purchase various rights. We felt we needed to get it out fairly quickly and in the digital way. A lot of the deals we turned down were in a little more of the traditional route. None of them ended up being a great fit,” said Pajot.
Several people were stunned when this indie doc about indie videogame developers opted to sell their film for remake rights to Scott Rudin and HBO. Pajot explained, “He saw the trailer and reached out a week or so before Sundance. That was sort of out of left field because it wasn’t something we were pursuing.” Swirsky added, “They optioned to potentially turn the concept into a TV show about game development…As a person who watches stuff on TV, I want this to exist. I want to see what these guys do with it.” The deal still left the door open for a more typical theatrical release. However that was only the start of their plan.
“We had spoken to Gary Hustwit (Helvetica). We sort of have an understanding of how he organized his own tours. We had to make our decision whether that was something we wanted to utilize. Five days after Sundance, we decided we would and were on the road 2 weeks after… Before Sundance this was how we envisioned rolling out…[We looked at] Kevin Smith and Louis C.K. and what they’re doing. We are not those guys and we don’t have that audience, but knowing core audience is out there, doing this made sense,” said Swirsky.
They proceeded to go on a multi-city promotional tour starting with seven dates and so far they have had 15 special events screenings of which 13 were sold out! This is separate from 37 theaters across Canada doing a one night only event. They also settled on a small theatrical release in NYC and LA. When talking about the theaters and booking, they said theaters saw the sellout screenings and that prompted interest despite the fact that the film was in digital release. They accomplish all of this with a thrifty mindset. “P&A was not a budgetary item we put aside and if an investment was required, we would dip into pre orders. We didn’t put aside a marketing budget for it,” said Swirsky. Regarding the pre order revenue, they sold a cool $150,000 in DVD pre-orders in the lead up to release of the film. From this money, they funded their theatrical tour.
While the theatrical release was small, it generated solid enough numbers to get held over in multiple cities and provided for vital word of mouth that will ultimately make the film profitable. The grosses were only reported for their opening weekend, but they continued to pack the houses in later weeks.”I don’t look back at the box office. The tour was more profitable than the theatrical…They both have the benefits, having theatrical it gets a broader audience. It was more a commercial thing than box office,” said Swirsky. “We are still getting inquiries from theaters. They still want to book it despite the fact it’s out there digitally,” said Pajot. “We had this sort of hype machine happening. We didn’t put out advertising. Everything was through our mailing that started with the 300 on our first Kickstarter and through Twitter,” said Swirsky. Now the team has over 20,000 people on their mailing list and over 10,000 Twitter followers. In order to keep this word of mouth and enthusiasm going, the filmmakers released 88 minutes of exclusive content – most of which didn’t make the final cut – to their funders, took creative suggestions from their online forum and sent out updates on the games the subjects of their film were developing over the course of the two years the film was in production.
Following the success the film has enjoyed in various settings, Indie Game: The Movie premiered on three different digital distribution platforms. If you were to try and guess what they were though, you would most likely only get one right. While, it is available on the standard iTunes, the other two means of access are much more experimental and particularly appropriate for this doc.
It is only the second film to be distributed by VHX as a direct DRM-free download courtesy of their, ‘VHX For Artists‘ platform. Finally, this film is reaching gamers directly through Steam which is a video game distribution platform run by Valve. This sterling doc is also only the second film to be sold through the video game service, where it was able to be pre-ordered for $8.99 as opposed to the $9.99 it costs across all platforms. This is perhaps the perfect example of the changing landscape of independent film distribution. Every film has a potential niche and most of these can arguably be reached more effectively through means outside the standard distribution model. Why should a fan of couponing have to go through hundreds of films on Netflix before even finding out a documentary about couponing exists, when it could be promoted on a couponing website?
As they are going into uncharted territory, both Pajot and Swirsky avoided making any bold predictions.”It’s just wait and see. It’s an experiment because we’re the first movie on Steam. We’re really interested to look at and talk about in the future. I don’t want to make predictions…I do think documentary lends itself to that kind of marketing though. We’re trying to not just be niche but there is power in that core audience. They are very easy to find online,” said Swirsky.
Just because they are pursuing a bold strategy doesn’t mean they were any less cost conscious. “The VHX stuff, it was a collaboration, so there were no huge costs. Basically subtitles, a little publicity costs from Von Murphy PR and Strategy PR who helped us with theatrical. Those guys made sense to bring on,” said Pajot. “A lot of our costs were taken up by volunteers. If they help us do subtitles, they can have a ticket event, a screening in their country,” added Swirsky.
They also note that a large amount of their profit has been in pre-orders. 10,000 people have pre-ordered one of their three DVD options priced at $9.99, $24.99 and a special edition DVD for $69.99 tied with digital. While the film focused on a select few indie game developers, they interviewed 20 different developers and the additional footage is part of the Special Edition DVD/Blu-Ray. That might explain why it’s their highest seller.
All this doesn’t mean that any of the dozens of other options are no longer usable. Quite the contrary, they have also taken advantage of the Sundance Artist Services affiliations to go on a number of more traditional digital sites. Increased views of a film even if on non traditional platforms can mean increased web searches and awareness and could be used to drive up sales on mainstay platforms.
The real winner though is ultimately the audience. For the majority of the world that doesn’t go to Sundance or Cannes each year, this is how they can discover small films that were made with them in mind. The HBO deal aside, this is bound to be one incredibly profitable documentary that introduces a whole new crowd to quality art-house cinema. “We are still booking community screenings. If people want to book, they can contact us…We are thinking maybe we might do another shorter tour at some point,” said Pajot.
Here’s to the independent film spirit, alive and well.
Update Feb 2013: The creators of Indie Game have written their own case study discussing the many tools and techniques they used. Head over to their website for the full study.
Orly Ravid August 16th, 2012
Tags: crowdfunding, DIY distribution, documentary, game developers, Gary Hustwit, independent film, Indie Game, James Swirsky, Kevin Smith, Kickstarter, Lisanne Pajot, Louis C.K., self distribution, Steam, Sundance Artists Services, Sundance Film Festival, VHX, VHX for Artists
TFC reached out to Film Independent/Los Angeles Film Festival’s Director of Publicity and Communications, Elise Freimuth, to discuss to the “Do’s and Don’ts” of working with Publicists on the Film Festival circuit. The following are her “insider” thoughts on the subject…
With so many independent filmmakers going the DIY route, more and more of you are taking on publicity and marketing responsibilities. As a result, you need to educate yourselves on the essentials of the trade. Even if you do end up hiring a publicist, it’s important to understand some basics so you can be empowered and know the right kind of questions to ask when selecting a publicist or putting together a PR strategy with them.
Many indie filmmakers make the mistake of thinking about publicity when they get accepted into a film festival, but in truth, you need to start thinking about PR when you’re putting your budget together. Costs need to be factored in early on for possibly hiring a unit photographer, hiring a publicist once you do get accepted to a festival, paying for room and board for talent to attend a festival and creating press materials.
Create your press materials early! So many filmmakers put these off and then have to scramble to pull assets together when they get accepted into a film festival. A publicist is usually hired about 1-2 months before a festival, so it doesn’t give them much time to work on your film. Give them as much time as possible to pitch your work by giving them a package of nice materials. They may have suggestions to spice things up a bit, but at least they’re not having to start from scratch.
We’re in the moving pictures business for a reason– we like telling stories with images. And images are incredibly important when you’re promoting your film. Creating high-quality still images from your film will go a long way in helping you promote your work and save you from a huge headache down the road. If you can’t afford a unit photographer to come in for a few days during the shoot, then have a photographer friend or someone from your camera department (so many video cameras can create beautiful stills) take high-quality still photos for you. If you have name talent, you should schedule a photographer on the days you’ll be shooting key scenes with them. Your photos should properly convey the tone (comedy vs drama) and reveal something about the character or story. A generic close-up of a character reveals nothing—it could be from any film.
Journalists want photos that are going to help them tell the story about your film and they’re going to want to grab their readers/viewers. Photos should be high resolution (at least 300 dpi), and most news outlets prefer horizontal. When selecting images, keep in mind that you may need to get key talent to sign off on these, so go through their representatives and have them do their “photo kills” early so you’re not chasing them down 3 weeks before a festival. Also, you really only need 2 or 3 great still images. When audiences start to see the same photo running online and in magazines and newspapers, it’s easier for them to recognize your film. And given the time constraints journalists have nowadays, the last thing they want to do is troll through 20 pictures. They want to look at a few and pick one.
Following these guidelines will also help film festivals. Their marketing departments need to put together program books, ads and build their website, and it’s really hard when filmmakers submit low resolution photos in non-traditional formats. You’ll also want to consider holding back a few photos for exclusives down the road when you get a theatrical or digital release. Some publications like USA Today, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Entertainment Weekly like to use exclusive photos for their movie previews and articles. Plus, it’s a great way to do an extra push and leak out exclusive content when you’re releasing your film.
Gone are the days of putting your clips and trailers on bulky and expensive beta tapes. Most festivals and broadcast/online outlets just require a digital file, preferably in HD that you can e-mail, post on your website or share via file transfer websites. Just like with photos, a couple clips of key scenes that convey your story and tone are all you really need. Clips should only be about 30-45 seconds long. Trailers are nice, but they’re not terribly necessary at this point. If your film gets acquired, they’re just going to cut a new trailer and the process can be rather pricey. Usually broadcast outlets aren’t going to show festival film trailers, unless there are huge stars involved. There are some online outlets that may run your trailer, but again, don’t break your back over this. If you do decide to do a trailer, just make sure it’s no longer than a minute and a half and it should be well-edited and tell your story without giving everything away.
Production notes are really handy for journalists to refer to when prepping for interviews with you or your talent, or to fact check when they’re writing reviews or stories on your film. These notes do not need to be 35 pages long. Keep them sweet, short and simple. Include a log-line (1 line), short synopsis (2-3 lines), long synopsis (2-3 paragraphs)—these also help the festival staff when they’re putting together their materials. You’ll want to include short bios (1-2 paragraphs) on yourself, key crew and cast. A director’s statement is always nice, but not necessary. This should be 1-3 paragraphs and can explain your reason for making your film, explain controversial elements behind the film, the style you chose, etc. Don’t include reviews and interviews from other publications in your production notes because journalists don’t need to see other people’s work in your notes. A full list of credits is also essential as film critics need to include this information when they file their review. If they don’t have the full credits, this sometimes prevents them from actually filing a review of your film!
Posters are lovely to have as a souvenir, but not necessary for publicizing your film at a festival. The festival will ask you for these because they’ll sometimes display them for a day or two at the theater venue or in their filmmaker lounge, but that’s about all they use them for. Posters are expensive to make, so if you’re on a budget, this is the thing to cut. Maybe opt for some creative hand-out material with your screening schedule on it if you’re on a budget and are really keen on printed material. A small postcard is easy to hand out to people you meet. Some filmmakers get even more creative and hand out matchbooks, coasters, buttons and more to go along with the theme of their film. But again, all of these things are just fun add-ons if you’ve got the money for them.
If you start getting interview requests and screener requests (see paragraph about screeners) before the festival begins, hold off on setting these up until you’ve hired a publicist or put a PR strategy in place. The last thing a publicist wants is to come on board a film and find out you’ve set up a bunch of interviews without them. Or egads! Set it with someone they know could potentially attack your film or not fit in line with the strategy.
Don’t hire a publicist if you haven’t gotten into a film festival or have a theatrical/digital release. They’re more than happy to take your money, but you won’t get a return on their services if you’re not actually screening your film anywhere. So many filmmakers think they need to hire a publicist as soon as the film is done, but you’ll just be spending dollars that can be used more effectively once you secure that festival slot. You should aim to hire your publicist within 1-2 months of your festival screening, but start asking your sales agent, friends and fellow filmmakers for recommendations and put together your wish list early. Once you find out you’re in a festival, you can start making the calls to these publicists and set up meetings. These meetings are kind of like a first date or a dance—you need to find out if you like each other, can work together and they can execute the proper strategy for your film. They should obviously like your movie, but they should also have a strategy and be able to openly talk with you about potential negative reactions that could result from the press and industry, weaknesses in your film and how to navigate those, and be able to work closely with your sales agent (their strategies need to align). In some cases, the publicist is really there to support the sales agent, and having one who understands distributors is also helpful. Having a cheerleader isn’t enough—that’s what your parents are for. Your publicist should have a plan, know the press attending and be able to strategically execute that plan. For festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Cannes and SXSW, the price you pay will be higher because it needs to cover room and board for the publicist. Expect to pay anywhere from $7-12K. Believe it or not, the costs for sending a team of publicists to these festivals ends up breaking even for them. They’re working on your film because they’re passionate about you and your work. For festivals like the Los Angeles Film Fest, AFI, New York Film Fest and Tribeca, there are tons of locally based publicists in entertainment, so you have a wealth of people to choose from. If you’re playing in LA, select a LA-based publicist and in New York, New York. Why? So you don’t have to pay more for their travel. PLUS, they’re going to be a lot more familiar with the local press attending that festival. Expect to pay $3-7K for these festivals.
Whether you hire a publicist or not, don’t blow your wad at the very beginning. It’s incredibly exciting for you now that you’re playing in a film festival. You want to see a ton of press breaks and have everyone interviewing you and your talent, but you need to reign it in. You want people to discover your film and if you go hog wild with interviews, then no one will want to interview you or your talent when the film finally gets that theatrical/digital release. It’s like turning the heat on to boil a pot of water. You want that water bubbling for your festival PR campaign—you don’t want it boiling over. Work on getting included in some festival curtain raisers—i.e. previews that mention films to catch or look out for. A handful of interviews are all you really need with some key outlets that cater to the audience you’re trying to target.
Decide whether it’s the industry you want to focus on, or raise awareness about a certain issue, or reach out to a certain fan base. BE TARGETED. If you’re a small documentary or narrative with no stars, then Access Hollywood will not want to cover you. They only want the A-list talent. Be REALISTIC and SMART about the type of press you can get.
Communicate with the festival PR staff. If you’re doing DIY, then reach out to them personally. If you have a publicist, make sure they get in touch with the staff so they can be notified of press opportunities that might fit your film, or get some leads. If you’re on your own, the festival PR staff is there to help you. They have tons of films they need to publicize and are mostly focusing on publicizing the festival as a whole, not individual films. They can’t play favorites because all the filmmakers are their children here, but they can give you advice on putting together a PR strategy, point you towards journalists they think might be interested in your film and how to reach out to them. They’ll appreciate that you’re thinking about PR in a smart way and not just asking for their press list so you can blast out multiple e-mails and invites.
A note on screeners. BE CAREFUL WITH THESE. The festival PR staff may ask you for copies of screeners, but you don’t have to provide these. It should be an option. The risk in providing these to the festival is that any accredited journalist can walk in and watch your film on a laptop, small TV or check it out, and you won’t know who it is. They can always pass along screener requests from the journalist directly to you or your publicist so you have more control over who is seeing your film early (the same goes for acquisitions execs! Let your sales agent send these out!!) It’s really best to protect your screeners and only give them to journalists if it works with your PR strategy. Some journalists may need to see the film early for a curtain raiser or feature and are nice about only including films they like. There are other journalists who could potentially badmouth your film before the festival screening. Make sure you or your publicist knows the intent of the journalist. Some films just play better on the big screen with an engaged crowd and some films play better on your laptop with a box of Kleenex at your side. Figure out how your film plays and let that help guide you on whether you want to share screeners.
Orly Ravid May 31st, 2012
Tags: Elise Freimuth, festival publicity, film festival, Film Independent, film publicity, LA Film Festival, postcards, posters, PR assets, PR budget, PR strategy, set photography, working with a publicist