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
Bryan Glick is director of theatrical distribution at TFC
I love film festivals by-in-large and they have done great things for many of our films. In fact, we have multiple films this year that have generated over $50K in revenue on the festival circuit. Many companies cling to the myth that playing festivals hurts distribution deals and revenue, yet most of our top festival performers still received six figure distribution deals while continuing to generate revenue, awards and exposure on the circuit.
While The Film Collaborative is perhaps best known for monetizing the film festival universe, we provide just as much support in creating an overall festival strategy (which frequently includes playing some top festivals that don’t pay).
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “When/how do we determine that a festival is not worthwhile?” And, frequently, I see filmmakers making similar mistakes in terms of what festivals they say yes to. So with that in mind, here are real world examples of when and why (and often where) film festivals should be avoided.
The first three things we ask when determining whether or not a film festival should pay are:
- Do the domestic and/or international industry attend?
- Do the domestic and/or international press attend?
- Are other film festivals going to look to this festival’s lineup to fill their slate?
If the answer is yes to all 3 of the above questions, the festival probably doesn’t need to pay you a fee (and won’t offer it either), as they are providing significant additional benefits. These are the festivals we call impact festivals…and, in truth, there are not very many of these.
However, if they are not fitting the above criteria, then we believe they should be paying you a fee, as they are not what we call an impact festival and therefore need to offer compensation for their screenings. An exception of course is when major travel could be involved—though it is important to note that many festivals will pay a screening fee and cover travel. We don’t include festival travel or perks in our revenue totals but we have filmmakers that don’t pay rent the entire year and simply travel from festival to festival.
With this basic information in mind let’s pivot to festival no-go’s.
Over the summer, a film that I’ll be releasing theatrically next year got accepted to the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival. The festival mandated that the filmmaker (who lives in NYC) attend the screening and refused to pay a screening fee. They also made it clear that they would not pay for print traffic or travel. Meanwhile, they would put the film in an auditorium that seats several hundred people. There was no way we were about to give away $5,000 worth of tickets and have to pay for the privilege to do so for a non-impact festival. If the film was capable of selling out in L.A., we’d rather apply that to the theatrical, or, for less money, do a special preview screening for an invited audience of maybe 100 people. Looking to those 3 questions above, I could honestly say the answer was “no” to all 3. There was a tiny bit of downtown only press but we were not going to get a THR or Variety review by playing this particular venue. And the festival demands were beyond absurd. If they can’t afford to even cover someone’s shipping, they should not be operating.
Perhaps the bigger issue, however, is that the festival is in the second largest city in America. If you plan to have a theatrical release you have to weigh the pros and cons of playing any fests in those 5-10 top target theatrical markets.
Along those lines, I was advising on another film whose central subject lives in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island International Film Festival had invited the film, but this festival also refuses to pay screening fees. It was not going to be the festival that would be causing the film to sell out, but rather the appeal of the subject, and all of us recognized this. Not only would Rhode Island not pay, but they were very unpleasant to deal with, and so the filmmakers wisely took the film to another festival that would give them just as much (if not more) exposure in the market. This other festival also paid a screening fee and they truly worked with the filmmakers so that they would still be able to use their capital accordingly when the time came for theatrical.
While both of these examples were obvious no go’s we frequently run into the more complicated matter of whether or not a film should play a bigger festival in a city that does not pay, hold until theatrical, and/or play a festival that does pay but is less prestigious. Perhaps the most common manifestation of this is broader international film festival (think the enormous Seattle International Film Festival) vs a niche specific fest (Like Seattle Translations). In this case it really depends on time and strategy but again if the filmmaker holds huge sway in that city it’s almost never worth giving it away for free. In these cases filmmakers really need to look at the size of their audience in the market.
With our film Tab Hunter Confidential, I was clear early on that I did not want the film to play any festival in Palm Springs. Tab Hunter is a former matinee idol and gay icon. The combo of which made it clear to me that despite its population of 100,000, Palm Springs would be our top theatrical market. The Palm Springs Film Festival is a truly amazing festival but since our brand awareness within our target demo was high, it allowed us to create an event arguably bigger than what the fest could provide. Cinema Diverse, which is Palm Springs LGBT festival, is run by a true mensch who I knew would still support the film’s theatrical even if we declined his admittedly well-paying festival. Skipping the festival opportunities allowed us to sell out a 500-seat theater and generate over $10,000 in box office in Palm Springs. Tab is a great example of assessing value all the way around, as TFCD made the choice with the producers to walk away from a distribution offer and instead self-release on iTunes where the film peaked at #2. You can read more about that release in my colleague David Averbach’s blog article from last month.
We had a different situation with (T)ERROR, when we opted to play two festivals in Manhattan. Following the film’s Sundance premiere, we took it to Tribeca and Human Rights Watch New York. Tribeca allowed us to continue the awards/prestige trajectory and (T)ERROR was the opening night film at Human Rights Watch, which enabled us to position the film with several politically-oriented festivals. It was smart for this title, but it admittedly made booking a theater in NYC quite complicated. Several venues did not want the film, as they thought it had exhausted its audience. The film played for 3 weeks at IFC Center and went on to win IDA and Cinema Eye Awards. If this film had been a world premiere at Tribeca, I likely would have turned down Human Rights Watch, not because it doesn’t have value, but because of possible future theatrical issues.
In the city of San Francisco these choices are constant as the city has some of the top festivals of almost every niche (Jewish, LGBT, Asian, Environmental, etc.) in addition to the well-respected San Francisco International. In that market, if there is a niche we can position film for, that option is almost always better in the long run than playing a San Francisco Film Festival. Screening at Frameline can be the difference between a 5 figure LGBT festival run and being passed over by the entire LGBT circuit. This is where knowing the audience for the film is so important in evaluating festivals. And I encourage every filmmaker to figure out what niches the film can be positioned for and what the top 2-3 fests are for those niches.
More recently, I’ve dealt with a simple reality of time. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is figure out when a festival is too demanding compared to what it is they offer. For the Love of Spock is one of our top festival and theatrical bookers of the year and, with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek in September and 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s easy to see why. I admittedly found myself quite frustrated that non-impact festivals in rural towns of less than 50,000 were offering chump change and asking for crazy requests like having the director attend their festival during the first weekend of the film’s theatrical release. With one festival in particular I turned them down three times only to have them try and go around my back. The filmmakers were responsible enough to let me know what was going on and we ultimately passed. If a festival is being unreasonable compared to what they offer, it is perfectly fine to say no. Your time has value after-all.
The most likely reason that we will say no, though, is premiere status. Holding out for a top European premiere (Berlin, Locarno, etc.) instead of launching at the first fest that says yes in that region. Most festivals are understanding when it comes to navigating premiere status, but beyond the World, International, European, North American premieres of a film, most of the other obligations are really stretching it. And if there’s 4 festivals in New Mexico that will pay for a film ahead of one that’s asking for the Florida premiere we will usually say take the 4 paying festivals. This is the one area, however, where we see filmmakers turning down festivals that they should be saying yes to. Every year I see filmmakers pulling films out of festivals after Sundance in a hope that Cannes will take their film. And most of the time it hurts the film as they sit out dozens of festivals only to get rejected by Cannes and be subsequently forgotten after all the other fests like Berlin, SXSW and Tribeca have passed. Once the filmmakers get the rejection letter from Cannes they try to reroute course, but some of the festivals that fought for the film months earlier will hold a grudge and instead turn the film down.
Luckily, most festivals are welcoming places and 9/10 a festival that says yes can and will be a positive notch in the film’s exposure belt. But when fests are not willing to pay or are a huge drain of time and resources, that’s when you have to be prepared to say no. Of course keep your theatrical release in mind but you only need to focus on the top few target markets. As you look at the fests in those markets, figure out what your brand awareness is and how the festivals can or cannot help you connect with an audience. The truth is most festivals happily will promote their alumni titles when they open.
Bryan Glick October 27th, 2016
This post is part 4 of an ongoing series of posts chronicling how rapid technological change is impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this affects filmmakers and their post-production and delivery choices. The prior three can be found at the following links: January 2013 • August 2013 • October 2014
DCPs can be proprietary hard drives. Alternatively (not shown), then can look virtually identical to external hard drives
When I started this series back in 2013, a fairly new exhibition format called DCP was starting to significantly impact independent exhibition and distribution, and I was very afraid. I was sure that the higher costs associated with production, the higher encryption threshold, and the higher cost of shipping would significantly impact the independents, and heavily favor the studios.
Flash forward to today, and of course DCP has taken over the world. And thankfully we independents are still here. Don’t get me wrong…I still kinda hate DCP…especially for the increased shipping price and their often bulky complicated cases and how they are so easily confused with other kinds of hard drives…but they are a fact of life that we can adapt to. Prices for initial DCP creation have dropped to more manageable rates in the last two years, and creating additional DCPs off the master are downright cheap. And most importantly, they don’t fail nearly as often as they used to…apparently the technology and our understanding of it has improved to the point where the DCP fail rate is relatively similar to every other format we’ve ever used.
While DCPs rule on the elite level….at all top festivals and all major theatrical chains…filmmakers still need to recognize that a wide array of other formats are being requested by venues and distributors every day. Those include BluRays, ProRes Files on Portable Hard Drives, and, most significantly, more and more requests for downloadable files from the cloud.
To track the evolution of formats over the last two years, please refer to the booking charts of Film Collaborative films below. Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services is booking our clients’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc. October is always the busiest month of the year…as it is the month of the year with the most film festivals. By comparing the last three Octobers, we can see quite clearly how venue deliverables have changed over the last two years.
Quick observations of the above include:
- Bluray use for exhibition has remained relatively constant over the last three years in terms of total Blurays used, although its percentage rate has declined by about 23% from last year.
- DCP use for exhibition has increased from 6.1 percent in 2013 to 31% in 2014 to 39% in 2015. It should be noted that the vast majority of high-end bookings such as top festivals or top theatrical chains require DCP now, and the vast majority of Bluray bookings are at the smaller venues.
- Digital tape formats, such as HDCAM and Digibeta, have entirely disappeared to 0. As we said in our last post to this effect….stop making these entirely!
- Requests for Quicktime files on hard drive format are on the rise…and the only reason their numbers above seem so low is because we resist booking them whenever we can—because they are an additional cost. So the 8 listed for October 2015 means in those cases we determined we had no other choice. We should discuss this further in this post.
- For the first year ever, our company is now offering downloadable vimeo links to festivals to show the film from electronic files delivered over the internet. This is a radical direction that has much to be discussed, and we shall do so later in this post. To date we are only offering these in extraordinary situations….mostly for emergency purposes.
While DCP is certainly the dominant format at major venues for now and the foreseeable future, I still maintain my caution in advising filmmakers to make them before they are needed. Nowadays, I hear filmmakers talk about making their DCP master as part of their post process, well before they actually know how their film will be received by programmers and venue bookers. Lets face it, a lot of films, even a lot of TFC member films, never play major festivals or theatrical venues, and their real life is on digital platforms. Remember that DCP is a theatrical format, so if your film is never going to have life in theatrical venues, you do not need to spend the money on a DCP.
If and when you do make your DCP(s), know that DCPs still do on occasion fail. Sometimes you send it and the drive gets inexplicably wiped in transit. Sometimes there is a problem with the ingest equipment in the venue, which you can’t control. Film festivals in particular know this the hard way….even just a year ago DCP failure was happening all the time. A lot (most) festivals got spooked, so now they ask for a DCP plus a Bluray backup. That can be a significant problem for distributors such as TFC, since it can mean multiple shipments per booking which is expensive and time-consuming. However for individual filmmakers this should be quite do-able….just make a Bluray and a DVD for each DCP and stick them in the DCP case so they travel with the drive (yes I know they will probably eventually get separated…sigh). And the Golden Rule remains….that is never ever ever travel to a festival without at least a Bluray and a DVD backup on your person. It never ceases to amaze me how many (most) filmmakers will fly to a foreign country for a big screening of their film and simply trust that their film safely arrived and has been tech checked and ready to go. If your DCP fails at a screening that you are not at…well that sucks but you’ll live. If you travel to present your film at a festival and you are standing in a crowded theater and your film doesn’t play and everyone has to go home disappointed, that, in fact, is a disaster.
As mentioned previously, more and more venues that cannot afford to upgrade to DCP projection are choosing to ask for films to be delivered as an Apple ProRes 422 HQ on a hard drive. Since this is not a traditional exhibition format, a lot of filmmakers do not think they need to have this ready and are caught unawares when a venue cannot or will not accept anything else. At The Film Collaborative, we keep a hard drive of each of our films ready to go at our lab…as mentioned we do not prefer to use them because of the extra shipping cost (DCPs are trafficked from festival to festival so at no shipping cost to us, while hard drives are not used often enough to keep them moving like this). However we do find we often need them in a pinch. So do keep one handy and ready to go out. This should not be a big deal for filmmakers, since the Apple ProRes 422 HQ spec is the most important format you’ll need for nearly all types of distribution deliveries, whether it be to distributors or digital aggregators or direct to digital platforms. So, if you plan to have any kind of distribution at all, this is a format you are almost certainly going to need. Make a couple to be safe.
Is the Future in the Cloud?
As I have touched on before, the Holy Grail of independent film distribution would seem to live in the cloud, wherein we could leave physical distribution formats behind and simply make our films available electronically via the internet anywhere in the world. This would change the economics of independent film radically, if we could take the P out of Prints & Advertising and save dramatically on both format creation and format shipping. Unfortunately today’s reality is far more complicated, and is not certain to change any time soon.
I can’t begin to tell you how often…nearly every day…small festivals looking to save on time and shipping will ask me if I can send them the film via Dropbox or WeTransfer or the like. The simple answer is no, not really. So every time they ask me, I ask them back…exactly how do you think I can do that? What spec do you need? What is the exact way you think this can work? And they invariably answer back…“We don’t know…we just hoped you’d be able to.” It is utterly maddening.
Here’s the tech-heavy problem. Anyone can get a professional-sized Dropbox these days…ours is over 5,100 gigs (short for Gigabytes, or GB) and an average 90 minute Apple ProRes 422 HQ is around 150 gigs…so that doesn’t seem like a problem. Clearly our Dropbox can fit multiple films.
The current problem is in the upload/download speed. At current upload speeds, a Apple ProRes 422 HQ is going to take several days to upload, with the computer processing the upload uninterrupted all the time (running day and night). Even this upload time doesn’t seem too daunting, after all you could just upload a film once and then it would be available to download by sending your Dropbox info. However, the real problem is the download…that will also take more than a day on the download side (running day and night) and I have yet to ever come across a festival or venue even close to sophisticated enough to handle this. Not even close. Think of the computing power at current speeds that one would need to handle the many films at each festival that this would require. And to be clear, I am told that WeTransfer is even slower.
To make this (hopefully) a little clearer…I would point out four major specs that one might consider for digital delivery for exhibition.
- Uncompressed Quicktime File (90 mins). This would be approx. 500 gigs. Given the upload/download math I’ve given you above, you can see why 500 gigs is a non-starter.
- Apple ProRes 422 HQ (90 mins). Approx 150 gigs. Problematic uploaded/download math given above. Doesn’t seem currently viable with today’s technology.
- HD Vimeo File made available to download (90 mins). Approx 1.5 – 3 gigs. This format is entirely doable—and we now make all our films available this way if needed. This format looks essentially the same as Bluray on an HD TV, but not as good when projected onto a large screen. This can be instantaneously emailed to venues and they can quickly download and play from a laptop or thumb-drive or even make a disc-based format relatively inexpensively. However, there are two major problems…a) most professional venues that value excellent presentation values and have large screens find this to be sub-par projection quality and b) this is a file that is incredibly easy to pirate and make available online. For these reasons, we currently use these only for emergency purposes…when we get last minute word that a package hasn’t arrived or an exhibition format has failed. It is quite a shame…because this is incredibly easy to do, so if we could find the right balance of quality and security…we would be on this in a heart-beat.
- Blu-Ray-Quality File (Made available via Dropbox)(90 mins). This spec would be just around the same quality as a Bluray (which is quality-wise good enough for nearly all venues) and made available via Dropbox or the like. It is estimated that this file would be around 22 – 25 gigs. This would be slow, but potentially doable according to our current upload/download calculations. This is the spec we at TFC are currently looking at…but to be clear we have NOT ever done this yet. Right now it is our pipe dream…and our plan to implement in 2016. I will follow up on this in further posts!
To conclude, where we stand now, we have yet to find a spec that is reasonably made available to venues via the internet, both in terms of quality and safety protocols…but a girl can dream.
It is critical to note that the folks I am talking to recently are saying this may NOT change in the foreseeable future…because internet speeds worldwide might need to quintuple (or so) in speed to make this a more feasible proposition. Nobody that I know is necessarily projecting this right now. And that’s a sobering prospect that might leave us with physical deliverables for quite a while now. And for now, that would be the DCP with Bluray back-up. If this changes, you can be sure we will write about it here.
But hey, maybe that Quantum Computer I’ve heard about will sudden manifest itself? Gosh, that would be cool. In the meantime…how about a long-range battery that runs an affordable electric car and is easy to recharge? That would be super cool too. We can save the world and independent film at the same time.
In the meantime…if you think I am missing the point on any of the nerdy details included in this post, or you know anything about how digital delivery of exhibition materials that I might have missed, please email me. Trust me….we want to hear from you!
Jeffrey Winter November 24th, 2015
Tags: Apple Pro-res, BluRay, DCP, Digital Cinema Package, digital film delivery, DVD, film deliverables, film distribution, film exhibition, HDCam, Jeffrey Winter, Prints and Advertising, The Film Collaborative
This article was originally posted on indiewire on June 26, 2015.
Be smart in organizing your priorities, do your homework and prepare for the emotional roller coaster of festivals. To help you, we’ve asked an experienced distributor to run down the numbers, so you can determine your odds.
Bryan Glick is the director of theatrical distribution for The Film Collaborative. Some of his notable releases include "I Am Divine," "Manos Sucias" and "1971". He has also worked for LAFF, AFI Fest and Sundance. Below is his take on the top festivals.
We at The Film Collaborative frequently hear from filmmakers after the fact that they regretted premiering at festival "A" and wish they had opted for festival "B." Similarly, when we ask a filmmaker why they want to premiere at a particular film festival, we rarely get an answer grounded in research.
The truth is that all the top festivals have certain types of films they gravitate towards, and all attract certain kinds of buyers looking for a particular type of product. With Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes behind us (and many filmmakers going into production to meet their Sundance deadline or wrapping up to apply for TIFF), we thought that now would be the perfect time to step back and look at the bigger picture of the 2015 festival landscape (including TIFF 2014).
We chose to define this list based on the number of films that screened at each festival and had not publicly stated they were being distributed before the festival lineup was announced.
The number of films listed as being acquired is to the best of our knowledge. This includes many films that have yet to go public with their distribution deals but that we can confirm from filmmakers, distributors and/or sales agents.
While we focused on a small list of top festivals, please note that major deals can come from any of a variety of festival. All that said, the following is the look at the major premiere festivals most filmmakers we meet with are pursuing.
2015 Sundance Film Festival
By the numbers:
- 74 Sundance acquisitions (including 19 for over $1 million)
- 74 of 104 films acquired
- 18 of 25 award winners acquired
Buyers: A24, Alchemy, Broad Green Pictures, Film Arcade, Fox Searchlight, Gravitas, HBO, IFC, Kino Lorber, Lionsgate, Magnolia, Netflix, Showtime, Sony Pictures Classics and The Orchard.
The lowdown: Sundance is perhaps the Holy Grail as far as buyers are concerned. Sundance is a popular stomping ground for Netflix and the all rights deals that
are much harder to come by at Cannes or TIFF. The fest is especially effective for highlighting documentaries and top notch narrative films.
The only catch is that Sundance simply isn’t an international festival. If you don’t take the all rights deal it can be much more work selling the film abroad. Since Sundance is the first big festival stop of the year, many distributors jockey for position. But if your film is not American, this might not be the festival for you. Half of the world doc/world dramatic films have yet to secure North American distribution; all but four films in the U.S . Dramatic and Documentary section have secured distribution and almost all were in six or seven figures.
As far as getting into the festival, the festival is notoriously insular. A strong majority of U.S. Competition films are backed by the Sundance Institute and/or come from Sundance alumni. Also, Sundance tends to stick to theatrical length films. You will rarely see 50-70 minute films accepted. They show a particular interest in politically-oriented documentaries.
By the numbers:
- 37 SXSW Acquisitions
- including 3 for over $1 million
- 37 of 100 films acquired
- 11 of 17 award winners acquired
Buyers: Netflix, Drafthouse Films, Roadside Attractions, Gravitas, FilmBuff, Alchemy, Vertical Films, Ignite Channel and IFC
The lowdown: SXSW is always a tricky proposition. With 145 films (20+% more than Sundance or Tribeca) presented over nine days instead of 11-12, there’s simply a lot going on. This means it is much easier to fall through the cracks. Since the festival doesn’t sell tickets ahead of time, it’s very possible nobody will show up to your screening.
However, the fact that the slate skews younger and is more adventurous often means that films have large built-in fan bases, and that there are bold discoveries that distributors can sometimes get at bargain prices. There is a reason FilmBuff and Gravitas nabbed at least eight films combined. Throw in Netflix and you have 11 titles that we can confirm going a targeted digital route.
This is the one top festival where your film is guaranteed to get screened by a festival programmer when you submit. They go out of their way to find filmmakers who are not as connected to the industry. If you don’t have industry contacts, this might be your best bet. The festival primarily programs American films and is a popular follow up to TIFF and Sundance. They also shine a light on local Texas talent.
2015 Tribeca Film Festival
By the numbers:
- 22 Tribeca acquisitions including 3 for over $1 Million
- 22 of 79 acquired
- 3 of 15 award winners sold
Buyers: A24, IFC, Saban Films, Paramount and Strand Releasing all took multiple titles
The lowdown: Tribeca screens fewer films than the other top North American fests and has a reduced schedule during the regular workweek. As the only top festival in a major U.S. industry hub, things tend to follow a more traditional trajectory.
However, we find films at Tribeca often don’t think about the long game. With summer being a slow period, many films will simply stop pursuing festivals while waiting for a deal—a strategy that tends to backfire, as more often than not they wind up forgotten.
While the narrative quality is growing, the star-driven fare tends to dominate. Some based on their star brand can get big deals, but at its heart, the fest is really about documentaries. They have a lot of character profile and political documentaries that fall under the awards bait category and frequently appeal to a more traditional indie film crowd.
As Sundance continues to narrowly define their documentary programming, Tribeca is proving to be an industry asset. This is also a great fest to go to as a North
American premiere. Frequently films that fall through the cracks at Berlin, IDFA and Rotterdam get more attention here, and also tend to be the winners on awards night. Accordingly, if you’re an American filmmaker and awards are important to you, recent history suggests that you might want to bypass this fest. Additionally (unlike SXSW), they embrace their local filmmakers far less, preferring to focus on the international power.
2015 Cannes Film Festival
By the numbers:
- 21 of 81 acquired
- 9 of 25 award winners acquired
Buyers: Alchemy, Cohen Media Group, IFC, Kino Lorber, Radius-TWC, Strand Releasing, Film Movement, IFC and Sony Pictures Classics
The lowdown: Cannes is the international behemoth and certainly being in competition is the best place to launch a film as a foreign language contender. The festival skews much more international in its programming and deal opportunities. While the U.S. distribution picture is bleaker, the rest of the world rapidly snatches up everything they can from the festival.
This is perhaps the most insider-y of the festivals. Only one film in competition was from a first-time director. Cannes frequently pulls from their own rank and file. They also show the fewest number of documentaries of any festival on the list and those are almost solely films about film/filmmakers/actors.
There are similarly few slots for genre fare. Films in the other sidebars like Directors Fortnight and Un Certain Regard are far less likely to get North American distribution when the dust settles, but can usually count on a long festival life.
Cannes, of course, is committed to films from France. However, the festival has continued to struggle in highlighting female directors.
This festival is easily the worst of the bunch for thinking outside-the-box when it comes to distribution. DIY is basically a dirty word and very few crowdfunded films get in. Distributors are also less likely to tout how much they paid for a film in press releases, which is why we do not list the amount of seven-figure deals.
2015 Toronto Film Festival
By the numbers:
- 99 TIFF films acquired (including 16 for over $1 million)
- 99 of 214 acquired
Buyers: A24, Alchemy, Bleecker, Broad Green, Image Entertainment, Lionsgate, Magnolia, Roadside Attractions, Paramount, Radius-TWC, Relativity, Saban Films, Sony Pictures Classics, Breaking Glass Pictures, China Lion, Focus World, Cinema Guild, Cohen Media Group, Film Movement, IFC, Lionsgate, Magnolia, Monterey Media, Drafthouse Films, Oscilloscope, Strand Releasing, Music Box Films, Screen Media, Saban Films, Kino Lorber and The Orchard
Now, keep in mind that TIFF was a full nine months ago. So why the relatively low numbers when compared to Sundance or even SXSW?
The truth is that TIFF has too much product and is largely geared toward star-driven fare. It can be a place to snatch up leftovers from Cannes and Locarno, but non-star driven English language fare (including several Canadian films), documentaries and any of the films in the Discovery, Contemporary World Cinema and Wavelength sections are unlikely to generate much attention.
The nice thing about TIFF is they take films from more countries than anywhere else. The fest also has never been too concerned with length, with many films over two and a half hours and others not even reaching 70 minutes.
With such a wide variety of films TIFF is the most eclectic and hardest to define programming-wise. They take a lot more genre fare than the other fests and their docs tend to reflect an international worldview. The seven figure deals almost exclusively come from star-driven fare. If a film is in English and Oscar bait, but lacks distribution this is the place to be. Keep in mind that documentaries account for less than 15% of the festival’s lineup.
Of course, keep in mind that many more films from these festivals will ultimately secure some form of domestic distribution. It took TFC’s "Gore
Vidal: The United States of Amnesia" nine months after its Tribeca premiere to secure its IFC deal and it ultimately went on to become the second highest grossing film from Tribeca 2013.
So be smart in organizing your priorities, do your homework and prepare for the emotional roller coaster of festivals.
Bryan Glick June 26th, 2015
In two prior posts, I chronicled how rapid technological change was impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this was affecting filmmakers and their post-production and delivery choices. In January 2013, in a post called “The Independent’s Guide to Film Exhibition and Delivery” I discussed the rise of the DCP in independent exhibition, and the potential dangers it posed to filmmakers on a budget. And later that year, I posted “Digital Tape is Dead” in which I gave further evidence that it was possible to resist the rise of DCP…at least for the time being… and the reasons for doing so.
It’s a little over a year later, so I am returning to the topic to take stock of what a difference another year makes. And as always, the main goal of this exercise is to help you, as filmmakers, to make the best post and delivery choices in finishing and exhibiting your films.
Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services is booking our clients’ and members’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc. Every year, this work hits a peak frenzy in October, which is unquestionably THE month of the year with the largest number of film festivals. By simply comparing our booking format totals from October 2013 to October 2014, I can see that once again the landscape of booking has evolved substantially in the last 12 months.
BOOKINGS IN OCTOBER 2013 (total 195 booking engagements):
Quicktime File: 2
BOOKINGS IN OCTOBER 2014 (total 268 booking engagements)
Quicktime File: 4
Other than the fact that we are obviously a busy company (!), the main takeaway here is that the DCP’s slow and seemingly inevitable rise to the top is continuing, although the actual majority of venues (especially in the U.S.) are still trying to cut costs by the use of BluRay. In Europe, the DCP has already overtaken all other formats, and is nearly impossible to resist if you want to play in any reputable festivals or venues. And after DCP and BluRay, all other formats are now nearly dead worldwide, at least for now.
There are many reasons why this isn’t good news for independent filmmakers (which we’ll go into)…but the first and most obvious problem is that all of the filmmakers we work with are still making multiple HDCAMs! From the data above it is clear, STOP MAKING HDCAMS PEOPLE! I know many companies that have stopped producing them entirely, and are providing only on DCP, BluRay, and DVD.
Usually, an independent filmmaker’s first worry about DCPs is the initial price – indeed it is the most expensive exhibition format to make since the 35mm print. However, the good news is that it has already dropped in price quite a bit from 2013…now if you look around you are sure to be able to get an initial one made for $1,000 – $1,500 (compared to around $2,500 a year ago).
Now there is the really weird situation with the subsequent DCPs…and what you should pay to make additional copies. If you’ve seen DCPs, you’ll know that they often come in these elaborate and heavy “Pelican Cases” with a “Sled” hard drive with USB adaptors and power supplies. That’s the kind the studios use, and they will usually run you around $400 per additional DCP…which is expensive.
The strange thing is that every tech-savvy person I know tells me that this is all window-dressing, and that a regular “Office Depot style drive” USB 3 Drive for $100 serves exactly the same purpose and is actually a bit more reliable since it has less moving parts. Add to this the simple charge for copying the DCP (for which our lab charges only $50), and you’ve got subsequent DCPs at only $150 each…which of course is even cheaper than old tape-based formats like HDCAM and Digibeta.
If someone out there knows why one SHOULDN’T go with the more inexpensive option, I’m all ears. Call me, tweet us @filmcollab, leave a comment on our Facebook page! ‘Cause I haven’t heard it yet.
Of course, its still not a super-cheap $10 BluRay, but the truly annoying thing about the DCP and all its solid state technology and its fancy cases is that it is HEAVY, surpassing everything except old 35mm prints in weight. As a result, the cost of SHIPPING becomes a major issue for independents, and more than $100 every time you send since you obviously aren’t going to put your pristine file in regular mail. If you’ve been booking and playing films for a long time, you’ll know that $100 in shipping is often the difference between a profitable screening a not-so-profitable one…and so the cost adds up quickly.
It’s truly the cost of shipping that makes me sad that the BluRay is doomed as a major exhibition format. At one point, when filmmakers and distributors made “P&A” assessments for their films, the biggest cost in the “P” analysis was the cost of shipping heavy prints. For a brief and shining moment….from like mid 2013 to mid 2014… the lightweight BluRays took that part of the “P” out of the equation entirely…and that sure was nice.
But the (dirty and secret) truth is that COST isn’t the main problem with DCP. It is the RELIABILITY of the format. The horrible fact is that DCP is the most unreliable format in terms of playability that we have ever had….bar none that I can think of. BluRays used to have the reputation for failing often, but they were easy to include a back-up copy with, and they have drastically improved in the last two years such that they almost never fail. DCPs, however, now fail ALL THE TIME, at an alarming rate, and for an alarming number of reasons.
Rather than go into the deep tech-geek reason for DCP failures in venues all over the world…I am going to copy a few recent emails from labs, festivals, and venues I have been communicating with in the last couple of weeks. I promise you…all of this is just in the last two weeks! And all of these are all different films and different DCPs!
[EXAMPLE] On September 16th, XXXX wrote:
So, bad news guys, we couldn’t access the hard drive on this DCP, so it’s our thoughts that it is dead.
[EXAMPLE} On September 18th, XXXX wrote:
Nothing over here is recognizing this DCP. The drive appears to be EXT3 formatted and I think this may be why it’s not recognizing as a usable hard drive. Generally, we use NTFS and EXT2 formatted drives. This one does have a bluray backup, but if you can try to get us another DCP, that’d be cool.
[EXAMPLE} On September 17th, XXX wrote
We just got the DCP and the sled was loose and the final screw holding it came off. It’s the plastic thing that pops out. Just now I noticed that most of the screws on it are loose. It won’t play because I think we need to replace the screws?
[EXAMPLE} On September 22,, XXXX wrote
We are facing difficulties with the DCP as our Server does not seem to recognize the drive. We have spoken to your lab and we think it’s because our server cannot recognize Linux Files. We have about 100 DCPs in our festival, and this is happening to about 10 of our films. Can you offer any advice?
It is this last example that really cracks me up….if you happen to know anything about DCP you know that Linux was chosen as the best format for DCI-complaint files. So the fact that a festival could not read Linux, but could still read 90 out of 100 of their DCPs is absolutely mid-boggling, as I thought Linux was in fact the common denominator.
But I digress.
As filmmakers, is any of this what you want to be doing with your time? Do you really want to know about EXT3 and EXT2, and do you seriously want to worry about replacing loose screws on a drive? Do you want to reduce your whole filmmaking experience as to whether a venue can read Linux or not? Do you have time for this?
Just this weekend, we had a screening in North Hollywood where the sound on the DCP went out for the last 5 minutes of the film, all the way through the credits. Is this acceptable? I thought not.
It was better before. We don’t like to think that evolution is like this….getting worse rather than better….but in truth it often is. And this is one of those times.
The truth is, I will never trust this format. The DCP was created by a 7-member consortium of the major multinational studios called the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI). It represented only the major studios…and created a format best suited to their needs. They have since adapted all the major venues to their needs. Is it any wonder that these needs do not represent the needs of independent filmmakers? Do we have any doubt that that any “consortium” would actively seek to suppress the needs of its competition? It created encryption codes only they can functionally work with. It put all the rest of us in danger, in my opinion. Let’s just talk about their unworkable encryption technology if we want to start somewhere. KDMs on independent films are a joke….leaving us more vulnerable to piracy than ever.
So, here is why the “P” matters more than ever. And why there is still GREAT reasons to hope. Just when you thought I was writing a depressing post, I am going to flip this b*itch. And I mean “b*itch” in the best manner possible.
The truth is…the age of cloud based computing, the no shipping, the no P in “P&A” reality is finally nearly upon us.
The truth is…it will not be long before we can use cloud-based services to deliver our films to venues all over the world. Of course, it is happening now….but it is not a mature system yet. But my guess is that it WILL be very soon. Definitely less than 5 years.
With all the new services like Google Drive, WeTransfer, DropBox, Vimeo, etc all rapidly evolving…..we are only months (if not years) from really delivering our films without help from middle men like Technicolor and FED EX. And that will be a good thing. A great thing really. I believe it will increase our indie profits many fold.
Already, every single day, I have numerous festivals asking me to DropBox them the films we are working with. In truth, I haven’t figured out really how to do that yet in quality levels I am comfortable with that also make financial sense. I am in constant dialogue with our lab and our tech people as to how to make this work in terms of uploading time, server space, and quality of presentation.
But it is clear to me that it IS happening over time….if anyone knows the secrets…again, I am ALL ears! Please call me! Because I truly believe that when we can remove the P from the P&A equation….and I mean truly remove it such that any number of prints and all shipping can be eliminated as easily as sending someone a link to an FTP or whatever…..we will re-enter an age where independent film distribution will make real financial sense. Imagine that, for a moment.
And the weirdest thing is I think it is truly happening… any day now.
NOTE: Step 4 in this blog series will be an analysis of how to deliver your film digitally and via The Cloud. We aren’t there yet….BUT that is what I will cover in the next post of this series. Hopefully new updates will happen by the end of the year!
Jeffrey Winter October 1st, 2014
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, veteran independent film distributor Bob Berney gave a state of the industry address on distribution. TIFF was kind enough to make his keynote video available on Youtube (you can find it below), but here are some of the highlights if you don’t have 30 minutes to spare watching it.
-We’re in a chaotic, disruptive state right now with bigger studios making fewer, but massively budgeted films that involve huge risk.
-On the flip side, there are many more outlets now available to get a film into the market. The challenge as a producer is how to get revenue from these outlets in order to fund your next work.
-There are now well funded entities coming to major festivals and buying films without any real plan about how to release them.
-Open Road and Relativity Media are now distributing wide release theatrical films, sometimes as service deals (the production pays them to release, instead of the distribution company paying for rights).
-But platform release films, ones that start with opening in only 2-4 cities and then keep expanding their theatrical runs, are starting to have a tougher time finding a home, a company that will take them on. Fewer distributors are taking the traditional theatrical route and there are now more companies taking the day and date or VOD first route. Films that want a traditional release far outweigh the distribution companies that are willing to take on films for that kind of release.
-Berney believes that a theatrical release is the only way for a film to truly break out in the market in a big way.
-The bar for films that warrant having a large theatrical release has really been raised. The expense to release those films, even if using digital marketing, is big and the market is very competitive. Distributors who fund the marketing and distribution costs for those films are very wary about the ability to recoup.
-This summer there were many indie films that played in theaters against the studio blockbusters and did well. Boyhood, Magic in the Moonlight, Chef, Belle, Begin Again all surpassed expectations about how they would fare against the studio films. Berney believes it was because there was nothing else to see. Either superhero films or these and nothing in between. He guesses that the market could have taken even 4-5 more indie films this summer. People went to see some of those successful titles 2-3 times because there wasn’t much to choose from. Theatrical companies could have picked up more. The Fall season is crowded, but the summer could have used a few more releases.
-Because the deals are so different and the numbers come in sporadically, releasing VOD numbers is still not common.Also there aren’t very many success stories being reported from day and date or VOD only releases.
-Many European companies or smaller indie division within the studio units are not finding deals on their films very viable now. P&Ls for sales coming domestically (US) often have a 0 in the profit column. Sales can’t be counted on any more. Budgets have had to shrink accordingly because large deals aren’t happening so much any more.
Many of the newer players in the digital and VOD arena are constantly looking for content to fill their channels. Those films can play for a while until the audience gets more discerning.
-For any avenue chosen for distribution, the release has to create the feeling of an event to catch an audience’s attention. There is just too much in the market.
There is no one size fits all marketing and distribution plan. Each film needs to have its own plan handcrafted.
-Given the risk and expense, distributors are going to be much more discerning about what films they are passionate about and believe in before offering a deal.They want to be very sure there is an audience for a theatrical release before committing to such a deal.
-The Blu Ray market is still huge for certain types of films. Genre including family, horror, sci fi still do business on disc for Walmart and Redbox.
-Certain theaters are catching onto the idea of making the cinema an experience. Food, bigger seats, more varied showtimes, 4D seats are all increasing the feeling of an event in the cinema.
-Theaters are still resisting the idea of day and date. Regal and Cinemark chains are adamant about preserving the theatrical window. But AMC is more open to experimentation as long as the distributor will pay a 4 wall fee to rent their theaters. IFC and Magnolia own their own theater chains so they have been the most aggressive about trying Ultra VOD and day and date release. IFC buys about 50 films a year that they run though VOD and day and date releases.
-Due to regulation, Canada has not been able to experiment with this kind of releasing model yet.
-Berney still believes in the power of the theatrical release to affect an audience and that it is the best way to make a film break out.
-Netflix has been the savior for films that may not get a pay TV deal. Essentially, subscription VOD is on par with selling to HBO or Showtime. But Netflix takes far more films than those broadcasters.
-Social media advertising is allowing a more targeted and lower cost alternative to traditional advertising, plus providing much needed data on which to base strategic marketing decisions. Also these tools allow filmmakers to get clips, trailers, images etc to get out more widely for a lower cost and build pre release awareness that wasn’t even possible 10 years ago.
-There are just so many more opportunities now to get a film out, but it will take some time for the business side, the money making side, to catch up. That’s the uncertainty we are dealing with now.
Sheri Candler September 19th, 2014
The Film Collaborative is working with a number of filmmakers who have decided to handle their own theatrical tours. Our colleague in charge of managing these theatrical tours is Bryan Glick and he shares the reasoning behind the cities and theaters chosen for the upcoming release of Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs Gravity opening September 10 in New York City.
Anything that is too safe is not action!
Born To Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity is the latest DIY Hybrid-theatrical that The Film Collaborative is managing. I was lucky enough to see a rough cut just before SXSW and was truly blown away by how visual the film is. It demands to be seen on the big screen in order to fully appreciate the daring exploits of these athletic dancers.
Film Forum clearly agreed and by the time SXSW arrived, venerable New York cinema had already secured a week long engagement for “BTF” in September. With that glowing endorsement in place, we moved forward to draft a self financed Theatrical plan for the film which was made up of festival screenings and cinemas, both of which will provide revenue opportunities.
On the festival front, the film has since played at Full Frame, Sheffield, and Frameline LGBT along with 20+ others. The festival circuit serves a dual purpose for the film 1) to boost interest in the theatrical and secure further bookings in that space and 2) the festival screening fees may be much more than what the film would take in from a theatrical run in some cities.
Elizabeth Streb and her dance company are based in Brooklyn, New York so it was clear NYC is where the film should start its release. We fully anticipate NYC to be the biggest theatrical total of any of the markets. While that’s not unique, our grosses are likely to be abnormally tilted towards the NYC numbers. We saw a similar phenomenon with Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On,” (the film is set in Manhattan) which played for almost two months in NYC.
Having a several month head start, the filmmakers, TFC, and Streb reached out to a number of potential groups to take advantage of the $7.50 group discount at Film Forum. We now have over $5,000 in pre-sales for our engagement and multiple sold out screenings. In addition, we are “eventizing” these screenings by scheduling several Q&A’s with the filmmaker and central subject of the film. This strategy is being duplicated in LA and San Francisco where we open two weeks later. We are having a special free preview at The Hammer Museum in LA to boost word of mouth in Los Angeles ahead of a run at Laemmle’s NoHo where Elizabeth and the film’s director, Catherine Gund, will both be present for opening weekend. We also will have them Skype in for the San Francisco screenings during opening weekend at Vogue Theatre. In knowing our target audience, we chose this theater in Presidio Heights because it serves an older, well educated clientele with interest in the arts. The Vogue regularly shows special dance screenings from Ballet/Modern companies and comes at a much lower cost point than Landmark Theatres with none of the hassle.
In an effort to keep costs down and maximize revenue, we are relying on the strength of Inclusive PR to secure prominent press coverage and reviews; an in-house email database with 1000’s of contacts collected over the years; grassroots outreach to dance companies, arts organizations, senior organizations and the LGBT community; and social media. We are also avoiding chains like Landmark that require specially created DCP’s and bigger traditional print ad buys which, for a niche film of this nature, would not be targeted enough and enable the film to recoup the costs let alone see profit.
The theatrical rollout is intentionally slow, only adding 1-3 cities each week so as not to get overwhelmed by all of the support each city would need. We have a lean team and a lean budget so we are allocating a few hundred dollars in social media and digital ads and large markets may get highly targeted print ads. So far, we’ve saved thousands of dollars by not four walling at a single venue! As such, the release will cost comfortably less than $50k.
Elizabeth Streb is well known in the dance world, but it still takes time to build up word of mouth for this film. We are relying on a mix of lesbian, dance, and senior organizations for support. As with every specialty release, it is important to know your niche(s). While TFC usually avoids print ads when possible, in this case a limited amount make sense. Our audience skews older, educated and is more likely to read the newspaper. Our social media is geared specifically towards Facebook which, while falling out of fashion with millennials, is still prime territory for the 45+ group. We are sending regular email updates and blasts while consciously monitoring our paid media budget.
Added to these screenings, we will also incorporate theatrical on demand and have the film available on TUGG. That tool may be used by fans to bring the film to some smaller towns where Elizabeth Streb and her dancers have toured to in the past.
We anticipate somewhere around 20 markets for the theatrical in addition to festival screenings and a separate Canadian theatrical. The goal is to build a presence for the film that will feed the VOD/Digital/TV releases while minimizing the potential for loss that is often the hallmark of an indie film theatrical release. No easy task in the theatrical industry, but a challenge we happily embrace.
Bryan Glick September 2nd, 2014
Tags: Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs Gravity, Bryan Glick, Catherine Gund, Elizabeth Streb, Film Forum, Frameline, Full Frame, Hammer Museum, laemmle's noho, self distribution of indie film, self financed theatrical release, Sheffield DocFest, SXSW, The Film Collaborative, Tugg, Vogue Theater
Handling self funded theatrical distribution for TFC clients, I find myself wondering why more filmmakers don’t consider the self releasing option from a long-term career standpoint and the potential upside that comes from receiving the bulk of the revenue from the release. I am continually intrigued, pleased and surprised by the success of many who do.
Here are pristine recent examples of self funded releasing. These films each found specific ways to tap into their audience and often opted to do something outside the norm. For the sake of transparency I only am listing films that are admittedly self released in their approach. I would argue Middle of Nowhere is in fact a self funded release as it is a solid example of building and controlling a filmmaker’s brand, but I didn’t include it in this list.
While Gathr have a number of films that have done very well using their demand a screening platform (such as Anonymous People which TFC advised on), no TOD (theatrical on demand) release was as monumentally successful as Girl Rising. The film was aided by many factors such as funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, partnerships with Intel, the United Nations and World Vision as well as a small army of political and grassroots influencers, technologists and publicists. The documentary featured Hollywood A-list narrators like Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys and Selena Gomez.and reached a fever pitch of screenings via the Gathr platform in the Spring of 2013. The film was also picked up by CNN Films for broadcast.
Much of the self funded distribution space is about the value of name recognition. Louis CK has such a loyal audience that he can get away with only selling his Live stand up docs on his website that are DRM free and asking fans not to upload it for free online. The films do so well that he is making seven figures in profit and will keep distributing them this way. His level of sales success, of course, is not realistic for most indie filmmakers, but it shows the value of brand developed over time. If you build up a loyal base and treat them with respect, they will follow you and as a result you can cut out the middle man.
Detropia world premiered at Sundance, won the editing award and came from two Oscar nominated directors. But they found distributors were wary to take on the film and/or didn’t get what the directors were trying to do. After a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to self distribute, the film went on to gross over $300k+ theatrically. The filmmakers made the wise choice to open the film in a suburb of Detroit instead of NYC and the film grossed over $20k from that single screen at Landmark Royal Oak, far more than they would have launched with in NYC. They embraced their target audience and much like Escanaba in Da Moonlight pushed very heavily to a hometown crowd.
Sound City world premiered at Sundance 2013 and decided to do a day and date release less than a month after premiere. No distributor would have agreed to that. Dave Grohl himself promoted the film heavily (again the value of a fan base will pay off) and the film launched as the #1 doc on iTunes and grossed over $400k theatrically. It’s the highest grossing release from service theatrical company Variance to date. While fellow music recording doc Muscle Shoals may have grossed more money at the box office, they have to split the revenue with the distributor, Magnolia. Sound City likely made quite a bit more money back into their pockets.
Particle Fever has grossed over $850k to become the highest grossing Abramorama service release. They creatively tapped into the science community and quickly and quietly bypassed other more high profile docs like “Life Itself”. Using support from a community with solid internet leverage meant a lower P&A and this film, just shy of a $1 Mil grosser, can easily be called a success on all cylinders. It also doesn’t hurt that it scored a 95% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is now available for paid streaming on their website powered by VHX.
I Am Divine had a self funded theatrical release handled by The Film Collaborative. The film grossed $82k on a $8,000 release budget. This was run just as the film was finishing its 200+ festival screenings tour around the world for which the filmmaker has made 10’s of thousands from screening fees. We let social media and the Divine brand do much of the work as the colorful character inspired many around the world and they were excited to see his life story on the big screen. The film spent multiple weeks as the #1 Doc on ITunes when Wolfe Releasing put it out this year. A rare film to be profitable in every viewing arena.
God’s Not Dead again shows the value of a niche demographic that can be reached with the help of deep online data analysis. Working with Freestyle Releasing to open on 780 screens nationwide, the religious right pandering film has theatrically outgrossed Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which at its widest played over 1400 screens. This technically makes it the highest domestic grossing indie release this year. It’s passed $62 million on only a $2 Million budget production budget. The production worked with Ash Greyson’s Ribbow Media to handle a sizable social media advertising campaign directed toward Duck Dynasty, Kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain and Shane Harper fans and limited TV advertising on the 700 Club, Up TV and Pandora radio. It was a highly coordinated gamble that paid off handsomely. Lionsgate picked up the rights to distribute the movie through VOD (video on demand), SVOD (subscription video on demand) Pay-Per-View and television across the U.S. this month.
Upstream Color was the long awaited follow up from indie auteur Shane Carruth. He vetted offers while planning months in advance for a self funded release that launched out of the film’s Sundance premiere. Carefully planned and executed to reduce costs, Carruth’s intention was to give the film just enough of a theatrical release to legitimize and raise awareness for the film before sending it out to the online platforms where it would find actual significant revenue. For a while the film continued to play theaters simultaneously with the digital sales option, a feat almost unheard of in the Spring of 2013, but becoming a much more accepted and savvy practice now. Though lacking star wattage and a less than commercial story approach, Upstream Color amassed $444k and while Carruth kept full control of the release. The film is now widely available digitally.
Some honorary mentions for great self financed releases go to The Anonymous People (second highest grossing Gathr release despite no fest exposure), Spark: A Burning Man Story (Over $77k on another TOD service called TUGG with surcharged Burning Man tickets, over six figures theatrical and digital), Kids for Cash (Launched at 4 theaters in PA and grossed six figures), and Under the Electric Sky (a TUGG release with six figures, but curiously controlled by a traditional distributor, Focus Features).
Of this list, a vast number of the TOD releases are for documentary, some with star names attached and all with some kind of cause or niche audience interest to tap into and they all clearly did tap into that. Also, funds were raised to accomplish a theatrical release, hence the name self financed release. This should indicate to you that making a film meant for self funded release you NEED to have an identifiable brand, a social cause or a niche audience interest base to tap into. Think very carefully about how that film will be released successfully because these are the same considerations a distributor will look for when evaluating the release of a film.
Bryan Glick August 7th, 2014
Tags: Bryan Glick, Detropia, DIY film distribution, Gathr, Girl Rising, God's Not Dead, I am Divine, independent film, Kids for Cash, Particle Fever, Sound City, Spark: A Burning Man Story, The Anonymous People, The Film Collaborative, theatrical self release, Theatrical service company, Tugg, Under the Electric Sky, Upstream Color, Variance
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In the past 2 posts, we have covered knowing the market BEFORE making your film and how to incorporate the festival circuit into your marketing and distribution efforts. This post will cover terms you need to know; whether a foreign distribution agreement is in your film’s future and what to do if it isn’t; the patterns, or windows, that need to be considered in your release. Just to be clear, we are targeting these posts mainly to filmmakers who seek to self finance and actively control their distribution. If that is not your plan, the usefulness of these posts may vary.
Distributors; platforms; aggregators; self hosting sites; applications
If you are new to the distribution game, here are some terms you now need to be familiar with.
Distributors (ie. A24, Oscilloscope, Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, The Weinstein Company, Roadside Attractions) take exclusive rights to your film for a negotiated period of time and coordinate its release. These companies often acquire independent films out of the most prestigious film festivals and pay decent advances for ALL RIGHTS, sometimes even for ALL TERRITORIES. A signed and binding contract takes all responsibility for the film away from its creator and places it with the distributor to decide how to release it into the public. Distribution through these entities entails theatrical, digital, DVD, educational, leisure (airline/hotel/cruiseship).
Platforms (ie. iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Netflix, cable VOD) are digital destinations where customers watch or buy films. Viewing happens on a variety of devices and some allow for worldwide distribution. Mainly platforms do not deal directly with creators, but insist on signing deals with representative companies such as distributors or aggregators.
Aggregators (ie. Premiere Digital, Inception Media Group, BitMAX, Kinonation) are conduits between filmmakers/distributors and platforms. Aggregators have direct relationships with digital platforms and often do not take an ownership stake. Aggregators usually focus more on converting files for platforms, supplying metadata, images, trailers to platforms and collecting revenue from platforms to disperse to the rights holder. Sometimes distributors (Cinedigm, FilmBuff) also have direct relationships with digital platforms, helping reduce the number of intermediaries being paid out of the film’s revenue.
Self hosting sites (ie. VHX, Distrify, Vimeo on Demand) are all services that allow filmmakers to upload their films and host them on whatever website they choose. Vimeo on Demand also hosts the video player on its own central website and has just integrated with Apple TV to allow for viewing on in-home TV screens.
Applications for many digital platforms can be found on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets),Over the Top (OTT) internet-enabled devices like Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Playstation and Xbox and on smart TVs. Viewers must add the applications to their devices and then either subscribe or pay per view to the platforms in order to see the film.
What about international?
In the latest edition of our Selling Your Film book series, Amsterdam based consultant Wendy Bernfeld goes into great depth about the digital distribution market in Europe. Many low-budget, independent American films are not good candidates for international sales because various international distributors tend to be attracted to celebrity actors or action, thriller and horror genre fare that translate easily into other languages.
Rather than give all of your film’s rights to a foreign sales agent for years (often 7-10 years duration) just to see what the agent can accomplish, think seriously about selling to global audiences from your own website and from sites such as Vimeo, VHX, Google Play and iTunes. The volume of potential viewers or sales it takes to attract a foreign distributor to your film is often very high. But just because they aren’t interested doesn’t mean there is NO audience interest. It simply means audience interest isn’t high enough to warrant a distribution deal. However, if you take a look at your own analytics via social media sites and website traffic, you may find that audience interest in foreign territories is certainly high enough to warrant self distributing in those territories. Look at this stats page on the VHX site. There are plenty of foreign audiences willing to buy directly from a film’s website. Why not service that demand yourself and keep most of the money? Plus keep the contact data on the buyers, such as email address?
Often, sales agents who cannot make foreign deals will use aggregators to access digital platforms and cut themselves into the revenue. You can save this commission fee by going through an aggregator yourself. In agreements we make with distributors for our Film Collaborative members, we negotiate for the filmmaker to have the ability to sell worldwide to audiences directly from their website. If you are negotiating agreements directly with distributors, the right to sell directly via your own website can be extremely beneficial to separate and carve out because sales via your website will generate revenue immediately. However, this tactic is now being scrutinized by distributors who are allowing direct to audience sales by filmmakers, but asking in their agreement for a percentage of the revenue generated. It is up to the filmmaker to decide if this is an acceptable term.
If you do happen to sell your film in certain international territories, make sure not to distribute on your site in a way that will conflict with any worldwide release dates and any other distribution holdbacks or windowing that may be required per your distribution contracts. An example: You have signed a broadcast agreement that calls for a digital release holdback of 90 days-6 months-1 year or whatever. You cannot go ahead and start selling via digital in that territory until that holdback is lifted. Instead, use a hosting service that will allow you to geoblock sales in that territory.
Know your windows.
If you do decide to release on your own, it’s important to know how release phases or “windows” work within the industry and why windowing was even created.
The release window is an artificial scarcity construct wherein the maximum amount of money is squeezed from each phase of distribution. Each window is opened at different times to keep the revenue streams from competing with each other. The reason it is artificial is the film continues to be the same and could be released to the audience all at one time, but is purposely curbed from that in order to maximize revenue and viewership. The Hollywood legacy window sequence consists of movie theaters (theatrical window), then, after approximately 3-4 months, DVD release (video window). After an additional 3 months or so, a release to Pay TV (subscription cable and cable pay per view) and VOD services (download to own, paid streaming, subscription VOD) and approximately two years after its theatrical release date, it is made available for free-to-air TV.
Now, there is a lot of experimentation with release windows. Each release window is getting shorter and sometimes they are opened out of the traditional sequence. Magnolia Pictures has pioneered experimentation with Ultra VOD release, the practice of releasing a film digitally BEFORE its theatrical window and generally charging a premium price; and with Day and Date, the practice of releasing a film digitally and theatrically at the same time. Many other distributors have followed suit. Radius-TWC just shortened the theatrical only window for Snowpiercer by making it available on digital VOD within only 2 weeks of its US theatrical release. During its first weekend in US multiplatform release, Snowpiercer earned an estimated $1.1 million from VOD, nearly twice as much as the $635,000 it earned in theaters.
So, while there are certainly bends in the rules, you will need to pay attention to which release window you open for your film on what date. For example, it might be enticing to try to negotiate a flat licensing fee from Netflix (Subscription VOD or SVOD window) at the start of release. However, from a filmmaker’s (and also distributor’s) perspective, if the movie has not yet played on any other digital platforms, it would be preferable to wait until after the Transactional VOD (TVOD) window in order to generate more revenue as a percentage of every TVOD purchase, before going live on Netflix. If the transactional release and subscription release happen at the same time, it cannibalizes transactional revenue.
Also, sites like Netflix will likely use numbers from a film’s transactional window purchases to inform their decision on whether to make an offer on a film and how big that offer should be. Subscription sites such as Netflix also pay attention to general buzz, theatrical gross, and a film’s popularity on the film’s website. There is value in gathering web traffic analytics, email database analytics and website sales data in order to demonstrate you have a sizable audience behind your film. This is useful information when talking to any platform where you need their permission to access it. Caution: Netflix is not as interested in licensing independent film content as it once was. If your film is not a strong performer theatrically, or via other transactional VOD sites; does not have a big festival pedigree; or does not have notable actor names in it, it may not achieve a significant Netflix licensing fee or they may refuse to license it for the platform. Netflix is no longer building its brand for subscribers and it has significant data that guides what content it licenses and what it produces.
Also be aware that some TV licensing will call for holding back Subscription VOD (SVOD) releases for a period of time. If your film is strong enough to achieve a broadcast license deal, you will need to wait before making a subscription release deal. On the other hand, holding out too long for a broadcast distribution offer might cause the publicity and interest you’ve generated for your film to dissipate.
If your film is truly a candidate for theatrical release, most cinemas will not screen a film that is already available on TVOD or SVOD services. In fact, most of the chain cinemas will not screen a film that is available in any other form prior to or at the same time as theatrical release.
The way you choose to release your film is a judgment call in order to reach your particular goal. All decisions have consequences and you will have to live with the decisions you make in releasing your film. Like all decisions, you base them on what you know at the time with no guarantee as to how they will turn out.
Sheri Candler July 16th, 2014
Tags: aggregators, Distrify, independent film distribution, Orly Ravid, release windows, Sheri Candler, SVOD, The Film Collaborative, theatrical distribution, TVOD, VHX, Vimeo on Demand, Wendy Bernfeld