By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler

We continue this month’s series covering the practicalities behind successfully marketing and distributing an independent film with limited resources. Please see Part 1 on knowing the market for your film HERE.

Part 2-Temper festival expectations and don’t wait too long to release.

While you may be targeting top-tier festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Telluride and SXSW (Austin’s South by Southwest) where acquisition executives attend and search for films to acquire, your film may not be chosen for these festivals. Be prepared for this disappointment and have a backup plan. If your film fails to be selected, your distribution options are likely to change as well. The best acquisition prices are paid by the most reputable companies for films out of these top tier fests. While you may receive offers for distribution even if your film doesn’t have this type of premiere, those offers will be lower in scope and usually from either up and coming companies (ie, start ups with little money) or companies whose reputations are not as prominent.

Should you continue submitting to other festivals and stay on the circuit? TFC colleague Jeffrey Winter has handled festival distribution for countless films, but mainly the films TFC picks up for festival distribution either come from A list festivals or have some kind of specific niche appeal. He advises “For any film that is performing well on the circuit (meaning getting accepted into a significant number of festivals on a more or less regular basis), there is a general rule you can follow. Most films will see their festival bookings continue robustly for 1 year from the date of the world premiere, and then significantly drop off (but still trickle in) in months 12 – 18. After 18 months, festival bookings will nearly cease worldwide. Given that general rule, I am going to go ahead and call that 18 months the ‘Festival Window.’”

“For filmmakers and many small distribution companies, the festival window is invaluable and irreplaceable in terms of the marketing/publicity value it can afford, and the modest revenue that can be generated for certain kinds of films (prestige festival films, films that fit within the programming of specific niche festivals), especially if they can secure European festival placement. When working with a modest budget, any and all revenue the film can bring in is significant. Additionally, the free marketing/publicity that a festival offers is just about the only kind of marketing the film may ever get.”

Assuming you achieve regional festival screenings, will you use it as a form of theatrical tour, gathering press coverage and fans in regional areas in order to fuel your digital sales? If so, how to transition that coverage and word of mouth into the digital rollout, when is that rollout going to happen and who is going to coordinate it? These questions need to be answered.

Leaving too much time between a regional festival premiere and eventual digital and DVD sales is a mistake many independent filmmakers make.  When publicity and good word of mouth recommendations are being generated from your festival screenings, set a firm deadline on when digital distribution will have to start should your distribution savior not appear. Don’t hold out indefinitely for distribution opportunities that may not come. Often, we are contacted by filmmakers who insist on spending a year or more on the festival circuit, without making any revenue and without significant distribution offers in sight. They are wasting revenue potential by continuing to hope a distribution savior will appear and refusing to move ahead with plans for the next phase of release (that will probably be handled on their own) because they didn’t budget for this situation or they have no idea of the options available. Note, it can take up to 4 months to go live on iTunes and other well known digital platforms. If you’re thinking of having a digital self release, plan accordingly.

If chosen for a festival, take full advantage of the screening as a marketing opportunity. It is imperative not only to enjoy face to face compliments at your screenings, but encourage people to use their social media accounts to tell others how great your film is. Many times filmmakers tell us about their sold out screenings at regional fests (or even pre release screenings) and how many people came up to them with kind words to say about the film. But in looking for those kind words online, sometimes we find very little or nothing being said. This is a troubling sign. No bump in Facebook Likes, Twitter followers, trailer views or website traffic? No one using a hashtag or @mention on Twitter or Instagram? No comments or shares of the film’s trailer from Youtube? Kind words in person are great for your personal morale, but in order to have beneficial word of mouth, people have to want to share news of your film and the normal outlet for doing that today is online. It is trackable too! Word of mouth won’t help with digital sales if no one is talking so make sure everyone you meet is aware of the film’s home online, its social media accounts, and where a trailer exists to be shared. You can’t MAKE people speak, you can only encourage it.

photo credit Matt DeTurk

photo credit Matt DeTurk, Dalboz17 via photopincc

If you’re brash during a post screening Q&A, take a selfie à la Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars and tell everyone you will post it to the film’s Twitter or Instagram account and what that account handle is. They are more likely to retweet or share it if you make it super easy and they are more likely to follow your account, visit the film’s website (so make sure the About section includes that URL link), maybe even sign up for your email alerts. Also, think a little differently about your film’s festival catalog description. If you want people to follow you as an artist and your film’s actors (a social media following is important for their career!), add Twitter handles/Instagram handles/FB page name etc to the paragraph you are asked to submit about your film. Technically, ALL festivals should want this kind of information included just as they now post website URLs. If audience members like the film performances, they also might like to follow the humans who gave them and the humans who made the film possible.

Instead of using a clipboard method to collect email addresses from your festival audience, look into using a text-to-subscribe service associated with your email provider. Mailchimp’s MobileChimp (UK, USA, Australia, Spain, France & Netherlands) and Constant Contact (US only) both have this capability. Put the keyword you choose to associate with your account on any printed material and be sure to say it out loud during your Q&A. An email database is worth its weight in gold throughout your release and further into your future work so don’t neglect to grow one while you are touring your film.

Add festival laurels from the most important/recognizable film festivals to your marketing materials. While we know the temptation is to put every laurel from every festival on your website banner, key art, postcards etc. it starts looking cluttered and inconsequential. The festivals with the most impact on your audience are the ones to include because they will have the most impact on purchases. Don’t forget the pull quotes to favorable critical reviews as well.

In going back to the discussion about digital release, is this release going to be worldwide or only in your home country? If your film has played festivals worldwide, it doesn’t make much sense to only release it within your own country, especially if you have all territories still open for sales. If you have signed agreements in some formats or in some territories, then those warrant compliance. But hoping for a foreign deal when you don’t have one even in your home country is unrealistic. Seriously consider releasing digitally worldwide when your launch comes.

In the next part of the series, we’ll take a look at the different players in film distribution and how to work with them.

July 9th, 2014

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Film Festivals, iTunes, Theatrical

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Ed note: TFC colleague Bryan Glick is taking a look at how officially selected films have performed in release since their premieres at the major Spring film festivals SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes 2013. In this second post, he covers the narrative films. His look at documentaries can be found HERE.

CANNES

There is no better worldwide platform launch than Cannes. For foreign language films, it is arguably the best place to solicit North American interest. 20 World Premieres (or 25% of selected films) from Cannes 2013 grossed over $100k and 10 of those grossed over $1 Million theatrically in North America. These films also frequently perform much better internationally. Four foreign language films managed over $1 Mil and 11 over $100k. No fest has such a strong record for non-English Language content. Additionally Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Missing Picture, The Great Beauty, All is Lost, and Omar all found their way to Oscar Nominations. And another 9 films from the fest were official Oscar submissions from their country. Cannes has the perception of the ultimate endorsement. It is one of not even a handful of laurels that automatically adds value to a film.

However, less than 2/3 of world premieres got any sort of North American distribution. This is below the % from Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and only slightly above the behemoth of TIFF. Naturally, the films performing at the top of the box office are primarily from those selected for main competition and are most likely to facilitate distribution deals.

Turning to this year’s festival, a little over 30 films currently have North American distribution. 1/3 of those are from Sony Picture Classics! They have a whopping 10 films. They went into the fest with competition award winners Mr. Turner (Best Actor) and Foxcatcher (Best Director) pre-attached. Prior to the fest they also snagged Coming Home and Red Army. On top of that, they added Wild Tales, Saint Laurent, Jimmy’s Hall, and Best Screenplay winner Leviathan from the main competition. In addition, they took the doc The Salt of the Earth.

Not far behind was IFC with 6 films. They arrived with competition titles Clouds of Sils Maria, and Two Days, One Night. They added to their impressive tally Bird People and The Blue Room from Un Certain Regard and wrapped it up with The Salvation from the midnight lineup.

Those two companies combined for ½ of all Cannes 2014 films with distribution in the US! They also indirectly highlight what was clearly missing from this year’s Cannes crop. No studio presence in any competitive sections. Warner Bros technically has Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, but multiple reports suggest the distributor is trying to pawn it off to a smaller company and cut their losses.

A number of distributors though still had reason to be happy.  Radius-TWC, TWC, Cohen Media Group, Magnolia. And A24 each have a pair of titles.

A24 took the critically panned, but star heavy The Captive and just opened The Rover last Friday to a US opening weekend gross of over $69K in 5 theaters. The film is performing much better in France, Australia and Belgium though.

TWC had opening night Grace of Monaco and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby which screened as two different films at TIFF and will be released as three different films in the Fall. The genre heavy and younger skewing Radius-TWC took two films from Critic’s Week, the American horror film It Follows and When Animals Dream.

Magnolia took the top two prize winners from Un Certain Regard Force Majeure and White God. Cohen Media Group continues their trend into foreign cinema with Timbuktu and In the Name of My Daughter (screened out of competition).

Other companies to acquire include Strand Releasing (Girlhood), Saban Films (The Homesman), Music Box Films (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsallem), WellGo USA (These Final Hours), and EOne (Map to the Stars)

Many of these films have very good prospects in North America and around the world.

TRIBECA

Admittedly, Tribeca is frequently a dump off site for Sundance narrative rejects. Multiple people have opined that the fest would do better to just focus on docs. The performance of last year’s narrative lineup shows that there is some life left for their non doc films, but not much.

The English Teacher which was pre-bought by Cinedigm was the only scripted fare at last year’s fest to pass $100k (which it barely accomplished). French specialty arm Distrib Films pushed Just a Sigh to just over $71k with only a few small venues left to play.

Lagging behind are Focus World/Screen Media’s day and date release of A Birder’s Guide to Everything ($48k), Strand Releasing’s Bicycling with Moliere ($49k) and Israeli genre fare Big Bad Wolves which managed $33k as a day and date with Magnolia.

What the fest proved to do last year though was highlight a number of films in their North American premiere. Berlin titles Broken Circle Breakdown, The Rocket and Reaching for the Moon all were met with some success. ‘Broken’ secured an Oscar Nomination and grossed $154k through Tribeca Films. Kino Lorber got the Australian made, but Laos set Rocket  to manage $54k and Wolfe Releasing saw $45k for Reaching on top of massive festival exposure. The Film Collaborative handled grassroots marketing and fests on the latter.

Nothing else grossed over $25k in theatrical relase, though many films performed well digitally in the hands of IFC, Anchor Bay, Oscilloscope, Vertical Entertainment, Tribeca Films, XLRator Media, Samuel Goldwyn, and Dark Sky Films.  Notably, The Machine is currently in the top 10 on ITunes. In all, over 70% of the narrative films that premiered at Tribeca have some form of domestic distribution confirmed.  Only Sundance had a higher rate of distribution. But, American films from Tribeca rarely played well internationally.

Turning to Tribeca 2014 the big deals were once again for docs, but there some notable narrative acquisitions. About 20% of films available when the fest was announced have since been acquired

IFC took Extraterrestrial, 5 to 7, and Match. Likely all three will be VOD focused. Magnolia took Life Partners, Film Movement opted for Human Capital, and Zeitgeist has Zero Motivation.

Additionally About Alex went to Screen Media, Summer of Blood sold to MPI, and The Canal  will be working with The Orchard.

SXSW

Where SXSW has an advantage over Tribeca is that there is a clear sense of programming and demographics. Tribeca is often the back up to Sundance, while SXSW is the place for younger, edgier, hipper fare. Naturally, many of the narrative deals from SXSW this year were for genre films.

Magnet took Honeymoon which is the rare film to premiere at SXSW and screen at Tribeca. Lionsgate bought Exists, Cinedigm peeked into Open Windows, and Radius-TWC invested in Creep. IFC Midnight went for Home and the time traveling teen sexy comedy Premature and mainstay label IFC bought Kelly and Cal. XLRator bought Housebound and The Mule and Oscilloscope took Buzzard.

Radius-TWC has already released this year’s  13 Sins and Magnet released Stage Fright.Both were ultra VOD releases with so-so digital performance and middling box office.

Additionally, the fest was the world premiere choice for Chef which has become the 3rd highest grossing indie this year so far and Veronica Mars is the highest grossing day and date release so far this year.

Narrative film roundup

Last year’s fest saw the massive breakout Short Term 12 gross over $1 Mil in the hands of Cinedigm and dominate critic’s lists. Magnolia did over $343k with Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies. The latter was day and date. Both films outgrossed all of the Tribeca Premieres from 2013.

Also performing somewhat well was Drafthouse Films Cheap Thrills which did $59K at the box office and Variance’s service release of The Retrieval which will pass $50k this week. Variance also did $62k with John Sayle’s Go For Sister which had its North American premiere at the fest.

A large number of films from the fests last year went digital only, had small theatricals, and/or set up self financed releases. Tribeca has started to take notice and this year a number of films premiering there opted for this route.

Cannes continues to be the one major festival holdout where films premiere and wait it out for distribution offers.

 

 

June 19th, 2014

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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I am divine poster
The Film Collaborative is a non profit member organization devoted to helping independent filmmakers become better educated about their marketing and distribution alternatives. Filmmakers may choose between various levels of membership that entitle them to incremental levels of service from a free level that allows for access to our monthly newsletter, blog and Digital Distribution Guide, to levels that include hours of customized consultation about their projects from our team of festival, digital distribution, online and social media marketing and graphic design specialists.

But we also take on a select group of films to actively participate in their self financed distribution from festivals to ancillary sales facilitation to handling limited theatrical releases. As always, we never take rights away from the filmmakers and they are active participants in their release.

Over the next few weeks, I will share details and testimonials from some of the films we’ve handled over the last 3 years in effort to clarify how we service independent films when we take them on as clients.

Today will feature director Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary film I Am Divine which saw its VOD debut on April 1. With TFC’s help, Divine played in a whopping 160 festivals around the world, garnering 6 figures in screening fees. TFC also handled the film’s limited theatrical release, securing over 50 cinemas in the US and Canada, with the film held over for 3 weeks at the Roxy Theater in San Francisco, 6 weeks at Cinema Village in NYC, 4 weeks at the Downtown Independent in LA and 3 weeks at Bloor Hot Doc Cinema in Toronto.

At what stage in the production process was TFC consulted? 

JS: “I had worked with TFC on my previous film VITO so I knew they would be able to help position the film properly. TFC helped secure our festival world premiere at SXSW 2013 and guided us through the process of our international debut at BFI Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in London and the many, many festivals that followed.”

What advice was sought from TFC and what ultimately happened with the release of the film? Basically what results were achieved with TFC’s help?

JS: “Aside from facilitating the festival screenings around the world, TFC also helped us secure international distribution in several territories. For busy filmmakers, knowing that a group of dedicated and knowledgable allies are working in your best interest is a godsend. TFC also booked the film in theaters around the country for our limited theatrical release. I AM DIVINE played in all the major American cities with great success.”

TFC colleague, Bryan Glick, was responsible for booking the theatrical release and had this to say

BG: “We never took out a single print ad in any city for the theatrical and still grossed over $80,000 theatrically. Since the launch of the theatrical release, the film’s Facebook page went from over 26,000 fans to more than 44,000.

We were able to book a lot of cities because of strong festival performance. There were a few smaller markets that were not an option, but in those cities the festival fees were far greater than anything the filmmmaker would have pocketed from a theatrical run.

Yes, you cannot play Landmark Theatres if you screen at too many festivals, but we didn’t even bother worrying about them. Instead we focused on venues with favorable terms who saw clearly the built in audience for the movie. We were able to get to over 50 engagements almost solely through booking independent art houses.

By not having to waste money on print ads, the theatrical was profitable for the filmmaker and it is still one of the highest grossing films from SXSW last year. Currently, Divine is in the top 10 docs on iTunes and the DVD pre order is in the top 20 docs on Amazon. This film could ultimately reach 300 festival and theatrical engagements.”

Where can the film be seen now?

JS: “I AM DIVINE had its VOD premiere on April 1st. The various international territories are gearing up for their releases as well.”

Check out this great documentary on iTunes, Amazon, and via its home video distributor Wolfe Releasing.

April 3rd, 2014

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Facebook, Film Festivals, iTunes, Theatrical

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HELLO SXSW! It’s hard to believe that it’s been a whole year since SXSW 2013. The film festival (and all the other things that happen) has consistently been on the cutting edge of distribution options. It is truly a one of a kind festival for a number of reasons and while they won’t pay for filmmaker travel, they do provide huge opportunity for the savvy filmmaker.

With 125+ films and the literally hundreds of panels, it can be daunting trying to get the attention of eyeballs. That said, over 2/3 of the films that world premiered here last year have secured some form of domestic distribution (on par with Tribeca and second only to Sundance).

The Film Collaborative world premiered I Am Divine at the festival last year and our release strategy is a prime example of how the fest can be a launching pad. The film went on to play over 200 festivals in less than a year (more than any other film in the world) racking up screening fee revenue. TFC also managed its theatrical release starting last October. The entire operating budget for the theatrical release was less than $10k and the film has grossed over $80,000 theatrically to date. As impressive as that is, the festival revenue surpassed the theatrical total. Meanwhile, despite never paying for a single print ad, we just passed our 50th theatrical engagement. The film has almost 40,000 Facebook Fans and will be released on DVD/Digital in April through Wolfe Releasing, and a TV premiere is scheduled for October.

SXSW 2013 films

SXSW produced two clear narrative breakouts last year, neither from a first time filmmaker. Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies was a day and date release and managed to gross $300k+, his highest grossing film to date. It has chartered quite well on iTunes and other digital platforms and is likely quite profitable for Magnolia (hence why they acquired Swanberg’s follow up out of Sundance this year).

The other narrative breakout was the critically acclaimed Short Term 12. Sundance’s loss was SXSW’s gain and the film grossed over $1 million at the US Box Office, won multiple audience and jury awards and is the highest grossing film ever for Cinedigm. The film has been in theaters non stop for over ½ a year!

12 O’Clock Boys was released day and date and is Oscilloscope’s highest grossing release in over a year. It also topped iTunes and, to date, the film has managed over $80k in revenue. In fact, the day and date strategy has not appeared to hurt other top performing SXSW Docs.

Magnolia grossed $138k with Good ‘Ol Freda  Also passing the $100k mark was Spark: A Burning Man Story. The film managed over $120k with a self financed theatrical handled by Paladin. What stood out wasn’t the total, but the fact that 70%+ came from Tugg Screenings!  FilmBuff handled the digital rights where the doc performed equally as well.  Meanwhile IFC’s The Punk Singer was a more standard release, but still a solid success passing the $120k gross mark.

Fall and Winter, Euphonia  and Some Girls all opted for digital releases via the newly established Vimeo on Demand service. This year, Vimeo is investing $10,000,000 into its service and offering $10,000 minimum guarantees in exchange for an exclusive digital distribution window to any film that has premiered at one of the 20 leading global film festivals throughout 2014. Filmmakers also may apply for marketing support. The huge thing though is that the filmmaker gets to keep 90% of the revenue, which is far better than any other notable digital platform.

Also popular amongst the filmmakers was FilmBuff. No fewer than eight world premieres were distributed digitally by them. A few of those films also had small DIY theatrical releases.

It should be noted that DIY releases cost money which might be a problem for those who did not budget ahead of time for such a release. However, cash strapped filmmakers  have raised DIY funds via Kickstarter to aid in such releases. TFC helped Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton raise over $50k. Loves Her Gun, This is Where We Live, and Love and Air Sex (AKA The Bounceback ) all raised distribution funds via crowdfunding.

Netflix took The Short Game as their first documentary acquisition and the film had a modest theatrical run via The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Pantelion passed $50k with Hours which has been a top digital performer following the death of its star, Paul Walker. First Run Features is approaching $40k with Maidentrip and companies like IFC, Magnolia, Oscilloscope, Breaking Glass, FilmBuff, and Variance all took multiple films.

On the TV side, SXSW films have premiered on Al Jazeera, CNN, Showtime, PBS, and VH1. Many of those films had some form of theatrical too. Documentaries continue to be the bulk of the festival highlights though the top two grossing films were narratives. The festival is second only to Sundance for world premiering a doc.

As we look to what the 2014 crop will offer, there are already some game changing situations. BFI is repeating their marketing match offer of up to $41k  for any distributor who acquires one of their five UK based SXSW premiere films for distribution. As pointed out earlier, Vimeo’s offer extends beyond SXSW to 19 other upcoming festivals. I encourage you to keep an open mind and craft your film strategies now! The $10K MG that Vimeo offers for such a short exclusive digital window (plus you get to keep 90% of any revenue after the MG is recouped!) is better than many advance offers made by lower profile distributors. You can always pull your title off after the MG is recouped and seek more traditional distribution routes as Cinemanovels did out of Toronto last year

SXSW is a great place to showcase your film, but without a formal market and with all the craziness that surrounds the festival from the interactive and music sides, it is unlikely that seven figure deals will pop up like they do at Sundance. Despite this, deals are still made, some choose to go into the DIY space and a few (like our release of I Am Divine) succeed in both arenas. The possibilities are endless.

 

March 10th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, iTunes, Netflix, Theatrical, Uncategorized, Vimeo

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New services and new thinking finally are starting to take hold at major festivals and in the independent film world in general. Productions that can bring donation money, matching funds and/or strong promotional partners to the negotiating table have an advantage when it comes to landing significant distribution.

-At Sundance, the BFI offered up to $51k in matching funds to help market the US distribution of their 3 funded films in the festival.

-At Toronto (TIFF), Vimeo offered a $10k advance for world premiere films that gave them a 30 day exclusive streaming VOD window. 13 films accepted the offer and have started to  premiere on the service.

Linsanity, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, Love and Air Sex (AKA The Bounceback), Before You Know It, Citizen Koch have all raised distribution funds on Kickstarter and are using those funds for risk free theatrical releases.

While sales deals lagged at Sundance this year, all 3 BFI funded films secured distribution. Those films are the only World Dramatic and World Doc titles that have sold since the festival. The clear advantage of offering marketing dollars coupled with the ease of selling English dialogue to an American cinema audience attracted 3 smaller distributors to make early buys they may not have otherwise and guaranteed US distribution for films that may not have found it. It’s hard to argue with free marketing money and support from the country of origin. Though $51k is unlikely to make much of a difference to sway a major studio interested in wide release films,  DISTRIBUTION INCENTIVES certainly won’t hurt the chances of a deal because everybody wins in that scenario.

Also coming out of Sundance, Strand Releasing snagged Lilting, the newly formed Amplify made their first acquisition ever with God Help the Girl and Drafthouse Films caved in to 20,000 Days on Earth.  Let’s take a closer look at these three distributors.

Strand Releasing put 11 films into theaters last year and only 1 grossed over $50k.

Amplify is new to the game, but not really. Variance has been putting DIY/service releases into theaters for a while. Half their films last year grossed under $60k.

Drafthouse Films released 6 movies last year. Of those, 2/3 did not gross over $50k

photo credit Flickr Stock Monkeys

photo credit Flickr Stock Monkeys

Obviously, some of the films make much more in the digital marketplace after their theatrical release (or in some of these cases, during the release as many are day and date), but the point can’t be lost. Incentives really do attract distribution attention. They are like coupons for distributors and help to reduce risk.

I can bet you right now that there are dozens of filmmakers who are kicking themselves for turning down Vimeo’s offer at TIFF. Especially since the offer didn’t interfere with distribution offers for a film like Cinemanovels, that made an agreement for a traditional US distribution deal on top of their $10k advance from Vimeo.

Looking at the filmmakers who have used Kickstarter to secure funds for distribution, there is a wide range in how the films performed and a few have yet to be released, but they effectively created a risk free theatrical model. Their distribution funding was donated, there is no investor to repay so they can keep the revenue. I feel comfortable saying that in almost every case, each film will make more money than they would have in a traditional theatrical distribution arrangement. Very smart!

As I get ready for the “spam on steroids” that is SXSW, I encourage filmmakers to think of what they can offer that will make their films an attractive buy. There are so many events and screenings at any given time, it’s impossible for an organization like ours to cover them all, but if I know a film has incentives in place, it makes a huge difference when I prioritize my schedule. The film market is no different than any other business. Your film is a commodity and making a good product isn’t enough. You have to come to the table with something else to offer. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Don’t risk having a premiere with no incentives in place.  Strategize now! Get partners on board, build relationships with an audience, raise extra funding through crowdfunding (this brings money AND an audience to the table) and show you know the market for and business of your art.

February 26th, 2014

Posted In: crowdfunding, Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical, Vimeo

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There is a lot of talk in independent film circles about the need to “eventize” the cinematic experience. The thought is that audiences are increasingly satisfied with viewing films and other video material on their private devices whenever their schedule permits and the need to leave the house to go to a separate place to watch is becoming an outdated notion, especially for younger audiences. But making your work an event that can only be experienced in a live setting is something few creators are exploring at the moment. Sure, some filmmakers and distributors are adding live Q&As with the director or cast, sometimes in person and sometimes via Skype; discussion panels with local organizations are often included with documentary screenings; and sometimes live musical performances are included featuring the musicians on the film’s soundtrack, but what about work that can ONLY be enjoyed as a live experience? Work that will never appear on DVD or digital outlets? Not only is there an artistic reason for creating such work, but there can be a business reason as well.

In reading a New York Times piece entitled “The one filmmaker who doesn’t want a distribution deal” about the Sundance premiere of Sam Green’s live documentary The Measure of All Things, I was curious to find out why a filmmaker would say he never plans for this work to show on streaming outlets like Netflix, only as a live event piece. I contacted Sam Green and he was kind enough to share his thoughts about why he likes creating for and participating with the audience of his work and why the economics of this form could be much more lucrative for documentary filmmakers.

The Measure of All Things  is a live documentary experience to be screened with in-person narration and a live soundtrack provided by the chamber group yMusic. It is loosely inspired by the Guinness Book of Records and weaves together a series of portraits of record-holding people, places, and things, including the tallest man (7 feet 9 inches), the oldest living thing (a 5,000 year old Bristlecone Pine in Southern California), the man struck by lightning the most times (seven!), the oldest living person (116), and the woman with the world’s longest name, among others. This is the third such work Green has made to be viewed in this way; 2012’s The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller featured live music from Yo La Tengo and 2010’s Utopia in Four Movements  with musical accompaniment by Dave Cerf were his previous works.

What draws you to your subjects?

SG: “I guess all of them have come out of curiosity. Ever since I was a kid I have been curious about things almost to the point of becoming obsessed. I am still the same, but now I’m making movies out of it. I obsessively research and look into things and sometimes that just goes nowhere, but occasionally it has turned into a movie and that is where they all have come from.

I don’t look at this in a strategic way. I don’t sit and think about what kind of project I could raise a lot of money for, or what would make a successful film. In some ways, I wish I did do that, but really I just make films that I would want to see.”

How do you tell if it will be a live performance piece or just a screen based piece? Does it have anything to do with being a performer?

SG: “I do both, but I am most inspired by the live stuff at the moment. For political and aesthetic and economic reasons, that form inspires me a lot these days so when I am making longer things, I work to make it a live cinematic event. I kind of backed into this form. It is an odd form. I’d never heard of people doing live documentaries. I stumbled into it and learned that I liked it, but it is a huge challenge for me. I am not a performer. Like most documentary filmmakers, I am a shy person and much more comfortable behind the camera. Part of why I like it is it is scary…scary as hell! But I’m learning a lot. I don’t want to keep making the same kind of movie over and over again.”

 

Sam Green Buckminster Fuller

How do you usually collaborate with musicians for these works? How do you find them and what is the process of how you work?

SG: “To find people to work with, I just look at people whose work I love a lot. I have always been a big fan of Yo La Tengo, and I saw them do a night of music to a work by a French filmmaker called Jean Painlevé [Science is Fiction] and it was one of the best film viewing experiences I ever had. I was in the audience at one of the shows. I loved their sense of cinematic music so I asked if they would work with me on the Buckminster Fuller piece.

It is the same with yMusic, I saw them at Carnegie Hall and they have such a fantastic, huge, epic sound and I really wanted something like that for this piece. I got in touch and we worked something out.

The way I work with the musicians is like any film/music collaboration. A lot of back and forth, I shoot some video and they make some music and I adjust the video and write some voice over. It is just cobbling the whole thing together in an organic way.”

What are the challenges to taking your film on the road and performing night after night? It is like touring with a band.

SG: “The first live performance movie I made was Utopia in Four Movements. I was very pleasantly surprised how much we screened it. We screened it all over the world for several years after it was released. The challenge is you have to go to every screening and do the performance and it is a lot of work and time, but I actually love that. I am a filmmaker who likes to be around when the audience is watching and talking to them afterwards. Some filmmakers don’t, they want to go off and make another movie. But I like the distribution process, the challenge of distribution. I was never in a band as a teenager, so this is probably as close as I will get.

People often ask me at screenings, ‘Why not put this online and hundreds of thousands of people would see it? When you’re touring, maybe only a few thousand people will see it.’ And that’s true, but if you look at the most viewed clips on Youtube, most of them are super dumb. People view things online in a totally throw away manner. I am more interested in smaller numbers of people actually having a more meaningful experience through my work. It is a trade off I don’t mind, actually.”

Is it fair to say that these are more art pieces than films that have revenue potential?

SG: “No, and this is why I am happy to talk to you about the distribution part of my work. The film distribution business is in total flux. Everyone is trying to figure out how to survive, how to make money, in the new paradigm we are in. The truth is most people don’t. I know many documentary filmmakers whose films are out there, they have distribution deals, and they make no money whatsoever.

Although this was not my reason for creating my documentaries like this, I found that I make way more money on these live performances than I would make if these were traditional movies. The performance world still has an intact economy. If you go see a dance performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the RedCat in LA, those performers get a performance fee that is pretty significant. They can get $10,000 to do a show. That is pretty standard performance fee.

The film distribution world has imploded largely because of the digital world.  Everything is online, consumers are getting used to seeing things for free or very low cost. The bottom has really fallen out of the revenue. But that hasn’t happened to the performance world because there is no real digital equivalent to seeing a live performance. It is possible for a filmmaker to access this performance world. A lot of the shows I do are in the performance world; in museums and performing arts centers. The fees they pay are significant.  I soon realized this is a much more viable way for me to distribute work.

I am guided by art and not primarily by financial considerations, but I also think filmmakers and artists should put their work out in a way in which they get something back from that. Artists should be compensated for their work and I am pained by the fact that many filmmakers make no money off of their films. Their films may get out there, but they don’t make any money from that. I am happy to have figured out a way to get my work out there and make money from it.

The film world is a few years behind the music world in terms of changes. The music world has already gone through all of this. Unless you are Miley Cyrus, you have to tour to make money as a musician. Not much is going to be made from downloads. I think the film world is also heading that direction and for me, this is a solution.”

How do your screening fees usually work? Is it a flat fee or a cut of revenue?

SG: “I screen these pieces in 3 different contexts. One is in the film context. I screen them at film festivals and we work out some screening fee amount. Festivals are strapped and so I negotiate on the fee.

The second is in a performance context. Say it is in a museum, they pay a flat fee and that has nothing to do with tickets sold. But I do work hard with the venue to sell tickets. I like to promote the screenings and I want them to do ok with the event.

The third way is in the context of the rock music world. The last piece I did was in collaboration with Yo La Tengo and we’ve done some rock concerts. When dealing with rock promoters, it is often pegged to how many tickets are sold. Those end up not being as good of a deal. Rock promoters are good at making money for themselves and their split is not very advantageous to the artist.”

Do you do these bookings yourself or through an agent?

SG: “I do book a lot myself. But I also work with Tommy Kriegsmann at ArKtype They book many performance people.”

Since a lot of your documentary performance depends on a written script, how is that different from making the traditional documentary with talking heads and maybe a little narration? Yours has a lot of narration.

SG: “The process is in a lot of ways still like making a film. You have an idea, you shoot a bunch of things, it turns out not to be quite what you thought, so you adjust and you start editing. I kind of edit and write voice over together. I’m a big fan of editing and doing many, many cuts to hone the piece. It is the same process one would do on an essay film.

But one thing about this form of film is you never really know what works until you show it to an audience. Only then can you tell whether people are engaged and when they’re not, you can feel it. So when you feel what works and what doesn’t, you can still make changes. We did our premiere for The Measure of All Things at Sundance a few weeks ago and now I have a million ideas of what I want to tweak. I think where I could change a line or put a pause and I can continue to work on it which is really fun and exciting. It allows me to really hone in on things in a way I couldn’t do with a normal film. You’re kind of done after you edit.”

Does that allow for you to change it from performance to performance for different audiences?

SG: “For the Buckminster Fuller piece, I did change things wherever we did it. Fuller did stuff everywhere so when we had some shows in London…he spoke there many, many times and he inspired some British architects so I worked all that into the piece. I can change it each time and that is part of the fun of it, it is a very fluid form.

The piece is in a Keynote file. I take still images and Quicktime video and put them in Keynote so I can go through and change things, swap out things. It is totally ephemeral.”

How do you fund your work? Do you get grants, investors, I saw that you recently did a campaign on Kickstarter?

SG: “It is a combination. Like any filmmaker, I am hustling. With this I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. They have a multi-disciplinary grant and this  project is a combination of film and performance. Some foundations have given me grants and some individuals and I did a Kickstarter campaign

How was running that campaign? In one of your backer updates you said you weren’t sure about raising the money this way, which is a sentiment a lot of filmmakers who have been around for a while have expressed. How do you think it worked out and will you ever do that again?

SG: “That experience changed my feeling about Kickstarter and crowdfunding. I had been pretty grumpy about it because as a filmmaker I get TONS of campaign solicitations, you probably get them too. I felt bitter about that. Is this the level we’ve been reduced to as filmmakers, as artists? We are now funding our work by hitting up all of our friends? And the corollary to that is if I did give money to everyone who asks me, I’d be homeless. There was something that depressed me about the whole state of affairs.

One thing I had always heard people say, and I thought this was really just lip service, is there are a lot of people out there who want to be part of your work. For them, it isn’t a burden, they aren’t doing it out of charity or guilt or obligation. They are excited to be part of what you are doing. I had never taken that sentiment seriously. I always thought, ‘Wow I’m besieged by these campaigns and this sucks.’ But there are a lot of people who are not getting hit up by other filmmakers all the time and, for them, it is a way to help you get your work out into the world and be part of what you do.

I was struck during my campaign by the fact that this is TRUE. I was actually very moved by how many people responded and were so generous. It did change the way I think about it.

I would definitely do it again. I might do some things differently, like I wouldn’t do it when I was trying to finish the film. That was hard trying to finish the film and run a Kickstarter campaign at the same time. It just requires a lot of work.”

I noticed you have an ecommerce aspect to your website where you sell DVDs and streams for some of your other work. Do you purposely try to retain the right to distribute on your own?

SG: “Hell yeah, I’ve been doing that for a while. I’m not like a luddite. I love the internet and the way you can reach people all over the world.  I made this movie about Esperanto called The Universal Language. There are people all over the world that still speak it. How would one reach people all over the world to see the movie? Without the internet and streaming, it would be impossible. I have a place on my site where people can pay $4.99 to watch it. That happens all the time and I think being able to use the internet to get work out there is fantastic.

Distribution is a trade off. With my film The Weather Underground, I had a terrific experience with distribution. The theatrical distributor was fantastic. The DVD people we worked with were great. I have nothing but good things to say about that. The truth is you give up money, but someone else is doing the work. So, in that sense, it can be a good deal.

But now, especially with people who want to distribute online, signing with a distributor who is going to tie up your rights, you often won’t make money from that. I am a big believer in either reserving some rights or making companies pay an advance if they are serious about distributing for you online. A lot of companies now are not paying anything up front and that means they don’t have an incentive to do a lot with the work.”

 

Green wanted to make it clear that he is not the only filmmaker creating live experience work. “I never want to give the impression that I am the only person out there doing this. There’s Brent Green, Jem CohenTravis Wilkerson. I was also very inspired by Guy Madden’s Brand upon the BrainIt had an orchestra and live foley and, when I saw it, Isabella Rossellini was narrating it and it was a such a great live cinematic event.”

Perhaps this has inspired some of you to rethink the cinematic form for your work. You have to be open to creating a live experience, putting yourself physically out there and screening in venues that are not specifically dedicated to filmed entertainment. But from an artistic and economic standpoint, these creations could be very fulfilling and lucrative.

The Measure of All Things is now booking screenings for 2014. Love Song for R. Buckminster Fuller is still on tour with upcoming screenings in Miami and Austin, TX. Sign up to Sam Green’s email list to stay updated on the screenings.

Sheri Candler

February 12th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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Sundance narrative films are the ones that get the bulk of the media attention; their star power or discovery or indie cred frequently send some of these gems into financial success. But last year’s majority resulted in distributors overpaying for titles, titles going for next to nothing, or even failing to secure distribution. Frequently, the filmmakers and/or the distributors were in the red.

For all the talk of the slower fest this year, there are now 10 films that have secured seven figure deals. Last year’s fest had 14 or 15 (one has conflicting dollar amounts in reports). While this year’s deals are nowhere near the $9.75 Mil paid for The Way Way Back, it does suggest a healthier marketplace with sane sales prices. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how last year’s slate performed.  Over 80% secured domestic distribution.

Ryan Coogler Fruitvale Station win at Sundance

photo credit Punk Toad

AWARDS POWER FOR US DRAMATIC

Last year’s US Dramatic award winners were also the top indie box office performers.

The highest grossing competition film, Fruitvale Station, won the Audience and Grand Jury awards. Though it failed to get an Oscar nomination, TWC managed a healthy $16 Mil + theatrically. That is notably better than the previous year’s jury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The second highest grossing film from the US Dramatic section was The Spectacular Now. A24 which has tailored itself to films for younger demos (VERY VERY BOLD MOVE given how hard it can be to reach the under 25 audience for indies). The $1.5 Mil acquisition grossed $6.85 Mil theatrically.

Roadside Attractions snagged the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award Winner In A World, which surprised many with a gross of just under $3 Mil.  Afternoon Delight, which won last year’s Directing Award, made $174k with Film Arcade doing the theatrical and Cinedigm handling digital. Shane Carruth’s self-distributed Upstream Color won a special jury prize for sound. The film is the highest grossing DIY release from last year’s festival with a total of $444k and a very healthy iTunes total, however, it  is likely that Gravitas Ventures pushed Sound City into the ultimate #1 spot. Never under-estimate the power of a music doc. Mother of George and Ain’t them Bodies Saint’s shared the cinematography prize. Mother Of George was Oscilloscope’s highest grossing release last year at over $157k and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made $371K under the direction of IFC. That total is arguably a disappointment with all of the hype surrounding the film, stellar critical praise and the seven figure acquisition price.

In contrast, the films that did not win awards had very mixed results. Many of these films (award winners included) had $1-8 Million production budgets and, in fact, most failed to recoup from their initial distribution deals. Perhaps their investors will see money back eventually.

The non-award-winners include C.O.G. and Concussion.  Both finished with around $50k theatrically. Focus World/Screen Media can’t be happy with the performance of C.O.G., the first David Sedaris short story turned into a film. Concussion was day and date release and Radius TWC has said the film was a top performer on digital platforms. Without publicly available data, we have to take their word for it. Meanwhile, Kill Your Darlings just barely passed the $1 Mil mark for SPC, who paid around $2 Mil for the film. They acquired a number of other territories and the film will obviously be stronger on digital platforms. It is the second year in a row that SPC acquired a film featuring a younger cast, then held onto it to screen 8 months later at Toronto International Film Festival and failed to earn back ½ of their acquisitions cost in theatrical release. The strategy of waiting to launch out of TIFF and going for the younger American audience clearly isn’t working for them and should be rethought. I personally think it’s a mix of both. In this day and age, I can think of very few reasons where waiting 8 months between festivals makes any sense.

Also underperforming to the acquisitions price was SPC’s Austenland. It has grossed $2.15 Mil in the US and is the highest grossing non award winning US Dramatic film. However SPC paid $4.5 Mil in partnership with SPWA. The additional territories and better digital viewing could possibly pull the film to break even, still well below what one wants from that kind of high profile buy.

Far on the other side of the spectrum are the D.O.A.’s The Lifeguard and Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. The former released by Screen Media and the latter by Tribeca Film and Well Go USA. In both cases, bad reviews clearly harmed these films which both had semi-marketable casts. Even with solid digital revenue, both films, which were likely acquired for under six figures, can be called flops.  The same can be said for Magnolia’s Touchy Feely which managed $36k, not even 1/15th of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday. The 35% enthusiasm rating on Rotten Tomatoes indicates how the film was received.

CBS Films acquired Kings of Summer (originally called Toy’s Attic). Though they stated in their original acquisitions announcement that the film would open wide, it never did, so one has to assume they tried to cut their losses and the $1.315 Mil it made theatrical was nowhere near what they were anticipating. The film has much of the same demo as The Spectacular Now, but with none of the star power or awards profile attention.

WORLD DRAMATIC FAILURE

75% of the World Dramatic slate lacks domestic distribution as of this post. The other three films include one yet to be released (despite it winning an Award at Sundance and being UK’s Oscar submission (Metro Manila), one that failed to crack $15k (Il Futuro) and one modest performing success. Crystal Fairy is the only world dramatic film to have any kind of traction in the US.  The Day one selection made $192k theatrically in the care of IFC.

NEXT STRUGGLES

Unlike when Sleepwalk With Me became a hit for IFC, 2013’s NEXT crop of films were largely modest to middling performers. A Teacher failed to crack $10k in the hands of Oscilloscope, Pit Stop (which TFC handled for festival distribution) went to DVD/Digital with Wolfe, Milkshake and Newlyweeds barely made a whimper with Phase 4. Audience Award Winner, This is Martin Bonner couldn’t pass $15k and Strand Releasing’s I Used to be Darker stopped short of $25k. Blue Caprice fell just short of $100k for IFC/Sudance Selects.  At one point, it was in 36 theaters. For a film that received such a nice marketing push, it is safe to call it an underperformer at the box office, even more so with its low seven figure acquisitions price which didn’t finalize until March after the festival.

I have already written about Escape From Tomorrow and it’s self financed theatrical/digital performance with Producer’s Distribution Agency. The film has failed to make back its budget through the combined total, and that doesn’t factor in any P&A spent or revenue splits. The one real bright spot is Computer Chess. Kino Lorber had one of its best theatrical runs for a narrative film, solid festival exposure and wisely kept the film in the press and turned down an offer from TIFF that would have made them take a break. The film quietly passed the $100k mark which, given its no-name cast, low fi production values, and vintage style, is quite an accomplishment.

MIDNIGHT SLACKS

While genre films consistently perform better on VOD/Digital, the theatrical realities of last year’s midnight slate is nothing short of a total flop. The Rambler (Anchor Bay), Hell Baby (Millennium), Ass Backwards (Gravitas Ventures), In Fear (Anchor Bay), Magic Magic (Sony Pictures Worldwide) wound up going direct to DVD/Digital, grossing under $10k theatrically, or not reporting box office totals at all. V/H/S 2 barely passed $21k in the hands of Magnolia, a far cry from how it’s predecessor did. Again these films often performed quite well digitally, but for the festival that launched the Saw franchise, none of the entries really made a dent.

We Are What We Are (EOne) is the only Midnight film to pass $50k. Kink, which The Film Collaborative is handling for festivals, was just acquired by MPI Media. Virtually Heroes has yet to make a deal.

PREMIERE FLOPS

Sweetwater, Big Sur, and Charlie Countryman all failed to make a dent at the box office and were either DIY or their distributor did not report the acquisitions price. Each had some form of star power and must be huge disappointments for their financiers. The Look of Love also failed to register theatrically for IFC. The film was Day/Date and if any company can make money back on the digital it would be them. But it’s far from what one wants to see for a seven figure acquisition.

PREMIERE BIG DEALS

Don Jon was bought for $4 Mil by Relativity Media with a $25 Mil P&A.  The film has failed to gross $25 Mil at the box office though it is the highest grossing film from last year’s fest. Likely it will barely break even. The Way Way Back was the highest selling direct acquisition at the fest, bought for an estimated $9.75 mil for North American rights and several other territories, but the P&A is unknown. The film exceeded $21 Mil making it ultimately a modest performer for Fox Searchlight though it far outshined previous acquisitions, Stoker and The East, which they acquired pre-fest and neither of which managed over $2.5 Mil.

SPC snagged Before Midnight and the film is the highest grossing of the trilogy with slightly over $8 Mil. It also was just nominated for an Oscar. Closing night film jOBS, on the other hand, only saw a 27% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has a Razzie Award nod and their self financed release with Open Road failed to recoup their costs. Worldwide, the film has grossed almost $36 mil likely on the strength of the Ashton Kutcher name.

We’re anxious to see how this year’s crop performs in release. Already, one World Documentary film, Sepideh Reaching for the Stars, has launched simultaneously with its US premiere on iTunes in the US and Canada, which is a first.

January 24th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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It’s a new year, Oscar Campaigning is in full swing and that must mean one thing….Sundance is upon us!

There is no doubt that Sundance is the best launching pad for documentaries in the US if not the world. 10 of the 15 Oscar Shortlisted Docs premiered at Sundance, including the highest grossing doc of the year, 20 Feet from Stardom. Furthermore almost 90% of all docs had some form of domestic distribution secured.

There has been a lot of chatter about the recent New York Times article talking about too many films entering into a shrinking marketplace. I am usually quite the pessimist and cynic, but in this instance it is one of the best things that could have happened for film. THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE DISTRIBUTION.

I REPEAT…

THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE DISTRIBUTION. Looking at the films from last year’s festival, it becomes clear that the options are endless. And many films have combined approaches for their DIY. Netflix is distributing the audience award winner, The Square starting January 17. The film had a small DIY theatrical with the help of Participant Media, but that’s not the end of it. When it debuts on Netflix, it will also be available on GATHR only expanding the film’s reach.

With all this said, every filmmaker should be making distribution plans from the beginning. Put money aside to cover a festival premiere (publicist, lodging, travel, prints, etc) and for the strong possibility of a self financed release. Perhaps you’ll never have to use it. But it is better to be prepared.

Now with my rant out of the way, here’s a look at how the film’s from last year’s festival fared in distribution.

EVERY SINGLE US DOCUMENTARY and DOCUMENTARY PREMIERE selection had some form of domestic distribution, but multiple world doc films have yet to line something up in the States.

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DOCUMENTARY WINNERS

TV DOCS  (HBO, SHOWTIME, CNN):

HBO acquired TV rights to or produced 7 documentaries from last year’s festival.

Gideon’s Army, Life According to Sam (whose subject passed away this week), Manhunt, and Valentine Road all world premiered in the US Documentary Competition. The Crash Reel and Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington screened as documentary premieres and the network acquired world doc entry Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer for $1,000,000.

Not only does the network connect these films with far more viewers than they could reasonably expect in a theatrical release, but these films are also some of the critical favorites. Four of the seven films are on the Oscar shortlist for documentaries and a fifth won an Emmy.

HBO is not the only TV player in town.

Showtime aired History of the Eagles Part One and The World According To Dick Cheney which were both in the Documentary Premieres section. The Eagles Doc was also an Emmy Award Winner.

CNN Films partnered with Magnolia on Blackfish. The film has been seen by over 20,000,000 people worldwide and grossed north of $2,000,000 in the US. It made the Oscar Shortlist and has been cited as a key reason Sea World’s revenue is down over 30% this year. The acquisition was for $1,000,000, split between the network and Magnolia and certainly profitable for the latter. The company also had Pandora’s Promise which grossed $66k theatrically, but got hundreds of thousands more views on the TV screen via the broadcaster.

sundance docs 2013

MUSIC DOCS 

Three of the five highest grossing Sundance docs from last year were about singers/musicians (3 of the top 5 were also sold by Submarine and 4 of the top 5 were distributed by Radius-TWC or Magnolia) Clearly, they are resonating with a larger audience and the top players in documentaries recognize this. What’s truly impressive though is two of these films were day and date releases.

Sound City was a self financed release and dominated iTunes while also grossing over $400,000 in the care of Variance Releasing. While Variance handled the theatrical release of Sound City and Dave Grohl and his team did their own direct distribution through VHXGravitas Ventures handled the traditional VOD release of the film both in North America and internationally, including on iTunes.  The film has grossed north of 7 figures on VOD since Gravitas Ventures launched it almost a year ago. Muscle Shoals has managed just under $700,000 with Magnolia at the helm, but theirs is a traditional distribution situation and the acquisition amount was not stated. Twenty Feet From Stardom also had a traditional release and has grossed just under $5 million and is RADIUS-TWC highest grossing film to date. The film, acquired for just over a $1 million, is also a top performer digitally and has been selling well internationally.

SELF FINANCED IS POPULAR

Over 25% of Sundance 2013 docs pursued some form of self-distribution.

Running From Crazy, Blood Brother, The Square, God Loves Uganda, American Promise, Linsanity, When I Walk, Sound City, Pandora’s Promise and the yet to be released Citizen Koch all went for self financed theatricals.

Linsanity and Citizen Koch both raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter for their theatrical releases.  Linsanity has made $299,408 in cinemas. This more than justifies the DIY campaign and assuming they didn’t pour extra money into the release would net them just over $100,000 before digital and other ancillary are factored in.

The Square, which is the first Netflix Documentary pick up, had a small Oscar Qualifying run that turned into a little bit more and helped the film make the shortlist. It has grossed over $50,000 to date. That threshold was also exceeded by fellow shortlist film God Loves Uganda. Variance is releasing God Loves Uganda and should either film make the final Oscar cut you can expect additional revenue. That said, neither release appears to be profitable on its own. Variance said a few years ago they wouldn’t do a release for under $20,000 and cinemas do take a large chunk of revenues. Add the cost of Oscar Campaigning and the absence of the Netflix deal and God Loves Uganda clearly needs the Oscar nomination to boost its bottom line for digital (It will air on PBS later this year).

Running From Crazy quietly earned $33k, When I Walk did not report totals and Blood Brother has grossed over $50,000, but all through TUGG screenings.  Blood Brother’s total is at once impressive and instantly disappointing. The film won the audience and grand jury awards, but failed to generate major buyer interest. ITVS has TV and Cinedigm has digital rights, but the film has become one of the lower grossing performer’s for a major festival award winner. At the same time, it screened at festivals left and right and, while skipping week long engagements, has screened at churches and small towns around the country. It may ultimately reach $100,000 via TUGG.

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DOCUMENTARY UNDERPERFORMERS

While Sundance continues to push for a lot of political docs, they are far from the best performers at the box office. After Tiller is a great film, but hardly a Friday night date movie. Festival revenue has provided a boost for the Oscilloscope release, but with under $70k in theatrical and a solid push for Oscar (it was not shortlisted) feels like a disappointment.  Similarly award winners The Square and Blood Brother also are far from the top of the pack at the box office.

Meanwhile, over 1/3 of the World Doc films have nothing lined up for the States and Fire in the Blood is the lowest grossing Sundance Doc from last year that reported box office totals. It still has made about $20k and much of it from TUGG.

Other underperformers include Cutie and the Boxer, which was not day and date, and The Summit, which was one of the biggest doc deals at low 7 figures from Sundance Selects, but failed to pass $300k theatrically. Compared to films like Dirty Wars (IFC) which pulled in $371, 245 and Inequality for All (Radius-TWC) grossing $1.1 million, the buy was a bust.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how the narrative films from Sundance 2013 fared in release.

January 15th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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We’ve all heard the stories of the little independent horror films that could; seemingly plucked from nowhere and went on to be mega hits. 

Paranormal Activity, a $15,000 film launched at Slamdance 2008, was bought for about $350,000 and became the highest grossing film in the history of the festival. Though it was originally acquired with remake rights in mind, it ended up spawning four subsequent installments.

Sundance 2004 served as the launchpad for Saw (production budget around $1mil) which, like Paranormal Activity, was never supposed to go to movie theaters; it was originally going to go direct to DVD. It spawned 6 sequels. Another Sundance premiere, The Blair Witch Project, was shot for $60,000 and made over $140 Million in theaters.

Insidious was made for $1.5 mil, premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival and grossed over $90 Mil worldwide. Other films to launch at TIFF include Hostel and Cabin Fever.

horror blog

Yes, these films are the exceptions to the rule. The rule that says box office success is a result of higher production spends and star names. Such is the potential of the horror genre. It has one of the most loyal audiences who, to a certain degree, ignore critics and don’t care too much about star cast. The catch is the traditional indie release model does not work to get these films out to market.

It is almost impossible for a horror indie to do the slow expansion route. This is why most films either release day/date, go direct to DVD or open wide and place all their marbles on opening weekend. Almost all horror films drop off over 50% after their first weekend. Often dropping even 60 or 70%. Even a film with critical appeal like You’re Next only received middling reactions from the larger fan boy audience and will end its theatrical with less than $20 Million. Notably, it still out-performed all but one TIFF acquisition from last year’s festival.

What makes the films I listed above unique is that they either opened in limited release and immediately garnered major interest (Paranormal Activity) or showed immense staying power per the genre (Insidious).

The commercial potential of horror compared to other arthouse films cannot be ignored. Almost no one I know would consider any of those films ‘arthouse,’ but that’s exactly what they are. They are some of the most commercially successful independent films ever released. This year, all but one of the midnight madness films from TIFF has a US distributor attached and last year’s batch all found distribution deals, making it the only section from the festival to secure domestic distribution for all of its slate.

Even the films that don’t necessarily draw massive box office are usually incredibly successful. Sundance films like The Pact and V/H/S were never about theatrical receipts. Both were profitable via the advance received for their domestic distribution deal alone and both were profitable for the distributor (mainly via home video and foreign sales) hence why they each got sequels. Horror is arguably the only genre I know where a film could be bought for just shy of seven figures (The Pact), gross less than $10k theatrically in the US and still be considered a massive success. Distributors like Anchor Bay (who sometimes finances too), IFC Midnight, and Magnet specialize in this kind of release model and continue to thrive. It’s incredibly rare for any of them to push the theatrical and almost all of their releases are available on demand upwards of 2 months before they even pop up on a screen.

There is also a clear set of time windows when these films do well. You will not see horror films popping up in theaters in the US during November or December and with good reason. Who can compete with the Christmas releases? Many distributors treat horror as filler title for January/February and it has worked well for films like Hostel. Insidious and The Pact were both summer counter programming. When The Sixth Sense set a then record for releasing at the end of summer, it seems to have set a precedent to debut horror in late summer.

I want to be clear though all is not a pot of gold when it comes to the genre. Please contrast this post with the prior blog entry from my colleague Sheri Candler. EVERYTHING there is absolutely true. I received more solicitations for generic horror films from the Cannes, TIFF, and AFM markets than for anything other genre or story. Many of these films will never see the light of day and even at micro budgets will fail to recoup.

Every year, we anoint maybe one or two new voices in the genre and otherwise it’s mostly a rehashing of the same people. Just look at the midnight films from TIFF this year, The Green Inferno and All Cheerleaders Must Die from Lucky McKee. There are fewer spots for new auteurs to breakthrough. The people who are in the horror game are frequently collaborating and backing one another creating a genre power situation where they can squeeze out the very little guys/gals that would have just as easily been considered a few years ago. It’s a giant game of six degrees of separation now that gets one to the inner circle of horror stardom.

As the horror sequels pile on, it is so easy to forget the simplicity of what came first. If horror is your game, I encourage you to go back and watch the original Saw. It’s really a mystery story focusing on two people trapped in a room. The few other traps we see are only in flashback. The bulk of the film is two people talking in a room. As studios continue to struggle to push the boundaries (okay let’s be honest, they struggle to come up with anything even slightly unique or entertaining), they look to the festival circuit for the next film with breakout potential. Every horror franchise to launch in the last few years has come from the festival circuit.

There is still a lot of life left in the genre, but if you’re on a micro-budget, you have to offer something fresh or with minimal star power or have powerful connection in the indie world to get noticed. Horror is one genre where titling and cover art can make or break success with an audience. The attention span of the typical horror fan is very short unless they recognize something they like immediately. It’s no accident that people were talking about Sharknado; an absurd, but definitely different take on horror and sci fi. It lit up Twitter like nobody’s business. The Asylum does very well making those types of films. But the success narrative is skewed; it only attracted a viewing audience slightly better than a typical SyFy Channel movie of the week and its hurried theatrical screenings pulled in less than $200K from 200 cinemas. Still, it has spawned a sequel!

So to recap, the genre is waiting for someone to break out in the midnight section at Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and/or TIFF, these films are often the most successful to come out of the festival circuit and almost always receive a deal. However, to get into the festivals at all is incredibly difficult and if you’re not already connected to the “in crowd,” you are probably shit out of luck. While you could do a D grade microbudget film with distribution pre attached through Full Moon, what would that do for you? The best case scenario is you make a whopping $5,000 for all your hard work, they get control of the edit and the film doesn’t see a significant release.

But whatever you do, choose a smart title, a good poster and cut an exciting trailer. They are imperative in horror.

October 11th, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, Theatrical

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The month of October seems a good time to look at films in the horror genre and we will be releasing a series of posts all month long that addresses the business of releasing these films.

Long the domain of ultra low budget filmmakers everywhere, horror audiences are now spoiled for choice when it comes to finding a film that terrifies. Yes, everyone with access to a digital camera and buckets of fake blood seems to be honing their craft and turning out product by the thousands. Unfortunately, most of it is high on splatter and low on story and production value. That may have made up the majority of the horror film sales 7 years ago, but distribution advances paid for such films are now exceedingly low (maybe $5K per territory, IF there is a pick up at all) and now the genre is perfect for the torrent sites.Unless you plan to make films as an expensive hobby, the pressure to produce a stellar horror film that people will talk about (see The Conjuring, Insidious, Paranormal Activity) is very high.

horror films

The trouble for filmmakers creating in this genre is there is so much being made of questionable quality, it is like asking audiences to find a needle…in a stack of needles (hat tip to Drew Daywalt). The same challenges for fundraising, marketing, and distribution that plague every production, plague horror films as well. To get good word of mouth, the film HAS to be great and have a significant marketing push.

At a recent event hosted at the LA Film School by Screen Craft entitled Horror Filmmaking: The Guts of the Craft, several involved in the horror genre talked about budgeting and distributing indie horror films. All agreed the production value bar has to be raised so much higher than everything else in the market in order to get people to part with their money for a ticket when competing with studio films. Talent manager Andrew Wilson of Zero Gravity Management pointed out that comments like the film did a lot with so little doesn’t hold water with audiences outside of the festival circuit. “You still need it to be good enough to get someone to come into a theater and pay $12…the guy who is going to pay $12 doesn’t care that you did a lot for a little bit of money. They want to see a film that is as good as the big Warner Bros release because they are paying the same amount of money to see it.” While you may be thinking, “I don’t need my film to play in a theater,” and that may be, the films seeing the most revenue in this genre are the ones that do.

The panel also addressed selling horror films into foreign territories. While horror does travel much better than American drama or comedy, there are horror films being made all over the world and some are much more innovative than their American counterparts. France, Japan and Korea were cited as countries producing fantastically creative horror films. American filmmakers with aspirations of distributing their films overseas need to be aware of the competition not just with fellow countrymen, but with foreign talent as well.

Other film distributors are candidly talking about the complete decimation of the market for horror, largely brought on by the internet and piracy, but also a change in consumer habits. Why buy a copy to own of that low grade splatterfest when you can easily stream it (for pay or not) and move on to the next one? More where that came from. There was once big money in fooling audiences to buy a $20 DVD with a good slasher poster and trailer, but now they are wise to the junk vying for their attention and don’t see the need to pay much money for it.

In a talk given last year at the Spooky Empire’s Ultimate Horror Weekend in Orlando, sales agent/distributor Stephen Biro of Unearthed Films actually warned the audience of filmmakers not to get into horror if money was what they were seeking.”The whole system is rigged for the distributors and retailers. You will have to make the movie of a lifetime, something that will stand the test of time.”  He confirmed DVD for horror is dead. Titles that might have shipped 10, 000 copies to retailers are now only shipping maybe 2,000. Some stores will only take 40 copies, see how they sell and order more if needed in order to cut down on dealing with returns. Of the big box stores left standing, few are interested in low budget horror titles. Netflix too is stepping away from low budget indie horror on the DVD side. They may offer distributors a 2 year streaming deal for six titles at $24,000 total, but there will be a cost to get them QC’d properly (which comes out of your cut, after the middlemen take their share of course!).

As for iTunes, there are standards barring graphic sex for films in the US and in some countries, they are now requiring a rating from the local ratings authority in order to sell from the iTunes Movie store. The cost of this can run into the thousands (based on run time) per country. Also, subtitling will be required for English language films, another cost.

The major companies in cable VOD (Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon etc) are now requiring a significant theatrical release (about 15 cities) before showing interest in working with a title. They are predominantly interested in titles with significant marketing effort behind them. The cable operators often do not offer advances and you must go through an aggregator like Gravitas Ventures to access. If the aggregator refuses your film, that’s it.

Selling from your own site via DVD or digital through Vimeo or Distrify is still an option, and the cut of revenue is certainly larger. But unless there is a budget and plan in place to market the site, traffic won’t just materialize. Still, for ultra, ultra low budget films (like made for less than $5,000) with a clear marketing strategy and small advertising budget, selling direct is the way to go. Certainly better than giving all rights away for free, for 7 years and seeing nothing. At least your film can access a global audience.

Here is Biro’s talk from Orlando. It runs almost an hour

If after reading this, you are still set to wade into the market with your horror film, stay tuned to future posts looking at the numbers behind some recent horror films and what options you’ll have on the festival circuit.

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/markybon/102406173/”>MarkyBon</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

 

Sheri Candler

October 3rd, 2013

Posted In: Cable, Digital Distribution, Distribution, International Sales, iTunes, Long Tail & Glut of Content, Marketing, Netflix, Theatrical

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