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
15 comments regarding the indieWIRE panel at Film Society of Lincoln Center “15 Years of Film Distribution” and Sundance’s Distribution Announcement
The IndieWIRE panel I am commenting on was at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on July 16, 2011. indieWIRE Editor in Chief Dana Harris moderated a discussion about the past 15 years of film distribution with (left to right): Richard Abramowitz, Amy Heller, Bingham Ray, Bob Berney, Ira Deutchman, Mark Urman, Arianna Bocco and Jeanne Berney. It can be found here:
The Sundance distribution announcement was just made today.
- So glad to know, as Mark Urman noted, that even big A-list cast films have a hard time getting listed properly on Cable VOD in terms of cast. We know that Sundance indie Adventures of Power also was not always listed properly in terms of noting its full cast (namely Jane Lynch & Adrien Grenier who both have massive fan bases were sometimes left off the film’s VOD description). What will it take the MSOs to get it together? Please let’s not all name or rename our films with numbers or start with the letters A,B,C,D, or E. If Comcast can insert ads into programming surely they and all the other dozens of MSOs (Multi System Operators) can find a way to help attract an audience for films on their system by categorizing them and filling in complete descriptions even on mammoth platforms.
- The glut of content was discussed and the marketing challenges all distributors of cinema face. We all know it’s cheaper to make films now, there are more of them, they don’t die or go away, they just multiply annually and even some of the panelists spoke to younger generations not even committed to being filmmakers, but just making films because they can and it’s made to seem so cool. Indeed. And what I want someone to say, well ok I will just say it, is when the real numbers behind film distribution are revealed across the board perhaps we’ll see a trim in supply. The best, most creative and most committed will survive and thrive. Investors will be choosier because they’ll have all of the REAL information they need to make educated decisions. As for how to clear through the clutter, well, that goes back to the basics of know-your-audience, down to the “T” and don’t pretend it’s everyone. I look forward to even more lifestyle and interest oriented programming and content servicing and all the more reason for filmmakers to cultivate audiences directly, where there is no room for glut or confusion.
- They joked about no one knowing VOD numbers, except for Arianna of IFC of course and Mark sometimes when his VOD client (Tribeca Films I presume) fills him in. Well, we have some from our forthcoming case study book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and I want to challenge ALL FILMMAKERS to share your numbers and stop the madness of mystery! And I agree, it’s time that these numbers start getting tracked and reported in a more automated fashion as theatrical box office and DVD sales are now. Still those number only show gross, and not the spend needed to achieve those numbers.
- Amy of Milestone noted younger people have different habits in terms of what they want to view and how they view. So maybe we need younger folks running distribution companies now. TFC is hiring.
- Arianna of IFC notes that piracy is a huge issue and that young people do not want to pay for content. So we can either be disturbed by that, or we can work with that knowledge and release in a way that will maximize revenues, instead of forcing audiences into outdated window methods. One film we recently observed tried to monetize its distribution via sponsorship, but waited way too long to get started, tried to do so without a distribution plan in place, is having its theatrical launch 6 months after its festival premiere and cannot seem to make a decision on the rest of its distribution whilst it awaits fat-enough-offers that are not coming. That sort of paradigm is a set up for failure and leaves the film open to piracy when a clear plan from the start and an immediate release after festival premiere could have led to quicker monetization (sponsored, DIY and/or via a donation campaign on VODO). We caution against proceeding with filmmaking or distribution when there is no viable plan in place.
- A question via TWITTER that came in was: Where do you want to be 15 years from now? Richard Abramowitz is amazed he’s still in the biz now… and that’s honest in that it speaks to deep concerns about the changes in the business and the truth is, the more transparent service providers are about their numbers, the more likely they will survive. Those less transparent are not likely to sustain themselves. What I object to is the mythology in this industry and the mask of success that hides the real story of spending more than you made back because there are too many expensive services or middlemen. Who can tell me about their PROFIT? Not just for themselves, but for the filmmakers and investors they represent? Who will publicly admit the numbers on how much was spent for each service even on services they did not really need if they were better educated, and each middleman and what that yielded? When people do not, it’s largely because they want to get the next project funded and, to me, this is no better than a pyramid scheme. You know what eventually happens with those, right? See 2008 for an indication. Anyone who wants to challenge TFC on its transparency please do, I am ready.
- ‘Theatre going experience is in our DNA (like gazing at a fire)’, says Bingham Ray. The communal experience is what it’s all about. Amen. I say let’s bring back the drive-in. I especially want it for Sundance film Co-dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.
- Ira speaks to the Opera audience. He noted, as audiences get older they crave that experience (communal screening) more. I love that Ira Deutchman grew a business out of this niche. Niche is golden. A lesson for us all.
- Ira spoke to “eventizing” theatrical– several noted about adding Q&As, live music, director attendance, panel discussions– to enhance theatrical and all of those screenings do well. Indeed. We have observed the same and that speaks even more to filmmakers knowing their audience and being more engaged in their own releases. There is nothing of this that one cannot do.
- Ira ends quoting Richard Lorber “everything is possible and nothing works” harking back to 25 years ago when distribs celebrated small victories and spent little – before the rise and fall of indie bubble and the studios dressing big releases in indie clothes. My comment is regarding the “professional” the middle man, the lack of transparency even still is a burden, the fees paid excessive if one analyzes from the point of view of sustainability and healthy business. Service deals are announced like acquisitions. That’s why they say “film business” is an oxymoron but it need not be. And that’s why TFC’s resolve now is to not work with unsustainable filmmakers. We do not want to feed the habit, enable unrealistic expectations. If you spent too much on making your film, if your expectations are unreasonable, if you are not committed to being educated about both film and engaging audiences, and most of all, if you are just a money bag and not a creator but rather buying into the dream that your film (which you did not even create) is going to make you rich or richer, please go home. And now, on a less cranky and more joyous note: What I love about the Sundance distribution initiative:
11. It’s offering filmmakers a truly filmmaker friendly set up by having a good partner and fair contract terms.
12. The terms offered by a truly excellent partner like New Video were already good in general, but are now even slightly advantaged.
13. That the deal is non-exclusive and allows filmmakers proper agency and control.
14. That I partly inspired it starting in 2009 and that the folks at Sundance listened, discussed, and worked it out slowly but surely and that there is more to come.
15. The Sundance brand connected with its alumni of filmmaker’s brands and on key platforms that function as the key portals to film lovers (and yet not at the exclusion of other viable modes of DIY and traditional distribution) is the model I have always championed even before TFC launched, because it makes sense. It’s good for filmmakers; it’s good for audiences and back to # 1 and #2, initiatives like this are the way to help clear a path through the content of clutter to the curious eyes of cinema loving consumers.
Orly Ravid July 27th, 2011
Tags: Amy Heller, Arianna Bocco, Bingham Ray, Bob Berney, Dana Harris, distribution panel, film distribution, indiewire, Ira Deutchman, Jeanne Berney, Mark Urman, niche audience, Richard Abramowitz, Sundance, theatrical distribution