by Dan Habib
Dan Habib is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including Samuel (2008), Who Cares About Kelsey? (2012), Mr. Connolly Has ALS (2017), and many other films on disability-related topics. Habib’s films have been broadcast nationally on public television, and he does extensive public speaking around the country and internationally. Habib’s upcoming documentary Intelligent Lives (2018) features three pioneering young adults with disabilities who navigate high school, college, and the workforce—and undermine our nation’s sordid history of intelligence testing. The film includes narration from Academy award-winning actor Chris Cooper and is executive produced by Amy Brenneman. Habib, who was a photojournalist from 1988-2008, is a filmmaker at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.
About 14 years ago, I sat at my son Samuel’s bedside in the ICU as he lay in a medically induced coma. He had developed pneumonia from complications following surgery. Samuel’s neurologist encouraged me to use my skills as a photojournalist in the midst of my fear. “You should document this,” he said. Samuel, who has cerebral palsy, recovered from this emergency, and I took the doctor’s advice. Four years later, I released my first documentary, Including Samuel, which includes a scene from that hospital room. The film aired nationally on public TV in 2009, and we created a DVD with 17 language translations.
Along with the film’s launch, I started discussing my experiences as a parent of a child with a disability at film screenings, which led to a 2013 TEDx talk called Disabling Segregation.
I am now directing/filming/producing my third feature length documentary and am honored that The Film Collaborative asked me to share a few things I’ve learned along the way about DIY fundraising, distribution and outreach.
- Diversify your funding streams.
Although I made Including Samuel on a shoestring while I was still working fulltime as a newspaper photography editor, I’ve been able to raise about $1 million for each of my last two films—a budget which covers my salary and benefits, as well as all production costs. I’ve received essential support from The Fledgling Fund, but the vast majority of my funding comes from sources that don’t typically fund films:
- NH-based foundations that are interested in supporting the advancement of the issues I cover in my films (disability/mental health/education).
- National and regional foundations and organizations that focus on tangible outcomes. The Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation is the lead $200,000 supporter of my current project. MEAF funds efforts to increase the employment rates for young people with disabilities.
- Each year I typically take on one outside contract (around $75,000) from a non-profit to create a documentary film short (18-25 min.) on specific disability or education issues. These films have focused on areas like the restraint and seclusion of students or inclusive education , and help me meet my overall budget needs.
- For the last ten years, the most stable source of income has been my speaking fees, which average about $75,000/year and go back into my project budget at UNH. I do about 15 paid speaking gigs per year, and charge $5000 per 24-hours away from home (plus travel expenses). We don’t do any paid advertising—the gigs almost always come from word of mouth (see #5 below).
- Build buzz from the get-go
For some docs, secrecy is essential for editorial reasons, or the filmmaker may just prefer to keep it close to the vest. I’ve never gone that route, because I’ve felt a pragmatic need to build up an audience and donor base early in the project. For each of my films, I’ve cut a 10-14 minute ‘preview’ early in the project’s production (about 2 years before completion), which has been critical for fundraising pitches, generating buzz in social media, and for use in my public speaking presentations.On the temporary website for my Intelligent Lives project, the 14-minute preview is accessible only after completing a name/email sign in form (I also have an unlisted YouTube link to share with VIPs and funders). I’m sure some people have been turned off by this, but more than 6000 people have provided their name and email—which will be a huge asset when we launch a crowdfunding campaign in the fall to complete (I hope!) our production fundraising.Facebook has been the most active and successful platform for reaching our largest audience—educators and families—with Twitter a distant second. For the current project, we have plans to dive into Instagram and other platforms more deeply—primarily with video clips. We also see LinkedIn as a platform that can help us achieve one of the outreach goals for the new film—connecting young adults with disabilities with potential employers through virtual career fairs.
- Partner up early
I’ve spent hundreds of hours initiating and developing strong partnerships with national organizations that focus on the issues that my films address. For all three of my documentaries, I’ve held national strategy summits in Washington, DC, to bring together dozens of these National Outreach Partners (NOPs) to help develop a national outreach and engagement campaign to accompany each film (campaigns include I am Norm for Including Samuel and I Care By for Who Cares About Kelsey?) We are currently developing the campaign for the Intelligent Lives film.The NOPs also typically show my docs at their national conferences and blast the word out about key developments in the film’s release (like community screening opportunities). Our relationships with NOPs are reciprocal. We discuss how the films will shine a bright light on their issues; how they can fundraise off of screenings; and how they can use the entire film—or shorter clips that we can provide—to support their advocacy.I plan to continue to explore the vast topic areas of disability and education, and continually build on the partnerships, funders and audiences we have established (while also working hard to make films that are engaging to the general public).
- Establish your DIY distribution goals early and stay the course
When I started work on Who Cares About Kelsey?, my documentary about a high school student with ADHD who had a history of homelessness and family substance abuse, I knew I wasn’t going to try for theatrical release, but instead would focus on broadcast, an educational DVD kit and a national community screening campaign. We presented all of our would-be funders and NOPs with a specific set of outreach strategies for the film’s release that were mostly under our control—not reliant on the buzz and opportunities that would come only by getting into a major film festival. For the Intelligent Lives project, my outreach coordinator Lisa Smithline and I have been working towards a broadcast, festivals, an event theatrical and community screening campaign, VOD, online events and other distribution plans.
- Speaking of festivals…do college and conference screenings provide more bang for the buck?
I submit my films to the major fests (no luck so far), as well as mid-level and smaller film festivals, and we’ve had dozens of FF screenings (including Woodstock, Sedona, Thessaloniki, Cleveland). I always have a blast when I can be there. But I also start booking and promoting major events around the country at national conferences and colleges early in a film’s life. Although I know these events might jeopardize admission to some prominent film festivals, my experience has been that these conferences and university screenings usually have a significant, lasting impact: high volumes of DVD sales, tremendous word-of-mouth and social media upticks, and more invitations to do paid public speaking (see above). We also try to collect names and email addresses from attendees at every event, so our e-blast list (21,000+) has become a powerful outreach tool for all of my docs.
- Jam-pack the educational DVD and website
In addition to the feature length documentary, I typically create a range of short, freestanding “companion” films that I distribute both on the educational DVD kit and also for free (linked through the film’s website but hosted on YouTube and/or Vimeo). I went a bit overboard for Who Cares About Kelsey?, creating 11 mini-films on related topics. But the benefits were multifold: funders loved (and supported) these free resources, the shorter length (10-14 minutes) made them highly useful educational tools, and the free films bring traffic to the website.I also work with national experts in the topic areas covered in the feature length film and mini-films to develop extensive educational material that is packaged with the educational DVD kit. Combined with reasonable price points ($95-$195, depending on the intended audience), we have generated gross sales in the high six-figures for my last two films combined. We also produce an individual DVD, and have been selling VOD through Amazon (very low revenue compared to DVD sales, but given how much the VOD world has changed since I made “Kelsey,” we are looking at different models of online distribution for Intelligent Lives). We primarily self-distribute these products through the UNH Institute on Disability bookstore, which keeps the profits close to home.
- Seek professional help
I maintain a small field production crew (just me and an audio engineer), but my production and distribution budgets are still tight. So I’m grateful for people like Chris Cooper, Amy Brenneman and the musician Matisyahu who are donating their time and creative talents to my latest project. But there is still plenty of specialized talent I need to hire—whether it’s for editing, music scoring, fundraising, graphic art, website design and outreach consulting. And for Intelligent Lives, I’m planning to work with a distribution consultant and sales agent(s).I look for collaborators who share my values and vision that films can be a catalyst for advancing human rights…but they’ve still got to get paid!Return to strategy #1.
admin June 28th, 2017
Tags: American independent film, Amy Brenneman, Dan Habib, DIY film distribution, documentary films, documentary outreach, DVD distribution, educational distribution for films, film distribution, Fledgling Fund, Lisa Smithline, The Film Collaborative
Although DVD distribution revenue has by all accounts declined significantly since the start of home video and the development of the format, most film distributors still distribute DVDs. Sales are down, but there are profits to be had for more commercial or popular fare that is strongly supported with marketing spend, whether studio, indie, or niche.
We always advise filmmakers to conduct Direct Distribution of DVDs to their audience even when we or someone else is handling licensing deals for them. Often though, if a distributor takes on Home Video (i.e. DVD), the expenses associated with the release and the diminishing revenues are the explanation for why digital rights must be licensed to the distributor along with the rights to release the film on traditional physical formats. Digital rights, at least many of them, rightly belong in the home video category,but here’s the rub. While the distributor has more money and more connections and ability to get a DVD into retail stores, they likely take a bigger commission on digital platform sales than an aggregator who is paid a flat fee or a smaller percentage. Of course, even direct digital distribution (streaming from your own site) requires some service or other that takes a fee. It’s just usually less costly than a conventional distributor’s fee. Back to the rub.
So a well heeled distributor gets a big retailer to order your DVDs when you could not have achieved that on your own and probably more money is spent marketing it than you ever could afford to spend. But note that’s also more money to be recouped before you see a return. The DVDs that don’t sell come back. And what comes back gets credited. It should be noted, many conventional distributors take their sales fee off of initial sales, regardless of returns.
So the distributor has the muscle to move the units to a retailer, but not enough muscle to get the public to buy them. They did their best, and even risked their expenses and time and staff energy. But the units come back just the same. Their sales fee is calculated off the top and the net left over for the filmmaker can be paltry. You may or may not be worse off than having done all the distribution yourself.
It is something to think about before you push for traditional distribution where there is not a big enough advance, or none, to recoup your initial investment in the project and you might have been better going it alone, still holding the rights over your film. These things are indeed a calculation of your time and money vs the distributor’s. At least check your contract for language that allows the distributor to keep the sales fee even for the sum of sales attributed to units ultimately returned and refunded. Perhaps compare potential results. Insist on a direct distribution clause so at least you have the chance to make the direct sales to the fan base you have worked so hard to build on your own. Or get clear about what your distributor can do for you that you cannot do for yourself, if anything, and what that is worth to you. Then make sure the contract comports accordingly.
Orly Ravid May 2nd, 2013
By Stacey Parks
This is an excerpt of the interview Stacey Parks did with our own Orly Ravid regarding digital distribution. Stacey’s book is now available in paperback and kindle versions at www.FilmSpecific.com/Book.
What To Expect From A Distribution Deal: Interview With Orly Ravid from The Film Collaborative
Q: What’s it like for filmmakers these days in terms of getting traditional theatrical, broadcast, and DVD distribution deals for their films?
A: I think that film like any business, is affected by market forces. There’s more supply than there has ever been. The means of production have become less expensive and more accessible and film has gotten even more and more popular as evidenced by the proliferation of film festivals and film schools and corporate brands who have initiatives relating to film (contests and such). There are thousands of films for sale in markets such as Cannes & AFM each year and that’s not counting the projects in development, also for sale.
So the bottom line is that there’s simply an excess of supply over demand. And the other factor that has changed is the attrition, if not the collapse, of the middle B2B infrastructure that did emerge and sustain with VHS & DVD, but that does not maintain with digital distribution. The reason being is that when there were many DVD stores (and VHS before that) the businesses were in competition and they all needed product and weren’t always sure of what would sell or rent well so they actually stocked up, which gave the distributors a huge upside and that potential upside lead to healthy competition, which lead to a healthier business. These days, many video stores are out of business and the ones that still exist (such as Walmart) buy cheap and then return what does not sell (not that that did not happen before, but to a lesser extent), and so the traditional distributors proceed with greater caution when it comes to acquiring new films for the pipeline.
Then there’s the other issue of piracy which leads to less consumption overall and now over 20,000,000 subscribers wait for a film to be available on Netflix which can be healthy business for smaller films that otherwise could not sell well, BUT it’s not great for films that could or would sell otherwise.
The theatrical business is also hurt by both over-supply and by the ‘Netflixing’ of the U.S market. Digital distribution is there, but again the oversupply makes things competitive and the price points are different so volume is critical, hence the middle man aggregator can do well if it has a breadth of content, but individual producers need to have a film that competes very well in order to be made whole.
And then lastly there’s the Broadcast market. Well, as TV and the Internet become one, TV buying is less of a reliable source of revenue, prices have come down considerably and more rights / revenue streams are impacted when prices are higher such that the net is affected. Of course, bigger films can be exceptions and studios have their deals. But for the independents and smaller films, Broadcast deals are harder to get and worth less when one gets them. And nothing but a change in supply can change any of this because technology is certainly not going backwards.
Q: I know you’ve been a champion of ‘newer’ distribution platforms like Video On Demand (VOD), but what’s in it for the filmmakers?
A: I don’t champion them as much as I address that Cable VOD is responsible for 80% of the revenue in the digital space, which is not the same as all VOD. Films that do well in VOD can make 5 and 6 figures in revenue. By contrast, films that don’t do well make much less and sometimes almost nothing. The truth is VOD is not some magic pill; it’s simply a new delivery mechanism, with some advantages over physical media in terms of accessibility and with some disadvantages in terms of even greater glut and not always great recommendation engines or as easy of time to market (images are smaller, you don’t have as much real estate to market the film). The proliferation of the iPad is expected to increase the transactional rental business (ex: Netflix) and that interface is also seemingly more filmmaker / film consumption friendly. In any case, no one in distribution thinks DVD and physical media is going up; it’s only going down so for home entertainment or entertainment on the go (e.g. mobile), digital is here, we have to make the most of it.
Q: In your opinion, do film festivals still play a key role in helping filmmakers find distribution for their films? Or have you seen cases where skipping the festival route and going straight to distribution is OK too?
A: If your film is festival-worthy or festival-appropriate going that route can never hurt and in fact, often helps. The better the festivals are, the better the film can succeed in terms of sales and also often in terms of audience awareness and interest. Skipping festivals makes sense for non-festival-type films. For example, genre films normally don’t need festivals although sometimes they can be helped by a good festival strategy. I think now more than ever festivals play a key role in helping audiences find films and filmmakers find audiences. AND, since at least 5 years ago I have been championing festivals getting involved more in distribution. I expressed that enthusiastically to the folks at Sundance starting in 2009 and also to other niche festivals too. I truly believe that a more distribution-centric strategy makes sense for both filmmakers and festivals, though only for festivals with a strong brand or niche appeal.
Q: What about foreign distribution? In your experience is this still a major revenue stream for the filmmakers you’re working with?
A: Only for some of our filmmakers – for example, genre filmmakers, niche filmmakers, and some of the more commercial documentaries. For the others, it’s not really a viable option. The money for foreign distribution deals is so small for most films so we end up licensing the films when possible for a good enough deal and otherwise invoke a direct digital distribution and DIY strategy.
Q: What are some things filmmakers need to look out for when making any distribution deal? In other words, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see filmmakers making in regards to negotiating distribution deals?
A: I covered this a bit in my recent blog post and I do encourage filmmakers to read the blog when the topic relates to them because it covers a lot. Some of the key mistakes in short are:
1. Not getting references and checking on those in order to evaluate the verity of the distributor’s claims.
2. Not knowing enough and analyzing enough the degree of middlemen between the distributor and each key revenue stream.
3. Not having enough protection for material breach.
4. Not defining and also capping recoupable costs properly.
5. Giving up too many rights for too little reason.
6. Having blind faith and being too passive in one’s own responsibility to know the film’s audience and how to reach it.
7. Not having good photography or images to help market the film.
8. On the pro distributor side, sometimes filmmakers think they know better and can do a better trailer for example. They may be right but they can be wrong too and be too close to the film to know how to “sell it”.
Stacey Parks is a Producer and film distribution expert with over 15 years experience working with independent filmmakers. As a Foreign Sales Agent for several years, she secured distribution for hundreds of independent worldwide. Stacey currently specializes in coaching independent filmmakers on financing and distribution strategies for their projects, and works with them both one-on-one and through her online training site www.FilmSpecific.com The 2nd edition of her best selling film book “Insiders Guide To Independent Film Distribution” (Focal) is now available at www.FilmSpecific.com/Book.
Orly Ravid May 1st, 2012
Tags: analyze middlemen, book, cap marketing expenses, check references, DVD distribution, Film Festivals, foreign sales, Insider's Guide to Independent Film Distribution, Netflix, Orly Ravid, Stacey Parks, The Film Collaborative, theatrical distribution, VOD distribution