I was speaking with a producer friend of mine this week, and she told me a disturbing (if familiar) story, with a surprisingly inspiring conclusion.
She recently exec produced one of 2014’s “bigger” independent films…which is set for theatrical release soon. They did just about everything right. The film is written and directed by a well known, highly respected auteur on the indie scene, with a long career. It stars two very well-known character actors, who are just about household names if not quite “movie stars.” The budget was modest. It premiered at one of the pinnacle A-level film festivals. There it was bought by one of the biggest mini-majors in the business, and has since sold 18 territories worldwide. Even before theatrical release, the investors have all made a significant percentage of their money back…albeit not all of it (and certainly no profit).
She was lunching with one of the films other producers recently and she asked him… “If the film grosses 1 million dollars theatrically, do you think we’ll see any more money?” He said, “probably not.” So she said, “Ok what if it grosses 3 million?” And he said “probably not.” “10 million?” “Probably not.”
She said that’s when it dawned on her…. producing and selling an independent film the traditional way (i.e. selling all rights out of a festival premiere) is simply not a business. (BOOM…head exploding). In any other business, making back a percentage of your investment is not a success story. In indie film, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s the way it goes” and move on to the next one.
The lack of a sound business model in independent film is what we at TFC have been trying to address all along. The “old way” of producing and selling indie films is actually a shell game at best, a way of moving money from one spot to the next that is equal part a gambling game and equal part a con-job. Sure, there are a few unmitigated success stories every year…just enough to create a delusional atmosphere that casts a spell over thousands of filmmakers who think they can just make their movie and walk away as it magically finds its way into the world and fills their pockets with cash.
Anyway, it just so happens that my producer friend is currently working on a new film, and with the production schedule being the way it is, she knows for sure it won’t be done for at least another year. And after that, of course the inevitable wait for the right Festival premiere, which can take several additional months. As such, she figures that this time she has plenty of time to re-imagine the traditional model, and approach the film as an actual business. My producer friend comes from an entrepreneurial background, where she created and sold tech companies.
This time, this film, she vows, she is going to approach the distribution and marketing of the film the way she did with her tech companies in the past, and build it like an actual business. Not wait around for some other company to come in later and supposedly do it for her.
My producer friend and I plan to sit down in the next few months and have detailed conversations about what that actually looks like, but for now, I am going to use this post to outline some of the basics….and (hopefully) create the beginnings of a road map that others can follow.
NOTE: I am aware that I have been vague with the particulars of the first film mentioned in this post…which may annoy some readers. This was intentional of course, A) I don’t have permission to reveal the details, and B) the basic principals and outcomes are transferable to most every film that has received distribution offers out of a major festival in recent years.
In any case, here we go…some of my basic guidelines to approaching an independent film like the building of any other business.
1) Break down and list every source of potential revenue for the film – and plan how to capitalize on them all. This may seem self-evident, but I’ll wager this is the most overlooked of all independent distribution strategies. That’s because most filmmakers want to sell their film outright, and count on the distribution company to do all the right things. But most distribution companies only do a few things well (if any), and they will inevitably leave numerous stones unturned.
Start with a comprehensive list of every way you can see your film making money, i.e festival screening fees, domestic sales, international sales, theatrical-on-demand (i.e. GATHr or TUGG), community screenings, traditional theatrical, DVD sales at live events, other merchandising, digital downloads etc. Then figure out how many of these you can do yourself, and where you’ll need help from others.
2) Know from the beginning who your audience is – and have a strategy for how to reach them. I know, I know, this is dismaying to most filmmakers. Most filmmakers see themselves as artists first, motivated by self-expression, and actually hope that their film is for everyone, not just a select target group. But remember, just by making an independent film, you are de facto not making a film for everyone (unless you have movie stars)…since the vast majority of the global population doesn’t consume independent film on any kind of regular basis.
In independent film, niche is king AND queen, and you need to think of your target audience as your core customer base. Approach them like any business would…who am I selling to and how do I reach them? And if your core customers love your product, then they’ll tell others about it too. Think long and hard and soul search on this question…if you don’t know who your film is for, you run the risk that it will be for no-one at all.
3) Smart marketing is everything. Hollywood studios find their audiences by essentially buying them, spending vulgar multi-millions on TV ads, billboards, publicity firms to access late night TV talk shows etc….basically putting their product in front of everyone who doesn’t live in a cave. But chances are you can’t do that.
Smart marketing actually stems from question 2…who is your core audience and how do you reach them? And here’s where the important question comes…where do those people congregate such that you can actually speak to them? If you determine that your audience is “women between the age of 30 and 40,” that isn’t particularly useful because that’s too disparate to reach. Not ALL of them congregate in the same place. But if you determine there is a certain set of bloggers and websites that your audience reads and by obtaining coverage or placing ads, you can reach them there, well that’s something you can wrap your head around.
I usually advise that filmmakers start well in advance and build a big excel grid of every organization, every website, every blogger, every tastemaker, every everything they can think of and methodically reach out to them with news about their film. You usually can’t do this until you’ve actually starting shooting..so you can at least share images and teasers etc…but please don’t wait until you are finished with the film. This process takes too long… often by then it is too late.
I shouldn’t have to mention that this is of course where social media comes in as well. You want your social media strategy to start on Day One of shooting if possible. And, as always, you’ll want your social media strategy to be as interactive and engaging as possible…not just a platform for naked self-promotion.
4) Have a rigorous and vigorous approach to crowdfunding. Independent filmmaking can seem downright depressing at times…but it’s times like this we should thank our lucky stars for the relatively recent phenomenon of crowdfunding. What a miracle it is….and the best part of all….you don’t have to give the money back. Plus you are building up an audience that is motivated to see your film succeed.
These days it seems reasonable…for the right project…to launch crowdfunding campaigns in pre-production, for finishing funds, and to jumpstart your distribution, as long as you have a compelling message to impart to the world. And a great video of course… it all comes down to the video (and to a lesser extent the perks). Remember, however, that a crowdfunding campaign is hard work…its like a whole other job, which can certainly seem daunting during production. But if you don’t work hard at it…it won’t work. The good news is, if you DO work hard at it, the success rate is amazing!
5) Explore the granting world. Like crowfunding money, grant money is money you won’t have to pay back (meaning the best kind). Grant money is usually a better fit for documentaries of course, but we’ve also worked on plenty of narrative features with a theme or message that attracted grantees. Also, don’t forget that there are also (some) grants for outreach/distribution, for films with an important social message. To pursue grants, you’ll probably also need a fiscal sponsoring organization to back you, which can be The Film Collaborative or a number of other independent film non-profits. To read more about TFC’s fiscal sponsorship progam, go HERE.
6) Pre-sell as little as possible. This is a quandary for many filmmakers. You need the money to finish the film, but then when it’s finished, those rights are tied up and you can’t exploit them in a way that you’d like to. And, again, unless you have bona fide movie stars, your film will be infinitely less valuable before you finish it than when it is premiering at a major festival like Sundance etc. Time and time again I hear filmmakers say, “I pre-sold my film to x territory (usually broadcast) because I needed the money, now I wish I could just give them the money back.”
7) Parcel off your rights in as many pieces as possible. This is something that TFC’s founder Orly Ravid has specialized in….i.e. engaging as many different companies as possible to handle as many different rights categories as possible. This goes back to what I said earlier, different companies are better at different things. This “parceling” is particularly important because many all-rights holders are using many middle-men companies to get to various platforms etc. You want to be as DIRECT AS POSSIBLE with your various points of sale, cutting out as many middle-men as possible.
8) Explore Transmedia. This is admittedly difficult for the vast majority of independent, character-driven narrative features…although there are some notable exceptions. But for genre/sci-fi features this is an area rich with possibility, through games, contests, spin-off stories etc. And most often overlooked is the potential for documentaries to explore transmedia, especially since most documentaries have countless hours of footage they aren’t using in the finished film itself. And for issue-oriented docs, there is usually a wealth of other sources, both scholarly and journalistic, that can be folded into your website. For documentaries, your website should be an equal “entry-point” into the issues raised by the documentary, and should ultimately lead to more viewers/consumers of the film. That is the very essence of transmedia…multiple entry points into the larger experience.
9) Have a well-thought out strategy for digital distribution. My aforementioned producer friend was in the tech business, so her focus is on possibly creating her own portal where her target audience can download the film directly, thereby cutting out all middle-men entirely.
Nonetheless, in today’s world you have to expect (hope) that the most viewers for your film will be paying customers in the digital realm. And thankfully, just getting your film onto a few big digital platforms these days isn’t particularly difficult (to read more about the digital distribution offered by The Film Collaborative, go HERE. But here is where #2 (target audience) and #3 (smart marketing) come in most importantly….if you just throw your film onto iTunes, how is anyone going to know it’s there?
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of great companies you can hire that work for very little money to assist you with the marketing part. So this may be yet another job you and your team might have to do for yourselves.
10) Keep the budget as low as possible. This may seem like the most obvious point of all, and yet it is incredibly subjective. I can’t tell you how many times I cringe when hear filmmakers say “we kept our costs down…it only cost 1 million dollars!” Well, a million dollars isn’t what it used to be….and I mean that in the reverse way it is traditionally meant. With the plethora of cheap digital cameras and desktop editing leading to an explosion in independent film, supply WAY outstrips demand… and a million dollars is quite an expensive indie movie these days. Most importantly, at a million dollars chances are there is probably no amount of DIY distribution techniques that will recoup your investment, and you’ll be back in the initial quandary, meaning you will NEED a significant traditional sale from a distributor to have any chance of making most of your money back.
So, when I say keep your budget low…to be honest I am talking more like $100,000. And I know that’s not always possible. So if you can’t do it for something in the low six-figures, you’re back to that place where you need to start thinking about movie stars.
11) Put a minimum of 10 – 15% of your budget aside for marketing and distribution costs. This is a VERY small percentage of your budget that really will only enable you to start building a core audience, but a core audience can grow wider if word of mouth is active.
Again, I know this is easier said than done. Even if you line-item that with the best intentions, many filmmakers will pilfer along the way for a few extra days of shooting, etc. But chances are you’ll find yourself with a finished film with no more money to get it out into the world….no money for festival trips, no money for smart marketing, no money to hire a publicist, etc. Recognizing that even the initial stages of marketing and distribution require capital, we at TFC implore you not to fall into the trap of being cash-strapped right at the time you need it most.
Most of all of what I have outlined above fall under the producer’s responsibilities, and are sometimes referred to the work of what might be called the PMD or “Producer of Marketing and Distribution.,” and are crucial to development of a producer business model for indie film.
Interestingly, sometimes I think there is a clearer business model for directors of independent film. Directors have a clearer path to a business model that makes sense…direct an indie gem, premiere it at Sundance to great acclaim, and then get hired by Hollywood to direct commercial TV and film (think Christopher Nolan, who seemingly went directly from Memento to Batman). But producers seem to start at step 1 with every script.
It is my hope that by following the guidelines listed in this post, at least some of the groundwork to planning a profitable business model for an independent film can be laid out in advance.
Jeffrey Winter August 19th, 2014
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In this final post of our series about distribution preparation for independent films, we wanted to stress the fact that a balance between artistic expression and financial responsibility must be achieved. A lot of independent filmmaking comes from a passion to tell stories and emotional fulfillment. No one person’s work is any more or less valid than any other. But it is necessary to acknowledge that no one is automatically entitled to an audience or to make a living from their artistic work. The work and the business acumen must be strong. Strive to achieve both or surround yourselves with people who supply whichever strength you personally lack.
The distribution marketplace is so fluid and challenging, even the best planning can result in a loss. It’s natural to have high expectations at the outset of development and many of these find their way into lofty business plans that show returns on films based only on box office statistics. Did you know that reported box office numbers are often inflated? Are you aware that the rights holder (either the distributor or the self financed producer) only receives 35%-45% of those returns from the exhibitor? And if there is a sales agent involved, that entity then receives 15% or more of the revenue after all of the expenses and fees come out from the distributor…for the life of the agreement? Always learn about fees and costs of intermediaries such as sales agents, aggregators and distributors because their fees and costs reduce the amount of revenue that flows back to the original investors. Many filmmakers and investors do not understand the complexity of these deductions and wonder why money doesn’t flow back into their pockets just a few months after initial release. If you are fortunate enough to receive a strong advance upon signing your distribution agreement, at least you will see immediate revenue. It may be a long time before you see more.
A recent article on the Media Redefined blog written by Liam Boluk and Prashob Menon cited these very sobering statistics: “71% of [independent] films generate between $5,000 and $1,000,000 in box office revenue; 50% will fail to cross $250,000.” Again, these numbers are NOT what the original investors received. One would hope the theatrical release helped to land bigger deals in the home video and broadcast space, but normally statistics on ancillary deals are not available publicly. Obviously, this makes the accuracy of business plan financials difficult to determine in advance.
A very revealing recent interview with indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg in Filmmaker Magazine showed how precarious the life of an independent creator can be…and Swanberg is largely considered a success! Some of the figures he quotes for digital license revenue will surprise you.
He has spoken to many a filmmaker whose film was released and appeared to make money, but the production never received a dime from distribution. He also talked about the need for having business and artistic sense and checking with distributors before going headlong into production on a passion project
…before you make the movie, say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this. Is this something that you guys have a place for in your slate of movies?’ If the answer is no, maybe that’s not the best thing to spend a lot of money on making next.
Probably the biggest takeaways from that article were about the importance of long term relationships in the industry and Swanberg’s comment about the artistic freedom that comes from knowing the business side of your work.
I think that there is a notion that for artists to think about business is to corrupt the art process. As soon as you start considering market factors and numbers and all of that stuff, you’re not being a true artist, you’re not following your true vision. To some extent, maybe that’s true, but I think that by knowing the marketplace before I go into a movie, once I’m there, I’m completely free to do whatever I want because [there’s not that] giant question mark of whether there’s an audience for that thing.
We hope this series will help prepare you (and your investors) for what lies ahead when your film comes to market. It is advisable to map out your goals, both short term and long term, before heading into production and make sure everyone is in agreement. Opportunities may change or new ones present themselves over the course of production, but if everyone remains positive and committed to what is being created, filmmaking can be a great experience for all involved.
Sheri Candler July 31st, 2014
Posted In: Distribution
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In the past 3 posts, we have covered knowing the market BEFORE making your film, how to incorporate the festival circuit into your marketing and distribution efforts and understanding terms, the foreign market and release patterns. In this post, we will discuss the items that will be required by sales agents, distributors (primarily digital distributors) and even digital platforms (if you are thinking of selling directly to your audience with less middlemen) before a deal can be signed and the film can be distributed.
Know your deliverables
Distribution is an expensive and complicated process and all distribution contracts contain a list of required delivery items (often attached at the end of the document as an exhibit) in order to complete the agreement. Without the proper items, sales agents and distributors will not be interested in making a deal. Your film must have all proper paperwork, music licenses, and technical specifications in order and these delivery items will incur additional costs to your production. Make sure to include a separate budget for deliverables within the cost of your production.
US sales agents and distributors will require insurance covering errors and omissions (E&O) at minimum levels of $1,000,000 per occurrence, $3,000,000 in the aggregate with a deductible of $10,000, in force for three years. E&O insurance protects the producer and distributor (usually for the distributor’s catalog of films) against the impact of lawsuits arising from accusations of libel, slander, invasion of privacy, infringement of copyright etc and can cost the producer in the range of $3,000 to $5,000. E&O insurance is required BEFORE any deal is signed, not after, and can take 3-5 days to obtain if all rights and releases, a title report and music clearances can be supplied.
Digital aggregators in general do not require E&O insurance unless it is for cable VOD and Netflix (these do). However, they do require closed captioning (around $900), subtitling (if you intend to distribute in non English speaking territories, usually costs around $3 per minute) and a ratings certificate (if distributing in some foreign territories, prices vary according to run time and ratings board).
The production will need to supply a Quality Control (QC) report, preferably from a reputable encoding house. If you film fails QC for iTunes and other digital platforms, it can be costly to fix the problems with the file and it will lead to a delay of the film’s release. MANY problems can be found in the QC process so whatever you think you are saving by encoding yourself or via a less reputable company, you will more than make up for in having to redo it. The most common problems arise from duplicate frames or merged frames as a result of changing frame rates; audio dropouts or other audio problems; sync problems from closed caption or subtitling files.
Distributors will accept a master in Apple ProRes HQ 422 file on an external hard drive or HD Cam. By far, the digital drive is preferable to tape and unless your distributor specifically requests HD Cam, do not go to the expense of creating this. The master should NOT have pre roll advertising, website URLs, bars/tones/countdowns, ratings information, or release date information. For digital files, content must begin and end with at least one frame of black.
Other delivery items required by sales agents/distributors include: trailer (preferably 2 minutes) in the same aspect ratio as the film with no nudity or profanity; chapter points using the same time code as the master file; key art files as a layered PSD or EPS with minimum 2400 pixels wide at 300 dpi; at least 3-5 still images in high resolution (traditional distributors often require as many as 50 still images) and already approved by talent; DVD screeners; press kit which includes a synopsis, production notes, biographies for key players, director, producer, screenwriter, and credit list of both cast and crew; pdf of the original copyright document for the screenplay and the motion picture; IRS W-9 form or tax forms from governments of the licensor; music cue sheet and music licenses.
There are technical specifications that need to be met as far as the video and audio files. Most post production supervisors are aware of these. It is also not unheard of to be asked to supply 35 mm prints for foreign distribution if a theatrical release is desired or contractually obligated.
Sometimes if your film is considered a hot property, a distributor might be willing to create the delivery items at their expense in exchange for full recoupment and/or a greater cut of the revenues. But do not count on this. We have heard from many filmmakers who didn’t clear music rights for their films, assuming a distributor would take on this expense, and were sorely disappointed to find none would do that. If you can’t supply the delivery list, no agreement will be signed.
Sheri Candler July 23rd, 2014
Tags: deliverables, Digital Distribution, digital film distribution, distribution contracts, film distribution, film distributors, independent film, Orly Ravid, preparing for film distribution, Sheri Candler
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.
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.
Sheri Candler July 9th, 2014
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
This month’s series will cover the practicalities behind successfully marketing and distributing a film with limited resources. In this series, we will cover knowing the current distribution situation before developing a new project, the rewards and perils of the festival circuit, become familiar with the different players in film distribution and how to work with them effectively and wrap up with deliverables that will expected once you sign a deal.
Part 1-Understand the market
Independent film means risk.
A report published this year by Cultural Weekly cited fewer than 2% of the fully-finished, feature-length films submitted to the Sundance Film Festival (arguably the biggest festival for the best of independent film) will get any kind of distribution whatsoever. Of the more than $3 billion invested annually, less than 2% will ever be recouped. This is a reality of independent filmmaking and anyone who engages in it must understand the financial risk of doing so. It is best to evaluate your goals in making a film before starting out. It’s okay to have goals other than recouping a production budget. This is especially true of first or second films from those involved. In our opinion, films can be and should be about art, cultural connection, gaining experience and giving voice to the unheard. All are valid goals right up there with money. Patrons throughout the ages have supported the arts for many emotional reasons beyond making profit.
But if the ultimate goal is to fully recoup and be profitable, a realistic plan from the start describing how that is going to happen, and what it will realistically take to make that happen, needs to be in place before anyone sets foot on a set. The distribution marketplace is so fluid and challenging, even the best planning can result in a loss. Be prepared for the risk, with no complaining or blaming.
It’s natural for filmmakers and film investors to have high expectations for the release of their films, including a theatrical release, TV sales, international sales, a Netflix fee, a cable VOD/digital release and maybe DVD for shops that still carry them. At the same time, it’s important to understand how a release like this might be achieved and how many intermediaries are inserted into the money chain before the production will see any revenue to pay back financing. There are legitimate benefits in partnering with strong companies who have the relationships and expertise to achieve a release that the production envisions, but agreements with them may not be forthcoming if the film isn’t perceived to have breakout or mass audience potential. Or you may fall prey to the distributor who annually needs new product to fill the catalog and isn’t willing to give much market support to your film. Distribution companies profit on volume, but your film does not share in their volume profits.
Before starting a new project that has aspirations for a big market release, it is the responsibility of the producer/filmmaker to survey the market. Talk to sales agents who have recently returned from the major film markets (Berlin, Cannes, AFM etc) and find out what they are seeing as far as emerging demand or trends that have finished. Check sites like The Film Catalogue to see what is already in the market or will be soon. You can check by budget level, by genre, by release year or production stage and even dig deeper by seeing who is handling these films and what cast is attached. While this won’t be a comprehensive list because not every film being made has a sales agent attached, it will give a better idea of the competitive landscape for the kind of film you are seeking to make.
Keep up your knowledge of the industry by reading both the trade press and various organizational blogs. There is a lot of free and valuable information online from those working in the industry and from other filmmakers on sites including IndieWire, Filmmaker Magazine and MovieMaker Magazine, as well as blogs from Sundance, IFP, Film Independent and our own blog. You just have to subscribe to them, read religiously and analyze how that information benefits what you are trying to do. Alternatively, you can save yourself time by working with a distribution consultant knowledgeable about current distribution options and revenues. Caution: Always learn about ownership stakes and fees of intermediaries such as sales agents, aggregators and distributors because their fees and associated marketing costs reduce the amount of revenue that flows back to your production.
It is a good idea to confer with other filmmakers. It is our experience that the filmmaking community can be very giving when asked about how they accomplished something, and not just about production, but all aspects of getting their films to market. This is a useful way to learn from others’ experiences (and mistakes). Sharing stories helps you understand the reputations of companies you may be dealing with and especially key contact names within those companies. Many experienced filmmakers are mentors and are willing to make introductions if they can see a fit between your talent and a decision maker who can help.
Not only should you connect with the community online, but make it a point to attend offline events in person where you will pick up timely information, and form ongoing relationships that could help you later in your career. Labs, conferences, festivals and workshops are all regularly offered not just in Los Angeles, New York City, Toronto or London, but in many communities across the world. If you are serious about filmmaking as an occupation, you need to invest financially in your education and network building.
In the next post, we will talk about what can be gained from the festival circuit, how long to stay on the circuit with your film and why staying on it too long can be detrimental.
Orly Ravid July 2nd, 2014
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.”
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 Cohen, Travis Wilkerson. I was also very inspired by Guy Madden’s Brand upon the Brain. It 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
Tags: ArKtype, Brand on the Brain, Brent Green, documentary, event cinema, film distribution, Guy Madden, independent film, Isabella Rossellini, Jean Painleve, Jem Cohen, Kickstarter, live documentary, National Endowment for the Arts, New York Times, R. Buckminster Fuller, Sam Green, Sundance Film Festival, The Measure of All Things, The Universal Language, The Weather Underground, theatrical distribution, Tommy Kriegsmann, Travis Wilkerson, Utopia in Four Movements, yMusic, Yo La Tengo
Sundance has come and gone and already Berlinale is a week away and SXSW announced the bulk of their slate today! We’ve now had a few days to reflect on the chaos that is arguably America’s most important film festival for indie film and here’s what we think.
Last year’s fest included a number of smaller foreign doc deals early on which is sorely lacking from this year. Only three docs have sold so far though all were decent sized deals and for films in the US Doc section. Interestingly, none of them won awards, but a number of other docs had TV deals arranged before the festival.
6 of the 16 US Dramatic films and 2 of the NEXT films sold. Sony/SPC, A24, Lionsgate/Roadside, Radius-TWC, Fox Searchlight, IFC, Magnolia all snapped up multiple films. However, previous players absent thus far are Anchor Bay, The Weinstein Company, CBS Films, Relativity Media, Sundance Selects, and Magnet. New distribution companies like Amplify did not make a single Sundance Deal nor did formally expanded ones such as Gravitas Ventures. This is probably the most alarming thing as every year a new distributor typically makes a big push for a film right out of the festival.
Before I get to the list of sales deals, I would like to talk about what I saw as a HUGE mistake! Consistently while attending documentary screenings at the festival, the filmmakers would say during the Q&A that they already had a team in place to arrange for special screenings or planning a self financed distribution scenario. NOT ONCE did this come up with the narrative filmmakers! One of the things TFC does is handle festival distribution for films, and most especially our service is applicable for films that premiered at a world class festival like Sundance. It is incredibly foolish not to capitalize on the publicity received at a world class festival by not planning for at least further festival screening revenue that will come right away. Should your film be in the lucky position of receiving a seven figure deal upfront, you might be able to afford to pull it from the festival circuit and forego further revenue, but with very FEW receiving those offers, why not plan for scooping up that immediate revenue potential?
I am not saying you have to go with TFC for festival distribution (though even traditional distributors turn to us to handle their films on the festival circuit and they take their cut of the screening fees), but I am saying you should have some sort of team in place to take advantage of those opportunities right away. By the time SXSW is finished in March, your film could already have booked $5k in festival screening fees on the circuit. Blood Brother had a dozen festivals under its belt by that point last year and many of the films at this year’s festival could do the same. Why aren’t they?
Now…on to the deals.
Dead Snow Red vs. Dead: Well Go USA picked up US rights. The film will be released in an all English version.
Love is Strange: Sony Picture Classics (SPC) snagged Ira Sach’s follow up to Keep the Lights On
The One I Love: Radius-TWC paid about $2 Mil
Fed Up: Radius-TWC paid under $2 Mil for worldwide rights. This is bigger than what any documentary sold for at last year’s Sundance.
The Babadook; IFC Midnight
Cold in July: IFC took North American rights for $2 Mil
God’s Pocket: IFC has US rights
Calvary: Fox Searchlight signed on for the US and a few other territories for $2.5 mil
Obvious Child: A24 signed for low 7 figures for North America
I Origins: Fox Searchlight took worldwide rights for $3mil to Mike Cahill’s follow up for the splendid and under appreciated Another Earth
The Skeleton Twins: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions/SPW joined together for $3.5 mil
Land Ho!: SPC took worldwide rights to the film that should travel well in European territories.
Frank: Magnolia saw through the fake head and bought it for North America for low 7 figures
Life After Beth: A24/DirectTV joined up for $3.5 Mil for US rights
Cooties: Lionsgate will spread the infection throughout North America.
Whiplash: SPC felt the beat for just under $3 Mil and Sony Worldwide has most international territories
Wish I was Here: the newly rebooted Focus Features took for $2.75 Mil (Film was partially financed on Kickstarter)
Laggies: A24 acquired domestic rights for roughly $2 Mil
Cesar’s Last Fast: Participant Media/Univision sold TV rights for Mid 6 figures
Dinosaur 13: Lionsgate/CNN went in for about $1 Mil
Happy Christmas: Magnolia/Paramount couldn’t say no to Swanberg. Magnolia also distributed his film Drinking Buddies.
Mitt: Netflix will release it in a week
The Raid 2: SPC
Love Child: HBO
Private Violence: HBO
The Case Against 8: HBO
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart: HBO
Ivory Tower: CNN Films
Life Itself: CNN Films
Remembering the Artist: HBO
The Trip to Italy: IFC
The Signal: Focus
Love is Strange: Pretty Pictures made a six figure deal for French distribution
The Green Prince: Curzon and Madman Entertainment brokered for UK, Australia, and New Zealand
Bryan Glick January 30th, 2014
The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival has come and gone. The Oscar race has started and films from the festival are opening theatrically this week (Prisoners, Enough Said). From the press circuit, you might think that only films starring Oscar nominees or made by Vegas magicians were in the festival, but those films represent only a small sampling of the diverse array of cinema from the festival.
Over the course of my 9 days, I saw 47 films from 19 different countries on 6 continents. While some of these films such as Metalhead have yet to secure a US distributor, they have been able to close a number of other territories and directors and talent have signed with major agencies.
If your film is star driven and could warrant a wide release, the fest can serve as a great launch pad. The fact remains though that the fest will never be in competition with Sundance where more challenging fare is able to be discovered. In fact, fewer than five films from the discovery, contemporary world cinema, and wavelength sections were acquired for US distribution over the course of the festival. Proportionately the festival also offers very little room for documentaries. Of the 288 features in the festival, fewer than 15% are documentaries.
To be fair, several films were able to close deals for multiple territories, but were not able to get a US distributor as of the time of this writing, and of course many films will secure distribution in the coming month. I did not get the sense of urgency at this year’s festival though there were a few all night negotiations and about a dozen films that sold for seven figures. That sounds like a lot until you realize Sundance had more films passing that benchmark despite having about ½ as many films available.
If I was a filmmaker I would personally be very wary of premiering my film at TIFF without stars.
The big players at the festival were The Weinstein Company and Roadside Attractions. TWC made the flashier deals nabbing Tracks out of Venice/Telluride for an undisclosed sum, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her for just over $3,000,000, The Railway Man for $2,000,000 and the behemoth deal for Can a Song save Your Life. That film sold for $7,000,000 with a $20,000,000 P&A commitment. On paper this may seem absurd, but the movie is a musical with original songs and, considering the director’s prior feature won an Oscar for best original song, there is certainly an added revenue stream for the film. If you see the film though, it is also clear that TWC has to be careful in how they price the music, charging more than a specific dollar amount goes directly against the message of the film.
All four of these films will not be released until 2014. TWC already had Philomena, August Osage County, One Chance, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in the festival, plus their Radius label had The Art of the Steal, Man of Tai Chi, Blue Ruin, and The Unknown Known. Unlike last year, Radius did not strike for any films at the festival.
Roadside Attractions came to the festival with Blood Ties and Gloria (Both North American premieres) and left with Life of Crime for $2,000,000, Joe for north of $2,000,000, Words and Pictures, and Therese. The first two are in partnership with Lionsgate. The total of four films is one shy of the five films they nabbed last year, but still makes them one of the two most active distributors at the festival.
A24 was another company that made a big splash acquiring for over $1,000,000 each Enemy, Under the Skin, and Locke. Locke screened in Venice and a TIFF market screening, but was not in the festival. The company that has had continued success connecting to the millennial generation seems to be guiding themselves toward genre fare.
Open Road is tackling The Green Inferno for wide release, but with no MG. They are partnering with XLRator on All is By My Side. Relativity Media meanwhile decided to partner with Blumhouse Productions to acquire Oculus from the Midnight Madness section and is planning a wide release. The film was originally attached to Film District, but they parted ways just prior to the start of the festival
On the TV side, Showtime snagged Made in America and HBO went for Dangerous Acts before they world premiered at the festival.
IFC just acquired Hateship Loveship and IFC Midnight (The genre arm of IFC) went for Proxy and The Station. Their sister division Sundance Selects added Bastards and Finding Vivian Maier prior to the festival. IFC/Sundance Selects had another 5 films that screened at the fest including the world premiere of The Face of Love.
Well Go USA was able to get Rigor Mortis pre-fest and McCanick during the fest. McCanick is one of the final films starring the late Cory Monteith. Drafthouse Films continued their pursuit of genre films with Why Don’t You Play in Hell?.
A small number of foreign language films were able to secure distribution in the States. Cohen Media Group grabbed the documentary The Last of the Unjust, Artsploitation said, yes sir to The Major, Film Movement went for Le Demantlement, Viva Pictures decided to play with Antboy, and Tribeca scored Bright Days Ahead
Other deals include EOne acquiring Watermark, FilmBuff scoring the one digital deal of the festval with TFC Alum, Jody Shapiro’s doc Burt’s Buzz. Everyday Pictures will handle the theatrical. And of course Disney continued their relationship with the now retired Anime icon for The Wind Rises
Companies that were noticeably absent in the acquisitions department at the festival include Fox Searchlight, Oscilloscope, and Anchor Bay.
40 films secured US distribution between the festival slate being announced and the time of this writing. This is great, but pales in comparison to Sundance numbers, and is noticeably ahead of Tribeca’s. The Midnight Madness and Gala sections are the only ones in which over ½ the films have US distributors attached. The Special Presentation and TIFF DOCS sections are also well represented.
Now I want to address the issue of manners and etiquette. While talking on your phone or doing screen grabs during a screening is rude, it does not warrant calling the cops.
There were some very troubling scenes to me at this year’s festival. At no point is it acceptable to yell and curse at volunteers. They are merely doing what they are told and are graciously helping all of us partake in our fabulous festival excursion. If you have to say, “Do You Know Who I Am?” not only do we not know who you are, but you aren’t important enough that it matters. Also, though most of us were taught how to line up and wait patiently in kindergarten, it is common courtesy to do this when people have waited an hour in line for a screening. Do not shove your way through the corn maze line to go near the front.
And if someone from your company is lucky enough to attend the fest freelance, do not turn them into your workslave. If you wanted to send them to the festival, you could have paid for them to be there.
Remember, we have the best jobs in the world and a little decency goes a long way.
|Enemy||A24||low seven figures||US|
|Under the Skin||A24||$1 Mll +||US|
|The F Word||CBS Films||$2.5 Mil||US|
|The Last of the Unjust||Cohen Media Group||North America|
|The Wind Rises||Disney||North America|
|Why Don’t You Play in Hell||Drafthouse Films||US|
|Le Demantlement||Film Movement||US/World Airlines|
|Burt’s Buzz||FilmBuff/Everyday Pictures||US|
|Bad Words||Focus Features||$7 Million||Worldwide|
|Dangerous Acts||HBO||US TV|
|Proxy||IFC Midnight||North America|
|The Station||IFC Midnight||US|
|The Right Kind of Wrong||Magnolia||US|
|The Sacrement||Magnolia Pictures||US|
|Fading Gigolo||Millennium Entertainment||Btwn-$2-3 Mil||US|
|The Green Inferno||Open Road Films||No MG||North America|
|All Is By My Side||Open Road Films/XLRator||US|
|Words and Pictures||Roadside Attractions||US|
|Joe||Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate||$2 Mil +||US|
|Life of Crime||Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate||$2 Mil||US|
|Made in America||Showtime||US TV|
|The Armstrong Lie||SPC||Worldwide|
|Finding Vivian Maeir||Sundance Selects||North America|
|Eleanor Rigby Him and Her||The Weinstein Company||About $3 Mil||US/UK/FR/CA|
|The Railway Man||The Weinstein Company||$2 Mil||US|
|Can a Song Save Your Life||The Weinstein Company||$7 Million||US|
|Tracks||The Weinstein Company||US|
|Bright Days Ahead||Tribeca Films||US|
|McCanick||Well Go USA||US|
|Rigor Mortis||Well Go USA||US|
Bryan Glick September 19th, 2013
Posted In: Film Festivals
Tags: A24, Artsploitation, Bryan Glick, CBS Films, Cohen Media Group, Drafthouse Films, EOne, Film Buff, film distribution, Film Movement, film sales, Focus Features, IFC, independent film, Magnolia, Open Road, Relativity Media, Roadside Attractions, TIFF, Toronto International Film Festival, Tribeca Film, Viva Pictures, Weinstein Company, Well Go
Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) starts this week and I will be there for almost the entire festival where I anticipate seeing 45-50 films before I depart. TIFF is not a film festival; it is a giant marathon that is almost beyond comprehension. If you believe that more is better, then this is the place to be. Think of TIFF as an 11 course film meal anchored by spam on steroids!
Last year’s festival had 289 features (More than Sundance and SXSW combined!). Of these films, just over ½ (146) were world premieres. Less than 60% of total films at the festival, as well as fewer than 60% of world premieres, have managed to secure US distribution as of this writing. It’s important to note that the films at the fest came from 72 different countries and certain locales (USA, Israel) fared much better than others (All of Africa). Given that this is a major international festival, several films were able to secure international territories even if US distribution proved elusive.
Part of what makes the festival so large is the presence of studio films that take up a lot of the press, along with several North American Premieres from Cannes (36), Venice (16), and Locarno (9). Combined these films make up over 20% of the festival. 41 films or a little over 14% from the 2012 festival grossed over $1,000,000 theatrically in the States. While the number of films in total is quite impressive, the percentage puts it right in line with last year’s Sundance crop. Of these films, ½ a dozen were studio releases and really don’t belong in the total. Another ½ dozen premiered at Cannes, Berlin, or Sundance.
The world premieres fared slightly better with 16% surpassing the same benchmark. But if the studio films were removed from the equation, they drop to 13%, and of those, slightly more than half came to the fest with distribution attached.
So, why all the boring and headache inducing number? I think that with its start of the Oscar campaign season and studio gems, the festival often gets a distorted reputation. While it’s a great place to be if you’re a star driven vehicle, the reality is that there is an entire Sundance film festival worth of films that have yet to get distribution in the States!
The festival has a much larger international presence and many of these films have since been released in upwards of two dozen countries, even with the largest film market never coming into play. While the vast majority of these films are foreign and many are from countries that don’t have sizable diaspora populations in the States, several English language films still are struggling to find a way to release. “Detroit Unleaded” is the perfect example. It’s one of the few American films to be left behind, even though it won an award at the festival. Of course with over 4,000 submissions, the odds are still stacked against you getting into the people’s festival.
I want to talk about the two real problems of TIFF. One is easily fixable and the other is not.
First, nobody at TIFF is thinking outside the box when it comes to distribution. Almost all of the films were traditional acquisitions (“Much Ado About Nothing”) or self-funded DIY vanity projects (Snoop Dogg’s “Reincarnated”). Percentage wise, more films from Tribeca and SXSW will see the light of the day because they had a plan B or C. They were open to DIY or non-theatrical distribution. For everyone who is going to TIFF, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE don’t wait for that giant offer to come, because unless your film stars Ryan Gosling or has been deemed Oscar bait, the major payoff isn’t going to happen. Similarly, the festival is in September and there are no major US festivals till January. So you should already have your US premiere strategy thought out to help compensate for the months and months where you will not be able to generate press.
The other problem is simply the gluttony of films competing for attention. TIFF is simply not going to show fewer films. I wish they would consider it, so that movies playing can get more attention, or just cut all but one or two studio films from their roster. Since the gluttony of choices gives them major revenue and prestige, that is unlikely to happen. If you’re going to TIFF, this means you MUST have a stellar publicist and be ready to talk to anybody and everybody that you can. Promote the hell out of your film. Without fail, almost all the American non-star driven indies that go are too slow to set up their social media operation. Toronto is only a small body of water away from the States and I encourage you to let the world know early and often about your film.
I personally LOVE TIFF. Last year I saw so many incredible films there, and I’m not just talking about Oscar darling “Argo”. There were so many mind-blowingly wonderful films I stumbled upon, some of which have distribution and one film that hasn’t even screened in the States yet.
I look forward to discovering more of the hidden gems this year at the festival and am happy to meet with any filmmakers to discuss how to connect their wondrous visions with audiences around the world.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 will look at how specific films performed
Bryan Glick September 3rd, 2013
Sundance is the preeminent film festival in the world to premiere documentaries. In fact, 10 of the 15 films shortlisted for the 2013 Oscar for best documentary had their debut at the 2012 festival and 4 of the 5 nominees world premiered at the festival.
11 of the documentaries have grossed over $100,000 at the North American box office (with a 12th all but guaranteed). That is just barely less than the number of docs from TIFF, Cannes, Berlin, SXSW, and Tribeca combined that were able to cross the same threshold.
At the top are the two docs that were the day one films last year. If I was the producer of Twenty Feet From Stardom, this fact would make me pretty damn happy. Last year’s Searching for Sugar Man and Queen of Versailles both sold for mid six figures and enjoyed enormous success.Twenty Feet sold on Thursday to Radius and the Weinstein Co. in one of the first deals at the festival. It is scheduled to launch theatrically in the States later this year.
Performing well beyond expectations is Searching for Sugar Man which won the world documentary audience award has grossed just over $3,000,000 in the careful hands of SPC. Acquired for mid six figures the film is easily profitable for the distributor and with distribution in at least 11 other countries and an international gross of over $2,000,000 it is also easily profitable for the filmmakers.
As with a number of films we will get to in a bit, this film had a rather slow rollout and opened to a decent, but not spectacular PSA of $9,153 on 3 screens. As with other top grossing docs from prior year’s this film deals with a would-be star, a Cinderella story, and has a bit of a mystery. For 18 weekends in a row, the film averaged over $1,000 PSA which is nothing short of remarkable. At its widest, it played in 157 screens, but at that point it had already grossed well over a million.
While Queen of Versailles opened to a much higher PSA of $17,109 on 3 screens it also expanded much more quickly and the gross suffered slightly for it. Its widest release was on 89 screens and that happened in its 4th week of release. It had 10 weekends averaging over $1k for the PSA, but basically dropped its count from week 4 on. That said, the run is nothing to complain about and a film of this type was never going to be able to play to the slow burn that Searching For Sugar Man has. What is worth noting, Magnolia chose not to day and date VOD and paid mid six figures for the film. With a total gross of $2,401,999, this film is also quite profitable for the distributor and has been a great performer on iTunes and other digital platforms since its theatrical ended. Internationally it has only been released in the UK where it has grossed $93,707.
The only company to have two documentaries from this year’s fest that grossed over $250k is Indomina. The Imposter and Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap. The latter was a combined deal with BET handling the TV premiere. The total acquisition cost was over $1,000,000.
Two other films that performed surprisingly well are the self-released Detropia and the Oscilloscope acquired concert doc Shut Up and Play the Hits. Detropia left Sundance with offers, but none of which felt right for the ode to those who have stayed in my hometown of Detroit. The filmmakers who are something close to Documentary royalty rose over $60k on Kickstarter. They opened on one screen in Royal Oak (a Detroit Suburb) and grossed $21k for the weekend. While the film has played all right outside of the Midwest, with over 1 month in the big Apple, the bulk of its grosses came from theaters throughout Michigan and the rust belt area. They were able to book both solid art house venues as well as major chains that typically would never screen a documentary. To date, the film has grossed over $377k and is a great model for DIY Theatrical. And while Burn premiered at Tribeca, the doc also did quite well relying on a regional approach. The film about Detroit firefighters has grossed just over $100k with the bulk of it coming from a theater in Chicago and a theater in Metro-Detroit. It too is a DIY, but expanded to far fewer markets.
Shut Up and Play the Hits is a band’s farewell concert doc and so Oscilloscope’s decision to do a special one night engagement at theaters around the country made perfect sense. On 161 screens it grossed $378,751! That total is from one night! It then announced that due to strong demand it would play longer. Though it disappeared from theaters in under a month it managed $510,334 and with fans doing the advertising for Oscilloscope this film is easily profitable.
The Other Dream Team was distributed by the fledgling Film Arcade in partnership with Lionsgate. The film grossed $135,228 during its 7 week run (comparatively short to a number of other films on this list). At its peak, it played in 14 theaters. While not a slam-dunk and most likely at a financial loss to the distributor, this at least shows their potential for future releases.
The Political Issue Docs
The House I Live In sold digital rights to Snag Films, but had a theatrical courtesy of Abramorama and has grossed $186,059 in the US. It opened on two screens to a PSA of $12,122 and has never played in more than 12 theaters. With Snag bound to maximize digital, this is a decent performance that only seems weaker with the high profile names that have gotten on board this film and for winning the Sundance jury prize.
How to Survive a Plague is a major theatrical under performer for Sundance Selects. They paid high six figures for this emotional macro look at Act Up. With the film currently grossing $132,055 theatrically and most likely out of theaters for good save for a decision to bring it back in thanks to its Oscar nomination. Is grosses are not terrible, but far from great. Despite near universal critical praise, it had a number of barriers that it was unable to get over. Gay audiences are not as theatrically loyal as they used to be. They have shown that AIDS is not something they want to relive in the theaters. And straight audiences usually avoid films anchored by gay content. It will inevitably make the bulk of its money on VOD, but considering its potential, this is nothing short of a disaster. Performing much better for the distributor was Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry which at $489,074 just narrowly missed the ½ million mark. The acquisition price was not stated so we can assume it was below mid-six figures and most likely a decently profitable film for Sundance Selects.
5 Broken Cameras has grossed $75,607 in the hands of Kino Lorber and played in theaters for 22 weeks. It never played wider than 6 screens and 15 of the weeks it was in theaters it only played on 1. With next to no advertising costs and an Oscar nomination to boot, this foreign film should recoup for the budget minded specialty distributor. What remains to be seen is if any new theaters will book the film leading up to the Oscars.
The Invisible War (disclaimer:TFC is the sales agent) is a different kind of success. While the film is the lowest grossing US Documentary film to get a theatrical out of Sundance 2012, it did something none of the other films were able to; the release resulted in changes in governmental policy. There were multiple screenings held at the Pentagon and the film had a fantastic festival run to boot. Just as with the also Oscar nominated micro-budget Gasland, the success shouldn’t be judged simply by the audience, but the changes being implemented to military policy. It is also one of the highest grossing films for Cinedigm and has dwarfed the performance of its other festival acquisitions this year. Box office gross $64,010.
Escape Fire on paper would seem to have a lot going for it. The film is about a major crisis that factored into a Presidential Election year. It was distributed by Roadside Attractions who maximized more challenging films like The Cove and Project Nim to mid-high six figure grosses. They also partnered with TUGG to spread the word. However, the film had a number of things working against it; some of which could have been fixed. Their social media campaign was something of a hot mess. Less than a month before announcing their deal with Roadside, the production attempted a second Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the theatrical, yet they simply stopped. That suggests to me that most likely the deal with Roadside was a service deal. Tugg did add some interest in a few cities, but it opened on 26 screens and was down to 2 the following week. At present, it has just barely out grossed Marina Abramovic, but that film played on fewer screens and most of its run took place after it had premiered on HBO. More importantly, Escape Fire has failed to spark legislative change. Box office gross $87,577.
Also underperforming is West of Memphis produced by Peter Jackson. The film came out the end of December and still has 90 or so theaters yet to open in, but its initial response has been tepid at best. With SPC guaranteeing the maximum payoff possible, this film may ultimately be able to gross about $200,000, but even that mark might not be reached. To date, it has grossed only $57,416 on 9 screens. While the acquisition price is not known, just by virtue of advertising costs alone, this film will not be profitable for the distributor. It will also lose out from not making the Oscar shortlist and having a run time of well over 2 hours.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present was released in theaters by Music Box Films who chose to release the film in just 2 theaters before it premiered on HBO to a gross of over $45k. It ended its run with $86,637 and most of its additional theaters were special engagements at museums and other non-traditional theater venues. This reduced costs for extra markets and as a result of creative thinking, this film is the highest grossing doc to have premiered on HBO this year and outgrossed all the other ones combined.
Barely registering were a number of world documentary films and Doc Premiere films, in the case of the latter it is perhaps a bit surprising when factoring in the range of successes among the general premiere films (which will be addressed in my next post).
World Doc Jury winner The Law In These Parts grossed $11,227 on one screen for one month thanks to Cinema Guild. Putin’s Kiss which premiered at IDFA was even lower at $9,114 on one screen for about 3 months. Grossing just barely more than both of them are Zeitgeist’s China Heavyweight ($10,550 on 4 screens for 3 months) and Payback ($17,979 on 3 screens for 4 months). The total gross of those two films is less than the box office gross of SXSW acquisition Gregory Crewdson which is still in theaters and clocking in at $42,822. The Ambassador managed $28,102 for Drafthouse which considering they have their own theaters to help release the film, makes it possible that the theatrical wasn’t a total financial loss.
Bones Brigade had a DIY theatrical courtesy of The Film Sales Company and did not report grosses, however a complete case study of what they accomplished is now available on the Topspin Media blog. The film is now available on digital platforms. Big Boys Gone Bananas had an Oscar Qualifying run and Indie Game: The Movie did not report grosses but as was covered in an earlier blog post recouped using a number of other creative DIY methods. They also wrote their own case study and published it on their blog.
Love Free or Die has a DVD/VOD deal with Wolfe, The D Word, About Face, Me @ The Zoo, and Ethel are all HBO Docs. Ethel had an Oscar qualifying theatrical and made the shortlist, but did not get nominated. After successfully raising $29741 on Kickstarter for finishing funds, Me @ the Zoo was acquired for $500,000 and the filmmakers recouped.
Be sure to check in next week for my final post on Sundance 2012 films with a look at the narrative films released over the last year.
Bryan Glick January 23rd, 2013