Battle for festival supremacy-TIFF vs Sundance

A knockout victory

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is just behind us and films submitted for Sundance are a month away from their acceptance call. While the difference between Toronto/Sundance and SXSW/Tribeca is pretty clear, what separates Toronto from Sundance might surprise you.

I looked at the data from the last two year’s of each festival and came up with one big conclusion. Sundance is the bigger festival for North American distribution on just about every measurable level I could come up with.

How could this be? Toronto is the more mainstream fest, right? Not so much.

Let’s start with some comparative info that would clearly skew things in Toronto’s favor:

-62.5% of films from TIFF 2013 have US distribution

-81.3% of films from SUNDANCE 2014 have US distribution (and remember this was accomplished in 9 months compared to TIFF’s 13 months)

But what about the box office performance?

Sundance has a higher percentage of films that grossed over $1 Million, $500,000, and $100,000 than TIFF. This is including non world premiere films which would give TIFF an advantage.

But what about the size of the deals? Isn’t TIFF where the big money is? Hardly

11 films from TIFF 2014 generated 7 figure deals, 11 films from TIFF 2013 did the same. The difference is TIFF screens 2.5x as many films. Even eliminating the # of films with US distribution before TIFF started and cutting out foreign language films, producers were still twice as likely to get a seven figure deal at Sundance.

tiff vs sundance

The Documentary King

TIFF is a much more diverse slate, but sorely lacking in docs. Roughly 1/3 of Sundance films are documentaries, while only about 1/10 of TIFF films are. Even then, docs were more likely to get distribution out of Sundance than TIFF and by a very wide margin. 90% vs 52%. The majority of docs that made the Oscar shortlist came from Sundance, as have a majority of nominees in the last five years.

Foreign Language Problem

In contrast to their #1 status as a place to launch documentaries, Sundance’s World Cinema lineup is far from a sure bet.

While only 41% of Sundance 2014 World Dramatic films have US distribution, that percentage is still higher than foreign language films that screened at TIFF. The % is higher even if we include all foreign language films and not just world or international premieres at TIFF. So even in Sundance’s weakest area your odds are still better than at TIFF.

That all noted, TIFF receives some high profile foreign language films that will ultimately generate bigger deals and make a dent in the US box office, but those are few and far between in an already very unprofitable arena.

So What Does a TIFF Screening Mean? 

TIFF does two things that Sundance does not. It functions as a worldwide market and it is a frequent must for awards buzz films.

Sundance films do better on a domestic level. TIFF films are more likely to generate some form of worldwide interest and the majority of major worldwide players are in attendance.

Sundance has an international presence, but nothing on the same level of going into the Hyatt and taking the United Nations tour of film booths.

Sundance also doesn’t take studio films, which TIFF does. I would argue this is part of the problem TIFF films face. The competition for attention is so much higher with studio films in the mix that many simply get lost in the shuffle.

The DIY Mindset

In the age of DIY options at very low cost, one has to wonder why so many films at TIFF didn’t take advantage of Vimeo’s $10k offer in 2013. In fact, 55 world premieres still lack US distribution, which means with 100% certainty they turned down $10k to chase a pipe dream of success.The worldwide sales agent aspect at TIFF makes it a lot harder to discuss DIY options, but things are slowly starting to change.

This year was the first time multiple filmmakers were willing to openly discuss DIY options for release with me during the fest.

Sundance has their Artist Services program and some very notable DIY success stories (Detropia, Indie Game: The Movie, Upstream Color etc). But the biggest difference is Sundance is early in the year. There are tons of festivals left with which to build exposure going into release.

While it is almost always advisable to hit the festival circuit running, if one didn’t do that at Sundance, it’s easier to rev up the process than at TIFF when the year is nearly finished. If you don’t pursue additional festival screenings right away, your film would play TIFF and not screen anywhere until the following year. Remember there aren’t a lot of festivals in November/December. By that point people have moved onto Sundance and don’t even remember what they saw at TIFF.

The Take Away

Don’t buy into the hype about a festival without carefully looking at the info. While many Oscar winners have come from TIFF, the stats don’t lie. For domestic success, your odds are better with Sundance. This doesn’t make TIFF a bad festival, it’s easily the 2nd best launch pad in North America, but it’s important to know that your film is more likely to get a distribution deal out of Tribeca than TIFF if you have a documentary.

The consensus from this year’s TIFF was that there weren’t too many hidden gems, but with 288 features would any of us even know? At a certain point size is a liability and I think that TIFF needs to shrink its slate or get more creative when it comes to highlighting world premieres without big names.

Reminder: EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL & THE CIRCLE

The Spike Lee executive produced Evolution of a Criminal opens in NYC Friday October 10th at IFC Center. They are also crowdfunding to support their nationwide theatrical release. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/948417025/evolution-of-a-criminal-theatrical-release

In partnership with Wolfe Releasing, TFC Direct will be theatrically releasing Switzerland’s Oscar entry, The Circle. It opens November 21st in NYC and will be expanding through beginning of 2015.

 

Distribution preparation for independent filmmakers-Part 2-Festivals

By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo credit Matt DeTurk

photo credit Matt DeTurk, Dalboz17 via photopincc

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

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

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

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

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

Is VOD Collapsing The Festival Window?

Filmmakers often ask me how long they should keep their films on the festival circuit. For years now, I’ve been saying that 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, except for those films that have a perennial hook (i.e. a film about black history during the annual Black History Month, a film about the AIDS crisis on World AIDS day, etc).

Given that general rule, I am going to go ahead and call that 18 months the Festival “window.” Now, of course, most Hollywood companies don’t consider the festival circuit as a window akin to the “traditional” windows of theatrical, broadcast, DVD, VOD etc. For studios and mini-majors, a long festival run isn’t always necessary…they have the money and staff to market the film in other ways, and any potential revenue the film can make on the festival circuit is relatively meaningless given the scale of the budgets they work with. In many cases, larger distributors see festivals as really just giving away free tickets to their movie, and therefore limit any festival participation to only the largest, most prestigious and best publicized festivals in the world, and simply ignore all the rest.

But for individual filmmakers without the benefit of studio/mini-major release, and also for 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 many films of course, the festival window IS the theatrical release of the film – meaning it’s the way the largest number of people can actually see the film in a theater. Even those indie films that do get a traditional theatrical release are usually limited to a few big cities, meaning festivals are the only way the films are ever going to be screened beyond New York, L.A., and few other cities. Since most individual filmmakers and small distributors work on 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.

So – and this is back to the original question – when filmmakers ask me how long they should keep their film on the festival circuit if it is doing well, my initial answer is always “at least one year.” Given that you only have 12 – 18 months for your film to be seen this way, why not take advantage of it?

Filmmakers have a lot of fears around this; often they feel in a rush to get their movie available for theatrical or home purchase as soon as possible. Often they fear that people are going to “forget” about their film if they don’t release it as soon as possible after the premiere. Often they regard the festival circuit as a lot of work, and they just want their film released so they can move onto their next thing. Even more often, they are in great financial need following all the money invested into the film, so they feel the need to get it out quickly so they can start making money from it. I can say with great confidence that all of these fears are bad reasons to release a film – and many of the worst release failures I have ever seen comes from exactly these fears (both on the studio/mini-major level AND individual filmmaker level).

Festival VOD

First of all, unless you’ve been extremely successful in attracting people to your social media, very few people actually know about your film when it first premieres…so rather than fear those people will forget about your film, your job is to get the film out as wide as possible so you can grow your audience awareness – both through repeated festival marketing and social media. Secondly – yes, it is true that the Festival circuit is a lot of work, but independent filmmakers need to understand that distribution is a business, and you need to commit yourself to it the way you would to any other business endeavor you would undertake and expect to be successful.  A business takes time to grow.

The most vexing reason for rushing a film into release – needing to make your money back as quickly as possible – is a perfectly understandable human need and a situation many filmmakers find themselves in. I can just all but guarantee you that if you haven’t taken the time to grow your audience in all the ways possible, your release won’t succeed, and you won’t be making back your money anyway.

Despite all this – despite everything I have laid out in this post thus far – in 2014 I find more and more films going into release and off the festival circuit faster and faster than ever before. The reason for this trend is simple, technological, and perhaps inexorable – and of course it is the continuing rise of Video On Demand (VOD).

Think about how it worked in the (not so) old days. Until very recently, if your film was lucky enough to get a theatrical release offer, it would take the distributor many months to get their marketing/publicity ducks in a row, book theaters, and release the film into theaters. All this time, the film could play festivals. Then, upon theatrical release, a few cities would be lost to festivals…just the usual NY, LA, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle etc. of a traditional indie release. But for the many months between the theatrical release and the DVD release, the film could continue to play all festivals outside of the major cities…because DVD release is a physically demanding process of authoring, dubbing, shipping, shelf space, store stocking, etc. As such, it was completely normal for DVD release to be at least a year after the premiere…just because it all took time. Once the DVD was released, the overwhelming majority of festival programmers would no longer consider the film, so the festival window was all but shut at that point.

But in 2014, day-and-date VOD release with the theatrical release is commonplace, and becoming even more so. So, its not that distributors are any faster in getting the film into theaters (they’re not), but once New York and L.A. open (or shortly after), chances are that the film is also available on various VOD platforms, meaning it becomes available all at once in most North American homes (via cable VOD, application like Apple TV, or various internet platforms). And once that happens, the majority of festival programmers no longer will consider the film, believing (perhaps incorrectly) that the VOD release will cannibalize their audiences and they will no longer be able to fill their theaters with patrons willing to go to see a film at a festival when they can just watch it at home.

In addition, there is a rise in the number of cable TV channels seeking exclusive content for their VOD platforms (i.e. CNN, DirectTV, Starz, etc.) who are acquiring films with or without theatrical releases, and are in a haste to get those films out to their audiences. Exclusive content is the currency of premium platforms these days (there is no better evidence of this than the incredible success of HBO exclusive content of course), and so more and more of these companies are making offers to indie films, largely driven by the VOD.

I am not sure there is a lot independent filmmakers can do to change this trend. Filmmakers are going to continue to want distribution deals and this just may be what distribution deals look like moving forward. Of course, filmmakers can ASK that distributors put off the release as long as possible (as discussed, approx. a year after world premiere), but many distributors may not have reason to agree to that. Keep in mind that the distributor may not have complete control over that release date, in many cases the biggest VOD companies (esp. the big cable providers like Comcast, Time Warner etc.) will also tell the distributors when THEY think the film should be released, and resist the pushback…especially as they tend to want the VOD release to be closely timed with the theatrical.

That doesn’t mean I think filmmakers should cave easily….by all means try to make the distributor understand why you want to control your own festival “window.” Personally, I am consistently impressed with how much the various arms of Public Television (ITVS, Independent Lens, etc.) seem to get this, and basically allow filmmakers to set their own broadcast window relatively far into the future.

So despite my musings to this point, some of you may still be asking, “Why does all this matter? Isn’t being released into the majority of North American homes a good thing?” The biggest problem is that we simply don’t know….because VOD numbers are very rarely publicly reported, in fact almost never.

My strong suspicion is films that are rushed into VOD release perform far less on VOD than they would if they were given the time to find their audience via organic word-of-mouth methods (including festivals). I have certainly seen that with other windows, especially theatrical. As we all know now, a digital release is not enough…a film that is released into the digital marketplace without adequate marketing is just a tree falling in the forest. But ultimately I cannot support that argument with figures because so few companies (nearly none), will tell us what kind of numbers they do on VOD with their films.

Until we get real numbers that allow us to see what VOD numbers really look like for festival-driven independent films….and we can truly assess the marketing impact on those VOD numbers…we will all remain in the dark on this topic to the detriment of independent filmmakers trying to make distribution decisions. I can say for sure that films performing well on the festival circuit are forfeiting their festival revenue by going onto VOD….but until I can compare it with the VOD numbers I cannot determine whether losing that festival revenue is worth it or not.

So, is VOD collapsing the Festival window? Yes, that part is for sure, and we at The Film Collaborative have handled festival distribution on films in the last two years that bear this fact out. Is that a net negative for independent filmmakers? That part I cannot answer yet….although I suspect I already know the answer.

Let this be one more call to our Industry to release the VOD numbers. I would absolutely love to be proven wrong on this.

 

 

 

 

 

Narrative film roundup from the Spring festivals

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

CANNES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRIBECA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SXSW

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

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

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

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

Narrative film roundup

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

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

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

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

 

 

TFC members found success and a broadcast deal for The New Black

This week’s member profile looks at the documentary The New Black, an examination of how the African-American community is grappling with gay rights issues and homophobia in the black community’s institutional pillar—the black church.

Producer Yvonne Welbon and director Yoruba Richen shared how The Film Collaborative helped them figure out the right distribution strategy for their film.

New Black

At what stage in the production process was TFC consulted?

“We reached out to TFC after completing the film, about a month before we premiered at the LA Film Festival in June 2013.”

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

“We sought a lot of advice from TFC. They were instrumental in helping us figure out our film festival strategy both domestically and internationally. To date, we have screened in over 50 film festivals around the world.

TFC was also helpful in figuring out distribution options. Orly Ravid provided consultation services in terms of figuring out the foreign market for our film. She helped us to be realistic in terms of what to expect because of the subject of our film. She was right. And each distributor who loved our film, but couldn’t distribute it, basically told us the story she prepared us to hear.

We finally received an offer and signed with Java Films. We had a limited theatrical release and the film will be broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens. California Newsreel is our educational distributor and we release the film on VOD next year through Sundance Artists Services.”

Where can the film be seen now?

“The film is screening all over the country. Please check the website for more information. www.newblackfilm.com. Our broadcast debut on Independent Lens will be on June 15, 2014 at 10:30pm, following Masterpiece Theater. Also, educational institutions can buy the film from California Newsreel.”

Here is a peek at the trailer

A Divine independent film release

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

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

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

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

At what stage in the production process was TFC consulted? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where can the film be seen now?

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

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

Developing Key Art as your film enters the festival circuit

How much to spend on developing key art, and when to spend that money, is one of the many important decisions a filmmaker has to make. Yet like many aspects of the filmmaking process, there is no one-size-fits-all standard. When we were discussing the prospect of my writing this post, one of my colleagues at TFC remarked that for a film that costs, say, $250K to make, a $10-20K or more spend on developing key art (and mind you, this is separate from a marketing budget where you have to pay to get that key art out into the world, and separate still from designing and maintaining a web site) is not unreasonable, assuming one wanted to hire a top agency. Other filmmakers get someone they know to do it for free, if for no other reason than they are out of funds. Most micro-budget indie filmmakers will undoubtedly fall in between these two polar extremes in terms of what they will end up paying, but in the end, what you produce, and when you produce it, is a decision that should not be rushed or taken lightly.

Most filmmakers would agree that good key art is essential…it can be the factor that decides whether somebody will click further to watch your trailer, or move on to another film. If it is carried over to your website effectively, it should inspire confidence in your brand. Good key art can endure and even come to possess an iconic existence of its own that will represent with your film for years or even decades to come.

But good key alone is probably not going to work miracles. If your trailer, website, official reviews, or word of mouth is disappointing, or if insufficient marketing prevents people from even knowing that your film is out there, hiring a top creative film and spending that $10-20K at the expense of everything else doesn’t make any sense. So while key art is too important to take short cuts on, its value won’t be fully realized if the rest of your budget cannot support it.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you don’t have that 10-20K or more lying around for key art. Now, I have worked with dozens of filmmakers to either design (or consult with and/or assist them in developing) their key art. When I have an initial discussion with a filmmaker, I can tell right away which clients probably don’t even have $1K to devote to their the key art. How? Because the first question they ask me (after they see samples of my work) is how much I would charge to produce a poster.

This question always surprises me, especially when it comes from filmmakers for whom this is not their first film, because it reminds me that filmmakers often do not ask the right questions when producing key art.

For example, how can I give them a quote without knowing what shape is their art in, how much time it is going to take to get up to speed about the film…watch it, discuss it, understand it, determine what is possible based on the art that they have, come up with several different directions and mock them up, fail a few times until we come up with something we like, and then go through several refinement stages, figure out printing, cost, logistics? And this doesn’t include mocking each possible direction to pixel-perfection, uprezzing, retouching, or producing style sheets or ancillary artwork, like a top agency would do.

Not appropriately accounting for key art development (and overall marketing strategy) as a line item in their film budgets forces filmmakers into a situation whereby they can only order the services that will fit their budget, rather than coming from a place of asking what will be best for their projects.

So we go through this dance of whittling away steps to cut costs, and in the end, I provide only a range based on an hourly rate, with phases built in, so we can periodically access if we are going over our budget range. This way, how many hoops I jump through will ultimately be up to the filmmaker as we move through the collaborative process.

Another important thing to remember is that you can’t always determine the cost of developing a piece of key art just by looking at it. Oftentimes, the prevailing concept itself might not look all that expensive to produce, but you never know how many twists and turns were required for the creative team to reach that final product.

So, how can a filmmaker get back to asking the right questions?

Producing key art is about ideas and talent, good photography, and a solid understanding of one’s film and how it fits into the marketplace.

It’s also about patience.

This is a scenario we have seen more than a few times: let’s say your film gets into Sundance or Slamdance or Berlin or SXSW and you are racing to finish your film. You haven’t budgeted all that much for key art in the first place, but you feel like you need something to show at the festival. You have a website, but it’s the one that’s been up since your crowdfunding campaign, and it’s not all that pretty. What should you do?

Certainly, there is no one right answer. We have seen filmmakers produce amazing things in a very short amount of time. On the other hand, we have seen other filmmakers really fail miserably, and actually do their film a disservice by making too many decisions too quickly.

But let’s say your first instinct it to produce a poster. Your second instinct should be to make sure your first instinct is correct.

DO YOU EVEN NEED A FULL-SIZE POSTER?

Posters are, technically speaking, quite hard to produce if you don’t have the right art. I’m talking about resolution.

Last year, I wrote a series called Rethinking your Key Art Game Plan, where I discussed the technical requirements for producing a standard 27×40 (or 27×39) inch poster. In particular, I noted how pulling stills from a 1920x1080px master isn’t going to produce enough resolution for a poster, unless you are going for a grainy or blown-out look. These days, more and more filmmakers are working with 4K cameras, which helps quite a bit in this area.

Yet while using 1920×1080 stills to promote your film may not be ideal for a poster, they are perfect for other uses. For example, you can produce 4×6 postcards or a great website background. These might actually reach more people throughout the festival as a whole than a poster that merely hangs for a few hours in a marquee lightbox on the day of your screening.

Title Treatments

Create a proper title treatment using a vector-based program such as Adobe Illustrator, turn it into an Outline shape (rather than editable lines of type), and save it as an .eps file so it can be reproduced consistently.

(If you didn’t catch all of that last part, just convey to your designer. If your designer doesn’t get it either, hire a new designer.)

Another dilemma we’ve seen filmmakers run into is that they only have very limited still photography at the time they enter the film festival circuit, and don’t have the time or budget to do a photo shoot. Rather than force these images into a full-size poster that you have mixed feelings about, it might be better to take frame grabs from your film and produce something that’s 1440x2100px (the size needed for iTunes…VOD art generally needs to be 2:3 proprotions) and that you are satisfied with. This size would also be OK for a 4×6 postcard. You can worry about a 27×40 poster later.

Alternatively, many filmmakers simply brand a few press images from the film with their title. Work with a designer to create a great Title Treatment (the design of the title of your film) and brand the film that way, so there will be consistency when you do swing back to the key art.

SHORT-TERM OR LONG-TERM KEY ART

But let’s say you do have the art to do a full-size poster. There’s still a question of whether you design for the short term or the long term. More and more films are being released digitally without much theatrical play. Moreover, what you produce for a theatrical may not even be suitable for VOD. A panel at IFP last fall addressed this exact question, and there was apparently much disagreement:

“This panel drove home several completely contradictory messages, all in the space of one engaging hour. The first was that now you need more art than ever, to keep your audience engaged through daily social media updates both before and after your film is released. The second was that films should adhere to the same few images, so that they become recognizable brand markers. What’s a filmmaker to do?

[…]

Another catch-22 discussed during the panel was VOD vs. theatrical art. As much as it benefits a film to project a singular identity, it’s rare for a single design to suit both purposes well.

The experience of viewing a poster inside a lightbox at the theater is very different from the experience of browsing titles on Netflix, and key art must adjust accordingly. Besides the obvious (smaller space, bigger images) the VOD art typically focuses more on celebrity, genre, and easily conveyed aspects of the storytelling.”

They provided the following graphic as an example of the differences between theatrical art and key art for VOD.

theatrical_vod
Sawyer Studios Theatrical vs. VOD Digital Art Slide

It is quite clear that the some of the theatrical posters do not work very well for VOD. But I am not convinced that at least some of the VOD posters here could not have worked for theatrical (apart from the fact that a few of ones for VOD are just plain bad). These days, even as one is doing a theatrical, the same poster can be seen all over the Internet, and perhaps on postcards too. So whatever you produce, you should think about how the image looks when it is viewed at a variety of sizes, and pay special attention to the iTunes size and the Netflix size.

Perhaps the designers of the theatrical posters in this graphic did not consider this when they were designing. (Or perhaps a marketing team came along and wanted something else for VOD.) The point is, think as far ahead as possible and aim towards producing key art that will work for both theatrical and for VOD. Because if it does need to be redesigned, there’s a good chance that you will be the one paying for it, one way or another.

THE HIDDEN COST OF USING POSTERS ON THE FILM FESTIVAL CIRCUIT

Many of you know that TFC also offers Festival Distribution as one of our services. We get asked all the time for posters. Sometimes three, or five, are requested. But we generally do not send them for every festival. Here’s why:

Digital Printing
Printing fewer than 15 posters

We have used Uprinting in the past and recommend them for one-off digital printing.

So let’s say your film gets into Sundance or Slamdance and you need to print a few posters. You can get 3 posters printed and sent directly to the festival for $80. That’s not going to break the bank. But if you commit to doing that for every festival thereafter, you must be prepared to lose at least $40 (the cost of 1 to print and ship) of your festival fee each time you book somewhere.

If you are thinking that you can simply print a bunch of posters and send to festivals yourself, there also a few things to remember. First, poster tubes cost money (although Fedex will supply their own packaging, but their shipping rates are expensive), and when all is said and done, mailing them yourself doesn’t cost all that much less than having a printer ship directly. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Offset Printing
Printing more than 100 posters

America’s Printer has always done a great job for us with 4 color printing, and can even ship them individually for you.

In terms of printing, you also may not want to order too many at once (for example, you can have them printed in 4-color offset printing in quantities from 100-1000, which will cost $600-$800 ) because you will undoubtedly want to add additional laurels (for art house films) or awards or even quotes to the one sheet as you get further into the festival circuit. Printing too many will lock you into something you may not wish to use forever. But printing as few as 30 digitally will cost as much as printing 500 using an offset printer, so there’s a bit of a “doughnut hole” here.

And many filmmakers just don’t have that much loose cash to spend.

Our recommendation is to only get a large quantity of posters made if you have a theatrical. In the meantime, you may want to limit the festivals to which you have posters sent to Industry festivals where buyers are present. For the other festivals, supply them with a link to the hi-res version of your one-sheet: many festivals will print on their own. This is especially helpful for international festivals. They may not print larger as large as 27×40, but at least the cost comes out of their budget, not yours.

TIPS ON LANDING ON THE RIGHT CONCEPT

I was asked to write this article to address the question of how one decides on the best visual representation for one’s film. In other words, what should you put in your poster?

The short answer is, there is not just one answer. You can ask 5 different people and they might each tell you something slightly different. But let me try to break it down with a few tips.

  1. Whatever you do, it should be polished and look like some thought was put into it. You would think that I’d be setting the bar a little higher as the first tip. But no. If someone whose film were premiering at a A- or B- list festival showed me the their poster, and it looked like the VOD poster for Arthur Newman or The English Teacher in the graphic above, I would tell them to either scrap it and start over, or to leave it at home.
  2. Know your marketing strategy before you start designing. I could write a blog just on this topic. More than one, actually. The number one problem that filmmakers have in this regard is that they are too close to their own film. So first, it’s important to talk to your team, and to others outside your team (shameless plug alert: also a perfectly good thing to talk about when you are consulting with TFC via one of our membership packages) about where your film fits into the market and who is going to be buying it…literally…which distributors, which niche market. If you feel that your film has crossover potential to a second niche audience, find a way to cater to both, but don’t dilute the message to serve two masters. Make sure you have the art to support whatever strategy you come up with. A designer can help you evaluate this, but this whole process might have to be repeated if the art comes up short. The task is for buyers to see the market potential. If you feel like a concept “cheapens” your film, don’t dismiss it completely until you’ve talked to somebody who can give you some perspective. Take your time and don’t rush. Build your brand thoughtfully. You are making key art to sell your film, not so you can hang a cool poster in your office.
  3. Hire a real designer. Don’t just get someone who knows Photoshop to do it for you for free. Make sure there is budget for this before you make your film. Ditto a web designer. Get someone who knows the industry. Someone who will watch your film and discuss ideas at length and who can at least talk through several directions with you before committing. Loop this person into the market strategy discussions.
  4. Your art should stand out but not be too obscure. What do I mean by this? Two tests: (1) Get a reality check—before you brainstorm, take a look at the artwork in the Criterion Collection. This is an example of what NOT to do. These films are mostly classics that are being rebranded in a pretty pretentious way. It’s fine for them. But not for you. You do not want to make a poster like this. Maybe some day. Not now. (2) Take the key art that your designer mocks up and paste it in a screen shot of the iTunes Store in the “Independent” genre (or a more specific genre in the store). Make it look like it were in the store already. How does it stand up? Would you notice it? Is the title completely readable? Would anyone recognize that *one* slightly recognizable star you have in your film at this size?
  5. Look at existing key art in the genres your film is attempting to target. Grab these poster images off the web, and give those to your designer as a reference. For certain type of films, it’s OK to be reductive. Others, you’ll want to be more original. For example, for docs and horror, go for originality and/or quirkiness. For foreign language narrative films set in exotic locales, go for scenic beauty plus audience identification with the protagonists. For LGBT films, go for sex or edge. For non-LGBT narrative films, put the most famous actor you have on the poster. For comedies: it better be amusing. For romance: it better be romantic. For thriller: it better thrill. Some of this seems obvious, but it also can be a lot easier said than done. There is no one right way, but there are many wrong ways. It’s important that you know what those are.
  6. Make a great trailer to go with your art. Hooking them with a poster does no good if the trailer they watch right afterward underwhelms. Think about your niche when producing this trailer. Think about how your poster gives folks a preview of what they will see in the trailer, and then exceed their expectations. Produce a trailer that’s PG. You can also produce another one that’s not, but you will need one that has no nudity, curses, drugs or sex toys for digial platforms. So now you’ve been warned. Encorporate your Title Treatment into the trailer to tie in your branding.

Another reason to take your time with your key art: use it as a way to get your audience involved. Maybe they haven’t heard from you since your Kickstarter campaign. Maybe you’ll pick up some Facebook fans at your first couple of festival screenings. Why not find a creative way to create a dialogue with the people who are supporting you?

As I stated at the beginning of this post, you will encounter a lot of opinions out there along the way. And “success” when it comes to key art is nearly impossible to measure objectively…is your campaign successful if people like it (even if they don’t really love your film)? If a buyer ends up using it? If your film does well in the marketplace? While there are many films that industry peeps can point to and credit key art for that film’s success, the vast majority of films will not fall into this category. Nor will they be offered a 7-figure deal from a major studio at Sundance. In the end, though, one of the toughest transitions a filmmaker has to make is the switch from proud parent to business person. Put yourself in the mindset of someone who knows nothing about your film: does the key art you produced really make people want to see your film? And will they even remember your brand when the time comes when they actually can see it? Everything else, as they say, is crap.

TIFF RIFF Part One-The Numbers, Advice, and Excitement

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!

photo by chensiyuan

photo credit chensiyuan

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

Do festival awards matter?

The simple answer is “yes..wellsometimes.” Like most questions in this business, there is a simple answer for casual conversation, and a truer answer for a more in-depth analysis.

laurel winner

It would be nice to say that all film festival awards are valuable for independent film distribution, but the truth is that it mostly comes down to what Festival it is (what actual award it is is less important for the most part). The simplest rule is, if a particular Festival matters, then an Award from that Festival matters even more. If a particular festival doesn’t show up on anyone’s radar, then the Award won’t either. The easiest comparison to draw is the use of press/publicity quotes in marketing…i.e. nobody cares about a glowing review from a press outlet they’ve never heard of. But if a respected journalist at a respected publication gives you a great review…well that matters a great deal.

We’ve worked on a lot of seemingly “small” films, like CONTRACORRIENTE by Javier Fuentes, VALLEY OF SAINTS by Musa Sayeed, A RIVER CHANGES COURSE by Kalyanee Man, and THE INVISIBLE WAR by Kirby Dick that jumped up hugely in prestige and profile when they won big awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Suddenly “everyone that’s anyone” had heard of these films even though they paid no attention to them just two days before. By getting the ultimate stamp of approval, they suddenly became “serious” films in the minds of those who pay attention to such things.

But let’s not exaggerate…  as much as they changed the general perception of the films, I don’t think they really changed the acquisitions picture for any of these particular titles. Maybe the PRICES went up for those that did get bought, but I don’t think it radically changed the number of buyers interested in the titles. And not all of those ever got serious acquisition offers anyway.

I think there are three major ways that festival awards matter. First of all, it distinguishes you from the glut of available titles at any given festival as one of the films that one should pay attention to first. Meaning, if you are the kind of person (Industry, press, or consumer) who is paying attention to a particular festival, then of course one easy way to determine what one should see first is by starting with the ones that have won the awards. I think this is PARTICULARLY true for OTHER film festival programmers, who face the daunting task of pouring through thousands of available titles and submission to their festival. Why NOT start with the ones that are winning awards? Its just good triage technique.

Secondly, if someone is a discerning film consumer looking to discover new films to watch, why wouldn’t you pay attention to the films that are winning the awards? To that end, I think the right Festival Awards have tremendous marketing value…but really only for the discerning consumer. So, that’s not the majority of consumers, but there ARE a lot of cinephiles out there. And they are the first audience any independent filmmaker wants to reach.

Let me give you a simple marketing example….I am on the e-newsletter of LOTS of films that send me updates on their progress all the time…and for the most part I pay no attention to them. But if I start to notice that the film is winning a lot of great awards…which can be easily put in the subject line and the header of the email….of course I take note of that and of course I become more interested in the film. Suddenly it changes in my mind from one of a million films vying for my attention to one that must deserve my attention…because it is being validated by “tastemakers” I have heard of and have some respect for.

On the subject of the marketing value of Festival Awards, there are a couple of truisms I’d like to address:

1) The general perception is that Audience Awards matter more than Jury Awards, because they reflect the will of the people (which more closely resembles your eventual target audience), while Jury Awards reflect the view of the elite (those select insiders chosen by festivals to judge according to their own snobby tastes). In truth, I don’t think this theory stands up to rigorous analysis of the data. Sometimes it is the opinions of the jury that most closely mirror the press and taste-makers that propel a film onto greater success after its Festival run.

2) Part of the problem with Audience Awards is that in many ways they are popularity contests, not dissimilar to high school president elections. Because of the way Audience Awards are voted on by everyone in a given screening, sometimes its just the film that packs the house with the most crew and friends and close-knit community that wins the Award. Sometimes even a great Q&A can swing the results. And enterprising filmmakers should take note of this….as it is not unusual for a small film in a small theater to win an Audience Award because the filmmaker simply had more friends in attendance than anyone else did.

Unfortunately, the dominance of digital distribution in today’s independent market has made the marketing value of film festival awards a lot LESS relevant than they used to be….and that’s because iTunes, cable VOD et al don’t really offer much marketing space where you can actually SEE any of the Festival awards. When you used to browse through a video store and pick up the box cover, you could actually SEE all the laurels and rent it for that reason. Now you’re going to have to see the laurels in an email or banner ad or hear about it in a review or something…and then go LOOK for the film. That’s a lot less immediate than it used to be, and it makes the job of marketing a lot harder.

Finally, lets not downplay the fact that a lot of Festival Awards come with MONEY! There are some staggeringly large Festival awards out there…Dubai, Heartland etc…but I don’t advocate submitting to festivals just to go after the award money. That’s just gambling and your odds are probably better on a slot machine. But when a film starts to rack up a few awards, it can certainly get into the five figures of revenue…..and in this market that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at!

 

Dorothy, we ARE in Kansas. Forget about Oz

I feel like a broken record. There is nothing I am writing here that I have not said and written many times before. Still. After all that has gone on in distribution. The willful blindness of filmmakers believing in the Oz fairytale of going to a festival, A-list or otherwise, without putting in the work of building an audience around their film, with the hope of a big sale. It is an unsupported hope of a deal that does not merit the delay of doing the work to connect with fans. They may go with a very skilled sales agent, and yet the sale that is made, if any, is one that the filmmaker could have done directly without giving up rights to their film and possibly even have done without signing such agreements because the offer was too low.

yellow brick road 2

There is no Yellow Brick Road for independent films

To be honest, we’re big fans of doing distribution deals in tandem with direct distribution by the filmmaker, so it’s not doing the deal that bothers me, especially not if it’s a good offer and additional work is going to be performed by the distribution company in service of the film.  What is a big deal is the lost marketing opportunity that comes from waiting for this mythical deal for too long. The failure to capitalize on all the buzz and press that happens at a festival which gives a small film the launch it needs to resonate with fans and convert them to purchasers. Too many times, the filmmaker is told (by the industry) to hold out for an offer that never comes. The real indie film landscape looks much more like Kansas after the tornado, rather than the Emerald City. There is no yellow brick road that leads everyone to “the wizard” with the money. We are all building our own road.

This myth of waiting for the big offer is perpetuated in the press and by the industry. A few films get lucky and go to Sundance, SXSW, Cannes etc., and, for one reason or another, a distributor pays a lot of money to buy them. Why does that happen? Sometimes “festival fever” is high among the buyers to compete with each other and  pressure to make higher bids than they should. Sometimes it’s a new distribution company trying to prove itself by outbidding more established players.  Sometimes it’s personal like wanting to produce the director’s next film. Sometimes a film warrants paying good money for it, so sure is the buyer that they have an audience winner, or film that will be critically acclaimed or a major award winner. In any case, that happens very few times a year to be sure.  MOST deals these days (relative to the number of films made and even shown at festivals) are not like that.

Generally, the money offered upfront does not even make the investors whole. The money ultimately remitted to the investors does not yield a profit most of the time for films without big name cast or at the top of their genre category. It seems to me filmmakers focus on the exceptions, the success stories, and ignore the rest of the data.

I was asked via our Facebook page to estimate what the budget for LGBT films should be because it is the kind of films we have A LOT of experience handling. Based on all our work in that space, I can say if you make your film for more than $150,000, you are taking a big risk of remaining in the red. It may still be a risk that at that price, but if it has decent production value, a very good story and pops at the right festivals, you can do deals and DIY and monetize all revenue fronts to make that budget back… maybe even as much as $250,000. But again, that is the exception, not the rule because there are a lot of Ifs in that last sentence. Often the revenue outcome is less in fact. Time to get to know the real story, not the ones being perpetuated to show financial success as the norm.

What I am urging now is to be MINDFUL OF TIME and LOST OPPORTUNITY and not just search for the yellow brick road expecting the wizard to make magic happen for your film. There’s just not that much magic left. While there still is some talent “getting discovered” (and to be honest this is often happening first in lab programs, not at prestigious festivals), big deals being done, careers being made (this happens annually at Sundance and even SXSW), you need to be honest with yourself about where your work lies in that realm of possibility based on the elements you have in place right now. At least have a back up plan put into action that sets up the film for capitalizing on the audience you have been building and continue to build at first shot out in public. So many films lose that chance and it will never come again for them. The task is too arduous to start all over again after the glare of the initial media and attention dies down.

This would not be a Film Collaborative post if I did not share some data with you about what is happening with films that are building their own roads to “Oz.” More specifics will be provided in the next post because we are waiting for it to come in, but for now let’s take a look at one avenue that filmmakers are still questioning, selling streams from their own website.

At Sheffield DocFest, Sheri Candler talked to DIY platform DISTRIFY with whom TFC works as does Wolfe Video, for example.  Filmmakers should think about using services such as Distrify for both the purpose of selling off one’s site(s) and/or if one’s conventional distributor partners with the service (in which case hopefully the filmmaker has an affiliate relationship and receives a healthy percentage from any sales they make from their own website). Distrify cautions that for the most part filmmakers think they can put a film on a platform and wait for the cash to roll in. “We have probably 3,000 films on the service now and I’d reckon that nearly half have never sold at all- because they’ve never told anyone that they are there!,” said Peter Gerard, co founder of Distrify. For stronger films that appeal to an identifiable niche, if filmmakers make the effort to audience-build and market to that audience, Gerard says those films sell a few thousand units…  For the UK, for example, these numbers are compatible with conventional DVD sales and the market as a whole.  A market that is a fraction of the one in the US.

Gerard also says “Mailing lists are still the most effective way to sell – our data shows that a well-written and well-targeted mail-shot converts at a much higher ratio than Facebook or Twitter posts. Gathering Facebook likes or followers is maybe somewhat helpful, but is primarily a vanity exercise. The top-performing films focus on direct links with people via emails, blogs, and real-life events.” All this stuff TFC’s been shouting about for years (build an email list, build relationships with fans etc) can be verified in the data!  We want to add that building your Facebook and Twitter accounts can demonstrate appeal to distributors seeking to assess a title to buy so we still recommend it if you are looking to make a sale.  And, in the US, it may help drive awareness for the sake of building demand on commercial platforms such as Netflix.

Gerard goes on to note: “I don’t think it helps most people to say this movie made $40k or this one made $20k. I think that can be misleading because I firmly believe there is no such thing as an “average low budget film” nor a “usual amount of marketing”. We work with a wide gamut of films, and success is measured very differently depending on a range of factors. We’ve had some filmmakers earning a few hundred bucks a week and re-investing that immediately into low-budget production of serial dramas or new films. We’ve paid Nigerian filmmakers 4-figure sums recently. A first-time filmmaker earned $10k in a few weeks on a super-niche short documentary and re-invested the profits into both charity donations and DVD production for selling on the ground via real-life social networks. All of these are considered big successes for the people involved.” One of TFC’s filmmakers will be a case study down the line as the film has been a standout performer on Distrify, but that is because of the filmmakers’ efforts, her long-standing brand, and also efforts of her distribution partner.

In another future post, we will be highlighting a filmmaker who has taken a completely different path to releasing his work. Rather than living in NYC or LA, he lives in Memphis, TN, a way cheaper place to live and to film in. He has built a respectable following of his own because he’s tapped into a specific niche (not LGBT) audience that is large enough to support the films he is making.

He seems happy and his sustainable filmmaking career is a refreshing reminder that it is possible to turn away from conventional wisdom on how things in the film business work. He’s is building his own road and it might never lead to Oz, but he is the wizard pulling the levers for his work in  the “post tornado Kansas” that is today’s indie film landscape.