by Orly Ravid, Founder, The Film Collaborative
Orly Ravid is an entertainment attorney at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp (MSK) and the founder of The Film Collaborative with 15-years of film industry experience in acquisitions, festival programming, sales, distribution/business affairs, and blogging and advising. She also contributed to the Sundance Artist Services initiative.
Filmmakers usually think selling their film to distributors means that they will handle the whole release including theatrical, home video, and of course now digital/VOD. One category of distribution that is often overlooked, or not fully understood, however, is educational distribution. It can be a critical class of distribution for certain films, both in terms of reaching wider audiences and making additional revenue. For a certain type of film, educational distribution can be the biggest source of distribution revenue.
What is it?
When a film screens in a classroom, for campus instruction, or for any educational purpose in schools (K-university), for organizations (civic, religious, etc.), at museums or science centers or other institutions which are usually non-profits but they can be corporations too.
This is different from streaming a film via Netflix or Amazon or renting or buying a commercial DVD. Any film used for classes / campus instruction / educational purposes is a part of educational distribution and must be licensed legally. Simply exhibiting an entire film off of a consumer DVD or streaming it all from a Netflix or Amazon account to a class or group is not lawful without the licensor’s permission unless it meets certain criteria under the Copyright Act.
Initially, this was done via 16mm films, then various forms of video, and now streaming. These days, it can be selling the DVD (physical copy) to the institution/organization to keep in its library/collection, selling the streaming in perpetuity, renting out the film via DVD or streaming for a one-time screening, or exposing the content to view and at some point (certain number of views) it is deemed purchased (a/k/a the “Patron Acquisition Model”).
What type of films do well on the educational market?
In general, best selling films for educational distribution cover topics most relevant to contemporary campus life or evergreen issues such as: multiculturalism, black history, Hispanic studies, race issues, LGBTQ, World War II, women’s studies, sexual assault, and gun violence; in general films that cover social and political issues (international and national); health and disability (e.g. autism); and cinema and the arts. A great title with strong community appeal and solid perception of need in the academic community will do best (and the academic needs are different from typical consumer/commercial tastes).
At The Film Collaborative, we often notice that the films that do the best in this space sometimes do less well via commercial DVD and VOD. This is true of films with a more historic and academic and less commercial bent. Of course, sometimes films break out and do great across the board. Overall, the more exposure via film festivals, theatrical, and/or social media, the better potential for educational bookings though a film speaking directly to particular issues may also do very well in fulfilling academic needs.
Across the board the companies doing educational distribution get their content from film festivals but also simply direct from the producers. Passion River and Kanopy, for example, note that film festival exhibition, awards, and theatrical help raise awareness of the film so films doing well on that front will generally perform better and faster but that does not mean that films that do not have a good festival run won’t perform well over time. Services such as Kanopy, Alexander Press, and Films Media Group collect libraries and get their films from all rights distributors and those with more of an educational distribution focus as well as direct from producers. These services have created their own platforms allowing librarians etc. to access content directly.
Windowing & Revenue
There are about 4,000 colleges in the US and about 132,000 schools, just to give you a sense of the breadth of outlets but one is also competing with huge libraries of films. Educational distributors such as ro*co films has a database of 30,000 buyers that have acquired at least one film and ro*co reached beyond its 30,000 base for organizations, institutions, and professors that might be aligned with a film. All rights distributors often take these rights and handle them either directly, through certain educational distribution services such as Alexander Press (publisher and distributor of multimedia content to the libraries worldwide), Films Media Group / Info Base (academic streaming service), or Kanopy (a global on-demand streaming video service for educational institutions), or a combination of both. There are also companies that focus on and are particularly known for educational distribution (even if they in some cases also handle other distribution) such as: Bullfrog Films (with focus on environmental), California Newsreel (African American / Social Justice), Frameline Distribution (LGBTQ), New Day Films (a filmmaker collective), Passion River (range of independent film/documentaries and it also handles consumer VOD and some DVD), roc*co films (educational distributor of several Sundance / high profile documentaries), Third World Newsreel (people of color / social justice), Women Make Movies (cinema by and about women and also covers consumer distribution), and Swank (doing educational/non-theatrical distribution for studios and other larger film distributors). Cinema Guild, First Run Features, Kino Lober, Strand, and Zeitgeist are a few all rights distributors who also focus on educational distribution.
Not every film has the same revenue potential from the same classes of distribution (i.e. some films are bound to do better on Cable VOD (documentaries usually do not do great that way). Some films are likely to do more consumer business via sales than rentals. Some do well theatrically and some not. So it is no surprise that distributors’ windowing decisions are based on where the film’s strongest revenue potential per distribution categories. Sometimes an educational distribution window becomes long and sales in that division will determine the film’s course of marketing. But if a film has a theatrical release, distributors have certain time restrictions relative to digital opportunities, so that often determines the windowing strategy, including how soon the film goes to home video.
The film being commercially available will limit the potential for educational distribution, and at the same time, the SVOD services may pay less for those rights if too much time goes by since the premiere. Hence it is critical to properly evaluate a film’s potential for each rights category.
Revenue ranges widely. On the one hand, some films may make just $1,000 a year or just $10,000 total from the services such as Kanopy and Alexander Street. On the other hand, Kanopy notes that a good film with a lot of awareness and relevance would be offered to stream to over 1,500 institutions in the US alone (totaling over 2,500 globally), retailing at $150/year per institution, over a 3-year period, and that film should be triggering about 25% – 50% of the 1,500 institutions. Licensors get 55% of that revenue. On average, a documentary with a smaller profile and more niche would trigger about 5-10% of the institutions over 3 years.
More extreme in the range, ro*co notes that its highest grossing film reached $1,000,000, but on average ro*co aims to sell about 500 educational licenses.
If the film has global appeal then it will do additional business outside the U.S. All rights and educational distributors comment that on average, good revenue is in the 5-figures range and tops out at $100,000 +/- over the life of the film for the most successful titles. The Film Collaborative, for example, can generate lower to mid 5-figures of revenue through universities as well (not including film festival or theatrical distribution). Bullfrog notes that these days $35,000 in royalties to licensors is the higher end, going down to $10,000 and as low as $3,000. For those with volume content, Alexander Street noted that a library of 100-125 titles could earn $750,000 in 3 years with most of the revenue being attributable to 20% of the content in that library. Tugg (non-theatrical (single screenings) & educational distribution) estimates $0-$10,000 on the low end, $10,000 – $75,000 in the mid-range, and $75,000 and above (can reach and exceed $100,000) on the high end. Factors that help get to the higher end include current topicality, mounting public awareness of the film or its subject(s), and speaking to already existing academic questions and interest. Tugg emphasizes the need for windowing noting the need for at least a 6-month window if exclusivity before the digital / home video release. First Run Features (an all-rights distributor that also handles educational distribution both directly and by licensing to services) had similar revenue estimates with low at below $5,000, mid-range being $25,000 – $50,000, and high also above $75,000.
Back to windowing and its impact on revenue—Bullfrog notes it used to not worry so much about Netflix and iTunes because they “didn’t think that conscientious librarians would consider Netflix a substitute for collection building, or that instructors would require their students to buy Netflix subscriptions, but [they] have been proved wrong. Some films are just so popular that they can withstand that kind of competition, but for many others it can kill the educational market pretty much stone dead.” Yet, theatrical release is usually not a problem, rather a benefit because of the publicity and awareness it generates.
Passion River explains that filmmakers should not be blinded by the sex appeal of VOD / digital distribution—those platforms (Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix) can and will wait for hotter films on their radar. An example Passion River offers is Race to Nowhere which sold to over 6,000 educational institutions by staying out of the consumer market for at least 3 years. This type of success in the educational space requires having the right contacts lists and doing the marketing. But I would say, consider the film, its revenue potential per rights category, the offers on-hand, and then decide accordingly.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3, which will go into the nitty gritty details of educational distribution.
The legal information provided in this publication is general in nature and should not be construed as advice applicable to any particular individual, entity or situation. Except as otherwise noted, the views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). This alert may be considered a solicitation for certain purposes.
Orly Ravid February 18th, 2016
Tags: Alexander Press, Amazon, Bullfrog Films, California Newsreel, Cinema Guild, classroom films, educational distribution for films, educational market for films, film distribution, film library, Films Media Group, First Run Features, Frameline Distribution, Kanopy, Kino Lorber, Netflix, New Day Films, Orly Ravid, Passion River, ro*co, Strand Releasing, The Film Collaborative, Third World Newsreel, Women Make Movies, Zeitgeist Films
* This is part 1 of 3 parts to this Sundance focused blog.
* Part 2 will be written during the festival.
* Part 3 will be written in the aftermath of the glow of the fest.
If I were a filmmaker going to Sundance, and let’s say that I had a film with no recognizable press-generating cast that would be attractive to a distribution company for a large MG… What would I do? Seriously, I asked myself that question. And I realized how tempted I would be, even I, to find some sexy publicists and rockstar agents or sales company so that I could get the hot sexy sale at Sundance and make all my dreams come true.
What can a distributor do for you that you cannot do yourself with just a little bit of money, not even a lot, and some low fee consultation? And above all, what are you giving up by not building community for your film before and during the fest, instead letting other people run your show, potentially losing out on the momentum of the festival?
The beauty of Sundance, aside from the pretty mountains and clean air and great films and the best cheese danish I have ever had (@ the Java Cow and I know I’ll regret writing this), is the focused attention of both the PRESS and the PUBLIC. Most films showing at the festival, excluding cast-driven films, would not get half (½) the attention would they were not showing at Sundance.
Let’s look at some films from Sundance last year that were in this position and the routes they took and what they may have netted. These are films that cut distribution deals of some kind and got less than wide releases from their distributors:
A Small Act (Doc): Distributed by HBO, I don’t know exact sale price but suspect it was less than $150,000 and they did not need a sales agent to do that. They are also a TFC client for festival distribution. TFC handled film festivals for the filmmaker though by the time we got involved HBO had aired the film and that hurt our festival bookings and hence diminished potential revenues to the filmmaker. The director, Jennifer Arnold, is presently closing a DVD deal as well that she got herself.
*Gasland (Doc): Distributed by HBO, TFC consulted at Sundance along with their lawyer Michael Donaldson, and they did not need anyone to help them get a good HBO deal though they did have help handling offers and pursuing interest. The deal came to them directly and would have come to them regardless. They did some self-distribution for theatrical (Box office $30,846) and festivals. The film is now available for DVD. Zipline did PR and the film got its good rightful share of it. The filmmakers received a deal that has worked out very well, with some great PR and it played lots of fests. It’s shortlisted for the Oscars too.
*Extenuating circumstances: Debra Winger executive produced this film and she definitely helped a lot. Josh Fox is a very committed activist and spokesperson of the film’s critical message so he is very embedded in the community that would be most interested in this film. It’s a great example of a film that got a lot out of being at Sundance and the filmmakers got a deal they are happy with and they probably recouped as a result given the low budget of the film.
A Film Unfinished: Distributed by Oscilloscope. I will say that $320,000 theatrical box office is very very good (I have no idea what they spent though to release the film but it’s likely some money was made on the theatrical). The film had a sales agent (CINEPHIL from Israel) and I am almost positive the MG was less than 6-figures. My judgment is that the filmmakers could have done just as well releasing on their own with just some money set aside for a booking agent and a publicist, especially for this niche. It is a doc that hits a niche audience that works consistently and is lucrative and I can’t say that the filmmakers needed a sales agent and a distributor to be in between the film and its audience. I doubt the filmmakers will make as much money as they would have handling the film on their own with just some low fee consultation.
The Dry Land – reported budget from imdb $1mil, box office $11,777 Most likely a service deal since it was theatrically released by Freestyle Releasing. Freestyle service deals are not cheap; most of their releases involve budgets of $200,000 + (though sometimes less) and most for-profit service deals involve fees of tens of thousands of dollars). Clearly not a good result here, but we assume hoping to recoup in home video.
Douchebag -Paladin is distributor and (so I assumed it was a service deal paid for by the filmmakers but the producer wrote to Ted Hope that they sold the film for more than its budget. We would love to know the details since usually Paladin does service deals and since to us that seems like quite a deal). Box office return $20,615 on a maximum of 6 screens. Also, not a good return.
Bhutto – Distributed by First Run Features. Just released December 3, to day box office $16,216, only playing 2 theaters. A large advance was not paid and most of what was accomplished could have been done by the filmmakers themselves without large percentages paid.
Taqwacores: Distributed by Strand , most likely a very small advance was given. The box office was $9,347 on 2 screens. Another example of a film that could have done this much better and faired better overall without a distributor involved. With just some low fee consultation, time and money set aside, the filmmaker would still be in control of their film and able to work up the audience.
I am not knocking these deals, simply noting that if one is to do them, one should at least cut out excess middle men and do them smartly, reserve some rights, negotiate carefully on the back end, monitor expenses, maybe even have been better off not doing these deals. It would have helped all of these films to build community around the film leading up to the festival and exit the festival with a bang, ready to reach audiences immediately. I think a lot can get lost during the time it takes for distributors to bring films to market, especially for the smaller films.
I think the decision to cut a deal with a distributor, no matter what, is emotional because even when I put myself in the filmmakers’ shoes I realized the emotional power of having an offer made to just take care of this for me. It signals that what has been made must have value and was done well. It also allows for one to not have to get hands dirty with the money stuff and the business stuff. But, if you are a filmmaker, you did choose the most expensive art medium in the world and unless you are rich or your investors don’t care about getting their money back, I want you to at least consider this: You don’t NEED traditional distribution. For MOST of you, without special connections or name cast, MOST traditional distribution will not serve you. Most distributors don’t pay enough or do enough or are fair enough, and many of them have to raise P&A anyway, or hire the same service providers you can, so do the math, think twice, and be careful. And remember, buyers are happy to buy direct, especially many TV buyers and VOD platforms, and you can get inexpensive help negotiating.
The more you can set up to do on your own the better for you and your investors in the long run. You run a risk doing nothing in terms of building community around your film or not setting up a distribution plan, having several layers of middle-men and waiting for Godot. When you do the math, the Sundance dream often connects up to cast-driven films and just a few rare gems each year, and there are those to be sure, each year, but just a very few. Most other deals you could get anyway if you wanted them, with someone on the side advising in you in fair way.
PS: Here is additional info on films from Sundance 2010:
* 3 BACKYARDS: Screen Media all rights, no verifiable release.
*12th AND DELAWARE: HBO Films, premiered on 8/02/10,currently HBO OnDemand.
* ANIMAL KINGDOM: Sony Pictures Classics, Box office $1,008,742 and this is a great example of a film that might otherwise have done little if any business were it not for Sundance.
* CATFISH: Rogue Pictures / Universal with a box office of $1,315,573 and it is definitely a great release for a doc and if the deal is good for the filmmakers then it’s a dream come true. Of course that’s an ‘If”.
* CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY: Magnolia Pictures, $175,865 – and this is directed by Alex Gibney one of the most famous doc directors but sadly probably lost market share to the feature starring Kevin Spacey.
*EXIT THROUGH A GIFT SHOP: Producer’s Distribution Agency (a distribution company set up by John Sloss specifically to handle this film), Box office $3,291,250. I am in love with that film, and it’s to Banksy’s credit the film did what it did and some in the industry actually think it was a financially weak release given how much was spent, estimates are put at over a million. In any case, most filmmakers cannot imitate a set up that had John Sloss turn down a 7-figure advance because he wanted to handle the release himself and he did with the help of Richard Abramovitz and had the reputation and cult following of Banksy, Shepard Fairey , and Thierry Guetta.
*FAMILY AFFAIR: OWN the Oprah Winfrey Network, air-date: possibly spring.
* THE FREEBIE: PHASE4, the box office was just $16,613 the deal was allegedly worth low – mid six figures for US & Canada, all rights. The film was sold by Visit films.) Now I have inspired Phase4 to buy two films I did not take a commission on. I am not saying Visit films is not great and I am not saying it’s not great to have guidance at a festival or market especially when there is a bidding war, which there was apparently, I am just saying buyers buy films they want, not because of who is selling them. We hope the filmmakers of all these films weigh in on their overages and overall bottom line.
* FREEDOM RIDERS: PBS with an outreach campaign by American Experience, film to be shown in May on 50th anniversary of the original rides.
* HESHER: NewMarket, reported budget $7mil, no release info
* HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE (DISTRIB: Anchor Bay, release was supposed to be in March but as far as we know it has not happened yet).
* THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE: no info
*JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: The Radiant Child (Arthouse Films (which also produced the film), Box office was $250,129. A big hit in France, what a great niche and great doc. The producers did handle their film themselves in the US.
*LAST TRAIN HOME, Zeitgeist Films, released: 9/03/10-TOTAL GROSS: $282,092
(Here is a good example of a good doc sales company from what we hear and a good US distributor and a doc that probably sold well relatively speaking).
* LOVERS OF HATE: IFC –which is primarily a VOD play and some very traditional deal terms.
* MY PERESTROIKA: no info
* THE OATH: Zeitgeist, box office $42,273
* OBSELIDIA-reported budget $500K, still with a sales agent it appears
*THE RED CHAPEL, Lorber Films, opens 12/19/10 at IFC Center, Lorber Films plans a theatrical release of the film in the U.S. and Canada, followed by television broadcast and a DVD release.
* RESTREPO (US distribution: National Geographic Entertainment, Box office $1,330,058 –another Sundance success story to be sure, assuming terms are good for the filmmakers, which we have no information about
* SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS: Maya Entertainment (US, media)
* SKATELAND: Freestyle Releasing in March 2011 – and this means most likely it’s a service deal and paid for by the filmmaker. I should note that sometimes Freestyle helps raise the P&A. (though I don’t know what their cut is; one day I will ask).
* TWELVE: DISTRIBUTOR is Hannover House and the box office gross was $183,920 (somewhat shocking given the cast and the director.
*UNDERTOW: (Sundance World Cinema Audience Award Winner) TFC is doing theatrical and worldwide festivals and consulted on the distribution deals. We will be covering this in a case study to be written after the release is completed.
*WASTE LAND, Arthouse Films, released 10/29/10-TOTAL GROSS: $96, 597
Arthouse Films handled the theatrical release later followed by a DVD and digital release on the Arthouse Films label in early 2011…E1 Entertainment holds the international rights and is managing worldwide sales which to date include Australia (Hopscotch), Hagi Film (Poland) and Midas Filmes (Portugal). E1 Entertainment will also distribute the movie in Canada and the UK. Downtown Filmes is the Brazilian distributor.
* WINTER’S BONE: Roadside Attractions, Box office $6,210,516, and this is a great example of a film that would have likely lingered in oblivion were it not for Sundance and the right distributor;
* Other films not listed in detail are Cyrus, The Kids Are Alright, Waiting For Superman, Splice, and The Runaways because they all have big names involved, in a few cases the deals were done before Sundance and not all of them even had great releases in the net analysis.
Orly Ravid December 21st, 2010
Tags: A film Unfinished, A Small Act, Bhutto, Cinephil, Debra Winger, distribution, Douchebag, DVD, First Run Features, Gasland, HBO, Jennifer Arnold, Josh Fox, Michael Donaldson, Oscilloscope, Paladin, Strand, Sundance, Taqwacores, The Dry Land