It’s a new year, Oscar Campaigning is in full swing and that must mean one thing….Sundance is upon us!

There is no doubt that Sundance is the best launching pad for documentaries in the US if not the world. 10 of the 15 Oscar Shortlisted Docs premiered at Sundance, including the highest grossing doc of the year, 20 Feet from Stardom. Furthermore almost 90% of all docs had some form of domestic distribution secured.

There has been a lot of chatter about the recent New York Times article talking about too many films entering into a shrinking marketplace. I am usually quite the pessimist and cynic, but in this instance it is one of the best things that could have happened for film. THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE DISTRIBUTION.


THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE DISTRIBUTION. Looking at the films from last year’s festival, it becomes clear that the options are endless. And many films have combined approaches for their DIY. Netflix is distributing the audience award winner, The Square starting January 17. The film had a small DIY theatrical with the help of Participant Media, but that’s not the end of it. When it debuts on Netflix, it will also be available on GATHR only expanding the film’s reach.

With all this said, every filmmaker should be making distribution plans from the beginning. Put money aside to cover a festival premiere (publicist, lodging, travel, prints, etc) and for the strong possibility of a self financed release. Perhaps you’ll never have to use it. But it is better to be prepared.

Now with my rant out of the way, here’s a look at how the film’s from last year’s festival fared in distribution.

EVERY SINGLE US DOCUMENTARY and DOCUMENTARY PREMIERE selection had some form of domestic distribution, but multiple world doc films have yet to line something up in the States.




HBO acquired TV rights to or produced 7 documentaries from last year’s festival.

Gideon’s Army, Life According to Sam (whose subject passed away this week), Manhunt, and Valentine Road all world premiered in the US Documentary Competition. The Crash Reel and Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington screened as documentary premieres and the network acquired world doc entry Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer for $1,000,000.

Not only does the network connect these films with far more viewers than they could reasonably expect in a theatrical release, but these films are also some of the critical favorites. Four of the seven films are on the Oscar shortlist for documentaries and a fifth won an Emmy.

HBO is not the only TV player in town.

Showtime aired History of the Eagles Part One and The World According To Dick Cheney which were both in the Documentary Premieres section. The Eagles Doc was also an Emmy Award Winner.

CNN Films partnered with Magnolia on Blackfish. The film has been seen by over 20,000,000 people worldwide and grossed north of $2,000,000 in the US. It made the Oscar Shortlist and has been cited as a key reason Sea World’s revenue is down over 30% this year. The acquisition was for $1,000,000, split between the network and Magnolia and certainly profitable for the latter. The company also had Pandora’s Promise which grossed $66k theatrically, but got hundreds of thousands more views on the TV screen via the broadcaster.

sundance docs 2013


Three of the five highest grossing Sundance docs from last year were about singers/musicians (3 of the top 5 were also sold by Submarine and 4 of the top 5 were distributed by Radius-TWC or Magnolia) Clearly, they are resonating with a larger audience and the top players in documentaries recognize this. What’s truly impressive though is two of these films were day and date releases.

Sound City was a self financed release and dominated iTunes while also grossing over $400,000 in the care of Variance Releasing. While Variance handled the theatrical release of Sound City and Dave Grohl and his team did their own direct distribution through VHXGravitas Ventures handled the traditional VOD release of the film both in North America and internationally, including on iTunes.  The film has grossed north of 7 figures on VOD since Gravitas Ventures launched it almost a year ago. Muscle Shoals has managed just under $700,000 with Magnolia at the helm, but theirs is a traditional distribution situation and the acquisition amount was not stated. Twenty Feet From Stardom also had a traditional release and has grossed just under $5 million and is RADIUS-TWC highest grossing film to date. The film, acquired for just over a $1 million, is also a top performer digitally and has been selling well internationally.


Over 25% of Sundance 2013 docs pursued some form of self-distribution.

Running From Crazy, Blood Brother, The Square, God Loves Uganda, American Promise, Linsanity, When I Walk, Sound City, Pandora’s Promise and the yet to be released Citizen Koch all went for self financed theatricals.

Linsanity and Citizen Koch both raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter for their theatrical releases.  Linsanity has made $299,408 in cinemas. This more than justifies the DIY campaign and assuming they didn’t pour extra money into the release would net them just over $100,000 before digital and other ancillary are factored in.

The Square, which is the first Netflix Documentary pick up, had a small Oscar Qualifying run that turned into a little bit more and helped the film make the shortlist. It has grossed over $50,000 to date. That threshold was also exceeded by fellow shortlist film God Loves Uganda. Variance is releasing God Loves Uganda and should either film make the final Oscar cut you can expect additional revenue. That said, neither release appears to be profitable on its own. Variance said a few years ago they wouldn’t do a release for under $20,000 and cinemas do take a large chunk of revenues. Add the cost of Oscar Campaigning and the absence of the Netflix deal and God Loves Uganda clearly needs the Oscar nomination to boost its bottom line for digital (It will air on PBS later this year).

Running From Crazy quietly earned $33k, When I Walk did not report totals and Blood Brother has grossed over $50,000, but all through TUGG screenings.  Blood Brother’s total is at once impressive and instantly disappointing. The film won the audience and grand jury awards, but failed to generate major buyer interest. ITVS has TV and Cinedigm has digital rights, but the film has become one of the lower grossing performer’s for a major festival award winner. At the same time, it screened at festivals left and right and, while skipping week long engagements, has screened at churches and small towns around the country. It may ultimately reach $100,000 via TUGG.



While Sundance continues to push for a lot of political docs, they are far from the best performers at the box office. After Tiller is a great film, but hardly a Friday night date movie. Festival revenue has provided a boost for the Oscilloscope release, but with under $70k in theatrical and a solid push for Oscar (it was not shortlisted) feels like a disappointment.  Similarly award winners The Square and Blood Brother also are far from the top of the pack at the box office.

Meanwhile, over 1/3 of the World Doc films have nothing lined up for the States and Fire in the Blood is the lowest grossing Sundance Doc from last year that reported box office totals. It still has made about $20k and much of it from TUGG.

Other underperformers include Cutie and the Boxer, which was not day and date, and The Summit, which was one of the biggest doc deals at low 7 figures from Sundance Selects, but failed to pass $300k theatrically. Compared to films like Dirty Wars (IFC) which pulled in $371, 245 and Inequality for All (Radius-TWC) grossing $1.1 million, the buy was a bust.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how the narrative films from Sundance 2013 fared in release.

January 15th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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Written by Sheri Candler

This week’s post should help those who are thinking about giving transmedia/cross platform storytelling a try. Andrea Phillips first encountered cross platform storytelling over a decade ago and has been writing in the space since 2005 as a full-time, free-lance transmedia author. She worked on the interactive treasure hunt Perplex City, HBO’s immersive online sensory experience The Maester’s Path for its show Game of Thrones, and with musician Thomas Dolby on an online experience for his concept album, a community-based web game based on Dolby’s entire discography called A Map of the Floating City.

I interviewed her upon the release of her new book A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences across Multiple Platforms and asked about the differences between this form of storytelling and more traditional forms, whether this takes a different skill set and how she sees this field evolving over time.

SC: Are there different principles of storytelling for transmedia?

AP: Yes and no. The basics of telling a good story are going to be the same no matter what medium you are using, but if you are going into a big transmedia project, you have to leave things more open ended than you would traditionally. You have to give yourself opportunities to extend the story late and more places where things aren’t answered, more loose ends.

In the book, I talk a lot about Chekhov’s gun, that traditional storytelling principle where if you have a gun on the mantle in the first act, then it has to be fired. (ed note: from Wikipedia: Chekhov’s gun is a literary technique whereby an apparently irrelevant element is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear later in the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The phrase “Chekhov’s gun” is often interpreted as a method of foreshadowing, but the concept can also be interpreted as meaning “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.”) But in transmedia, this isn’t a good technique because you want to put lots of things in the story like this, you may need something later to use and, if it has been precedented,  you can build on it.

There are lots of things in transmedia that go against the idea that the story will unfold 100% the way you envisioned. Sometimes the audience won’t react to something the way you expected them to and one of the fantastic things about working in digital media is the ability to adapt to the reaction you are getting. In films, studios do test screenings and change the ending if the audience reaction is poor or not what is desired. With an interactive narrative, you actually have a chance to change the whole story if it is playing out differently than you had envisioned. If the protagonist is portrayed as unsympathetic, you can either change the story or use that info to help him get what’s coming to him.  It’s really fun stuff!

SC: Some storytellers might say “I have my whole vision for a story and I don’t want to constantly evolve it.” Is there a mindset change to this kind of work as well?

AP:  “There can be, but let’s step back. There should be wiggle room, but it doesn’t have to be the whole story. The classic story of Hamlet doesn’t become a better play if you let the audience vote on the ending. You don’t necessarily want your audience deciding what the story is, but if you give them even the feeling that they have a part in influencing the outcome, it is a very powerful tool for participation. They have an investment in the story just as much as the author does.

SC: The main component I see in this is making the story interactive. The difference between the traditional way and the interactive world that we live in now is the ability to have participation rather than passively watching or reading what is put in front of you. Do you think that when we talk about educating audiences or drawing them in to the storytelling, does it depend on their age or their mindset or their history of playing video games or collaborating with other people?  Is there an audience boundary that is keeping this from getting bigger?  Or will this just evolve over time as we see more of these kinds of projects?

AP:”I think there are some audience boundaries, but also context boundaries. Sometimes you just want to sit quietly and read a book and not have to click on something or go look something up later.  Sometimes people will want a single medium story and that will probably always be the case. The trick is to provide that single medium experience for the audience who still likes that,  while identifying the audiences that want to be more engaged with the story. It is surprising, it doesn’t always have to do with age or gender or tech savvy. First find the audience that really loves your story and once you have a fandom, or base of supporters who really love the stories you tell, they will want whatever you can give them. Digital media winds up being a fairly cost effective thing to give them more of the story. It is much cheaper to roll out a social media footprint than it is to make subsequent films for instance. You are still giving them things that they want that will keep them involved in your story, until you do have the ability to get that second film, or subsequent project out.”

SC: What kind of budget considerations are we talking about when one wants to make a transmedia project? Does it mean you have to have the budget of The Dark Knight Rises or Prometheus or The Hunger Games? Or can one do it with some simple tools and elbow grease?

AP: “You definitely can do it with simple tools. The Alternate Reality Game community (ARG) is a group of fans who have gotten together to make experiences for each other out of pocket change and love.  You don’t need a Dark Knight budget to make a transmedia experience. Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr are relatively free, shooting video isn’t free, but if you are already shooting a film, just adding on additional videos probably isn’t going to be so expensive. It is the sort of indie spirit thing as any other indie art project would have.”

SC: I hear indie filmmakers say “OK, I’m going to have a film. And then I’ll think about all of those other story aspects because those are more of the marketing or promotional efforts that come later.” Or they only see this effort as something that will fill the theater or sell DVDs. Is this a good idea or should it be planned from the start so that it is all incorporated together?

AP: “I am definitely, definitely of the opinion you should plan it all up front. Mainly because if you just tack something on later, it is going to feel tacked on.  If you want it to reach its maximum power, then you have to make it all in one piece and plan for how everything will interrelate.  Even from initial writing, initial conception.”

SC: In reading through some of the ideas on transmedia projects from filmmakers, I feel like some people paint themselves into a corner. These story tangents go off onto other paths and then disappear because they haven’t been clear about how it all weaves back into the overall project.  Also, Lance Weiler has talked about how in his early projects, games they created to be solved by the audience in a week, only ended up taking a day and it caught the creators by surprised so they had to scramble to keep up.

AP: “This is one of the rookie mistakes that I talk about in the book. Never deploy anything unless you are ready for it to be solved. The audience is always smarter than you think it is. They are as smart as the smartest 20 people among them because they all collaborate. They will always outthink you, never think you will be smarter than your audience. Also this may come from a more marketing mindset. Some people think they will put an interesting bit of something out there, as a marketing tactic and they don’t give it much mind as to whether it leads anywhere. It gives the audience a negative feeling about your story. When you set up an expectation and then there is no payoff, it is extremely frustrating for the audience.”

SC: What do you think about all of these transmedia events, and new media funds, and new emphasis on transmedia storytelling in independent film? It seems like creators are being told this is the only way to be creating stories now. Many times these events seem a little haphazard and confusing, like they are being programmed by people who also don’t know much about this form of storytelling.

AP: “I think it is a confusing time for the creators. The audience doesn’t care about this conversation at all. They just want to know if this thing you are putting in front of them is worth their time or not.  They don’t care if it is transmedia, cross media or who it was funded by.  In one sense, it is an important conversation because creators have their careers to think about, but from the audience perspective, none of this is relevant if we aren’t doing good work.”

SC: Right, this is a time of experimentation. Where there is chaos, there is opportunity and you have to look a little harder for it. There is no one process that has been developed to succeed, and as an independent filmmaker, you wouldn’t want that anyway.

AP: “I had an interview with a gentleman who was very frustrated with me because he kept asking me for  a blueprint on the one right way to make a transmedia project. And my answer was it depends on what you are trying to do.  The book is not the one true way to create a transmedia project as much as it is a flowchart of lots of different ways. There are things you can do, and there will be trade offs to doing that. It is much less about rules than about my advice on what you can do depending on what you are trying to accomplish with your work.

The interesting thing about transmedia right now isn’t the stories, but the structures. We are in an amazing period of experimental structure and I am not sure this has happened in storytelling ever before. There has been experimental structure in individual arts such as writing with the novel, and in film. But now we are seeing this happen across all media and figuring out how to use multiple media and include the audience with digital tools in order to tell a story. The thing that fascinates me is how people fit all the elements together in their story.”

SC: As time and money are needed to create these stories, what do you see as sources for revenue? I think we shouldn’t come into this thinking if it doesn’t make millions, it isn’t worth doing. But what do you see as a way of generating revenue?

AP: “First I’d like to say that anyone who doesn’t think an artist has a right to make money is on the wrong side of history.  There is no shame in commercial art. I do see some interesting things revenue wise. You for sure see the Hollywood studio model which largely depends on licensing and on selling movie tickets, a very traditional and stable way of making money.

But I also see things like Accomplice which has a live performance aspect, short, location based experiences where one buys a ticket to see it. I’ve seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries which uses the Youtube advertising revenue stream and you can also see projects selling merchandising (posters, comics, tshirts). There’s really no limit which is the other interesting thing.  Not only is the storytelling structure changing, but the business structure is too. You can hypothetically make money any way you can imagine. The question becomes how much time and money are you spending to make the project, and is it more than you could ever get in return? Knowing that only comes with experimentation and experience.”

SC: Are many film schools teaching this kind of scriptwriting/storytelling? I don’t think that many are doing this yet.

AP:  Quite a number are teaching this actually. Emory, UNC, FSU, Ball State, MIT, Columbia, USC, all have programs. There is definitely an academic interest in it and especially in film schools. I am much more excited to see this being taken up by film rather than only by games. Film has been considered much more legitimate as a storytelling medium in the hierarchy of culture so transmedia is becoming much more legitimate too from its association with film.

I do think it is valuable to teach these skills to students. Film, theater, and creative writing students because it is something that exists in the world and sheer exposure is a valuable thing even if you aren’t choosing to work in it in your individual career.”

SC: Do you think this will evolve to where stories will only be told this way? I see this as a way to be in dialog with an audience and it is becoming more and more expected that the audience will be able to speak with creators. Will it be possible to say, “Oh I am not going to be in talks with the audience, I’m just going to write it as a straight book or film?” Is this really going to be  an optional thing in 10 years time?

AP: “I think it will stay optional. As I said, sometimes the audience doesn’t want the whole experience. There will also be a significant number of creators who aren’t comfortable working this way or have a creative interest in not making their story interactive. I do think in the commercial space that you may not be able to get funding for your webseries or film if you don’t have a transmedia plan though. That is a reality I can very easily imagine.”

SC: In getting back to the book, tell me how it is laid out

AP: “The book is in 5 sections. The first is an introduction to transmedia. The second is an intro to storytelling. Further sections cover structure, production and then big picture which is ethics and money.  The structure section is the heart of the book.  I talk about considerations like using email, will you send it via your character, will the character answer? I don’t say, ‘You must use these social media outlets.’ You can’t  say that, it depends on what you are trying to do and I, as the author of this book, do not know what you are trying to.

SC: Ethics, that’s an interesting section to include. What are ethical considerations to creating transmedia projects as opposed to writing a book or making a movie?

AP: “When you are putting pervasive elements into the world, things that look like they are real, you do wind up with ethical considerations. For example, a common trope is flyers for missing persons. I consider this not just ethically poor, but also bad design.  As a consumer walking down the street, the first thought is not, ‘Oh my gosh, this must be part of a game or film. Let me take down this number or website and partake of this entertaining experience.’  It is probably, ‘Oh, what a terrible thing has happened. I am going to lock my doors when I get home.’ Creators need to think about the context someone will have when they happen across this material.

My favorite example I use in the book is the Parkinson’s Disease example. Let’s say you have a fictional pharmaceutical company and you make a website for it, as is the way for any transmedia project.  Typically, there will be news published on this fictional pharmaceutical website. So you make some fake press release about Parkinson’s Disease, announcing the results  of fake trials of a drug that improves symptoms and is expected to come to market in 3 years. Now, imagine that this website gets some Google juice and someone who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease is searching the internet for treatment options and finds this news. They make a treatment decision based on your element of fiction that was not signposted as fiction for someone who found it by accident on Google. That’s problematic because you could do harm to someone out in the world.

Many times creators don’t think about these things until something bad has happened. Things happen in the real world because of content we put out there. The world isn’t yet accustomed to questioning everything behind a story to see if it is real. All you have to do is look at how many articles from The Onion get reported as news.

My thanks to Andrea for spending time talking to me about her work and her new book. I have read the book and it is excellent, a real primer for those interested in learning more about creating interactive stories using both online tools and offline experiences. I especially liked her descriptions of World Building as it is something I don’t think creators spend enough time thinking about. World building is a good exercise whether you are creating a story structure on which to hang technology and user experiences or you are thinking through all the elements you can create and layer to immerse an audience into the world of your characters for marketing purposes, to pull them into the story experience. Every story exists in a “world” and creators should strive to bring the audience into it, let them experience it from many angles, give them something to do there, not just assume passive viewing.

For more on Andrea’s thoughts about the future of storytelling, see this video




November 7th, 2012

Posted In: transmedia

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By Bryan Glick

Just because you didn’t premiere at Sundance or Cannes doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Though not living up to the sales quota of last year, there are two dozen premiere films from SXSW that have sold in the U.S. Here’s a wrap up of the film sales from SXSW.

Anchor Bay stuck with their niche and took North American rights to two midnight entries Girls Against Boys and The Aggression Scale, while Cinedigm (who recently acquired New Video) went for U.S. Rights to In Our Nature and the midnight audience award winner Citadel. Pre-fest buys include Crazy Eyes which went to Strand Releasing for the U.S.  and Blue Like Jazz courtesy of Roadside Attractions. Blue Like Jazz was promptly released and has since grossed close to $600,000 theatrically in North America.  Lionsgate is handling DVD, VOD, and TV through their output deal. Meanwhile Crazy Eyes just started its theatrical run on two screens pulling in a little under $5,000 in its first week.

Millennium Entertainment took the gross out comedy The Babymakers and yet another midnight film, The Tall Man was bought for the U.S. by Imagine.  If you’re a midnight film at SXSW, odds are things are looking up for you. The same could be said for The Narrative Spotlight section where two thirds of the films have since been acquired including The Do-Deca Pentathlon  taken by Red Flag Releasing and Fox Searchlight. Red Flag is handling the theatrical (The film grossed $10,000 in its opening weekend off of 8 screens) while Fox Searchlight will cover the other ancillary markets. The Narrative Spotlight Audience Award Winner, Fat Kid Rules the World was bought by Arc Entertainment for North America and Frankie Go Boom was the first film to reap the benefits of a partnership with Variance and Gravitas.  It will be released in the U.S. on VOD Platforms in September via Gravitas followed by a theatrical in October courtesy of Variance.

And though they did not premiere at SXSW, both Dreams of a Life and Electrick Children had their U.S. premieres at the festival and have since been bought.  U.S. rights to the documentary Dreams of a Life were acquired by Strand Releasing. Meanwhile, Electrick Children was snatched up for North America by Phase 4. Phase 4 also nabbed North American rights to See Girl Run.

Sony Pictures and Scott Rudin took remake rights to the crowd pleasing Brooklyn Castle while HBO acquired domestic TV rights to the doc The Central Park Effect.  Meanwhile, after showing their festival prowess with their success of last year’s breakout Weekend (which was sold by The Film Collaborative’s Co President, Orly Ravid), Sundance Selects proved they were not to be outdone and got the jury prize award winner Gimme The Loot for North and Latin America.  Fellow Narrative competition entry Gayby sold its U.S. rights to Wolfe Releasing, a low 6-figure deal. That deal was also negotiated by TFC’s Orly Ravid. And not to be outdone, competition entry, Starlet rounds out the Narrative Competition films to sell.  It was acquired for North America by Music Box Films.

S2BN Films’ Big Easy Express became the first feature film to launch globally on iTunes. It will be released in a DVD/Blu-Ray Combo pack on July 24th by Alliance Entertainment followed by a more traditional VOD/Theatrical rollout later this year.

Other key deals include Oscilloscope Laboratories acquiring North American Rights to Tchoupitoulas, Snag Films going for the US Rights of Decoding Deepak, Image Entertainment’s One Vision Entertainment Label aiming for a touchdown with  the North American rights to The Last Fall and Factory 25 partnering with Oscilloscope Labs for worldwide rights to Pavilion.

Final Thoughts:  Thus far less than one third of the films to premiere at SXSW have been acquired for some form of domestic distribution. While that may seem bleak, it is a far better track record than from most festivals.  In The U.S., SXSW is really second to only Sundance in getting your film out to the general public. The festival also takes a lot of music themed films and more experimental projects with each theme getting its own designated programming section at the festival. Those films were naturally far less likely to sell. The power players this year were certainly Anchor Bay and Cinedigm each taking multiple films that garnered press and/or have significant star power. Other companies with a strong presence and also securing multiple deals were Strand Releasing and Oscilloscope.  Notably absent though is Mark Cuban’s own Magnolia Pictures and IFC (Though their sister division Sundance Selects made a prime acquisition). Magnolia did screen Marley at the festival, but the title was acquired out of Berlin, and IFC bought Sleepwalk With Me at its Sundance premiere.

While it is great that these films will be released, it also worth mentioning what is clearly missing from this post. There is almost no mention of how much these films were acquired for. The fact is films at SXSW don’t sell for what films at Sundance do and it is safe to assume that the majority of these deals were less than six figures with almost nothing or nothing at all getting a seven figure deal.

As for the sales agents, Ben Weiss of Paradigm and Josh Braun of Submarine were working overtime, with each negotiating multiple deals.

SUNDANCE UPDATE: Since the last Sundance post, there have been two more films acquired for distribution. Both films premiered in the World Documentary Competition. The Ambassador negotiated successfully with Drafthouse Films who acquired U.S. rights for the film which will premiere on VOD August 4th followed by a small theatrical starting August 29th.  Also finding a home was A Law in These Parts which won the jury prize at this year’s festival.  Cinema Guild will be releasing the film in theaters in the U.S. starting on November 14th. 75% of the films in the World Documentary Competition now have some form of distribution in the US.

A full list of SXSW Sales deals from SXSW is listed below. Box office grosses and release dates are current as of July 12th.

See Girl Run Phase 4 North America Katharyn Howe and Visit Films
Starlet Music Box Films North America Submarine
The Babymakers Millenium US John Sloss and Kavanaugh-Jones Theatrical Aug 3rd
DVD Sept 10th
Citadel Cinedigm US XYZ Films and
UTA Independent Film Group.
The Aggression Scale Anchor Bay North America Blu-ray/dvd Epic Pictures Group
Girls Against Boys Anchor Bay North America Paradigm
Tchoupitoulas Oscilloscope North America George Rush
Gimme The Loot Sundance Selects North and Latin America Submarine Entertainment
The Tall Man Image Entertainment US CAA and  Loeb & Loeb August 31st
Elektrick Children Phase 4 North America Katharyn Howe and Paradigm
Blue Like Jazz Roadside US The Panda Fund $595,018
Crazy Eyes Strand US Irwin Rappaport $4,305
In Our Nature Cinedigm US Rights Preferred Content
Brooklyn Castle Sony Pictures Remake Rights Cinetic Media
Scott Rudin
The Central Park Effect HBO US TV Submarine Entertainment
Gayby Wolfe US The Film Collaborative
The Do Decca Pentathlon Fox Searchlight North America Submarine Entertainment $10,000
Red Flag Releasing
Fat Kids Rules The World Arc Entertainment North America Paradigm
Decoding Deepak Snag Films US N/A October
Big Easy Express Alliance Entertainmnet Worldwide DVD/VOD Paradigm and S2BN July 24th DVD/Blu-Ray
Big Easy Express S2bn Worldwide Itunes Paradigm and S2BN Available Now
The Last Fall Image Entertainment North America N/A
Pavillion Factory 25 Worldwide N/A Jan
Oscilloscope Labs
Frankie Go Boom Gravitas US Rights Reder & Feig and Elsa Ramo VOD Sept
 Variance Theatrical Oct
Dreams of a Life Strand releasing US Rights eone films international Aug 3rd


July 18th, 2012

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical

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* 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.

*GROWN UP MOVIE STAR, NO US or INTL distribution, E1 entertainment is the sales agent, Mongrel Media (distributor in Canada)

* 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).


*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.


* 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.

December 21st, 2010

Posted In: Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical, Uncategorized

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