This article first appeared on the Sundance Artist Services blog on August 13, 2012

written by  Bryan Glick with assistance from Sheri Candler and Orly Ravid

Indie Game: The Movie has quickly developed a name not just as a must-see documentary but also as a film pioneer in the world of distribution. Recently, I had a Skype chat with Co-directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot . The documentary darlings talked about their indie film and its truly indie journey to audiences.

Swirsky and Pajot did corporate commercial work together for five years and that eventually blossomed into doing their first feature. “We thought it would take one year, but it ended up taking two. I can’t imagine working another way, we have a wonderful overlapping and complimentary skill set, ” said Pajot. “We both edited this film, we both shot this film. It creates this really fluid organic way of working. It’s kind of the result of 5 or 6 years of working together. I don’t think you could get a two person team doing an independent film working like we did on day one. It’s stressful at times but the benefits are absolutely fantastic, ” said Swirsky.

According to Swirsky, Kickstarter covered 40% of the budget. “We used it to ‘kickstart’, we asked for $15000 on our first campaign which we knew would not make the film, but it really got things going. The rest of the budget was us, personal savings.”  The team used Kickstarter twice; the first in 2010 asking for $15,000 and ended up with $23,341 with 297 backers. On the second campaign in 2011, they asked for $35,000 and raised $71,335 with 1,559 backers.

The hard work, dedication, and talent paid off. Indie Game: The Movie was selected to premiere in the World Documentary Competition section at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival winning Pajot and Swirsky the World Cinema Documentary Film Editing Award . “[Sundance] speaks to the independent spirit. It’s kind of the best fit, the dream fit for the film. Just being a filmmaker you want to premiere your film at Sundance. That’s where you hear about your heroes,” noted Swirsky. “Never before in our entire careers have we felt so incredibly supported…They know how to treat you right and not just logistics, it’s more ‘we want to help you with this project and help you next time.’ It was overwhelming because we’ve never had that. We’ve just never been exposed that,” interjected Pajot

They hired a sales agent upon their acceptance into Sundance and the film generated tons of buzz before it arrived at the festival resulting in a sales frenzy. The filmmakers wanted a simultaneous worldwide digital release,  but theatrical distributors weren’t willing to give up digital rights so they opted for a self release. “There were a lot of offers, they approached us to purchase various rights. We felt we needed to get it out fairly quickly and in the digital way. A lot of the deals we turned down were in a little more of the traditional route. None of them ended up being a great fit,” said Pajot.

Several people were stunned when this indie doc about indie videogame developers opted to sell their film for remake rights to Scott Rudin and HBO. Pajot explained, “He saw the trailer and reached out a week or so before Sundance. That was sort of out of left field because it wasn’t something we were pursuing.” Swirsky added, “They optioned to potentially turn the concept into a TV show about game development…As a person who watches stuff on TV, I want this to exist. I want to see what these guys do with it.” The deal still left the door open for a more typical theatrical release. However that was only the start of their plan.

“We had spoken to Gary Hustwit (Helvetica). We sort of have an understanding of how he organized his own tours. We had to make our decision whether that was something we wanted to utilize. Five days after Sundance, we decided we would and were on the road 2 weeks after… Before Sundance this was how we envisioned rolling out…[We looked at] Kevin Smith and Louis C.K. and what they’re doing. We are not those guys and we don’t have that audience, but knowing core audience is out there, doing this made sense,” said Swirsky.

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky

They proceeded to go on a multi-city promotional tour starting with seven dates and so far they have had 15 special events screenings of which 13 were sold out! This is separate from 37 theaters across Canada doing a one night only event. They also settled on a small theatrical release in NYC and LA.  When talking about the theaters and booking, they said theaters saw the sellout screenings and that prompted interest despite the fact that the film was in digital release. They accomplish all of this with a thrifty mindset. “P&A was not a budgetary item we put aside and if an investment was required, we would dip into pre orders. We didn’t put aside a marketing budget for it,” said Swirsky. Regarding the pre order revenue, they sold a cool $150,000 in DVD pre-orders in the lead up to release of the film. From this money, they funded their theatrical tour.

While the theatrical release was small, it generated solid enough numbers to get held over in multiple cities and provided for vital word of mouth that will ultimately make the film profitable. The grosses were only reported for their opening weekend, but they continued to pack the houses in later weeks.”I don’t look back at the box office. The tour was more profitable than the theatrical…They both have the benefits, having theatrical it gets a broader audience. It was more a commercial thing than box office,” said Swirsky. “We are still getting inquiries from theaters. They still want to book it despite the fact it’s out there digitally,” said Pajot. “We had this sort of hype machine happening. We didn’t put out advertising. Everything was through our mailing that started with the 300 on our first Kickstarter and through Twitter,” said Swirsky. Now the team has over 20,000 people on their mailing list and over 10,000 Twitter followers.  In order to keep this word of mouth and enthusiasm going, the filmmakers released 88 minutes of exclusive content – most of which didn’t make the final cut – to their funders, took creative suggestions from their online forum and sent out updates on the games the subjects of their film were developing over the course of the two years the film was in production.

Following the success the film has enjoyed in various settings, Indie Game: The Movie premiered on three different digital distribution platforms. If you were to try and guess what they were though, you would most likely only get one right. While, it is available on the standard iTunes, the other two means of access are much more experimental and particularly appropriate for this doc.

It is only the second film to be distributed by VHX as a direct DRM-free download courtesy of their, ‘VHX For Artists‘ platform. Finally, this film is reaching gamers directly through Steam which is a video game distribution platform run by Valve. This sterling doc is also only the second film to be sold through the video game service, where it was able to be pre-ordered for $8.99 as opposed to the $9.99 it costs across all platforms. This is perhaps the perfect example of the changing landscape of independent film distribution. Every film has a potential niche and most of these can arguably be reached more effectively through means outside the standard distribution model. Why should a fan of couponing have to go through hundreds of films on Netflix before even finding out a documentary about couponing exists, when it could be promoted on a couponing website?

As they are going into uncharted territory, both Pajot and Swirsky avoided making any bold predictions.”It’s just wait and see. It’s an experiment because we’re the first movie on Steam. We’re really interested to look at and talk about in the future. I don’t want to make predictions…I do think documentary lends itself to that kind of marketing though. We’re trying to not just be niche but there is power in that core audience. They are very easy to find online,” said Swirsky.

Just because they are pursuing a bold strategy doesn’t mean they were any less cost conscious. “The VHX stuff, it was a collaboration, so there were no huge costs. Basically subtitles, a little publicity costs from Von Murphy PR and Strategy PR who helped us with theatrical. Those guys made sense to bring on,” said Pajot. “A lot of our costs were taken up by volunteers. If they help us do subtitles, they can have a ticket event, a screening in their country,” added Swirsky.

They also note that a large amount of their profit has been in pre-orders. 10,000 people have pre-ordered one of their three DVD options priced at $9.99, $24.99 and a special edition DVD for $69.99 tied with digital. While the film focused on a select few indie game developers, they interviewed 20 different developers and the additional footage is part of the Special Edition DVD/Blu-Ray. That might explain why it’s their highest seller.

All this doesn’t mean that any of the dozens of other options are no longer usable. Quite the contrary,  they have also taken advantage of the Sundance Artist Services affiliations to go on a number of more traditional digital sites. Increased views of a film even if on non traditional platforms can mean increased web searches and awareness and could be used to drive up sales on mainstay platforms.

The real winner though is ultimately the audience. For the majority of the world that doesn’t go to Sundance or Cannes each year, this is how they can discover small films that were made with them in mind. The HBO deal aside, this is bound to be one incredibly profitable documentary that introduces a whole new crowd to quality art-house cinema. “We are still booking community screenings. If people want to book, they can contact us…We are thinking maybe we might do another shorter tour at some point,” said Pajot.

Here’s to the independent film spirit, alive and well.

Update Feb 2013: The creators of Indie Game have written their own case study discussing the many tools and techniques they used. Head over to their website for the full study. 

August 16th, 2012

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, iTunes, Marketing, Publicity, Theatrical

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By Sheri Candler

This post was originally published on the Sundance Artists Services blog on March 26, 2012

To start with, I’d like to say that filmmakers should focus on the word social and less on the word marketing. This type of promotion is about relationship building and it is really difficult to build a relationship that starts from the premise that you are only there to sell something. Also, I take the position that all artists should be connecting directly with an audience not on a project-by-project basis, but on a personal one. Instead of starting over again for each project that is incredibly wasteful of time and money, you strive to keep building up the audience base for all of your work, really for you as an artist with a unique vision and a unique voice. No one else can tell the story the way you can. Even behind the scenes crew have a unique vision and unique talents. They should be sharing those with the world.

We all sell every day, we sell a concept of ourselves in how we speak to people, how we present ourselves and I think we inherently understand this. But before I want to do business with someone, I want to know I can trust them, and that I am not being used. I think many corporations still don’t get that about this medium yet. People don’t join your Facebook page to be your word of mouth sales force. Building up trust with your audience is paramount and you do that by giving first. You have to give something, and often for a long time, before you can ask. In fact, if you do this right, you won’t have to ask, they will ask you, they will offer to help.

Don’t attempt this begrudgingly or because everyone says it is something you are supposed to be doing. Start from the place that you are trying to find the people who would love what you do and you want to interact with them. Unless you are anthropophobic, this should be human nature, to connect with kindreds. There are people in the world who are like you and now you have this amazing tool to find them wherever they live in the world. Leave behind the notion that this is about numbers, this is only about sales, this is about buzz and think of it as a way to meet those who will love what you love. All of that other stuff is a by product of this. It will come, but it won’t come immediately and you need plenty of time to build up to that and it will take consistent effort daily.

I realize this is not the stance that most businesses take or understand. They want numbers, they want quantifiables. Utilization of social is no longer something that needs to be justifiable for business goals. Along with advertising, it is a business tool, increasingly a major one. Internet users expect to find you on social platforms whether or not you feel like that benefits the bottom line yet. It is and it will continue to do so.

Also note that this will not be your only tool when you are ready to start selling. Publicity, advertising, and email communication still very much have a place in your overall marketing efforts, but if you build a following consistently, your reliance on those more expensive tools will be minimized.

The key platforms for social network marketing:

I believe pretty much any site on the web is a social networking site. Any place where people can post links, comment, upload information, follow others has a social aspect to it. So those could be blogs, forums, publication websites (New York Times, WSJ), photo sites like Flickr or Instagram, video sites like Youtube and Vimeo, podcast sites like BlogTalk Radio, streaming sites like Ustream. I think people hear social networking and mostly think Facebook and Twitter, but really to be effective in reaching an audience, you have to know where they particularly hang out and it may be on Facebook and Twitter, but it also may be a LinkedIn group, or on Amazon, Meetup or certain blogs.

Any priority ranking to them?

It is hard to argue not being on Facebook since they have over 800 million users worldwide and 435 million are using Facebook from a mobile device. While 155 million of those users are from the US, 43 million are from India and the same from Indonesia. Other top countries are UK, Mexico, Brazil and Turkey.

Based on Alexa rankings, the top social networking sites for the US market are:

  1. Facebook
  2. Twitter
  3. LinkedIn
  4. MySpace
  5. Google Plus

But there are surprising ones in the top 15 such as: Tagged, deviantArt, Orkut, Ning and CafeMom. Don’t underestimate the power of Pinterest too.

It really depends on who your audience is and what they respond to, where they spend their online social time. You will have a mixture of sites, not just one and you will need to test which ones are giving you the most interaction. Maybe your audience really loves watching videos or they really love deep discussions at the end of blog posts. You will need to test what posts are popular and elicit interaction, even from your own website, which I will say you also need. You should never be totally dependent on a third party site. Just ask those who had free Ning sites instead of websites. When the free option went away, they risked losing their communities and had to pay to upgrade or start from scratch again. The same with Facebook and their EdgeRank algorithm. If Facebook deems that one of your fans doesn’t interact with your page enough, they remove it from their newsfeed, often unbeknownst to that fan. Since you haven’t been able to message them directly, there really isn’t a way to bring them back into awareness of your page barring spending money to advertise.

A website you own is the only true online real estate you can control. It is the central hub of all of your activity, everything else is just a spoke on that central hub. Collecting email addresses is also extremely important, but that is for another post.

There is no magic formula for being successful at social, everything has to be tested and the results will vary with each project.

Does it depend on the nature of the film?

No. The decision to be social really isn’t up for debate anymore. Americans spend 22% of their online time each day visiting social networking sites, 65% of all adult internet users have a social network account of some sort. This is not a fad that is going away, the upcoming generation doesn’t even know a time that social networking didn’t exist. It will get bigger, not smaller. Deciding which sites to spend time on will be determined by the kind of audience with which you need to connect.

What are key tips for social network marketing?

  1. Get a personal account going on the sites where you think your audience hangs out and start using it. I am astounded at agencies that sell social networking solutions and don’t have much of a presence themselves on social sites. How can you advise how to use them when you don’t personally do it for your own business? How can you handle someone else’s account when you don’t have one of your own? Every filmmaker hoping to connect with an audience needs an account.
  2. Start by listening first. This is best accomplished when you don’t need to build an audience by tomorrow, you know what I’m saying? If you have this pressing need to start connecting, people can sense it right away and they won’t interact. It is like the insurance guy who walks around a networking event handing out cards in order to meet a sales quota, not actually speaking to anyone other than a sales pitch. No one likes it in real life and they don’t like it online either. This is not a one-way message medium like advertising. If you want to speak, but not interact, just buy an ad. Listen first, determine how best to interact and then dive in.
  3. You are now a publisher. No way around this, it is just the way it is now. A new term for this is social business. A business that can collaborate, share insights and knowledge, and provide value to their audience is going to be way more profitable and sustainable than those who remain closed off from them. This means publishing content of some sort, either generated from your production or generated by your fans, but probably a mixture of both. It needs to be entertaining, insightful, worthy of discussion and sharing, and pulls the audience back for more again and again. We just entered an era of waaaay more work than we used to do. Not one piece of creative advertising, but hundreds of pieces in different mediums and across multiple channels that are meant to lead to discussion with the brand (yes, you are a brand) and with others also connected to that brand.

What are some key mistakes? Some “Don’ts”:

Waiting too late to start and using social only to self promote. Remember, self-promotion is about helping OTHER people. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you help others, THEY promote you. If they don’t, then you weren’t really helping (the help originated through clearly selfish motives) or you just haven’t connected with the right people.

A couple of examples of filmmakers who really get it right:

I hate to give the same examples as everyone else, but the best I’ve seen as far as sustainable interaction (meaning they aren’t clearly doing it just to promote their latest project and then drop out of sight again) are Kevin Smith and Edward Burns. They are consistent, they interact, they use multiple mediums, they don’t use social as a one-way shill mechanism and I don’t think they have an outside agency cultivating their communities.

I also really admire Tiffany Shlain, she has a great grasp of the power of social networking even though she advocates unplugging (gasp!) for a day each week. Her film, Connected, is about the power (and the curse) of the Internet to connect people, but Tiffany was doing this long before she made the film.

I know there are now more and more filmmakers building up their own audiences, but they may have only started in the last few years and they didn’t come out of the old machine so their followings aren’t as large as those examples. People like Gregory Bayne (Driven), Zak Forsman (Heart of Now), Kirby Ferguson (Everything’s a Remix), Jennifer Fox (My Reincarnation), Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) are all building up their own followings, not just around their films, but around themselves as artists. Even people like Hal Hartley and Abel Ferrara are now starting to embrace social networking and crowdfunding. I really hope to be able to list tons more doing this every year.

It is completely perplexing to me that those who already do have a following from the traditional machine, do not reach out, really have no idea who watches their films and have no interest in knowing. This mentality is not going to serve them well with the consumers coming up in the world today who are used to interacting, who expect to have a dialog. The only thing I can think is, well, no one is popular forever, no one retains power forever. There will always be a new crop coming up behind and I think indie filmmakers who are embracing this concept now are well positioned to be the new crop.

 

Sheri Candler, social network marketing strategist can be contacted at info@shericandler.com or sheri@thefilmcollaborative.org and found at SheriCandler.com

April 24th, 2012

Posted In: Marketing, Social Network Marketing, Uncategorized

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