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
Sundance narrative films are the ones that get the bulk of the media attention; their star power or discovery or indie cred frequently send some of these gems into financial success. But last year’s majority resulted in distributors overpaying for titles, titles going for next to nothing, or even failing to secure distribution. Frequently, the filmmakers and/or the distributors were in the red.
For all the talk of the slower fest this year, there are now 10 films that have secured seven figure deals. Last year’s fest had 14 or 15 (one has conflicting dollar amounts in reports). While this year’s deals are nowhere near the $9.75 Mil paid for The Way Way Back, it does suggest a healthier marketplace with sane sales prices. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how last year’s slate performed. Over 80% secured domestic distribution.
AWARDS POWER FOR US DRAMATIC
Last year’s US Dramatic award winners were also the top indie box office performers.
The highest grossing competition film, Fruitvale Station, won the Audience and Grand Jury awards. Though it failed to get an Oscar nomination, TWC managed a healthy $16 Mil + theatrically. That is notably better than the previous year’s jury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The second highest grossing film from the US Dramatic section was The Spectacular Now. A24 which has tailored itself to films for younger demos (VERY VERY BOLD MOVE given how hard it can be to reach the under 25 audience for indies). The $1.5 Mil acquisition grossed $6.85 Mil theatrically.
Roadside Attractions snagged the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award Winner In A World, which surprised many with a gross of just under $3 Mil. Afternoon Delight, which won last year’s Directing Award, made $174k with Film Arcade doing the theatrical and Cinedigm handling digital. Shane Carruth’s self-distributed Upstream Color won a special jury prize for sound. The film is the highest grossing DIY release from last year’s festival with a total of $444k and a very healthy iTunes total, however, it is likely that Gravitas Ventures pushed Sound City into the ultimate #1 spot. Never under-estimate the power of a music doc. Mother of George and Ain’t them Bodies Saint’s shared the cinematography prize. Mother Of George was Oscilloscope’s highest grossing release last year at over $157k and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made $371K under the direction of IFC. That total is arguably a disappointment with all of the hype surrounding the film, stellar critical praise and the seven figure acquisition price.
In contrast, the films that did not win awards had very mixed results. Many of these films (award winners included) had $1-8 Million production budgets and, in fact, most failed to recoup from their initial distribution deals. Perhaps their investors will see money back eventually.
The non-award-winners include C.O.G. and Concussion. Both finished with around $50k theatrically. Focus World/Screen Media can’t be happy with the performance of C.O.G., the first David Sedaris short story turned into a film. Concussion was day and date release and Radius TWC has said the film was a top performer on digital platforms. Without publicly available data, we have to take their word for it. Meanwhile, Kill Your Darlings just barely passed the $1 Mil mark for SPC, who paid around $2 Mil for the film. They acquired a number of other territories and the film will obviously be stronger on digital platforms. It is the second year in a row that SPC acquired a film featuring a younger cast, then held onto it to screen 8 months later at Toronto International Film Festival and failed to earn back ½ of their acquisitions cost in theatrical release. The strategy of waiting to launch out of TIFF and going for the younger American audience clearly isn’t working for them and should be rethought. I personally think it’s a mix of both. In this day and age, I can think of very few reasons where waiting 8 months between festivals makes any sense.
Also underperforming to the acquisitions price was SPC’s Austenland. It has grossed $2.15 Mil in the US and is the highest grossing non award winning US Dramatic film. However SPC paid $4.5 Mil in partnership with SPWA. The additional territories and better digital viewing could possibly pull the film to break even, still well below what one wants from that kind of high profile buy.
Far on the other side of the spectrum are the D.O.A.’s The Lifeguard and Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. The former released by Screen Media and the latter by Tribeca Film and Well Go USA. In both cases, bad reviews clearly harmed these films which both had semi-marketable casts. Even with solid digital revenue, both films, which were likely acquired for under six figures, can be called flops. The same can be said for Magnolia’s Touchy Feely which managed $36k, not even 1/15th of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday. The 35% enthusiasm rating on Rotten Tomatoes indicates how the film was received.
CBS Films acquired Kings of Summer (originally called Toy’s Attic). Though they stated in their original acquisitions announcement that the film would open wide, it never did, so one has to assume they tried to cut their losses and the $1.315 Mil it made theatrical was nowhere near what they were anticipating. The film has much of the same demo as The Spectacular Now, but with none of the star power or awards profile attention.
WORLD DRAMATIC FAILURE
75% of the World Dramatic slate lacks domestic distribution as of this post. The other three films include one yet to be released (despite it winning an Award at Sundance and being UK’s Oscar submission (Metro Manila), one that failed to crack $15k (Il Futuro) and one modest performing success. Crystal Fairy is the only world dramatic film to have any kind of traction in the US. The Day one selection made $192k theatrically in the care of IFC.
Unlike when Sleepwalk With Me became a hit for IFC, 2013’s NEXT crop of films were largely modest to middling performers. A Teacher failed to crack $10k in the hands of Oscilloscope, Pit Stop (which TFC handled for festival distribution) went to DVD/Digital with Wolfe, Milkshake and Newlyweeds barely made a whimper with Phase 4. Audience Award Winner, This is Martin Bonner couldn’t pass $15k and Strand Releasing’s I Used to be Darker stopped short of $25k. Blue Caprice fell just short of $100k for IFC/Sudance Selects. At one point, it was in 36 theaters. For a film that received such a nice marketing push, it is safe to call it an underperformer at the box office, even more so with its low seven figure acquisitions price which didn’t finalize until March after the festival.
I have already written about Escape From Tomorrow and it’s self financed theatrical/digital performance with Producer’s Distribution Agency. The film has failed to make back its budget through the combined total, and that doesn’t factor in any P&A spent or revenue splits. The one real bright spot is Computer Chess. Kino Lorber had one of its best theatrical runs for a narrative film, solid festival exposure and wisely kept the film in the press and turned down an offer from TIFF that would have made them take a break. The film quietly passed the $100k mark which, given its no-name cast, low fi production values, and vintage style, is quite an accomplishment.
While genre films consistently perform better on VOD/Digital, the theatrical realities of last year’s midnight slate is nothing short of a total flop. The Rambler (Anchor Bay), Hell Baby (Millennium), Ass Backwards (Gravitas Ventures), In Fear (Anchor Bay), Magic Magic (Sony Pictures Worldwide) wound up going direct to DVD/Digital, grossing under $10k theatrically, or not reporting box office totals at all. V/H/S 2 barely passed $21k in the hands of Magnolia, a far cry from how it’s predecessor did. Again these films often performed quite well digitally, but for the festival that launched the Saw franchise, none of the entries really made a dent.
We Are What We Are (EOne) is the only Midnight film to pass $50k. Kink, which The Film Collaborative is handling for festivals, was just acquired by MPI Media. Virtually Heroes has yet to make a deal.
Sweetwater, Big Sur, and Charlie Countryman all failed to make a dent at the box office and were either DIY or their distributor did not report the acquisitions price. Each had some form of star power and must be huge disappointments for their financiers. The Look of Love also failed to register theatrically for IFC. The film was Day/Date and if any company can make money back on the digital it would be them. But it’s far from what one wants to see for a seven figure acquisition.
PREMIERE BIG DEALS
Don Jon was bought for $4 Mil by Relativity Media with a $25 Mil P&A. The film has failed to gross $25 Mil at the box office though it is the highest grossing film from last year’s fest. Likely it will barely break even. The Way Way Back was the highest selling direct acquisition at the fest, bought for an estimated $9.75 mil for North American rights and several other territories, but the P&A is unknown. The film exceeded $21 Mil making it ultimately a modest performer for Fox Searchlight though it far outshined previous acquisitions, Stoker and The East, which they acquired pre-fest and neither of which managed over $2.5 Mil.
SPC snagged Before Midnight and the film is the highest grossing of the trilogy with slightly over $8 Mil. It also was just nominated for an Oscar. Closing night film jOBS, on the other hand, only saw a 27% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has a Razzie Award nod and their self financed release with Open Road failed to recoup their costs. Worldwide, the film has grossed almost $36 mil likely on the strength of the Ashton Kutcher name.
We’re anxious to see how this year’s crop performs in release. Already, one World Documentary film, Sepideh Reaching for the Stars, has launched simultaneously with its US premiere on iTunes in the US and Canada, which is a first.
Bryan Glick January 24th, 2014
Tags: A Teacher, A24, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Anchor Bay, Ass Backwards, Austenland, Before Midnight, Big Sur, Blue Caprice, C.O.G. Concussion, CBS Films, Charlie Countryman, Cinedigm, Computer Chess, Crystal Fairy, Don Jon, Emanuel and the Fishes, EOne, Escape from Tomorrow, Fox Searchlight, Fruitvale Station, Gravitas Ventures, Hell Baby, I Used to be Darker, IFC Films, Il Futuro, In A World, In Fear, jOBS, Kill Your Darlings, Kings of Summer, Kink, Kino Lorber, Magic, Magnolia, Metro Manila, Milkshake, Millennium, Mother of George, MPI Media, Newlyweeds, NEXT, Open Road, Oscilloscope, Pit Stop, Producer's Distribution Agency, Radius TWC, Relativity Media, Roadside Attractions, sales prices, Sepideh Reaching for the Stars, Sony Picture Classics, Sound City, Sundance narrative films, Sweetwater, The Lifeguard, The Look of Love, The Rambler, The Spectacular Now, The Way, This is Martin Bonner, Touchy Feely, Tribeca Film, Upstream Color, V/H/S 2, Virtually Heroes, Way Back, We are what we are, Well Go