This week’s member story focuses on how TFC helps filmmakers who request our consultation on their release. Director John Chi will also write a further guest post that goes into more detail about how his first feature film Tentacle 8 was released, but today he talks about how he discovered our organization and, through consultation with us, changed what he thought about distribution success.

At what stage in the production process was TFC consulted?

JC: “Three months after we wrapped production, we had a very solid cut of the film and we were ready to start showing it to people. Casey Poh, one of our producers, immediately suggested we reach out to TFC and get their thoughts. Casey had previously met Orly Ravid when he was working at Outfest, and later approached her to serve as a consultant for his Stark Producing Graduate Thesis Project at USC.

We contacted TFC and Co-Executive Director, Jeffrey Winter, was kind enough to watch our film, and give us his thoughts. He flatly stated that we weren’t a festival film, that our subject matter wasn’t mainstream enough to be programmed, and beyond that, it was going to be a very challenging film to market. This wasn’t the reaction we expected. We heard and respected Jeffrey’s comments, but we also wanted to proceed as planned. So we signed with Glen Reynolds at Circus Road Films to act as our sales representative, and began submitting to all the major film festivals.”

Did the premiere lead to any sales interest? Did you have a plan for distributing the film?

JC: “TENTACLE 8 submitted to all the major acquisition festivals (Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, and Tribeca) and many of the other premier festivals (Slamdance, LAFF, and Seattle International), but we didn’t get into any of them. After nearly a year of futility, we accepted that Jeffrey Winter was right, and that we weren’t a good fit for festivals. We decided to go directly to distributors via our sales agent, and two months later, we received a few offers for domestic DVD and VOD/Digital Distribution.”

What advice was sought from TFC and what ultimately happened with the release of the film?

JC: “When we realized we weren’t going to get into a major festival, we contacted TFC again to explore our distribution options. The first thing we did was scour the TFC archives to read everything we could on traditional distribution, DIY distribution, and compared the pros and cons of the two approaches, incorporating any processes that were relevant to us.

I then had a thirty minute conversation with TFC founder Orly Ravid about our prospects. She very succinctly explained that our film wasn’t mainstream enough for any distributor to really go out on a limb for us. We could bypass traditional distribution and go with a DIY approach, but we’d need to put in a lot of additional time, energy, and money with no guarantees of success; OR we could sign on with one of the traditional distributors and manage/lower our expectations. She cautioned, however, that no distributor was going to spend a lot of money or energy marketing the movie. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the importance of that warning; I just wanted to move forward.

The final decision to sign with Grand Entertainment Group, was based mainly on their long history and experience in the home entertainment business. We determined that there was just no way to get a cable tv deal or get our DVDs onto store shelves at Walmart and Best Buy without their help and prior relationships.”

Where can the film be seen now?

JC: “Our DVD was released on March 18, 2014 and sold out our initial shipments at Walmart, Best Buy, and Amazon within the first 8 days of release. 8 is our lucky number!

IMDB also put us on a list of Most Popular Independent Feature Films released in 2014, based on their movie meter rankings. Pretty incredible considering we had very little press and publicity prior to our DVD release. It was based almost entirely on our small, but very loyal and dedicated base that we grew completely organically. While we are very grateful to be on any list of success stories, there are probably thousands of independents released each year that never see the light of day, which is incredibly unjust and unfair because we might have been one of those films had the ball bounced a little differently.

Our VOD/Digital release will be sometime in April or May, and we’re partnering with Tugg, Inc. to have some promotional theatrical events in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and possibly San Francisco. I ultimately realized that no one was more responsible and obligated to market and promote the film than me, the producer/director/writer of the movie. I don’t think I would have truly understood that, if someone else had been doing it for us. We never could have harnessed and cultivated the same level of ownership our audience has with the film, if we didn’t do it the old fashioned way, by personally reaching out one person at a time. It’s really hard work, but I know we’re much stronger because of it.”

To find out more about Tentacle 8, visit these websites:

IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2048875/

Tugg:  http://www.tugg.com/titles/tentacle-8

Facebook:  www.facebook.com/tentacle8

Webpage:  www.tentacle8.com

Twitter:  www.twitter.com/tentacle8

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Tentacle-8-Brett-Rickaby/dp/B00H7LRY5E

April 9th, 2014

Posted In: Best Buy, case studies, Digital Distribution, Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Many of you may be aware that we co authored a book in 2011 called Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul. It was funded, created and distributed much in the same way we advocate filmmakers approach their work; we attracted sponsors to help pay for the development, creation and the ability to distribute one version of the book as a forever free pdf download; and we self published it because it would be hypocritical to advocate that filmmakers take control of their work while we turned ours over to a publisher. Plus most publishers would bristle at the thought that copies are available for free. We felt that the best way to get our sponsors’ messages seen widely was through free distribution and we need to retain the rights to the work in order to make that happen.

Jon Sheri Orly at the NYC book signing

For all who did download and share that book, we thank you and hope that it inspired and guided you on releasing your next projects.

We are several years on from the original release now and our thoughts are turning to our colleagues outside of the US. Most all of our previous case studies came from American filmmakers, but now more and more filmmakers from outside of the US are either leaving their government funded filmmaking schemes due to shrinking budgets or are choosing not even to try for the funds and turning to crowdfunding and private investment. We think it is time to put the spotlight on non US based filmmakers who are navigating their own paths as well as the outlets that are enabling them to reach outside of their countries’s borders and bring their work to a global audience.

I published a short sneak peek at one of my case study chapters on the Selling Your Film blog yesterday, so hop on over and take a look at what writer/director Marcus Markou did with his narrative film Papadopoulos and Sons. Though a timely, sweet and funny film, UK distributors didn’t know what to do with a film that didn’t have major festival accolades or a big name cast (sound familiar?), so Markou took matters into his own hands. What resulted was a hybrid release that included a 7 week theatrical run in the UK with sell out screenings in London’s Cineworld flagship cinema, Shaftesbury Avenue (right in the heart of the city, for those unfamiliar), a nomination from the London Critics’ Circle for Breakthrough British Filmmaker and distribution deals in Germany, Greece, the US, Australia and on major airlines. It is an inspiring tale and I can’t wait for you to read the chapter in full when it is released in May 2014.

Sneak Peek HERE 

February 6th, 2014

Posted In: book

Tags: , , , , , ,

Written by Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler

Now that the line up for feature films screening in Park City has been announced and the Berlinale is starting to reveal its selections, let’s turn our attention to the potential publicity and sales opportunities that await these films.

For those with  lower budget, no-notable-names-involved films heading to Park City this January, we understand the excitement and hopefulness of the distribution offers you believe your film will attract, but we also want to implore you to be aware that not every film selected for a Park City screening will receive a significant distribution offer. There are a many other opportunities, perhaps BETTER opportunities, for your film to reach a global (not just domestic) audience, but if you aren’t prepared for both scenarios, the future of your film could be bleak.

For any other filmmaker whose film is NOT heading to Park City, this post will be vital.

Sundance Egyptian

Have you been a responsible filmmaker?

What does this mean? Time and again we at The Film Collaborative see filmmakers willingly, enthusiastically going into debt, either raising money from investors or credit cards or second mortgages (eek!) in order to bring their stories to life. But being a responsible filmmaker means before you started production, you clearly and realistically understood the market for your film.  When you expect your film to: get TV sales, international sales, a decent Netflix fee, a theatrical release, a cable VOD/digital release, do you understand the decision making process involved in the buying of films for release? Do you understand how many middlemen may stand in the money chain before you get your share of the money to pay back financing?  Was any research on this conducted BEFORE the production started? With the amount of information on sites like The Film Collaborative, MovieMaker, Filmmaker Magazine, IndieWire and hundreds of blogs online, there is no longer an excuse for not knowing the answers to most of these questions well before a production starts. This research is now your responsibility once you’ve taken investors’ money (even if the investor is yourself) and you want to pursue your distribution options. Always find out about middlemen before closing a deal, even for sales from a sales agent’s or distributor’s website, there may be middlemen involved that take  a hefty chunk that reduces yours.

Where does your film fit in the marketplace?

Top festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Toronto give a film the start of a pedigree, but if your film doesn’t have that, significant distribution offers from outside companies will be limited. Don’t compare the prospects for your film to previous films on its content or tone alone. If your film doesn’t have prestige, or names, or similar publicity coverage or a verifiable fanbase, it won’t have the same footprint in the market.

Your distribution strategy may be informed by the size of your email database, the size of the social media following of the film and its cast/crew, web traffic numbers and visitor locations from your website analytics, and the active word of mouth and publicity mentions happening around it. These are the elements that should help gauge your expectations about your film’s impact as well as its profitability. Guess what the impact is if you don’t have these things or they are small? Yeah…

Understand the difference between a Digital Aggregator and a Distributor?

Distributors take exclusive ownership of your film for an agreed upon time. Aggregators  have direct relationships with digital platforms and often do not take an ownership stake. Sometimes distributors also have direct relationships with digital platforms, and so they themselves can also serve as an aggregator of sorts. However, sometimes it is necessary for a distributor to work with outside aggregators to access digital platforms.

Do  understand that the digital platform takes a first dollar percentage from the gross revenue (typically 30%), then aggregators get to recoup their fees and expenses from what is passed through them, but there are some that only take a flat fee upfront and pass the rest of the revenue back. Then distributors will recoup any of their expenses and their fee percentage, then comes sales agents with their expenses and fees. And finally, the filmmaker will get his or her share. Many filmmakers and film investors do not understand this and wonder why money doesn’t flow back into their pockets just a few months after initial release. You guys are in the back of the line so hopefully, if you signed a distribution agreement, you received a nice advance payment. Think how many cuts are coming out of that $5.99 consumer rental price? How many thousands will you have to sell to see some money coming in?

Windowing.

If you do decide to release on your own, knowing how release windows work within the industry is beneficial. Though the time to sequence through each release window is getting shorter, you still need to pay attention to which sales window you open when, especially in the digital space. Anyone who has ever had a Netflix account knows that, as a consumer, you would rather watch a film using the Netflix subscription you have already paid for rather than shell out more cash to buy or rent a stream of the latest movies. But from a filmmaker/distributor’s perspective, this initial Transactional VOD (TVOD) window maximizes profits because, unlike a flat licensing fee deal from Netflix, the film gets a percentage of every transactional VOD purchase. So if you release your film on Netflix or another subscription service (SVOD) right away without being paid a significant fee for exclusivity, you are essentially giving the milk away. And when that happens, you can expect to see transactional purchases (a.k.a. demand for the cow) decrease.

Furthermore, subscription sites like Netflix will likely use numbers from transactional purchases to inform, at least in part, their decision as to whether or not to make an offer on a film in the first place. In other words, showing sales data, showing you have a real audience behind your film, is a key ingredient to getting on any platform where you need to ask permission to be on it.  Netflix is not as interested in licensing independent film content as it once was. It is likely that if your film is not a strong performer theatrically, or via other transactional VOD sites, it may not garner a significant  Netflix  licensing fee or they may refuse to take it onto the platform.

Also be aware that some TV licensing will be contingent on holding back subscription releases for a period of time. If you think your film is a contender for a broadcast license, you may want to hold off on a subscription release until you’ve exhausted that avenue. Just don’t wait too long or the awareness you have raised for your film will die out.

Direct distribution from your website

Your website and social channels are global in their reach. Unless you are paid handsomely for all worldwide distribution rights to your film, your North American distributor should not run the channels where you connect with your audience; the audience you have spent months or years on your own to build and hope to continue to build. These channels can be used to sell access to your film far more profitably for you than going through several middlemen.

Many low budget American films are not good candidates for international sales because the audience worldwide isn’t going to be big enough to appeal to various international distributors. Rather than give your rights to a sales agent for years just to see what they can do, think seriously about selling to global audiences from your own website and from sites such as Vimeo, Youtube, and iTunes. In agreements we make with distributors for our members, we negotiate the ability to sell worldwide to audiences directly off of a website without geo-blocking unsold territories. If you are negotiating agreements with other distributors, the right to sell directly can be extremely beneficial to carve out.  If you do happen to sell your film in certain international territories, it is wise to also make sure you do not distribute on your site in a way that will conflict with any worldwide street dates  and any other distribution holdbacks or windowing that may be required per your distribution contract.

You can sell DVDs, merchandise, downloads and streaming off your own site with the added benefit of collecting contact email addresses for use throughout your filmmaking career. Above all,  don’t hold out for distribution opportunities that may not come when publicity and marketing is happening. So many times we are contacted by filmmakers who insist on spending a year or more on the festival circuit with no significant distribution offers in sight and they are wasting their revenue potential by holding back on their own distribution efforts. You can play festivals AND sell your films at the same time. Many regional fests no longer have a policy against films with digital distribution in place. When the publicity and awareness is happening, that’s the time to release.

Festival distribution is a thing

Did you know that festivals will pay screening fees to include your film in their program? It’s true! But there is a caveat. Your film must have some sort of value to festival programmers. How does a film have value? By premiering at a world class festival (Sundance, Berlin, SXSW etc or at a prestige niche festival) or having notable name cast. Those are things that other festivals prize and are willing to pay for.

You should try to carve out your own festival distribution efforts if a sales or distribution agreement is presented. That way you will see these festival screening fees and immediately start receiving revenue. Our colleagues, Jeffrey Winter and Bryan Glick, typically handle festival distribution for members of The Film Collaborative without needing to take ownership rights over the film (unlike a sales agent). TFC shares in a percentage of the screening fee and that is the only way we make money from festival distribution. No upfront costs, no ownership stake.

Deliverables

This is an expense that many new filmmakers are unfamiliar with and without the proper delivery items, sales agents and distributors will not be able/interested in distributing your film. You may also find that even digital platforms will demand some deliverables. At TFC (as well as with any sales agent/distributor), we require E&O insurance with a minimum coverage of $1,000,000 per occurrence, $3,000,000 in the aggregate, in force for a term of three years. The cost to purchase this insurance is approximately $3000-$5000. Also, a Closed Captioning file is required for all U.S. titles on iTunes. The cost can be upwards of $900 to provide this file.  Additionally, many territories (such as UK, Australia, New Zealand and others) are now requiring official ratings from that territory’s film classification board, the cost of which can add up if you plan to make your film available via iTunes globally. For distributors, closed captioning and foreign ratings are recoupable expenses that they pay for upfront, but if you are self distributing through an aggregator service, this expense is on you upfront.

You may also be asked to submit delivery items to a sales agent or a distributor such as a HD Video Master, a NTSC Digi- Beta Cam down conversion and a full length NTSC Digi-Beta Pan & Scan tape all accompanied by a full Quality Control report, stereo audio on tracks 1&2, the M&E mix on tracks 3&4 and these may cost $2000-$5000 depending on the post house you use. If your tapes fail QC and you need to go back and fix anything, the cost could escalate upwards of $15,000. Then there are the creative deliverables such as still photography, key art digital files if they exist, electronic press kit if it exists or the video footage to be assembled into one, the trailer files if they exist. Also, all talent contracts and releases, music licenses and cue sheets, chain of title, MPAA rating if available etc.

Distribution is a complicated and expensive process. Be sure you have not completely raided your production budget or allocated a separate budget (much smarter!) in order to distribute directly to your audience and for the delivery items that will be needed if you do sign an agreement with another distribution entity. Also, seek guidance, preferably from an entity that is not going to take an ownership stake in the film for all future revenue over a long period of time.

For those headed to Park City, good luck with your prospects. TFC will be on the ground so keep up with our Tweets and Facebook posts. If the offers aren’t what you envisioned for your film, be ready to mobilize your own distribution efforts.

 

December 19th, 2013

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution

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I used to be the resident regular blogger here at The Film Collaborative, but some of you may know, I’m wrapping up a law degree and I only weigh in on the blog periodically. My colleagues at TFC have been picking up the slack, and doing an awesome job of it, if I do say so. While I am writing only sporadically these days, sometimes I just have ideas that must be written. This post has been brewing in me for a while.

I have something to say and it will not be easy to accept for many of you. I write this out of love and the hope that it will save heartache down the line. Hope is prevalent in the film industry. It can be motivating, but also it can blind filmmakers to the realities they must face in the market. The market is now over saturated with film product and this is only going to continue. Mindsets that once may have worked for the majority now have to give way to a more productive, informed and aggressive one in order to see success.

One big lesson I learned in law school is how legal theories of a claim or case involve classification of law, elements, factors etc. Being precise and persuasive is the difference between winning and losing. I have thought about this lately in terms of filmmakers’ complaints when they have chosen to give their films to  traditional distributors and then were unhappy with the results. Perhaps being precise with the production’s goals and persuasive in presenting how the film will sell in the market in order to meet those goals is something that filmmakers should be practicing.

I’m weary of hearing the irrational expectations of filmmakers who did not think about the business side of their film before they made it. I want filmmakers to actively get real about what’s possible in today’s marketplace and assert some ownership of the results of the performance of the film.

You all know me and know I’m the last person to just blindly defend a traditional distributor.  But I have noticed a pattern now that I find hard to justify.  Many filmmakers (maybe most!) are still wishing, hoping and resorting to making all rights deals with traditional distributors and then, if the release is not handled how the production envisioned, the distributor is blamed. With all the new tools, and by now, not even new discourse about direct distribution and how it gives filmmakers the ability to handle their own releases in the manner they envision, why are so few choosing that route? Is it easier to put the blame on an entity instead of taking the responsibility from the start? Is it easier to think that if a film is chosen for pick up by a distributor, it has merit and then when that merit doesn’t materialize in the market, it must have been the fault of the entity handling it?

Again, I have no issue blaming companies for being in breach because that can definitely happen. Distributors have lots of titles in their catalogs and each will not get the same amount of attention. They will not likely tell you that when signing a deal, but it will happen to some titles. What I do want to address is the filmmaker theory that the distributor screwed up without having any coherent evidence as to how and what would have happened otherwise to making the deal.

I think if a distributor offers you no advance or a small advance for all or even part of your rights, that’s a big vote of little confidence in the title. Doesn’t that sound logical to you?  If you are signing that deal, truly believing there is going to be profit that will reach you beyond what the sales agent takes, what the distributor takes, what the platform/store/exhibitor takes, you’re dreaming. Little investment in acquiring the rights to your film means little marketing effort is going to be made, and likely little will result from the release for you. A filmmaker agreeing to that arrangement should be clued in as to how likely the film will succeed. Again, I am not speaking about being in breach of promises in writing such as projections and a marketing plan that is not actualized. If big projections were made based on a clear marketing plan presented in writing outlining all efforts that will be made, then not executed, there is reason for complaint.

tea leaves

I find it increasingly frustrating to talk with filmmakers who have little or no evidence of their own to demonstrate their film’s appeal. Why would a film that is not going to have an impact festival premiere, has low website traffic numbers, low social network following, small or no email list to contact fans be assumed to wildly succeed?  If no one on the team has done the proper marketing work and/ or the film is not a hit with the audiences who have seen it (most likely at smaller festival screenings), why do filmmakers insist their film will succeed? The tea leaves are splayed out to be read and it may be a difficult read, but filmmakers cannot just brush them aside. If you choose to give your film away to a distributor for little or no advance and no serious marketing commitment (in writing), you should not be surprised by poor results.

3 pieces of advice you should take from this:

1. Prove your film’s concept with proper marketing preparation and act on its distribution directly, or;

2. Prove your film’s concept to an outside distributor and get all of your expectations and requirements as part of a written agreement so there are no surprises and you get what you bargained for, or;

3. Own the fact that you have no proof of your film’s appeal either directly or to middle man distributors and then, reconcile that if you sign a no or low advance, all rights deal with no serious marketing commitment , you have very low expectations for its success.

Filmmakers make some common business projection mistakes like comparing their films to two totally unrelated or uncomparable films; confuse festival circuit success with an indication that there will be home entertainment success, even though the two classes of distribution are entirely different; or their measurements and requirements of success are decided without knowing the costs associated with that success. I am encouraging more practical and realistic thinking. It’s okay sometimes if films don’t recoup their budgets. Films can be, and in my opinion should be, about art and cultural connection. But if the ultimate goal is to fully recoup and/or profit, a detailed plan from the start describing how that is going to happen and what it will realistically take to make that happen really needs to be in place. The complaining and blaming needs to stop.

September 26th, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Long Tail & Glut of Content

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Next week (September 15 – 19) marks IFP’s annual “Independent FIlm Week” in NYC, herein dozens of fresh-faced and “emerging” filmmakers will once again pitch their shiny new projects in various states of development to jaded Industry executives who believe they’ve seen and heard it all.

conference

Most of you reading this already know that pitching a film in development can be difficult, frustrating work…often because the passion and clarity of your filmmaking vision is often countered by the cloudy cynicism of those who are first hearing about your project. After all, we all know that for every IFP Week success story (and there are many including Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, Dee Rees’ Pariah, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, Stacie Passon’s Concussion etc…), there are many, many more films in development that either never get made or never find their way into significant distribution or, god forbid, profit mode.

So what keeps filmmaker’s coming back year after year to events like this? Well, the simple answer is “hope” of course….hope, belief, a passion for storytelling, the conviction that a good story can change the world, and the pure excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.

Which is why I found a recent poll hosted on IFP’s Independent Film Week website [right sidebar of the page] so interesting and so telling….in part because the result of the poll runs so counter to my own feelings on the state of independent film distribution.

On its site, IFP asks the following question:

IFP voting

 

Before you view results so far, answer the question….Which excites YOU the most? Now go vote and see what everyone else said.

** SPOILER ALERT — Do Not Read Forward Until You’ve Actually Voted**

 

IFP result

What I find so curious about this is in my role as a independent film distribution educator at The Film Collaborative, I would have voted exactly the other way.

I suspect that a key factor in IFP Filmmakers voting differently than I has something to do with a factor I identified earlier, which I called “the pure excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.” I’m guessing most filmmakers called the thing most “exciting” that they knew the least about. After all 1) “Crowdsourcing” seems familiar to most right now, and therefore almost routine to today’s filmmakers….no matter how amazing the results often are. 2) “Television As a Platform for Auteurs” is also as familiar as clicking on the HBO GO App….even despite the fact that truly independent voices like Lena Dunham have used the platform to become household names. 3) Cross Media Story Telling remains a huge mystery for most filmmakers outside the genre sci-fi and horror realms….especially for independent narrative filmmakers making art house character-driven films. It should be noted that most documentary filmmakers understand it at least a little better. And 4) Digital Distribution Opportunities…of course this is the big one. The Wild West. The place where anything and everything seems possible…even if the evidence proclaiming its success for independents STILL isn’t in, even this many years after we’ve started talking about it.

But still we hope.

From our POV at The Film Collaborative, we see a lot of sales reports of exactly how well our truly independent films are performing on digital platforms….and for the most part I can tell you the results aren’t exactly exciting. Most upsetting is the feeling (and the data to back it) that major digital distribution platforms like Cable VOD, Netflix, iTunes etc are actually increasing the long-tail for STUDIO films, and leaving even less room than before for unknown independents. Yes, of course there are exceptions — for example our TFC member Jonathan Lisecki’s Gayby soared to the top of iTunes during Gay Pride week in June, hitting #1 on iTunes’ indie charts, #3 on their comedy charts, and #5 overall—above such movie-star-studded studio releases as Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained. But we all know the saying that the exception can prove the rule.

Yes, more independent film than ever is available on digital platforms, but the marketing conundrums posed by the glut of available content is often making it even harder than ever to get noticed and turn a profit. While Gayby benefited from some clever Pride Week-themed promotions that a major player like iTunes can engineer, this is not easily replicated by individual filmmakers.

For further discussion of the state of independent digital distribution, I queried my colleague Orly Ravid, TFC’s in house guru of the digital distro space. Here’s how she put it:

“I think the word ‘exciting’ is dangerous if filmmakers do not realize that platforms do not sell films, filmmakers / films do.

What *is* exciting is the *access*.

The flip side of that, however, is the decline in inflation of value that happened as a result of middle men competing for films and not knowing for sure how they would perform.

What I mean by that is, what once drove bigger / more deals in the past, is much less present today. I’m leaving theatrical out of this discussion because the point is to compare ‘home entertainment.’

In the past, a distributor would predict what the video stores would buy. Video stores bought, in advance often, based on what they thought would sell and rent well. Sure there were returns but, in general, there was a lot of business done that was based on expectation, not necessarily reality. Money flowed between middle men and distributors and stores etc… and down to the sellers of films. Now, the EXCITING trend is that anyone can distribute one’s film digitally and access a worldwide audience. There are flat fee and low commission services to access key mainstream platforms and also great developing DIY services.

The problem is, that since anyone can do this, so many do it. An abundance of choice and less marketing real estate to compel consumption. Additionally, there is so much less of money changing hands because of anticipation or expectation. Your film either performs on the platforms or on your site or Facebook page, or it does not. Apple does not pay up front. Netflix pays a fee sort of like TV stations do, but only based on solid information regarding demand. And Cable VOD is as marquee-driven and not thriving for the small film as ever.

The increasing need to actually prove your concept is going to put pressure on whomever is willing to take on the marketing. And if no one is, most films under the impact of no marketing will, most likely, make almost no impact. So it’s exciting but deceptive. The developments in digital distribution have given more power to filmmakers not to be at the mercy of gatekeepers. However, even if you can get into key digital stores, you will only reach as many people and make as much money as you have marketed for or authentically connected to.”

Now, don’t we all feel excited? Well maybe that’s not exactly the word….but I would still say “hopeful.”

To further lighten the mood, I’d like to add a word or two about my choice for the emerging trend I find most exciting — and that is crowdsourcing. This term is meant to encompass all activities that include the crowd–crowdfunding, soliciting help from the crowd in regard to time or talent in order to make work, or distributing with the crowd’s help. Primarily, I am going to discuss it in terms of raising money.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still remember the day (like a couple of years ago) when raising the money to make a film or distribute it was by far the hardest part of the equation. If filmmakers work within ultra-realistic budget parameters, crowd-sourcing can and usually does take a huge role in lessening the financial burdens these days. The fact is, with an excellently conceived, planned and executed crowdsourcing campaign, the money is now there for the taking…as long as the filmmaker’s vision is strong enough. No longer is the cloudy cynicism of Industry gatekeepers the key factor in raising money….or even the maximum limit on your credit cards.

I’m not implying that crowdsourcing makes it easy to raise the money….to do it right is a whole job unto itself, and much hard work is involved. But these factors are within a filmmaker’s own control, and by setting realistic goals and working hard towards them, the desired result is achieved with a startling success rate. And it makes the whole money-raising part seem a lot less like gambling than it used to….and you usually don’t have to pay that money back.

To me, that is nothing short of miraculous. And the fact that it is democratic / populist in philosophical nature, and tends to favor films with a strong social message truly thrills me. Less thrilling is the trend towards celebrities crowdsourcing for their pet projects (not going to name names here), but I don’t subscribe to a zero-sum market theory here which will leave the rest of us fighting over the crumbs….so if well-known filmmakers need to use their “brand” to create the films they are most passionate about…I won’t bash them for it.

In fact, there is something about this “brand-oriented” approach to crowdsourcing that may be the MOST instructive “emerging trend” that today’s IFP filmmakers should be paying attention to…as a way to possibly tie digital distribution possibilities directly to the the lessons of crowdsourcing. The problem with digital distribution is the “tree-falls-in-the-forest” phenomenon….i.e. you can put a film on a digital platform, but no-one will know it exists. But crowdsourcing uses the exact opposite principal….it creates FANS of your work who are so moved by your work that they want to give you MONEY.

So, what if you could bring your crowdsourcing community all the way through to digital distribution, where they can be the first audience for your film when it is released? This end-to-end digital solution is really bursting with opportunity…although I’ll admit right here that the work involved is daunting, especially for a filmmaker who just wants to make films.

As a result, a host of new services and platforms are emerging to explore this trend, for example Chill. The idea behind this platform (and others) is promising in that it encourages a “social window” to find and engage your audience before your traditional digital window. Chill can service just the social window, or you can choose also to have them service the traditional digital window. Crowdfunding integration is also built in, which offers you a way to service your obligations to your Kickstarter or Indiegogo backers. They also launched “Insider Access” recently, which helps bridge the window between the end of the Kickstarter campaign and the release.

Perhaps it is not surprising therefore, that in fact, the most intriguing of all would be a way to make all of the “emerging trends” work together to create a new integrated whole. I can’t picture what that looks like just yet…and I guess that is what makes it all part of the “excitement of the possibilities of the unknown.”

Jeffrey Winter will be attending IFP Week as a panelist and participant in the Meet the Decision Makers Artists Services sessions.

September 12th, 2013

Posted In: crowdfunding, Digital Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, iTunes, Long Tail & Glut of Content, Marketing

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A interview with the West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference (WESTDOC) Co Founder Richard Propper. Mr. Propper is also  CEO and Director, International Licensing and Acquisitions at Solid Entertainment, a sales agency specializing in documentary films. 

TFC: How long have you been doing international sales and with which entities and films?

RP: “I have been licensing non-fiction programming for 19 years.  It wasn’t something I fell into, I had a great desire to combine the entertainment industry and international business – and I’m a current affairs and history junkie.  Having completed film school and working for a small studio for years in post production, I saw a vast number of filmmakers with great documentary films, but no knowledge of what to do next.  I wanted to be the first call for filmmakers when they thought about international sales.”

“Solid Entertainment has been successfully licensing programs worldwide for almost two decades via such broadcasters as: Animal Planet, ARTE, BBC , BBC2, BBC Horizon, BSkyB, Channel 4, Canal+, The Discovery Channels (worldwide), France 2/3, France 5, HBO, History Channel, M6, NBC, NHK, NOS-EO, National Geographic Channels(worldwide), Odyssee, ORF, Orbit, Planete, Premiere, Showtime, STAR Entertainment Channel, SPIEGEL TV, STERN-TV, SBS6, SF-DRS, TaurusFilm, The Travel Channel, TSR, TV Ontario, RAI, RTI, RTP, REAL-TV, VTM, ZDF.”

“At Solid Entertainment, our deal terms are pretty standard.  A flat rate of 30%.  No deduction for expenses. 3 year exclusive term of representation.”

TFCWhat trends do you see on sales side for documentaries?  Please be specific in terms of territories, rights, prices, types of films that perform v not etc.

RP: “They love (insert doc subject here) in Japan!” – Every new filmmaker I’ve ever met. – Richard Propper

“I’m going to throw a bucket of cold water on many peoples perceptions of the international broadcast marketplace.  In many ways, its tougher now than ever before.  There’s a huge oversupply of programs.  Technology has worked wonders for the creation of content, leading to more of it.  The non-fiction broadcast marketplace has been impacted by Reality TV. Channels need ratings and they have only so many hours they can license and co-produce.  The line has blurred between documentaries and reality, so channels gradually began to license more and more Reality. Most territories in Europe still license good documentaries, but license fees have been declining for a few years.  Asia and Latin America continue to pay modestly.  Larger US broadcasters now want all rights deals.  It didn’t use to be that way, a producer could count on the international rights as his/her “back end monies.”  Not anymore.”

“Today, we see around $8,000 for an hour in Germany.  We used to see $20,000.  France, about $7,500 and it used to be $15,000.  The UK – as high as $80,000, now $25,000.  Generally, all the digital, free follow along rights go with the license fee.  Pay VOD is still retained by the producer.  We’ve had to sell more content overall and look harder for the opportunities.”

“Uniquely, American programs don’t do very well in the international marketplace.  World history, nature and wildlife, buried treasure stories, science and technology stories all do well.  American social issues or narrow political issues are a much harder sale.  When was the last time you saw a great Italian documentary?  You haven’t.  Americans think our programs should sell everywhere, but we don’t reciprocate by programming other countries films on our networks.   The international marketplace looks for programs that are somehow universal.  It’s an art, not a science in producing programs that are attractive to the worldwide audience. I will say that some buyers recognize a well told story, others don’t.  If it’s all talking heads or about some strange subculture –  it won’t sell.  We look at everything that comes into our office for representation – there are always surprises.  If you haven’t captured the audience within the first 10 minutes, its likely the buyers aren’t going to stick around either.”

“Running times are important. If your dream is to make a feature doc, then try to come in at 75 – 100 minutes.  Have a 50 minute cut-down planned for the broadcast one-hour slots.  90% of the world broadcast slots are one-hour.  If there’s only a feature version, it has to compete with every Academy nominated doc or Morgan Spurlock’s or Michael Moore’s latest feature.  It a very hard road if you’re not prepared. But it’s not all bad news.”

“The digital marketplace is starting to come into its own.  While broadcast is challenging, there is a long tail strategy with digital – it just needs a little more time to stand on its own two legs.  It takes strategy to get a good film released onto multi-platforms and various times.  These strategies are being pioneered now.  That is exciting.  A larger audience for many films is out there, and technically there’s a way to deliver it.  You just have to find and engage that audience.”

TFC: Explain the DVD landscape.

RP: “While the general focus, and rightly so, has been on VOD and a la carte program sales, I’ve found in the last year some DVD distributors who are looking for content.  Keep in mind that there’s still a huge population of people who have this machine connected to their TV that provides supplemental content.  We’ve had good luck getting a 4 part limited series and larger multi-episode series into Costco and Target.  It’s short term sales, but its also unexpected revenue stream.  VOD and a la carte programming is great, but it requires working with the right groups to get your content out there.  While filmmakers are waiting for the magic formula to distribute digitally, DVD still has a place.  It’s going away, but not as quickly as you might think.”

westdoc 2013

TFC: What is WESTDOC and why should filmmakers attend?

RP: “Over nearly 2 decades of traveling to television markets and film festivals, I realized that LA needed a substantial documentary conference of its own. One that wasn’t sponsor driven, nor a fortune to attend. Chuck Braverman is a friend and producer, who for years would run into me at various conferences and ask me why there wasn’t a decent conference in LA (I was President of IDA at the time) and proposed that we start one. I begged off for a time and then thought  – why not?  WESTDOC was born.”

“While there are some terrific conferences in other cities, LA really has this fractured creative community.  Most filmmakers belong to several organizations.  But where are the conferences that bring in the decision makers?  Here is a true story.  I was at a conference in Cannes (MIP or MIPCOM) having a meeting with someone who worked 25 minutes away from my office.  I had traveled 9,000 miles to meet her.  How ridiculous.  With WESTDOC we’re getting these decision makers out of their offices and into an event to connect with the LA creative community.”

“When Chuck and I first sat down, we selected the best pieces from IDFA, HOT DOCS, MIP, NATPE, and all the rest.  When we were done with our mission statement and outline, we knew it would be a great conference.  Luckily, between us we had really great contacts with filmmakers and broadcasters.  To our surprise, everyone we asked to speak said they would show up!  Looking back, just our keynote speakers are an impressive bunch; RJ Cutler, Thom Beers, Kirby Dick, Joel Berlinger.  Not bad for an unknown conference!  This year we have Rory Kennedy, Ondi Timoner, and Kelly Day. We have 25 panels that are in the wheelhouse of documentary, Reality, and Digital.  In addition, this year we have The Sit-Down – 30 minute broadcaster overviews with 43+ different networks.”

The 2013 WESTDOC Conference will take place September 15-18 at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles, CA. For a full schedule of speakers and activities, visit their website. TFC Members will receive a promotional code for a discounted ticket. Become a TFC Member today! 

About Richard Propper:

Solid Entertainment Founder and President Richard Propper is the former President of the International Documentary Association (IDA), and executive producer of over thirty internationally broadcast documentary programs. Solid Entertainment is a broadcast distribution company and one of only a handful of US specialty companies which has consistently supplied non-fiction programming to networks worldwide with a particular emphasis in Western Europe.  He has spoke as an authority on development, co-production agreements, and the intricacies international distribution at: MIPDOC, HOT DOCS, IFP, AFM, Silverdocs, Realscreen Summit, NATPE, IDA, UCLA, and USC.  Richard is also the co-founder of WESTDOC: The West Coast Documentary and Reality Conference.  WESTDOC is a three-day event that brings together preeminent producers, directors, writers, network executives, agents and distributors for insightful and unique seminars, as well as networking opportunities.

 

August 29th, 2013

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, education, International Sales

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Further to my last blog, here’s a little advice on working with sales agents. Before you sign with a sales agent, it is critical to do some homework to figure out whether the deals you could get with their help will be better than the ones you could get on your own.

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-What films has this company sold? Are they similar to the kind of film you have? Do those films have the same assets (cast, budget level, festival pedigree, cause or interest based)?

-Where did they sell? Domestically or internationally? Only very large agencies have the ability to handle both and sometimes a large agency won’t be a good fit for smaller films. Bigger slate=less attention to go around. Bigger agencies tend to give preferential treatment to their bigger name clients so if you are just starting out or haven’t built up a strong name yet, don’t expect to get red carpet service.

-For what kind of prices? This may get cagey as many people in the film business don’t like to talk about other people’s deals (unless it is gossip of course!), but they should  be able to give a realistic narrow range of what you can expect based on similar films they have sold.

-What are the terms? Query if the fee to the sales agent and recouped expenses are worth it or if you can just do the couple small deals directly…

-Was the revenue remitted to the filmmaker? Can the agent collect? You should want to know what percentages and recoupment will reduce your share of the sale as well as this agent’s track record for collecting from distributors and paying filmmakers. On this question, you’ll need to contact the filmmakers who have worked with the company and see if they did receive their advances and further revenue. We always recommend making sure that all rights terminate upon material delay of payment. Be specific and be clear so you are not stuck in a deal where you won’t be paid.

Agencies love to show off nice catalogs of films they represent, but a list of titles will not tell you the information you need to know if you want to make your money back or make it back for your investors.

If a sales agent or lawyer approaches you or you want to approach him or her to sell your film, drill into the details. Even on the LGBT front not all films are alike. Not all of them can do the same deals, or any deals at all. Not all have the same revenue stream potentials. Documentaries are different from narratives, for example. And of course this is true of other categories of films. One of the hardest for TFC to handle and one of the hardest to sell in general, especially out of a non-A-list festival, is a drama without name cast.

Working with a sales agent that is taking a 10% commission off of the sales she brings in doesn’t bother me. 10% is not a lot of money for an agent who brings in a six-figure advance, and most likely she will bring in less for the majority of independent films. But I am concerned about paying a producer’s rep a big up-front fee, as there are many bottom-feeding producer’s reps whose business model is only collecting the fee and offering little else. For a good one who offers invaluable advice in the early stage of production and whose contacts may indeed be useful, it could be worth paying for. It is easy enough to Google someone’s name and see the kinds of projects with which they have been associated. If the only sources citing their involvement belong to sites they run, be cautious about making upfront payments and giving an ownership stake in your work.

Let me end with saying any industry professionals reading this please, please share the types of films you are handling and the deals you are doing, be specific. We share our film slate and numbers and if you do too, filmmakers can make educated choices.

I think much of the time filmmakers will still want someone else to handle their distribution and may be happy to do deals even if there is no profit, if only to establish and develop their careers. But let them make that choice as informed filmmakers, not still clinging to the allure of the 1990’s.

July 25th, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, International Sales

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

yellow brick road 2

There is no Yellow Brick Road for independent films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

July 18th, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, Marketing

Tags: , , , , , ,

Although DVD distribution revenue has by all accounts declined significantly since the start of home video and the development of the format, most film distributors still distribute DVDs.  Sales are down, but there are profits to be had for more commercial or popular fare that is strongly supported with marketing spend, whether studio, indie, or niche.
vendor street sign with dvd's on sale

We always advise filmmakers to conduct Direct Distribution of DVDs to their audience even when we or someone else is handling licensing deals for them.  Often though, if a distributor takes on Home Video (i.e. DVD), the expenses associated with the release and the diminishing revenues are the explanation for why digital rights must be licensed to the distributor along with the rights to release the film on traditional physical formats.  Digital rights, at least many of them, rightly belong in the home video category,but here’s the rub. While the distributor has more money and more connections and ability to get a DVD into retail stores, they likely take a bigger commission on digital platform sales than an aggregator who is paid a flat fee or a smaller percentage. Of course, even direct digital distribution (streaming from your own site) requires some service or other that takes a fee. It’s just usually less costly than a conventional distributor’s fee. Back to the rub.

So a well heeled distributor gets a big retailer to order your DVDs when you could not have achieved that on your own and probably more money is spent marketing it than you ever could afford to spend. But note that’s also more money to be recouped before you see a return.  The DVDs that don’t sell come back. And what comes back gets credited. It should be noted, many conventional distributors take their sales fee off of initial sales, regardless of returns.

So the distributor has the muscle to move the units to a retailer, but not enough muscle to get the public to buy them. They did their best, and even risked their expenses and time and staff energy. But the units come back just the same. Their sales fee is calculated off the top and the net left over for the filmmaker can be paltry. You may or may not be worse off than having done all the distribution yourself.

It is something to think about before you push for traditional distribution where there is not a big enough advance, or none, to recoup your initial investment in the project and you might have been better going it alone, still holding the rights over your film. These things are indeed a calculation of your time and money vs the distributor’s. At least check your contract for language that allows the distributor to keep the sales fee even for the sum of sales attributed to units ultimately returned and refunded. Perhaps compare potential results. Insist on a direct distribution clause so at least you have the chance to make the direct sales to the fan base you have worked so hard to build on your own. Or get clear about what your distributor can do for you that you cannot do for yourself, if anything, and what that is worth to you.  Then make sure the contract comports accordingly.

May 2nd, 2013

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Marketing, Retailers

Tags: , , , , ,

There are many ways a film can reach its audience. While independent filmmakers often lock themselves into the path of securing a festival premiere, signing a sales agent, hoping for a sizable distribution deal that includes a theatrical release and sailing off into the sunset to make another film, they could be overlooking options that make better sense for the type of film they have.

TFC member Michelle Mower knows the indie filmmaker mindset well having worked for many years with Houston based organization Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP). She too thought that her first feature film, The Preacher’s Daughter, would follow that same path.  But after sending TFC’s Orly Ravid the rough cut of the film, advice came that altered her plans.  I spoke with Michelle to find out how her film achieved distribution and succeeded in bringing Lifetime Movie Network its highest ratings for 2012.

Preacher's Daughter DVD art

SC: “Your case study is particularly interesting to me because your initial thought was you wanted to have a festival premiere and tour the circuit. But something totally different happened?”

MM: “Isn’t that normal for independent films? Isn’t the festival circuit what all indies are supposed to do? [laugh]”

SC: “Yes, totally what people think. But other opportunities came up for your film. First let me ask, how did you finance the film?”

MM: “We funded this film in stages. We raised our shooting budget first which was the ultra-low, $50,000 budget. But as we got into preproduction, we were able to attach name talent to the project, so we raised a little more and then as we got into production and post production, we got a few more investors to help us finish the film. It was very typical of most first features where you start with one budget, but end up with another and you struggle to get the film finished. We didn’t really know what would happen with the film, but we did feel like we had a great story, some very strong performances, some things that would definitely attract an audience.”

SC: “How long did it take to shoot and finish the film?”

MM: “We ended up with a total of 43 days for the shoot which is really long and I do not recommend it. We had crew changes and scheduling issues, so it caused us to prolong our production.  Ultimately, it took us over a year to finish the film.

SC: “Was the film shot mainly in Houston, Texas?”

MM: “Yes, the whole film was shot in Houston and the surrounding area. The film is set in a small town in East Texas, so I shot it in the little towns surrounding Houston.”

SC: “Tell me about casting. How did you land Andrea Bowen?”

MM: “It’s a funny story. I sent out a casting notice in LA. Initially, I wasn’t intending to cast there because I didn’t think I could afford it. But I was out there for the Los Angeles Film Festival so I thought if I’m out there I might as well see what would happen. I posted on Breakdown Services, and within 24 hours I had 1400 submissions just for the lead role alone. I narrowed it down to a couple hundred and then my casting director went through those and we invited about 60 women to audition. 36 showed up and one of them was Andrea Bowen, from Desperate Housewives.”

“I had no idea who she was. I had seen Desperate Housewives, but not for years and she was probably around 13 years old when the show started.  To say she nailed that audition was an understatement. She’s an extremely talented actress and it was very apparent that she knew what she was doing. When she left, I turned to the interns working with me and they told me who she was and I had mixed emotions because she was so awesome, but I didn’t think I could afford her. I wasn’t even going to waste either of our time in trying to contact her. But that was my naive reaction and I have learned since that actors do want to work, but they also want good roles.  If you have a good script with a really strong role, they are willing to work with you.”

“Her agent contacted me, we sent over the full script. Andrea loved it and that gave me confidence in my writing because I am sure she reads scripts all the time. So we negotiated with them and were able to get her on board. She was wonderful to work with and I am sure the film would not have gotten nearly as far as it did without her.”

“Our male lead, Adam Mayfield, is from Houston so we had some mutual friends. He is based in LA too, and I was leery about bringing in too many people from other cities because of the budget constraints. But he was in town one weekend and we met for lunch and I just knew he was the right guy. He was just coming off of his role on All My Children and he wanted to work with Andrea so it all worked out.”

SC:”So what happened to change your course on distribution? Was the film premiered anywhere?”

MM: “I met Orly at the annual Business of Film Conference in Houston that is presented by SWAMP when I was in production and she told me to keep her apprised of what we were doing with it. I joined The Film Collaborative and once I had a rough cut, I sent it to Orly and asked her to give me feedback and guidance. I was thinking about festivals until she came back and said it wasn’t a festival film because it was too mainstream, too commercial in feel.  It probably wasn’t going to be programmed by the bigger festivals. She said I needed to think about other options. We had already submitted to some festivals, like SXSW, and it did not get in so it made me rethink what I was doing with the film and look at other options.”

“Orly introduced me to Imagination Worldwide, a sales agency, because they often work in broadcast licensing. I sent them a one sheet and that made them ask to see the film. I sent them my rough cut and they asked to rep it for the cable market. This was November 2011 and they took it to EFM the next February. They always knew that it might be of interest to Lifetime, but I didn’t get my hopes up. I was really still trying to raise more funds to get it absolutely completed.”

“We went ahead and did the world premiere in Houston in April 2012, and in June we sold to Lifetime Movie Network.  I did have to cut down the film because there is certain content that Lifetime won’t air, curse words and nudity and stuff. It premiered on August 31, 2012 on the Lifetime Movie Network, one of Lifetime’s specialty channels.  It was the  highest rated movie on the channel in all of 2012.”

SC: “Were you involved in the promotion of it and do you know what they did?”

MM: “I had been promoting it in my social network for a long time. I always thought it would go into the festivals and I would need my network, so I had a Facebook page for the film and we started our own audience building from the get go.”

“When Lifetime took the film on, their promotion came through TV ads. I expected the promotion on the Lifetime Channel  because they typically do that, but I didn’t expect to see it on OWN, NatGeo and Bravo and all of these other cable channels. I asked my Facebook fans to let me know what channels they were seeing the promotion on and we counted 9 different networks.  So they did a great job promoting it in the broadcast world.”

“I had been told earlier in the post production process that this was not a marketable film. It wasn’t a Christian film because it was too edgy and it wasn’t an indie film because it wasn’t edgy enough. But Lifetime was able to market it well.”

SC: “So in your deal with Lifetime, are you able to still sell internationally? Or sell on your own?”

MM: “My deal with Lifetime is for North American, Latin American and UK broadcast rights. Pretty much every other territory was open, but we have sold to about 7 other territories in the world now.  We will have a DVD/cable VOD release this month in the US [DVD will be available on Amazon April 9). It will be the director’s cut so all the scenes that I had to cut out of the broadcast version will be back in. Per our contract with Lifetime, we cannot do Netflix, iTunes, Hulu streaming until after the license expires in 5 years.”

“If you had told me when I started this process that my movie would reach millions of people, I would have laughed. But things happen the way they do for a reason.”

SC: “I think it is wonderful for a first feature film to sell, repay the investors and air on a network where millions would see it. Not many first timers ever achieve that.”

MM: “I have seen many strong feature films in my former work with SWAMP and I have attended many workshops and conferences so I knew the challenges I faced as a first time feature director.  I know it is very difficult to achieve distribution for indie films and even if you do, often it is for no advance or very low advance. If a theatrical release happens,  it is for a one week run in New York and LA, the two most saturated markets for films. Then on to digital release where very little is done to promote it. In that scenario, it is nearly impossible to make money back for investors or for the filmmaker. My advance did repay my investors.”

“I started out thinking I wanted to go that route, the festival-theatrical-digital route. But when I faced the reality of it and thought about what the Lifetime offer meant, it was really a no brainer. Make your investors’ money back and have millions of people watch your film. Pretty simple decision really. Plus, because of that deal, opportunities come to me that weren’t there before. When I call for meetings, people take the call. I have people interested in what projects I am considering. Not only did I sell to Lifetime, it was a success for them so that helps get more interest from the industry for my work.”

SC: “So what is your parting advice for filmmakers, either new ones or those who are working on their second or third film?”

MM: “I sat on this script for 9 years because I was afraid. What would happen if I made the film? Would I put my family in financial hardship? I made all kinds of excuses for why I shouldn’t make it at that time. My advice is stop making excuses. Make your movie. No one is stopping you and there are opportunities to sell it if you are open to them. Figure it out and make it happen.”

Thanks Michelle, for your candid answers and hopefully there are a few filmmakers out there re-evaluating how they plan to release their films.

 

 

 

 

 

April 4th, 2013

Posted In: Cable, Distribution, International Sales

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