by Dan Habib

Dan Habib is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including Samuel (2008), Who Cares About Kelsey? (2012), Mr. Connolly Has ALS (2017), and many other films on disability-related topics. Habib’s films have been broadcast nationally on public television, and he does extensive public speaking around the country and internationally. Habib’s upcoming documentary Intelligent Lives (2018) features three pioneering young adults with disabilities who navigate high school, college, and the workforce—and undermine our nation’s sordid history of intelligence testing. The film includes narration from Academy award-winning actor Chris Cooper and is executive produced by Amy Brenneman. Habib, who was a photojournalist from 1988-2008, is a filmmaker at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.

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About 14 years ago, I sat at my son Samuel’s bedside in the ICU as he lay in a medically induced coma. He had developed pneumonia from complications following surgery. Samuel’s neurologist encouraged me to use my skills as a photojournalist in the midst of my fear. “You should document this,” he said. Samuel, who has cerebral palsy, recovered from this emergency, and I took the doctor’s advice. Four years later, I released my first documentary, Including Samuel, which includes a scene from that hospital room. The film aired nationally on public TV in 2009, and we created a DVD with 17 language translations.

Along with the film’s launch, I started discussing my experiences as a parent of a child with a disability at film screenings, which led to a 2013 TEDx talk called Disabling Segregation.

I am now directing/filming/producing my third feature length documentary and am honored that The Film Collaborative asked me to share a few things I’ve learned along the way about DIY fundraising, distribution and outreach.

  1. Diversify your funding streams.
    Although I made Including Samuel on a shoestring while I was still working fulltime as a newspaper photography editor, I’ve been able to raise about $1 million for each of my last two films—a budget which covers my salary and benefits, as well as all production costs. I’ve received essential support from The Fledgling Fund, but the vast majority of my funding comes from sources that don’t typically fund films:
    • NH-based foundations that are interested in supporting the advancement of the issues I cover in my films (disability/mental health/education).
    • National and regional foundations and organizations that focus on tangible outcomes. The Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation is the lead $200,000 supporter of my current project. MEAF funds efforts to increase the employment rates for young people with disabilities.
    • Each year I typically take on one outside contract (around $75,000) from a non-profit to create a documentary film short (18-25 min.) on specific disability or education issues. These films have focused on areas like the restraint and seclusion of students or inclusive education , and help me meet my overall budget needs.
    • For the last ten years, the most stable source of income has been my speaking fees, which average about $75,000/year and go back into my project budget at UNH. I do about 15 paid speaking gigs per year, and charge $5000 per 24-hours away from home (plus travel expenses). We don’t do any paid advertising—the gigs almost always come from word of mouth (see #5 below).
      dan_chris_cooper
  2. Build buzz from the get-go
    For some docs, secrecy is essential for editorial reasons, or the filmmaker may just prefer to keep it close to the vest. I’ve never gone that route, because I’ve felt a pragmatic need to build up an audience and donor base early in the project. For each of my films, I’ve cut a 10-14 minute ‘preview’ early in the project’s production (about 2 years before completion), which has been critical for fundraising pitches, generating buzz in social media, and for use in my public speaking presentations.On the temporary website for my Intelligent Lives project, the 14-minute preview is accessible only after completing a name/email sign in form (I also have an unlisted YouTube link to share with VIPs and funders). I’m sure some people have been turned off by this, but more than 6000 people have provided their name and email—which will be a huge asset when we launch a crowdfunding campaign in the fall to complete (I hope!) our production fundraising.Facebook has been the most active and successful platform for reaching our largest audience—educators and families—with Twitter a distant second. For the current project, we have plans to dive into Instagram and other platforms more deeply—primarily with video clips. We also see LinkedIn as a platform that can help us achieve one of the outreach goals for the new film—connecting young adults with disabilities with potential employers through virtual career fairs.
  3. Partner up early
    I’ve spent hundreds of hours initiating and developing strong partnerships with national organizations that focus on the issues that my films address. For all three of my documentaries, I’ve held national strategy summits in Washington, DC, to bring together dozens of these National Outreach Partners (NOPs) to help develop a national outreach and engagement campaign to accompany each film (campaigns include I am Norm for Including Samuel and I Care By for Who Cares About Kelsey?) We are currently developing the campaign for the Intelligent Lives film.The NOPs also typically show my docs at their national conferences and blast the word out about key developments in the film’s release (like community screening opportunities). Our relationships with NOPs are reciprocal. We discuss how the films will shine a bright light on their issues; how they can fundraise off of screenings; and how they can use the entire film—or shorter clips that we can provide—to support their advocacy.I plan to continue to explore the vast topic areas of disability and education, and continually build on the partnerships, funders and audiences we have established (while also working hard to make films that are engaging to the general public).
  4. Establish your DIY distribution goals early and stay the course
    When I started work on Who Cares About Kelsey?, my documentary about a high school student with ADHD who had a history of homelessness and family substance abuse, I knew I wasn’t going to try for theatrical release, but instead would focus on broadcast, an educational DVD kit and a national community screening campaign. We presented all of our would-be funders and NOPs with a specific set of outreach strategies for the film’s release that were mostly under our control—not reliant on the buzz and opportunities that would come only by getting into a major film festival. For the Intelligent Lives project, my outreach coordinator Lisa Smithline and I have been working towards a broadcast, festivals, an event theatrical and community screening campaign, VOD, online events and other distribution plans.
  5. Speaking of festivals…do college and conference screenings provide more bang for the buck?
    I submit my films to the major fests (no luck so far), as well as mid-level and smaller film festivals, and we’ve had dozens of FF screenings (including Woodstock, Sedona, Thessaloniki, Cleveland). I always have a blast when I can be there. But I also start booking and promoting major events around the country at national conferences and colleges early in a film’s life. Although I know these events might jeopardize admission to some prominent film festivals, my experience has been that these conferences and university screenings usually have a significant, lasting impact: high volumes of DVD sales, tremendous word-of-mouth and social media upticks, and more invitations to do paid public speaking (see above). We also try to collect names and email addresses from attendees at every event, so our e-blast list (21,000+) has become a powerful outreach tool for all of my docs.
    amy_brenneman
    click on the above image to watch a video that serves as an example of how one can work with notable people to help further credibility with the target audience.
  6. Jam-pack the educational DVD and website
    In addition to the feature length documentary, I typically create a range of short, freestanding “companion” films that I distribute both on the educational DVD kit and also for free (linked through the film’s website but hosted on YouTube and/or Vimeo). I went a bit overboard for Who Cares About Kelsey?, creating 11 mini-films on related topics. But the benefits were multifold: funders loved (and supported) these free resources, the shorter length (10-14 minutes) made them highly useful educational tools, and the free films bring traffic to the website.I also work with national experts in the topic areas covered in the feature length film and mini-films to develop extensive educational material that is packaged with the educational DVD kit. Combined with reasonable price points ($95-$195, depending on the intended audience), we have generated gross sales in the high six-figures for my last two films combined. We also produce an individual DVD, and have been selling VOD through Amazon (very low revenue compared to DVD sales, but given how much the VOD world has changed since I made “Kelsey,” we are looking at different models of online distribution for Intelligent Lives). We primarily self-distribute these products through the UNH Institute on Disability bookstore, which keeps the profits close to home.
  7. Seek professional help
    I maintain a small field production crew (just me and an audio engineer), but my production and distribution budgets are still tight. So I’m grateful for people like Chris Cooper, Amy Brenneman and the musician Matisyahu who are donating their time and creative talents to my latest project. But there is still plenty of specialized talent I need to hire—whether it’s for editing, music scoring, fundraising, graphic art, website design and outreach consulting. And for Intelligent Lives, I’m planning to work with a distribution consultant and sales agent(s).I look for collaborators who share my values and vision that films can be a catalyst for advancing human rights…but they’ve still got to get paid!Return to strategy #1.

Dan Habib can be contacted at dan.habib@unh.edu, @_danhabib, facebook.com/dan.habib, and on Instagram at danhabibfilms.

June 28th, 2017

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, education, Uncategorized

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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.

dvdlibrary-488672_640

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.

Sourcing content

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.

classroom-371455_640

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.

February 18th, 2016

Posted In: Distribution, education, Legal

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’Tis the season of giving.

That is the season, when documentary filmmakers give and give while getting nothing in return.

All in the dream of making the prized Oscar shortlist that was announced Dec 1st. Since Michael Moore and AMPAS tweaked the system in 2012, the exploitation of filmmakers has only gotten worse.

I am not here to tarnish people’s dreams, but merely to decry the sad reality that publicists, publications, screening series, cinemas, and private venues are more than happy to let filmmakers waste money even when they have, statistically, speaking VIRTUALLY NO CHANCE of making the Oscar shortlist.

In the last 4 years (since the major rule changes):
60% of Oscar Shortlisted Docs screened at Sundance
28% of Oscar Shortlisted Docs screened at Toronto
10% of Oscar Shortlisted Docs screened at Tribeca

Only 4 films that did not screen at any of the 3 festivals above made the Oscar Shortlist. Three of those grossed over $200K and the fourth was distributed by HBO. Two of the three were also NYFF premieres (First Cousin Once Removed and Citizenfour) and one was in Cannes.

71% of Oscar Shortlisted Docs were Cinema Eye and/or IDA nominees.

0% of Non-HBO/Netflix docs that were shortlisted played fewer than 10 theaters theatrically. Yet there are companies that advertise Oscar Qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles. Filmmakers can spend over $20K for this. These companies charge thousands of dollars more while often providing less of a service than what would have been delivered for a standard release. Keep in mind that any industry vet with half a noggin knows that films using this service have essentially no shot.

(T)ERROR

In fact, so far, ZERO films that have used this approach (and not had HBO or Netflix backing) have made the shortlist. It is misleading at best to claim these companies are providing a useful service. To be fair, an Oscar nomination is a lifelong dream of many filmmakers, but that doesn’t make leading them down a false path any less horrid. If companies wanted to help filmmakers enter into the race they would arrange for 10 cities not 2. It is almost predatory to give filmmakers this false sense of hope.

Looking at the 124 documentaries that qualified this year it was reasonable to assume that less than half ever had any slightly realistic shot of making the shortlist. Yet no fewer than 45 films with essentially ZERO shot have spent over $25K to qualify. And no fewer than 20 have spent over $20K on awards campaigning. Many have spent over $100K! A full-page ad in a trade can cost $30K, a promo email from a doc group can cost thousands, and those free screening series for the public and special member orgs can cost anywhere from $1K-10K apiece.

We here at TFC have had filmmakers claim they can barely scrape by to cover their theatrical release costs and then spend twice as much money on Oscar campaigning. All of these films did not screen at the 5 key fests (Tribeca, Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, New York) and have destroyed opportunities for a chance to reach a larger audience. Just think of what $50K for marketing and promotion could do for a small doc.

Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and Johanna Hamilton (1971)

To be clear, the whole awards system if screwed up. We ask filmmakers to pay to attend award shows where they are nominees. In fact many of the precursors not only cost $$ to submit but can cost 10x as much if you’re nominated. If you’re being honored, the bare minimum we can do is not charge you. Now a larger company or bigger docs can whether these costs but for any film that’s not Amy this kind of out of control spending creates a vicious cycle in which all but the small core group of awards voters lose.

Case and point, at least 10 docs that had major awards screenings (cost of $5K or more) did not have a real shot at making the shortlist. Worse yet, only one of them got a nod from IDA or Cinema Eye awards.

This has got to stop! If filmmakers can raise that kind of capital why on earth would they not put it into grassroots engagement or adding markets? For a cost of a single screening to reach voters each of the films could have four walled in 1-4 markets across the country.

For the 50ish docs with even the slightest shot I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt but looking at other indicators from past years only about 30 ever had reason to seriously campaign. In fact, using IDA, Cinema Eye, prior nominee status, and winning at Sundance, Tribeca, or TIFF as an indicator I was able to reduce this year’s crop of 124 docs to a possible list of 33. All 15 shortlisted films were on this list.

Song from the Forest

So how do we help rectify this situation where documentary filmmakers shell out tens of thousands of dollars for nothing in return? In the doc shorts category they have to win the jury prize at a qualifying festival. If we simplified and said only Jury, Special Jury and audience winners from Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and TIFF as well as nominees from Cinema Eye and IDA are eligible we would cut the list to fewer than 70 films. This does not eliminate campaigning but it significantly cuts back on wasteful spending from films without a shot. Also 14 of the 15 shortlisted films would have been eligible under this system. Granted, this gives even more power to the most influential festivals in North America and that is its own concern.

Yet, this also allows the bulk of the docs to focus on what matters, which is reaching an audience. I love winning awards as much as the next person, but if filmmakers will not listen to reason and if our industry continues to exploit them, why not eliminate a lot of the ability for them to fall into the trap in the first place? The doc branch is quite small and favors their own, with a clear pattern.

Tab Hunter Confidential

2/3 of the shortlisted films each year have been political docs and 1/3 have been character profiles. With few exceptions (Listen to Me Marlon being one) they don’t like films about narrative filmmakers or actors (shocker…not!) and tend to reward the same people. 7 of the 15 shortlisted films this year were directed by prior nominees. You can go a step further and see that political docs are the only ones that can gross under $100K and make the shortlist (again not counting for HBO/Netflix titles). And the biggest shocker is that waiting until fall to release does not increase your chances. In fact, the summer was the most common time for Oscar shortlisted docs to come out.

So filmmakers, I ask you in 2016 not to waste your time or the industry’s time on a pipe dream that only causes you heartache. Take your Oscar campaign money and put it into audience engagement and outreach, use it to make the case for your next feature. Do not spend it on an insular circle unless you statistically match the profile I have laid out. And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not bother telling me why your film is different, because it’s not. I just gave you the statistics that make it pretty clear, at least for the last few years (and I will keep tracking). Don’t put AMPAS above a proper release and find other ways to win attention. If you are that rare doc that fits it into that awards bait by all means strike a balance and don’t overspend.

The Hunting Ground

TFC has had many films on the shortlist in the past including We Were Here, The Invisible War, and The Hunting Ground. All of them were cost effective in promotion and put their original release first before spending big. In fact, our theatrical release, (T)error has spent less than $1K on any awards campaigning and yet it is an IDA Winner, Cinema Eye Nominee, and Spirit Award Nominee. It’s about where you premiere, your subject matter, and who you know. Sort of like the larger industry. Now onward to Sundance 2016.

December 3rd, 2015

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Marketing, Theatrical

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This post is part 4 of an ongoing series of posts chronicling how rapid technological change is impacting the exhibition side of independent film, and how this affects filmmakers and their post-production and delivery choices. The prior three can be found at the following links: January 2013August 2013October 2014

DCPs can be proprietary hard drives. Alternatively (not shown), then can look virtually identical to external hard drives

When I started this series back in 2013, a fairly new exhibition format called DCP was starting to significantly impact independent exhibition and distribution, and I was very afraid. I was sure that the higher costs associated with production, the higher encryption threshold, and the higher cost of shipping would significantly impact the independents, and heavily favor the studios.

Flash forward to today, and of course DCP has taken over the world. And thankfully we independents are still here. Don’t get me wrong…I still kinda hate DCP…especially for the increased shipping price and their often bulky complicated cases and how they are so easily confused with other kinds of hard drives…but they are a fact of life that we can adapt to. Prices for initial DCP creation have dropped to more manageable rates in the last two years, and creating additional DCPs off the master are downright cheap. And most importantly, they don’t fail nearly as often as they used to…apparently the technology and our understanding of it has improved to the point where the DCP fail rate is relatively similar to every other format we’ve ever used.

While DCPs rule on the elite level….at all top festivals and all major theatrical chains…filmmakers still need to recognize that a wide array of other formats are being requested by venues and distributors every day. Those include BluRays, ProRes Files on Portable Hard Drives, and, most significantly, more and more requests for downloadable files from the cloud.

To track the evolution of formats over the last two years, please refer to the booking charts of Film Collaborative films below. Of the many things that The Film Collaborative does, one of our core services is booking our clients’ films in public venues all over the world – including everything from film festivals, traditional theatrical venues, universities, art galleries, etc. October is always the busiest month of the year…as it is the month of the year with the most film festivals. By comparing the last three Octobers, we can see quite clearly how venue deliverables have changed over the last two years.

Quick observations of the above include:

  • Bluray use for exhibition has remained relatively constant over the last three years in terms of total Blurays used, although its percentage rate has declined by about 23% from last year.
  • DCP use for exhibition has increased from 6.1 percent in 2013 to 31% in 2014 to 39% in 2015. It should be noted that the vast majority of high-end bookings such as top festivals or top theatrical chains require DCP now, and the vast majority of Bluray bookings are at the smaller venues.
  • Digital tape formats, such as HDCAM and Digibeta, have entirely disappeared to 0. As we said in our last post to this effect….stop making these entirely!
  • Requests for Quicktime files on hard drive format are on the rise…and the only reason their numbers above seem so low is because we resist booking them whenever we can—because they are an additional cost. So the 8 listed for October 2015 means in those cases we determined we had no other choice. We should discuss this further in this post.
  • For the first year ever, our company is now offering downloadable vimeo links to festivals to show the film from electronic files delivered over the internet. This is a radical direction that has much to be discussed, and we shall do so later in this post. To date we are only offering these in extraordinary situations….mostly for emergency purposes.

While DCP is certainly the dominant format at major venues for now and the foreseeable future, I still maintain my caution in advising filmmakers to make them before they are needed. Nowadays, I hear filmmakers talk about making their DCP master as part of their post process, well before they actually know how their film will be received by programmers and venue bookers. Lets face it, a lot of films, even a lot of TFC member films, never play major festivals or theatrical venues, and their real life is on digital platforms. Remember that DCP is a theatrical format, so if your film is never going to have life in theatrical venues, you do not need to spend the money on a DCP.

If and when you do make your DCP(s), know that DCPs still do on occasion fail. Sometimes you send it and the drive gets inexplicably wiped in transit. Sometimes there is a problem with the ingest equipment in the venue, which you can’t control. Film festivals in particular know this the hard way….even just a year ago DCP failure was happening all the time. A lot (most) festivals got spooked, so now they ask for a DCP plus a Bluray backup. That can be a significant problem for distributors such as TFC, since it can mean multiple shipments per booking which is expensive and time-consuming. However for individual filmmakers this should be quite do-able….just make a Bluray and a DVD for each DCP and stick them in the DCP case so they travel with the drive (yes I know they will probably eventually get separated…sigh). And the Golden Rule remains….that is never ever ever travel to a festival without at least a Bluray and a DVD backup on your person. It never ceases to amaze me how many (most) filmmakers will fly to a foreign country for a big screening of their film and simply trust that their film safely arrived and has been tech checked and ready to go. If your DCP fails at a screening that you are not at…well that sucks but you’ll live. If you travel to present your film at a festival and you are standing in a crowded theater and your film doesn’t play and everyone has to go home disappointed, that, in fact, is a disaster.

As mentioned previously, more and more venues that cannot afford to upgrade to DCP projection are choosing to ask for films to be delivered as an Apple ProRes 422 HQ on a hard drive. Since this is not a traditional exhibition format, a lot of filmmakers do not think they need to have this ready and are caught unawares when a venue cannot or will not accept anything else. At The Film Collaborative, we keep a hard drive of each of our films ready to go at our lab…as mentioned we do not prefer to use them because of the extra shipping cost (DCPs are trafficked from festival to festival so at no shipping cost to us, while hard drives are not used often enough to keep them moving like this). However we do find we often need them in a pinch. So do keep one handy and ready to go out. This should not be a big deal for filmmakers, since the Apple ProRes 422 HQ spec is the most important format you’ll need for nearly all types of distribution deliveries, whether it be to distributors or digital aggregators or direct to digital platforms. So, if you plan to have any kind of distribution at all, this is a format you are almost certainly going to need. Make a couple to be safe.

Is the Future in the Cloud?

As I have touched on before, the Holy Grail of independent film distribution would seem to live in the cloud, wherein we could leave physical distribution formats behind and simply make our films available electronically via the internet anywhere in the world. This would change the economics of independent film radically, if we could take the P out of Prints & Advertising and save dramatically on both format creation and format shipping. Unfortunately today’s reality is far more complicated, and is not certain to change any time soon.

I can’t begin to tell you how often…nearly every day…small festivals looking to save on time and shipping will ask me if I can send them the film via Dropbox or WeTransfer or the like. The simple answer is no, not really. So every time they ask me, I ask them back…exactly how do you think I can do that? What spec do you need? What is the exact way you think this can work? And they invariably answer back…“We don’t know…we just hoped you’d be able to.” It is utterly maddening.

Here’s the tech-heavy problem. Anyone can get a professional-sized Dropbox these days…ours is over 5,100 gigs (short for Gigabytes, or GB) and an average 90 minute Apple ProRes 422 HQ is around 150 gigs…so that doesn’t seem like a problem. Clearly our Dropbox can fit multiple films.

The current problem is in the upload/download speed. At current upload speeds, a Apple ProRes 422 HQ is going to take several days to upload, with the computer processing the upload uninterrupted all the time (running day and night). Even this upload time doesn’t seem too daunting, after all you could just upload a film once and then it would be available to download by sending your Dropbox info. However, the real problem is the download…that will also take more than a day on the download side (running day and night) and I have yet to ever come across a festival or venue even close to sophisticated enough to handle this. Not even close. Think of the computing power at current speeds that one would need to handle the many films at each festival that this would require. And to be clear, I am told that WeTransfer is even slower.

To make this (hopefully) a little clearer…I would point out four major specs that one might consider for digital delivery for exhibition.

  1. Uncompressed Quicktime File (90 mins). This would be approx. 500 gigs. Given the upload/download math I’ve given you above, you can see why 500 gigs is a non-starter.
  2. Apple ProRes 422 HQ (90 mins). Approx 150 gigs. Problematic uploaded/download math given above. Doesn’t seem currently viable with today’s technology.
  3. HD Vimeo File made available to download (90 mins). Approx 1.5 – 3 gigs. This format is entirely doable—and we now make all our films available this way if needed. This format looks essentially the same as Bluray on an HD TV, but not as good when projected onto a large screen. This can be instantaneously emailed to venues and they can quickly download and play from a laptop or thumb-drive or even make a disc-based format relatively inexpensively. However, there are two major problems…a) most professional venues that value excellent presentation values and have large screens find this to be sub-par projection quality and b) this is a file that is incredibly easy to pirate and make available online. For these reasons, we currently use these only for emergency purposes…when we get last minute word that a package hasn’t arrived or an exhibition format has failed. It is quite a shame…because this is incredibly easy to do, so if we could find the right balance of quality and security…we would be on this in a heart-beat.
  4. Blu-Ray-Quality File (Made available via Dropbox)(90 mins). This spec would be just around the same quality as a Bluray (which is quality-wise good enough for nearly all venues) and made available via Dropbox or the like. It is estimated that this file would be around 22 – 25 gigs. This would be slow, but potentially doable according to our current upload/download calculations. This is the spec we at TFC are currently looking at…but to be clear we have NOT ever done this yet. Right now it is our pipe dream…and our plan to implement in 2016. I will follow up on this in further posts!

To conclude, where we stand now, we have yet to find a spec that is reasonably made available to venues via the internet, both in terms of quality and safety protocols…but a girl can dream.

It is critical to note that the folks I am talking to recently are saying this may NOT change in the foreseeable future…because internet speeds worldwide might need to quintuple (or so) in speed to make this a more feasible proposition. Nobody that I know is necessarily projecting this right now. And that’s a sobering prospect that might leave us with physical deliverables for quite a while now. And for now, that would be the DCP with Bluray back-up. If this changes, you can be sure we will write about it here.

But hey, maybe that Quantum Computer I’ve heard about will sudden manifest itself? Gosh, that would be cool. In the meantime…how about a long-range battery that runs an affordable electric car and is easy to recharge? That would be super cool too. We can save the world and independent film at the same time.

In the meantime…if you think I am missing the point on any of the nerdy details included in this post, or you know anything about how digital delivery of exhibition materials that I might have missed, please email me. Trust me….we want to hear from you!

November 24th, 2015

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, Film Festivals, Theatrical, Uncategorized

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platforms

Always check with your lab or distributor to make sure their deliverable specs adhere to what is outlined below. Especially deliverables outside North America, which are sure to diverge from what is below. Much of this may apply to films who have sold to distributors, but this post is mostly aimed at those doing DIY distribution. The following also mostly applies to TVOD platforms, but may also apply to others. Again, check with your distributor/lab before you produce any deliverables.

  1. Know when not to do iTunes
    iTunes is expensive. It will cost at least $2K to do iTunes/Amazon/GooglePlay. Think of how many people will need to rent your film at $4 (and that’s before the platform’s cut) for you to recoup that money, and then think how many more will have to do so for you to recoup your investment. Are your 1500 Facebook fans going to come through for you? Most probably won’t. A better option might be to do VHX or Vimeo on Demand and spend that money on marketing to drive people to your site. We have handled almost 50 films in the past three years via our DIY Digital Distribution Program, and the bottom line is that if you expecing people to find your film simply because it’s on iTunes while you sit back and move on to your next project, you are probably going to be in for a rude awakening.
  2. Subtitles and Closed Captioning (part 1)
    Pretty much the only way to go nowadays is to submit a textless master, with external subtitles. This can get kind of tricky, so it’s important to understand what is needed and to not expect that the lab you are working with is impervious to mistakes.

    • Your film is in English and has no subtitles
      You will need to produce a Closed Captioning file
    • Your film is 100% not in English
      You will need to produce a subtitle file only (Closed Captioning is not required)
    • Your film is mostly in English but there are a few lines (or more) of dialogue that are not in English
      You will need to produce both a Closed Captioning file and what is called a Forced Narrative Subtitle file.
      This “Forced Narrative” subtitle file is rather a new concept, so when you work with your subtitle lab (if you need suggestions for labs to work with, check out the ‘Subtitling, Closed Captioning and Transcription Services and Solutions’ section on the ResourcePlace tab on our website), make sure they understand that an English language forced narrative file (unlike Closed Captioning or regular subtitles) does not need to be manually turned on for territories where English is the main language, and in fact cannot be turned off in those Territories. Hence, they are forced on the screen. Together with the closed captioning, they make up a complete dialogue of your film, but they should not overlap, or else you’ll be in a situation where the same lines of text are appearing twice on the screen, and your film will be rejected.

    TECH TIP: We recommend watcing your film through before you deliver with all subtitle and CC files. If your film is only in English and you only need to produce closed captioning, these files are pretty much gibberish. So ask the lab to ALSO provide you with a .srt subtitle file of the closed captioning (it’s an easy convert for them). Even though you won’t be submitting this file, you can watch it using, for example, VLC. Just make the filename of your .srt file the same as your .mov or .mp4 file, place it in the same folder, and the subs should automatically come on.
    If your film has a forced narrative, keep track of your non-English dialogue…easy to do especially if your film only has a few lines of non-English. Then change the file extension .srt or .stl temporaily to .txt. This file can then be opened in any text application and eyeballed to ensure that no lines of foreign dialogue are misplaced. If you ask for a .srt conversion of your Closed Captioning file, you can do the same thing with this file to verify that these non-English lines are not repeated in the Closed Captioning.

  3. Subtitles and Closed Captioning (part 2)
    Closed Captioning needs to be in .scc format. Subtitles need to be in either .srt or .stl format. But .srt file do not hold placement, so if you are making a documentary, for example, you will probably want to submit .stl. Because if you have any lower-thirds in your film, lines of closed captioning or subtitled dialogue needs to be moved to the top of the screen when lower thirds are on the screen. .srt files will appear on top of the lower thirds, and your film will be rejected.
    TECH TIP: Again, watch your film back with closed captioning / subtitling to make sure your lower thirds are not blocked.
  4. Dual Mono not allowed
    Make sure the audio in your feature and trailer is stereo. This does not merely mean that there is sound coming out the L & R speakers. It means that these two tracks need to be different…and not where one side gets all the dialogue and the other gets the M&E. Think of how annoying that would be if you were in a theater. L & R tracks need to be mixed properly and outputted as such.
    TECH TIP: Listen to your film before you submit, or at the very least make sure your film is not dual mono…download an applcation such as Audacity, a free program, and open your masters in that program. if the sound waves are identical for both L & R, you need to go back and redo. Don’t assume your sound guy is not infallable.
  5. 720p not allowed
    iTunes is no longer accepting 1280×720 films. In addition, they will not take a 1280×720 that has been up-rezed to 1920×1080. No one should be making movies in 720p and expect the world to cater to their film.

September 16th, 2015

Posted In: Amazon VOD & CreateSpace, Digital Distribution, Distribution Platforms, iTunes, Vimeo

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Written by Orly Ravid and Guest co-Author Jessica Rosner, who has been a booker in the educational, nontheatrical and theatrical markets since the days of 16mm. Recent projects include Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film and John Boorman’s Queen and Country.

fair_userecent blog by Orly Ravid covered just a little bit about educational rights and distribution. This blog is intended to develop that in response to a comment about the “Face-to-Face” teaching exception. This exception defines what films can be shown for no license or permission by the producers or rights holders.

The Copyright Act provides for an exception to needing a copyright holder’s permission to exhibit a copyrighted such as a film. That exception, however, is only for “face-to-face teaching” activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom. That’s why it’s called the “face-to-face” exemption.

I emphasized the key words to clarify that this exception does NOT apply to social club or recreational screenings of films or any exhibition that is not in “classroom” or “similar space devoted to instruction” where there is face-to-face instruction between teacher and student and where the exhibition relates to the educational instruction. Second, not all institutions or places of learning are non-profits. All this to say, the “face-to-face” exemption is not a carte blanche free-for-all to show any copyrighted work in any context as long as there are books around within a mile radius. This is important because educators and distributors are often unclear about what can and cannot be done under this exception to proper permission to distribute or exhibit a film without permission (which often includes a fee).

Below is some key information about the state of educational distribution in 2015 and can be done lawfully without the licensor’s permission (under the Copyright Act):

Viable options for educational distribution that involves either selling physical copies, download, or licensing streaming rights or other rights and type of rights or sales, including price points, terms, limitations, etc.

It’s important to understand that “educational sales & use” is not legal term and that educational institutions have the right to purchase any film that is available from a lawful source and use it in an actual physical class under the “face-to-face” teaching section of copyright law (discussed above). Also okay is for them to keep a copy in the library and circulate as they choose.

However, if as increasingly the case, they wish to make films available via streaming or to exhibit them outside of a class they must purchase those rights. A filmmaker or distributor can charge a higher price to an institution to purchase a DVD if they control all sales but that would be a contract situation and mean the film basically has no sales to individuals. This is done but mostly with non-feature films or ones whose market is intended to be only institutions and libraries.

Streaming rights offer a real opportunity for income for filmmaker provided they are willing to sell rights to institutions in “perpetuity” (meaning, forever). They will make more money and the institution is far more willing to purchase. Many if not most universities now want to have streaming rights on films that are going to be used in classes.

Exhibition of film at universities or educational institutions that is NOT paid for (not licensed or bought from copyright holder) – when is it legitimate (lawful) and when is it not so?

It is legal to show the film in the classroom provided it is legal copy (not duped, bought from pirate site, or taped off television). Any public showings outside the classroom are illegal. Streaming entire feature films is also illegal but streaming clips of films is not.

What is the reason or rationale for the non-lawful use?

If it is a public showing (exhibition) they (and this is usually either a student group or professor, not administration) claim “they are not charging admission” and/or that “it being on a campus” makes it “educational and in extreme cases they claim that it actually IS a class. Illegal streaming is far more insidious and involves everything from claiming streaming a 2-hour film is “fair use,” (which would justify showing it without permission) or, that somehow a dorm room or the local Starbucks is really a classroom. Bottom line: not all use of film can be defended as “fair use.” Exhibiting not just clips but a whole film is usually not lawful unless the “face-to-face” teaching exemption requirements (discussed above) are met.

There is a disconnect for these educational institutions between how they treat literature vs. cinema:

All the parties involved in streaming (legal and illegal) librarians, instructors, tech people, administrators know that if they scanned an entire copyrighted book and posted on campus system for students to access it would be illegal but some of the same people claim it is “fair use” to do with a film. I actually point blank asked one of the leading proponents of this at the annual American Library Association Conference if it was legal to stream CITIZEN KANE without getting permission or license and he said yes it was “fair use” when I followed up and asked if a school could scan and post CATCHER IN THE RYE for a class he replied “that is an interesting question.” It is important to note that “fair use” has never been accepted as a justification for using an entire unaltered work of any significant length and recent cases involving printed material and universities state unequivocally that streaming an entire copyrighted book was illegal.

Remedies to unlawful exhibition of copyrighted works for distributors or licensors:

Independent filmmakers need to make their voices heard. When Ambrose Media a small educational company found out that UCLA was streaming their collection of BBC Shakespeare plays and took UCLA to court supported by many, other educational film companies, academics reacted with fury and threatened to boycott those companies (sadly the case was dismissed on technical grounds involving standing & sovereign immunity and to this day UCLA is steaming films including many independent ones without payment to filmmakers). For decades the educational community were strong supporters of independent films but financial pressures and changing technology have made this less so. (Jessica Rosner’s personal suggestion is that when instructors protest that they should not have to pay to stream a film for a class, they should be told that their class will be filmed and next year that will be streamed so their services will no longer be needed). Orly Ravid gives this a ‘thumbs up’.

Of course remedies in the courts are costly and even policing any of this is burdensome and difficult. Some films have so much educational distribution potential that a distribution plan that at first only makes a more costly copy of the film/work available would prevent any unauthorized use of a less expensive copy or getting a screener for free etc. But not all films have a big enough educational market potential that merits putting everything else on hold. And once the DVD or digital copies are out there, the use of that home entertainment copy in a more public / group audience setting arises. As discussed above, sometimes it’s lawful, and sometimes, it’s not but rationalized anyway. It is NEVER legal to show a film to a public group without rights holder’s permission. Another viable option for certain works, for example documentaries, is to offer an enhanced educational copy that comes with commentary, extra content, or just offer the filmmaker or subject to speak as a companion piece to the exhibition. This is added value that inspires purchase. Some documentary filmmakers succeed this way. It is extremely important to make sure your films are available for streaming at a reasonable price.

Parting thoughts about educational distribution and revenue:

Overall, we believe most schools do want to do the right thing but they are often stymied when they either can’t find the rights or they are not available so get the word out.

Streaming rights should be a good source of income for independent filmmakers but they need to get actively involved in challenging illegal streaming while at the same time making sure that their works are easily available at a reasonable price. It can range from $100 to allow a school to stream a film for a semester to $500 to stream in “perpetuity” (forever) (all schools use password protected systems and no downloading is allowed). TFC rents films for a range of prices but often for $300. You may choose to vary prices by the size of the institution but this can get messy. Be flexible and work with a school on their specific needs and draw up an agreement that protects your rights without being too burdensome.

Happy distribution!

Orly & Jessica

August 20th, 2015

Posted In: Distribution, education, Legal

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Dear Filmmakers of the World,

I write to you to ask: what do you need, what do you want?

For five years The Film Collaborative has been excelling in the film festival distribution arena and education of filmmakers about distribution generally and specifically as to options and deals. TFC also handles some digital distribution directly and through partners. And we have done sales though more on a boutique level and occasionally with partners there too, though never for an extra commission. You know how we hate extra middlemen! We even do theatrical, making more out of a dollar in “P&A” than anyone and we do a really nice job TFC has a fantastic fiscal sponsorship program giving the best rates out there.

TFC published two books in the Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul series and we are probably due to write a third, detailing more contemporary distribution case-studies. I got a law degree and am committed to providing affordable legal services to filmmakers and artists, which I’ve started doing.

We have never taken filmmakers rights and find that most filmmakers are honorable and do not take advantage of that. We trust our community of filmmakers and only occasionally get burned. And we have accounted without fail and paid every dollar due. No one has ever said otherwise. We do what we say we’re going to do and I am so proud of that and so proud of the films we work with and the filmmakers in our community.

So, now what? What do you, filmmakers of the world, want more of? What don’t you need anymore?

Personally, I find it staggering and sad how much information is still hidden and not widely known and how many fundamental mistakes are made all the time. Yet, on the other hand, more information is out there than ever before and for those who take the time to find and process it, they should be in good shape. But it’s hard keeping up and connecting-the-dots. It’s also hard knowing whom to trust.

TFC continues to grow and improve on what it excels at, e.g. especially festival/non-theatrical distribution. We’ve got big growth plans in that space already. My question to you is, do you want us to do more Theatrical? Digital? Sales? All of it? More books? What on the legal side? Please let us know. Send us an email, tweet, Facebook comment, a photo that captures your thought on Instagram, or a GoT raven. I don’t care how the message comes but please send it. We want to know. TFC will listen and it will follow the filmmakers’ call.

We’re delighted to have been of service for these last 5 years and look forward to many more. The best is yet to come.

Very truly yours,

Orly Ravid, Founder

p.s. our next new content-blog is coming soon and will cover educational distribution and copyright issues.

July 29th, 2015

Posted In: Distribution, education, Film Festivals

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Some of you may have heard that about a week ago the European Film Commission announced the Digital Single Market Plan (which may also apply to TV licensing). Variety covered the story HERE and HERE.

You can read for yourself what the fuss is all about but essentially, the EU Film Commission’s plan is to combine the 28 European territories into a common market for digital goods, which would eliminate “geo-blocking,” which currently bars viewers from accessing content across borders – and yet purportedly, the plan would preserve the territory by territory sales model. Filmmakers, distributors, the guilds, et al argue that this proposal would only help global players / platforms such Netflix, Amazon and Google, which would benefit from a simpler way to distribute content across Europe.

The IFTA (International Film and Television Alliance) expressed concerns that this would enable only a few multinational companies to control film/tv financing.  Variety noted that although politicians insist the idea of multi-territory licenses won’t be part of the plan, those in the content industry remain concerned about passive sales and portability and the impact on windows and marketing.

In the US, digital distribution is just hitting its stride and is also finally getting anchored properly in Europe.  Now this idea would be one step closer to one-stop-digital shopping, or selling.  Though allegedly that’s not in the plan – but it would sure be a step in that direction.

Cannes Marche du Film

photo credit: movantia

Some are railing against it and warning against eliminating territory sales and windowing, hurting financing, and truncating important local marketing. Well, maybe and maybe not.  I think it depends on the type of film or film industry player involved.  A blockbuster studio hit or indie wide release sensation with international appeal may very likely be big enough to sell many territories, be big enough to warrant spending significant marketing money in each territory’s release, and be culturally malleable enough to lend itself to new marketing vision, materials, and strategies per market. On a related note, I remember hits such as Clueless being translated into different languages not just literally, but also culturally – modified for local appeal.  That’s great, and possible, for some films.

But for most of the films we distribute at TFC and for the great majority on the festival circuit, they’ll be lucky to sell even 10 territories and many won’t sell even half that.  Some sales in Europe are no minimum guarantee or a tiny minimum guarantee, just like it is State-side. Some films are financed per EU territory (government funding often) but that’s on the decline too.

The dilemma here about a digital single market in the  EU recalls another common dilemma about whether to hold out for a worldwide Netflix sale or try to sell European TV or just EU period, one territory at a time. I’m not forgetting Asia or Africa but focusing on the more regular sales for American art house (not that selling Europe is an easy task for most American indies in any case).  Sure, if you can sell the main Western European countries and a few Eastern ones that’s worthwhile taking into account. However, so often one does not sell those territories, or if one does, it’s for a pittance.  Some sales can be for less than 5,000 Euros, or half that, or zero up front and not much more later. It’s not like the release then is career building either or a loss leader.  It’s just buried or a drop in a big bucket.

In cases such as these, it makes little sense to hold off for a day that never comes or a day that really won’t do much for you.  All this to say, I don’t think this proposal is one-size-fits all but I do think it’s worth trying on especially if you are in the petite section of the cinema aisle.  If you are not sure how you measure up, ask around, comparison shop – see what films like yours (genre, style, topic, cast, festival premiere, budget, other names involved and other aspects) have done lately.  Sometimes a worldwide Netflix deal may be the best thing that ever happened and I reckon that similarly, sometimes a plug and play EU digital deal (if this vision comes into fruition) will give you all that you could get in terms of accessing European audiences, while saving you money (in delivery and fees etc.). And then, get this, you can focus on direct-to-audience marketing – something few agents or distributors do much of anyway.

I kept this blog entry short as I stand by for more information out of Cannes and beyond and also await our TFC resident EU digital distribution guru Wendy Bernfeld (Advisory Board Member and co-author of the Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. case study book) to weigh in. In the meantime, I think it would be swell if one Cannes do digital in the EU all at once.

Please email me your thoughts to contactus [at] thefilmcollaborative.org or post them on our Facebook page so we can update this blog. We turned off comments here only because of the amount of spam we received in the past.

May 14th, 2015

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution

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As 2014 draws to a close TFC reflects on five (5) film distribution lessons from 2014 in anticipation of our 5th Anniversary at Sundance 2015.

1) DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY POSITIVELY IMPACTING FESTIVAL & OTHER PUBLIC EXHIBITION DISTRIBUTION BY REDUCING COST AND HEADACHE:

As we have seen every year for several years now, we are experiencing additional technological revolution that will change our business forever. In 2014, we said adieu to the preview DVD (for festivals, distributors, exhibitors, press etc.) in favor of the online screener link. We said goodbye to the HDCAM and the final nail in the coffin of the Digibeta. We struggled with the problems of the DCP and all its imperfections and inevitability (at least for a few more years). And we are RIGHT ON THE VERGE of the greatest evolution we will experience in recent years, which will be full delivery of films for exhibition via the Internet…whether it turns out to be Vimeo or Drop Box or iCloud or other. If we can remove the SHIPPING part of the independent film business, filmmaker (and distributor) profits may greatly increase without that part of the equation. We are almost there now…

2) THE HARD-TO-ACCEPT REALITY OF MARKETING SMALL FILMS:

As much as all of us at TFC have talked about the need to identify and target niche audiences, the ones who would be the most interested and excited to see a project because it speaks to a belief or lifestyle or cause, most indie filmmakers still aren’t heeding this advice. Of the consultations I had this year, most were with filmmakers who made micro-budget dramas with no notable names and were without prestigious festival accolades. They still believed a distributor would be willing to take on their project and give it a full release. Even those who realized this wasn’t going to happen found the financial burden associated with the kind of release they envisioned too difficult to bear, especially because they were likely to never see that money again (hence why distributors weren’t willing to take on the burden).

If you’re going to work small, you need to think small, but deep. You NEED a small, but highly passionate audience that you can reach given the resources and assets you have. Their enthusiasm will help you if you can harness their attention early on. I won’t say this is easy, but before you embark on a project that could take thousands of dollars and years of your life, first think about how you will approach the audience for your work and how you will maintain it on a consistent basis. If you think someone else is going to take care of that for you, you haven’t been paying attention to the shifts in the indie film marketplace.

If you think someone else is going to [attract and maintain a niche audience] for you, you haven’t been paying attention to the shifts in the indie film marketplace.

3) WHEN BROADCASTERS WANT STREAMING RIGHTS – WHAT TO DO?:

Increasingly, broadcasters are seeking streaming rights along with traditional TV broadcast rights and they have holdbacks on streaming and SVOD at a minimum, and often on transactional digital (DTO/DTR) too. For sure they limit / prohibit cable VOD. As a filmmaker, you only have leverage to demand a higher licensing fee if your film is a hot commodity. Otherwise, while online (or in-app) streaming will possibly gut your transactional VOD sales, you can’t beat the reach a broadcaster can give to your film. Think very hard about turning down a broadcast deal that includes online streaming. Will your iTunes/Amazon/Google Play sales really be so much if very few people have heard of your film? iTunes and Amazon are not going to promote your film like a broadcaster would.

Then again, which broadcaster is it? How big is its reach? How much publicity and marketing will you get? How much digital distribution are you barred from and for how long? Not all types of films make the same money on all types of platforms so does your film demand-to-be-owned? or is a renter, at best. Not all platforms will even accept all films (e.g. all Cable VOD, Sony Playstation, Netflix). Is yours one that will digitally succeed broadly or narrowly, or at all? Will Netflix pay 6-figures like in the good ole days or a lot less, or anything? Do you have a direct-to-fan distribution strategy that you can employ in tandem so as to not need to rely on other digital platforms in the first place?

Or if you want to try it all, still, your strategy would privilege the direct sales anyway. Which is better for your goals, a film that gets national broadcast airings or a film that turns down that opportunity only to be buried in the iTunes store? Or would it not be buried? Only you can answer this as not everyone’s goals are the same and not everyone’s opportunities / potentials are the same. As we have always said, knowing your film’s ACTUAL potential and combining that with your HIERARCHY OF GOALS will help you answer these questions and decide your distribution strategy.

And while it may feel like you are giving up revenue by allowing your film to be streamed (hopefully for a limited time!) through a broadcaster’s portal, you may find this is a good career move for your next feature because people will be familiar with your work having had the opportunity to see it.

4) THE HEAVY BURDEN OF THE NARRATIVE WITH NO NAMES:

Several of us opined about the challenges facing narratives with no names.

The emerging mega strength of incredible television series available everywhere threatens narrative film even more than before, and of course, especially the smaller indie fare.

We have seen time and again how narrative dramas or comedies almost always fall flat in sales unless they have very strong names and not just C-list or B-list names. Of course there are exceptions to this rule and Sundance can be part of that, or a hot director, or simply just an exceptional break out film. But too many filmmakers look to those as the model when they are the anomaly. The pattern we, at TFC, see repeated too often is the making of a decent or good but not exceptional narrative with names that are okay but not great and then wasting time trying to make a big or even medium sale. It just does not happen. Money and time are lost and careers often not made. Again, there are exceptions, and of course certain niches such as LGBT may be one of them, but we advise discerning between passionate optimism and sheer folly.

5) TRANSPARENCY—The Kale of Film Distribution:

The big takeaway from 2014 about TRANSPARENCY is that, on the one hand, it has become a sort of new, hip standard—something cool and good, like eating kale—that more honest distributors practice and/or shadier ones pretend to because it’s more expected. On the other hand, however, we were surprised at how many filmmakers still resist it—resist sharing their data, even anonymously. And to that, all we can ask is, what are you afraid of? It’s meant to be good for the filmmaking community as a whole but maybe individually folks are scared about what the truth will bring. And some folks just want to eat bacon. We get it. Still, we encourage sharing the real data for the greater good and we will keep on working to inspire and facilitate more TRANSPARENCY.

We at TFC wish you and yours a delightful new year and we are looking forward to being even more of service to filmmakers in 2015!

December 29th, 2014

Posted In: Digital Distribution, Distribution, DIY, Marketing, Uncategorized

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A knockout victory

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is just behind us and films submitted for Sundance are a month away from their acceptance call. While the difference between Toronto/Sundance and SXSW/Tribeca is pretty clear, what separates Toronto from Sundance might surprise you.

I looked at the data from the last two year’s of each festival and came up with one big conclusion. Sundance is the bigger festival for North American distribution on just about every measurable level I could come up with.

How could this be? Toronto is the more mainstream fest, right? Not so much.

Let’s start with some comparative info that would clearly skew things in Toronto’s favor:

-62.5% of films from TIFF 2013 have US distribution

-81.3% of films from SUNDANCE 2014 have US distribution (and remember this was accomplished in 9 months compared to TIFF’s 13 months)

But what about the box office performance?

Sundance has a higher percentage of films that grossed over $1 Million, $500,000, and $100,000 than TIFF. This is including non world premiere films which would give TIFF an advantage.

But what about the size of the deals? Isn’t TIFF where the big money is? Hardly

11 films from TIFF 2014 generated 7 figure deals, 11 films from TIFF 2013 did the same. The difference is TIFF screens 2.5x as many films. Even eliminating the # of films with US distribution before TIFF started and cutting out foreign language films, producers were still twice as likely to get a seven figure deal at Sundance.

tiff vs sundance

The Documentary King

TIFF is a much more diverse slate, but sorely lacking in docs. Roughly 1/3 of Sundance films are documentaries, while only about 1/10 of TIFF films are. Even then, docs were more likely to get distribution out of Sundance than TIFF and by a very wide margin. 90% vs 52%. The majority of docs that made the Oscar shortlist came from Sundance, as have a majority of nominees in the last five years.

Foreign Language Problem

In contrast to their #1 status as a place to launch documentaries, Sundance’s World Cinema lineup is far from a sure bet.

While only 41% of Sundance 2014 World Dramatic films have US distribution, that percentage is still higher than foreign language films that screened at TIFF. The % is higher even if we include all foreign language films and not just world or international premieres at TIFF. So even in Sundance’s weakest area your odds are still better than at TIFF.

That all noted, TIFF receives some high profile foreign language films that will ultimately generate bigger deals and make a dent in the US box office, but those are few and far between in an already very unprofitable arena.

So What Does a TIFF Screening Mean? 

TIFF does two things that Sundance does not. It functions as a worldwide market and it is a frequent must for awards buzz films.

Sundance films do better on a domestic level. TIFF films are more likely to generate some form of worldwide interest and the majority of major worldwide players are in attendance.

Sundance has an international presence, but nothing on the same level of going into the Hyatt and taking the United Nations tour of film booths.

Sundance also doesn’t take studio films, which TIFF does. I would argue this is part of the problem TIFF films face. The competition for attention is so much higher with studio films in the mix that many simply get lost in the shuffle.

The DIY Mindset

In the age of DIY options at very low cost, one has to wonder why so many films at TIFF didn’t take advantage of Vimeo’s $10k offer in 2013. In fact, 55 world premieres still lack US distribution, which means with 100% certainty they turned down $10k to chase a pipe dream of success.The worldwide sales agent aspect at TIFF makes it a lot harder to discuss DIY options, but things are slowly starting to change.

This year was the first time multiple filmmakers were willing to openly discuss DIY options for release with me during the fest.

Sundance has their Artist Services program and some very notable DIY success stories (Detropia, Indie Game: The Movie, Upstream Color etc). But the biggest difference is Sundance is early in the year. There are tons of festivals left with which to build exposure going into release.

While it is almost always advisable to hit the festival circuit running, if one didn’t do that at Sundance, it’s easier to rev up the process than at TIFF when the year is nearly finished. If you don’t pursue additional festival screenings right away, your film would play TIFF and not screen anywhere until the following year. Remember there aren’t a lot of festivals in November/December. By that point people have moved onto Sundance and don’t even remember what they saw at TIFF.

The Take Away

Don’t buy into the hype about a festival without carefully looking at the info. While many Oscar winners have come from TIFF, the stats don’t lie. For domestic success, your odds are better with Sundance. This doesn’t make TIFF a bad festival, it’s easily the 2nd best launch pad in North America, but it’s important to know that your film is more likely to get a distribution deal out of Tribeca than TIFF if you have a documentary.

The consensus from this year’s TIFF was that there weren’t too many hidden gems, but with 288 features would any of us even know? At a certain point size is a liability and I think that TIFF needs to shrink its slate or get more creative when it comes to highlighting world premieres without big names.

Reminder: EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL & THE CIRCLE

The Spike Lee executive produced Evolution of a Criminal opens in NYC Friday October 10th at IFC Center. They are also crowdfunding to support their nationwide theatrical release. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/948417025/evolution-of-a-criminal-theatrical-release

In partnership with Wolfe Releasing, TFC Direct will be theatrically releasing Switzerland’s Oscar entry, The Circle. It opens November 21st in NYC and will be expanding through beginning of 2015.

 

October 9th, 2014

Posted In: Distribution, DIY, Film Festivals, Publicity

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