We thought we’d start off 2015 with a bit about digital platforms that filmmakers can utilize directly, without giving rights to a distributor and without necessarily having to go through an aggregator. When I say “platform,” what I mean is a place on the Internet that film viewers would go to consume cinema. While filmmakers are always encouraged to distribute off their own websites and social media pages, that is not the subject of this blog. To accomplish DIY off the film’s site and social media pages, filmmakers are encouraged to work with Distrify or VHX, for example. For now we cover the following distinct platforms that filmmakers can directly access: MUBI, FANDOR, VIMEO, WOLFE ON DEMAND, and DOCURAMA (just a tad, and more will be discussed in a few weeks).
MUBI is a curated video-on-demand subscription service.
MUBI describes its offering as a hand-picked selection of the best cult, classic and award-winning films from around the globe. “Every day MUBI’s in-house film experts select a great new film and you have 30 days to watch it. So there’s always 30 brilliant films to enjoy. We have a huge audience of passionate cinephiles from every corner of the planet who watch, rate, review and share great cinema.” See more at mubi.com/about.
Q: How film viewers can access it?
The service is the only subscription service available worldwide (193 territories). So whether you are in Venezuela or Vancouver you’ll be able to experience a beautiful collection of 30 hand-picked films. MUBI works on the web, mobile devices, internet-connected TVs and games consoles. On MUBI’s mobile apps you can download films and watch offline.
Financial model of platform How audiences pay (if at all) and how do filmmakers make money:
MUBI brings one new film to the platform every single day. Each film plays on the platform for a 30-day window. Revenue is split 50/50 with the filmmaker (or whomever is the rights holder) based on views over the 30-day run. A MUBI membership costs around $4.99 USD in most countries for a month or £2.99 in the UK or €4.99 in the EU.
Deals Offered to Filmmakers:
MUBI typically licenses films for a 2-year period, non-exclusive. They license by territory, but also do global deals or groups of territories.
How Films Get Onto MUBI:
MUBI takes films directly from filmmakers and also from studios, distributors and aggregators.
Q: What does your company do to drive audiences / consumers to this platform?
“Beyond the normal channels (digital, social, offline) we work in partnership with festivals and organisations [organizations] like Cannes, Berlinale, MoMa, AFI, Lomokino, Picturehouse Cinemas, we curate seasons and retrospectives, host screenings, run events… the list goes on! Also, in the UK (one of our focus countries) we have a mutli-level advertising campaign launching in 2015.”
[This question is almost never answered by any businesses so don’t hold it against MUBI for not answering.]
Speaking from experience, however, we at TFC have enjoyed seeing hundred of dollars that eventually added up to some small version of thousands for a film that did not do better business anywhere else. In fact, I would say MUBI was a source of revenue that was particularly useful for a smaller art house film that would not be sought out on the more commercial platforms such as iTunes.]
What MUBI does to market films:
“We have huge communication channels offline and off. When a title is selected as the ‘film of the day’ all these channels are directed towards promoting that film. The difference with MUBI, for the filmmaker, is that instead of your film sitting in a library of a thousand films, your film is one of just thirty. Every day we send out a dedicated ‘Film of the Day’ email to hundreds of thousands of people globally, the email features “Our Take” – the reasons why we selected the film and why it’s worth watching. We build editorial context around films rather than leaving them fighting alone. We run one of the most respected online sources for film criticism, Notebook. So if your film is on MUBI it’s less about creating a long-term revenue stream and more about exposure for the film in a targeted, well-contextualised burst which can be a great complement to (or continuation of) a theatrical or DVD release. A film is on MUBI for 30 days but for those 30 it is the centre of our attention. It works for the audiences and filmmakers alike, great films can find people that want to watch them.”
Special initiatives MUBI has brewing (this is from December 2014):
New from MUBI: iPad and iPhone App
Fandor can be accessed via apps available through iTunes (iPhone, iPad) and Google Play (Android phones and tablets including Kindle Fire), and as a channel on Roku.
Fandor offers an extensive and rich library of over 6000 films, from around the world, in over 500 genres, and of all lengths, handpicked for people who love the transforming experience of great cinema. Fandor fulfills the promise of an online cinematic experience, marrying curation with contextual information for a global community of film lovers and filmmakers.
Fandor Availability / Accessibility:
Fandor is available in the US and Canada, accessible anytime to subscribers.
Financial model of platform—How do audiences pay (if at all) and how do filmmakers make money:
Fandor members subscribe on an annual ($90) or a monthly ($10) basis. Both subscription types offer a 2-week free trial. Subscription revenue is shared, with 50% going to the film rights holders, divided based on availability and audience viewership.
Deals Given to Filmmakers:
Because our model is a revenue share, the amount that filmmakers earn will vary based on viewership. 20% of the shared revenue is split among all films on the platform; the remaining 80% is allocated based on seconds of viewing to individual films.
Fandor Gets Films Direct From Filmmakers And Distributors:
Fandor has partnerships with hundreds of distributors and approximately 125 filmmakers (direct).
What Fandor does to drive audiences / consumers to its platform:
“We have an extensive marketing program that includes advertising, social outreach to over 160K fans, public relations, personalized email and integrated promotional campaigns. We also have a network of 4 blogs that addresses Fandor customers (The Fandorian), film aficionados (Keyframe), the film industry (Hope for Film), and filmmaker-to-filmmaker (Hammer to Nail).”
Fandor’s response to our request to share revenue ranges for films on its platform:
“We’re a private company and typically don’t share our financials and membership data.”
Special initiatives Fandor has brewing:
“We have two initiatives currently targeted to film festivals (Fandor|Festival Alliance) and to filmmakers (FIX). These initiatives are part of a larger effort to build relationships across the film world as part of a larger mission to advance and preserve film art and culture.”
See the release explaining these…
An example of a Fandor marketing campaign:
“Probably the best example is the Shocktober campaign we did for October. We showcased a different horror film each day through the month of October. The campaign was integrated across our ads, our website, our social networks, and email. We also did two video trailers. I’ve attached a .gif we used for social and email, and following are links to the videos. The campaign culminated in a day/date release of the remastered THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI on Halloween.”
VIMEO ON DEMAND
Vimeo allows one to distribute films, series, and videos with all the power of Vimeo, its community, and its legendary
HD player. Anyone can use Vimeo On Demand – from established and first-time filmmakers to creators of video tutorials or video performances. “Vimeo On Demand helps creators distribute feature films, documentaries, series, episodes, TV shows, instructional videos, and more. It puts all the control in the hands of creators, who can choose to offer buy and rent options at their own prices, sell on Vimeo and their own website, worldwide or in select countries.”
Vimeo On Demand is available worldwide and allows viewers to watch films on pretty much any screen, from computers and tablets to connected TVs, all in full HD (even 4K!). Vimeo On Demand is a global, open platform where any filmmaker can sign up and start selling their videos.
Financial model of platform:
Vimeo On Demand offers creators the ability to sell their movies to rent or own. “Viewers pay by credit card or PayPal. Creators earn 90% of the net revenue from every sale—which is the best deal in the film business!”
Vimeo accepts films first-time filmmakers and distributors.
Q: What does your company do to drive audiences / consumers to Vimeo?:
“Vimeo has 170 million monthly visitors and more than 30 million registered users. We regularly promote curated selections of movies from Vimeo On Demand to this massive audience on-site, via email and on social media. We also have ongoing paid marketing campaigns and publisher partners working to bring viewers to Vimeo On Demand.”
“Vimeo On Demand has been proud to power some of the most successful direct distribution releases ever. We are not allowed to share our users’ revenue data.”
What Vimeo does on marketing front for its films:
“Our Audience Development team is actively working to market films via our own platform as well as through digital advertising, social media marketing, and a growing list of publisher partners. Vimeo On Demand is the only direct distribution platform that brings a built-in audience and markets films on the platform.”
[NOTE: My colleague David Averbach has informed me that there is a way, for filmmakers who are allowed to offer VOD off their film’s website, but not other external sites, to hide Vimeo On Demand videos from vimeo.com.]
WOLFE ON DEMAND
The worldwide LGBT digital movie-watching platform!
Accessibility / Availability:
The platform showcases more than 150 films, more than 100 of which are available worldwide.
TVOD (Transactional Video on Demand via Internet) and Streaming (rental)
$3.99 streaming and $14.99 download for features.
$2.99 streaming and $9.99 download for docs.
Revenue to Filmmakers:
WOD split is 50/50. Wolfe have also entered into a strategic relationship with Vimeo and WOD will soon live on their platform. Wolfe’s site is powered, in part, by Distrify which takes a cut of revenues, as will Vimeo. Wolfe also notes that the partnering with Vimeo will also involve additional marketing opportunities.
Direct with Filmmakers and Distributors:
“We work with all kinds of filmmakers directly as well as distributors.”
Q: What does your company do to drive audiences / consumers to this platform?:
“Wolfe has been in the business of releasing LGBT films since 1985. With 30 years in the business we have the experience, relationships community good will and connections to help connect films with the audiences who want to see them. We utilize our mailing lists, social media, advertising, PR, community outreach and creative marketing as well as a wide array of other marketing tools and strategies. Wolfe’s strength is in consumer marketing. We dedicate considerable resources to unique programs domestically and abroad to drive traffic to WolfeOnDemand.com.”
[Like the others, Wolfe did not disclose.]
Special initiatives Wolfe has brewing:
Yes, stay tuned for some exciting news to be announced in late January 2015.
We’ll be covering this one in a few weeks as information is being updated…
As the name suggests, this platform focuses on documentaries.
The channel is available on iOS, Roku, XBox, Amazon Fire, Western Digital, Opera, to name a few.
We will send proper information about Docurama in a few weeks. For now, TFC recommends working directly with these platforms when they are a fit for your film. We will update about other platforms as we learn of them, if we think they are worthy of focus.
Happy direct digital distribution,
The Film Collaborative
Orly Ravid January 14th, 2015
By Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
In the past 2 posts, we have covered knowing the market BEFORE making your film and how to incorporate the festival circuit into your marketing and distribution efforts. This post will cover terms you need to know; whether a foreign distribution agreement is in your film’s future and what to do if it isn’t; the patterns, or windows, that need to be considered in your release. Just to be clear, we are targeting these posts mainly to filmmakers who seek to self finance and actively control their distribution. If that is not your plan, the usefulness of these posts may vary.
Distributors; platforms; aggregators; self hosting sites; applications
If you are new to the distribution game, here are some terms you now need to be familiar with.
Distributors (ie. A24, Oscilloscope, Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, The Weinstein Company, Roadside Attractions) take exclusive rights to your film for a negotiated period of time and coordinate its release. These companies often acquire independent films out of the most prestigious film festivals and pay decent advances for ALL RIGHTS, sometimes even for ALL TERRITORIES. A signed and binding contract takes all responsibility for the film away from its creator and places it with the distributor to decide how to release it into the public. Distribution through these entities entails theatrical, digital, DVD, educational, leisure (airline/hotel/cruiseship).
Platforms (ie. iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Netflix, cable VOD) are digital destinations where customers watch or buy films. Viewing happens on a variety of devices and some allow for worldwide distribution. Mainly platforms do not deal directly with creators, but insist on signing deals with representative companies such as distributors or aggregators.
Aggregators (ie. Premiere Digital, Inception Media Group, BitMAX, Kinonation) are conduits between filmmakers/distributors and platforms. Aggregators have direct relationships with digital platforms and often do not take an ownership stake. Aggregators usually focus more on converting files for platforms, supplying metadata, images, trailers to platforms and collecting revenue from platforms to disperse to the rights holder. Sometimes distributors (Cinedigm, FilmBuff) also have direct relationships with digital platforms, helping reduce the number of intermediaries being paid out of the film’s revenue.
Self hosting sites (ie. VHX, Distrify, Vimeo on Demand) are all services that allow filmmakers to upload their films and host them on whatever website they choose. Vimeo on Demand also hosts the video player on its own central website and has just integrated with Apple TV to allow for viewing on in-home TV screens.
Applications for many digital platforms can be found on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets),Over the Top (OTT) internet-enabled devices like Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Playstation and Xbox and on smart TVs. Viewers must add the applications to their devices and then either subscribe or pay per view to the platforms in order to see the film.
What about international?
In the latest edition of our Selling Your Film book series, Amsterdam based consultant Wendy Bernfeld goes into great depth about the digital distribution market in Europe. Many low-budget, independent American films are not good candidates for international sales because various international distributors tend to be attracted to celebrity actors or action, thriller and horror genre fare that translate easily into other languages.
Rather than give all of your film’s rights to a foreign sales agent for years (often 7-10 years duration) just to see what the agent can accomplish, think seriously about selling to global audiences from your own website and from sites such as Vimeo, VHX, Google Play and iTunes. The volume of potential viewers or sales it takes to attract a foreign distributor to your film is often very high. But just because they aren’t interested doesn’t mean there is NO audience interest. It simply means audience interest isn’t high enough to warrant a distribution deal. However, if you take a look at your own analytics via social media sites and website traffic, you may find that audience interest in foreign territories is certainly high enough to warrant self distributing in those territories. Look at this stats page on the VHX site. There are plenty of foreign audiences willing to buy directly from a film’s website. Why not service that demand yourself and keep most of the money? Plus keep the contact data on the buyers, such as email address?
Often, sales agents who cannot make foreign deals will use aggregators to access digital platforms and cut themselves into the revenue. You can save this commission fee by going through an aggregator yourself. In agreements we make with distributors for our Film Collaborative members, we negotiate for the filmmaker to have the ability to sell worldwide to audiences directly from their website. If you are negotiating agreements directly with distributors, the right to sell directly via your own website can be extremely beneficial to separate and carve out because sales via your website will generate revenue immediately. However, this tactic is now being scrutinized by distributors who are allowing direct to audience sales by filmmakers, but asking in their agreement for a percentage of the revenue generated. It is up to the filmmaker to decide if this is an acceptable term.
If you do happen to sell your film in certain international territories, make sure not to distribute on your site in a way that will conflict with any worldwide release dates and any other distribution holdbacks or windowing that may be required per your distribution contracts. An example: You have signed a broadcast agreement that calls for a digital release holdback of 90 days-6 months-1 year or whatever. You cannot go ahead and start selling via digital in that territory until that holdback is lifted. Instead, use a hosting service that will allow you to geoblock sales in that territory.
Know your windows.
If you do decide to release on your own, it’s important to know how release phases or “windows” work within the industry and why windowing was even created.
The release window is an artificial scarcity construct wherein the maximum amount of money is squeezed from each phase of distribution. Each window is opened at different times to keep the revenue streams from competing with each other. The reason it is artificial is the film continues to be the same and could be released to the audience all at one time, but is purposely curbed from that in order to maximize revenue and viewership. The Hollywood legacy window sequence consists of movie theaters (theatrical window), then, after approximately 3-4 months, DVD release (video window). After an additional 3 months or so, a release to Pay TV (subscription cable and cable pay per view) and VOD services (download to own, paid streaming, subscription VOD) and approximately two years after its theatrical release date, it is made available for free-to-air TV.
Now, there is a lot of experimentation with release windows. Each release window is getting shorter and sometimes they are opened out of the traditional sequence. Magnolia Pictures has pioneered experimentation with Ultra VOD release, the practice of releasing a film digitally BEFORE its theatrical window and generally charging a premium price; and with Day and Date, the practice of releasing a film digitally and theatrically at the same time. Many other distributors have followed suit. Radius-TWC just shortened the theatrical only window for Snowpiercer by making it available on digital VOD within only 2 weeks of its US theatrical release. During its first weekend in US multiplatform release, Snowpiercer earned an estimated $1.1 million from VOD, nearly twice as much as the $635,000 it earned in theaters.
So, while there are certainly bends in the rules, you will need to pay attention to which release window you open for your film on what date. For example, it might be enticing to try to negotiate a flat licensing fee from Netflix (Subscription VOD or SVOD window) at the start of release. However, from a filmmaker’s (and also distributor’s) perspective, if the movie has not yet played on any other digital platforms, it would be preferable to wait until after the Transactional VOD (TVOD) window in order to generate more revenue as a percentage of every TVOD purchase, before going live on Netflix. If the transactional release and subscription release happen at the same time, it cannibalizes transactional revenue.
Also, sites like Netflix will likely use numbers from a film’s transactional window purchases to inform their decision on whether to make an offer on a film and how big that offer should be. Subscription sites such as Netflix also pay attention to general buzz, theatrical gross, and a film’s popularity on the film’s website. There is value in gathering web traffic analytics, email database analytics and website sales data in order to demonstrate you have a sizable audience behind your film. This is useful information when talking to any platform where you need their permission to access it. Caution: Netflix is not as interested in licensing independent film content as it once was. If your film is not a strong performer theatrically, or via other transactional VOD sites; does not have a big festival pedigree; or does not have notable actor names in it, it may not achieve a significant Netflix licensing fee or they may refuse to license it for the platform. Netflix is no longer building its brand for subscribers and it has significant data that guides what content it licenses and what it produces.
Also be aware that some TV licensing will call for holding back Subscription VOD (SVOD) releases for a period of time. If your film is strong enough to achieve a broadcast license deal, you will need to wait before making a subscription release deal. On the other hand, holding out too long for a broadcast distribution offer might cause the publicity and interest you’ve generated for your film to dissipate.
If your film is truly a candidate for theatrical release, most cinemas will not screen a film that is already available on TVOD or SVOD services. In fact, most of the chain cinemas will not screen a film that is available in any other form prior to or at the same time as theatrical release.
The way you choose to release your film is a judgment call in order to reach your particular goal. All decisions have consequences and you will have to live with the decisions you make in releasing your film. Like all decisions, you base them on what you know at the time with no guarantee as to how they will turn out.
Sheri Candler July 16th, 2014
Tags: aggregators, Distrify, independent film distribution, Orly Ravid, release windows, Sheri Candler, SVOD, The Film Collaborative, theatrical distribution, TVOD, VHX, Vimeo on Demand, Wendy Bernfeld
You may remember that I profiled a new digital distributor last year called Devolver Digital who was adding independent films to their existing line up of video games. Yesterday, Devolver announced a new initiative with the folks at Humble Bundle and VHX to release the “Devolver Digital Double Debut” Bundle, a package that includes five games both classic and new and the new documentary Good Game profiling the professional gaming lives of the world-renown Evil Geniuses clan as well as other films on the VHX platform. Proceeds from the bundle benefit the Brandon Boyer Cancer Treatment Relief Fund as well as The Film Collaborative.
You may remember, we are a registered 501c3 non profit dedicated to helping creators preserve their rights in order to be the main beneficiary of their work. We plan to use our portion of the proceeds to fund the new edition of our book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul which will be given away totally free upon its publication. If you’ve ever benefited from our advice, our speaking or our written posts, now is the opportunity to give us support in expanding even more of your knowledge as well as help Brandon Boyer, chairman of the Independent Games Festival (IGF), to help with his astronomical medical bills for cancer treatment.
You can find the Bundle here https://www.humblebundle.com/
It is just this kind of out of the box thinking we love and we couldn’t wait to be involved.
As a follow up to last year’s piece, I asked Devolver Digital founder, Mike Wilson, to fill me in on how the company has ramped up and what this initiative means to gamers, to filmmakers and to the non profits involved.
In the year since Devolver Digital started, how has your games audience transitioned into an audience for the films you handle?
MW: “When we announced the start the Films branch of Devolver Digital last SXSW, we did so for a few reasons. The first was seeing an opening to create a more publishing-like digital distributor for micro-indies. Curation, promotion, transparency, versus what we perceived as the status quo in the VOD distribution space where films were uploaded in bulk and they hope for the best.
One of the biggest reasons, though, was the knowledge that the biggest games platforms that we do 95% of our (very healthy) digital distribution business with on the games side were going to be moving to start delivering films this year. Those platforms are still not very active in the film space, aside from Games/Movies bundle with Humble Bundle that just kicked off. But they are coming, so we’ll know more about how much we are able to turn the indie game-loving audience onto indie films from the fest circuit a little later this year. Our hopes remain high, as these are people who consume an inordinate amount of digital media, are very comfortable with digital distribution and watching films on their computers, and they have a community around independent content from small teams around the world like nothing we’ve seen on the film side. It’s more akin to music fans, turning friends on to great bands they’ve never heard of, and gaining their own cred for unearthing these gems. THIS is what we hope to finally bring to the independent film space, along with these much more sophisticated platforms in terms of merchandising digital content.”
Where are you seeing the greatest revenues from? Cable VOD, online digital, theatrical? Even if one is a considered a loss leader, such as theatrical typically, does it make sense to keep that window?
MW: “We just started releasing films on cable VOD in the Fall, and most of that content didn’t hit digital until recently, so the jury is still a bit out. We are now able to do day-and-date releasing on all platforms as well. We have done limited theatrical, purely as a PR spend on a couple of our strongest releases, and that has been very successful in terms of getting press the films never would have gotten otherwise, but of course it does cost some money and it’s just an investment in the VOD future of the films. There is still no hope of breaking even on a theatrical run for indies as far as we can tell… but at least the cost to entry has gone down and will hopefully continue to do so. For now, we still expect cable and iTunes to be our best performers, until the games platforms start delivering.”
What lead to this recent initiative through Humble Bundle and VHX? Have you partnered with them before?
MW: “Humble Bundle has been a miraculous success on the indie games side. We do bundles with them as often as possible. The key was getting them and VHX to work together, as we needed a high-quality, low-cost streaming solution to deliver what we expect to be hundreds of thousands of ‘keys’ purchased in these bundles.
VHX is pretty forward thinking on this front, again watching the games platforms carefully, and has come up with an elegant solution that works. We have been asking Humble to let us do a movies bundle for at least six months now, since we’ve had such success with them on the games side. They decided that this games+movies bundle would make for a stronger segue. They have delivered other types of media before such as music, soundtracks, audio books, and comedy records, none of which has had anywhere near the attach rate of their games bundles, but are still quite successful when compared to other digital options for those businesses. We expect films to do better than any of these other ancillary avenues they’ve tried.”
What is the split for all involved? There are several entities sharing in this Pay What You Want scenario, so is this mainly to bring awareness and publicity for all involved or is revenue typically significant?
MW: “In this particular bundle, since all the games and films are roughly $10 values, we’ve split it equally. So you have 10 artists splitting what will probably average out at $5 or $6 bucks a ‘bundle.’ But the volume will be so high, we still expect each of these filmmakers to make more money in these 10 days than they will likely make on their entire iTunes run.
And, TONS of new people watching their movies who would never have found it otherwise, which as a filmmaker, I know counts for as much as the money. I’d personally much rather have my film (and one of the films in the bundle is the last one I produced) in a bundle like this than shoveled onto subscription based VOD, and I know it’ll make more money and get more views.” [editor’s note: Those purchasing the bundle get to choose how the contribution is split between Devolver, Humble Bundle and the charitable contributions.]
Why did you decide to include a donation aspect to the Bundle? Is that an incentive to pay a higher price for the bundle?
MW: “Humble is committed to supporting charities with their platform. It’s part of the magic (other than the tremendous value) that makes their 4 million + regular customers feel really good about taking their chances on games (and other media) they’ve never heard of.
From Devolver’s standpoint, our last weekly games bundle on Humble resulted in nearly $150k for charity in addition to our developers all making a nice payday. It’s a miracle of a win-win-win. In this case, hopefully a lot of filmmakers will feel compelled to try this method out since it’s new, an incredible value, and will support TFC, who have helped so many filmmakers learn to navigate these murky waters. And there’s a very local, very specific cause on the games side, helping a champion of Indie Games like Brandon Boyer overcome his devastating personal situation of fighting cancer while battling mounting medical bills. It just feels good, and this is a big reason Devolver is such a fan of Humble Bundle.”
We can’t think of a better situation than contributing money to receive fantastic games and films while helping those who enable the creators to reach new audiences, keep rights control of their work and celebrate their creativity. Check out the Devolver Digital Double Debut on the Humble Bundle site. We thank Devolver, Humble Bundle and VHX for allowing us to partner with them on this initiative.
Sheri Candler March 7th, 2014
Tags: Brandon Boyer, cancer, Devolver Digital, Devolver Digital Double Debut, documentary, Evil Geniuses, Good Game, Humble Bundle, independent film, Independent Games Festival, iTunes, Mike Wilson, non profit, Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, Sheri Candler, The Film Collaborative, theatrical distribution, VHX, video games, VOD
This article first appeared on the Sundance Artist Services blog on August 13, 2012
written by Bryan Glick with assistance from Sheri Candler and Orly Ravid
Indie Game: The Movie has quickly developed a name not just as a must-see documentary but also as a film pioneer in the world of distribution. Recently, I had a Skype chat with Co-directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot . The documentary darlings talked about their indie film and its truly indie journey to audiences.
Swirsky and Pajot did corporate commercial work together for five years and that eventually blossomed into doing their first feature. “We thought it would take one year, but it ended up taking two. I can’t imagine working another way, we have a wonderful overlapping and complimentary skill set, ” said Pajot. “We both edited this film, we both shot this film. It creates this really fluid organic way of working. It’s kind of the result of 5 or 6 years of working together. I don’t think you could get a two person team doing an independent film working like we did on day one. It’s stressful at times but the benefits are absolutely fantastic, ” said Swirsky.
According to Swirsky, Kickstarter covered 40% of the budget. “We used it to ‘kickstart’, we asked for $15000 on our first campaign which we knew would not make the film, but it really got things going. The rest of the budget was us, personal savings.” The team used Kickstarter twice; the first in 2010 asking for $15,000 and ended up with $23,341 with 297 backers. On the second campaign in 2011, they asked for $35,000 and raised $71,335 with 1,559 backers.
The hard work, dedication, and talent paid off. Indie Game: The Movie was selected to premiere in the World Documentary Competition section at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival winning Pajot and Swirsky the World Cinema Documentary Film Editing Award . “[Sundance] speaks to the independent spirit. It’s kind of the best fit, the dream fit for the film. Just being a filmmaker you want to premiere your film at Sundance. That’s where you hear about your heroes,” noted Swirsky. “Never before in our entire careers have we felt so incredibly supported…They know how to treat you right and not just logistics, it’s more ‘we want to help you with this project and help you next time.’ It was overwhelming because we’ve never had that. We’ve just never been exposed that,” interjected Pajot
They hired a sales agent upon their acceptance into Sundance and the film generated tons of buzz before it arrived at the festival resulting in a sales frenzy. The filmmakers wanted a simultaneous worldwide digital release, but theatrical distributors weren’t willing to give up digital rights so they opted for a self release. “There were a lot of offers, they approached us to purchase various rights. We felt we needed to get it out fairly quickly and in the digital way. A lot of the deals we turned down were in a little more of the traditional route. None of them ended up being a great fit,” said Pajot.
Several people were stunned when this indie doc about indie videogame developers opted to sell their film for remake rights to Scott Rudin and HBO. Pajot explained, “He saw the trailer and reached out a week or so before Sundance. That was sort of out of left field because it wasn’t something we were pursuing.” Swirsky added, “They optioned to potentially turn the concept into a TV show about game development…As a person who watches stuff on TV, I want this to exist. I want to see what these guys do with it.” The deal still left the door open for a more typical theatrical release. However that was only the start of their plan.
“We had spoken to Gary Hustwit (Helvetica). We sort of have an understanding of how he organized his own tours. We had to make our decision whether that was something we wanted to utilize. Five days after Sundance, we decided we would and were on the road 2 weeks after… Before Sundance this was how we envisioned rolling out…[We looked at] Kevin Smith and Louis C.K. and what they’re doing. We are not those guys and we don’t have that audience, but knowing core audience is out there, doing this made sense,” said Swirsky.
They proceeded to go on a multi-city promotional tour starting with seven dates and so far they have had 15 special events screenings of which 13 were sold out! This is separate from 37 theaters across Canada doing a one night only event. They also settled on a small theatrical release in NYC and LA. When talking about the theaters and booking, they said theaters saw the sellout screenings and that prompted interest despite the fact that the film was in digital release. They accomplish all of this with a thrifty mindset. “P&A was not a budgetary item we put aside and if an investment was required, we would dip into pre orders. We didn’t put aside a marketing budget for it,” said Swirsky. Regarding the pre order revenue, they sold a cool $150,000 in DVD pre-orders in the lead up to release of the film. From this money, they funded their theatrical tour.
While the theatrical release was small, it generated solid enough numbers to get held over in multiple cities and provided for vital word of mouth that will ultimately make the film profitable. The grosses were only reported for their opening weekend, but they continued to pack the houses in later weeks.”I don’t look back at the box office. The tour was more profitable than the theatrical…They both have the benefits, having theatrical it gets a broader audience. It was more a commercial thing than box office,” said Swirsky. “We are still getting inquiries from theaters. They still want to book it despite the fact it’s out there digitally,” said Pajot. “We had this sort of hype machine happening. We didn’t put out advertising. Everything was through our mailing that started with the 300 on our first Kickstarter and through Twitter,” said Swirsky. Now the team has over 20,000 people on their mailing list and over 10,000 Twitter followers. In order to keep this word of mouth and enthusiasm going, the filmmakers released 88 minutes of exclusive content – most of which didn’t make the final cut – to their funders, took creative suggestions from their online forum and sent out updates on the games the subjects of their film were developing over the course of the two years the film was in production.
Following the success the film has enjoyed in various settings, Indie Game: The Movie premiered on three different digital distribution platforms. If you were to try and guess what they were though, you would most likely only get one right. While, it is available on the standard iTunes, the other two means of access are much more experimental and particularly appropriate for this doc.
It is only the second film to be distributed by VHX as a direct DRM-free download courtesy of their, ‘VHX For Artists‘ platform. Finally, this film is reaching gamers directly through Steam which is a video game distribution platform run by Valve. This sterling doc is also only the second film to be sold through the video game service, where it was able to be pre-ordered for $8.99 as opposed to the $9.99 it costs across all platforms. This is perhaps the perfect example of the changing landscape of independent film distribution. Every film has a potential niche and most of these can arguably be reached more effectively through means outside the standard distribution model. Why should a fan of couponing have to go through hundreds of films on Netflix before even finding out a documentary about couponing exists, when it could be promoted on a couponing website?
As they are going into uncharted territory, both Pajot and Swirsky avoided making any bold predictions.”It’s just wait and see. It’s an experiment because we’re the first movie on Steam. We’re really interested to look at and talk about in the future. I don’t want to make predictions…I do think documentary lends itself to that kind of marketing though. We’re trying to not just be niche but there is power in that core audience. They are very easy to find online,” said Swirsky.
Just because they are pursuing a bold strategy doesn’t mean they were any less cost conscious. “The VHX stuff, it was a collaboration, so there were no huge costs. Basically subtitles, a little publicity costs from Von Murphy PR and Strategy PR who helped us with theatrical. Those guys made sense to bring on,” said Pajot. “A lot of our costs were taken up by volunteers. If they help us do subtitles, they can have a ticket event, a screening in their country,” added Swirsky.
They also note that a large amount of their profit has been in pre-orders. 10,000 people have pre-ordered one of their three DVD options priced at $9.99, $24.99 and a special edition DVD for $69.99 tied with digital. While the film focused on a select few indie game developers, they interviewed 20 different developers and the additional footage is part of the Special Edition DVD/Blu-Ray. That might explain why it’s their highest seller.
All this doesn’t mean that any of the dozens of other options are no longer usable. Quite the contrary, they have also taken advantage of the Sundance Artist Services affiliations to go on a number of more traditional digital sites. Increased views of a film even if on non traditional platforms can mean increased web searches and awareness and could be used to drive up sales on mainstay platforms.
The real winner though is ultimately the audience. For the majority of the world that doesn’t go to Sundance or Cannes each year, this is how they can discover small films that were made with them in mind. The HBO deal aside, this is bound to be one incredibly profitable documentary that introduces a whole new crowd to quality art-house cinema. “We are still booking community screenings. If people want to book, they can contact us…We are thinking maybe we might do another shorter tour at some point,” said Pajot.
Here’s to the independent film spirit, alive and well.
Update Feb 2013: The creators of Indie Game have written their own case study discussing the many tools and techniques they used. Head over to their website for the full study.
Orly Ravid August 16th, 2012
Tags: crowdfunding, DIY distribution, documentary, game developers, Gary Hustwit, independent film, Indie Game, James Swirsky, Kevin Smith, Kickstarter, Lisanne Pajot, Louis C.K., self distribution, Steam, Sundance Artists Services, Sundance Film Festival, VHX, VHX for Artists