This is a very important distinction and I have been trying to find a better way of articulating to filmmakers why the story of a film is NOT the same thing as its marketability. I FINALLY found this explanation that I think might get through. I found this from Michael D. Sellars who in turn learned it from his mentor, Lenny Shapiro of Avco Embassy Pictures. The idea isn’t new, but ideas that spread win so I am helping to spread. From now on, I will include this information in my own consultations and workshops because it is so clear and succinct. Filmmakers and film schools put A LOT of emphasis on playability, and not nearly enough on marketability.
The ability of a film to attract an audience. This is one of the main things an industry executive is looking for when you pitch your film. Filmmakers all think this means their story. That’s NOT what execs are looking for. The story is your idea and it does have some merit, but what turns in their mind is “How can I sell this to an audience to get them to come to the theater on opening weekend or buy it on VOD/DVD?” It isn’t the story that will do this. That comes later.
Most movies derive their marketability from some combination of stars, director, underlying literary property (famous book, comic book,etc). At the indie level, festival acclaim comes into play, and reviews count, a MySpace [let's say word of mouth] buzz matters. But in analyzing the film from this aspect — the entire point is to answer the question, “Can the film attract moviegoers into the theater?”
This means that if you are making a low budget drama, with no notable names attached to it including the director and the producer, that is an original script not based on a best selling book adaptation, and it doesn’t get selected for major festivals and therefore isn’t going to have many critical reviews…this is going to be a problem. How are you going to get anyone to pay attention to it? What will you hook the audience with BEFORE they actually sit down to see the film and know the story? These are questions that need answers, ideally in the script stage. If you are trying to make one of these films and you don’t have marketability at the beginning (best selling source material, notable names), you MUST get it for the premiere. That’s pretty risky don’t you think? Most acquisitions execs would think so and the strongest ones would decline.
If you are planning to self finance your distribution, you should think about this too. What’s the marketing strategy for a no budget, no name drama, with no major festival accolades and no favorable critical reviews? Ummm….
This takes place once the audience has made the decision to sit down and watch the film. If it is an executive or a festival programmer, you probably hooked them with something to make them take time out of their schedule to do this. The something could be notable names or it could be a favor or somehow piqued their interest. This is a very small group of people to reach. If it is an audience, it means that your marketing strategy worked with respect to reaching and enticing them.
What is their experience once they sit down and watch the movie. How well does the movie “play”? Will it generate favorable word of mouth? Will it catch the fancy of reviewers?
To get that festival slot you desperately need for your no name, no budget drama to be marketable, it all comes down to playability. And if you don’t secure that and you hoped that great word of mouth will just spread, the movie had better “play” for someone.
For indies, the way it “plays” can be subjective. If your documentary about environmental protection attracts people actively involved in the environmental movement, it can play in their world much better than it would outside of that world. In fact, a film like this also has marketability because there is a core audience to target with it. Genre films also fall into this situation. They are less name dependent, but they had better play to that audience.
But if your film is intended to reach a mass audience, a diverse audience, or cross over from niche to mass and you can somehow attract a crowd to watch it (say you threw some serious coin into advertising, publicity and booking theaters), if it doesn’t deliver on their expectations, you have a playability issue and more marketing isn’t going to fix that.
Here’s a little more from Sellars regarding how studios deal with marketability.
Studios are often confronted with a movie which they know is “marketable” — they know that it will attract a great first weekend audience. But they also may know that the reviewers will clobber the film, and filmgoers will be disappointed. Even so — such a film can be financially successful if the “marketability” is good and the marketing campaign is carefully designed and executed… A great marketing campaign — a strong opening weekend — damn the dropoff and get on to the DVD — it can still work.
By contrast, a good film that delivers good “playabilit,y” but doesn’t have marketable elements is a problem. How do you get the warm bodies in theater seats to begin with? This is the true challenge to most good indie films.
So you need both aspects, marketability and playability. With indie films, one can’t succeed without the other. Marketability you can start creating in the development stage. Playability has to be achieved in the production and post production stage. For the film to be successful, you must have both.
I’ve just completed a series with my colleagues over on The Film Collaborative blog dedicated to helping you prepare for distribution of your film. The series was inspired by the many questions we’ve answered over the years in consultations with our members and with independent filmmakers at industry events like Sheffield DocFest, Independent Film Week and SXSW.
Distribution is probably one of the most misunderstood processes in filmmaking. Plenty of schools prepare students for the intricacies of making the film, but leave off the part about connecting that work to an audience. It is a shame because creation is only one part of successful art. The other part is sharing it with people.
In Part 1, we talk about knowing the market for your work. Obviously, distribution falls into the business end of filmmaking and even though artists would like to think that whatever they create will automatically resonate in the market, it isn’t a bad idea to check beforehand.
Part 2 covers the role film festivals play in generating awareness for films, but also in generating revenue. Did you know festival revenue is one of the biggest sources of income for many of the films handled by The Film Collaborative? It’s true! But, the film needs to meet certain criteria in order to see this income stream. Read the post to find out what the criteria is.
Part 3 combines several topics. First, do you know the difference between a distributor and an aggregator? How about a platform and an application? Do you know the release sequence used in independent films? Does that matter any more? What about your chances for foreign distribution? We covered it all in this post.
Part 4 dives into deliverables. This addendum to most distribution contracts often comes as a nasty financial shock to producers. What will a sales agent or a distributor ask for? Isn’t digital distribution more affordable because there aren’t so many delivery items? We talk about what a typical digital distributor will need in order to put your film out on digital platforms.
Part 5 wraps up the series by talking about the financial realities of independent filmmaking. For the most part, it is about lots of little revenue streams (we’re talking hundreds of dollars from tens of outlets instead of hundreds of thousands from only a few). Joe Swanberg comments that artistic freedom comes from knowing the business side of your work. Creating with confidence is a whole lot better than creating with ignorance and subsequent anxiety.
I will be giving the keynote speech at the upcoming RoughCut New Zealand event on September 4, 2014. Preceding my speech, I will spend the day in consultations with local film producers about how to set a marketing strategy and reach the audience for their films. This is especially crucial if you plan to crowdfund and/or self distribute your film.
If you would like to attend either of these events, please see the Tropfest NZ site. I am so excited about my first trip to New Zealand!
While I am in the neighborhood, I am seeking further speaking or consultation invitations. Please contact me
[info at shericandler.com] to arrange the opportunity.
There are so many ways that Hollywood could be reinvented to better adapt to the 21st Century. I recently joined Reinventors Network and Fandor in a virtual roundtable exploring the role of The Audience in the film business and how independent creators are using the tools of the internet to circumvent traditional avenues in funding, distribution and promotion not only to reach The Audience, but invite them in to the creation process.
Does this mean The Audience is now in control? In some ways, yes, but storytelling is a talent most people do not possess, that is why your skills are still very much needed. But you are no longer creating in a vacuum and the sooner you can make peace with that, the better off your career will be.
The session included a smart crew of participants and some insightful ideas were put forward. Check out the short video of highlights from the roundtable.
The whole session was much longer, about 97 minutes long. If you have that kind of time, sit back and take it in here
I have just returned from Europe where I participated in the Meetmarket at Sheffield DocFest and the Binger Filmlab’s Digital Filmmaking Week. It was great to get back out and meet filmmakers and industry people face to face instead of only online (yes, I did just say that!). I also got to sneak in a few plugs for the new book.
Since most of you could not attend these events, I have posted my Binger presentation on Slideshare and below. Notes are included as well. I hope you find it helpful.
I am preparing to head to Sheffield DocFest this weekend where I will be meeting with various documentary producers to discuss their projects that are between development and post production. In attending these session for the past 2 years as well as several other film conferences, it never ceases to puzzle me at the disparity of what I think is going to happen in these meetings and what the filmmaker hopes will happen. Most are looking for funding, but few are really well prepared to pitch their projects. They are under the impression that a cheque book will appear at some point in the 15 minute session without really understanding what the executive across the table is looking for. In order to clarify the purpose of a pitching session, I offer words of wisdom from Stephanie Palmer. Her blog Good in a Room is a must read for all creatives who are faced with a pitch session. She gives these tips on preparing to pitch.
1) What version of my pitch makes the project more likely to sell?
Stephanie says: “You shouldn’t expect to sell anything in this context. You wouldn’t buy a car or a house in a five-minute meeting, and no one is going to shell out serious cash and risk their reputations when meeting you for the first time.” Your main objective in this meeting is to set up a line of communication in the future.
For myself, I am merely an emissary from the company and my job is to hear a bit more detail than what has been given to me prior to the meeting. I will then take down notes of my thoughts about how the project fits into the company’s goals, what the filmmaker is trying to achieve, my observations about the filmmaker personally and how challenging the project will be in the market. I send all of this information back to my colleagues who may or may not choose to have us follow up.
2) Should I use a “leave-behind” in a pitch meeting? Like a one-sheet, outline, summary, or poster?
Stephanie says: ”In a pitchfest kind of situation, I wouldn’t leave anything behind except your business card which just needs to have your name, phone, and email. My experience is that I have never seen someone get interested based on something from a leave-behind, but it makes it easier to say No.”
I don’t want any physical material because I am traveling and I don’t have space to keep up with it. Simply an online link to material (press kit, film link, bio) is enough for me to include in my notes. Please do have a business card. It is shocking how overlooked this is, especially when everyone knows they are going to pitch. It is just unprofessional to show up at a planned meeting and not have a card.
3) I know it’s important to build rapport. But how do I do that when I only have 5 minutes to pitch?
Stephanie says: “Research the people with whom you’ll be meeting and design a comment that demonstrates your respect for them. That builds rapport quickly.”
Good gosh this is so easy to do on me as it just takes one Google search of my name and information on the company am I working with to find out what we’re about. It is very surprising how few people actually do this and need me to spend our very limited time together explaining what The Film Collaborative does, the kinds of projects we have worked with and what we did with them. You can guarantee I’m looking you up ahead of time and finding out what you have done before and how you are presenting this current project to an audience, especially if it is in post production. If I don’t find anything in the search engines, it is a worrying sign for me because you are neglecting your professional skills. Every professional person now needs to have some kind of information available online and make sure that information is something you are happy to have others find.
4) My pitch is set and I’m not changing anything. Is there any other advice you can give me?
Stephanie says: “Speak slowly and take notes on what the decision maker says. The act of taking notes shows respect, will help you maintain your composure, and will allow you to look for patterns in the feedback you get so that after the conference is over you can decide how to improve your pitch, project, or both.”
I tend to prepare some notes and questions ahead of time that I may cover during our talk. It will be helpful for you to write these things down. Most of my questions will be about audience and I am particularly interested in whether you have done deep research on this for the project you are pitching. Believe me, most executives are thinking this same thing even if they don’t ask you. We are less concerned with the story structure and more concerned about how well the film will do in the market. Take this into consideration before the meeting.
I look forward to the gathering in Sheffield during the coming week and if you are in town, come up and say hi.
I sent out some advance copies of the book last week in order to get a little feedback on the content. This comment came back to me and I thought it would be useful to share with everyone. Irish filmmaker Trish McAdam had this to say:
Selling Your Film reads like a kind of ”rough guide” to film distribution. You’ve got to bring your own individual energy and innovation to the journey, but it is really helpful to have reliable, current, on the ground info on the lay of the land before you plan just how adventurous a route you want to take.I don’t know if the opportunities that are available now, because of new digital media, will change the industry in the long run. Perhaps the new order will eventually become as restrictive as the old, but right now there seems to be a chance to break new ground and this book describes some of the inspiring ways people have succeeded.
The Emperor’s New Clothes was my favourite childhood story and there are certainly some naked truths in Selling Your Film.
Just finished my first whizz through your Papadopoulos & Sons case study. What a great story, very real, very fresh take on the weird “norms” in the European industry. What is even sadder is that that attitude starts at the script stage. I have been told many times my ideas are too ambitious, too commercial or, at the same time, not commercial enough. Even if that was meant as an insult to my talent, there still was no offer on the table to buy the idea.
European film so wants to be Hollywood, but won’t take a gamble. Tries to play safe except when the cronyism kicks in and then money goes into the strangest of projects. The competition in European film is still commercially and culturally tribal.
The American way of doing things seems so tough, Hollywood or Indie, so much about the survival of the few, super fit. But there is something very interesting always about an American eye on things, the eye on the dream and how to get there, and also something attractive about the European mess, the wrangling over meaning and process. Something very attractive also about the possibility of global humanism outweighing all that.I love that last paragraph [in the Papadopoulos and Sons case study section]….
Surely, this is the pioneering spirit of the film business that we all want to believe in. Dare to dream. That’s what so many of the heroes do in the films we make. They dare to dream, dare to change things, dare to be heroes. And so if we take the lead of the characters we put up there on the screen, we should do the same in real life. Not just in our stories.
I am emotional reading it, the way one is when you read something you have always known, but just couldn’t put the words to. What I always come away from your words with is a sense of empowerment and wish to have you onside someday on a project.
My thanks to Trish for sharing her comments with me and allowing me to share them here.
As of TODAY the entire ebook is available for FREE via iBooks, Amazon and PDF copies on a global basis. Any filmmaker anywhere can have their own copy and become more knowledgeable about the current state of independent film distribution.
I would be happy to hear your feedback and questions.
Volume 2 in the Selling Your Film series
Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. is the second volume in the “Selling Your Film” case study book series. While our first book, Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, focused on U.S releases and case studies, this volume takes a deep dive into digital distribution (and distribution generally) in Europe and provides several case studies of films released there.
The series began in 2011 as an attempt to encourage transparency in an industry that has always been quite reluctant to do so. Three years later, we are proud to have led the charge towards this goal, and we are encouraged that others are embarking on other projects that attempt to do the same.
Within the pages of this book, you will find marketing and crowdsourcing strategies, real distribution budgets, community building activities and detailed ancillary and digital distribution revenues for independently produced films.
By stripping away the mythology surrounding independent film distribution, we aim to present a more realistic picture regarding how filmmakers can earn revenue—and when they cannot—from a variety of release strategies. While there is no one model that will work for a particular film, the books in this series highlight a multitude of new techniques filmmakers are using to directly connect their films with audiences, effectively reach them through the power of the global Internet, and build a sustainable fan base to last throughout a career.
One of the chapters in this book employs the phrase “Carpe Diem.” In the context of digital distribution, this has dual meaning. First, in a harsh world that can tire of one thing and move onto the next in the blink of an eye, we encourage filmmakers to jump into action and formulate a viable and expedient distribution strategy as their films move from the festival circuit onto a larger arena. Second, the digital distribution space is a constantly changing one, where platforms come and go at an astonishing rate. Therefore, it is important that filmmakers not only empower themselves by learning how to navigate the landscape of digital distribution, but by keeping this knowledge up to date as well.
To that aim, we offer Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.—containing chapters by The Film Collaborative co-executive directors Orly Ravid and Jeffrey Winter; marketing strategist and social media expert Sheri Candler; documentary filmmaker and independent film consultant Jon Reiss; and Wendy Bernfeld, managing director of the European content curation and licensing company Rights Stuff BV—as the starting point for any filmmaker (whether they are U.S.-based or not) who wishes to explore distributing their film in Europe.