As you know from last week’s post, I took part in the Sync Up Cinema event hosted by NOVAC at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I saw a video camera in the audience and was told a video of my conversation with Clint Bowie, Program Director for the New Orleans Film Society, would be uploaded online. I will post that when it happens, BUT there were many things I was prepared to talk about and didn’t get a chance to say. I made notes to prepare for the night, so I thought I would share those notes with you here on the blog. I was given an idea of the questions we would cover ahead of time, so I have included those with the notes.


Sync Up Cinema Conference with Clint Bowie and myself. Photo credit Ashley Charbonnet

Sync Up Cinema Conference with Clint Bowie and myself.                 Photo credit Ashley Charbonnet


How can filmmakers change their mindset to one of building and engaging their own audience and how does digital technology play into this?

SC: “The digital mindset has to be acquired now. This is no longer a world of the closed off artist. The new developments of crowdfunding, career sustainability by becoming an artist entrepreneur instead of being dependent on industry choosing you, and media interactivity/cross platform storytelling are all contingent on being open and connected to an audience.  Filmmakers must understand and use digital tools in their professional life to truly have a relationship with their audience. Anyone who can’t deal with that is going to be left behind in this world. That really goes for any professional, not just artists. I think we are now just in a transition period where we have to talk about this ‘mindset’ change because, believe me, young filmmakers are already doing this. It is natural to most of them and even more natural to 13-14-15 year olds! This will become a moot point very soon for everyone.”

How do you help filmmakers brand themselves rather than simply branding their projects so that they can move seamlessly from project to project without reupping every time? Is this something that is for “name directors only”.

SC: “Name directors would have an easier time connecting to an audience because their names are already recognizable, but the majority  don’t do it and that is detrimental for their continuing careers. They think the world where you can be removed and other people will just take care of audience attention for you will continue to exist. It won’t. Indeed, it is rude and selfish now to not be available.

Branding yourself simply means figuring out what you stand for, what your identity is. It isn’t a logo, it isn’t an image or a persona. It is who you really are as an artist. That identity does not radically change for most people. Independent artists in particular have a unique perspective. If they  didn’t have a somewhat unique vision, they would be selling insurance or working in a bank. Working in some nondescript job. They yearn to share their unique perspective with the world and they do it through images, stories. Social media, really the web in general, should be a place where they can thrive because it is full of stories and images!

Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman speak about artists being like dandelions. Instead of “giving birth” to only a few “babies” in a lifetime, artists should be creating all the time and putting their “seeds” out into the world. Some work will thrive and gather attention. Some work will die quickly, not be prosperous. Dandelions don’t care about their offspring, they just create. Sometimes their offspring live and sometimes they don’t. The internet is a place to create lots of little experiments and some will work wonderfully and some will not. Keep creating and try to make great work. That’s how you build your brand. That’s how you build a sustainable audience. Not by hoping to be picked up by the industry for a few of your offspring. It’s an audience for that one film, then you have to start over again. Your seeds can be blog posts or tweets or Facebook posts or Instagram photos. Something small every day.

This is the most basic thing to understand about brand building. All the digital tools and the metrics and the sales numbers, those are all byproducts of this basic understanding.

Be open, create great work, connect it with people. If you don’t do those 3 things, the rest of this doesn’t work.

What I do is encourage the filmmaker to figure out what their artistic identity is and how to share it with the world that can be reached online. It is hard work for me because few are embracing it as they should, but I know they are listening. They find me because I live what I am saying, I don’t spout out theory. I am not a publicist or a marketing consultant or a distributor who doesn’t even have their own website, or any social channels that they use regularly. I have to live it to help anyone with it.”

How do you work with filmmakers in terms of festival strategy?

SC: “Here is my strategy. If your film gets its premiere in a life changing festival, of which there are only a handful in the world, then that affects your distribution strategy. My colleague, Jeffrey Winter who handles all festival distribution for The Film Collaborative would call these IMPACT FESTIVALS.  He says an impact festival must offer at least 2 of these 3 things.

-Industry exposure which is what leads to a sale or a career launch.

-Press exposure to multiple major publications/media.

-Exposure to other festival programmers who will then invite your film to their festivals.

If a festival you are considering isn’t offering those things, then it is not an impact festival. There are also impact festivals within a niche like women’s film festivals, environmental festivals, Jewish festivals etc. If you cannot get into an impact festival, then the marketing and distribution strategy stays as it was in the M&D plan. Which means you have to have one from the start. If an impact festival premiere doesn’t happen, you need to plan your own impact premiere.

To me, the festival circuit is a theatrical release circuit with no revenue prospects, but far fewer costs than a conventional theatrical release. Unless you can get a screening fee, which is only possible in a few certain circumstances, then use a festival to do one night event screenings along with a service like Tugg or Gathr or community screenings where either a license fee is paid, or you are getting a significant cut of the ticket sales.

If the festival is small, the media coverage is small, no real industry people (ie, buyers or other festival programmers) attend, there is no screening fee and no way to make some revenue, then why go to that festival? It won’t make a difference to the film’s success and may not even make a difference to your career. If you know who your audience is and how to find them online, you don’t need a festival to reach them.”

Discuss festival darlings vs films that will be picked up and how to know what kind of film you have. Is it a festival film at all or something that should go to market or be self distributed.

SC: “A festival darling gets that way from being accepted into an impact festival.  Also, festival darlings will go on to play many other festivals, Jeffrey says at least 50 and they should be collecting screening fees with that so it becomes a source of revenue. Those films get picked up first.

If you mean a festival darling because it plays every little regional fest and stays on the circuit for over a year with no other distribution happening, it isn’t really a darling. It really means it doesn’t know what its doing.

There are elements that will help your film be a festival darling though..

-Name connections. I don’t mean name actors necessarily, but it never hurts :) . Is your producer connected? Is your director connected? Are you working with a sales agent?

-A lab program that is connected to prestige fests. Have you gone through labs with Sundance, IFP, Film Independent, San Francisco Film Society?

-A grant or funding organization like Cinereach on your side. Have you won a grant from a large film fund like Tribeca’s partnership with Ford Foundation? BritDoc Bertha Fund? Chicken and Egg? These organizations are filled with connected people who can pull some strings for your film if they think it is strong.

-A short film that is an alum of an impact festival. Impact fests love to champion their alumni filmmakers.

Festival programmers are tied into these networks and they ask ‘Is there anything out there I should be looking at?’  This is not blind submission territory. Anything they can do to wade through the pile of DVDs or online screeners to find the good stuff is welcome news to them. This is about getting to the upper end of the pile. Your film will be evaluated at a higher level. These connections change what is possible for your film.

If you haven’t got these connections, either GET them or be realistic about your prospects. You will be looking at your direct distribution options a lot more closely than a film with connections.

I still think a film with connections is going to have to build an audience though. Not all Sundance films get a pick up or get picked up and given meaningful release. Sundance didn’t create their Artists Services Program because they think all of their alumni will be given stellar releases. They created it because they know not all will and they can offer help to those willing to work. And while they do what they can to champion those alumni films, most still do not succeed because the filmmaker was ill prepared, budgeted no money for marketing and distribution and truthfully, some simply waited too long after their premiere to take advantage of the gift they were given in having that kind of premiere. That level of media buzz is not often recreated 2 years after the festival.

I am much more interested in seeing people like Shane Carruth, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, Thomas Woodrow, Ava Duvernay, Tiffany Shlain, all leaping out of Sundance with their own path than the ones who are waiting around for their sales agent to work a miracle for them. They prepared their marketing and distribution plans, they went to Sundance with it under their arms and laying the groundwork ahead of time with audience building and they were in a great position to say whether they would take offers or not. They didn’t HAVE to do it.

I will say there is NO SUCH THING as a film that doesn’t have distribution. If a film isn’t being distributed, that is by the choice of the filmmaker. They rolled the dice and lost on the big all rights deal and didn’t prepare for anything else. ALL FILMS have a path to distribution now. It may not be the path they hoped for, but it is easy to distribute a film. Getting people to watch it? Another story.”

Distribution – What are some concerns filmmakers need to have in terms of their distribution strategy and how production budgets are tied into this. How should filmmakers determine if and what sales markets can bear films like theirs.

SC: “For sure you should be working with a legal advisor who is looking out for YOUR interests. This is not necessarily a sales agent whose commission is based on your signing an agreement. On The Film Collaborative site we just published a guest post by a filmmaker who had to take his sales agent to arbitration and what a nightmare it was because of the agreement they signed. Use an entertainment attorney who works with independents, not just studios and distributors and is truly looking out for your interests first.

As far as budgets, marketing and distribution expenses are not part of your production budget, they are a separate section. They are part of your overall business plan budget. In any other business, marketing expenses are just part of doing business, in addition to creating the product.  But they haven’t been a concern to filmmakers and investors in the independent film sector, strangely. That has to change.

I recently talked on Film Courage about needing a 10% budget minimum …but really if you desperately want a theatrical release or you are contractually obligated to have one and you may be paying for it yourself, you need about $50K just for that. You’ll most likely need a booker which costs about $10K, you’ll have to 4 wall for a week in NYC, San Francisco and a few other cities first so the booker can make a case for why cinemas should book your film, that will cost about $20K. You’ll need to hire a national publicist to get you the important New York Times review as well as other major publications because without those, why are you showing theatrically at all? That will run about $7K or more. You’ll need someone working online outreach probably on a full time basis and that will run about $7K. You’ll need materials like Blu Rays, DCP, trailer, poster, shipping costs, printing costs and some advertising. That will take you up to about $50K for a very small theatrical run.

Then if you are going to go ahead and direct distribute via digital platforms, if you work with a Gravitas, they will charge about $10K for encoding your film and getting it onto Cable VOD services. You will pay about $1500 to encode for iTunes and you need to have closed captioning and maybe subtitling which will run you about $1000 each for that. If you want it on iTunes in Australia, New Zealand and a few European countries, you’ll now need to have the film rated by the ratings board. They charge per minute on the film with an average cost of $2300 for Australia alone.

But if you have an impact festival premiere, great reviews, lots of buzz going on the film, you may not need to 4 wall so you can reduce that theatrical cost significantly. You still won’t make money on it, but it won’t cost too much either.

Sales markets are best handled by sales agents. If you want your film to be available at a market, I am assuming you mean for foreign sales, you are better off having someone whose whole job is devoted to buyers and markets handle your film there.

I think all filmmakers should attend a film market though because if you were ever under the illusion that you were making “art” you will learn very quickly that is about the last things buyers are looking for. They are looking for something that will sell. Sex, violence, stars..those are easy sells. And it is all right there on the poster or in the trailer. Right in your face. Go have a stroll around Cannes Marche du Film or around the Loew’s in Santa Monica at AFM. Visit before you even have a project to sell and it will be very illuminating.”

What is the average in terms of indie distribution.  We hear a lot of success stories about foreign markets, but that isn’t necessarily the average.

SC: “First, there is no average for advances. It is totally dependent on what kind of film you have and its pedigree.

Foreign market for the average American independent film is close to zero. I think the successful foreign sales you are hearing about are for the bigger budget, well known actor films. Presales are highly dependent on cast so if you don’t have A list or close to it in your film, you aren’t looking at presales. Yes, plenty of people are still talking about foreign presales, but ask them for examples. You’ll see they are talking about Hollywood level cast.

But say that you do want to see what your prospects are for foreign sales? I do suggest you get a foreign sales agent because they know who the territory distributors are. They deal with them all the time and they can be more effective at collecting money from them than you can. They license films to territory distributors in different countries. Territory distributors acquire rights to exhibit a film, show it on TV, use digital platforms within their territory. These territory distributors find out about films from film markets such as Cannes, Berlin, Asian Film Market and American Film Market and TV markets such as Mip, also in Cannes.

Here is a selection of top grossing American indies in foreign markets for 2012:

Silver Linings Playbook (David O Russell, Oscar nominated) $101mil (Australia and Spain top countries, sold to 46 territories)

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, Oscar nominated) $22mil (uk, France, Australia, Germany & Spain top grossing, but sold in 41 territories)

Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, produced by John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd , started as a novel) $15mil ( Australia, UK, Italy top countries, sold in 28 territories)

Cast involved in these films (Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Emma Watson, Dylan McDermott) Typical American indie film does not have this cast.

So what is an average advance in terms of domestic indie distribution? Very hard to say. Depends on the buzz coming off of it and what time of year the film sells. There were some strong sales at Sundance this year, Sundance being the beginning of the year. The Way, Way Back sold for $10 mil and will be released in July (fitting for a movie about working a summer job in a water park) and got only a C+ out of Indiewire. It has Toni Collette, Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell in it. Don Juan’s Addiction sold for $4 mil with a $25mil marketing spend guarantee on 2000 screens out of Relativity Media. It will need to gross about $35mil to just recoup. I have no idea if that MG paid for the production budget. It is a Joseph Gordon Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore film.

Some of the smaller films like Fruitvale Station (around $2mil to Weinstein, playing Cannes), Concussion (around $1mil, Radius-TWC), The Spectacular Now (around $1mil, A24)  S-VHS (around $1mil, Magnolia), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (around $1mil, IFC also playing in Cannes). Many of these are already getting screening fee revenue out of other festivals that have programmed them.

Compare this with Toronto purchases, one of the last buyer festivals before the end of the year. The Place Beyond the Pines was picked up for under $3mil by Focus Features, but the production budget was $15mil. It was just released March 29, already hitting $12mil and most of that is foreign. Stars Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper.  I think they’ll be all right eventually, but Focus recoups and profits first, not the film’s investors.

What Maisie Knew went for $2mil to Millenium Entertainment, which is now for sale. It is set to go into theatrical release tomorrow.  Stars Alexander Skarsgard and Julianne Moore.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions bought a trio of films for a grand total of $5mil. Thanks for Sharing, Imogene and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I’m thinking the total production budgets for those films were a lot higher!

SXSW sales have been slow.  Cheap Thrills sold to Drafthouse for low-mid six figures which probably means $200K and a promise of theatrical and VOD/digital.  Holy Ghost People sold to XLrator Media for an undisclosed amount. Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies has some high profile actors like Ron Livingston, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick and was picked up by Magnolia, again no amount disclosed. Doc Good Ol’ Freda just sold to Magnolia and they say it will get a theatrical, again no amount disclosed. Usually Magnolia does Day and Date releases.

These are some of the top festivals for sales, the rest of the festivals are just exhibition exercises that you are hopefully using to launch into digital release. Hey, distributors do this too. Often even if a film will have a limited theatrical, it will still use the festival circuit as an exhibition space. But the difference is, those films will get screening fees.

But then you have films like Euphonia which premiered at SXSW and then went online for free.  It was a no budget (or no one is getting paid back) film, 54 minutes long so really not programmable in many places as far as festivals, broadcast, theatrical. It doesn’t have sales prospects and the filmmakers didn’t care. They are newbies, put their film on Vimeo just so people would see it without a money barrier. That isn’t wrong. Their goal is just getting people to see it.  They may accomplish that goal.

Numbers, everyone likes to know those and yet, we don’t. I would like to call on industry to start divulging more. Filmmakers start divulging more. We did this in our book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and it was difficult to get at them. A few filmmakers dropped out when they heard what info we wanted because they didn’t want to share that info. So you can’t complain about not knowing if you aren’t willing to share. Also, it is contractually agreed not to divulge numbers, keep everything private. We can know box office numbers, we can know DVD sales numbers, but so far there is no public database for digital numbers.

According to Gravitas Ventures’ Nolan Gallagher ‘When an independent film opens in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles—and those four theaters report $10,000 each for box office earnings—that’s a very easy amount of information to compile and publicize. But with VOD, we’re talking about over 100 different operators, each with its own way of compiling and disseminating information.’ Still statements and checks are sent to rights holders so a figure is obtained.

We know, based on self released numbers by Lionsgate/Roadside that Richard Gere’s Arbitrage which had a concurrent theatrical and VOD release took in about  $11 million in VOD/digital sales and over $7.5 million in ticket sales. The distribution company paid $2.1 million to acquire domestic rights out of  Sundance Film Festival, and Roadside spent about $2.5 million promoting the theatrical debut.  Marketing expenses for the VOD were reportedly only a few hundred thousand.

Margin Call with Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons had VOD sales of about $6 million and grossed $5.4 million in theaters. Also released by Lionsgate/Roadside.

Bachelorette grossed $5.5 million on VOD but took in $448,000 theatrically. Released by Radius TWC. Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Rebel Wilson star.

Where did all of those films come from?? Sundance!

But know this. It is nearly impossible to attract significant VOD revenue without a star driven film!! And sometimes stars want a theatrical guarantee, or their agents do.

A couple of more realistic indie film case studies that worked with Gravitas Ventures.

The Truth-made for a reported $500K, starring John Heard, Brendan Sexton III, Daniel Baldwin, Erin Cardillo. Made $ 75K in an advance from Netflix. It is a thriller.

American: The Bill Hicks Story: made for under $1mil, Cable VOD gross at $375K and iTunes gross $55K for both rental and download, though rental accounted for vast majority. A 2 year Netflix and Amazon  deal for about $100K license combined.”

As soon as the video of what we did actually talk about that night is available, I will post it here, tweet it, put it on my Facebook page and in my G+ community.

Next up for me in June, an Amsterdam workshop with the Binger Lab and Sheffield DocFest in the UK. If you’ll be in either of these places, give me a shout!



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