Is the Long Tail approach good for your film?

September 27, 2013
posted by sheric

This week, a Youtube video featuring Ira Deutchman at the TIFF Filmmaker Bootcamp was pointed out to me. Ira always has some great information to share with filmmakers given his long and illustrious career in independent film distribution.  In this 30 minute talk, he cautions filmmakers about the realities of the independent market and one key point he made about the so called long tail of sales really stood out. In order to see sizable revenue from the long tail, one must have A LOT of things to sell. In indie film circles, I think the long tail concept got confused with sales over time rather than lots of little revenue streams. If you are a filmmaker who doesn’t have a lot of revenue streams apart from selling copies of your film, you’ll want to read on so that you can be clear on this concept.

As Ira explains, in any retail business, 80% of the sales come from just 20% of  the products. This is the 80/20 rule.  When looking at big box stores like Walmart or Target or Barnes and Noble, one might think, “Why don’t they stock a millions titles of DVDs? It’s a really big chain with lots of stores.” But these retail outlets aren’t in the business of stocking everything, they just need to stock the titles they know will actually sell.  The hot titles, with stars and big marketing spends that they know will do business.  With their limited amount of shelf space in the Entertainment section of the store, they only want to stock the 20% of titles that will sell well. It is an efficient and profitable way to manage business when there is a limited amount of shelf space and there is a need to keep up with the multitude of stock in each store across the country.

In theaters, it’s the same deal. There are a limited number of screens, so cinema owners only want to play the films that are perceived to bring in box office sales. They can’t program every film, only the newest and hottest. If the ones they program don’t perform, the screening spot is hurriedly given to another film. No use clogging up screens with nonperforming films when there are plenty of others from which to choose.

Then ecommerce via the internet comes along and there are many virtual outlets selling products. There’s unlimited shelf space and all they need are some warehouses to keep small amounts of product. For a site like Amazon, as long as there is one copy of a DVD in the warehouse, it can be sent out or they pass the order along to the seller who is using Amazon as a storefront for their wares, charging a percentage of course. With Amazon Instant, they don’t even need the warehouse, just the server space.

The 80/20 rule doesn’t apply as strongly to online stores because although 80% of the business will still come from 20% of the products, there is still incentive to include a wide range of products on that infinite shelf and they will sell in the long term. The long tail principal states products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds bestsellers and blockbusters. If there is a film that only a few people know about or are interested, an online retailer can still afford to sell that film because millions of little products add up to a large business FOR THEM.

Although independent filmmakers are told that the long tail of sales is going to be good for them, it is mainly a beneficial way of doing business for the  Amazons, Netflix’s and iTunes’ of the world.  The money is made through selling LOTS of different things, not in selling ONE thing, like a film. Filmmakers who think having a long tail strategy for their film is the way to go will find that long tail means lots of little pennies over time and endless amount of time. While it is possible to sell a low volume of copies of your movie on your own, the major online retailers are selling a few copies of millions of movies.

These new digital opportunities to get your movies out to market, largely on your own, are a good thing. But the job of getting the audience to know it is there and interested in buying it is up to YOU. The sites don’t have to do this work, they have many, many other revenue streams and all they have to do is make sure people visit their site and buy SOMETHING, not your thing.

So, how many things are you selling? And how will you let people know about that? Before you settle into a long tail sales strategy of direct distribution, you need to answer these questions.

The other thing you must consider is the long game. If you do not YET have many things you are selling, how will you keep your work in the minds of those who are slow to act? In other words, if someone were to find out about your work a year after it is released, how will you let them know where to find it? In the film industry, the long game per title isn’t really of concern. They concentrate mainly on the big release moment and hope that splash is big enough to last in the minds of consumers. But with new distractions every day, how likely will someone remember to seek out a film they missed on initial release? Unless it comes up repeatedly by word of mouth for months or years after release, the likelihood is getting smaller and smaller, buried under the new.

Here is Ira’s video explaining the long tail for retailers. The explanation runs until 8:37, but you might like to hear the rest of his talk.

 
Sheri Candler
 

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