During the 2013 Sheffield Doc Festival, an international panel of documentary producers spoke about the different methods they use to find funding for their work. While 3 of the panelists were fortunate enough to come from countries that provide tax payer funded initiatives for filmmakers, producer Julie Goldman of Motto Pictures was the representative from the US. We do have some government funded programs for documentaries, but only for films that meet a certain criteria (ie, largely social good topics). I summarized some of the points Goldman brought up during the panel, a video of which has been posted on Youtube and runs about an hour and a half (link below if you have time to watch all of it).
-Goldman’s company, Motto Pictures, has helped produce a wide range of award winning documentaries such as A Place at the Table, Buck, Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry and God Loves Uganda. The company was founded in 2009.
-Every film has a different funding model; from cobbling together multiple grants over years to commissions from major broadcasters. Buck was already fully financed from private investors when it came to the company. This is a rare occurrence.
-One of her biggest pieces of advice is about striking at the right funding moment. You have to be ready, agile and go for opportunities when they open up. If there is suddenly a new channel buying documentaries for their new programming initiative, you have to be there from day one because in a short time, they could be out of business, but you will have gotten some presale money at least. Be on the lookout for new funds opening up all the time.
-The projects she spoke most about were God Loves Uganda and Buck. God Loves Uganda was a labor of love project which took 3 years to piece together full financing. First, they applied and received money from Sundance Documentary Fund, Tribeca Gucci Documentary Fund, Tribeca All Access, Open Society (George Soros), tons of little bits of money, but still had a huge gap in the budget. They proceeded production in stages with the small tranches of money and everyone was deferring and thinking they were never going to get paid. Finally, the project received money from ITVS Open Call, but it was complicated. ITVS is the funding body for independent films for public television in the US and they go to different strands such as POV and Independent Lens. They can become an equity investor and license the TV rights for 4 years. Because they are funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, there are some things they are intransigent about and others where you can find flexibility. They take an equity position in the project and they have that going forward from any means of income the film has, not money from festival prizes, but any sales the film gets. While the God Loves Uganda made it through to the final round of the vetting process, they didn’t end up getting the money at first. But at that time, one of the strands, Independent Lens, had discretionary funding for projects they were interested in and they gave some funding. It was still an ITVS project, but Independent Lens had an option for it, a first look. But Goldman thinks now that funding isn’t available anymore. Again, look for those funding moments and be ready to strike. The final funding piece came from the Ford Foundation. They fund projects and you do not have to be a US citizen to apply for them. They have an incredibly helpful website and an initiative called Just Films which funds $10mil for films of a social justice nature each year for the next 5 years. It may or may not be renewed in future.
-In all grant inquiry letters, don’t just explain how your film fits into a broad funding initiative. If it is a big organization, chances are they have branches that are concerned with specific issues and if your film touches on more than one of those (say, LGBT AND freedom of expression or minority rights), it helps the organization fulfill more than one mission and is more likely to receive funding because those divisions can work together and often share the funding resources. It could even result in getting more money.
-God Loves Uganda was an example of the miserable-while-you’re-doing-it-but-happy-in-the-end funding model. The model for Buck was much happier. The film centers around Buck Brannaman who is the original horse whisperer. He runs well regarded training sessions and he is a really popular and loved figure in the horse owning world. People wanted to give money to have this film made about him when the director decided she was going to do it so the film was funded by all private money by the time it came to Motto Pictures. Buck was released theatrically in the US in 2011 with revenue of over $4 million, which is a big hit for a documentary. But the exhibitors took 65% of that. Out of the 35% that goes back to the distributor, IFC Films, they took 25% out of that plus their costs for marketing and prints. And then the sales agent takes their cut. Basically, the film was in the red for a long time even though over 200,000 DVDs were sold. While DVDs rarely sell in this volume, the audience for the film was older and it was a really good DVD audience. It is only now (2013) that money is starting to come in to the producer.
-However, director Cindy Meehl had another source of revenue planned and it is VERY important to consider this. She planned these 3 camera shoots on beautiful Montana ranches of the horse clinics Brannaman holds annually to be used as footage in the film. It was very professionally captured footage. She then released extra footage as a 7 part DVD (at $30 a pop) for people who can’t go to the clinics or want an introduction before they go. Those DVDs that she produced are selling like CRAZY and she is making a lot of money on them. It was very smart and her investors are getting their money back more quickly that way. If you have a subject matter that could have ancillary value to a lucrative niche market, it is very clever to plan for monetizing it outside of the feature film during development and while in production. Said Goldman, “At the time, we shrugged and thought, whatever. We weren’t horse people so we didn’t understand or have faith in it. She had total faith in it and she was right.”
-The final model, if you’re lucky enough to win it, is commissioning. A big entity like HBO or Participant Media will pay you a fee to make a film for them and they own the film. You will never see another penny other than your fee and you had better not go over budget. This model is almost exclusively for the well established documentary filmmaker.
-The panel only briefly touched on a new model, crowdfunding. Only the producers from Canada and the US had any experience with it and felt that the amount of work involved in running a campaign is grossly underestimated. But the point was raised that funding and distribution are moving from the institutional to the social and increasingly audiences are taking their recommendations from friends and those they trust. It stands to reason they will also pay, either to create or to see films that are made by filmmakers they like and trust. For now, crowdfunding of documentary is mainly working for those who don’t have big production budgets, but do have either name recognition or issue recognition to tap into an existing audience.
Other funding bodies that documentary makers should be aware of include:
For the full Sheffield DocFest panel including explanations from producers from Canada, UK and Netherlands, watch the video
One night event screenings can be organized directly with a theater, but the newest way to go about setting up a tour in the US is through sites like Tugg and Gathr. If there is enough demand in a city to warrant a screening, these sites help to facilitate it through their network of cinemas. Filmmakers may request cities they would like to screen in or a local promoter can request a screening. Either way, a certain number of tickets needs to be presold in order to make a screening happen. This financially protects the exhibitor as they won’t be giving up a screen to accommodate a very small audience and it protects a filmmaker against having to pay thousands of dollars upfront to 4 wall the screening. But how successful is this method of screening your film? As with most things self financed, it all depends on how much work you have put into gathering an audience.
-Their initial plan of going to festivals and receiving distribution offers did not work out. They realized that Tugg would offer the chance to have their own screenings and make money, rather than spend money attending festivals and receiving no revenue.
-Since the production had run a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2011, they did have supporters that they could call on to help set up and promote screenings. This is CRUCIAL in order to tip presales of tickets. Remember, if a minimum ticket threshold isn’t met, the screening won’t happen.
-The narrative film’s story was centered around a grandson who returns to his hometown to care for his last living relative suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. The story is set in Cass, West Virginia. Knowing that their MOST CORE audience was in West Virginia, that is where the film started its screening tour (not New York, not LA, West Virginia!). The production also looked at where their Kickstarter supporters were in order to map out other cities where they would have an enthusiastic reception. They also partnered early on with the Alzheimer’s Association as technical advisors on their script and as fiscal sponsors so were able to solicit their help in reaching local chapters to either host screenings or encourage members to attend screenings. NOTE: if your film does not have a core audience AND organizations committed to helping you, you will find filling screenings to be extremely challenging. This film is not a documentary (which naturally lend themselves to organizations) and it did not have name actors. The producers admitted if they did not have this Alzheimer’s angle, they could not have pulled off this screening tour. Think hard about that when creating your film. In fact, if you are working with a low budget and you will not have a clear niche audience for your story, don’t make that film. I’m serious.
-The producers had budgeted $38,000 to promote and arrange this screening tour. They spent all of it and more. One big area for spending was travel because they needed to be at the screenings in order to sell merchandise and collect email addresses for later digital/DVD release communication. It is terrific that they included merchandise as an extra revenue stream! But some cinema chains (*cough AMC cough*) did not allow any merchandise sales to be conducted in the theater. Also, $11,000 was used to pay for Kimberly to run this tour full time. It is an incredible amount of work to set up, organize and promote a screening tour. No one should be asked to do it for free, especially not for 10 months of their life (yes, that’s how long they’ve been preparing and running this tour). The rest of the money was spent on manufacturing the merch (DVDs & tshirts), printing and shipping posters/flyers, and Facebook ads (which they did not think helped with sales).
-The producers did have screenings scheduled that did not meet the minimum ticket threshold. Consumers are not completely clear on how this system works because they are used to showing up to the box office and paying for a ticket right before the screening time. On a Tugg or Gathr screening, they MUST preorder or the screening won’t happen. A bit of education for the consumer will be needed when using this method.
-Also, when some screenings had sold tickets, but not enough to meet the minimum, the production did spend to buy out the rest of the tickets in order to make the screening happen.
-Even if others are hosting screenings of your film, you still have to support their promotional efforts. They will need images, press releases, posters, postcards and maybe support their media efforts by being available for interviews or actually traveling to the screenings. Don’t think this is on autopilot or that promoters necessarily have the skills to publicize a local screening.
-Press for one night event screenings is difficult to obtain. While they received press attention in West Virginia because the film is set there and it is very relevant to the local media, they did not receive a lot of press attention for screenings elsewhere. Most newspapers have a policy to only review films that play for a week or longer. The biggest outlets only want to cover nationwide theatrical releases. While you can certainly try sending out press releases to local and national press on your own, you may find they go unanswered. Also, Kimberly said she didn’t see a direct correlation between the amount of press coverage and the number of ticket sales. This means word of mouth played a much bigger role in the success of the tour than any press coverage. Caveat to this, distribution partners definitely search for press coverage on a film to decide whether to pick it up. You will need press coverage even if it doesn’t put butts in seats. Also, regarding reviews–reviews that result in low Rotten Tomatoes scores can hurt your digital film sales because those scores are highlighted on many digital platforms like iTunes, Vudu etc. It is better to have no critical reviews, but great audience reviews, than to have poor critical reviews.
-Don’t let the time lag between the theatrical tour and the ancillary sales. While momentum is going- people are talking about the film and attending screenings- is the best time to arrange for your ancillary deals early in the lead up to the screenings or after a little momentum has started. VOD transactional and DVD distributors will see the promotion and want to launch off of it so don’t let all of the attention fall to the ground again by waiting too long to solicit ancillary deals.
-Between the merchandise sales and the independent theater bookings the production made on their own (aside from the Tugg screenings), the revenue they saw was $18,500. With the 50 Tugg screenings, they are due an additional $6500. At the time of the podcast, they had another 25 screenings scheduled through Tugg. They are hoping that the screening tour will put the film in a better position to see more revenue in the home video phase of the release.
All useful information when considering a one night event screening tour as the way to have a theatrical release. If you want to catch the whole podcast (55 minutes), jump on over to the Film Specific site.
A guest post from Ian Delaney, director of the short film HOLES
Counter-intuitively it is exactly because the entire world is at our fingertips online that the best marketing approach is the narrowest, smallest one you can devise. Why? Because online the smallest niche is still millions of people, and these people are going to be connected to your project and more likely to become involved either by donating to your Kickstarter or by downloading and consuming your material.
You can imagine that a film about a young husband’s journey through grief as he suffers the sudden loss of his wife and baby daughter, although universal in theme, would be most interesting for a narrow niche of people.
I began searching online for communities and forums that focus on helping those suffering with a loss find support and hope. The danger for any project seeking fund raising is that it’s very easy to be seen as predatory, and this is doubly so when reaching out to communities which are emotionally vulnerable. In order to be as respectful to my target groups as possible, I developed relationships with the moderators and directors of these groups, before fund raising was even a thought. Some of these generous people were fantastic resources for research as I was writing the script. Once a foundation of respect and trust was built (and that foundation is really required for anything in life), I was able to discuss partnering with them to help spread the word and help raise money for my film.
A lot is made about the “Kickstarter effect” – the first surge of donations after launching your campaign. There is an equally powerful “Kickstarter lag” when your closest contacts have donated and the momentum pauses. And there, I believe, is the trick to crowd-funding: never let them see the lag. For my campaign, I’ve tried my best to stagger my publicity and promotions so there are continual surges throughout the campaign. People want to back success, so when they see other people promoting your campaign weeks in, they’re a little more confident that you have something special.
Equally important is providing consistent, value-based updates via social media. I’ve seen campaigns where people post, “We’re still far from reaching out goal, please donate!” three times a day for their thirty day campaign. There is no value there. I’ve kept a few things hidden in order to roll them out as the campaign continues. I won’t give away any surprises, but at certain levels of progress new perks will be offered, new videos added, discounts on perks, anything and everything to be able to say something new and interesting both for those who have donated and those who have yet to donate. Nothing turns people off more than a constant drone of “I need money.” And with the popularity of crowd-funding and platforms like Kickstarter, this drone is getting louder and louder every day.
Even before the campaign began, I knew that maintaining contact with my donors, and those who maybe wouldn’t donate, was going to be a huge part of the continual progress of this project. Once the campaign ends, I’ll be writing open letters and articles expressing my thanks for the forums and communities of people who helped me during the campaign. For my donors, who are connected via Kickstarter, I’ll be creating a production blog, so they’re able to see photos and read stories about how the film is progressing. This way they’re going to be able to see how their donation is being used, not just receive their perk at the end. This is the type of personal, continued attention that I know I’d want if I was donating to my project.
No dollar can be taken lightly.
Only time will tell if all the work I put into planning and preparing for the campaign will pay off, but I do know that no one donating to my project will feel burned or abused or taken advantage of, and that’s going to make my next campaign better and even more successful!
If you’re interested in learning more about the film, or to check in and see our progress, take a look at our Kickstarter page. And while you’re there feel free to become a part of the project yourself and donate what you can!
I recently gave a presentation to the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam. It is European centric according to the audience to whom I was presenting, but creators from anywhere will understand it.
Most of my sessions start with some form of this one because I think it is imperative that creators understand WHY using social tools is beneficial to them for more than just “self promotion.” In fact, self promotion is really NOT the best use of these tools. While the title says paradigm shift, this is also about a mindset shift that creators must embrace. The internet is based on connection, abundance, generosity and earning trust. It isn’t based on greed, scarcity and secrecy. Creators aren’t the only ones who have to change their approach when using these tools. I see very few labs, schools or other workshops teaching from this fundamental principle and that is why I think it is important to cover before launching into marketing strategy, what tools are available and how to conduct audience outreach. The mind and heart have to be in the right place first.
All creators (writers, filmmakers, musicians) I know do not like the idea of self promotion and avoid using social channels, or use them incorrectly, to connect directly with an audience believing that they will turn into raving a**holes constantly talking about themselves. Believe me, no one wants that! But the audience is growing used to having direct contact with artists and, in order to take advantage of new developments in funding (crowdfunding) and distribution, an artist MUST have a network of supporters for their work. But no one wants to connect with someone who is just taking all the time or sees their efforts as short term or views the audience as disposable.
The REAL power of the internet and social media is its ability to connect like minded people. Reaching an audience used to entail going through centralized and guarded entities (mass media), but now the tools are available to everyone. Using them just to blast messages about yourself means you have misunderstood its true power and, frankly, you come off as rude and out of touch.
In addition to seeing the slides here, you can see my notes for each slide on the Slideshare site. So far, this presentation has reached over 2800 people and I’m pretty happy about that. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below or on the Slideshare site.
It makes sense doesn’t it? Word of mouth doesn’t travel without a personal network of supporters, however small. For some reason, there is a misconception that free money just rolls in when a crowdfunding initiative is launched, despite the fact that there are many, many case studies available online (for FREE) from people who ran successful campaigns and report that it was very difficult work. Widening the audience is one benefit of a campaign, but you have to start from somewhere in order to widen out.
In a short clip I did with Film Courage, I talk about why crowdfunding may not be for everyone and the limitations one will encounter if not very active online.
An aspect of a crowdfunding campaign that isn’t as apparent as money, is building up a sizable contact list of engaged supporters. I can’t tell you how crucial this is not just to the one project, but to ALL of your future as a filmmaker. Developing and maintaining a database of personal contact details is invaluable because they have given permission (and expressed an interest in) for future communication from you. This list should be guarded with your life and not relinquished to any third party! It shows the trust people have put in your talent and in you as a person, a trust difficult to gain that can easily be destroyed. This list should never been taken lightly or sold/given away for short term gain (besides, it goes against CAN SPAM Act regulations unless each recipient has been given clear and conspicuous notice that his or her e-mail address will be shared with third parties for marketing purposes. Who would agree to that?).
While there are certainly companies and individuals asking to be hired to crowdfund for artists, I think skipping over the crucial step of putting in the personal work it takes to gain trust is missing by employing this tactic exclusively. Social media channels are truly a gift and an opportunity we have been given to get closer to our audience, to have a deeper and more personal connection through our work. It breeds loyalty, instead of disposability. Also, the ability to know that our work touches people and matters to people can keep you going when it seems the world is full of rejection or self doubt. Gathering a team to help is advisable (in all aspects of filmmaking), but allowing only the team (or worse, an uninvolved 3rd party) to have contact with your supporters is a mistake.
It is time that artists come to terms with the fact that the age of the bubble (where creation takes place only in private) has come to an end. The audience wants to feel close to the art and its creator. This isn’t new really, fan clubs have existed for decades, but now that closeness comes in Tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts, podcasts, videos, Pinterest boards etc. and the ability to have a dialog directly. Make an effort personally to reach out to your audience, even get to know them by name, and you will see that effort come back to you in artistically, financially and personally beneficial ways.
In October 2012, I wrote a series of case studies on cross media projects for The Film Collaborative blog. I love following these projects because I think it is an emerging artform and those creating them are on the cutting edge of the future of entertainment. One Australian cross platform creator I find interesting is Christy Dena. She has been working on a particularly intriguing project called AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS that aims to bring the radio drama into the 21st century. When I first read about the project, I was a little confused because it described the project as an audio tour of the web. I whisked off some questions to her and got the full story.
When you say this is an audio tour of the web…I am getting that you mean using the web to tour through your story, not that it actually leads the viewer on an educational tour of the web right? Could you explain a bit more about your story? Who is your main character and why should we go on an adventure with her?
CD: “The project started with the idea of audio tours of the web. I worked on developing a startup technology business that utilises that idea. At first the plan was to release a creative project as a way to showcase what the technology can do, and open it up for anyone to create their own audio tour of the web – for educational/non-fictional or fictional purposes. The work involved in creating both a fictional project as well as a startup was huge, and so I had to make a decision which one I’d put my energy into — first at least. I decided on the creative project of course.
So the idea developed away from an audio tour, to more of a radio drama layer that involves traversing specially-created fictional websites. While there are many characters in the story, you travel primarily with the protagonist and her sidekick. The characters live in a world split in two: the Overworld and the Underworld. The lead is an autopsy pathologist in the Overworld, who has a hidden life as a Philosopher in the Underworld. She is outed as a philosopher, and so attracts the wrath of the Reality Infringement Council and the excited fandom of a Part-Time Time-Travel Student. The Pathologist decides to take on a bet to find the meaning of death. She is a strong woman who persists no matter how many forces around her try to take her down. She says things we’ve always wanted to say, she does things we’ve always wanted to do.
What inspired you to make this story?
CD: “There are a few points of inspiration. The identity obstacles are based on my own experiences as a creative person. For years, I’ve had people putting me in boxes — oh she is an academic, she is too industry to be academic, she is too corporate to be an artist, she is too arty to be a corporate. People really need to put you in a box and while people have moved with me as I don’t seem to fit in the one they’ve assigned me, I am aware that I’ll always having people not quite understanding me because I don’t play by their rules.
The story weaves identity and death together. Death and the manner it is investigated, was inspired by the sudden death of my mother. She wasn’t ill or anything, she just suddenly died one day. To try and make sense of it all, I went through all her things — read her last scribbles on her notepad, read her last emails, listened to the last music track she had on, read the last phone message she sent, the last book she was reading. I did it to try and make sense of what was happening. The autopsy was taking care of the how, I was interested in the why. It was a kind of a philosophy autopsy.”
So far, what kinds of work has been involved in getting this project started?
CD: “I began with testing the technology as a business case, but then moved to the creative side. So that entailed working on the script. I started with post-it notes, tons of bits of paper, and charts. Of course, lots of research. I listened to lots of different radio dramas, as well as movies and games related to the topic of death and identity. I also studied strong female characters, and narrative structures associated with having a lead that doesn’t need saving. I adapted the screenplay format to work with websites and action. I wrote about all of this in a Mediacommons article. I’ve studied how comedy can work in interactive situations where a player is involved, the different ways you can deliver a call to action, how immersive websites work, and so on.”
It sounds very thorough. What made you decide to make this iPad specific? I suppose that it will be an app in the iTunes stores globally so one could use an iPhone or iPod Touch to experience the project too? Or with the experience be particularly acute for iPad users?
CD: “The choice of an iPad is resource constraint. We’re ultra indie, and so can’t afford to produce the project for all the different types of Android tablets. My original grand plan was to release on desktop and tablets. But then I realised I needed to choose one for the first release. iPad has the biggest penetration we can develop for, and iTunes gives us an existing economy people are used to. The experience isn’t suited for the phone, however, because we have websites and an interface that just won’t scale well for the really small screen. The experience is personal in that it is single player, and so the tablet is the ideal private experience platform.
I spent a long time working out how the interaction design would work. I’m delivering information through audio primarily, but also through visual information such as text on websites, images, and actions the players undertake. To get this sweet spot of balancing the right information delivery through the delivery is crucial. As well as the aesthetics of how the player will be situated in relation to the action aurally, and to the fictional world. So we’ve done two playtests. The first entailed recording actors using binaural sound. Binaural sound involves recording to be as close to the way we hear things naturally. We had a dummy with microphones in each ear seated in the position of the player, in front of a keyboard. I hired spaces that sounded like the rooms the scenes were set in — one that sounded like an office, another was a large studio that sounded like the casino. The actors moved around the dummy/player. We then edited the audio, put in sound effects and music and put them with basic websites we had created. We then ran playtests with people to find out what worked and what didn’t. I discovered a lot of interesting things from that. We then created a prototype for the iPad. This involved recording actors in a studio, and creating basic websites with an iPad interface.”
You are in the middle of crowdfunding this endeavor on an Australian crowdfunding site called Pozible. I have talked about Pozible in my presentations. How are you finding the experience with it?
CD: “The decision to go with Pozible was a difficult one. I investigated going through Kickstarter — either in the USA or UK — for many months. I had family and colleagues who were willing to let me use their bank account (because Amazon Payments requires a local bank account). But Amazon Payments reports earnings over a certain amount to the tax office, and so we couldn’t risk that happening with family and colleagues. I discovered it is relatively easy to set up a company in the USA from overseas, but creating a bank account is riddled with financial and legal obstacles. There were also the further costs involved with using Kickstarter — Amazon Payments takes a cut, and then I’d be losing money in the currency exchange, and bank fees. Since I wasn’t asking for a large amount in the big scheme of things [$15,000], it wasn’t financially viable to go through Kickstarter and so decided on using the local platform of Pozible. Further to this, all the stats say that the majority of traffic and pledges come through Facebook – and so in this sense campaigns are platform-agnostic.
But there are still obstacles. Kickstarter is the flavour of the month/year/last few years. It naturally attracts press and supporters. Press are less inclined to talk about a project on some lesser-known platform. Kickstarter is news. There is also the brand-association that comes with Kickstarter – you use Kickstarter if you’re truly international and serious. I think that is what some people think. But Pozible has been going for a few years now, and the Australian public is getting behind it more and more – though not to the degree of Kickstarter. We’re used to buying things overseas, and aren’t good at supporting our own all the time.
That being said, the response internationally has been phenomenal. We have backers from over 14 countries! These backers didn’t care about the platform, they wanted to support the project, support me, support the team. And so that is wonderful. It certainly is easy to use, and doesn’t have the obstacle of Amazon Payments (backers can use credit card and Paypal). So it is more accessible.”
At present, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS has reached the $5,000 mark in their bid to raise $15,000 with only 7 days to go. Check out their creative, animated pitch video HERE. Good luck to Christy and her team.
I edited this piece and it was published on the Sundance Artist Services blog and The Film Collaborative blog. I am reposting it here because I think this film is the first and only one so far to eschew the typical Sundance offers, have the courage to know what distribution path is best for it and launch into the market straight after the festival. Also, I hope it serves as informative and inspirational to all who read this blog. My great respect goes to truly empowered filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot.
written by Bryan Glick, with assistance from Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler
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.