Quick note of thanks to those who attended my independent film distribution webinar with Atlanta Film Festival. The feedback so far has been positive and we are working on scheduling a marketing plan webinar in the future. As much as I know filmmakers are curious about distribution outlets, the place they encounter the most difficulty is in marketing their work. Hopefully we can sort that out together.
-Content platforms like cable VOD and Netflix are becoming much more selective about the films they choose and the deals they offer, and certain factors weigh heavily into these decisions. “It helps to have played at major festivals, have a small theatrical, great reviews, notable names, a broadcast deal, anything that shows your film has merit and exposure. For documentaries, even if the film hasn’t played the major festivals, playing at some of the major niche festivals shows there’s an audience for the film. If the film has a good outreach campaign and partners with organizations or has a big email list, those can be attractive,” said Danielle DiGiacomo, manager of film distribution at The Orchard
-A film that isn’t attractive for a big buy in foreign countries, but serves niche audiences amassed outside of the U.S., has a range of options. “iTunes is our most comprehensive multi-language, global support platform because we can service about 50 countries, wherever there are iTunes stores. To access iTunes, your film must meet quality standards and have subtitles for those languages and that cost is on you. When we can go worldwide with other platforms, we do.”
-One advantage of using a digital distributor rather than an aggregator is the ability to influence placement on the digital platforms. “This is a new release-driven market, getting on the ‘New and Noteworthy’ or ‘Now in Cinemas’ sections is a big deal. Giving sites like iTunes exclusivity for two weeks before anywhere else also helps with placement. While our team pitches the platforms where we would like the film to be, the sites also determine the placement based on how much they believe in the film and what else is coming out that week. If there are a lot of high-profile titles being released, it will be harder to get good placement. Sometimes they suggest release dates because they know what is coming out when. They also look at artwork, so that is important.”
-The Orchard also operates a multichannel network (MCN) on YouTube, currently ranked fifth in unique visits. As a YouTube-certified company, they have a team dedicated to helping creators optimize their videos for viewer search, monetize their content through advertising and grow channel subscriptions on YouTube. Recently, they formed a relationship with online horror film publisher Shock Till You Drop to jointly promote and distribute horror films worldwide.
We also talked about release strategies and why waiting too long between release windows is a bad idea. Check out the whole interview HERE.
This is a guest post from director Nick Lawrence who wanted to share his experience in releasing his film Time Expired on Youtube so that all might benefit from it. If his numbers seem low to you, think about how much money a typical filmmaker receives from a no advance distribution deal with little marketing efforts put behind it where the filmmaker has relinquished all rights to her film. That is the most common distribution scenario of most low budget, no prestige festival, no name cast independent films.
YouTube isn’t just a spot to share short videos. It’s also a surprisingly strong platform for releasing your feature-length film. My producing partner (Rachel Tucker) and I released our 93-minute comedy film Time Expired on YouTube in late 2011. Since then, the film has been viewed almost 700,000 times, with 2,000-3,000 people watching it every day. We’ve earned $3400 in ad revenue in the last year, and the numbers keep growing: $339 in April, $442 in May, $652 in June.
In fact, YouTube has become our most lucrative platform, far outperforming VOD and DVD sales. Since Time Expired was made for a very low budget, we are actually looking at recouping our entire investment in five to ten years — almost completely thanks to YouTube revenue.
Decision to Release on YouTube
If you’re like me, you might initially find the idea of putting your film on YouTube a hint distasteful. YouTube started out as a place to share short amateur videos, and that’s still how many see the site. Putting your film on YouTube doesn’t fit the old narrative of being chosen and embraced by the system.
I suggest you get over it. YouTube is the third most popular website in the world, the film and TV arm of Google. YouTube is familiar, easy to use, and available on mobile devices, smart TVs, and even gaming consoles. The site is expected to earn 4 billion dollars this year, growing to 20 billion by 2020.
That said, YouTube is best used as part of a comprehensive release strategy. Ideally, you’d start off releasing on VOD platforms like iTunes and Amazon, and then move to YouTube and other free/subscription platforms (Netflix and Hulu) once VOD sales have slowed to a trickle. But for many smaller films like ours, access to these platforms is not guaranteed. YouTube offers the chance to circumvent these barriers and reach a worldwide audience of thousands, even millions, while earning not insubstantial sums of money.
Since Time Expired lacked name actors and marketing hooks, our chances of finding a distributor were basically nonexistent. Rachel and I decided to release our film using a “freemium” strategy — making it available for free on various platforms and hoping it would spread virally on its own. Unfortunately, the viral part didn’t happen. We learned the hard way that most people just aren’t that interested in discovering new films. YouTube, however, proved to be an exception. Four months after release, we were averaging about 100 views a day. Six months after release, the film was up to 1,000 views a day. What happened? Did the film finally catch on and go viral?
Who’s Watching and Why
The data from YouTube Analytics reveals something else is happing. The number one reason people click on Time Expired is as a suggested video. YouTube suggests our film to people who have been watching other feature-length films, often of questionable copyright status. These films don’t always have much in common with Time Expired, but they tend to be newish features with a mainstream sensibility. In other words, YouTube’s algorithms are connecting us with a global audience channel-surfing for movies. Our second biggest traffic source is searches with strings like “Hollywood”, “full movies”, and “comedy”. Most viewers aren’t searching for our film by name. They’re just looking for a movie to watch.
One of the interesting things is who these people are. According to YouTube Analytics, 80% of views come from outside the US, including unexpected places like the Philippines (35,000 views), Saudi Arabia (26,000 views), and Malaysia (20,000 views). The film has been watched in 218 countries and territories, ranging from Afghanistan (151 views) to Zimbabwe (471 views). Also surprising is the age range: two thirds (66%) of viewers are 45 or older, defying the stereotype of the typical YouTube user. This probably reflects the subject matter of our film, which is a comedy about dying. A full third of viewers watch the film on a non-computer screen, such as a phone (17.6%), tablet (10.2%), or TV (1.6%).
Uploading and Monetizing Your Film
Uploading your film is pretty much the same as uploading any other YouTube video. Guidelines for best encoding quality are here. Although YouTube started out only accepting short SD videos, those days are long gone. The site now supports 4K resolution films of any length.
You’ll need to become a YouTube partner in order to monetize your film, but this is no longer difficult. You’ll also need to provide proof that you own the rights to the film. In our case, we emailed scanned copies of the music licenses and a document that certified we owned the film’s copyright and controlled our YouTube channel.
Once the film has been accepted for monetization, you can choose the type of ads you’re willing to allow using the monetization tab. TrueView in-stream ads are basic commercial breaks and can appear before, during, or after the film. You can choose the act breaks (spots for commercials) by adding minute and second values into the mid-roll field. Overlay in-video ads appear as little text boxes directly over your film. We opted out of overlay ads because I believe they diminish the viewing experience, but it’s your choice. Text ads also display by default on the sides of the view page.
Tips for Success
Pay close attention to how you present your film on its YouTube page, including the description, key words, and title. Don’t expect most potential viewers to be searching for your film by name. We titled our film “Time Expired (full movie)”, which I believe is an important factor in its success. When entering key words, try to cover the obvious, keeping in mind that people are searching for things like “full movie 2011″, “english movies”, and “Hollywood movie”. Cover the basics and as many variants as you can think of. I’d also recommend looking at popular movies on YouTube in your genre. How are they titled? What key words are they using?
Another issue to consider is the snowball effect. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, your film becomes more popular the more times it’s viewed. YouTube tends to connect people with popular videos, which only reinforces their popularity. That’s why you want to give it a nice strong push down the snowy slope. I’d recommend doing everything you can to help your film in the first weeks/months it’s up on the site. In our case, the film really started to build momentum after three or four months, but I’m not sure this would have happened if we hadn’t worked hard promoting it early on. We held screenings in Oklahoma (where we shot the film and where most cast and crew lived). We sent out press releases. We contacted everyone on our mailing list and posted on our Facebook page. We mailed out cast and crew DVDs (about 100 total) with a letter asking for help “spreading the word” and some cards that people could share with their friends/family. We never paid for YouTube promotion, although this might not be a bad idea at the critical stage when you’re getting started. I can also see paying for some advertising on Facebook to help drive traffic.
YouTube also supports captions and subtitles in multiple languages, which will make your film more attractive to some viewers.
What About Vimeo?
Many filmmakers prefer Vimeo to YouTube. Vimeo has a reputation for quality and aesthetics (and, if we’re honest, “coolness”) and has tended to do well with filmmakers and other artsy types. They’ve even added a VOD service, which is an intriguing, if expensive option requiring an upfront fee for a PRO account. So why not just post your film on Vimeo instead of YouTube? Several reasons:
1. Vimeo has no advertising, which means you can’t make money the same way.
2. TIME EXPIRED has 680,000 views on YouTube versus 745 on Vimeo. This isn’t because we promoted YouTube any more than Vimeo. We started out promoting both sites equally, but it quickly became clear that most people were choosing YouTube over Vimeo.
3. YouTube can deliver a global, channel-surfing audience in a way that Vimeo cannot. In the case of our film, it’s not just a little bigger — it’s a thousand times bigger.
So post your film on Vimeo by all means — but don’t skip YouTube. YouTube is a strong and underrated platform for releasing your feature film. Once the film is up and running, you can earn hundreds of dollars a month while being discovered by a global audience of thousands or even millions.
In the past year, the proliferation of online film distribution outlets has exploded. Almost every week there is a new website promoting themselves as the “new” way to get your films to an audience and make money. Often they send emails to me asking for a profile on this blog or others that I write. While I am all about innovation and entrepreneurship, I see very little difference in the sites. It is like they didn’t research the market at all and they believe their site is without competition. I have yet to see any new platforms that will compete with Netflix, iTunes, Amazon or Hulu for audience eyeballs. Yes, you can load your film up to all of these new sites, non exclusively and for no money down. But none, that I can see, have any presence in the consumer market, meaning no one knows they exist so the fact that your film is there means nothing revenue wise for you.
As there are now countless online outlets, not to mention a filmmaker’s own website, from which to digitally distribute a film, I wanted to offer some advice about how to make them valuable instead of only criticize these sites. This post was influenced by my hero Seth Godin’s recent post entitled What Talent Wants. Seth speaks to book publishers in his post. He calls his solution the four letter acronym MUSE
-M is for money. Most new platforms are offering a no money up front, 70/30 split of revenue. Since these outlets aren’t taking rights over the work, they don’t offer upfront fees to the rights holder (the filmmaker most likely) to host the film on the site. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is leading to mediocre to bad content to rule these sites. No money risk for anyone leads to a glut of content that no one will pay to see. Even though Netflix isn’t paying indies much in upfront fees, it does offer some cash and it doesn’t take every film. In fact it is becoming increasingly more particular in the films it chooses. This is a good thing for consumers who come to the site to find quality content and protects the filmmakers who have quality films from being completely drowned out from excessive, low quality content. Does some debatable quality exist on Netflix? Of course, but have you checked out the films on most of these no name sites?
To start an online distribution site that will get any traction in the consumer market, large amounts of money (like tens of millions)will need to be spent, both on advertising them to start with and in buying quality content. Most these new sites are starting with near zero to spend and won’t succeed. Filmmakers with well respected content, don’t put your films here.
-U is for ubiquity. In keeping with the money theme, only sites that can attract large amounts of attention from consumers will attract the best content and survive. This means they must saturate the market with messaging, through advertising, publicity, live events sponsorship on outlets that reach consumers, not filmmakers. Yes, having films to start with will be needed, but paying for quality content that will attract consumers is where efforts need to be focused. An online distribution outlet can’t hope to be successful by throwing up a site, getting a lot of low quality, no name films from any filmmaker it can attract and hope consumers will find it. Equally, these sites can’t be totally dependent on having filmmakers do this work for them. Yes, filmmakers need to drive traffic to THEIR film on your site, but you must make the site reach the public consciousness in the first place.
-S is for Standards. Godin refers to great book editors as the ones who attract talent to them. I am going to stretch this to consumers will be attracted to these sites if they feel like there is something for their interest. Stop trying to attract everyone. You won’t. Decide what your brand (your site) will be and stick with only that. Be the premiere site for uplifting films for children with disabilities. The site for films featuring sumo wrestling. The site for films on the artistic development process. Really narrow down your audience so that you can present them with a high quality channel of content devoted only to their interest. Films they can’t find anywhere else. Be prepared to cut the filmmaker a good deal for their content so that they wouldn’t think of putting it elsewhere because your site reaches exactly who they need to reach. Also instead of only presenting films on the channel, think of other things that could be sold to this audience and partner with companies who sell those things. Lots of revenue streams instead of total dependence on one.
-E is for ego. Rather than offering a pat on the head and a plea to more filmmakers to bring content, think about investing in great talent by cultivating it. Push this talent to better work. Ideally your site will start to attract a bevy of talented artists and the ego of artists is very competitive, each trying to outdo another with creative work and more attention. Your site should be the outlet where they all want their work shown. Your site will attract the very best talent for the most discerning audiences, instead of being easily accessible to all. There is no prestige in being easily accessible.
I would wager a guess that few of these sites and the films that show on them are making any money. No one knows about the site, no one’s heard of the films and no one is driving traffic at all. Most of them won’t survive their first 2 years. First comes attention (money spending), then comes money making. I think revenue will come from subscription sales, partnerships and affiliations with companies offering alternate products, advertising and sponsorship and possibly live event ticket sales for the subscribers. I think only those sites that successfully establish some brand (specialized identification by an audience) will continue and grow. I look forward to hearing from companies committed to doing this.
On July 1, I have an article coming out in Microfilmmaker Magazine that takes a look at 3 digital streaming players now available to filmmakers; Dynamo Player, Distrify and Flicklaunch. I talked to the founders of each company to bring you the lowdown on how each works, their pricing and how you, as the content owner, get paid. Here’s an excerpt:
Anyone who reads my blog or follows my Facebook page knows I am dedicated to encouraging filmmakers to take control of their own work and bring it to audiences in the most direct way possible. I especially feel this way when it comes to online digital distribution. Why give the rights (and fees and percentages) away to a distributor when you can easily use tools to distribute your work directly and in the most expedient manner?
Lately, several companies have emerged to help filmmakers do just that. Instead of looking for outside distribution companies to buy your work’s rights, hope they treat you fairly, and wait for them to bring it out for sale, consider these tools to go direct. When you can cut out as many of the layers separating your work from its audience, you’ll profit more….
Rob Millis, co founder of Dynamo, explained that was the aim of the product from the start. “Dynamo is as easy to access as any online video platform, with no restrictions or qualifications. It is available for any legal content you own the rights to, except pornography… The player allows you to upload your film, set a price for streaming it on a website or on Facebook, and publish it with no upfront costs or monthly fees. Fans, bloggers, online publications and organizations can host the player on their sites too in order to share their love of your film with their audience…
Two filmmakers from Scotland, Andy Green and Peter Gerard, founded Distrify. I spoke with them to find out what led them to create this tool to help filmmakers. “We wanted a better business model ourselves so we worked out a technical solution where we’d actually get some of the money from the films we produced by making it easy for fans to buy our films directly,” said Gerard. Distrify’s player adapts to support your film’s marketing at every stage of the value chain. If you’re crowd-funding for example, the Distrify player helps drive viewers to your crowd-funding campaign. If your film is at a festival, you can list all the screenings directly in the trailer, with links to ticketing sites. If you’re doing an indie screenings campaign, Distrify lets your fans sign up to your mailing list, giving you a location-based map of where the demand is for your film. Whenever you add new screenings or products to your film, every player that’s embedded around the web is automatically updated to ensure your fans will always be able to engage with or purchase your film”…
Founded as the first global indie movie distribution platform built on Facebook, I spoke with CEO Craig Tanner about what makes Flicklaunch different as a way to distribute films. The site is in beta. “Flicklaunch was built around the ‘Like’ button. A filmmaker can give away a predetermined amount of free views in exchange for a ‘Like’ to the film page. For example, a filmmaker can give away 1,000 free views and with the average Facebook user having 140 friends, it creates awareness for that film of 140,000 people. Since Facebook is global, Flicklaunch is available to audiences and filmmakers everywhere.” The rental period for streaming the film is 7 days and audience can choose how they want to view it (through any web enabled device connecting to Facebook). Soon FlickLaunch will offer badges and perks for film fans that drive the most traffic to the film.
In addition, I wrote a chapter on film festivals and how to use them in a book entitled The Modern MovieMaking Movement which will be available from July 1. It is a free ebook that will be available on this site in exchange for email signup if you leave your email address when you click Subscribe to the Newsletter and you’ll get an automated download link. The book was written by 10 of the most outspoken and knowledgeable indie film thought leaders (well, 9 and me ) in the world today and it will cover topics such as successful screenwriting, ways to finance a feature film, fundraising, the director’s role, the PMD and making microbudget features. Well worth the price of an email address! Plus I don’t send many email blasts personally so you won’t have your inbox bombarded from here on out by me.
I also have 2 other books coming out very soon. One is an anthology of Ted Hope’s Hope For Film blog and the other is Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul Presented by PreScreen. I guess I have been doing a lot of writing lately! More news on these 2 works coming soon.
I don’t think I rant too much on this blog. I do rant on my Facebook page and on my Twitter account and if you follow me there, you’ve probably witnessed that. I want to take my rant today on this notion of needing a “theatrical experience” for films. In my view, VERY FEW independent films need a theatrical release because they simply aren’t an experience. Watching slow, carefully crafted (or not), character driven stories in a cinema doesn’t do anything to make me experience the film better. Hardly any indie films play a cinema in the area where I am staying now, NW Florida, but I can still watch them on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes et al through my Roku or computer. That is, if the filmmaker will let me.
Indie filmmakers and, obviously, the theatrical bookers, distributors and service companies are all lamenting the closure of arthouse theaters, the drop off in attendance and the expense of getting indies in the remaining ones. “We’re being pushed out by the bigger, more expensive films.” Yes, yes you are so why are you still trying to compete that way? Why is it more important to you to have your film play a few cinemas in like 4 cities, than it is to allow people to watch it wherever they want? I realize many filmmakers and these service companies are located in New York City or LA and they think the whole of the US is like the theatrical landscape of those 2 cities. Um, it’s not. Indie film fans don’t just live in major cities, but we do hear about your films, we do hear the buzz coming out of a major festival, we do read those interviews and see trailers, and you know what you do to us? Say screw you, go see it in a theater in New York! After you’ve wasted all of that P&A money by opening the film in a few theaters at a loss, THEN you start thinking about digital. By that time, we’ve usually forgotten about your film because there is a new crop of buzz films coming out which also will not be playing at a cinema near us. So I plop down on the sofa after the kids are in bed, what’s available on Netflix? I’ll tell you what isn’t, YOUR FILM!
There was also a recent article on the Huffington Post site also lamenting the fact that when great films come out, they are only available in a few cities. It went on to praise Film Forum in New York, making me think the writer has some financial relationship to them because of the depth of praise he went into. Still it doesn’t get to the crux of the matter to me. It isn’t why are indie films only seen on the big screen in New York; it is why are you insisting indie films need to be seen on the big screen at all? Believe it or not, films didn’t start off screening in theaters. Why do you think they must continue that way?
My friend Ted Hope often asks what can be done to get the kids back into the cinema. I ask what can filmmakers do to reach those kids and let them see films wherever they want? I am thinking will be on a mobile device, not in a theater. Yesterday, the Alamo Drafthouse published a video poking fun at a patron’s angry voicemail; the result of her being tossed out of the theater for texting. The filmmakers loved it and I admit it was comical. That was a kid, Ted. Did you hear what she was doing in the theater? THAT’s why they don’t go. THAT’s the film watching experience for them. For the older patrons and “cinephiles,” she was an abomination, but that is how the “kids” are watching films. those kids will soon be older with more kids coming up behind them. I am betting their knowledge of going to a movie theater will be comparable to the live theater experience for kids today. Are you going to adapt to that? It’s fine if you won’t, just stop complaining about the lack of theaters your film can play in and the lack of attendance. You’re making a conscious decision to stay behind the times into extinction, that’s all. And stop trying to fight “piracy” (also known as a free distribution method!) of your films because you aren’t offering potentially paying people the chance to pay. You are trying to force them into your mindset and you’ll lose.
Say all you like about cinema history and how YOU think films ought to be experienced. That’s only your opinion and it is increasingly NOT how the younger generations are experiencing indie film. And that is ok, no matter how romantic and nostalgic you feel for the good old days of cinema, there’s one thing for certain in this life. Change.
I covered this in a past entry, but more of this opinion was voiced on today’s Social Times blog. I’ve seen many new services like FlickLaunch and Dynamo Player configuring their platforms to sell on a film’s Facebook page and Warner Bros has started implementing their own Facebook movie rentals for US residents including Dark Knight, Inception, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Yogi Bear and Life as We Know It paid for with Facebook credit or $3. I’d love to see their sales figures, but remember that a huge advertising and marketing budget was spent on these titles and they have all gone well into the DVD window and beyond. Most indie movies will not have the same kind of demand because similar marketing efforts haven’t been made .
Facebook sales will not be your biggest money maker because people do not come to Facebook to buy.
Facebook is a social platform. People come to Facebook to chat with friends, see what everyone is up to, post news about themselves. While you may have amassed a large following on Facebook, unless you are posting content of interest to your audience on your page regularly, chances are your “fans” have not been back to your page since they joined. They won’t see your fancy Welcome page or your newly constructed BUY NOW page. Most people are only reminded of you if they see your news in their news feed. The news feed is the first page everyone lands on when they go to Facebook. Sometimes they only see the Top News view, even though it is possible to change that to Most Recent, most people do not. If they haven’t visited your page in a while or commented on any of your news, your page has stopped appearing in their feed. NOTE: I am not suggesting you spend all your time shilling for your film on your Facebook page in order to stay in the news feed. A conversation with a shill is boring and a turn off.
Even though you can buy ads to drive more traffic directly to your page, it will take a significant spend to generate the number of impressions someone needs to have before they click on it. On average, an ad will be seen 5-7 times before any action is taken. Facebook is more about attracting and keeping attention that can influenced into a sale later on than it is about making a sale right now.
As the Social Times article contends, social media platforms like Facebook are the top of your sales funnel, the place where relationships and trust are built. After you have accomplished this, and it will take a while, then you can transition your audience to your own website where the sales can take place (here’s where something like Dynamo Player will work). Yet another reason to start your social media efforts and audience building WELL in advance of your finished film. This isn’t a campaign for 3 months, this is commitment for the full life cycle of your film and continues into the length of your career.
So, should you never try and sell streams on your Facebook page?
Undoubtedly there are hundreds of millions of people on Facebook and it is entirely possible that someone will try your film out if they see it’s available. If the cost to set up Facebook streaming is right (ie, low to free), you aren’t losing anything to try, but do not invest a lot in this. As DVD’s popularity continues to plummet, more and more people will be turning to online streaming rentals. Invest in having a good player on your site and spending upfront to access iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and game consoles. Spend the majority of your time and effort on your content marketing to pull you audience in, earn their trust, make them feel connected and give them viewing options.
If anyone here has implemented a Facebook sales platform for film and it has resulted in great success, let’s here about it.
Unfortunately, a great number of key digital platforms must be accessed through the use of an aggregator. Of course there are always exceptions, but the general rule is that to get your films onto Cable VOD, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Sony Playstation and other device oriented options and retailer digital platforms , you will have to go through an aggregator or a distributor. We either directly or via partners offer both a commission or a flat fee option (range depends on platforms).
However, you can get onto Amazon directly. Also, you can access DIY oriented ones such as Mubi, Fans of Film and other platforms like them. To the best of our knowledge, more money is made on the key high trafficked platforms, if one can get on them.
Once again we remind you, MARKETING, MARKETING, MARKETING is key to your film’s success no matter what distribution outlet you use.