I just returned from Park City, fresh from jury deliberation on the Slamdance short films and conducting video press interviews with some of the Sundance/Slamdance microbudget directors as well as indie microbudget god Edward Burns and Tugg CEO Nicolas Gonda. Those videos will hopefully be edited and uploaded in the next few days. I will post them on this site when they are ready.
My first day on the ground (January 18) started at the Blackhouse Foundation where I participated in the Digital Distribution Panel. We talked about the myths, truths, rules and multiple paths to monetize premium content online for those in front of and behind the camera. The discussion featured representatives from Grab Media and Netflix. Basically, it seems that short, episodic content is the name of the game in the online space if you are going to work with the bigger onlinenetworks. Netflix does not take short form content (short films) and Grab Media helps content producers access sites in the AOL network on an advertising revenue share or as licensed, branded content for large corporations. They essentially give your webseries or ongoing content (news shows, how-to videos) access to thousands of websites that want to host video, but do not produce their own. These sites are presumably highly trafficked so your view count will soar and your revenue share from advertising either you place inside of the video or Grab places inside of it will be much higher than if you just posted it to a Youtube channel. The range on how much you can earn from this is quite broad really. Some producers only earn enough for the light bill, some for a vacation, and some for a mortgage.
Largely, I was there to talk about knowing who you are trying to reach with your work. While I often use the analogy of needing to have a spark (or strong, core audience) before it can spread to a forest fire, another visual that came up during the discussion was a pebble and the ripples. If you don’t have a pebble to start things off, it will never ripple out. I did hear on other panels some contrary advice, but I stand by this analogy. For the emerging filmmaker who does not have an audience, who does not a have a film with notable names, who does not have an acceptance at one of the big 4-5 festivals in the world, and does not have millions of dollars to spend on advertising to a broad and undefined audience, she MUST have a place to start with an audience. Does it have to stay small? NO, but it has to start somewhere and that somewhere is much more difficult when she doesn’t have name or industry attention to aid her. Believe me, if she starts gathering a small but strong core audience, suddenly the industry pays attention and offers help. Start very small, but enthusiastic and build from there.
I was also a short film juror at Slamdance and what a great slate of films. As with any deliberation, compromise between gut feelings and personal tastes have to be navigated, but ultimately I think we chose strong talents in the prize winners. Full list of this year’s winners HERE. I can say that there were many talented filmmakers in that pile of shorts and I wish the best to all of them.
On January 19, I attended the Sundance Creative Distribution (#creativedistro) panel with director Ava DuVernay (interview with her coming soon to this blog) and Topspin Media‘s Bob Moz. It was a standing room only crowd to hear how last year’s Sundance films Middle of Nowhere and Bones Brigade fared with their hybrid distribution strategies. Moz has uploaded his case study presentation on the Topspin Tumblr site, but let me show one tremendous screenshot. When the panel basically said social media just doesn’t “put butts in seat” or result in sales, Moz clicked this up on the overhead (BOOM) and told the panel they needed to up their analytics software…Topspin anyone?
It is a pretty powerful reminder that more and more filmmakers who are willing to engage with their audiences (and in cases like director Stacy Peralta, find them again from previous films) by using social channels will be able to cost effectively penetrate the noise of the internet and make immediate revenue (rather than waiting 6 months to a year, if ever) on the road to repayment. As Peralta has said, while receiving some advances from distributors for his past films, he has never received a single royalty check. Sustainability will come from being savvy about building and maintaining an audience.
The rest of my time on the ground in Park City revolved around interviewing several NEXT directors (Shaka King, Eliza Hittman and Andrew Bujalski); a Slamdance director (J.R. Hughto) and Sundance US Dramatic juror, Edward Burns. All are working in the microbudget filmmaking arena, which suits the publication I was representing, Microfilmmaker Magazine. The thing I liked about these interviews was the honesty all participants brought on camera. While other Sundance talent might have looked to position themselves as bigger than they are or perpetuate this other-worldly mythology, all of my interviewees were very humbled by their inclusion in the media circus that is Sundance. In the case of Burns, he offered a different perspective on what it takes to be a sustainable filmmaker in the 21st century. I also interviewed Nicolas Gonda, CEO of Tugg.com, to talk about how filmmakers can empower their audiences to pull films they would like to see in a theater in their cities. Instead of being dependent on a corporation to decide whether a film will play in a city, Tugg enables the crowd to decide and put their money where their mouth is in terms of needing to reach a minimum ticket buying threshold before a booking can be made. Minimizing risk for the filmmaker or distributor and the cinema owners can only be a good thing.
On my last night in Park City, I was lucky enough to have caught a Press and Industry screening of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Since I arrived very late to the line, it was not at all assured that I would get in and I did have to view it from the front row of the Holiday Village Cinema. I am not going to review the film, but I am a fan of the series and was not disappointed in this installment.
Mainly what I felt on the ground this time versus previous times was the dawning of realization that now there are tools in place for filmmakers to use to reach audiences and release films even if the 6-7 figure deal wasn’t offered. While of course those deals were offered to some already, I was heartened to see Sound City and Upstream Color use Sundance as their springboard into the market. They are taking advantage of the media opportunities and recognizing that they may not have films that are mass audience, which is fine. They won’t be taking the chance that their niche film will be ignored in a slate of other more commercial fare. I look forward to seeing this increase as the years roll on at Sundance.
Hold on there partner, the question you really need to answer is what is my marketing and distribution plan? Why? Because publicity is only one aspect of the release of your film and it needs to be coordinated with all of your other marketing efforts and most importantly with the distribution of the film. If you don’t have a clue when or how the film will be distributed, hold off and figure that out first.
In the old days, say 5 years ago, either you were going to premiere your film at a festival and you might be hiring a publicist for that if it was a major media kind of festival (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes etc.) OR you were going to wait for a distribution offer and the distributor would figure out the marketing and publicity for you on their own timeline. The publicity out of festivals did aid in getting the distribution deal and it still does, but if you didn’t get in, you would be waiting. And if you have no direct distribution plan, you still will be waiting.
Now that we have access to the reading/listening public on our own either through our own efforts (our blog, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter etc.) or to journalists that we can reach without a publicist’s help (this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire one, it just means you don’t absolutely have to have one), we can get started reaching a fanbase very early in production. Publicity is a means to an end though, you use it to get your film seen and to make revenue. If you have no plan in place that will result in those 2 things (eyeballs and revenue), you are kind of shouting into the wind, right? A few press hits and it all dies down, which in the long run doesn’t give you the results you want.
So, after you have a definite marketing and distribution plan in place, taking into consideration your personal goals and the distinct audience target you will be going after…
A publicist should be hired:
-When you are premiering at a festival with SIGNIFICANT media coverage. If it is just a regional festival (ie. not one of the big 6), you can take care of the publicity on your own. Also note that hiring a publicist for a big festival debut could run between $5-$10K (excluding travel). Prices vary according to negotiation.
-When you are premiering your film yourself and have the theatrical release locked down. Newspapers in particular like to write about films that aren’t just playing once, they want to know there is going to be a traditional kind of theatrical release (playing in major cities for at least a week run). It is exceedingly difficult to get coverage beyond the local paper of the city where your film will be premiering if you don’t have subsequent screenings locked down. I am starting to see some publications run coverage for day and date, but it is not policy for many traditional reviewers. For a top notch publicity firm to handle the whole release of an indie, budget between $30-$50K. Again, prices vary according to negotiation.
-When your distributor has planned for your release. Usually the distributor hires this person and coordinates the release of this title (often along with other titles in their release slate). They will front the money to pay for this expense, but ultimately it comes out (with fees) of any revenue the film sees.
Part of your job before hiring a publicist is creating your own press kit which includes all the pertinent details about the film, your high quality, professionally produced publicity stills (these make a huge difference so don’t skimp here) and a solid trailer. She will use this kit in her media pitches and press releases. You should also have a good sense of what the story angles for the film will be. The fact that you made a film is NOT a story angle. Acceptance into a major festival is a given story angle. Are there notable people attached to the film? Was it shot/created in a unique way? Are you distributing it in a unique way? Really think through what a journalist might find interesting to write about for their readers. The publicist will come up with some on her own based on what she knows her contacts would be interested in, but it helps to know some of this yourself when you are inquiring about publicity help.
As I said before, publicity is only one tool you will be using in the release of your film. You will also use some advertising, embedding in social media communities, and grassroots/partnership outreach to interested organizations and influencers. The most successful films to rise above the constant barrage of noise in today’s media landscape use a multipronged approach.
I am going to take off my publicist’s hat today and put on my writer’s hat instead. You probably know that I write for Microfilmmaker Magazine on a regular basis. Almost every month, I write an article for that publication specific to the microbudget filmmaking world. Microbudget being under $50K in the case of that publication. The type of story pitch to interest me would involved productions that fall under that budget restriction. You know what I dislike? Being sent a press release for a film that doesn’t meet that criteria. It is a total waste of my inbox space, my time to read and it annoys me that the person who sent it did not take an ounce of time to check what types of stories I cover.
You know who is the WORST about spamming me with press releases? Big name publicity firms representing films at festivals. In fact, most of their pitch is “look at all the films we are representing at ___ festival. If you want to talk to any of these people or see their films let us know” and a synopsis of each film. For some publications, the draw of a celebrity name mentioned will lead to coverage. Otherwise, no explanation is given to why a publication should cover the film. THAT is a pitch and obviously more work is involved.
There is a good article on the IndieGoGo blog about pitching media. Mostly it addresses pitching publications to get coverage for your crowdfunding initiative, but the tips they give could be applied to any type of story. If you aren’t hiring a PR firm to arrange publicity for your film, you would do well to check out the IndieGoGo post. Key to attracting coverage? WIIFM (what’s in it for me). The writer will always consider what advantage their publication will receive from covering your story. You should consider it too when you write a pitch letter. If you can’t think of anything, don’t send a generic release. Generic releases are ok to put on wire services. No doubt, article farm sites just pick up releases and publish them verbatim and you get Google rankings on them, but don’t send these to your targeted publications. If you want a feature story written (and you should aim for that), really craft a unique letter that tells the writer or publication why you think your story merits coverage and how it fits into their audience interests.
We could all do with a little less noise and spam in the world. When you send generic eblast press releases, it might look like you are accomplishing something, but really you are just adding to overcrowded world of spam. Practice providing value in all the work that you do and for all the people you encounter. The results will be far better.
PS: I want to add that festivals always ask journalists during the press credential application to list what kinds of stories they will be covering. It would be super awesome if festivals included that information on the press list circulated to the publicists so that spammy mass mailings don’t happen.
TFC books film festivals for filmmakers when that work is too time consuming for the filmmakers themselves to handle. Bookings can be done by yourself and you can charge fees for an in demand film. However, there is something to be said for the ability of a distributor to command more in fees and know of more fests to get the film placed more broadly.
Know your film and yourself to determine how your festival run is best handled. Especially with niche films, make sure you are working with someone who has the knowledge of all the appropriate fests and can command decent fees, or make sure that person is you. More to consider if working with an outside company: make sure they are not too glutted with so many films that cannibalize each other both attention wise and content wise and ask what they do to work the film at the festival level.
Now that I have been back for almost a week from the Cote d’Azur, I have been meaning to relate my experience from my first ever Cannes.
First, I horrified my roommates by continually telling them I had no particular agenda. This was absolutely true. I did not set up tons of meetings ahead of time, I wasn’t there to buy or sell a film or to watch any in particular (and I didn’t see any either). What was my purpose there then?
One, I was in the area anyway having participated in two TOTBO marketing and distribution workshops in Europe just prior. Two, if you are in the industry you must be where the industry congregates. In mid May, that is Cannes. Three, the Cannes market is immensely educational. Think your film is something special? Something never seen before? Will absolutely set the world on fire, people will clamor to see its genius simply because it is so amazing? Yeah, so do the thousands (THOUSANDS!!) of other films being touted at the market and you have to see that to believe it. For all of those who proclaim if you create an amazing story, people will simply discover its genius, they are the most in need of a visit to a film market.
This education seems easier to grasp at Cannes than at AFM (haven’t been to EFM, so can’t comment) because it is much more trade show in spirit. The market floor is open with stands and it is easy to navigate the aisles. AFM is housed in hotel suites and less open to perusal by the non buying filmmaker. Everywhere you look is key art of every genre of film. Some with “stars,” lots with blood and zombies, family friendly animals and fantastical animation. Some with strong imagery but most with the utterly forgettable. Lots of people in suits, some even having meetings. I did not even go to the hotels along the Croisette where the more recognizable sales agencies and distributors house their offices. I had seen enough to know that if your film didn’t have its audience identified and gathered before it reached the Marche floor, you were in for immense competition for attention from buyers.
I did attend many discussions in the UK Film Center Pavilion on succeeding in festivals, the future of microbudget filmmaking (I tweeted that one, see #micromovies), success in short films. All free and very intimate. If nothing else, visit Cannes just to hang out in the International Village pavilions to meet the speakers, heads of film funds and film commissions to talk about co production opportunities. There was also lots of talk about the need for better marketing and distribution opportunities for independent film. You know I was all over that discussion, but our European counterparts do seem a few years behind in their thinking about this issue. Maybe it is all of that film fund money clouding their entrepreneurial judgement. From the workshops we organized and meeting some of the filmmakers on the ground, this issue is one that is slowly gaining prominence as the digital revolution spreads to Europe. VOD, mobile and digital platforms are not as developed as in the USA, and I consider ours in infancy. Not to mention crowdfunding. That has to be the next big subject for discussion in Europe.
I attended an informal brunch in the lovely hills above the Croisette to discuss what shape the digital revolution will take in Europe. Those in attendance ranged from old school film commissions intent on keeping everything as status quo as possible to forward thinkers who could imagine a world free of territories and windows for content. The discussions we had there will continue online and I look forward to participating in them even though I am not from Europe so my perspective is less government support dependent.
One of the highlights was watching the antics of filmmaker Chris Jones as he worked the place to chronicle every part of his Cannes journey. The yacht blag was my favorite story! He did his best to make sure that his readers, and now viewers of his LiveStream show, could see exactly what goes on at one of the world’s most glamorous events. Chris is a filmmaker after my own heart as he shares all he knows with other filmmakers and ultimately he is building up a fan base for all of his future work. A role model for sure to those aspiring to build a sustainable career in independent film.
So, as Chris would ask, what are my top 3 takeaways from Cannes? 1)Go, especially before you make a film. It is very valuable to realize that what you are asking to do when you pursue filmmaking is participate in a business. A very competitive and conniving business. That point is made crystal clear when you enter the Marche floor. 2)Soak up as much knowledge as you can from this or any major film event. Try to go without preconceived notions of how things work. At the moment, everything is in flux, no matter what anyone is trying to tell you. Everyone from the most stalwart studio to the newest venture is trying to figure out the future. Your ideas are just as valid as anyone else’s and you have every right to choose and pursue your own path to success. 3)Cannes is very inspirational. The films that play in the festival are considered among the top in the world, no matter what their gross ends up being. It is exciting to feel a part of this industry and I am not sure you can feel that any better than at Cannes. I am not talking about the fame and the glitz. The true artistry, the creativity, the meeting of the minds. All of this really crystallized for me why I would be drawn to such a bizarre profession, visual storytelling. There is so much energy and hopefulness in being around filmmakers from around the world that it sends you home with the feeling that you aren’t alone in your struggles and that your game has to come up so much more to compete.
See you next year on the Croisette!
Sorry to have left this space unattended for so long. It was a whirlwind couple of weeks in Park City and now I am traveling cross country by car. But I did want to do a little check in so readers would know what was happening.
Slamdance was a blast, as expected, and I am still trying to frame it cohesively in my mind to give you a good perspective on what to expect from the experience should you have it next year. One thing I would like to address, because it came up for me and for many first time Slamdance visitors, is the issue of meeting people and networking.
It is a well kept secret that I am not the best mingler when it comes to cold introductions at parties and networking events. I hate walking into an event not knowing a soul and trying to go around introducing myself to groups of people all standing together in conversation and obviously already acquainted. While there was a filmmaker meet and greet at the festival, it consisted of rows and rows of chairs holding over 100 people and we stood up one by one and introduced ourselves and our projects. Not the easiest setting for talking amongst the group when someone you might want to know is seated way across the room from you. Then we were adjourned and people went back to talking to their own group! The large festival setting is very overwhelming to most people.
I will say that this occasion allowed me to meet many of my tweeps from Twitter. When I met them in person, we already had loads to talk about from previous conversations. In fact, we arranged to meet ahead of time and it made all the difference in getting to know people to hang out with quickly. People may disparage Twitter, say it is dumb and all that, but I have met many a filmmaker and connection from my tweets. You can follow me @shericand, BTW.
A filmmaker I met, Chuck Gomez from NY, complained about not meeting fellow filmmakers easily and we concluded that it would be a good idea to hook up with filmmakers involved in the festival ahead of time by emailing them or finding them on Twitter or Facebook and communicating well in advance of the event. Introduce yourself and your project, even if it is in competition with theirs, and tell them you would like to meet up for coffee or whatever. Get the details of films and filmmakers selected from the festival media coverage and go their film’s website, Facebook or Twitter page (because I KNOW they will have them, right?) and find out the contact details. Not all will respond, but many will because they are all going to have the same situation and should want to connect to their fellow attendees.