Marketability vs Playability for Indie Films

August 28, 2014
posted by sheric

This is a very important distinction and I have been trying to find a better way of articulating to filmmakers why the story of a film is NOT the same thing as its marketability. I FINALLY found this explanation that I think might get through. I found this from Michael D. Sellars who in turn learned it from his mentor, Lenny Shapiro of Avco Embassy Pictures. The idea isn’t new, but ideas that spread win so I am helping to spread. From now on, I will include this information in my own consultations and workshops because it is so clear and succinct. Filmmakers and film schools put A LOT of emphasis on playability, and not nearly enough on marketability.

marketability vs playability


The ability of a film to attract an audience. This is one of the main things an industry executive is looking for when you pitch your film. Filmmakers all think this means their story. That’s NOT what execs are looking for. The story is your idea and it does have some merit, but what turns in their mind is “How can I sell this to an audience to get them to come to the theater on opening weekend or buy it on VOD/DVD?” It isn’t the story that will do this. That comes later.

Most movies derive their marketability from some combination of stars, director, underlying literary property (famous book, comic book,etc). At the indie level, festival acclaim comes into play, and reviews count, a MySpace [let's say word of mouth] buzz matters. But in analyzing the film from this aspect — the entire point is to answer the question, “Can the film attract moviegoers into the theater?”

This means that if you are making a low budget drama, with no notable names attached to it including the director and the producer, that is an original script not based on a best selling book adaptation, and it doesn’t get selected for major festivals and therefore isn’t going to have many critical reviews…this is going to be a problem. How are you going to get anyone to pay attention to it? What will you hook the audience with BEFORE they actually sit down to see the film and know the story? These are questions that need answers, ideally in the script stage. If you are trying to make one of these films and you don’t have marketability at the beginning (best selling source material, notable names), you MUST get it for the premiere. That’s pretty risky don’t you think? Most acquisitions execs would think so and the strongest ones would decline.

If you are planning to self finance your distribution, you should think about this too. What’s the marketing strategy for a no budget, no name drama, with no major festival accolades and no favorable critical reviews?  Ummm….


This takes place once the audience has made the decision to sit down and watch the film. If it is an executive or a festival programmer, you probably hooked them with something to make them take time out of their schedule to do this. The something could be notable names or it could be a favor or somehow piqued their interest. This is a very small group of people to reach. If it is an audience, it means that your marketing strategy worked with respect to reaching and enticing them.

What is their experience once they sit down and watch the movie. How well does the movie “play”? Will it generate favorable word of mouth? Will it catch the fancy of reviewers?

To get that festival slot you desperately need for your no name, no budget drama to be marketable, it all comes down to playability. And if you don’t secure that and you hoped that great word of mouth will just spread, the movie had better “play” for someone.

For indies, the way it “plays” can be subjective. If your documentary about environmental protection attracts people actively involved in the environmental movement, it can play in their world much better than it would outside of that world. In fact, a film like this also has marketability because there is a core audience to target with it. Genre films also fall into this situation. They are less name dependent, but they had better play to that audience.

But if your film is intended to reach a mass audience, a diverse audience, or cross over from niche to mass and you can somehow attract a crowd to watch it (say you threw some serious coin into advertising, publicity and booking theaters), if it doesn’t deliver on their expectations, you have a playability issue and more marketing isn’t going to fix that.

Here’s a little more from Sellars regarding how studios deal with marketability.

Studios are often confronted with a movie which they know is “marketable” — they know that it will attract a great first weekend audience. But they also may know that the reviewers will clobber the film, and filmgoers will be disappointed. Even so — such a film can be financially successful if the “marketability” is good and the marketing campaign is carefully designed and executed… A great marketing campaign — a strong opening weekend — damn the dropoff and get on to the DVD — it can still work.

By contrast, a good film that delivers good “playabilit,y” but doesn’t have marketable elements is a problem. How do you get the warm bodies in theater seats to begin with? This is the true challenge to most good indie films.

So you need both aspects, marketability and playability. With indie films, one can’t succeed without the other. Marketability you can start creating in the development stage. Playability has to be achieved in the production and post production stage. For the film to be successful, you must have both.

Preparing for independent film distribution

August 4, 2014
posted by sheric
question mark

db Photography

I’ve just completed a series with my colleagues over on The Film Collaborative blog dedicated to helping you prepare for distribution of your film. The series was inspired by the many questions we’ve answered over the years in consultations with our members and with independent filmmakers at industry events like Sheffield DocFest, Independent Film Week and SXSW.

Distribution is probably one of the most misunderstood processes in filmmaking. Plenty of schools prepare students for the intricacies of making the film, but leave off the part about connecting that work to an audience. It is a shame because creation is only one part of successful art. The other part is sharing it with people.


In Part 1, we talk about knowing the market for your work. Obviously, distribution falls into the business end of filmmaking and even though artists would like to think that whatever they create will automatically resonate in the market, it isn’t a bad idea to check beforehand.

Part 2 covers the role film festivals play in generating awareness for films, but also in generating revenue. Did you know festival revenue is one of the biggest sources of income for many of the films handled by The Film Collaborative? It’s true! But, the film needs to meet certain criteria in order to see this income stream. Read the post to find out what the criteria is.

Part 3 combines several topics. First, do you know the difference between a distributor and an aggregator? How about a platform and an application? Do you know the release sequence used in independent films? Does that matter any more? What about your chances for foreign distribution? We covered it all in this post.

Part 4 dives into deliverables. This addendum to most distribution contracts often comes as a nasty financial shock to producers. What will a sales agent or a distributor ask for? Isn’t digital distribution more affordable because there aren’t so many delivery items? We talk about what a typical digital distributor will need in order to put your film out on digital platforms.

Part 5 wraps up the series by talking about the financial realities of independent filmmaking. For the most part, it is about lots of little revenue streams (we’re talking hundreds of dollars from tens of outlets instead of hundreds of thousands from only a few). Joe Swanberg comments that artistic freedom comes from knowing the business side of your work. Creating with confidence is a whole lot better than creating with ignorance and subsequent anxiety.


I will be giving the keynote speech at the upcoming RoughCut New Zealand event on September 4, 2014. Preceding my speech, I will spend the day in consultations with local film producers about how to set a marketing strategy and reach the audience for their films. This is especially crucial if you plan to crowdfund and/or self distribute your film.

If you would like to attend either of these events, please see the Tropfest NZ site. I am so excited about my first trip to New Zealand!

While I am in the neighborhood, I am seeking further speaking or consultation invitations. Please contact me

[info at] to arrange the opportunity.

photo credit: db Photography | Demi-Brooke via photopin cc


Audience building for filmmakers presentation

June 16, 2014
posted by sheric

I have just returned from Europe where I participated in the Meetmarket at Sheffield DocFest and the Binger Filmlab’s Digital Filmmaking Week. It was great to get back out and meet filmmakers and industry people face to face instead of only online (yes, I did just say that!). I also got to sneak in a few plugs for the new book.

Since most of you could not attend these events, I have posted my Binger presentation on Slideshare and below. Notes are included as well. I hope you find it helpful.

Thoughts from Ireland on Selling Your Film

May 23, 2014
posted by sheric

I sent out some advance copies of the book last week in order to get a little feedback on the content. This comment came back to me and I thought it would be useful to share with everyone. Irish filmmaker Trish McAdam had this to say:

Selling Your Film reads like a kind of  ”rough guide” to film distribution. You’ve got to bring your own individual energy and innovation to the journey, but it is really helpful to have reliable, current, on the ground info on the lay of the land before you plan just how adventurous a route you want to take.
I don’t know if the opportunities that are available now, because of new digital media, will change the industry in the long run. Perhaps the new order will eventually become as restrictive as the old, but right now there seems to be a chance to break new ground and this book describes some of the inspiring ways people have succeeded.

The Emperor’s New Clothes was my favourite childhood story and there are certainly some naked truths in Selling Your Film.

Just finished my first whizz through your Papadopoulos & Sons case study. What a great story, very real, very fresh take on the weird “norms” in the European industry. What is even sadder is that that attitude starts at the script stage. I have been told many times my ideas are too ambitious, too commercial or, at the same time, not commercial enough. Even if that was meant as an insult to my talent, there still was no offer on the table to buy the idea.

European film so wants to be Hollywood, but won’t take a gamble. Tries to play safe except when the cronyism kicks in and then money goes into the strangest of projects. The competition in European film is still commercially and culturally tribal.

The American way of doing things seems so tough, Hollywood or Indie, so much about the survival of the few, super fit. But there is something very interesting always about an American eye on things, the eye on the dream and how to get there, and also something attractive about the European mess, the wrangling over meaning and process. Something very attractive also about the possibility of global humanism outweighing all that.

I love that last paragraph [in the Papadopoulos and Sons case study section]….

Surely, this is the pioneering spirit of the film business that we all want to believe in. Dare to dream. That’s what so many of the heroes do in the films we make. They dare to dream, dare to change things, dare to be heroes. And so if we take the lead of the characters we put up there on the screen, we should do the same in real life. Not just in our stories. 

I am emotional reading it, the way one is when you read something you have always known, but just couldn’t put the words to. What I always come away from your words with is a sense of empowerment and wish to have you onside someday on a project.

My thanks to Trish for sharing her comments with me and allowing me to share them here.

As of  TODAY the entire ebook is available for FREE via iBooks, Amazon and PDF copies on a global basis. Any filmmaker anywhere can have their own copy and become more knowledgeable about the current state of independent film distribution.

Selling Your Film

I would be happy to hear your feedback and questions.

Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.

May 16, 2014
posted by sheric

Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.At long last, an announcement on the new edition of our book.

Volume 2 in the Selling Your Film series

Selling Your Film Outside the U.S. is the second volume in the “Selling Your Film” case study book series. While our first book, Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, focused on U.S releases and case studies, this volume takes a deep dive into digital distribution (and distribution generally) in Europe and provides several case studies of films released there.

The series began in 2011 as an attempt to encourage transparency in an industry that has always been quite reluctant to do so. Three years later, we are proud to have led the charge towards this goal, and we are encouraged that others are embarking on other projects that attempt to do the same.

Within the pages of this book, you will find marketing and crowdsourcing strategies, real distribution budgets, community building activities and detailed ancillary and digital distribution revenues for independently produced films.

By stripping away the mythology surrounding independent film distribution, we aim to present a more realistic picture regarding how filmmakers can earn revenue—and when they cannot—from a variety of release strategies. While there is no one model that will work for a particular film, the books in this series highlight a multitude of new techniques filmmakers are using to directly connect their films with audiences, effectively reach them through the power of the global Internet, and build a sustainable fan base to last throughout a career.

One of the chapters in this book employs the phrase “Carpe Diem.” In the context of digital distribution, this has dual meaning. First, in a harsh world that can tire of one thing and move onto the next in the blink of an eye, we encourage filmmakers to jump into action and formulate a viable and expedient distribution strategy as their films move from the festival circuit onto a larger arena. Second, the digital distribution space is a constantly changing one, where platforms come and go at an astonishing rate. Therefore, it is important that filmmakers not only empower themselves by learning how to navigate the landscape of digital distribution, but by keeping this knowledge up to date as well.

To that aim, we offer Selling Your Film Outside the U.S.—containing chapters by The Film Collaborative co-executive directors Orly Ravid and Jeffrey Winter; marketing strategist and social media expert Sheri Candler; documentary filmmaker and independent film consultant Jon Reiss; and Wendy Bernfeld, managing director of the European content curation and licensing company Rights Stuff BV—as the starting point for any filmmaker (whether they are U.S.-based or not) who wishes to explore distributing their film in Europe.



Why I Can’t Break up with Facebook (Yet)

April 28, 2014
posted by sheric

Today’s guest post was written by Gabriel Diani in response to my post asking filmmakers if Facebook is still worth their time? Gabe thinks it is for his work, but for reasons that pertain specifically to his audience demographic, which may not be the case for everyone. Ultimately, this is a decision that everyone who uses Facebook for business reasons must confront and evaluate. 

can't break up with Facebook

Let’s be clear: I have no love for Facebook. 

The changes to their sharing algorithm since they took the company public nearly torpedoed the Kickstarter campaign for my movie “Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse.” Much has been written about it since then but in case you don’t know, here are the basics:

-Facebook now only shows a small portion of your posts to your friends unless you pay to boost your post;

-Facebook only shows a small portion of your page posts to the people who have liked it unless you pay to promote your post;

-Even if you pay to promote or boost your post and more of your friends and followers see your posts, they are not paying to have their posts boosted so any LIKES and SHARES can’t go viral as easily as they used to.

There’s certainly more Facebook is guilty of, but these were the main changes responsible for Facebook dropping from our number one referrer for our previous successful Kickstarter campaigns to number three behind our personal email list and Kickstarter itself.

So, yeah, I’m not the biggest Facebook fan and was delighted by’s fantastic open Facebook break-up letter to the world. Sadly, though, we can’t afford to break up with them ourselves yet. Why, you may ask, dear reader? Well, I’ll tell you in an easily digestible numbered list.

1) WE HAVE AN OLDER DEMOGRAPHIC. A lot of the audience we’ve built up over the years tend to be more in the 30 years old and up range…sometimes way up. These aren’t the people constantly seeking out the next social media platform. Some of them are on Twitter, fewer on Vine, and they have no idea what Tumblr, Instagram, or Snapchat are. We have no way of migrating these people to another platform…at least not until the Facebook backlash gets strong enough to affect this group.

2) WE’RE STILL GETTING INTERACTION. It’s not like it used to be and we can’t reach a lot of our audience, but we still get interaction from them that we’re not getting elsewhere. I posted our first behind the scenes production still the other day on my personal page and got 43 LIKES and 2 SHARES.  Pics on our DDMTA Facebook page and from cast and crew timelines are pulling in 16-40 LIKES as well. Is that enough for us to tell the world about our movie? Absolutely not. But in the world of micro-budget producing it’s something we can’t afford to lose.

3) FACEBOOK WAS STILL NUMBER 3 IN OUR KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN. Despite it’s nefarious fall from grace, Facebook still was a bigger referrer than Tumblr, Reddit, Google+ or any of the growing platforms. This is partly because we haven’t spent years building up our audience base on these platforms. We created a video for our campaign with Janet Varney from the hit anime show “The Legend of Korra” that was reblogged and shared on Reddit and Tumblr thousands of times, but it didn’t translate into very many pledges.

4) WE DON’T HAVE EAT24.COM’S AUDIENCE. got a lot of great press off their leaving Facebook and probably got a lot of followers on Twitter and whatever other platforms they’re on, but they also undoubtedly lost some followers/fans who aren’t on those other platforms. They were starting with a much larger audience than we have so they can afford to lose some.

It would be lovely to be able to follow’s lead and break up with Facebook in protest, but unfortunately we’re stuck with it for the moment. We will definitely be focusing our audience building efforts on other platforms in the hopes of being able to cut the cord some day…and who knows? Maybe Facebook will start treating us like it did when we first started going out.



What about you? Have you seen a decline in your Facebook reach and interactions or is your page still holding steady or growing? Let me know in the comments along with any advice you want to share.





Learning through experimentation

March 13, 2014
posted by sheric

Today’s guest post is from one of my G+ community members, Scott McMahon of Arrowinn Entertainment. Scott recently released his ultra low budget film THE CUBE by hosting a local cinema release and via Vimeo On Demand. He is sharing some of what he is learning so that other ultra low budget filmmakers will have a better understanding of what it takes to use and make revenue from digital distribution sites. I think his experience is valuable because more and more emerging filmmakers are experimenting with content, form and release strategies. The experimentation is not likely to lead to significant paydays, but it will enable those starting out to gain useful skills for subsequent projects.


So, I made this feature film for $500 with no crew.  Yep.  No crew.  How?  Well, you simply set the camera up on a tripod and jump in front of the camera and act.  And for the shots where I wasn’t in front of the camera, I took the camera off the tripod and moved it around.

My film is called, THE CUBE. If you’re curious to know what it looks like, click on the image below:

experimentation with The Cube


Since this film was made for so little, I decided to forego paying any festival fees and keep the money to be used on any future marketing efforts. With film festivals, you’re never guaranteed that you’ll get in anyway … and it takes forever to know if you’ve even gotten accepted.

Instead, I decided to reach out to some of my pseudo-famous friends and asked them if they would give me a testimonial … much like authors do when they are launching a new book. I figure I would just use these blurbs as my replacement for the laurel leaves we see plastered on every sales poster of other indie films.  Instead of slapping a laurel leaf graphic of a no-name festival on my poster, I was able to use these blurbs:

“A short, sweet, and thoughtful indie.  Engaging and humorous.”  Bryce Fortner, Director of Photography, Portlandia 

“A great example of no-budget filmmaking.”  Randall Jahnson, Screenwriter of “The Doors” and “The Mask of Zorro” 


Since I didn’t have any formal crew to make this feature film, I never took any proper production still photos.  A super NO-NO, if I was going to seek out a distribution deal. On top of that, it was made for $500!  How much extra cash did I have to put into the deliverables and marketing … Nil.

I knew this lil’ movie would end up on some sort of digital distribution platform and I would have to handle the marketing for it all by me-self.

I chose Vimeo On Demand, because:

  • Filmmaker earns 90%, Vimeo takes 10%
  • Vimeo didn’t require me to have a 5.1 surround mix
  • Vimeo didn’t require me to have E&O insurance
  • Vimeo didn’t require me to have closed caption or subtitles added

Essentially, Vimeo just accepts your standard HD H264 file and lets you handle the marketing.  It’s just a simple video hosting service with some embedded features that allow you to sell your film in your own way.

Now, there is a catch!

Vimeo On Demand requires that you sign up and pay for their PRO plan, which will cost you $199 annually.  That was nearly half my budget!  Haha.  Thank goodness for birthday gifts ;-) In addition, I have other plans with the PRO version of Vimeo, so I decided to go for it!


Generally, when you sign over your film to a distributor, there are some additional things that you will need to provide (as mentioned above):

  • E&O Insurance ($7,000 – $10,000)
  • Copyright Fees ($35 – $100)
  • Deliverables (Your film mastered with separate M&E Tracks) [ed note: see my sample list here]
  • Production Stills
  • You will sign away the rights to your film for 15-20 years (generally)
  • You will only receive whatever advance the distributor will grant you, forget about any promise of backend profiting … this almost never happens.
  • It’s not uncommon to see film advances of only $5,000

Now, imagine if you made a film for $50,000 or $1 million?  Will $5,000 advance be enough to satisfy your investors?  Probably not.

With a $500 feature film, there is almost no risk involved … it’s so damn cheap!  Here are some benefits by selling your film on your own through direct distribution:

  • No E&O Insurance Required (Just be sure that you have your legal documents in order and of course, consult with a “real” lawyer)
  • Use Creative Commons Licensing (Free)
  • No Deliverables Required (Just upload your file like you would on YouTube)
  • You keep the rights to your film … forever!
  • All profits you earn from direct distribution go directly to YOU!


Okay, so I made this feature film with no crew and the marketing and sales effort is no different.  It’s just me.  No sales staff, no marketing team … just me.

I threw a local networking event in conjunction with the premiere of THE CUBE and it earned a small profit of $128 after the expense of the theater rental, posters, mugs etc.

You can read more about this theatrical premiere at this LINK.

So, would VOD sales prove any better after a month in release?

Here’s the actual screen grab of my total sales:

The Cube Vimeo screengrab


$150 Profit for one month of being on Vimeo On Demand. Let’s add that with the total from the theatrical premiere:

  • $128 Theatrical
  • $150 Vimeo On Demand
  • $500 Production Cost of Film
  • $0 Marketing Budget (All sweat-equity)


That’s over half my film’s budget!  Haha.  Yes, it’s miserable when you think that movies are supposed to be racking up profits of $100,000 or $10 million … the idea that independent film can only earn $278 might sound “sad,” but I am also using these methods to experiment with this film, using it as a test run for different online marketing techniques for use on future projects.  There is an important aspect of the “launch” for any product that sees a surge in sales.  I plan on using each new revenue outlet as a potential “launch” vehicle. Again, when you’re solo-preneuring it, you don’t have the infrastructure in place to do a mass launch. You have to piecemeal the process.

Look at this screen grab from Box Office Mojo.  These are the movies ranked from #37-#46 on the list of theatrical releases for the month of February 2014.

boxofficemojo statistics

If I compare THE CUBE’s performance to that of #46 DEMI-SOEUR’s performance of only $943 … and that’s only reporting the box office returns.  The actual revenue back to the distributor, Rialto Pictures, will only be about 45% of this total. The exhibitor keeps the rest. Then Rialto will take out their fees and expenses and if a sales agent was involved in making the distribution deal, they will take out the same. There is no backend profit to share with the filmmakers yet.

At THE CUBE premiere, I actually brought in $435 Gross, so comparatively … I’m doing okay!


In online marketing and sales, it’s all about the “conversion rate”.

This essentially means, that for every visitor or hit to your website, how many people actually buy your product? If you look at the number of plays THE CUBE trailer, it amounted to 482 plays.  From those trailer plays, 26 purchases were made.

  • 482 Trailer Plays
  • 26 Purchases
  • 18.5% Conversion Rate

Believe it or not, if an online marketer were getting a 1-2% conversion rate for their efforts that would be considered a normal return.

I was able to pull in 18.5% conversion rate, so I have to consider this a major success.


I’m only a month into this direct distribution campaign.  There is a saying in production that we used to tell clients ….

You can have it FAST, CHEAP, or GOOD … Pick Two.

So, I made this movie pretty cheaply, and I hope it’s fairly good … that means my marketing effort cannot be FAST.

Slow and steady as the tortoise taught us when we were kids … And that’s what I plan to do with this film product … go sloooowww.


Are these numbers depressing?  Hopefully they’re giving you a reality check.

I should preface that I didn’t build any sort of audience prior to making the film … simply for the reason that I wasn’t sure if I could even make this thing without a crew.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t find a crew, it’s just that I’m an a$$hole!  Haha.  Just kidding … at least I hope that wasn’t the reason.

Anyway, I’m hoping that other filmmakers can see why building an audience prior to release is so important.  If I had sunk even $10,000 into this film, that’s still a lot of cash to lose so make sure when dealing with higher budgets, an audience is going to be in place.


I’m encouraged by all of this, as I’m learning to apply all sorts of different online marketing strategies to drive people to watch the film.

I can see the numbers now. If I’m going to make any sizeable profits, I have to have a larger reach and impressions in order to maximize the conversion rates.

If I hope to make at least $1,000 in profits, I would need to have a reach of over 2,000 impressions, just to get the standard 1-2% conversion rate.

So, if you’re hoping to make $100,000 in revenues from your film, and a 1-2% conversion rate is normal, your film will have to at least reach about 2 million people/impressions.

Remember, we’re peddling on average a $5 online product.  This is not some piece of software that can be sold for $100-$200 a pop.  It’s gonna take a lot of sales to make up for such a low price point.


If you’re going to venture into making and selling a film directly online, be ready to have a huge infrastructure in place … or keep your budgets so small that it won’t matter if you don’t make your money back.

If you want to get INSPIRED by what can be made for so little … feel free to support indie film and check out:  THE CUBE-A SUPERNATURAL SUSPENSE MOVIE

You are a rock star if you’ve taken the time to read through this post! If you found this valuable in anyway, feel free to follow me over at

Thanks so much!