The good people at the Binger Filmab in Amsterdam have kindly asked me to present a one day workshop on audience identification and audience building. This won’t be purely a lecture course on theory and tools, nor is it one big presentation for myself as a consultant. We are really going to zero on audience targets for each project that signs up, dig into what tools can be used to identify influencers and engage with them and talk about other tools such as publicity, advertising and what kind of budgets will be needed to carry out an audience building plan. Also what elements will be needed as far as web sites, social content, ecommerce and merchandising. It isn’t enough to only make a good film (but you DO need that!), you also must know who you are creating it for, how you will get in touch with them, and how you will stay in touch with them throughout your career. No more waste in starting over again for each new project!
My hope is that all projects will walk out of the room with an action plan based on what we figured out together. There will be ample time for hands on work and guidance from myself and from my Dutch counterpart Heleen Rouw who will talk about Dutch specific tools.
Production teams have until this FRIDAY MAY 17 to sign up.
I am looking forward to meeting Dutch filmmakers and visiting Amsterdam again.
Immediately after this workshop, I will be headed to Sheffield DocFest to be part of the MeetMarket. If you would like to schedule time with me there to figure out your audience identification and engagement plan, please shoot me an email.
It is that time of year again when short form filmmakers start heralding the fact that their film is “playing in Cannes.” To the outsider, this seems like a monumental accomplishment because Cannes Film Festival is known the world over. But to those on the inside, there is a huge difference between being an official selection in the festival proper and participating in the Court Métrage (Short Film Corner or SFC).
This year, only 9 short films out of the 3,200 submitted will be in Official Competition. None are from native English speaking countries. However, close to 2,000 short films have been accepted into the Métrage. Registration costs €95, but is reimbursed if your film is not accepted. With acceptance, filmmakers have access to the festival hall, the Marché du Film(the official film market) as well as a multitude of panels with industry executives. One may also register for accreditation as an industry professional and not have any film participating in the event.
With all of that competition, what is the benefit of applying to Cannes (besides access) and what should short form filmmakers who are attending do to maximize on their effort? I spoke with several filmmakers who have been to the Short Film Corner with their films to find out if their Cannes experience offered value (besides visiting the French Riviera in May!) and what they advise for those attending this year.
“The Short Film Corner basically accepts everything, as long as it’s not pornography,” says John Trigonis, who attended in 2011 with his short film Cerise which was an early project that used Indiegogo to fund its production. “The year I went to Cannes with Cerise, there were over 1,900 other short films in the SFC. So it’s really, in my humble opinion, a way for the Cannes Film Festival to bring in ‘easy money’ from hopeful short filmmakers like myself, and they pay us back in free Stellas and no Wi-Fi and a hope and dream that our film may attract a big name who’ll somehow see your short film on a tiny computer screen. First, that’s a myth –– no celebrities or big-time producers even look down in the basement of the Palais, and second, if our shorts were really that good, they’d have made it into Cannes proper as an ‘Official Selection.’” Trigonis chronicled his trip on the Film Courage site upon his return.
Chris Jones, a British filmmaker and entrepreneur who participated with his Oscar shortlisted film Gone Fishing agrees. “The Short Film Corner is the best and cheapest way to get your pass for Cannes. And it’s also one of the silliest places to hang out. The reality is that your film will only be viewed by fellow short filmmakers in the short film corner, and if you are going to Cannes for a pat on the back from other filmmakers, you are in many ways, wasting money you could spend on making another short film.”
Ok, so if most projects can be accepted, regardless of merit, why go? What can be gained from the experience? “For me, the main advantage of attending the Cannes Short Film Corner was networking and meeting people who generally I would never meet face to face in my part of the world. For the 3 times I have attended, I made it a goal to listen, look and learn as much as I could about how people work at such a huge event,” said Ronnie Goodwin, filmmaker of Replay Revenge , Shooter and Fly, a Legacy. “Many people I have spoken to tell me they have gained nothing from going to Cannes, but if you don’t make the opportunity work for you, then nothing will happen.”
“Head over to the market [Marché du Film] and see how feature films, narrative and docs are represented and sold in the traditional way (with a sales agent). This trip to the market is worth its weight in gold. You will learn that films are bought and sold on genre, cast, poster, promo and little else. I personally sat in on a screening of one of my feature films where the buyer watched the film from start to finish, IN FAST FORWARD! He later bought the film too! It’s remarkably humbling, but it’s also empowering – there’s a lot of crap being sold really badly,” says Jones.
Roberta Munroe, a short film producer and noted author of How NOT to Make a Short Film says there are advantages to attending a world renowned festival like Cannes. She will be attending this year with a short she produced. “I think it provides filmmakers with the opportunity to be at a *real* film festival where business acumen is key. Primarily, I would say that filmmakers who have a feature script ready to go stand the most to gain from the experience. Though, those with or without a feature, who are interested in meeting the prime European programming staff from other top tier festivals as well as broadcast buyers would also fare well. Alongside meeting key programmers and buyers are the copious number of events that happen all day, every day for filmmakers to learn, chat and fatten up their community of peers, colleagues and admirers.”
“These benefits are greatest for those who truly want a filmmaking capital C, Career. I’ve found Cannes to be the one festival where no one seems to gives a fuck who you are or what you’ve done, they seem to most care about how to make a good film. So regardless of your past laurels, having a pristine script, a well crafted business plan, and the ability to have a conversation where you sound the least like an entitled western filmmaker are the only attributes that will get you anywhere in Cannes.”
Many times, filmmakers feel the pressure to print up posters and postcards, hire a publicist or sales agent to help represent their films, believing that it will lead to future opportunities or sales. While this may be true for films in competition at Cannes or other such prestigious fests, is it true for films in the Short Film Corner? “Because the Corner is a self contained and REALLY well organized space, my feeling is that a filmmaker could be their own publicist *unless* you’re a wall flower and *unless* you already have some financing (or producer, or cast, etc.) in place for your next film and your sole goal is to find European co-production monies or producers or both. It never hurts to bring a friend to such a huge event…so if that ‘friend’ happens to be your paid publicist, then good for you,” says Munroe.
“I don’t know what a sales rep would charge, but even at a low end, for a short film I don’t think it’s worth it at all. A short is either a calling card piece or something that you can self-distribute through online channels. There’s no real money to be made in shorts, and this is speaking as someone who got a distribution deal for one of my prior short films. I saw one check, and it didn’t even cover the coffee runs during the shoot ! So any money that’s put into a short film beyond basic marketing materials (postcards and posters) is essentially money ill-spent. We actually did have postcards made for Cerise when we were there, but posters, postcards and other standard promotional materials don’t really make a difference. You have to stand out. We actually gave out cherries with our postcards, and that, I’m sure, is what got us the bulk of our 17 views at the Short Film Corner,” said Trigonis.
“It was my job to get people to view the film at the short film corner where they have a database of all the films submitted, and as you can imagine, there are a lot of films. So with every opportunity, I would invite people to look at the film, and with only a week to do it, that was a pretty tall order. On returning from the festival, I received an invitation to screen Shooter at the Palm Springs Short Film Festival,” said Goodwin. Getting your film in front of festival programmers is definitely a benefit if you are looking for more festival circuit play.
How about reaching buyers and selling your short, will an appearance at the Cannes Short Film Corner help with that? Peter Gerard, co-founder of online streaming player Distrify, has some thoughts and some experience with it. “There are very few buyers for shorts in the entire world. I have sold shorts (my best deal was with Short Film Sales who’ve made several sales for me), and the way I got the films noticed and attracted buyers was by winning prizes at film festivals.”
“As at any market, there are hundreds of films in the videotheque library [a digital library of all the short films, accessible to buyers even after the festival is over]. I would doubt that having a short in the library at Cannes makes much difference to the buyers, but I cannot speak from direct experience since I’m not a buyer! The only time I’ve made a sale with a film in a videotheque was at Sunnyside of the Doc , where I had an hour-long graffiti documentary in the library and there was a buyer putting together a season of urban films for French TV so he selected it based on subject matter. If you have a topic-based film that could be used for a specific slot or season, then maybe a videotheque could be useful (though less so for shorts), but otherwise there has to be a reason the buyer already wants to see the film, typically a prize, great reviews, or festival buzz.”
Top takeaways for those heading to the Cote d’Azur next week?
“During the festival there are lots of things to do, and it is very easy to get yourself into a position where you want to do everything, see everyone and attend every party. My advice to anyone going to Cannes, focus on your objective, try not to deviate, and try to use the trip to move you further with your career. Get people to see your work.” says Goodwin.
“My feeling is that the skills necessary to make the SFC work for you (great networking skills, persistence, salesmanship, etc.) could be applied whether your short is in the videotheque or not. You are basically out meeting people and convincing them to be interested in you and your work. It’s far easier to send them a screener after the market than to convince them to sit down and watch it in the videotheque during a frenetic event like Cannes,” says Gerard.
“I do much better on Twitter in a day than I did [networking] in a week at Cannes,” says Trigonis
“Watching short films in Cannes is a waste of time that you should spend hunting down producers, scoping out sales agents (the good and the bad) and crashing the parties where the deals are being made,” said Jones
“If you get into Cannes (or another top tier festival), you can parlay that (with few exceptions) into being able to get your film in front of other programmers. Also, in my not so humble opinion, unless you have the funds and simply feel like spending a year traveling our great country [US], once you’ve screened your film at maybe 4-5 festivals domestically – what would be the purpose of spending money to submit to more? If someone said, ‘Roberta, I’ll give you $2000 to shop yourself and your short at Cannes Short Film Corner OR I’ll give it to you to spend on festival submissions…’ I would absolutely, without question, choose the former,” says Munroe.
Chris Jones made a video about his journey to Cannes with Gone Fishing in 2008. It is still pretty relevant today and I encourage you to watch it if you don’t know what to expect on the ground in Cannes.
You can reach the participants in this article via Twitter (Chris Jones @livingspiritpix, Ronnie Goodwin @ronniebgoodwin, Peter Gerard @accme, John Trigonis @trigonis, Roberta Munroe @robertamunroe)
Since I will be speaking on Monday, April 29 at the Sync Up Cinema Conference, I thought I would share some details about that free event and give you a taste of a few things I will talk about.
Sync Up Cinema will be presented by the Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) in conjunction with The New Orleans Film Society (NOFS) and held at the New Orleans Museum of Art. It is a conference focused on Louisiana film production and the emerging opportunities in the film industry.
My conversation with Clint Bowie of the New Orleans Film Society will start at 5:30pm and we’ll be talking about all things independent film marketing, film festivals and film distribution in the digital era. As this won’t be a panel discussion, I have created some notes of case studies, statistics and other information that you won’t want to miss. How can a filmmaker brand herself using the internet? How to formulate a film festival strategy? What is an impact festival? How to decide which distribution route to take based on the film you have? What are typical advances being paid and for what kinds of films? How much to budget if you plan to have a self release of your film? Do you need a theatrical release in order to have a successful ancillary release? Why social media cannot be the only tool you use to market a film?
I don’t know if the session will be recorded and uploaded online later for those who are not in New Orleans, but I will keep you posted if that happens. The hashtag for the event is #SyncUpCinema if you want to start following it this weekend. I hope to see many New Orleans filmmakers at this event!
Sync Up Cinema is free and open to the public. Major sponsors of Sync Up Cinema include National Endowment for the Arts, Cineworks Louisiana and Entertainment Partners.
For more information about the conference and the up to the minute schedule of Sync Up Cinema events visit novacvideo.org/syncupcinema
This is a question I hear often “About how much should I set aside for marketing and distribution of my film?” It is a tough question to answer precisely because even Hollywood professionals have a difficult time balancing how much marketing spend is just enough to make the film appear successful, but not so much that it results in taking a loss. I’m looking at you John Carter, Battleship and Dark Shadows. One could argue that those films were not good and that’s why they “failed,” but the pressure placed on a studio marketing department to open big the first weekend in order to appear successful necessitates a large marketing spend (usually minimum $50mil).
In this video with Film Courage, I talk about the bare minimum marketing spend one should budget for an indie film when planning out the overall film budget:
But that doesn’t mean you should think “Right, 10% is the amount I should set aside” because you really do need to formulate your entire marketing plan. You need to pinpoint the exact audience you are going to try to attract with your film, figure out how best to communicate with them and work through all of the elements you are going to create or need to buy in order to reach the audience or reach the goal of the production successfully. Remember, the goal for every production is NOT the same. For some filmmakers, just getting industry attention in hopes of a better career will be a success (see David Lowery and Behn Zeitlin as examples). For others, “changing the world” or raising awareness behind an issue in hopes of the audience taking a more active role in solving the problem is a success (see The Invisible War as an example). For others, gathering the support of a core audience that will continue into other work will be the mark of success (see Ava Duvernay and Tiffany Shlain.). Outside of Hollywood, success is not always marked by huge profit numbers.
During the course of your audience identification investigation, you may find that without marketable elements such as star actor names or major festival wins or stellar critical reviews, it will be nearly impossible to reach the broad audience your story will need to reach. This is especially true for dramas (coming of age, tragedy, period etc.) and comedies. Most documentaries inherently have an audience to tap into because there is a cause or a personality being profiled that organizations/clubs form around. There is no quirky comedy or coming of age drama organization to tap. Understand?
Also, you may realize you need the help of a producer of note who can help position your project to a whole set of constituencies (managers, agents. attorneys, the media, distributors, and exhibitors) within their sphere of influence. Being able to tap those resources for help can catalyze the process of getting the film seen to a wider audience or catapulting your career in the industry because they are all gatekeepers for a reason. Can you go around the gatekeepers? YES, but it can be much easier to achieve success with their validation. Producers of that stature like to be paid and, well, they should be. Another expense that could make a difference to your film’s ROI.
Some indie producers have seen this video and told me they are now going to set aside 10% (only) from their production budget. If that overall budget is only $50K, that means they are going to try to achieve an awful lot with only $5k to spend on movie marketing and distribution. You can spend $5K just getting a good website built or having a first rate trailer edited or hiring a publicist for your big festival debut. You’re going to need more than a good website, a trailer or a good publicist to promote your film during one event in order to execute the formidable work of getting audience attention on your project and selling it directly if no distribution deals are presented. I am all about NOT being dependent on the good distribution deal to come and save your film. Too many times that either doesn’t happen, or the distributor drops the ball and doesn’t give the film a meaningful release. You can only know that the film will have a meaningful release if YOU have planned for it.
A few line items that will be on your marketing and distribution budget are professional graphic designer, website designer, copywriter, web hosting, email service provider, search engine optimization service, ecommerce shopping cart and fulfillment, merchandise manufacturing (aside from DVDs), trailer and short video clip editor, advertising/media buys, publicist, on set photographer, DVD authoring/replication. digital encoding for iTunes/other online outlets and possibly VOD services, DCP drive preparation, Vimeo Pro account if appropriate, online measurement tools, printing services (for posters/postcards), theatrical booker, festival consultant (a well connected one), festival submissions and travel expenses, premiere parties or other live event components. This is taking into consideration that the producer or someone on the production will be doing this considerable work for free or for backend. If you want to hire someone to do this work (who will also handle any opportunity/problem that comes up during the course of marketing and distribution and will be a full time community manager for your audience base), that’s another expense. Personally, I don’t work for backend, but you may be able to strike that agreement with someone. Point being, it will be really difficult to obtain all of this for only $5K and I have been as realistic as I can in this listing of needed marketing and distribution expenses. I really can’t see this being done for less than $40K excluding labor cost for a PMD or calling in a lot of favors. The high end can go as high as your ambitions for the film. *AMENDED BELOW*
While it is possible to find marketing budget templates on the internet that are not specific to film or to look at guidelines that some film commissions provide for marketing grants, most are not geared for the indie film world we live in now. They mostly speak to marketing plans that rely on big advertising spends and posters because they are still stuck in the mindset that the goal is to drive cinema attendance. Yep, Hollywood is still relying on that route, but as an indie, you can’t do that. A theatrical release may not be realistic or appropriate for your film’s resources. While these templates/guidelines are useful to look at, you really need to assess what audience your film is specifically trying to reach in order to plan out the expenses that are appropriate. I write these kinds of plans, very tailored to your film. The plans include reading the scripte/watching the film, audience research, best positioning angle to take for the core audience, ideas for content creation and release to online channels, email best practices, publications to pitch for stories with contact details, and a preliminary marketing and distribution budget that includes the resources you will need to implement the plan.
As a producer, it is imperative that you have marketing and distribution expenses included in your overall production budget and you can’t know those expenses if you don’t have a marketing and distribution plan based on the core audience of your film. Otherwise, you are putting your production, your investors and those who agreed to defer their pay in extreme risk of not achieving the production goals.
Amended: In speaking with my colleague, Jeffrey Winter from The Film Collaborative, his advice is budget a minimum of $50K just for the theatrical campaign. This breaks down into about $7K for organizational/online outreach, $20K in theatrical 4 wall fees needed for major markets such as NYC, San Francisco, LA, DC, Chicago (places where you will want major publication reviews, but whose policy stipulates a film must have a week long theatrical and in more than one city so it can be seen as a national release), $7K for a prominent publicist (needed to contact outlets such as NYT, LAT etc who probably won’t review if you called yourself), $500 for Blu Rays, $1000 for DCP, $1500 for poster design and printing (I think he’s giving you a break on this! You’ll probably need to spend more), $500 for shipping, $10K for a reputable booker to help you get screenings in more cities so you won’t have to 4 wall, $3K for a kick ass trailer, the rest you can spend on ads.
Often when thinking about the distribution of projects, filmmakers lock themselves into the old mindset of premiere at a festival/engage a sales agent/hope for lucrative distribution deals including a theatrical release/take off to make another project. In the current marketplace, all too often none of that happens. I interviewed Film Collaborative member, Michelle Mower, to talk about how she broke out of that mindset and saw her film, The Preacher’s Daughter, not only reach millions of people, but set viewing records for Lifetime Movie Network. The full interview is on the TFC site, but here is an excerpt:
Michelle Mower: “I met Orly at the annual Business of Film Conference in Houston that is presented by SWAMP when I was in production and she told me to keep her apprised of what we were doing with it. I joined The Film Collaborative and once I had a rough cut, I sent it to Orly and asked her to give me feedback and guidance. I was thinking about festivals until she came back and said it wasn’t a festival film because it was too mainstream, too commercial in feel. It probably wasn’t going to be programmed by the bigger festivals. She said I needed to think about other options. We had already submitted to some festivals, like SXSW, and it did not get in so it made me rethink what I was doing with the film and look at other options.”
“Orly introduced me to Imagination Worldwide, a sales agency, because they often work in broadcast licensing. I sent them a one sheet and that made them ask to see the film. I sent them my rough cut and they asked to rep it for the cable market. This was November 2011 and they took it to EFM the next February. They always knew that it might be of interest to Lifetime, but I didn’t get my hopes up. I was really still trying to raise more funds to get it absolutely completed.”
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.
While conventional media has shown us that women make up only a tiny percentage of the leadership in the film community, I am heartened to find that we are tiny, but mighty! As a tribute to International Women’s Day, I want to highlight a woman who is of particular inspiration to me and who was kind enough to take time out of her busy day way back in December to share her wisdom, her courage and her savvy with me. [ed. note: Ava, I'm sorry this has taken so long to be published, but girl you haven't stopped and every time I go to publish this piece, you up and do something else incredible and I have to add to it!]
Director Ava Duvernay has many things to be proud of in the last few years. Having successfully produced, directed and self distributed 3 films of her own (This Is The Life, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere) and distributed 2 films made by others (Kinyarwanda and Restless City) using her own money, she knows the challenges that come with being an independent, especially for black cinema. She recently won the John Cassavetes Award from Film Independent for Middle of Nowhere, previously she was the first black female director to win Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival 2012 for Middle of Nowhere, she collaborated with fashion house Miu Miu to direct a short film called The Door (released online), and she is now in production on a documentary for ESPN Films’ Nine for IX titled Venus VS, described as an in-depth documentary that explores tennis star Venus Williams’ fight for fair pay for female tennis players at Wimbledon.
Ava started out in the film business as a publicist, working on high profile campaigns for films by Steven Spielberg, Bill Condon, Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann. She has taken that knowledge and those media connections with her into her new career as a film director and into a company she launched in 2011 called the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) dedicated to releasing black cinema theatrically. I asked her what led to the creation of AFFRM.
“In 2003, I started a division of my PR agency, called Urban Beauty Collective . It was a network of urban beauty salons and barber shops providing in- salon entertainment and programming. I was always interested in reaching the African American community outside of all the nuts and bolts stuff my competitors did, you know, call Jet and Ebony and send out a street team. I wanted to do something that was like the Tyler Perry brand. Everyone knew of Tyler Perry before his deal with Lionsgate, he was an undercover brand. So I was always finding new ways to tap into the African American community and networks to bring my clients’ projects to them in new ways,” said Duvernay.
“In becoming a filmmaker, I knew that I could tap into those networks for promotion, but there weren’t clear cut pathways for distributing films, especially not for films I was interested in making. I started thinking about those wonderful black film festivals that I had started visiting with my first documentary, This is the Life. I went to a lot of these festivals and film series and got to know the organizers. A lot them were these amazing, stellar leaders with bold ideas and well formed infrastructures and adamant about creating a space in their local communities for the black cinematic image. There were about 4 or 5 really dynamic people and I thought they should all know each other. And that lead to the idea of self distributing my film. And that lead into ‘Why would I build up an infrastructure for self distribution and then dismantle it?’ I see so many filmmakers self distribute a film and get into the rhythm and really understanding how to do it, and then they walk away from it. Then they have to come back later and start all over again, or why don’t they leave the structure in place for the next person?”
“All of those thoughts were in my head when I decided to approach those festivals to see if we might all work together to distribute a film and, if it really worked out, we would leave it standing to distribute more films so that other filmmakers could come through it.”
It is no small feat to get a group of enthusiastic and strong people to commit to working together in an organized way. Each usually has their own agenda and personalities can clash causing the effort to fail. Ava said this hasn’t been a problem so far. “Each member is the distributor in their market. I don’t pretend to know what to do in Philadelphia, or New York, or DC. I know about the marketing and publicity and the bookings. What they brought to the table was expert knowledge of the audience of their regions. There was no stepping on toes. We curate the films together. It was structured to be very respectful of everyone’s lane. While we had heard early on that we probably wouldn’t be able to all get along, we’ve never had an issue. These are all well rooted organizations that have been in their markets for a long time.”
“They benefit. There’s financial benefit, there’s branding benefit as there are only a handful of festivals that are branded AFFRM festivals, they have all seen an increase in admissions to their normal festival activities, they’ve seen increase in local press coverage. Really, it is about giving these films a theatrical presentation that they otherwise wouldn’t have. No one is getting rich here believe me, but we strongly believe in the theatrical presentation of the films and a cultivation of the audience.”
I know that it can sometimes be difficult to get a filmmaker to commit to a smaller or emerging distribution entity. I can even imagine that filmmakers do not want their films branded as “black cinema” hoping instead to reach a mainstream audience. But Ava explained that AFFRM films are not denied the ability to reach wider, either in press coverage or in the theaters they are shown in. ”We don’t just distribute to the black community. Our films are playing mainstream theaters in Times Square New York, on Sunset Boulevard in LA, those theaters are open to any audience. We get press coverage in the New York Times, LA Times, NPR. Every filmmaker who has gone through AFFRM has had a CNN piece and we do very intentional outreach to black press as well. The press our filmmakers get, I would argue, is above and beyond what one would get from distributors like Cinema Guild or Strand Releasing. We get mainstream and niche press. So they get a NY/LA run at minimum and VOD after that.”
“Unfortunately, there is no one else here in this space. I think there should be more people in this space, and I hope people will duplicate this model in the Latino film space, the women’s film space, the LGBT film space, anything outside of dominant culture. This is a great way to distribute films theatrically without needing a lot of financial resources.”
Ava explained that the 2 films released so far that were made by other filmmakers, Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda and Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City, were destined to go straight to home video and would not have been released through conventional theatrical. “They were going to be going to DVD, nothing at all in support and we thought those films should be seen. When Roger Ebert called Kinyarwanda one of the best films of 2011 and I knew that 7 months before, it was headed to DVD only release, I am proud that we didn’t let that happen. I want more people to see the work of Andrew Dosunmu and Bradford Young and Alrick Brown and for them to have a proper theatrical release and proper reviews. AFFRM is nourishing the filmmakers and also the black arthouse community.”
Any conversation about film distribution will inevitably lead to money. I wondered if AFFRM is really a service company, being paid to release films theatrically. If so, how much do they charge? But Ava set me straight. “No, I am the crazy one putting my own money in. We lost money on some of the films, but I loved them and couldn’t stand to see them go by the wayside. We license the films because, as a filmmaker myself, I set this up to be beneficial to filmmakers and I am not going to tie up rights longer than the standard theatrical window of 3-6 months. We give the filmmaker a theatrical window and the promotion of their film, a full scale multi market promotional push that comes from having a theatrical release. They are no longer only going straight to DVD/VOD, they can get the momentum from a theatrical that will propel those ancillaries to help make their money back and make another film. No one is getting rich here though, most theatrical campaigns as you know do not make money. Someone has to take the plunge and cultivate this audience and no, it isn’t going to make money right away. But this isn’t about just money. We work tirelessly for 3 months on these campaigns to make up for the advertising we can’t buy so we’d better love and believe in what we are doing because there isn’t necessarily going to be a check at the end of it.”
Many of those working with AFFRM are volunteers called AFFRM Mavericks. A small army has been amassed of people willing to devote their own time and effort to spread the word about the films. “They are just people around the country who are activated around the idea of having options in what films they are seeing. Most of the AFFRM Mavericks are just regular people from plumbers, bus drivers, mamas with 3 kids, to professionals who run companies and have creative ideas. Folks that are canvassing posters and postcards on the weekend, barbers who put all of our branding in their shops. Basically we say what can you do, what do you want to be involved in?”
“They sign up on our website. We have a national maverick coordinator who talks to them to find out what they can do, make sure they will be responsible and helps to coordinate all the efforts. We have about 500 people. We also have digital mavericks who live in places outside of where we will be screening the films who just want to help in some way. There are 20 people manning Instagram, 75 people covering Twitter, a maverick digital captain coordinates all of them. It is very cool the amount of support we have from volunteers.”
On March 15, AFFRM’s new label ARRAY (which is now handling multiplatform releases, instead of only theatrical) will release their next film, Storm Saulter’s Better Mus’ Come, in New York and LA as well as one night screenings on March 13 in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Houston, London, Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Amsterdam.
I often hear filmmakers complain about having to think about and set aside time to promote their own films and about a lack of significant theatrical release options. I asked Ava how she found the time to do this work, not just for her own films, but for filmmakers she admires. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say I have a background in marketing and publicity at a very high level before I became a filmmaker. I could say ‘Hey, just do it’, but I came from a history of this kind of expertise. It is very second nature for me to do the publicity and marketing. The hard part came from learning the booking side. It was challenging and still is because of all the politics that surround it. It is hard to break in to that community with new films from people that cinemas don’t already know.”
“What I have struggled with is the balance between the creative and the business. If I want to go shoot for 3 months and I don’t want to go into the office, I can’t do that yet. Or if I need to do office things, but I want to go edit. It is hard for me to mix my days, creative and business. I can’t do business related things in the morning and then go into the edit suite or go write or go scout locations in the afternoon. I can’t do that. I do it by days. This is a director day, or this is a distributor day. It is about finding what your strength is and tapping into other people who have what you don’t.”
“But you have to be willing to stretch yourself because in 2013, you’re kidding yourself if you think all you will be doing is directing films. That is an antiquated model, the old guard of filmmaking. Very few of us will be able to make a film and hand it off and know that it will be well taken care of. It certainly isn’t me or anyone who looks like me. No women, maybe one came to mind, can think like this. You no longer have an option to say I don’t want to do that.”
Thank you Ava, from being so giving of your time and sharing your knowledge with all of us.