Last week, I talked with Chris Holland on the Film Festival Secrets podcast about what 3 things a producer should consider when choosing a distribution path for a film. I say producer because typically this is a job under their purview…but many times microbudget filmmakers are their own producers (and writer and director and editor). This podcast was recorded in preparation of my upcoming webinar on film distribution hosted by Atlanta Film Festival. I wanted to give everyone a taste of what the hour will cover..it will cover A LOT!
You can listen to the audio of our discussion HERE…or you can read the abbreviation below:
Question #1 Is there a market for this film? What elements does my film need to have in order to get a meaningful release?
There is so much information available online these days that speaks to what is selling. There are a myriad of case studies on various types of films and how they were distributed. A producer needs to be curious about distribution prospects BEFORE getting into production. As I stated in my last blog piece (point #4), if after speaking to industry representatives, you find the film you are hoping to make doesn’t appeal to the industry, you will most likely encounter challenges in the market.
Question #2 Do I have the means to distribute directly?
Since significant distribution deals are rare compared to the amount of films being produced, have you planned for self distribution? How much does that cost? What avenues will be open to your film? Are there barriers to entry on platforms like iTunes, Amazon, cable VOD, Vimeo? We’ll talk about all of this during the session.
Question #3 How to structure the release?
The mantra “Every film is different” couldn’t be more true in the world of independent film. There is NO ROADMAP to success mainly because success doesn’t look the same to every production. Does a film need a theatrical release? Is day and date the right strategy? Should a film go straight to digital platforms? What about broadcast and educational markets? What part do film festivals play in a release strategy? I will talk about all of this including companies to vet and what the repercussions are in deciding on the strategy for your film. Yes, in each choice there are trade-offs and you have to be comfortable with that. But there are also instances where rearranging the release window can actually work in your favor, despite the common opinion that windowing patterns must be closely followed.
From experience, I know that many of you attend markets and panels where a lot of talk happens and you walk away almost more confused than when you went in. I hope to take some of that confusion away with this session. The final half hour will be devoted to answering your specific questions so be prepared.
To sign up for the session, visit this LINK
These are the most common mistakes/beliefs I regularly come across from filmmakers, whether they are seasoned or newbies. I ask that you carefully consider these scenarios to see if one applies to your situation and possible solutions to either avoid them or turn them around.
#1 Not setting aside a promotional and/or distribution budget. For at least 4 years now, I have been talking about this one point and for at least 2-3 years every industry event brings up this point, so why are there still people producing films without a promotional budget? Most of you are not getting into Sundance or any other impact festival that will lead to a significant sale., so what’s the plan for getting your film noticed and into the market? Solution: Recognize that the responsibility for promotion and distribution of your film is increasingly on the production. Even sales agents and distributors are now checking out how much work the production has done on this BEFORE the film premieres. Raise and set aside this money to guard against being forced either to take a bad distribution offer or shelve your hard work. If you get a great deal, give the money back to your investors.
#2 Holding back on distribution to wait on the imaginary deal. If your film has been kicking around on the festival circuit for 6-12 months and there are no active negotiations started for a broadcast deal, for example, don’t hold back from at least distributing it from your own site, both digitally and via DVD (if that is relevant to your audience). Films are not like fine wine, they don’t get more valuable with age. The chances for a decent deal start to decay quickly after the film has a premiere and even more so if it does not find some kind of distribution path quickly. The attention you have built up will quickly dissipate with audiences who have heard about the film for a while, but are unable to see it and for industry who have heard about the film, but know that no other company has bothered to pick it up. Have a contingency plan that within 6 months of premiere, if the film isn’t in active negotiation for some or all rights, you will start to distribute it directly to the fans you are picking up on social sites and on the festival circuit. Solution: Momentum and resources die quickly, stop holding out for a deal that may never come. Sometimes the deals you are waiting for are waiting to see how the film does in the market. If after investigating outside distribution options and nothing seems to be on the near horizon, then start your own efforts. You would be surprised at the entities that will chase after films they perceive are showing success on their own.
#3 Thinking your first film is sellable. That thesis film you made for film school or your first short film may just be practice. So may your second, third and fourth film. The fact that you completed a film does not mean it will sell and you should not have automatic expectations that it will. Films are a commodity, and not a scarce one anymore, so audiences are getting discerning about what they are willing to pay for versus what they will watch for free. While there is certainly nothing wrong with putting your film up on Vimeo Pro or embedding a Distrify player on your website, be realistic about its revenue prospects. Solution: First try to get some pedigree built up on your work before asking for payment. The more distinguished titles earn a right to ask for payment from an audience.
#4 Believing your film has more merit than the market does. There are hints along the way to making a film that indicate that it will be tough to attract financing and reasonable distribution. Usually it starts with the script (you pitch and pitch and executives pass), then with the talent (you fail to attach anyone notable willing to take a pay cut in order to have a juicy, well written role), then in trying to attract a presale or significant distribution deal (the film fails to make it into the impact fests and reputable distributors won’t return your calls). Making the decision to go against all of these judgments because YOU believed the project had merit is very indie, but it doesn’t mean that the film is going to attract a sizable deal in the market or an interested audience. Solution: If you are committing to the decision that the market doesn’t know what its talking about and you do, then go all the way with the budget to back up a direct distribution plan. You’re going to need it. But it still may not succeed.
#5 Not spending marketing money believing it will make you money. Admittedly, filmmakers are not the only people who do this. I’ve worked in marketing on and off for a while and usually in a sales downturn, management thinks that cutting the marketing spend will somehow increase sales. This doesn’t happen. By refusing to spend money to market your film, you are in effect keeping your project a secret and this will not increase your film sales. Also, spending a lot to launch a film and quickly stifling the spending will not prolong that initial burst of sales. Good word of mouth can only do so much and 4 months into release, that word of mouth is gone if no other marketing/publicity efforts are continuing. Solution: While you may spend the significant portion of your marketing budget for the initial release and then pull back on the spend, don’t blow the whole budget on the first week of release. There are new films releasing every week. In order to stay top of mind and keep those sales coming in, new marketing initiatives need to happen regularly over time. If you have let efforts fall the ground, recognize in order to raise them again, you are in essence starting all over.
Some of these topics will be covered during my upcoming webinar hosted by Atlanta Film Festival on October 20. Anyone with access to the internet may participate. Visit the Atlanta Film Festival site for details.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/jazbeck/8025692978/”>jazbeck</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>
This week, a Youtube video featuring Ira Deutchman at the TIFF Filmmaker Bootcamp was pointed out to me. Ira always has some great information to share with filmmakers given his long and illustrious career in independent film distribution. In this 30 minute talk, he cautions filmmakers about the realities of the independent market and one key point he made about the so called long tail of sales really stood out. In order to see sizable revenue from the long tail, one must have A LOT of things to sell. In indie film circles, I think the long tail concept got confused with sales over time rather than lots of little revenue streams. If you are a filmmaker who doesn’t have a lot of revenue streams apart from selling copies of your film, you’ll want to read on so that you can be clear on this concept.
As Ira explains, in any retail business, 80% of the sales come from just 20% of the products. This is the 80/20 rule. When looking at big box stores like Walmart or Target or Barnes and Noble, one might think, “Why don’t they stock a millions titles of DVDs? It’s a really big chain with lots of stores.” But these retail outlets aren’t in the business of stocking everything, they just need to stock the titles they know will actually sell. The hot titles, with stars and big marketing spends that they know will do business. With their limited amount of shelf space in the Entertainment section of the store, they only want to stock the 20% of titles that will sell well. It is an efficient and profitable way to manage business when there is a limited amount of shelf space and there is a need to keep up with the multitude of stock in each store across the country.
In theaters, it’s the same deal. There are a limited number of screens, so cinema owners only want to play the films that are perceived to bring in box office sales. They can’t program every film, only the newest and hottest. If the ones they program don’t perform, the screening spot is hurriedly given to another film. No use clogging up screens with nonperforming films when there are plenty of others from which to choose.
Then ecommerce via the internet comes along and there are many virtual outlets selling products. There’s unlimited shelf space and all they need are some warehouses to keep small amounts of product. For a site like Amazon, as long as there is one copy of a DVD in the warehouse, it can be sent out or they pass the order along to the seller who is using Amazon as a storefront for their wares, charging a percentage of course. With Amazon Instant, they don’t even need the warehouse, just the server space.
The 80/20 rule doesn’t apply as strongly to online stores because although 80% of the business will still come from 20% of the products, there is still incentive to include a wide range of products on that infinite shelf and they will sell in the long term. The long tail principal states products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds bestsellers and blockbusters. If there is a film that only a few people know about or are interested, an online retailer can still afford to sell that film because millions of little products add up to a large business FOR THEM.
Although independent filmmakers are told that the long tail of sales is going to be good for them, it is mainly a beneficial way of doing business for the Amazons, Netflix’s and iTunes’ of the world. The money is made through selling LOTS of different things, not in selling ONE thing, like a film. Filmmakers who think having a long tail strategy for their film is the way to go will find that long tail means lots of little pennies over time and endless amount of time. While it is possible to sell a low volume of copies of your movie on your own, the major online retailers are selling a few copies of millions of movies.
These new digital opportunities to get your movies out to market, largely on your own, are a good thing. But the job of getting the audience to know it is there and interested in buying it is up to YOU. The sites don’t have to do this work, they have many, many other revenue streams and all they have to do is make sure people visit their site and buy SOMETHING, not your thing.
So, how many things are you selling? And how will you let people know about that? Before you settle into a long tail sales strategy of direct distribution, you need to answer these questions.
The other thing you must consider is the long game. If you do not YET have many things you are selling, how will you keep your work in the minds of those who are slow to act? In other words, if someone were to find out about your work a year after it is released, how will you let them know where to find it? In the film industry, the long game per title isn’t really of concern. They concentrate mainly on the big release moment and hope that splash is big enough to last in the minds of consumers. But with new distractions every day, how likely will someone remember to seek out a film they missed on initial release? Unless it comes up repeatedly by word of mouth for months or years after release, the likelihood is getting smaller and smaller, buried under the new.
Here is Ira’s video explaining the long tail for retailers. The explanation runs until 8:37, but you might like to hear the rest of his talk.
My second article for MovieMaker Magazine dealt with whether film festival awards make any difference. For the filmmakers, any kind of recognition is a boost to the ego and a confidence builder because it suggests that the work had value. But do festival awards make much difference to the industry or the market? I talked to several people in various capacities within the industry to give me their take. Here are the short answers:
Jeffrey Winter, Co Executive Director, The Film Collaborative
“There are three major ways that festival awards matter. First of all, an award distinguishes a film from the glut of available titles at any given festival. Meaning, if you are the kind of person (industry buyer, press, or consumer) who is paying attention to a particular festival, then of course one easy way to determine what to see is by starting with the winners. I think this is particularly true for other film festival programmers, who face the daunting task of pouring through thousands of available titles and submissions to their festival.
Secondly, discerning film consumers looking to discover new films to watch pay attention to the films that are winning the awards. I think the right festival awards have tremendous marketing value…but only for the discerning consumer.
Finally, let’s not downplay the fact that a lot of festival awards come with MONEY! There are some staggeringly large Festival awards out there…Dubai, Heartland etc. When a film starts to rack up a few awards, it can certainly get into the five figures of revenue.”
Ira Deutchman, Managing Partner, Emerging Pictures
“The most reliable audience for any film that doesn’t have a major studio marketing budget is the art film audience, which is entirely dependent on reviews and word of mouth to get their attention. Film festivals offer a way to gather awards and quotes that elevate the profile and perceived quality of a film for that audience and therefore do make a difference.
While the most prestigious festivals, such as Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, etc offer the biggest potential bang because they are covered by larger press outlets, a film can build up a head of steam coming out of a number of smaller festivals as well. A collection of laurels can look impressive even if they don’t include the big ones. Also, don’t overlook the niche festival like Gay fests or Jewish fests, as they have their own cachet with their intended audiences.”
Arianna Bocco, SVP Acquisitions and Production, IFC Films
“I think it’s very specific to the film whether or not awards from regional or low profile festivals make a difference. For instance, if the film is an indie comedy and it wins the Aspen Comedy Festival, then that’s very helpful to use in marketing materials. At IFC, we try to use the awards judiciously in marketing our films. It’s the film that has to work and none of those awards are ultimately going to make or break it.”
For the full article, visit MovieMaker Magazine.
Anyone who reads this blog, sees me in person or in videos online will know that I am a huge advocate of direct distribution. If an artist has put in the hard work and time to reach and cultivate an audience for her work, why give all rights away and a cut of that potential revenue to a third party?
But there are situations where the best option might be to take the deal.
Most artists are either avoiding the work of connecting with an audience or still haven’t caught on to the fact that they should be doing it and for those people, a distribution deal is their only option. In order to successfully direct distribute, 3 things have to be in place:
1) a clearly identifiable audience that the artist/production can easily reach;
2) enough resources, both labor and financial, to release the work into the market;
3) the expertise to navigate the best distribution route with several revenue sources.
The trouble with most independent filmmakers who want to go the direct distribution route (or need to) is they do not have these 3 things in place. They may not be happy with the distribution offers they are receiving (or haven’t received), but they can’t realistically turn them down if there is nothing else in place.
I ask you to consider a couple of things when trying to decide which route to take. Of the distribution offers you have received, are you receiving an advance (MG/minimum guarantee)? If the answer is yes, is it more than what you put into producing the work or is it more than you can conceive of earning on your own without putting in even more of your own money to promote the film? Note that you will almost definitely not receive any further revenue (back end) from your distribution deal. If it is higher than the production budget, take the deal. If it isn’t, realize that in order to come out ahead of what is being offered, you will have to not only earn more than the advance if you distribute directly, you will have to earn MORE in order to recoup the cost of promoting the film on your own which could realistically run between $50K-$100K in domestic marketing costs. Do you think that is possible, based on what you know to be the audience potential of your film? If you don’t know or have serious doubts, you may want to take the deal. While you probably will never see any more money from the deal, you won’t be spending even more of your own. Remember, any money spent by the distributor to promote the film will have to be recouped by them before there is any further revenue to disperse to your sales agent and to you, so you are paying for these costs either way.
Next, is the distributor offering the type of release you had envisioned for your film? If the answer is no, and it often is, will you be happy knowing that you have full control and the ability to release the film in the way you envisioned even if you don’t earn the money back? This question is very crucial because in indie film it is likely that you will have a more significant release if you do it on your own. But if you can’t financially afford all of the components needed to release the film, you will be better off to hand it to a company that could at least help you accomplish reaching a wider audience and insist they put in writing how they plan to release it and what efforts they will do to promote it.
It is very possible that you will not financially recoup either way, so the decision really rests on which way the film will get a release. This is a hard truth to swallow, but someone needs to make you aware of this.
I will be talking about this in depth on July 27 in Atlanta for a very intensive 4 hour session hosted by Atlanta Film Festival 365 on identifying and connecting with the audience for your film and the distribution options that are now available to get the work into the market. I gave this talk in Europe late last year and the response was enthusiastic with much furious notetaking! Do bring your laptops or notebooks with lots of paper because I will be sharing very useful information on the ever changing landscape of indie film distribution.
Early bird tickets are now on sale and the price is intentionally affordable for the independent artist. If you are near Atlanta, join us.
This is a guest post from director Nick Lawrence who wanted to share his experience in releasing his film Time Expired on Youtube so that all might benefit from it. If his numbers seem low to you, think about how much money a typical filmmaker receives from a no advance distribution deal with little marketing efforts put behind it where the filmmaker has relinquished all rights to her film. That is the most common distribution scenario of most low budget, no prestige festival, no name cast independent films.
YouTube isn’t just a spot to share short videos. It’s also a surprisingly strong platform for releasing your feature-length film. My producing partner (Rachel Tucker) and I released our 93-minute comedy film Time Expired on YouTube in late 2011. Since then, the film has been viewed almost 700,000 times, with 2,000-3,000 people watching it every day. We’ve earned $3400 in ad revenue in the last year, and the numbers keep growing: $339 in April, $442 in May, $652 in June.
In fact, YouTube has become our most lucrative platform, far outperforming VOD and DVD sales. Since Time Expired was made for a very low budget, we are actually looking at recouping our entire investment in five to ten years — almost completely thanks to YouTube revenue.
Decision to Release on YouTube
If you’re like me, you might initially find the idea of putting your film on YouTube a hint distasteful. YouTube started out as a place to share short amateur videos, and that’s still how many see the site. Putting your film on YouTube doesn’t fit the old narrative of being chosen and embraced by the system.
I suggest you get over it. YouTube is the third most popular website in the world, the film and TV arm of Google. YouTube is familiar, easy to use, and available on mobile devices, smart TVs, and even gaming consoles. The site is expected to earn 4 billion dollars this year, growing to 20 billion by 2020.
That said, YouTube is best used as part of a comprehensive release strategy. Ideally, you’d start off releasing on VOD platforms like iTunes and Amazon, and then move to YouTube and other free/subscription platforms (Netflix and Hulu) once VOD sales have slowed to a trickle. But for many smaller films like ours, access to these platforms is not guaranteed. YouTube offers the chance to circumvent these barriers and reach a worldwide audience of thousands, even millions, while earning not insubstantial sums of money.
Since Time Expired lacked name actors and marketing hooks, our chances of finding a distributor were basically nonexistent. Rachel and I decided to release our film using a “freemium” strategy — making it available for free on various platforms and hoping it would spread virally on its own. Unfortunately, the viral part didn’t happen. We learned the hard way that most people just aren’t that interested in discovering new films. YouTube, however, proved to be an exception. Four months after release, we were averaging about 100 views a day. Six months after release, the film was up to 1,000 views a day. What happened? Did the film finally catch on and go viral?
Who’s Watching and Why
The data from YouTube Analytics reveals something else is happing. The number one reason people click on Time Expired is as a suggested video. YouTube suggests our film to people who have been watching other feature-length films, often of questionable copyright status. These films don’t always have much in common with Time Expired, but they tend to be newish features with a mainstream sensibility. In other words, YouTube’s algorithms are connecting us with a global audience channel-surfing for movies. Our second biggest traffic source is searches with strings like “Hollywood”, “full movies”, and “comedy”. Most viewers aren’t searching for our film by name. They’re just looking for a movie to watch.
One of the interesting things is who these people are. According to YouTube Analytics, 80% of views come from outside the US, including unexpected places like the Philippines (35,000 views), Saudi Arabia (26,000 views), and Malaysia (20,000 views). The film has been watched in 218 countries and territories, ranging from Afghanistan (151 views) to Zimbabwe (471 views). Also surprising is the age range: two thirds (66%) of viewers are 45 or older, defying the stereotype of the typical YouTube user. This probably reflects the subject matter of our film, which is a comedy about dying. A full third of viewers watch the film on a non-computer screen, such as a phone (17.6%), tablet (10.2%), or TV (1.6%).
Uploading and Monetizing Your Film
Uploading your film is pretty much the same as uploading any other YouTube video. Guidelines for best encoding quality are here. Although YouTube started out only accepting short SD videos, those days are long gone. The site now supports 4K resolution films of any length.
You’ll need to become a YouTube partner in order to monetize your film, but this is no longer difficult. You’ll also need to provide proof that you own the rights to the film. In our case, we emailed scanned copies of the music licenses and a document that certified we owned the film’s copyright and controlled our YouTube channel.
Once the film has been accepted for monetization, you can choose the type of ads you’re willing to allow using the monetization tab. TrueView in-stream ads are basic commercial breaks and can appear before, during, or after the film. You can choose the act breaks (spots for commercials) by adding minute and second values into the mid-roll field. Overlay in-video ads appear as little text boxes directly over your film. We opted out of overlay ads because I believe they diminish the viewing experience, but it’s your choice. Text ads also display by default on the sides of the view page.
Tips for Success
Pay close attention to how you present your film on its YouTube page, including the description, key words, and title. Don’t expect most potential viewers to be searching for your film by name. We titled our film “Time Expired (full movie)”, which I believe is an important factor in its success. When entering key words, try to cover the obvious, keeping in mind that people are searching for things like “full movie 2011″, “english movies”, and “Hollywood movie”. Cover the basics and as many variants as you can think of. I’d also recommend looking at popular movies on YouTube in your genre. How are they titled? What key words are they using?
Another issue to consider is the snowball effect. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, your film becomes more popular the more times it’s viewed. YouTube tends to connect people with popular videos, which only reinforces their popularity. That’s why you want to give it a nice strong push down the snowy slope. I’d recommend doing everything you can to help your film in the first weeks/months it’s up on the site. In our case, the film really started to build momentum after three or four months, but I’m not sure this would have happened if we hadn’t worked hard promoting it early on. We held screenings in Oklahoma (where we shot the film and where most cast and crew lived). We sent out press releases. We contacted everyone on our mailing list and posted on our Facebook page. We mailed out cast and crew DVDs (about 100 total) with a letter asking for help “spreading the word” and some cards that people could share with their friends/family. We never paid for YouTube promotion, although this might not be a bad idea at the critical stage when you’re getting started. I can also see paying for some advertising on Facebook to help drive traffic.
YouTube also supports captions and subtitles in multiple languages, which will make your film more attractive to some viewers.
What About Vimeo?
Many filmmakers prefer Vimeo to YouTube. Vimeo has a reputation for quality and aesthetics (and, if we’re honest, “coolness”) and has tended to do well with filmmakers and other artsy types. They’ve even added a VOD service, which is an intriguing, if expensive option requiring an upfront fee for a PRO account. So why not just post your film on Vimeo instead of YouTube? Several reasons:
1. Vimeo has no advertising, which means you can’t make money the same way.
2. TIME EXPIRED has 680,000 views on YouTube versus 745 on Vimeo. This isn’t because we promoted YouTube any more than Vimeo. We started out promoting both sites equally, but it quickly became clear that most people were choosing YouTube over Vimeo.
3. YouTube can deliver a global, channel-surfing audience in a way that Vimeo cannot. In the case of our film, it’s not just a little bigger — it’s a thousand times bigger.
So post your film on Vimeo by all means — but don’t skip YouTube. YouTube is a strong and underrated platform for releasing your feature film. Once the film is up and running, you can earn hundreds of dollars a month while being discovered by a global audience of thousands or even millions.
I recently gave a presentation to the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam. It is European centric according to the audience to whom I was presenting, but creators from anywhere will understand it.
Most of my sessions start with some form of this one because I think it is imperative that creators understand WHY using social tools is beneficial to them for more than just “self promotion.” In fact, self promotion is really NOT the best use of these tools. While the title says paradigm shift, this is also about a mindset shift that creators must embrace. The internet is based on connection, abundance, generosity and earning trust. It isn’t based on greed, scarcity and secrecy. Creators aren’t the only ones who have to change their approach when using these tools. I see very few labs, schools or other workshops teaching from this fundamental principle and that is why I think it is important to cover before launching into marketing strategy, what tools are available and how to conduct audience outreach. The mind and heart have to be in the right place first.
All creators (writers, filmmakers, musicians) I know do not like the idea of self promotion and avoid using social channels, or use them incorrectly, to connect directly with an audience believing that they will turn into raving a**holes constantly talking about themselves. Believe me, no one wants that! But the audience is growing used to having direct contact with artists and, in order to take advantage of new developments in funding (crowdfunding) and distribution, an artist MUST have a network of supporters for their work. But no one wants to connect with someone who is just taking all the time or sees their efforts as short term or views the audience as disposable.
The REAL power of the internet and social media is its ability to connect like minded people. Reaching an audience used to entail going through centralized and guarded entities (mass media), but now the tools are available to everyone. Using them just to blast messages about yourself means you have misunderstood its true power and, frankly, you come off as rude and out of touch.
In addition to seeing the slides here, you can see my notes for each slide on the Slideshare site. So far, this presentation has reached over 2800 people and I’m pretty happy about that. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below or on the Slideshare site.