Understanding your film’s success trajectory

October 29, 2013
posted by sheric

The idea for this post has been spinning around in my brain for a while and comes up every time I receive a new consultation inquiry. Most filmmakers I encounter are either fairly new to filmmaking or fairly new to the business side of film. They may have been directors for hire in the past so they were only involved in physical production, or they are producers and their last film did not achieve what they had hoped so they are trying again.  In these cases, what they want to happen with their film is often very different than what is likely to happen and it is important to know the difference from the outset. It will save so much energy, time and bitterness to be realistic about your chances of achieving your goal.

What success trajectory is your film on?

There are 2 kinds of trajectories producers will encounter; one is the planned course or direction they would like their film to take to market and the other is the course that their film is actually going to take based on its assets. The worst position to be in is believing your film is on track for your goal and find out that you are nowhere close and it is too late to change it. The best is to know from the start what is possible for the film you are making and accept it or change your assets in order to get on a better trajectory. Since I personally don’t like hearing people hedge their statements with “anything is possible,” I am going to forge ahead with a common example, not examples that somehow managed to beat the odds. No use in trying to replicate lightning in a bottle.

Common scenario:

A low budget film with no notable cast, no clearly identifiable audience and no money to market and distribute on their own is now in post production and looking for advice on how to market the film in order to attract a significant sale. No one involved in the production has connections within the power community of filmmaker labs (and their mentors), top tier festivals, or reputable sales agents, but still believes a significant sale is achievable and will result in a significant release including multi-city theatrical, cable VOD, broadcast and home video.

From a distance, I know some of you can clearly see where this trajectory is sure to end up…but far too many do not even think about it until too late. It is possible to pull back the curtain on almost any indie film that you see as a success and look at the assets they had from the beginning. Their success trajectory existed before they completed the film. Even before their festival premiere, most likely they had some heavy weight help; perhaps some connected producers, several film labs/incubators lending them support and validation, grants and sponsorship from power organizations, personal connections of the director, cast and crew that could be tapped for help. Success is never 100% assured, but the chances are higher when these assets are in place. It is HIGHLY unusual for a film to come completely from nowhere, with no one notable in it or attached to it and go on to have significant success.

I’m not minimizing the talent and effort of these filmmakers, they certainly have to produce a stunning film that their connections feel proud (and safe) about championing. But if you know that your film is not going to have any of this, the success trajectory of your film will not look like these films. That’s ok, as long as you realize this and your goal is aligned. One only has to look at the recent Gotham Award nominees or the list of Oscar qualifying docs vs the short list  and then nominees when it comes out  to see what a successful trajectory looks like. Are there ANY that didn’t have major distributors/connected producers/prestigious labs/major festivals behind them? Are there any that DIDN’T have significant releases?

How to change your trajectory? If you need connections, start making them or choose people to help you who can deliver these. Making an undeniably stunning film will pull powerful people to you, but someone has to make the introduction. If your story is going to need a bigger budget with notable names  in order to succeed in the market (with buyers, with press, with audiences), don’t tell that story without those things. If you can’t attract that kind of financial backing yet (and most first, second and third timefilmmakers cannot), change your story to suit what you already have at hand or what you can realistically raise including marketing and distribution money so you have more options for release on your own. Often, proving your success will attract the attention of those with more financial muscle who can change your trajectory.

Most importantly remember, it is VERY difficult to change your trajectory once your project is in “motion.” Better to give it more thought before starting.

Photo credit Nathan Wells on Flickr
Sheri Candler

Digital distribution with The Orchard

October 22, 2013
posted by sheric

Quick note of thanks to those who attended my independent film distribution webinar with Atlanta Film Festival. The feedback so far has been positive and we are working on scheduling a marketing plan webinar in the future. As much as I know filmmakers are curious about distribution outlets, the place they encounter the most difficulty is in marketing their work. Hopefully we can sort that out together.

Speaking of digital distribution, last week on the MovieMaker site  I profiled digital distributor The Orchard. It was an enlightening interview and here are a few highlights:


digital distributor


-Content platforms like cable VOD and Netflix are becoming much more selective about the films they choose and the deals they offer, and certain factors weigh heavily into these decisions. “It helps to have played at major festivals, have a small theatrical, great reviews, notable names, a broadcast deal, anything that shows your film has merit and exposure. For documentaries, even if the film hasn’t played the major festivals, playing at some of the major niche festivals shows there’s an audience for the film. If the film has a good outreach campaign and partners with organizations or has a big email list, those can be attractive,” said Danielle DiGiacomo, manager of film distribution at The Orchard

-A  film that isn’t attractive for a big buy in foreign countries, but serves niche audiences amassed outside of the U.S., has a range of options. “iTunes is our most comprehensive multi-language, global support platform because we can service about 50 countries, wherever there are iTunes stores. To access iTunes, your film must meet quality standards and have subtitles for those languages and that cost is on you. When we can go worldwide with other platforms, we do.”

-One advantage of using a digital distributor rather than an aggregator is the ability to influence placement on the digital platforms. “This is a new release-driven market, getting on the ‘New and Noteworthy’ or ‘Now in Cinemas’ sections is a big deal. Giving sites like iTunes exclusivity for two weeks before anywhere else also helps with placement. While our team pitches the platforms where we would like the film to be, the sites also determine the placement based on how much they believe in the film and what else is coming out that week. If there are a lot of high-profile titles being released, it will be harder to get good placement. Sometimes they suggest release dates because they know what is coming out when. They also look at artwork, so that is important.”

-The Orchard also operates a multichannel network (MCN) on YouTube, currently ranked fifth in unique visits. As a YouTube-certified company, they have a team dedicated to helping creators optimize their videos for viewer search, monetize their content through advertising and grow channel subscriptions on YouTube. Recently, they formed a relationship with online horror film publisher Shock Till You Drop to jointly promote and distribute horror films worldwide.

We also talked about release strategies and why waiting too long between release windows is a bad idea. Check out the whole interview HERE.

Sheri Candler

Is the Long Tail approach good for your film?

September 27, 2013
posted by sheric

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.

Sheri Candler

This month, I interviewed music supervisor Liz Gallacher of Velvet Ears for my latest column on MovieMaker Magazine‘s site. Actually, they are only posting an abbreviated version of the interview online. The full article will be in the print edition on newsstands in November.

mixing boardI wanted to cover this topic because I was hearing from indie filmmakers who had overlooked the important aspect of music clearance during post production and thought they could get distribution deals that would pay for it later. It is exceedingly rare in today’s marketplace that a film distributor will pay to clear the music licenses on your film because that process can be so costly.  Distributors are not trying to take on more debt than they have to when they acquire a title. There is debt just to release the film, plus repay the advance if one was paid (and for a hot title, an advance WILL be paid) and make money for themselves (filmmakers aren’t really part of the equation). If you are putting up financial barriers to acquisition, your chances are close to zero in garnering a deal, especially over something as fundamental as music clearance. You are also putting up barriers to getting the film out yourself unless you like being the target of a lawsuit.

Also, some filmmakers are using music tracks in their trailers or online video materials that were only cleared for in context usage. Liz explains in the article why this is an issue and how to rectify it. As she says in the abbreviated piece, “It isn’t a cheap prospect to license music. I think people are misinformed on that because music is affordable to buy and it is plentiful for personal use, so they think they can do what they want with it. They can’t if they are planning to use it commercially.”

Catch the abbreviated version on the MovieMaker site and try to pick up a printed copy of the magazine when it is published.

Sheri Candler


Sync Up Cinema in New Orleans

April 25, 2013
posted by sheric

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 


“I give so that you will give”

August 1, 2012
posted by sheric

As you may know, I recently gave the keynote address to the Federation of European Directors General Assembly in Copenhagen. The Assembly’s event was chronicled in the Danish Film Directors’ quarterly magazine Take 58 in July. Below is an excerpt from a longer article about my participation there. Thanks to all who attended the event.

8 questions for Sheri Candler

“These answers are being written from the perspective that all directors should be dedicated to building up a long term base of supporters for all of their work.” -Sheri Candler

TAKE: Should I keep my Facebook identity as a director seperate from my identity as a private person? Meaning should I have two separate pages?
SHERI: Yes, I would advise having a separate professional Facebook page for all of your professional work and leaving those privacy settings as open as possible. Your private profile should be for your actual friends, family and colleagues and the place where you put your personal thoughts and interests and that will have privacy settings optimized to only be shown to those people. While your family and friends may also want to keep up with your professional endeavors, not all of them will and having a professional page allows you to have a place to connect with your fanbase and industry people regarding your work.

TAKE:At what stage should you know the title of your film? Can you change title later on? How do you avoid misleading people, if the film changes radically after the title has been set?

SHERI: Some film titles change as soon as a distributor takes hold of it, so I wouldn’t be too worried about changing a title because your true fans, your community that you have been building for your work over time, will be the first to know the reasons for the change. Remember, you are building up a relationship with these people, they aren’t being gathered for the one film. If the title changes (and I highly recommend doing a thorough title search before you set one so that it doesn’t need to be changed later), only those who have not been with you all during the production of the project will come to know the new title.

Same thing for branding on the film. In fact, this is a way to include the supporters, take a poll onwhich title they like or on which key art they like. American director Edward Burns held a poster contest for his film Newlyweds. He asked his fans to contribute their designs and they voted on the most popular one. It became the poster for the film. American director Tiffany Shlain did the same for her documentary Connected. Don’t treat your supporters as strangers, keep them informed of what is happening with the project and why.

TAKE: What sites should a director have as a minimum? (FB, twitter, website, blog?)
SHERI: First, you must have a website, that is imperative. It is the only true piece of internet real estate you own and control. Every other platform belongs to a third party that may change the rules, go  out of business or lock you out whenever they like and that would completely cut you off from your supporters if you depended solely on those for communication. I think directors should choose the social channels they feel most comfortable using and where those which would be most interested in their work frequent. For now, that is probably Facebook (with 900 million users, of course!) and maybe Twitter. But it could also be Pinterest, MySpace, Tumblr etc.

TAKE:  How and where do I use my time best online if I want to engage with my audience? It seems that one can use a lot of time on many different things, but where does it have the most impact?

SHERI: The answer to this would be as unique as the audience members. The thing to realize is there are no set rules, there is no magic formula. This is all going to be an experiment and trying out services to gauge a fit. Online tools are just that, tools. It is all in how you use them and you only get out of them what you put in. The more time you spend connecting with others, the more you will get out of the process.

I would say you need an outlet to speak from, which typically means a blog on your website. That blog should be updated weekly, ideally, so that you keep the site higher in search results and it feeds your social channels. Blog pieces do not have to be long, only 500-700 words, and they should primarily be devoted to sharing valuable information and insights, not self promotion.

 TAKE How do you see the relationship between engaging your audience in a dialogue and the ability to earn money on having the dialogue? Does one exclude the other?    

SHERI: I want all not to start this process with the eye for making money as their foremost thought. It is like saying you are making friends with people only to see how much money you can get out of the relationship. A relationship that starts that way is doomed to fail because people can feel it, feel the insincerity.

The mindset you must start with is ”I am going to find my ’people,’ the ones who would care the most for my art.” And you truly have to believe that. The Latin saying “Do ut des” (I give so that
you will give) is extremely valid in the virtual world, in fact it is expected. The online world rewards generosity, not selfishness. Directors who already have fans or a reputation would actually find this process easier because their fans are eager to connect. But oddly, those directors are the least likely to do this right now. I think we will either see a change in that mindset or a loss of relevance for those directors because people are very fickle and they are getting very used to having personal contact with creators. Those who continue to ignore their fans will find themselves ignored in favor of artists who understand this new mindset. Money and fame are by products of relationship building, so concentrate less on those things and
more on the relationship.

TAKE: How private or personal do you feel that one should be? Many of us directors are shy people and only used to talking to journalists about our films before a release.
SHERI: One would think it will be easier to speak to real people than to journalists! I don’t think you need to share intimate details about your personal life, but I do think we should see some sort of personality behind the communication efforts. All directors are creative people with lots to say to the world. If you aren’t, then perhaps you should rethink your occupation. Writing a blog isn’t journalistic writing, it is personal writing about your inspirations, helpful suggestions, recommendations, personal commentary on events happening in the world. Something that lets the supporters know who you are as an artist. Like attracts like and ideally you will attract those who love the way you tell a story no matter what the story is. We want to see the essence of the real artist, not some sound bite ”message” of the synopsis of the film.

TAKE: Can you give us inspiring examples of feature film directors that use social media to engage their audiences?
SHERI: YES! -American director Kevin Smith connects with his fans every day via Twitter and through his own channels at smodcast.com He is really an example of a director who tells stories in lots of mediums, not just film. A true storyteller.

British actor/screenwriter/director Stephen Fry is also very accomplished at using social channels as well as his own website to connect to his fans.
-Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris also has his own website and social channels www.errolmorris.com
-David Lynch uses Twitter, his tweets totally correspond to who he is as a storyteller.
I would say though that Morris and Lynch do not do a great job at having conversations with their audience, their sites and social channels seem very one sided to me.
-British director Duncan Jones uses Twitter to the extreme (several times a day!) and actually does talk with his followers.

TAKE: What do you mean when you say that a director should be a tribe leader? Does that go for all directors?
SHERI: The tribe idea originates with Seth Godin who wrote a book in 2009 called Tribes-We Need You to Lead Us. It is this idea of finding and connecting with like minded people and leading them to a place they want to go.

The means to do this are universally available to everyone now with the internet, so it isn’t based on geographical location or on having large financial resources to advertise your way into an audience. Advertising has been the default way of building an audience for films for a long time, it is costly and wasteful as you have to start again with each film. The tribe building idea is a totally different way of doing this and it is meant to be more cost efficient and longer lasting for the artist. You don’t need to sell people on the fact that they want to connect (to art, to other people, to a movement) because that is inherent human nature, we want to connect to like minded people. So as a film director, or a storyteller, your job is to connect those like minded people through a platform that you create (your website, blog, or whatever tool you choose) and eliminate the need for them to find each other on their own. They connect through you as the artist and through your work. You are the leader of the tribe and you make your work only for them. They, in turn, bring in their friends, also like minded people, and that widens the reach of your work. Your job is only to make work and nurture those people, delight those people. They will bring the others aboard.

This is a very radical idea though. When the artist is in charge of her tribe, where does that leave the chain of middlemen that once were so important to reach the mass? Mass reach is becoming less and less important because it isn’t sustainable. Audiences for entertainment are becoming fractured and very focused about how they spend their time given the multitude of options for entertainment. Advertising is becoming much less important, but social connections, trust building are becoming more important. People are trusting recommendations from their personal connections much more than advertising blasts. If you have no personal relationship with your audience, your work will be lost in the multitude of other viewing options.

My thanks to Birgitte Staermose for conducting this interview and the the FERA organization for having me in Copenhagen.

TOTBO in Edinburgh and London

June 19, 2011
posted by sheric

photo credit Leilani Holmes

Once again my friend Jon Reiss will be heading to the UK for 2 events. The first is early this week at the Edinburgh Film Festival where he is giving the keynote at Short Sighted on June 22, an event that will educate you on getting your short film distributed. He also will be doing one on one consultations  with filmmakers through Creative Scotland the next day.

He will then bring his 2 day film marketing and distribution workshop to the London Film School June 25-26. The workshop is a live step by step guide into to new world of hybrid distribution and marketing including how to create a release strategy that is unique for your film, the various markets that are available for your film, how and why to engage your audience as early as possible and how to think beyond the feature film to create new forms of content and/or to market and distribute your film. He will be joined by many special guest speakers including:

Terry Stevens from Dogwoof- Using a fresh approach, Dogwoof partners with filmmakers to help themselves giving them direct access to professional film distribution services, while letting them retain the rights to their film, controlling costs, and actually having the chance of seeing revenues and profits. The film experience is changing and they intend to help filmmakers set the new rules.  Terry will speak about a new theatrical initiative that Dogwoof is launching.

Peter Gerard and Andy Green from Distrify- Via Skype: Peter and Andy will discuss DIY digital distribution.  They created Distrify which is a revolutionary toolset for social-media marketing with sales and distribution built in. Share and embed your movie trailer with Distrify. With built-in VOD, downloads, merchandise sales, and audience engagement tools including an affiliate revenue program, Distrify makes every view of your trailer a potential transaction. Sell anything, anywhere.

Chris Jones- Chris Jones is a filmmaker and author of the The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook series and he will talk about the ever confusing world of deliverables that trips up so many filmmakers.

I will skype in to talk about creating your filmmaking brand – and promoting yourself to the world as an artist. If you have no audience around your work, you have no future. I want you to have a sustainable career.

Gregory Bayne- Gregory Bayne is a filmmaker who has run three successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund and distribute his films.  Greg will talk about the dos and don’t for a successful crowdfunding campaign.

When we were there last year, all the participants raved about the quality and quantity of information they received. I am personally in touch with many of these people to this day! It was a very inspiring workshop for me as it was the first time that I really saw people get what I was trying to say and feel excited about it and determined to undertake this work. I think there is still a lot of resistance to having to undertake both the production of film as well as the marketing and distribution of work. I will never tell you that it is easy work or that you will hear the magic piece of advice that will work for every film. Anyone who promises that is a fool. But the days of artists moaning about how there isn’t a level playing field, that studios have all the  power to reach audiences are over. ANYONE can use the tools available to make their work a success. It doesn’t “just happen,” there will be blood, sweat and tears so accept that. But if you are truly looking to take advantage of the tools available to help you and gain the knowledge of how to do it, then you shouldn’t miss this workshop.

To follow all of the workshop speakers on Twitter, here are their handles

@jon_reiss @shericandler @dogwoof @gregorybayne @distrify @livingspiritpix   (Chris Jones)