Advice for documentary films from John Battsek

April 16, 2014
posted by sheric

I will be attending this year’s Sheffield DocFect, one of the biggest documentary festivals in Europe, to meet with documentary producers and generally get a feel for what is happening with independent films in Europe. I went last year as well and I attended this great masterclass with producer John Battsek of Passion Pictures (Searching for Sugarman, The Imposter, Manhunt). Luckily, Sheffield DocFest has uploaded the class to their Youtube channel [link below].

Passion pictures documentaries

I pulled out a few nuggets of advice for the documentarians because you may not have over an hour to devote to this video.

On what makes a documentary “theatrical”:

“Lots of archive, lots of music, all of it is expensive, but makes a difference…We bring cinematic ambition to the way we shoot, the way we cut, the music we put on the films. We gravitate toward projects that feel cinematic in scope….In doc making the editor is as important as anyone. You need an editor that can really realize a cinematic vision.” During the session, Joe Bini is singled out for editing praise, The Mill for graphics and Philip Sheppard for composing.

On finding the story that will have large audience appeal:

“The core story needs to be universal, something people can connect with, but ultimately it has to transcend that. It needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. Something people can identify with on many levels. Sugarman is about a failed musician, but not really. It is about love, family, ambition and lack of ambition, honesty and a philosophy on life that is admirable. It moves people in so many different ways. Fire in Babylon is about cricket, but it’s not. It’s about a culture rising up against their masters. It transcends the sporting story and becomes about guts, defiance, facing adversity and all sorts of things.”

On Sundance being the key marketplace launch for documentaries:

“Sundance is the key festival for launching feature documentaries. They offer great programming, but also it is the first major festival of the year and American buyers, in particular, go there aggressively wanting to outdo their rivals. Also, I think the high altitude messes with their heads! 5 years ago we had 3 films at Sundance; Crossing the Line, My Kid Could Paint That, In the Shadow of the Moon. We screened them and everyone went berserk. It was just before the bottom fell out of the world. We got into a bidding war, the kind you read about in the trades. The prices just kept going higher… For years, people blamed us for making the bottom drop out of the prices paid for docs because ultimately none of them performed as well as they should have.

In terms of getting into the festival, not sure what to say except that we’ve been incredibly lucky. We’ve been there for 7 consecutive years. I know the programmers really well, I get on with them, it is definitely a festival that looks out for its alumni. Not that producers are alumni, only directors are.  If you are trying to get into Sundance and you can work through someone they are familiar with and trust, it is very helpful.


As you know from last week’s post, I took part in the Sync Up Cinema event hosted by NOVAC at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I saw a video camera in the audience and was told a video of my conversation with Clint Bowie, Program Director for the New Orleans Film Society, would be uploaded online. I will post that when it happens, BUT there were many things I was prepared to talk about and didn’t get a chance to say. I made notes to prepare for the night, so I thought I would share those notes with you here on the blog. I was given an idea of the questions we would cover ahead of time, so I have included those with the notes.


Sync Up Cinema Conference with Clint Bowie and myself. Photo credit Ashley Charbonnet

Sync Up Cinema Conference with Clint Bowie and myself.                 Photo credit Ashley Charbonnet


How can filmmakers change their mindset to one of building and engaging their own audience and how does digital technology play into this?

SC: “The digital mindset has to be acquired now. This is no longer a world of the closed off artist. The new developments of crowdfunding, career sustainability by becoming an artist entrepreneur instead of being dependent on industry choosing you, and media interactivity/cross platform storytelling are all contingent on being open and connected to an audience.  Filmmakers must understand and use digital tools in their professional life to truly have a relationship with their audience. Anyone who can’t deal with that is going to be left behind in this world. That really goes for any professional, not just artists. I think we are now just in a transition period where we have to talk about this ‘mindset’ change because, believe me, young filmmakers are already doing this. It is natural to most of them and even more natural to 13-14-15 year olds! This will become a moot point very soon for everyone.”

How do you help filmmakers brand themselves rather than simply branding their projects so that they can move seamlessly from project to project without reupping every time? Is this something that is for “name directors only”.

SC: “Name directors would have an easier time connecting to an audience because their names are already recognizable, but the majority  don’t do it and that is detrimental for their continuing careers. They think the world where you can be removed and other people will just take care of audience attention for you will continue to exist. It won’t. Indeed, it is rude and selfish now to not be available.

Branding yourself simply means figuring out what you stand for, what your identity is. It isn’t a logo, it isn’t an image or a persona. It is who you really are as an artist. That identity does not radically change for most people. Independent artists in particular have a unique perspective. If they  didn’t have a somewhat unique vision, they would be selling insurance or working in a bank. Working in some nondescript job. They yearn to share their unique perspective with the world and they do it through images, stories. Social media, really the web in general, should be a place where they can thrive because it is full of stories and images!

Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman speak about artists being like dandelions. Instead of “giving birth” to only a few “babies” in a lifetime, artists should be creating all the time and putting their “seeds” out into the world. Some work will thrive and gather attention. Some work will die quickly, not be prosperous. Dandelions don’t care about their offspring, they just create. Sometimes their offspring live and sometimes they don’t. The internet is a place to create lots of little experiments and some will work wonderfully and some will not. Keep creating and try to make great work. That’s how you build your brand. That’s how you build a sustainable audience. Not by hoping to be picked up by the industry for a few of your offspring. It’s an audience for that one film, then you have to start over again. Your seeds can be blog posts or tweets or Facebook posts or Instagram photos. Something small every day.

This is the most basic thing to understand about brand building. All the digital tools and the metrics and the sales numbers, those are all byproducts of this basic understanding.

Be open, create great work, connect it with people. If you don’t do those 3 things, the rest of this doesn’t work.

What I do is encourage the filmmaker to figure out what their artistic identity is and how to share it with the world that can be reached online. It is hard work for me because few are embracing it as they should, but I know they are listening. They find me because I live what I am saying, I don’t spout out theory. I am not a publicist or a marketing consultant or a distributor who doesn’t even have their own website, or any social channels that they use regularly. I have to live it to help anyone with it.”

How do you work with filmmakers in terms of festival strategy?

SC: “Here is my strategy. If your film gets its premiere in a life changing festival, of which there are only a handful in the world, then that affects your distribution strategy. My colleague, Jeffrey Winter who handles all festival distribution for The Film Collaborative would call these IMPACT FESTIVALS.  He says an impact festival must offer at least 2 of these 3 things.

-Industry exposure which is what leads to a sale or a career launch.

-Press exposure to multiple major publications/media.

-Exposure to other festival programmers who will then invite your film to their festivals.

If a festival you are considering isn’t offering those things, then it is not an impact festival. There are also impact festivals within a niche like women’s film festivals, environmental festivals, Jewish festivals etc. If you cannot get into an impact festival, then the marketing and distribution strategy stays as it was in the M&D plan. Which means you have to have one from the start. If an impact festival premiere doesn’t happen, you need to plan your own impact premiere.

To me, the festival circuit is a theatrical release circuit with no revenue prospects, but far fewer costs than a conventional theatrical release. Unless you can get a screening fee, which is only possible in a few certain circumstances, then use a festival to do one night event screenings along with a service like Tugg or Gathr or community screenings where either a license fee is paid, or you are getting a significant cut of the ticket sales.

If the festival is small, the media coverage is small, no real industry people (ie, buyers or other festival programmers) attend, there is no screening fee and no way to make some revenue, then why go to that festival? It won’t make a difference to the film’s success and may not even make a difference to your career. If you know who your audience is and how to find them online, you don’t need a festival to reach them.”

Discuss festival darlings vs films that will be picked up and how to know what kind of film you have. Is it a festival film at all or something that should go to market or be self distributed.

SC: “A festival darling gets that way from being accepted into an impact festival.  Also, festival darlings will go on to play many other festivals, Jeffrey says at least 50 and they should be collecting screening fees with that so it becomes a source of revenue. Those films get picked up first.

If you mean a festival darling because it plays every little regional fest and stays on the circuit for over a year with no other distribution happening, it isn’t really a darling. It really means it doesn’t know what its doing.

There are elements that will help your film be a festival darling though..

-Name connections. I don’t mean name actors necessarily, but it never hurts :) . Is your producer connected? Is your director connected? Are you working with a sales agent?

-A lab program that is connected to prestige fests. Have you gone through labs with Sundance, IFP, Film Independent, San Francisco Film Society?

-A grant or funding organization like Cinereach on your side. Have you won a grant from a large film fund like Tribeca’s partnership with Ford Foundation? BritDoc Bertha Fund? Chicken and Egg? These organizations are filled with connected people who can pull some strings for your film if they think it is strong.

-A short film that is an alum of an impact festival. Impact fests love to champion their alumni filmmakers.

Festival programmers are tied into these networks and they ask ‘Is there anything out there I should be looking at?’  This is not blind submission territory. Anything they can do to wade through the pile of DVDs or online screeners to find the good stuff is welcome news to them. This is about getting to the upper end of the pile. Your film will be evaluated at a higher level. These connections change what is possible for your film.

If you haven’t got these connections, either GET them or be realistic about your prospects. You will be looking at your direct distribution options a lot more closely than a film with connections.

I still think a film with connections is going to have to build an audience though. Not all Sundance films get a pick up or get picked up and given meaningful release. Sundance didn’t create their Artists Services Program because they think all of their alumni will be given stellar releases. They created it because they know not all will and they can offer help to those willing to work. And while they do what they can to champion those alumni films, most still do not succeed because the filmmaker was ill prepared, budgeted no money for marketing and distribution and truthfully, some simply waited too long after their premiere to take advantage of the gift they were given in having that kind of premiere. That level of media buzz is not often recreated 2 years after the festival.

I am much more interested in seeing people like Shane Carruth, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, Thomas Woodrow, Ava Duvernay, Tiffany Shlain, all leaping out of Sundance with their own path than the ones who are waiting around for their sales agent to work a miracle for them. They prepared their marketing and distribution plans, they went to Sundance with it under their arms and laying the groundwork ahead of time with audience building and they were in a great position to say whether they would take offers or not. They didn’t HAVE to do it.

I will say there is NO SUCH THING as a film that doesn’t have distribution. If a film isn’t being distributed, that is by the choice of the filmmaker. They rolled the dice and lost on the big all rights deal and didn’t prepare for anything else. ALL FILMS have a path to distribution now. It may not be the path they hoped for, but it is easy to distribute a film. Getting people to watch it? Another story.”

Distribution – What are some concerns filmmakers need to have in terms of their distribution strategy and how production budgets are tied into this. How should filmmakers determine if and what sales markets can bear films like theirs.

SC: “For sure you should be working with a legal advisor who is looking out for YOUR interests. This is not necessarily a sales agent whose commission is based on your signing an agreement. On The Film Collaborative site we just published a guest post by a filmmaker who had to take his sales agent to arbitration and what a nightmare it was because of the agreement they signed. Use an entertainment attorney who works with independents, not just studios and distributors and is truly looking out for your interests first.

As far as budgets, marketing and distribution expenses are not part of your production budget, they are a separate section. They are part of your overall business plan budget. In any other business, marketing expenses are just part of doing business, in addition to creating the product.  But they haven’t been a concern to filmmakers and investors in the independent film sector, strangely. That has to change.

I recently talked on Film Courage about needing a 10% budget minimum …but really if you desperately want a theatrical release or you are contractually obligated to have one and you may be paying for it yourself, you need about $50K just for that. You’ll most likely need a booker which costs about $10K, you’ll have to 4 wall for a week in NYC, San Francisco and a few other cities first so the booker can make a case for why cinemas should book your film, that will cost about $20K. You’ll need to hire a national publicist to get you the important New York Times review as well as other major publications because without those, why are you showing theatrically at all? That will run about $7K or more. You’ll need someone working online outreach probably on a full time basis and that will run about $7K. You’ll need materials like Blu Rays, DCP, trailer, poster, shipping costs, printing costs and some advertising. That will take you up to about $50K for a very small theatrical run.

Then if you are going to go ahead and direct distribute via digital platforms, if you work with a Gravitas, they will charge about $10K for encoding your film and getting it onto Cable VOD services. You will pay about $1500 to encode for iTunes and you need to have closed captioning and maybe subtitling which will run you about $1000 each for that. If you want it on iTunes in Australia, New Zealand and a few European countries, you’ll now need to have the film rated by the ratings board. They charge per minute on the film with an average cost of $2300 for Australia alone.

But if you have an impact festival premiere, great reviews, lots of buzz going on the film, you may not need to 4 wall so you can reduce that theatrical cost significantly. You still won’t make money on it, but it won’t cost too much either.

Sales markets are best handled by sales agents. If you want your film to be available at a market, I am assuming you mean for foreign sales, you are better off having someone whose whole job is devoted to buyers and markets handle your film there.

I think all filmmakers should attend a film market though because if you were ever under the illusion that you were making “art” you will learn very quickly that is about the last things buyers are looking for. They are looking for something that will sell. Sex, violence, stars..those are easy sells. And it is all right there on the poster or in the trailer. Right in your face. Go have a stroll around Cannes Marche du Film or around the Loew’s in Santa Monica at AFM. Visit before you even have a project to sell and it will be very illuminating.”

What is the average in terms of indie distribution.  We hear a lot of success stories about foreign markets, but that isn’t necessarily the average.

SC: “First, there is no average for advances. It is totally dependent on what kind of film you have and its pedigree.

Foreign market for the average American independent film is close to zero. I think the successful foreign sales you are hearing about are for the bigger budget, well known actor films. Presales are highly dependent on cast so if you don’t have A list or close to it in your film, you aren’t looking at presales. Yes, plenty of people are still talking about foreign presales, but ask them for examples. You’ll see they are talking about Hollywood level cast.

But say that you do want to see what your prospects are for foreign sales? I do suggest you get a foreign sales agent because they know who the territory distributors are. They deal with them all the time and they can be more effective at collecting money from them than you can. They license films to territory distributors in different countries. Territory distributors acquire rights to exhibit a film, show it on TV, use digital platforms within their territory. These territory distributors find out about films from film markets such as Cannes, Berlin, Asian Film Market and American Film Market and TV markets such as Mip, also in Cannes.

Here is a selection of top grossing American indies in foreign markets for 2012:

Silver Linings Playbook (David O Russell, Oscar nominated) $101mil (Australia and Spain top countries, sold to 46 territories)

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, Oscar nominated) $22mil (uk, France, Australia, Germany & Spain top grossing, but sold in 41 territories)

Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, produced by John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd , started as a novel) $15mil ( Australia, UK, Italy top countries, sold in 28 territories)

Cast involved in these films (Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Emma Watson, Dylan McDermott) Typical American indie film does not have this cast.

So what is an average advance in terms of domestic indie distribution? Very hard to say. Depends on the buzz coming off of it and what time of year the film sells. There were some strong sales at Sundance this year, Sundance being the beginning of the year. The Way, Way Back sold for $10 mil and will be released in July (fitting for a movie about working a summer job in a water park) and got only a C+ out of Indiewire. It has Toni Collette, Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell in it. Don Juan’s Addiction sold for $4 mil with a $25mil marketing spend guarantee on 2000 screens out of Relativity Media. It will need to gross about $35mil to just recoup. I have no idea if that MG paid for the production budget. It is a Joseph Gordon Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore film.

Some of the smaller films like Fruitvale Station (around $2mil to Weinstein, playing Cannes), Concussion (around $1mil, Radius-TWC), The Spectacular Now (around $1mil, A24)  S-VHS (around $1mil, Magnolia), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (around $1mil, IFC also playing in Cannes). Many of these are already getting screening fee revenue out of other festivals that have programmed them.

Compare this with Toronto purchases, one of the last buyer festivals before the end of the year. The Place Beyond the Pines was picked up for under $3mil by Focus Features, but the production budget was $15mil. It was just released March 29, already hitting $12mil and most of that is foreign. Stars Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper.  I think they’ll be all right eventually, but Focus recoups and profits first, not the film’s investors.

What Maisie Knew went for $2mil to Millenium Entertainment, which is now for sale. It is set to go into theatrical release tomorrow.  Stars Alexander Skarsgard and Julianne Moore.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions bought a trio of films for a grand total of $5mil. Thanks for Sharing, Imogene and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I’m thinking the total production budgets for those films were a lot higher!

SXSW sales have been slow.  Cheap Thrills sold to Drafthouse for low-mid six figures which probably means $200K and a promise of theatrical and VOD/digital.  Holy Ghost People sold to XLrator Media for an undisclosed amount. Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies has some high profile actors like Ron Livingston, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick and was picked up by Magnolia, again no amount disclosed. Doc Good Ol’ Freda just sold to Magnolia and they say it will get a theatrical, again no amount disclosed. Usually Magnolia does Day and Date releases.

These are some of the top festivals for sales, the rest of the festivals are just exhibition exercises that you are hopefully using to launch into digital release. Hey, distributors do this too. Often even if a film will have a limited theatrical, it will still use the festival circuit as an exhibition space. But the difference is, those films will get screening fees.

But then you have films like Euphonia which premiered at SXSW and then went online for free.  It was a no budget (or no one is getting paid back) film, 54 minutes long so really not programmable in many places as far as festivals, broadcast, theatrical. It doesn’t have sales prospects and the filmmakers didn’t care. They are newbies, put their film on Vimeo just so people would see it without a money barrier. That isn’t wrong. Their goal is just getting people to see it.  They may accomplish that goal.

Numbers, everyone likes to know those and yet, we don’t. I would like to call on industry to start divulging more. Filmmakers start divulging more. We did this in our book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and it was difficult to get at them. A few filmmakers dropped out when they heard what info we wanted because they didn’t want to share that info. So you can’t complain about not knowing if you aren’t willing to share. Also, it is contractually agreed not to divulge numbers, keep everything private. We can know box office numbers, we can know DVD sales numbers, but so far there is no public database for digital numbers.

According to Gravitas Ventures’ Nolan Gallagher ‘When an independent film opens in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles—and those four theaters report $10,000 each for box office earnings—that’s a very easy amount of information to compile and publicize. But with VOD, we’re talking about over 100 different operators, each with its own way of compiling and disseminating information.’ Still statements and checks are sent to rights holders so a figure is obtained.

We know, based on self released numbers by Lionsgate/Roadside that Richard Gere’s Arbitrage which had a concurrent theatrical and VOD release took in about  $11 million in VOD/digital sales and over $7.5 million in ticket sales. The distribution company paid $2.1 million to acquire domestic rights out of  Sundance Film Festival, and Roadside spent about $2.5 million promoting the theatrical debut.  Marketing expenses for the VOD were reportedly only a few hundred thousand.

Margin Call with Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons had VOD sales of about $6 million and grossed $5.4 million in theaters. Also released by Lionsgate/Roadside.

Bachelorette grossed $5.5 million on VOD but took in $448,000 theatrically. Released by Radius TWC. Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Rebel Wilson star.

Where did all of those films come from?? Sundance!

But know this. It is nearly impossible to attract significant VOD revenue without a star driven film!! And sometimes stars want a theatrical guarantee, or their agents do.

A couple of more realistic indie film case studies that worked with Gravitas Ventures.

The Truth-made for a reported $500K, starring John Heard, Brendan Sexton III, Daniel Baldwin, Erin Cardillo. Made $ 75K in an advance from Netflix. It is a thriller.

American: The Bill Hicks Story: made for under $1mil, Cable VOD gross at $375K and iTunes gross $55K for both rental and download, though rental accounted for vast majority. A 2 year Netflix and Amazon  deal for about $100K license combined.”

As soon as the video of what we did actually talk about that night is available, I will post it here, tweet it, put it on my Facebook page and in my G+ community.

Next up for me in June, an Amsterdam workshop with the Binger Lab and Sheffield DocFest in the UK. If you’ll be in either of these places, give me a shout!



Sundance interview with Edward Burns

February 28, 2013
posted by sheric

As I said in my Sundance wrap up post, I had a chance at this year’s festival to talk with Writer/Director/Actor Edward Burns. He was incredibly kind and generous with his time given that he was on the US Dramatic Jury this year and had many films to see on the ground…plus the usual meetings and functions that come with being…Edward Burns. The interview lasted about 30 minutes and some of the conversation was edited down in the following 2 video segments. Here are some things you missed…

Q: In research, I read that you studied literature in college. How did you turn that into screenwriting and directing?

EB: ”I was an English major at school and was not doing that well honestly and was brought in by my academic adviser to say I needed to bring my grades up or we’ll put you on academic probation.  For English majors, they offered film studies as a minor and basically you watch old movies and write a paper and it is a guaranteed A.

The first class I took was called Four Directors and it was Wilder, Hitchcock, Ford and Orson Welles. The first film I saw in that class was Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and I sat in that classroom and fell in love immediately. Also, when I was in junior high and high school, my mom was a big Woody Allen nut. So my mom started me off with Take the Money and Run, Sleeper, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters.

So after that class, I started to think about that early love affair I had with Woody, and I thought maybe I don’t want to be a novelist. Maybe screenwriting should be a thing that I focus on. I called my dad and told him and he sends me Syd Field’s screenwriting book. I’ve never looked at a screenplay before. It is all dialog, and dialog is something I wrote a lot in my short stories and something people said I excelled at. So forget novels, I am going to write screenplays and I took every screenwriting course they had.  I wrote my screenplay and I finished my junior year and I called my dad and said I gotta go to a film school, I’ve taken all of the screenwriting courses they have here. I thought Columbia or NYU. He said look at your grades, look at my salary. Let’s rethink it. So I go to Hunter College which had a very small program at the time. They had one CP16 camera, but 3 great professors and that’s all you need sometimes.

I left there with a short film under my arm and was on my way. I needed to make some money so I  finished up in night school and went to work full time. I worked at 2 places. The 7 o’clock news, the local news, and a production assistant at Entertainment Tonight.   That was really helpful because we went to visit movie sets all the time to do the behind the scenes stuff.  I got to see everything from a big budget film like Scent of a Woman to a small, indie John Tuturro film and a number of smaller indie films. All I did was watch and try to observe and learn.

Even now, the acting side of my career affords me the same thing. When I got to work with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, that was my graduate film school. I knew showing up on that set, I am just going to keep my mouth shut and watch this guy. Less interested in what I could learn as an actor, but more what I could learn as a filmmaker.

Out of film school, like everyone else in the early ‘90s, I was obsessed with Quentin Tarantino. And every screenplay I wrote was a Tarantino rip off. Thank god none of them were any good or got made. And someone said to me, write what you know.  I took that Robert McKee screenwriting class and one thing he said for your next script, think what is your favorite genre of film and write a script in that genre. My favorite genre was Woody Allen, whatever genre that is. So I sat down and wrote Brothers McMullen and I used Hannah and Her Sisters as my template.  So I have a scene of 2 people walking down the street, it is 3 pages of dialog and nothing really happens but hopefully it is funny and insightful and I thought well people loved it in Hannah, so I hope people will love my version of it.

Woody was absolutely and still to this day my primary influence.”

Q: You consulted with Tyler Perry about how he maximizes his revenue. Can you talk a little about that conversation?

EB: “His big advice to me was be mindful of your core audience and be respectful of the fact that they come out time and time again. He said think about super serving your niche.”

Here are 2 video clips of the rest of the interview:



I will be speaking at this workshop in Vancouver in 2 weeks. I’d love for my Pacific Northwest/BC Canadian friends to join us and talk over a drink afterwards. Also, I have started a G+ Community completely devoted to independent film marketing and distribution ideas, tools and advice. So far we have over 150 members from around the world. If you are interested in this topic, join us.


Working with Tugg for your theatrical release

February 11, 2013
posted by sheric

tugg-logoWhile I was in Park City this year, I had a chance to sit down with CEO Nicolas Gonda to talk about how Tugg is helping independent filmmakers, as well as studios, screen their films in cinemas all over the country.  Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Q: Tell me about how the idea for Tugg came about?

NG: “It came through realization at the time, and still today, that it is difficult for audiences to engage with filmmakers on a very local level to determine what movies come to their town. We launched Tugg as a reaction to a very evident need where audiences are interacting with filmmakers on the social channels more and more and the theme around Sundance this year is community and engagement with the audience.

We want to create a user interface for every movie theater in the country so that audiences in those communities could determine what movies come there.”

To read the full interview, head on over to Microfilmmaker Magazine

Film distribution case study: Indie Game

August 17, 2012
posted by sheric

I edited this piece and it was published on the Sundance Artist Services blog and The Film Collaborative blog. I am reposting it here because I think this film is the first and only one so far to eschew the typical Sundance offers, have the courage to know what distribution path is best for it and launch into the market straight after the festival. Also, I hope it serves as informative and inspirational to all who read this blog. My great respect goes to truly empowered filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot.

written by Bryan Glick, with assistance from Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler

Indie Game: The Movie has quickly developed a name not just as a must-see documentary, but also as a film pioneer in the world of distribution. Recently, I had a Skype chat with Co-directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot . The documentary darlings talked about their indie film and its truly indie journey to audiences.

film distribution, indie game documentarySwirsky and Pajot did corporate commercial work together for five years and that eventually blossomed into doing their first feature. “We thought it would take one year, but it ended up taking two. I can’t imagine working another way, we have a wonderful overlapping and complimentary skill set, ” said Pajot. “We both edited this film, we both shot this film. It creates this really fluid organic way of working. It’s kind of the result of 5 or 6 years of working together. I don’t think you could get a two person team doing an independent film working like we did on day one. It’s stressful at times but the benefits are absolutely fantastic, ” said Swirsky.

According to Swirsky, Kickstarter covered 40% of the budget. “We used it to ‘kickstart’, we asked for $15000 on our first campaign which we knew would not make the film, but it really got things going. The rest of the budget was us, personal savings.”  The team used Kickstarter twice; the first in 2010 asking for $15,000 and ended up with $23,341 with 297 backers. On the second campaign in 2011, they asked for $35,000 and raised $71,335 with 1,559 backers.

The hard work, dedication, and talent paid off. Indie Game: The Movie was selected to premiere in the World Documentary Competition section at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival winning Pajot and Swirsky the World Cinema Documentary Film Editing Award . “[Sundance] speaks to the independent spirit. It’s kind of the best fit, the dream fit for the film. Just being a filmmaker you want to premiere your film at Sundance. That’s where you hear about your heroes,” noted Swirsky. “Never before in our entire careers have we felt so incredibly supported…They know how to treat you right and not just logistics, it’s more ‘we want to help you with this project and help you next time.’ It was overwhelming because we’ve never had that. We’ve just never been exposed that,” interjected Pajot

They hired a sales agent upon their acceptance into Sundance and the film generated tons of buzz before it arrived at the festival resulting in a sales frenzy. The filmmakers wanted a simultaneous worldwide digital release,  but theatrical distributors weren’t willing to give up digital rights so they opted for a self release. “There were a lot of offers, they approached us to purchase various rights. We felt we needed to get it out fairly quickly and in the digital way. A lot of the deals we turned down were in a little more of the traditional route. None of them ended up being a great fit,” said Pajot.

Several people were stunned when this indie doc about indie videogame developers opted to sell their film for remake rights to Scott Rudin and HBO. Pajot explained, “He saw the trailer and reached out a week or so before Sundance. That was sort of out of left field because it wasn’t something we were pursuing.” Swirsky added, “They optioned to potentially turn the concept into a TV show about game development…As a person who watches stuff on TV, I want this to exist. I want to see what these guys do with it.” The deal still left the door open for a more typical theatrical release. However that was only the start of their plan.

“We had spoken to Gary Hustwit (Helvetica). We sort of have an understanding of how he organized his own tours. We had to make our decision whether that was something we wanted to utilize. Five days after Sundance, we decided we would and were on the road 2 weeks after… Before Sundance this was how we envisioned rolling out…[We looked at] Kevin Smith and Louis C.K. and what they’re doing. We are not those guys and we don’t have that audience, but knowing core audience is out there, doing this made sense,” said Swirsky.

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky

They proceeded to go on a multi-city promotional tour starting with seven dates and so far they have had 15 special events screenings of which 13 were sold out! This is separate from 37 theaters across Canada doing a one night only event. They also settled on a small theatrical release in NYC and LA.  When talking about the theaters and booking, they said theaters saw the sellout screenings and that prompted interest despite the fact that the film was in digital release. They accomplish all of this with a thrifty mindset. “P&A was not a budgetary item we put aside and if an investment was required, we would dip into pre orders. We didn’t put aside a marketing budget for it,” said Swirsky. Regarding the pre order revenue, they sold a cool $150,000 in DVD pre-orders in the lead up to release of the film. From this money, they funded their theatrical tour.

While the theatrical release was small, it generated solid enough numbers to get held over in multiple cities and provided for vital word of mouth that will ultimately make the film profitable. The grosses were only reported for their opening weekend, but they continued to pack the houses in later weeks.”I don’t look back at the box office. The tour was more profitable than the theatrical…They both have the benefits, having theatrical it gets a broader audience. It was more a commercial thing than box office,” said Swirsky. “We are still getting inquiries from theaters. They still want to book it despite the fact it’s out there digitally,” said Pajot. ”We had this sort of hype machine happening. We didn’t put out advertising. Everything was through our mailing that started with the 300 on our first Kickstarter and through Twitter,” said Swirsky. Now the team has over 20,000 people on their mailing list and over 10,000 Twitter followers.  In order to keep this word of mouth and enthusiasm going, the filmmakers released 88 minutes of exclusive content – most of which didn’t make the final cut – to their funders, took creative suggestions from their online forum and sent out updates on the games the subjects of their film were developing over the course of the two years the film was in production.

Following the success the film has enjoyed in various settings, Indie Game: The Movie premiered on three different digital distribution platforms. If you were to try and guess what they were though, you would most likely only get one right. While, it is available on the standard iTunes, the other two means of access are much more experimental and particularly appropriate for this doc.

It is only the second film to be distributed by VHX as a direct DRM-free download courtesy of their,‘VHX For Artists‘ platform. Finally, this film is reaching gamers directly through Steam which is a video game distribution platform run by Valve. This sterling doc is also only the second film to be sold through the video game service, where it was able to be pre-ordered for $8.99 as opposed to the $9.99 it costs across all platforms. This is perhaps the perfect example of the changing landscape of independent film distribution. Every film has a potential niche and most of these can arguably be reached more effectively through means outside the standard distribution model. Why should a fan of couponing have to go through hundreds of films on Netflix before even finding out a documentary about couponing exists, when it could be promoted on a couponing website?

As they are going into uncharted territory, both Pajot and Swirsky avoided making any bold predictions.”It’s just wait and see. It’s an experiment because we’re the first movie on Steam. We’re really interested to look at and talk about in the future. I don’t want to make predictions…I do think documentary lends itself to that kind of marketing though. We’re trying to not just be niche but there is power in that core audience. They are very easy to find online,” said Swirsky.

Just because they are pursuing a bold strategy doesn’t mean they were any less cost conscious. “The VHX stuff, it was a collaboration, so there were no huge costs. Basically subtitles, a little publicity costs from Von Murphy PR and Strategy PR who helped us with theatrical. Those guys made sense to bring on,” said Pajot. “A lot of our costs were taken up by volunteers. If they help us do subtitles, they can have a ticket event, a screening in their country,” added Swirsky.

They also note that a large amount of their profit has been in pre-orders. 10,000 people have pre-ordered one of their three DVD options priced at $9.99, $24.99 and a special edition DVD for $69.99 tied with digital. While the film focused on a select few indie game developers, they interviewed 20 different developers and the additional footage is part of the Special Edition DVD/Blu-Ray. That might explain why it’s their highest seller.

All this doesn’t mean that any of the dozens of other options are no longer usable. Quite the contrary,  they have also taken advantage of the Sundance Artist Services affiliations to go on a number of more traditional digital sites. Increased views of a film even if on non traditional platforms can mean increased web searches and awareness and could be used to drive up sales on mainstay platforms.

The real winner though is ultimately the audience. For the majority of the world that doesn’t go to Sundance or Cannes each year, this is how they can discover small films that were made with them in mind. The HBO deal aside, this is bound to be one incredibly profitable documentary that introduces a whole new crowd to quality art-house cinema. “We are still booking community screenings. If people want to book, they can contact us…We are thinking maybe we might do another shorter tour at some point,” said Pajot.

Here’s to the independent film spirit, alive and well.

Insights from a crowdfunding campaign-Between Us

December 29, 2010
posted by sheric

Obviously, crowdfunding has become a very hot topic in the indie film world as a way to raise money for projects. I have seen more campaigns fail than succeed so I am always on the lookout for secrets to success. Who else can share that information but the ones who have done it? Director Dan Mirvish (Omaha-The Movie, Open House and co founder of the Slamdance Film Festival) generously agreed to share some secrets with me about his campaign. Dan has some great tips on what makes a campaign successful and he was able to raise over $14K for his film Between Us.

The film is based on the hit Off-Broadway play of the same name that premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2004 with a screenplay adapted by original playwright Joe Hortua and Dan. He spent some time talking to other filmmakers who had run campaigns both on Kickstarter and on Indiegogo and he chose to use Kickstarter because he was impressed by the amount of publicity they were getting, most notably from Time Magazine where they were named one of the 50 Best Inventions of 2010 and he thought more people outside of the independent film community might be familiar with Kickstarter which  might help with getting financial backing from investors too.

The campaign lasted only 30 days. It seemed just long enough to raise the money he needed, the goal was $10K, without completely nagging all of his supporters. One thing he does regret is not having a pitch video at the start of the campaign. Dan and I spoke often during the run of the campaign and I urged him to get a video up when I saw there wasn’t one in the early days.“Thirty days is not a lot of time if you only think to post a video in the second week. We really only had two weeks where we had a strong video up.  I don’t know if it ultimately it would have made a huge difference early on, but it did make a difference in the latter part,“ Dan said.

He gave some thought into what the video should show. “It was a real challenge in making the video because it wasn’t  a film we had any footage of , there wasn’t a short film it was based on, and I don’t act very well on camera or come across sincerely because most of my other projects have been very wacky and this is a departure from that. It is really important that the video is compatible with the tone of the film. For me, I had to make a video where you hear my voice, but you don’t see me talking. There were still pictures of me, much more sincere (laughs). So it had to be creative and show my talents at filmmaking. If you are selling yourself as a filmmaker and the first thing people see is this Kickstarter video, that video had better be good. I looked at a lot of videos before I made mine and I thought ‘oh my god if I have to look at one more pasty faced filmmaker asking for money, I’m going to throw up!’  Some are done well, but a lot are not and I was thinking ‘wait, this is a filmmaker and he can’t even shoot a good promo video?’  A good piece of advice, that I did not do and struggled with, is try to come up with the video BEFORE you start the campaign.”

The whole of this interview will be available starting Jan 1 in Microfilmmaker Magazine. Here are a few highlights:

-a tip for using Facebook; “set [the campaign] up as an event, invite friends to the ‘event,’ and then it is possible to send updates to everyone invited, even if they don’t initially respond.”

-a tip for choosing perks; “I offered an imdb credit at the $25 level.  For those in the industry, having an imdb credit, even a thank you, is valuable.” Plus, it costs nothing but time to fulfill.

-a tip on how to look at the campaign; ” The campaign wasn’t just about raising the money on Kickstarter, it was about the momentum. It wasn’t  just the individual amounts we raised, but leveraging that into much bigger investments.”

-a tip about the timing for the Kickstarter launch; “I knew that I wanted the campaign to be finished about the time that other filmmakers would start hearing about being accepted to the major festivals [Sundance, Slamdance and Berlin] and many of them would be using Kickstarter to raise funds to travel to the festivals. I wanted to be out before that rush hit.”

-a tip on continuing to raise money after the campaign is finished; ““About 2 minutes before the end of the deadline, I edited the text proposal on my Kickstarter page and told people that if they missed the deadline, there are still ways you can contribute financially. After the campaign ends, you can’t edit the page anymore even though the page stays up.”

Check out the whole of the article next Saturday.