Reflections from Sundance 2013

January 28, 2013
posted by sheric
montage 2

clockwise: Julia Stiles Q&A, Slamdance HQ, Dan Mirvish and Paul Rachman at the Between Us screening, on the red carpet for Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Egyptian Theatre on Main, barbershop at the Slamdance opening night party, me with Tiffany Shlain at the Blackhouse Music Room


I just returned from Park City, fresh from jury deliberation on the Slamdance short films and conducting video press interviews with some of the Sundance/Slamdance microbudget directors as well as indie microbudget god Edward Burns and Tugg CEO Nicolas Gonda. Those videos will hopefully be edited and uploaded in the next few days. I will post them on this site when they are ready.

photo courtesy of Roberta Munroe

photo courtesy of Roberta Munroe


My first day on the ground (January 18) started  at the Blackhouse Foundation where I participated in the Digital Distribution Panel. We talked about the myths, truths, rules and multiple paths to monetize premium content online for those in front of and behind the camera. The discussion featured representatives from Grab Media and Netflix. Basically, it seems that short, episodic content is the name of the game in the online space if you are going to work with the bigger onlinenetworks. Netflix does not take short form content (short films) and Grab Media helps content producers access sites in the AOL network on an advertising revenue share or as licensed, branded content for large corporations. They essentially give your webseries  or ongoing content (news shows, how-to videos) access to thousands of websites that want to host video, but do not produce their own. These sites are presumably highly trafficked so your view count will soar and your revenue share from advertising either you place inside of the video or Grab places inside of it will be much higher than if you just posted it to a Youtube channel. The range on how much you can earn from this is quite broad really. Some producers only earn enough for the light bill, some for a vacation, and some for a mortgage.

Largely, I was there to talk about knowing who you are trying to reach with your work. While I often use the analogy of needing to have a spark (or strong, core audience) before it can spread to a forest fire, another visual that came up during the discussion was a pebble and the ripples. If you don’t have a pebble to start things off, it will never ripple out. I did hear on other panels some contrary advice, but I stand by this analogy. For the emerging filmmaker who does not have an audience, who does not a have a film with notable names, who does not have an acceptance at one of the big 4-5 festivals in the world, and does not have millions of dollars to spend on advertising to a broad and undefined audience, she MUST have a place to start with an audience. Does it have to stay small? NO, but it has to start somewhere and that somewhere is much more difficult when she doesn’t have name or industry attention to aid her. Believe me, if she starts gathering a small but strong core audience, suddenly the industry pays attention and offers help. Start very small, but enthusiastic and build from there.


I was also a short film juror at Slamdance and what a great slate of films. As with any deliberation, compromise between gut feelings and personal tastes have to be navigated, but ultimately I think we chose strong talents in the prize winners. Full list of this year’s winners HERE. I can say that there were many talented filmmakers in that pile of shorts and I wish the best to all of them.

On January 19, I attended the Sundance Creative Distribution (#creativedistro) panel with director Ava DuVernay (interview with her coming soon to this blog)  and Topspin Media‘s Bob Moz. It was a standing room only crowd to hear how last year’s Sundance films Middle of Nowhere and Bones Brigade fared with their hybrid distribution strategies. Moz has uploaded his case study presentation on the Topspin Tumblr site, but let me show one tremendous screenshot. When the panel basically said social media just doesn’t “put butts in seat” or result in sales, Moz clicked this up on the overhead (BOOM) and told the panel they needed to up their analytics software…Topspin anyone?


bones brigade topspin data


It is a pretty powerful reminder that more and more filmmakers who are willing to engage with their audiences (and in cases like director Stacy Peralta, find them again from previous films) by using social channels will be able to cost effectively penetrate the noise of the internet and make immediate revenue (rather than waiting 6 months to a year, if ever) on the road to repayment. As Peralta has said, while receiving some advances from distributors for his past films, he has never received a single royalty check. Sustainability will come from being savvy about building and maintaining an audience.

The rest of my time on the ground in Park City revolved around interviewing several NEXT directors (Shaka King, Eliza Hittman and Andrew Bujalski); a Slamdance director (J.R. Hughto) and Sundance US Dramatic juror, Edward Burns. All are working in the microbudget filmmaking arena, which suits the publication I was representing, Microfilmmaker Magazine. The thing I liked about these interviews was the honesty all participants brought on camera. While other Sundance talent might have looked to position themselves as bigger than they are or perpetuate this other-worldly mythology, all of my interviewees were very humbled by their inclusion in the media circus that is Sundance. In the case of Burns, he offered a different perspective on what it takes to be a sustainable filmmaker in the 21st century. I also interviewed Nicolas Gonda, CEO of, to talk about how filmmakers can empower their audiences to pull films they would like to see in a theater in their cities. Instead of being dependent on a corporation to decide whether a film will play in a city, Tugg enables the crowd to decide and put their money where their mouth is in terms of needing to reach a minimum ticket buying threshold before a booking can be made. Minimizing risk for the filmmaker or distributor and the cinema owners can only be a good thing.

On my last night in Park City, I was lucky enough to have caught a Press and Industry screening of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Since I arrived very late to the line, it was not at all assured that I would get in and I did have to view it from the front row of the Holiday Village Cinema. I am not going to review the film, but I am a fan of the series and was not disappointed in this installment.

Mainly what I felt on the ground this time versus previous times was the dawning of realization that now there are tools in place for filmmakers to use to reach audiences and release films even if the 6-7 figure deal wasn’t offered. While of course those deals were offered to some already, I was heartened to see Sound City and Upstream Color use Sundance as their springboard into the market. They are taking advantage of the media opportunities and recognizing that they may not have films that are mass audience, which is fine. They won’t be taking the chance that their niche film will be ignored in a slate of other more commercial fare. I look forward to seeing this increase as the years roll on at Sundance.


Collecting email addresses from fans of your film

October 7, 2011
posted by sheric

All this week, Jon Reiss and I have been participating in a virtual Q&A panel on the D Word site for documentary filmmakers.  I have to say, I like this virtual panel a ton better than the usual live panels at film events. You can ask very specific questions of the panelists without the need for a moderator controlling the questions and having a bunch of panelists sit up there and basically tout the services of their company or give coy answers. It would be kind of awkward to give short and meaningless answers in this kind of forum. I hope everyone else is enjoying it too. Anyway…one of the questions that came up to day from Richard Phinney of Ontario, Canada asks “there is much talk about getting email addresses from audiences at preview screenings … how exactly do you go about doing that?”

In our book, filmmaker Ari Gold describes how he was able to collect over 12,000 email addresses from the audience of his semi theatrical and theatrical screenings.  Here’s the excerpt:

“Ari attached a short video to the front of the feature at the semi-theatrical and theatrical screenings that included the text-to-join number, whereby one texts their email address to a Google Voice number that he set up…it was (213) 290-DRUM [213.290.3786]…and, at the time of this book’s publication, it still works, even though he has to manually copy and paste the emails into his master list. The video alone was extremely effective, but when Ari was also present at the screenings, or when he did a live Skype Q&A, he was able to get almost all in the audience to sign up. Truly unique and impressive.”

The old fashioned way of doing this is passing out a clipboard and I still think that is fine if the screening is small and controlled by you, but it doesn’t work so well at festival screenings. You aren’t given much time to pass it around the audience before the screening and people leave as the credits roll after, plus you are too busy heading up to do Q&A so even if you started passing it, the clipboard is likely to get mislaid while you are tied up and then you have to keep track of the papers and remember to enter in the email addresses by hand.

Another solution I have seen is using QR codes which can be read with any mobile smartphone that takes the web brower to a special landing page where an email address can be entered. The email address is then sent straight into your email provider’s database. Here is an explanation of how it works with Constant Contact.
Providing incentive to give an email address should yield better results than simply putting a sign up box on your website. Giving away a piece of content like a song, ebook, rare photos or a piece of video not found anywhere else are all incentives to give an email address as “payment” to access this content. Topspin Media calls this E4M (email for media) and it powers their embeddable widgets for websites. There are many more features on Topspin as well so check them out (full disclosure: Topspin is one of the sponsors of Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and we are using them to power our store shopping cart).

Another company I have been speaking with recently is Fanbridge who has a similar feature for Facebook pages as well as any website. They have a free basic edition for you to try out and a more feature rich edition that costs $30 a month. They advocate offering content only your fans can see so it entices those to become fans and rewards those who already are. I will be putting their system to work on 3 pages I help manage on Facebook and I’ll let you know how I get on. Also, it seems kinda cool in that it captures the comments people leave on your wall and you can export the positive quotes for use in other places. You can find out more about how it works on this site which was just acquired by the company and will soon be rebranded.

Hopefully these tips give you some ideas on how to boost your email list. Remember, direct connections to an audience are the lifeblood of monetizing your work in the most profitable way. When someone has given you permission to contact them, they want to hear from you and they are way more likely to support you which is more cost effective than chasing complete strangers.

The quote is from Topspin Media CEO Ian Rogers from his presentation at New Music Seminar in LA. Topspin will be making some big announcements at the SxSW Festival next month including opening a new self service, flat $9.99/month fee plus 10%  free on ticket sales and 15% fee on all other merchandise sold through their system. The service will now be officially open for musicians, filmmakers and authors.

Rogers’ presentation is well worth your time to read as it drives home many points I have made about a filmmaker’s ability to self distribute. He makes it very clear, backed up by Topspin data, that to sell successfully a fan base must first be built. This takes consistent time and effort and if you are starting from near zero, you should not be trying to sell anything at first. First comes awareness, then comes engagement, THEN comes conversion. In my last post about the sales funnel, I pointed out that only some of those who are aware and engaged will go on to buy.

Top takeaways from the presentation:

-”Step one is to take those people who have never heard of you and make them interested. Turn them from non-knowers into carers.” It all starts from making great art. Now, some could interpret that as needing to make artistic content. I will extend that to the concepts in Seth Godin’s most recent book Linchpin “Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.” While I know that you consider your art to be making film, consider that it is also your ability to communicate with passion to other people. That communication could come in the form of knowledge sharing, including your audience in your process or facilitating connections with other people as well as films you create.

-“Do Something Small Weekly and Something Big Monthly.” Something small could be writing a blog post; releasing a short video of your work, your travels, a place that gives you inspiration; an excerpt from the script. Something big could be a new teaser video, an online Q&A session about what you are working on, a music track release from your soundtrack, a collaboration with another artist.

-”At first you need fans, not dollars.” Find ways to offer something your fans will value in exchange for permission to continue the conversation with them. For musicians, this is usually free song downloads. For authors, it could be a free ebook short story. Filmmakers will have to consider the point. Obviously it will be something prized to the type of audience you are looking to build. The key is to build up a permission list of at least 2,500 email addresses in order to start monetizing your products and this will take time.

-CwF+RtB=$$ (connect with fans+reason to buy=money) You’ve made the connections, you have permission to continue the conversation, now comes the reason to buy. If you are in touch with your fans, you will find out what they are willing to spend money on. Perhaps a special edition copy, perhaps customized merchandise, perhaps preferential treatment at screening or an enhanced screening event. Not everyone has the same level of interest in you (some may experience your site for the first time, some are only casually interested, some are highly fanatic) so offer different products with different price points.

In closing, Topspin is running a competition to give a $5,000 grant plus marketing support to the person who submits an innovative direct to fan business plan. Submissions are now being accepted on the Topspin Media site.

Equation for Independent Film Financial Success

October 30, 2010
posted by sheric

photo credit Berkeley Repertory Theater

This is your new formula for financial success: Awareness+Engagement+Acquisition=Monetization.

You cannot skip any of these steps if you hope to make money from your films. This point was made crystal clear by a person who knows about making money from independently made art, Bob Moczydlowsky of Topspin Media. I interviewed Bob for the upcoming November issue of Microfilmmaker Magazine about how Topspin is being used by musicians and now filmmakers to build awareness of their art, engaging in conversations online, acquiring a relationship status with fans and using all of it to make money from their work using the software the company developed. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

“Filmmakers should be asking themselves: 1) What am I doing to make my audience aware of my work? 2) What have I provided to that audience that engages them, or inspires them to pay attention and then take action? 3) How am I acquiring direct connections with my audience? This generally means email addresses, mobile numbers, Facebook Likes, Twitter followers, MySpace Friends… etc. Connections that allow you to communicate with the audience directly. 4) What are my plans for monetizing this audience that is connected to me directly? What amazing, non-commodity product can I offer these fans who have gone on this journey with me?” said Moczydlowsky. The article goes on to point out that only offering DVDs as product on your site is NOT going to sustain you in future. Check it out on November 1.

I wanted to make more of a point about this because increasingly I am being asked about how to build “buzz” as if that is all that will be needed to make money from a film. Buzz is indeed needed, but it is only the first step. You can’t skip from awareness to money as the studios do. Hollywood studios do this effectively because they spend millions of dollars on spraying their message to the masses, mobilizing their press network to write about it everywhere and hoping for the best. They do not engage with that audience in conversation and they do nothing to acquire them for further releases of their films. Their process immediately starts over again for the next release. An independent production cannot afford to take this route; building an audience will take lots of time and lots of work but the idea is that you want to keep that audience loyal to you and your work so that you do not have to start over again when a new project comes out. The earlier you recognize this and can start on this work, the more likely you will have a sustainable career devoted to doing what you want to do, make films. I am not going to go into the need for producing superior work, that goes without saying (well, it is said many times in film courses so I think that point has been discussed repeatedly). No amount of marketing and advertising will save a poorly produced product or a film that has little to no audience.

Awareness is the part everyone gets; bringing the news of your film into the minds and hearts of its potential audience. It is the part that outside companies are hired to do and the thing that is always requested from a film’s creator. In the online world with its overabundance of noise, it is much more difficult to achieve without some big money to spend both on staff resources and media buys. Engagement and acquisition are much more labor intensive and it is not the work outside companies do best. Who besides yourself or the team involved in making your film will know the project intimately enough to accomplish engaging personally with its audience? If you are using social media and grassroots screenings as your marketing tools of choice, that is what you will have to do. Having written out advice for a filmmaker on how he could be doing this better and all of the work that will be involved, it turned out to be a 5 page document! Do you really want to do that every time you have a new project? Wouldn’t it be better to build an audience for all of your work over time?

Acquisition in this equation means collecting a way to communicate directly with your audience because they have given you permission to do it. You won’t be relying solely on a third party, like Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, to communicate with them and deliver your work to them. Why not? Because technically they own the permission to talk to your fans. When you speak through a platform, that site could change its rules, go offline, shut you out and you have no way of reconnecting with the base of supporters you built. In the case of iTunes or any third party distributor, they collect the personal details of your buyers and can use it to sell future products. That information isn’t available to you though. Really think through whether you want your buyers to go to outside services to buy your products especially when you have put in all the work of awareness and engagement.

Besides creating a dialog with your fans and connecting them with other like minded people, social media pages should really be used to drive them to your website where you collect information and sell to them directly. Both tools are very needed, but they function differently. A big Twitter or Facebook count looks good, but few of those people will actually buy; be mindful of that. Psychologically, those high counts do motivate people to join your page. Think about it, everyone wants to be in on something that looks popular, it is a human desire. Just don’t be fooled into thinking those are your sales numbers. Far more reliable numbers come from your monthly web traffic and the size of your email list so you must focus on growing those numbers too.

I go into how to do this in depth during the workshop I do with Jon Reiss for Think Outside the Box Office. We have another one coming up November 13-14 in Atlanta, Georgia hosted by PushPush Theater and Atlanta Film Festival. If you’re a filmmaker in the South, consider spending the weekend with us. This opportunity doesn’t come up often outside of the major cities and I assure you it is money well spent. Why make a film if you have no idea how to tell people about it and get it out into the market?