It was truly delightful being at IDFA. Great films, panels, parties, and I even worked in a quick museum visit. The city of Amsterdam is fantastic.
Here is a recap of some of the tips I presented to filmmakers at IDFA, and some examples. For you veteran producers/directors this may be gratuitous but others find these useful so here we go, and similar to the Four Agreements, reminding and repeating can only serve to reinforce:
1. BUDGET FOR MARKETING and DISTRIBUTION: Budget for Marketing & Distribution even if you think you want a sales agent and distributor(s). This money will still be useful and will also afford you the ability to execute DIY even if it’s a backup plan. I recommend at least 10%-20% of your budget, depending on how big it is. By having some money set aside you will be able to properly market your film at festivals and markets and also well-positioned to do DIY distribution should you want to. Any investor or supporter should be happy to see this budget line item as part of your plan.
2. BUILD COMMUNITY | DEVELOP A LONG TERM CONNECTION WITH COMMUNITY AROUND YOUR FILM: Designate someone who is intimately connected with your film to be engaged in the work of building community around your film well in advance of the film being finished. Six months is not too long, in fact more is better. And doing the grassroots outreach and social network marketing around your film cannot just be you trying to sell your film. Rather, it must be authentic communications and participation in dialog and discussions that are relevant to the film. Sheri Candler and Jon Reiss also discuss this at length in our co-authored book which has good examples (Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul). Only a small percentage of your communications should be about your film in a sales oriented way, otherwise you will turn people off. If you continue to collect emails and continue to grow your community then you will have a bigger support system for your film at each stage of its release and of course for your next works. Several filmmakers in our book have done this very well.
3. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: Know who your audience is. Sheri Candler suggests being super detailed about that, really specific. And as Jon Reiss also notes, be clear about how your audience consumes films. I always recommend one think about preceding films that have tapped into similar audiences and that you can relate your film to. This will help resolve what can work well or not and you can even hopefully access some of the contacts from another filmmaker. Some films for example are much more ripe for educational distribution, monetizing festival distribution, and also television sales. Other films may not be suitable for all three of these but just one but may also do better via transactional VOD and/or SVOD. Some films lend themselves to corporate sponsorship or under-writting (e.g. Revenge of the Electric Car which got Nissan to sponsor, after the film was made) whereas a small film about a specific local issue in a third world country may not be viable for such financial and marketing support. The key is to note that most films do not appeal to most people and that if you are trying to appeal to general audiences you better have tens of millions of dollars to do it, and if not, be specific, be niche, targeted, grassroots oriented about it and authentically clear about who you are speaking to so that you know how to speak to them and when and where. Some films demand to be owned while others do very little sell through business but rent very well and work on television well.
4. KNOW YOUR GOALS. People on a filmmaking team may have different goals but it is important to note yours and the hierarchy of them so you can plan accordingly. If changing the world is your top goal that will yield a specific strategy that may not completely coincide with making money, or it can, depending on your film. Hence all the above-points and this one go together. If changing the world and making money are equally important and your film is not one that will likely do a lot of sell-through business you may find all the more reason to monetize offering the film for free, whether via YouTube, SNAG, or underwriting free airings on PBS (in US) or Hulu (for example) but this way you will reach broader audiences, build awareness for your film and monetize it in other ways (via ad-support, sponsorship, increased transactional business because of the awareness, and maybe even a reverse window theatrical if your film proves its audience traction). But it’s very hard to resolve the best plan without being clear internally about the priority of your goals. (Please note one can also sell the film to PBS in the US).
5.DON’T SHY FROM A BUSINESS PLAN. IT DOES NOT MAKE YOU DIRTY. Having a business plan will help you know what you don’t know and help you plan ahead and be able to effectively market and distribute your film and achieve your goals. Plan ahead. It’s a must and does not make you dirty or any less creative, just more sustainable. You will fall behind and lose opportunities or make mistakes otherwise. Digital distribution strategies vary per film and are quite individual so planning ahead will help make sure you execute the best plan for your film and know best how to respond to opportunities at markets and festivals that present themselves. Also, if you are comparing your film to others in order to resolve goals and a plan, make sure the other films are relevant either in terms of timing or scope. For example what happened in the 1990’s is really not a viable comparison today. Also remember if you are looking at THEATRICAL GROSSES, the distributor gets usually at most 50% of that revenue or even as little as 25 – 40% and there are expenses to get there, sometimes rather big ones depending on the release so your plan needs to be based on the real and complete set of information.
6. THE THREE Ms | CARVE UP RIGHTS | TIMING OF DIGITAL: The THREE (3) M’s are: MIDDLE MEN, MONEY, and MARKETING. Before giving rights to anyone you need to be clear if you are dealing with a Distributor, Aggregator or Platform. It is important to know that these are not the same, and yet, they are CONFLATE! SNAG is now for example both a PLATFORM and an AGGREGATOR. Some SALES AGENTS are now acting as AGGREGATORS or trying to. However the key is before giving rights to anyone, especially a sales agent or distributor, one wants to know how DIRECT the entity is with the places you want your film to be and at what terms. In the digital distribution realm, which is eclipsing DVD quickly, if you think of platforms as stores, you would want to be in all the good ones at the very least, and you will be better served being only once removed at most. Most good platforms are not direct with filmmakers so one middle man is usually unavoidable, but two really starts to be terrible for you financially. Also in terms of fees that an aggregator or distributor can take, 15% is a fee we approve of, and sometimes as much as 25% is acceptable but not more than that generally speaking. Platforms themselves usually take 30%-50% (but not all platforms have the same deal with all aggregators or distributors so you will also want to evaluate that). The other thing to analyze is what sort of marketing the entity taking your rights will do to earn their fee. The higher the fee the more they should be doing for you in terms of handling delivery and marketing. An example, the Oscar shortlisted film We Were Here has seven (7) different companies involved in the North American distribution alone, and can sell off the websites(s) too. Always carve out the ability to sell off your site(s). If you are ever confused about this please feel free to contact us for advice.
7. AFFILIATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH ORGANIZATIONS, FESTIVALS & CORPORATE / MEDIA SPONSORSHIP: The sooner you identify the organizations, media or corporate sponsors that may want to be connected to your film and help you either via outreach or financial support or both, the better. And corporate sponsors especially need at least 6 months of lead time or even a year or more so better to approach early and guess what? YOU WILL NEED TO SHOW THEM YOUR DISTRIBUTION PLAN. With NGOs you can do a lot to both change the world and generate more revenue and we recommend giving them the incentive of an affiliate relationship (whether for theatrical, DVD, VOD or all of the above). Also festivals you’ve shown it can and should let their members / audiences know about your film when it comes out. An example from our book is Ride the Divide (a Jon Reiss case study). The filmmakers premiered the film on a small US television channel called Documentary Channel (which they sold to) and this was coordinated with the transactional digital on iTunes and they also debuted with a free screening period on YouTube which launched their partnership with non-profit organization Livestrong with which they have an affiliate relationship.
8. KEY ART: BIG & SMALL: First of all I want to remind people that sometimes it does serve a film to have two campaigns and that is not necessarily bad or confusing marketing. For example a film that is both speaking to a niche community but also wants to change the world and speak to a more general and mainstream community may have two different art works. But one has to try to integrate the two because of course brand recognition is key and the whole point of festival and theatrical distribution is to have a film be known in the public consciousness so keep that in mind when choosing publicity and marketing images. Also remember, your key art will have to work small so even if you are doing theatrical posters and want good art for that, you need to make sure your image(s) works as a thumbnail image on the web.
9. MANY WAYS TO DO THEATRICAL: In the US this topic has been covered quite a bit and we have several examples in the book. In Europe doing theatrical in a non-traditional manner is still under construction. However we are inspired by what Dogwoof does in terms of Pop Up Cinemas and a Dutch documentary mini showcase of sorts that Sean Farnel explained to me and which I have to research better (in fact I am probably even explaining it incorrectly here). But the key is for European festivals and organizations to help filmmakers with a solution that eliminates the need to accept theatrical defeat if one’s film is not bought by a traditional distributor or would be bought only via deleterious terms. This may also take the burden off of MEDIA needing to fund quite as much because after all, most films do not need to be on screen five (5) times a day seven (7) days a week to mostly very few people most times. But what they do need to is to engage with public audiences, get some key publicity and buzz. One new interesting company in the US that may inspire is a digital / virtual theatrical service company called CONSTELLATION www.constellation.tv Another one is Emerging Pictures which is a service that networks theaters for event theatrical / hybrid theatrical. this is a cost-effective way to achieve the goals of theatrical without the burdensome expense. Of course if one is qualifying for an Oscar there are specific theatrical guidelines that are unavoidable but even that is more doable via the IDA, for example.
10. STAY CURRENT: Digital distribution changes weekly, at least monthly. Different ways of working windows changes so stay current, ask around, and always ask more than one person.
One last EXTRA TIP for the road: Don’t ever write your blog post in Word Press directly without constantly saving draft as I just did because then if it freeze, which mine did, you will have to start all over again!
Distribute in Peace,