documentary

“If A Tree Falls In The Forest” and other ruminations on social/community-based marketing…

by Jeffrey Winter, Sheri Candler, and Orly Ravid

The old philosophical thought experiment “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” (http://bit.ly/aCx5Eq) has never been truer for film distribution. With the incredible number of films available for consumption on innumerable platforms, getting some form of distribution for your film is no longer the core problem. The central issue now is: how will anyone know about it? How will you find your audience? And how will you communicate enough to them to drive them to the point of actually seeing it?

Before we plunge into that question, let’s take one step back and discuss the term “distribution.” In today’s convergence universe, where anyone with technical savvy can be surfing the Internet and watching it on their television, every single person with a high speed internet connection is in some way a “distributor.” Anyone can put content onto their website and their Facebook and de facto make it available to anyone else in the world. Anyone can use DIY distribution services to distribute off their site(s), and get onto larger and / or smaller platforms.

Even getting your film onto some combination of the biggest digital platforms – i.e. iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and Cable VOD – is not insurmountable for most films. We’re not saying it is easy…there are a myriad of steps to go through and rigorous specs at times and varying degree of gatekeepers you’ll have to interface with and get approval from. But with some good guidance (for example, we at the Film Collaborative (www.thefilmcollaborative.org) can help you with that), some cash, and a little persistence…these distribution goals can usually be achieved.

But in a certain way, none of that matters. If you have your film available, say, on iTunes…. how is anyone going to know that? Chances are you aren’t going to get front- page promo placement, so people will have to know how and why to search for it.  This is why the flat fee services to get onto iTunes (which we now offer too) do not necessarily mean you will net a profit.  Films rarely sell themselves.  You are going to have to find the ways to connect to an audience who will actively engage with your film, and create awareness around it, or you will certainly fall into the paradox of the “tree falls in the forest” phenomenon… which many independent filmmakers can relate to.

So we arrive at the current conundrum, how do we drive awareness of our films? The following are the basic “points of light” everyone seems to agree with.

• Use the film festival circuit to create initial buzz.

• If you can, get the film into a break-even theatrical, hybrid theatrical, non-theatrical window that spreads word of mouth on the film.

• Engage the press, both traditional press and blogosphere, to write about the film.

• Build a robust social media campaign, starting as early as possible (ideally during production and post), creating a “community” around your film.

• Build grassroots outreach campaign around any and all like-minded organizations and web-communities (i.e. fan bases, niche audiences, social issue constituencies, lifestyle communities, etc.)

• Launch your film into ancillaries, like DVD and digital distro, and make sure everyone who has heard of the film through the previous five bullet points now knows that they can see the film via ancillary distribution, and feels like a “friend” of the effort to get the word out to the public-at-large.

• Be very creative and specific in your outreaches to all these potential partners, engaging them in very targeted marketing messages and media to cut through the glut of information that the average consumer is already barraged with in everyday life. This, above all, means being diligent in finding your true “fans,” i.e. the core audience who will be passionate about your subject matter and help you spread the word.

Our book SELLING YOUR FILM WITHOUT SELLING YOUR SOUL and this companion blog already highlight a good number of filmmakers who have used some combination of the above tactics to successful effect in finding a “fanbase” of audiences most likely to consume the film. Here, in this posting, we illustrate some additional recent films and tactics useful to filmmakers moving forward with these techniques.

 

WE WERE HERE, by David Weissman

Selected for the U.S. Documentary Competition by the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, WE WERE HERE tells the emotionally gripping story of the onset of AIDS in San Francisco in the early 1980s. The Film Collaborative handled festival release for this film, as well as international sales and grassroots marketing support on behalf of the theatrical and VOD (and US sales in conjunction with Jonathan Dana). Theatrical distribution, press, and awards campaigning is being handled by Red Flag Releasing.

 

 

On the face of it, WE WERE HERE is a documentary about a depressing topic like AIDS, and therefore doesn’t seem like the easiest sell in the world. However, it also happens to be an excellent film that was selected for Sundance and Berlin, as well as a film that has fairly obvious niche audiences that can be identified and targeted. As soon as The Film Collaborative came onboard, about a month prior to the Sundance 2011 premiere, we set about creating a list of more than 300 AIDS organizations in the United States, and reached out to each of them to ask them to get to know us on Facebook and our website, and also offered to send them screeners, in case they wanted to host a special screening down the road etc. Needless to say, we got an enthusiastic response from these groups (since we were doing work they would obviously believe in), but the goal here was not to make any kind of immediate money…we simply wanted them onboard as a community to tap into down the line.

Simultaneously, we created a targeted list of 160 film festivals we thought were best for the film — mixing major international fests, doc fests, and LGBT fests – and sent each of them a personalized email telling them about the film and asking them if they would like to preview it. The film (to date, is still booking internationally) was ultimately selected by over 100 film festivals (many not on our original target list of course).

As the screenings began, we reminded the filmmaker over and over to follow every introduction and every Q&A with a reminder about “liking” the Facebook page, and completely to his credit, filmmaker Weissman was always active in all aspects of Facebook marketing…always posting relevant information about the film and replying to many “fan” posts personally. Not surprisingly, a film this powerful and personal generated many deeply affecting fan posts from people who had survived the epidemic etc…, or were just deeply moved by the film. As a result, the Facebook page became a powerful hub for the film, which we strongly recommend you check out for a taste of what real fan interaction can look like (http://www.facebook.com/wewerehere). Warning….a lot of the postings are extremely emotional! One quick note – some of the most active subject members of the doc were made administrators as well, and also respond to the posts…a clever idea as it surely makes the FB fans feel even closer to the film, since they can talk with the cast as well. This would be an interesting thing to try with a narrative film as well…having the cast reply on Facebook (FB)… which is something we haven’t seen much of yet.

With the basics of community built – between the AIDS organizations, the Festivals, and the FB fans, we now had a pool to go back to…. both on theatrical release as well as upon VOD release (which just recently happened on December 9, 2011). For each major theatrical market, and for the VOD release, we went back to these people, and asked them to spread the word. We asked for email blasts, FB posts, tweets…whatever they could do to help spread the word. And without a doubt the film has gotten out there beyond anyone’s wildest initial dreams…although with VOD release only last month and DVD release still to come, final release numbers won’t be known to us for some time now…

But you can be assured we’ll be hitting up our community when the DVD comes out as well!  Also please note that these techniques and efforts apply to any niche.  For example, on a panel at Idyllwild Film Festival a filmmaker talked about his documentary about his father playing for the Chicago Cubs and how he sold 90,000 DVDs himself (and he also did event theatrical screenings via Emerging Pictures).  He simply went after the niche, hard.

HENRY’S CRIME directed by Malcolm Veneville

Starring Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga, and James Caan, world premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. Released in limited theatrical run in April 2011, and available on DVD and digital platforms as of August 2011. Although a film with “A-level” cast, the film was produced independently and distributed independently by Moving Pictures Film and Television. The film tells the story of a wrongly accused man (Reeves) who winds up behind bars for a bank robbery he didn’t commit. After befriending a charismatic lifer (Caan) in prison, Henry finds his purpose — having done the time, he decides he may as well do the crime. Ancillaries for the film are handled by Fox Studios. The Film Collaborative’s sister for-profit company, New American Vision, was brought aboard to handle special word-of-mouth screenings for the film, as well as social media marketing, working in conjunction with several top publicists and social marketing campaign companies in the business.

 

On the face of it, this film couldn’t possibly be any more different than WE WERE HERE. A narrative, heist/rom-com with major names sounds a lot easier to sell than an AIDS doc with no names. And yet, the process of reaching out to the public was surprisingly similar….both in terms of what we did and what other professional consultants on the project did as well.

First, we targeted major film festivals and major film society organizations around the country for special “word-of-mouth” (WOM) screenings of the film – seeking to create a buzz amongst likely audiences. Since the film was to be theatrically released in major markets, we targeted the festivals/film societies in these markets. This result was successful, and we got major WOM screenings in NY, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, as well as Buffalo…which was important only because the film was shot and set in Buffalo and used significant Buffalo-based crew and resources, making it a perfect market for the film.

Next, we broke the film down into logical first constituencies for the film, which we identified as follows: 1) fans of Keanu Reeves and fans of his prior movies, 2) fans of Vera Farmiga and fans of her prior movies, 3) fans of James Caan and fans of his prior movies, 4) twitter accounts that mentioned any of the cast as well as those dedicated to independent film etc., 5) web communities dedicated to anything related to the playwright Anton Checkov (because the film features significant and lengthy scenes dedicated to Reeves and Farmiga performing Checkov’s Cherry Orchard), 6) key websites dedicated to romantic comedies, 7) key recommenders of independent film, etc. Over the course of approximately six weeks prior to release, we reached out to these sites regularly, in an effort to build excitement for the film.

While this grassroots work was taking place, our colleagues in publicity organized press junkets around the film, and of course solicited reviews. In addition, marketing professionals from both Ginsberg Libby (http://ginsberglibby.com/) and Moving Pictures (http://www.movingpicturesfilmandtv.com/) were constantly feeding marketing assets for the film as well as exclusive clips both to the major press, key film sites, as well as to the official Facebook and twitter for the movie….all with the same goal in mind…i.e. to create awareness for a film that, although it had the feeling of a traditional Hollywood film in many ways, was actually thoroughly independent and lacking the resources for major TV buys, billboards, print ads, and other traditional marketing techniques.

Unfortunately, in the end, HENRY’S CRIME did not truly take hold, and the theatrical release was far less than stellar. The reviews for the film were not complimentary (it is a good film, but not a great film), and the word-of-mouth was also not sufficient to drive the performance of the film.

This of course often happens with independent film releases, and in this case the lessons learned were particularly instructive. It was apparent while working on the film that the community-building aspects of the marketing campaign started far too late to truly engage an audience large enough to support the release (it only began in earnest about six weeks before the film’s release…even though the film had had its festival world premiere nearly SIX MONTHS before). In addition, HENRY’S CRIME proves the old adage that, sometimes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink…meaning that the word of mouth audiences and press reviews didn’t particularly spark interest in the film in the wider community because they weren’t particularly excited by the film.

This is a lesson sometimes we all need to learn the hard way…that in today’s glutted market, it isn’t always enough to put out a decent movie….in fact in today’s competition, you really need to put out a independent movie that is actually great…or at least connects so deeply with your audience that they are compelled to see it.

Of course, one endless question rages on here. What are the long-tail effects of the outreach? Just because people didn’t turn out in droves to see a film in the theater, does that mean they won’t tune in on a later date in the digital platform of their choice. Certainly many people who have HEARD of Henry’s Crime who didn’t see it in the theater may one day rent it on an available digital platform, and that is why the grassroots work is so critical. We are setting up today what we can’t possibly know until tomorrow….or maybe several years from now.

TAKE-AWAY LESSONS from this post

By comparing these experiences, there are several take-aways that filmmakers should be encouraged to keep in mind when thinking about marketing their independent film. Here are some of them….

1) Build a list, both in the real world and online, of every organization and cross-promotional partner you can think of (or google), that might be interested in your film.

Reach out to them about your film, and ask for their support. This is arduous work, but it has to be done. From Sheri Candler: “Initially you will take part in the community before you tell them why you are there.  For example, I started researching where online the ballet community hangs out and who they listen to. I also endeavored to meet these people offline when I could. If I was going to be in their city, I asked to meet for coffee. Real life interface when you can. I then started following those online communities and influencers quietly to start with and interjecting comments and posts only when appropriate. They were then curious about me and wanted to hear about the film. If I had gone on to the platforms or contacted the influencers immediately telling them I was working on a film, chances are they would shun me and ruin my chances to form relationships. This is why you have to start so early. When you’re in a hurry, you can’t spend the necessary time to develop relationships that will last, you can’t build the trust you need. It helps to deeply care about the film. I think the biggest takeaway I have learned when it comes to outreach is the very personal nature of it. If you don’t personally care, they can tell. They can tell you are there to use them and people are on their guard not to be used. The ideal situation is they WANT to help, they ASK to help, you don’t have to cajole them into it.”

2) Offer your potential partners something back in return.

With a film like WE WERE HERE, this wasn’t difficult…because the film naturally supported their work. But, for most films, you’ll need to offer them something back… like ticket-giveways, promotional emails, branding, opportunities for fundraising around the cause, merchandising give-aways, groups discounts, etc. Be creative in your thinking as to why YOU should get their attention amongst the many other films out there.

3) Community-building is an organic, long-term process…

Just like making friends in the real world, the process of making “friends” in community marketing and online takes time and real connection. With WE WERE HERE, we had a year to build connections amongst AIDS orgs, film festivals, and attendees at numerous screenings. The opposite was true with HENRY’S CRIME….six weeks just doesn’t work. Ask yourself…how many “friends” could you make in six weeks?

4) Community-building only really works with films that truly “touch” their audience.

In today’s glutted marketplace, you need to make a film that really speaks profoundly to your audience and excites them ….unless of course you have a huge enough marketing budget to simply bludgeon them with numerous impressions (this, of course, is usually reserved to the studios, who can obviously launch mediocre films with great success through brute force). You, probably, cannot do this.

5) You need to be very specific and targeted in your outreach to likeminded organizations etc.

Don’t rely on organizations to give you “generalized support.” Provide them with very specific instructions on how and when they should outreach about your film. For example….make sample tweets, sample FB posts, and draft their email blasts for them. Give them as close to a ready-to-go marketing outreach tool as possible…with a specific “call to action” clearly identified.

6) You’ll need warm bodies and some technical know-how on you side to accomplish this.

There’s absolutely NOTHING mentioned in this post that an individual filmmaker with a talented team of helpers cannot accomplish. But whether its using HootSuite or Tweetdeck or Facebook analytics, or a compelling set of marketing assets and the time and energy to get them out there….you’ll need a team to help you. Remember, all DIY (do it yourself) marketing is really DIWO (do it with others), and you’ll need to build your team accordingly. If you are short on cash…you’ll likely need to be long on interns and other converts to the cause. But if you are seeking a professional team that’s long on experience and expertise, you can find many of them on The Film Collaborative’s new Resource Place page, located at http://www.thefilmcollaborative.org/resourceplace/. There are many services out there to help you who have done this before….you are not alone! Sheri wonders: “how many people are reasonable”? Of course it varies, but I think 4 is safe. A traditional publicist with a big contact list for your target publications who handles press inquiries and placements;  an outreach/social media person who is a great fit for your audience to regularly post and answer questions/comments from the audience not the journalists; a distribution/booker who figures out how the film will be distributed and all of the tech specs, shopping carts, contracts, festivals, community screenings that are appropriate; and the graphic designer/web designer who figures out the technical and aesthetic elements needed to make the online impact you will need.

It is still a big job for only 4 people but it would be completely overwhelming for just one person to do or a person who doesn’t know what they are doing and a bunch of interns to handle.

7) A final take home: You may not see immediate results of each outreach and we know how dispiriting that can be. A lot of times early in the process, you will fail to connect, fail to get a response, but keep plugging away and you will very often come to enjoy the fruits of your distribution / marketing labor whether by emboldening a cause, generating more revenue, or enhancing your career, or all of the above.

Happy Distributing!!!!

 

The Letter “D”. Distribution, DIY, Dynamo Player.

The Letter “D”

D: Distribution, DIY, Dynamo Player

I got educated more all about how it works, with owner Rob Millis who I finally met in person at IDFA in Amsterdam.  A fine gentleman indeed. I usually recommend a filmmaker work with at least two DIY options to give customers a choice and just to not have all one’s eggs in one proverb.

Rob explained why Dynamo serves its filmmakers well.  He noted its “designed with presentation and high quality” and that the “filmmaker’s brand is in front.”  It’s not just about the Dynamo brand. Dynamo can handle any of the popular video standards and offers viewers up to 1080HD quality, a clean crisp presentation and as many extras as one can pack in.  Hence it’s a good alternative to DVD, but with the instant gratification of an online rental.

A filmmaker once remarked that the issue with DIY is the “TRUST FACTOR”:

People don’t trust too many places with their credit cards and feel safer with big companies that have built a solid reputation.  Well at Dynamo, and some other DIY services, the payment method is secure.  Rob Millis explains: “The key is payment process and protecting information”.

Dynamo does not handle any payment information directly. They rely only on PAYPAL and AMAZON. Dynamo does not receive any of that confidential information so as not to risk anything going wrong.  They just confirm that one is approved rather than handling payment info.

What about GENRE?

What kind does Dynamo work with and which ones do well with the service:

Most of their success is with DOCUMENTARIES.

“They have the highest value and there are a lot of reasons for that,” noted Millis.  “Entertainment for its own sake is competitive and as soon as it’s online one is competing with mainstream studio product.  DOCS have a hook for those interested in the subject matter and hence people are willing to pay for it”.

“Dramas are harder to sell.  The marketing for them needs to be more powerful than that for docs.  Docs are also EVERGREEN.  Dramas die off as soon as the marketing stops and are very competitive.   There are hundreds of love stories but only one or a couple docs or at most a few about any given specific topic”.  Millis concluded “One can sustain sales for a doc”. However Dynamo still accepts all kinds of films.

In fact the first-ever film rented on Facebook was a Zombie film (“Stag Night of the Dead”) hosted by Dynamo that played on the page for $1.99 and then dropped to $0.99 as a special sale.

DYNAMO DIY RULES | DO’s & DON’TS:

“The most obvious rule is to be in touch with your audience, especially on Twitter & Facebook”.  Millis elaborated that in a more vague sense it’s best to put oneself in a viewer’s shoes. “Think of them as consumers…  Recognize that people have a million options.  Film needs to be well-presented and easy to consume, make it easy and possible for them to choose your film instead of all their other options”.  I also note this to filmmakers about theatrical releases and suggest they remember how many choices people have for how to spend their time and money.

Millis exclaimed the “BIGGEST MISTAKE FILMMAKERS make is believing that their film is beautiful enough to compel people to watch it just because the trailer reflects that to some extent.” A poorly designed website will not do!  “Think about it as a product that is being sold and that you are competing for really valuable time when your audience has a million other really good options available”.

$$$ TALK:

Right now iTunes current releases are $6.99 RENTAL for 2 days New Releases for OLDER TITLES it goes down as low to $1.99 or $2.99. Millis thinks iTunes is pricing things correctly. The Dynamo mean average sale price for all sales is approximately  $4.00, including shorts and music videos, that amount to approximately 1% of all sales are below $1.99.

Millis told an anecdote that taught the moral of not making content seem too cheap. There’s so much for free online and people judge what is priced like a discount bin, hence the $0.99 rule, which is, most of the time, $0.99 makes your film look cheap!

PRICE RANGES:

$9.99 seems at the top of what works and sells well. Dramas do well $1.99 – $4.99 (“they see a strong drop off on either side of that,” Millis noted). Documentaries can be priced higher – he sees solid sales all the way up to $9.99The best range is $2.99 – $6.99 for most films, except for big films or those with a serious marketing team behind them.

Of course it’s always hard to predict what will work or not. For long tail, mid tail, smaller filmmakers the difference between sales of $5.00 and sales of $10,000 in a month is based on the work done with the audience and a good looking player. Great films with A-list talent sit idle all over the internet because nobody knows they exist, while independent titles that strike a chord with the audience can catch on fire overnight with just a little bit of communication and an appealing web page.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING:

The timing varies, as one would expect because strategies and distribution needs vary.  People sometimes do a first release with Dynamo and then stop to do theatrical and DVD and then start again, or others do it later on in the process and get on Dynamo only at the tail end of the sales. A film that has been heavily pirated can still do good business because the film looks good this way and one can add compelling extra features.

One can read about an example of this: UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US (see her Guest Post on Ted Hope’s blog).

What’s the MOST $$$ made for any one DIY film on Dynamo Player?

This information is regarding Independents, DIY only:

$20,000 per film MAX if it’s an independent and with small marketing team. It won’t be bigger unless you have serious marketing experience.  But Rob Millis encourages: “don’t give up even if you have no traction in beginning, you just may have not hit critical mass yet”.

“I can tell you that sales typically taper off slowly for documentaries, continuing at a rate of perhaps 10-20% of the original month.  If a doc did $10,000 in online rentals its first month, with some dedicated online promotion, then you might expect sales of $1,000-$2,000 per month several months later.

Dramatic features are a different animal, and you can expect major sales drops after promotion stops.  A lot of residual interest depends on star power and search results, but dramas get stale faster.

Regarding dollar values, I can’t really give a solid estimate in any way that wouldn’t be misleading.  No matter what number I give, every filmmaker then expects to reach that number.  My biggest hesitation is attributing an estimate to Dynamo specifically, which always makes people really excited or really disappointed about Dynamo.  In reality, it’s about the marketplace, and the online rental market can certainly support revenues of 7-figures for independent films. There really is no limit, practically speaking.

For instance, Louis C.K. just produced his own comedy special and did over a $1mm in sales using PayPal and direct downloads in about a week. He’s a well-known comedian, but this was a mid-budget shoot completely financed and marketed by Louis, totally independent. I certainly think his sales numbers would be at least as good if he had used Dynamo, but the success or failure would still lie mostly with his ability to convert the audience.

Beyond that we’re talking about differences of probably 10-50% between different platforms, depending on the customer experience.”

Dynamo is proud to note that its sales are growing overall, significantly.

To find out more about Dynamo email info@dynamoplayer.com or visit DynamoPlayer.com to see an introductory video and sign up.

Book excerpt on serving niche audiences for films

If you have ever heard any of the authors speak in person or via media outlets, you know that we talk a lot about the need to identify and connect with niche audiences for your film. The question is, how to do that without limiting the potential for your film to reach the wider audience circle beyond that niche?

In the book, we included a chapter on how to find niche audiences. One documentary film in particular, For the Bible Tells Me So, went on to reach well beyond the LGBT audience it might have been most logical to target; the “choir” for the film.  Here’s an excerpt that speaks to how filmmaker Daniel Karslake and his distributor, First Run Features, accomplished this.

"For the Bible Tells Me So" was distributed by First Run Features

“Of course, no matter how powerful a subject a documentary tackles – and no matter how hungry an audience might be for the message—it is just a tree falling in the forest until it finds a platform to reach its audience. As is so often the case with successful documentaries, For the Bible Tells Me So had its first big break when it was accepted into the documentary competition at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Karslake echoed a sentiment expressed by many filmmakers:

We had some interested parties before, but once we were chosen as one of the 16 competition documentaries at Sundance everything changed. Suddenly every festival and every distributor contacted us and wanted to see the film. There was definitely a “Sundance effect.”

To maximize this “Sundance effect,” Karslake signed on high profile sales agents/film strategists Cinetic Media for the Festival, where the film was sold to Sundance Channel for U.S. TV and most importantly, to First Run Features for all other North American rights.

While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, it is what happened next that makes For the Bible such an inspirational story of niche distribution. At first, both Cinetic and First Run (as well as filmmaker Karslake) were very wary of the gay niche, believing that the film should not be pigeonholed as a gay film for gay audiences, but rather for the uninitiated, largely straight people of faith in the so called “red states.” People who, as Karslake explains, “understood the teachings of Christ, but couldn’t square that message with the Church’s attitudes towards gay people.” As such, the film spent the first few months of its post-Sundance life playing the larger “nongay” international and doc festivals, winning awards at festivals such as Full Frame and the Audience Award for “Best Documentary”at Seattle International.

For the Bible eschewed the spring LGBT festival circuit, and even chose to skip San Francisco’s Frameline—well known as the world’s oldest and largest gay and lesbian film festival. For reasons unknown to Karslake, however, First Run Features chose to accept the film’s first queer booking at Outfest Los Angeles, a festival held in early summer and which is closely watched by LGBT Industry folks.

“I thought gay people would probably hate it,” said Karslake, citing general hostility toward religious issues in the Community, supported by his earliest experiences with “In The Life” [a TV show that was Karslake’s day job]. However, For the Bible would go on to win the Audience Award at Outfest, a major validation that would pave the way for launching the film and which would lead to startling results.

Following the cue from earlier awards as well as Outfest, For the Bible rocketed through both the summer/early fall international festivals and now also the LGBT circuit, building toward theatrical release in October. Along with the Festival accolades, another key aspect of niche buzz marketing kicked in during this period—namely a tremendous surge in LGBT groups outreaching to their memberships to spread the word about the film.

Most notable was the nationwide support of the gay civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC), well known as the best-funded, best politically connected of the gay political groups,with nearly a million people on its mailing lists. Prior to Sundance, Karslake had shown a six-minute trailer at HRC’s National Convention, and the response and support for the movie was immediate and powerful.

Mobilizing both its resources and its chapters, HRC encouraged its members to buy tickets for members for the theatrical opening weekend bookings, just to help make sure the initial release numbers were strong. Also prior to Sundance, Karslake showed the same six minutes at the National Convention of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), gaining support from its nearly 200,000 membership base.

First Run opened the film in New York City’s Quad Theater in early October to a strong result, nearly $10,000 in the first weekend. Capitalizing quickly, First Run moved wider to the Landmark Theatres of Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco, Berkeley, Philly, Boston, Portland, and Minneapolis—all typical big cities on the art-house circuit that include large gay populations. Within a week the film was in St. Louis, Springfield (MO), Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Denver, Santa Fe, Orlando,and New Orleans…and then Charlotte, Tempe, Hartford, Fargo, Tulsa, etc.

Choosing both full-week runs and then smaller, limited engagements at regional independent theaters, First Run was able to support the release for nearly six months, finally ending sometime in March 2008 with a gross of around $309,000. Karslake estimates that the film had some sort of theatrical presence in approximately120 markets, a real eye-opener for a doc distributed by a small indie company.

Shortly into the theatrical run is when the real “miracle” started to happen. In addition to continuing to travel the film both theatrically and along the festival circuit, First Run set up a section of  its website to invite community screenings of the film. In earlyNovember 2007, the first churches starting calling and booking the film for local, church-based screenings. After churches, it spread to university religion departments, sociology departments, religious conventions, etc. From November 2007 until January 2009, scarcely a calendar day went by that the film was not playing in several cities at once, often in multiple churches, festivals, and theatrical venues all at the same time.

In total, from the time that First Run starting posting the venues on its website soon after Outfest, the film recorded more than 600 engagements around the country, mostly in small and mid-sized towns, and very often in the heart of the Bible Belt.”

To find out how all of these screenings translated into DVD sales, download or buy the printed edition of Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul on our website.

We will have our second book launch party, in Los Angeles this time, on October 28 at the UCLA Library directly following the popular and FREE DIY Days LA. We will send out invitations to all of our email list so if you are in LA and wish to attend, please RSVP. As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.

 

 

Book excerpt covering film release strategy

Co authors Jon Reiss and Sheri Candler are answering questions this week on the D Word site for documentary filmmakers. One question usually comes up regarding distribution strategy, particularly release strategies. In the book, Jon covers the importance of planning release timing so that each “window” dovetails into the next, maximizing revenue when you have the greatest amount of attention instead of stretching the release (and your resources) over a long length of time. Here is an excerpt from the case study documentary Ride the Divide.

TIMING

FESTIVAL LAUNCH

Hunter and Mike wanted the credibility that a film festival offers, so when they didn’t get into Sundance or SXSW they decided to premiere at The Vail Film Festival, which made sense both because of their audience and because of their prior relationship with the event.

Hunter: We knew after that we wouldn’t spend much time screening in film festivals, because quite honestly, we could build audiences just as easily and capitalize on the experiences versus letting the film festivals take all of the money from the shows that they screened.

They started selling DVDs and conducting their live events one and a half months after their premiere at the Vail Film Festival.

PREMIERE DATE

If there are special days, weeks, months or seasons in which your audience is particularly primed to see your film, then you should take advantage of that. For Ride the Divide, they knew they wanted to get the film out when cyclists were getting excited about riding again—in the spring.

Mike: I think it was imperative that we released the film in the spring, as cyclists are coming out of the winter doldrums and are eager to get back on a bike and experience that particular weather and that particular season, especially going into theatrical, because cyclists are used to getting together with their cycling buddies and their cycling clubs and gathering together and going for rides and beer. So that theatrical event tie-in, yeah, was absolutely perfect for the season we released.

LIVE EVENTS

In keeping with their intelligent audience engagement strategy, Hunter and Mike wanted to utilize more components than a traditional theatrical release for their film; they wanted to incorporate all forms of public exhibition—traditional or not. To date, Ride the Divide has had 135 screening engagements! Hunter and Mike booked 25 of those screenings (all in conventional theaters) and then their audience and the promoter who took the film and booked engagements for them handled the rest. In my book, that’s a 135 city theatrical release.

Mike: Pretty much everything we did was in a conventional theater, more of an indie-type theater. Definitely, we weren’t hitting the AMCs or anything like that, but we were able to put together, probably 90% of the theaters we did. We worked out a 50/50 split, which took any risk off us. We broke it up into legs, so we would put together a Denver-Salt Lake City-Boise-Portland-Seattle sort of show, that would take us on the road for 9 or 10 days. Then we would come back and do some business work and some more marketing. I think to be out there for a full 40 or 50 days is tough, it’s difficult, it’s going to wear you down, and it’s taking you away from perpetuating the other aspects that you should also be concentrating on—marketing and engaging your audience.

Mike and Hunter are working on a 40 city tour with their new film, The Path, but this time their main sponsor is doing PR/marketing and stepping up as a true partner in the release.

Here is some of what they found:

THE PARTNERSHIPS PAID OFF

For them it was key to have national organizations to promote awareness, but also, more importantly, to have the support of local groups and commercial entities (bike shops, etc.). In Dallas, TX for instance, Villy Customs brought bikes to the screenings to enhance the experience. They also had bike valets at several locations. This type of grassroots support ensured the local screenings of Ride the Divide were always well-attended.

CREATE AN EVENT

As much as they could, Hunter and Mike created a sense of an event around their film. In addition to bike themed events, they also enlisted musicians. One of the bigger risks they took was to four wall (in which a filmmaker rents the “four walls” of the theater) their premiere at the Boulder Theater (which wouldn’t give them a percentage deal), for their opening night on May 22, 2010. I’m not usually in favor of four walls for most films, but at times it can make sense and even turn a profit. Hunter and Mike were nervous about pulling the trigger on this event because of the nut ($4,500), but they realized that this was the best-case scenario for their premiere—Boulder being not only a Rocky Mountain community, but also a strong bike community.

Hunter and Mike made the premiere a premium event by providing a film and musical experience, including a performance by Gregory Alan Isakov, who also appears on the film’s soundtrack. It paid off for them. They charged $18 per ticket and with 600 people in attendance, they grossed $10,800 in one night. They paid $3,000 to rent the theater plus $1,500 for the musician fees and other costs. That’s a $6300 theatrical profit for one night (not including the sweat equity to arrange and market the show). They did other event screenings with another Ride the Divide soundtrack musician, Dominique Fraissard.

PROGRAM ON ALTERNATIVE NIGHTS

Echoing the experience of Todd Sklar and his Range Life tours, Hunter and Mike found that the best nights to screen were Wednesday and Thursday, with Monday and Tuesday being fine as well. Most of their screenings were 1-3 nights, except in Denver where the film ran for 3 weeks. They strongly recommend staying away from Friday and Saturday nights because there is too much competition and Sundays “are the worst.” Note: Saturdays did work well for bike-event themed screenings when a group ride or bike shop got behind the screening.

To read about moving into digital and DVD release, buy the digital or printed copy of the book on our website or download the free pdf.

We will have our second book launch party, in Los Angeles this time, on October 28 at the UCLA Library directly following the popular and FREE DIY Days LA. We will send out invitations to all of our email list so if you are in LA and wish to attend, please RSVP. As always, you can  follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.

BRIGHT SPOT: Under Our Skin | DIY Does it Again

 

From my talk with Andy Abrahams Wilson (Producer, Director, Cinematographer)

ABOUT THE FILM & ITS STRATEGY:

Under Our Skin http://www.underourskin.com/

A gripping tale of microbes, medicine & money, UNDER OUR SKIN exposes the hidden story of Lyme disease, one of the most serious and controversial epidemics of our time. Each year, thousands go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, often told that their symptoms are all in their head. Following the stories of patients and physicians fighting for their lives and livelihoods, the film brings into focus a haunting picture of the health care system and a medical establishment all too willing to put profits ahead of patients.

With a production budget of just under $1,000,000, the film had its festival premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in 2008 and went on to Silverdocs, and to win BEST DOCUMENTARY awards at many other fests including Houston and Sonoma. Filmmaker Andy Abrahams Wilson has a background in self-distribution.  He has been actively involved in New Day Films http://www.newday.com/ , a national distribution collective that believes individual filmmakers have the most interest and passion to get their film seen.

Wilson has worked with distributors but feels that films have broader distribution when a DIY strategy is employed which is what he has done with most of his films. He said this worked well for Under Our Skin. Wilson noted that what made the most impact so far was with DVD sales, which continue robustly till this day.

The broad strategy is to keep the community around the film engaged, which helps build momentum and spread awareness around the issues in the film, while also keeping up with DVD sales. Wilson chose not to follow a traditional distribution path because he did not want to give up the DVD rights and he’s glad he handled the release the way he did.

THE THEATRICAL RELEASE:

The film had a limited theatrical, distributed through a service deal with Shadow Distribution.  The reasoning behind the theatrical was to get reviews and to qualify for Oscars. The film was shortlisted, which increased the film’s visibility in the public and also helped motivate its core base of supporters.

The film grossed just under $100,000 http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=underourskin.htm which was about break even given the costs of the theatrical run, says Wilson.

The filmmakers sold DVDs at many of the festival and theatrical venues.

Generally, 20 – 30% of the audience would buy DVDs, sold at a discounted price to audiences.  Wilson noted that “the high rate of purchase at screenings helped confirm that the film was perceived as a “must have” doc”.

MAILING LIST:

Any time the filmmakers do outreach (MAILINGS, BLOGS, E-BLASTS, ETC.) they see an uptick in sales and their mailing list (which is about 25,000).

Keeping a good customer list and also staying in contact is a priority.

Wilson noted that Facebook been really instrumental for that, and they have approximately 15,000 fans.

The key to this film’s success is that there is an “underground movement of people who have been affected by Lyme disease and so they really wanted to see their stories told… [it’s] a ready made community”. Also Wilson connected with organizations involved with the issue. But this strategy works for many films, hence my interest in covering it for the blog.  One has to stay involved with the film and the issues, as Under Our Skin has done.

“Not just promoting the film but create a space where people can get info and share”, as Wilson noted.  Their outreach organizational partner is covered here: http://turnthecorner.org/

ABOUT THE DVD RELEASE & MERCHANDISE:

Wilson had a preview DVD for sale before film came out theatrically.  He sold approximately 5,000 units before the official DVD release.

Between the festival premiere at Tribeca in 2008 and theatrical release (which was about a year later, in June 2009) he sold PLAY ONLY versions of the DVD, no bonus features. He updated the DVD a few times since with title cards at the end of the film so kept film current. Wilson has come out with 2 updated versions since initial release.  He’s been selling the full DVD for two years now and has sold about 25,000 units.  And of course he’s able to control all hence able to update and do new versions.  Replication was done via Discmakers and fulfillment was done in-house. DVD distribution was done almost exclusively via his website (though also at events). Wilson started working with Amazon only as of a year ago (2010).

It should be noted that New Day’s philosophy was not to do home video till long after educational but this was primarily a home video title so did not space out but still have different prices (of course some will abuse that). Wilson does not think this cannibalized their educational sales. They still get those orders and do educational promotion but that is not their focus.  In any case, more and more it’s hard to separate the two unless one creates a window. So again, number of DVDs sold is approximately 25,000 at an SRP of $34.95 initially and now $29.95 and also has an educational price for organizations and libraries is $85 (Institutions and Libraries and non-profits).

On the website there is a store for DVDs for Educational use or Home use.

The filmmakers also sell merch such as bumper stickers and awareness bracelets: http://www.underourskin.com/store

TV BROADCAST & DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION

In January of 2011 Wilson started to work with digital aggregator Gravitas (which sometimes goes through Warner Brothers’ Digital Distribution arm) for Cable VOD and digital. Gravitas also worked with the filmmakers of American: The Bill Hicks Story and Big Gay Musical (both films are covered in Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul).  The digital distribution was started only AFTER the DVD release and Wilson did none directly and still does none directly.

What he did do was in May 2011 a TV Broadcast with PBS, but for free.  Wilson did the deal directly.  Had a 3-4 month run, got 80% carriage and Wilson notes that also pushed DVD sales. On the filmmaker’s website you can see all the stations and air dates:  http://www.underourskin.com/tv

PBS broadcasting was via NETA National Educational Telecommunications Association http://www.netaonline.org/programming.htm (so again, the film was made available for free) but generated sales. Reaching over 80% of the PBS market translated to millions of viewers which Wilson noted lead to a significant and unexpected uptick in sales (about 20%) when the film aired on TV and even when it was first released on Netflix’s Watch Instantly streaming subscription service.  It should be noted he had tried to sell TV rights via Josh Braun of Submarine (who we, TFC, co-repped Shut Up Little Man with) but no sales could be generated, perhaps the film was seen as too controversial Wilson wonders.

On the digital front the film has been up on Hulu (via Gravitas) for free since August of this year (2011) (via their subscription and Ad-supported platform/service).  Wilson also noted an uptick in sales due to the free streaming on Hulu. Wilson noted it was hard to tell if the uptick in sales came from the streaming on Hulu or the promotion for it (done via Wilson’s lists/community).  On the rest of the digital front the filmmakers are not doing anything on their own yet. Perhaps because the DVD sells so well they are not in a rush to sell cheaper digital formats but I do think it will be time soon to add sell the film digitally via either Topspin, Distrify, EggUp, or Dynamo Player etc..

They also have a clip on SNAG films, and it’s one of the only films that the whole film is not shown, just 10 mins. Under Our Skin is consistently one of the most viewed or discussed but very very few returns. Wilson feels “the verdict is still out about digital overall”. Time will tell, he says, and he’s waiting to see overall digital revenue and to determine if the Hulu strategy made sense.

And after we finished the call, I was determined to buy the film for my mother who suffered from Lyme disease for many years. I cannot wait to see it!

(this is Orly by the way, covering for our resident blog guru and marketing master, Sheri Candler, who is in Chi Town at this moment).

 

Ben Niles Talks About Note by Note

One of Jon’s chapters concerns the film Note by Note, a documentary about the making of a Steinway concert grand #L1037 piano from forest floor to concert hall. The film was completed in 2006 when the talk of internet distribution and social media marketing of films had hardly begun. Back then, the conventional route of getting a sales agent, premiering at a major film festival like Sundance or Toronto to start a bidding war of offers was all the rage (some still think this is the way things are done) and it was the way Niles envisioned how the distribution of his film would go. But it didn’t happen. While he did secure a sales agent, Note by Note was not accepted into the big festivals  that agents use to launch a title into the market and his sales agent’s interest waned. He knew he had to take matters into his own hands lest his film completely die.

Note by Note partnered up with the Steinway Company

Since the Steinway company plays a big role in the film, Niles found a way to incorporate their enthusiasm into a workable relationship to help promote Note by Note.

“There are hundreds [of Steinway dealers] around the country. The film was done and we had just screened it as a courtesy to the executives at Steinway and they were very happy with the film.  They approached us and said they wanted to show it to the dealers at the dealer meeting in California. I didn’t even know they had a dealer meeting, but of course I was happy to do it. Once we screened it, that really unleashed a wonderful resource of finding new fans for the film because every single one of the dealers asked ‘when can I get my hands on this film, how can we help you promote it?’

As a filmmaker I was nervous about that because I didn’t set out to make a film to promote the Steinway company or to promote a Steinway piano. I fell in love with the story for many different reasons. I was reticent about joining forces with them because I wanted the film to be objective and I wanted to maintain my sense of control. But I couldn’t deny the fact that these people could reach our audience very easily. We never asked the Steinway company for any kind of funding. I knew if we did that, if we crossed that line, people wouldn’t take the film seriously. It was the first question from every critic, ‘did they fund this in any way?’ and when I said no, the interview would continue.

We premiered at the Hamptons Film Festival in New York and we called the Steinway company and asked if they wanted to be involved. They brought the piano out from the film, with a pianist to play it and they catered it and we had an aftershow party. It was a big success and it really set the model for other festivals and theatrical screenings from that point forward. They started moving the piano around [the one from the film] to over 20 cities. Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, Florida, we would call the dealer and say where we would be screening the film and ask if they wanted to team up and do this event. They did it very tastefully it, it wasn’t like a ‘Steinway Presents’ type of thing.  We had a lot of autonomy and the theaters were happy and the dealers were happy. They are still doing it. Now that it is airing on PBS, if it airs in say Phoenix, they get in touch with the Phoenix affiliate and try to do a private screening.”

To hear more about Note by Note’s theatrical and community screenings distribution strategy including the revenue it generated, read Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul Presented by PreScreen coming in September 2011. Also ‘like’ ourFacebook page.

 

Excerpt: American: The Bill Hicks Story

Today’s excerpt will take a look at the British documentary American:The Bill Hicks Story.

Documentary that split rights and had a day&date release

Orly first met filmmakers Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock at 2010 SXSW Festival where the film was screening. At the time, it was getting a lot of distributor interest from participating in the festival and though there were all rights offers, the filmmakers opted for a split rights scenario.  The all rights offers were not enough to recoup the steep animation costs for which the filmmakers had personally gone into debt plus the BBC provided initial production funding through a DVD advance and TV acquisition fee totaling $280,000 (this is a NET #, 20% of the gross fee went to their UK rep). However this included $60,000 (again this is a NET # after the fee to the UK rep) for USA DVD rights and it’s this that caused the filmmakers problems later in not being able give a US distributor an all-rights deal, and ultimately led them to handling the split rights themselves.

“At SXSW, we met both Nolan Gallagher from Gravitas and Dylan Marchetti from Variance Films who were both very keen to work on the film. Nolan said that a theatrical would help secure strong VOD placement across the platforms and that a day & date VOD release with theatrical would work best to achieve this. We did consider releasing with a the help of a cheaper theatrical booker but, with one shot to get it right, we concluded that Variance would achieve the best that was possible and so decided to run with their larger fee,”said Thomas.

“We would have launched earlier in the USA, but had to wait for our Australian advance to come through and then we missed the fall slots. Variance suggested avoiding Oscar season, and coordinated with Gravitas for a spring release date of April 8th 2011, which Gravitas sold in to Warner’s VOD networks and synchronised the VOD date. It was also the first non studio film the company had sold to Dish Network.  Trailers then worked across both platforms announcing the day & date availability in cinema and home pay-per-view.”  The day and date situation did cause some problems with cinemas. “Dylan said that a lot of theaters didn’t take it because of the day&date VOD, which we knew was the risk you take, plus we’ve also had the Hicks factor of a doc about a marginal figure for a lot of Americans. However, the theatrical is what led Warner to place it well across all their platforms and aggressively market it on screen in cable homes.”  First month VOD sales reached over $80,000 at the $6.99 price point.

In regard to day & date, Marchetti has said “almost all of the chains have taken a hard line against any film with a VOD window of less than 94 days, while a significant portion of the independent theaters have decided that for the right film, it doesn’t really hit them in the pocketbook and they’ll tolerate it (supporting it is a stretch)- as long as you present them with a fleshed-out plan as to why people will come to the theater rather than simply stay at home.” With the film’s small P&A, they still achieved $7,000 opening weekend at Cinema Village in NY and reached a total USA gross of $90,589 though they failed to break even. Though the filmmakers took a loss, they note gladly “the theatrical release secured a lot of favorable film press and allowed Gravitas to present a strong case to Warner who gave the film great placement across their VOD and PPV networks.”  The film stayed in iTunes top 10 documentaries for 10 weeks and performed well across the States. Gravitas estimates it grossed $100,000 that first month , and that it will reach $600,000 gross over the next 3 years. “Without the theatrical lead, it’s unlikely we would get anywhere near that figure,” said Thomas.

To find out the whole distribution and marketing details on this and many other recent independent films, read Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul Presented by PreScreen coming in September 2011. Also ‘like’ our Facebook page.