festivals

“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!!!!

 

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.

September Madness: Turning Towards Mecca

Today’s post was written by co author and festival strategist Jeffrey Winter. Late deadline for Sundance is looming and he has this advice for all of this year’s hopefuls.

With the Toronto International Film Festival now ending, and the submissions closed and programs largely locked for major fall fests like Hamptons, Chicago, and AFI FEST, the annual festival cycle turns once again…and the thoughts of indie filmmakers turn once again to Sundance dreams. Click here and recoil in collective realization/horror that there is just one week left until the official “final late deadline” for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

In our role as advisors and educators with The Film Collaborative, strategizing around Sundance of course plays a major role in the analysis of the distribution arc of an independent film (particularly for U.S. filmmakers of course….less so for international filmmakers). In the last few days alone, I’ve watched seven films and spoken to seven filmmakers who’ve articulated their distribution strategy to me as “well, I’ve applied to Sundance now…so I hope I get in.” When I ask them what else they are planning, the response has mostly been, “well, I’m waiting to see.”

Keep in mind, I’ve actually seen these films. My best guess would be two of the seven have a chance, and one of those perhaps better than 50% likely. Considering that each and every one of these filmmakers is smart and industrious enough to actually finish a feature-length film, it’s astonishing how little of that capacity for informed decision-making is being applied to the life of the film AFTER it is in the can.

This is in NO way a shot across the bow at Sundance. In SELLING YOUR FILM WITHOUT SELLING YOUR SOUL, we profile a number of films that premiered at Sundance, and clearly document the utterly profound and dramatic good that a Sundance premiere can do for an independent film. We can all point to numerous Sundance miracles; even life-changing events that can probably ONLY happen through Sundance. My favorite of 2011 (although not in the book) is the story of Evan Glodell’s BELLFLOWER, for which the director and some of the crew spent a large part of five years homeless and crashing on each others’ couches in order to get made, and then found theatrical distribution through Oscilloscope at the Festival (and subsequently, actual homes to live in). One of my recent filmmaker meetings was with a middle-aged British filmmaker who told me that BELLFLOWER is the model for their distribution strategy, to which I had to chuckle, and ask him, “really, you want to suffer that much?”

Of course, by most all accounts, the 2011 Sundance Film Festival was a banner year for indie films sales, and numerous six and seven figure deals were splashed across the headlines. So to this I say, by all means, if you CAN premiere your film at Sundance, you should certainly do so….there is no other U.S. festival with nearly as much “impact potential,” and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future. But let me be one of the first to go on record here and say, I highly doubt Sundance 2012 will be anything like Sundance 2011 (except of course, it will be cold weather, as always). The economy has been in serious backslide since then, and I am certain that many of the film purchases of Sundance 2011 are already underperforming at the box office and this will cause buyers to be more wary this time around. I have been calling Sundance 2011 a “bubble” for months now….and if I am wrong, well, that will be good news indeed.

If SELLING YOUR FILM WITHOUT SELLING YOUR SOUL has taught us anything, it’s that the most forward-thinking of today’s filmmakers understand it is no longer up to “others” to make their film a success, it is first and foremost up to them. There are a lot of people out there that can help you (including The Film Collaborative), but at the end of the day, your film is YOUR baby, and your passion for the film will outstrip everyone else’s, and that passion needs to be present in your distribution strategy every bit as much as it was in making the film in the first place. Do us ALL a favor and stop thinking that this is the “future” of independent film, and recognize that the future is NOW.

To this end, here are some things you can do:

1. BUILD YOUR OWN COMMUNITY. I know its harder to do than it sounds. But you built a community to MAKE the film, so keep building your community to get it out there. Social media is of course a key, but even a Luddite can do it. Most of the most successful indie films I’ve ever worked on have been driven by filmmakers who knew the organizations they needed to connect with, the churches they needed to engage, the fan bases they needed to activate, etc.

2. KNOW YOUR NICHE. In keeping with the community theme, identify and target the people who are likely to be the “first responders” to your film. Don’t fool yourself that your film is “for everybody”…this is the first mistake we frequently hear. Unless you’ve got major A-level stars in your film, we can tell you right now that your film is NOT for everyone….it will take activation of a specific kind of consumer/ lifestyle-based audience to drive your traffic. Ask yourself seriously, how am I going to reach these “first responders,” and you will be way ahead of the curve. Don’t just ask yourself these questions, put your ANSWERS into ACTION. The real work doesn’t end with finishing the film….in today’s film climate the work practically STARTS with activating your particular fan base.

3. DO YOUR INDUSTRY NETWORKING. Does anyone for a minute imagine that getting into festivals and/or getting your film distributed is a democratic process based on the quality of your film alone? Ha, that would be nice…but not based in reality. Programmers and executives and everyone else in the distribution chain are just actual humans, and of course they are more likely to favor your project if they have actually met you and pressed your flesh in a handshake or a cocktail party kiss. You need to be out there, pushing your film in the same way a politician pushes their campaign.

4. HAVE MULTIPLE BACK UP PLANS. This is the essence of entrepreneurship. No self-respecting business person would start a company based on the whims of one particular “popularity contest,” which is essentially what any one Festival like Sundance or any other boils down to. When looking at a Festival like Sundance (or any other), you are essentially looking at one “corporate culture” that may or may not find your film fitting to their needs according to factors you can’t possibly control. Don’t be disheartened by any particular rejection…have a broad based strategy that circumvents any particular eggs in any particular basket. It may take you a while to find your audience and your fan base, but don’t let anyone tell you that it is impossible.

Because in today’s world, believing that it is impossible is likely the surest road to failure. And stubborn determination and dogged hard work is probably the surest road to success. Assuming of course, you’ve got something special (in terms of the quality of your film) to work with….

 

Bright Spot: Sound It Out

This week’s bright spot film is from the UK. I often get the feeling that our European filmmaker colleagues look at the things we American indies are talking about and shake their heads. “What are they on about seeing films outside of a cinema? Not needing a distributor? Raising money on their own without investors? We’ve got government funding to take care of us!” The disruptions in the film industry that are happening over here in America will be (and already are) happening to you too so it is important to us to showcase filmmakers from around the world who are already taking advantage of the new technologies to reach audiences and thinking in different ways about production funding and geting their films out to market.

I met the filmmakers behind Sound It Out through Facebook and Twitter first and then had the pleasure of speaking with PMD Sally Hodgson at the film’s premiere at SXSW in March 2011. The team has used crowdfunding 2 times so far to raise production funding and finishing/festival funding and just have embarked on a 3rd round of donation collection to widen their theatrical screening efforts beyond festivals.  Sally shared with me a little of what they have done with the film so far.

photo courtesy of Jeanie Finlay

Synopsis: Over the last five years an independent record shop has closed in the UK every three days. SOUND IT OUT is a documentary portrait of the very last surviving vinyl record shop in Teesside, North East England.

Directed by Jeanie Finlay Producer of Marketing and Distribution: Sally Hodgson, Pipoca Pictures

Festivals, screenings and raising money

“SOUND IT OUT is a tiny budget film and the production and post-production finance came from two crowdfunding campaigns on IndieGoGo, we raised just over $10,000. We wanted to honour the support of all our fantastic donors by doing a real grass roots publicity campaign for SXSW. We were delighted to be accepted into SXSW for the film’s world premiere. The audiences were amazing and we screened in the Alamo Ritz, possibly the coolest cinema I’ve ever been in!  [In the lead up to SXSW] from our UK base, we organised an in-store performance by Saint Saviour in a fantastic store in Austin called End of an Ear, and we took the SOUND IT OUT portable jukebox onto the streets of Austin to play tracks from the film on vinyl.”

“SOUND IT OUT has screened at festivals from Mexico to New Zealand, having a premiere at SXSW means your film gets onto the radar! We also had a joint UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest and Edinburgh International Film Festival. We’ve tried to secure a screening fee for the majority of festivals (outside of our premieres) and this has brought in a small income. It really all depends on the size of the festival and of course the festival’s budget.”

“We did two special screenings to celebrate SOUND IT OUT being the official film of this year’s Record Store Day, one in London at Rough Trade East (with live performance by The Chapman Family) and the other in New York at Lincoln Centre. We also did a member-only screening at the Electric Cinema, where we met one of our PR people and made some great industry contacts.” “At the moment we’re crowdfunding again, to release the film into cinemas in the UK. The finance we raise will unlock support from the British Film Institute to allow us to make digital copies of the film, get it classified and do some targeted publicity work. Our crowdfunding target is $10,000.”

Distribution and working with organizations

“In the UK, we did an ultra limited boutique DVD release on Record Store Day [in April] through a distributor called PIAS. The split we negotiated meant there was some cashflow on the film, which helped to pay off the costs of attending SXSW. The guys behind Record Store Day (especially Carrie) have been wonderful and amazingly supportive. Before SOUND IT OUT became their official film, our first crowdfunding campaign was promoted on their Facebook page which brought in a donation of $2,000 from an American solider serving in Iraq. His brother works at United Records and he loved the idea that the vinyl his brother makes could be for sale in a tiny shop in the North-East of England!”

“We’re following a live event model [for theatrical release] and working with the Independent Cinema Office, Picturehouse Cinemas, the British Federation of Film Societies and Dogwoof Ambassadors as well as direct to venues. We’ve recently agreed to release the film through the British Federation of Film Societies, that’s up to 500 screens and each venue will be paying a screening fee. We estimate the live event tour will cost in the region of $20,000. We plan the theatrical activity will run for one month. Also we’re negotiating with a high-profile UK distributor who does things a bit differently and we’re excited about their ideas for SOUND IT OUT.” “We’re doing all merchandise sales ourselves and had a great practice run when sending out the perks from our previous crowdfunding campaigns! Also, the film will be on iTunes in the UK in 2012.”

Spending money and using social media

“We have a budget of $4,000 to hire a publicist to promote our final phase of crowdfunding and the potential UK cinema release. To promote the UK screenings, we did consider print ads, but instead we’re trying out ads on Facebook. It will be an interesting experiment. Our budget for Facebook Ads is around $1,000, not a huge amount but we hope by being very targeted, this spend will convert into new fans and donations on our crowdfunding campaign.”

“I think it’s really important that someone close to the film is the person who interacts with the audience. Jeanie, the director of SOUND IT OUT, posted a personalised music dedication to everyone that donated to the film [in previous crowdfunding campaigns] and there’s nearly 300 lovely people on that list.  She regularly posts on Facebook roughly 5 times a day, about 20% specifically about the film and the rest with interesting and relevant links. She also looks after the Twitter account.”

“Every festival screening brings new fans to the film’s Facebook page and we’ve found Twitter really useful to connect to the audience and also to industry people. As I said, we’re about to experiment with Facebook Ads for the crowdfunding campaign so I’m looking forward to getting into the analytics once that’s underway. Google Analytics for the film’s website show that festival screenings and writing for blogs can bring in a lot of traffic. For SOUND IT OUT coverage in NME, The Guardian and on the Filmmaker Magazine blog were very influential. We’ve also done competitions on Facebook for screening tickets and they’ve been really effective and helped to add to the buzz about the film.”

“As far as consultants, we started working with UK-based James Collie from November Films early on in the process. Having James to consult with has been really useful, it’s great to have someone to discuss splits and strategies with. He has experience with independent cinema releases and brokering sales deals. He took a small fee and a credit on the finished film as payment.”

Sally’s role as a PMD

“Jeanie and I started working together when she’d just launched her first crowdfunding campaign, I worked to bring on-board partners to support our campaign, corresponded individually with each of our 200 donors, connected the project through social networking, identifying people who might be interested in hearing about the project and building up the number of Facebook fans. Jeanie and I devise what we post on Facebook and Twitter, but  it’s Jeanie’s voice and I think this is important, she is the creative behind the film, her love of music helps to further connect with our audience.  However, I do use my personal Twitter account to spread the word about the film and in the early days of SOUND IT OUT spent a lot of time researching and carrying out searches in order to promote the film, these connections have proved to be very useful (a review in Variety for example).”

“I’ve handled all press up to now and continue to do so. The only reason we will start to work with a specialist music PR person now is because of the involvement of the BFI (British Film Institute) and their need for us to target a ‘secondary’ audience. So the coverage prior to this week has been through my connections and work. Securing the BFI ‘s support required a lot of detailed paperwork and costings, which I took the lead on.”

“The grassroots marketing and promotion of the film, for example the mobile jukebox we took to SxSW, came about through my connecting with the guys at Crosley Radio and I organised the instore at End of an Ear in Austin. I’ve also organised the fulfilment of our three crowdfunding campaigns, getting the perks produced, packaged up and posted out. ”

“James Collie, as our distribution consultant, has provided a mentoring role for me and has discussed with me the deals we’ve been offered – he’s been a great help but I’ve been making a lot of the initial contact and did so with the distributors we’re negotiating  with.  I’ve also connected with other organisations such as the British Federation of Film Societies and we are screening SOUND IT OUT at a forthcoming programmers event and award ceremony.”

“In relation to the theatrical, I’m dealing with cinema programmers, negotiating box office splits, scheduling the tour, organising the logistics of our supporting events (live bands, Djs) and connecting with the independent record store in the cities where we are hoping to screen. I’ve also organised special private screenings, attracted an audience to them and organised the logistics.”

Obviously, Sally is an integral part of the SOUND IT OUT team who works intimately with all of the aspects of getting the film noticed and distributed. Both she and Jeanie work tirelessly on every detail of the marketing and distribution of this film and the work is really paying off.

For more Bright Spot posts of filmmakers successfully navigating new paths to finding audiences and distribution, keep reading this blog and read Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul Presented by Prescreen when it is released in one week. Also follow us on Facebook and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.        

The 10 Things You Must Know Before You Set Foot on the Film Festival Circuit

We have started a tips series on indieWire in the lead up to the book’s release. These are meant to help you understand the material found in the book and share some of our knowledge gleaned through working with independent films and festivals. This first series appeared on the indieWire site August 16, 2011 and was written mainly by our film festival expert Jeffrey Winter.

1. You need two high-impact festival premieres.
Target an impact festival for both your world and international premieres. An impact festival is one that directly leads to results, whether that means sales reps soliciting you, distributors pursuing you or other festivals requesting to see your film. If you aren’t sure which festivals qualify, consult several industry professionals; every festival will tell you that distribution deals are done at their festival… and that’s almost always a lie.

2. Don’t be provincial.
Remember that the U.S. film market is only 30% of the world. That means you may be faced with making that same high-impact premiere choice in several key territories around the world (esp. Canada, U.K., Continental Europe and Asia). However, there are just as many places in the world where your film likely won’t sell anyway, so you might as well take whatever invitations come your way as long as you don’t think you are opening yourself up for piracy. In other words: Don’t overthink your Slovenian premiere.

3. Think Globally, Act Locally.
For many filmmakers in large markets, the best film festival close to home may be the best place to premiere. These festivals often have sections dedicated to local films that make acceptance easier; they also have locally themed prizes that often come with cash. Also, a local premiere may be easier to fill through regional word-of-mouth, and a packed house is always better than the alternative.

4. Know Your Niche.
Consider that for many films a niche festival may be an impact festival as well. The Chicago Latino, San Francisco Jewish, Pan African Film Festival Los Angeles, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, the San Francisco Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and Fantastic Fest are all examples of top-notch specialty fests that may represent the best festival circuit in which to engage your particular audience.

5. Don’t spend before you have to.
Before engaging a sales agent, a publicist or throwing a premiere party, ask yourself exactly what you want that money to achieve. Hiring PR and throwing a party at a small regional festival where there is no national press and no industry attendees is unlikely to pay off professionally. Be targeted in the reasons you spend money at film festivals.

6. Include the festival circuit in your production budget.
Always remember to carve out a small percentage of your production and post-production budget to allow you to enter the festival circuit; we recommend 10-20% of the overall budget. Film festivals require submission fees (unless you can get them waived), exhibition deliverables, support staff, marketing materials and travel costs. A microbudget film might expect to spend up to 50% on film festival costs.

7. Don’t expect the festival to sell your film.
Actively market your own film. The festival won’t fill your seats; they have many movies and yours may not be their priority. You can nudge this process by requesting a prime slot and being in regular contact with the festival’s publicity and marketing teams, but in the end it’s your baby. And if you pack the seats with friends, you’re that much more likely to win an audience award.

8. Look for allies outside the festival.

Reach out to like-minded organizations to help promote the film. Offer perks like free tickets in exchange for email blasts to their partners. If the festival will allow it, let a local organization set up a table outside your screening for their literature in exchange for marketing support.

9. (Some) Films can start making money now.
Learn the game of monetizing your film festival run. If you have a world premiere at one the top film festivals like Sundance or Cannes or a handful of others, other programmers will request to see your film. The general rule is: if a programmer requests to see your film and then accepts it, you can ask for a rental fee (between $500 and $1,000 is a good place to start). If you submit on your own, generally they will not pay you. However, if you are represented by a distributor or a producer’s rep, they may have more negotiating power and be better able to get you a screening fee. Also, niche festivals are much more likely to pay you fees to screen your film, since there’s less product for them to choose from.

10. Your theatrical release starts now.
Most filmmakers experience a mental disconnect when saying that they want a theatrical release; what they really mean is they want their work seen on the big screen, not on a laptop. Film festivals are big screens; envision your entire festival run as an event-driven theatrical release. Once your premieres have been achieved and other festivals are asking for your film, let it fly. Every festival has marketing, PR and word-of-mouth value.