Tag Archives: film festivals

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.

 

 

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.

Bright Spot: Bots High

Florida filmmaker Joey Daoud writes a blog called Coffee and Celluloid and I was in touch with him just before SXSW 2011 where he was doing some guerrilla screenings of his film Bots High, a documentary following the adventures of high school students who build combat robots. He shared the path to distribution of his film on the blog a few days ago and I asked if I could repost it here for all who may have missed it. Joey is one of many entrepreneurial filmmakers who are now taking responsibility for their work and connecting it to the people most likely to enjoy it. His efforts merit some championing so he’s our Bright Spot for today.

 

Great film!
- Handwritten note on a festival rejection letter

The above note sums up the festival experience of my feature film Bots High quite well. A film that people who see, love, yet didn’t get much traction on the festival circuit. It played at some festivals, won some Best Documentary awards, got some good reviews, and I had some great experiences and am thankful for the festivals that took a chance on the film. But obviously not the Sundance, SXSW, TIFF festival run you imagine while making the film 1.

Below, I’ll be outlining how I’m taking my film’s future solely in my own hands, and the ideas that led to this strategy.

What Can You Do That I Can’t?

Epic festival run or not, the next question is, “Now what?” This is a question most of us filmmakers face once we have a finished film. Even the top indie films with recognizable actors are having a hard time getting distribution deals with upfront money. Three Sundance films just posted Kickstarter campaigns to raise distribution money. Dying to Do Letterman has run a phenomenal campaign to raise money to do their own Oscar qualifying theatrical run.

Do you try to raise more money and do everything yourself? Do you tour the film around and hope to break even, like Total Badass? Hope a company comes along to pick it up? With so many digital outlets yet so few companies putting money into buying films, choosing the right path for your film reminds me of the stress of picking the “right” college.

I received some distribution offers, but nothing that paid anything upfront, just some backend percentage. This means I’m going to have to sign away broad definitions of certain rights for 20 years (essentially forever as far as the film is concerned), no guarantee that any money will be put into a marketing campaign, and hope that maybe I’ll see a couple of thousand in return.

The main question I asked for every offer is, “What can you do that I can’t do myself?” Let’s take the best offer, one from a company whose name I actually recognized. They wanted all digital rights and would get the film on iTunes, Netflix Instant, Amazon, Xbox, etc, and keep 25%. Not a terrible deal, but not many guarantees on marketing, prominent placement, etc. I can handle the online stuff through Distribber – pay a flat fee, keep everything, both money and rights. With a lot of new online-only companies out there, I feel like they’re all just trying to build their library instead of putting their time and money behind something because they believe in it.

Good deal for someone whose film has been sitting on a shelf, not for someone that just wrapped and still has some fight in them.

Check Out the Film…Possibly at a Festival Near You…Or Online…Soon

Packed theater at the Bots High World Premiere

 

Bear with me as I take you through three realizations I had that will soon merge into the mega-idea.

The bigger question wasn’t how to get it online, it was how do I launch. How do I build enough buzz so the online launch is relevant? How do I get the film on people’s radar? Previously, if I told someone about the film, or pitched a blog to write about it, it’s like, “Maybe the film will play at a festival near you…or sign up for the newsletter and I’ll let you know when it’s on iTunes.” There was no target date, no time to build towards, that people writing about the film could say, “Here is a cool film, you can watch it on this day.”

Around the same time of this brainstorming, when I was crashing SXSW with an underground screening, I found it was incredibly easy to set up a free screening (shocker!). I held a screening at the University of Texas. They donated a theater, I didn’t charge admission (but sold some DVDs), super easy – no worries about rental costs and breaking even.

Get Your Priorities Straight

If 2 you read Jon Reiss‘ great book Think Outside the Box Office, one of his key points when making your distribution plan is to figure out your goals. Do you want to make money, promote a cause, or use the film to market yourself? Going into this, as I’m sure most filmmakers do, I’m thinking, “All of the above! It’s going to make money, and because it’s making money that means it has enough buzz that I’m being promoted as a filmmaker.” Clearly, not the case. But one of the main reasons I made this movie instead of trying to work up the Hollywood ladder was to have a feature film to my name to lead to more, paid work.

So with a reworking of priorities, #1 now being to use the film to market myself as a filmmaker, that means getting the film out as wide and far as possible. Combine that with my previous two realizations, and the strategy is quite clear…

A Free Worldwide Screening Day

Yep, one day to direct everyone towards that launches the film. “Hey, Mr. Reporter, check out my film. Your readers can see it October 6, for free!” Using free tools, such as Meetup Everywhere, groups can organize based on their location and create their own screening. I want to empower people to create their own theatrical experience, which as Jon Reiss redescribes as “people watching ‘films’ with other people. Any place.” ‘Theatrical’ is not a 35mm print screening in a movie theater anymore. 3

Even if people don’t come out to a screening, here are my goals from the plan when someone mentions Bots High to someone else.

  • “Oh, I’ve heard of that film.”
  • “I saw that.”
  • “I love Bots High, I own it!”

The more blogs that write about it, the more someone is aware of it, the more that will help when I need credibility for other projects.

Free Doesn’t Mean No Money

Let’s be clear, ‘Make Money’ is not off the list (to the comfort of the patient people I owe money to). From my screening experience at festivals and ones I organized, about 2-5% of the audience buys the DVD. My thinking is cast a really wide net and if 1%-3% buy, that’s still a decent amount of money.

But I can’t have a Bots High representative at every screening selling DVDs and counting money. So in the way that I’m empowering people to organize a screening, I figured I could empower them to be retailers as well.

I sell the DVD for $20 on the web site and at screenings. But I’d be totally happy selling a guaranteed 10 DVDs for $10 each, which is what I’m doing with the event organizers. They can buy a 10 pack for $100, and then sell them at their screening for $20 each and keep the profit. I’m happy, they’re happy, win-win!

I foresee a lot of groups hosting screenings being connected to robotics programs or robotics teams themselves. I would love for the film to be used to recruit new members, whether the team does combat robotics or task oriented. I feel like teams could also use this as a fundraiser. So I also setup a ridiculously low $100 fundraising license which lets any non-profit charge admission to the screening as a fundraiser. 10 tickets at $10 and they cover the fee, then everything else goes to their program.

Make it an Event

Q&A at Bots High World Premiere 

 

I am all about Ted Hope’s and Jon Reiss‘ talk of making screenings an event. I want the film to be used as a platform for teams and schools to create an event around. Show off their robots, have mini battles (Google loves sumo-bots), get guest speakers – anything to go beyond just a movie screening and make it a unique night. Also, there needs to be something special about playing the movie on October 6 other than me saying you have to.

The one thing that’s great about festival or independent screenings is the Q&A. I didn’t want to lose that element, and with all the free streaming services out there it doesn’t have to be lost. I’ll be setting up a live webcast of myself and people from the film to answer questions that are tweeted to @botshigh. I figure most of the screenings will be in some sort of college auditorium that’s hooked up to a computer, so switching over to a webcast shouldn’t be a problem.

How You Can Help

And that’s the plan – a free, worldwide launch of my film. So far the press has been good (WIREDLaughing SquidIndieWire) and I’ve got screenings set up in IndiaSpainSouth KoreaBolivia, and 26 other cities. My goal is 100. With schools getting back in session, and constant emailing, I anticipate the numbers to pick up speed pretty quickly.

Of course you, independent film lover / maker who’s reading this, can play an important role and help set up a screening. Go here for all the details.

You can follow me on Twitter at @C47 or the film at @botshigh. I’m toying with an idea of running trailers for other independent films in similar positions before the screener disks of the movie, so if you’re a filmmaker with a movie and might be interested in this, email me.

I’ll be posting more about my experiences with this, including Distribber and getting the DVD on Amazon. Stay tuned!

 

  1. I don’t have a definitive answer for why this is, especially since festivals don’t really give feedback, just some theories from an attempted objective viewpoint, such as the film is light hearted, has a narrow focus, and doesn’t tackle a heavy issue. All the rejection letters cite record high submissions, thanks to the digital revolution which now creates a higher level of noise. I’d like to imagine my film was buried in a Raiders of the Lost Ark style pile and never watched. But who knows. Obviously this experience has left me a little bitter about festivals, which led to question their relevance at all. Especially after my short Space Miami got over 50,000 views and more online press than any festival could give a short. That’s another post, though check out this Fest vs. Online comparison. The thorough Filmmaker Magazine article on Blast! is a good example of what my film went through. 
  2. ‘If’ shouldn’t be there; if you make movies and want them to have a life after creation you must have read Think Outside the Box Office
  3. I’ll be writing in more detail about the online tools I’m using to organize this. 

Read more: http://coffeeandcelluloid.com/the-free-film-distribution-experiment/#ixzz1VLBAfaza