Film festivals can help or harm your film. Mistakes can cripple its launch and limit its distribution, including applying to festivals too early, targeting the wrong festivals, not having the right festival team, and making bad distribution deals.
A customized distribution strategy enables filmmakers to make the most of festivals (the first avenue of distribution), choose the best distribution partners, and negotiate win-win deals.
While I was preparing to go to the Sundance Film Festival (the most influential American festival) and speaking with clients about their plans for the Festival, Thom Powers (who programs docs for the Toronto International Film Festival, and is the Artistic Director of the DOC NYC festival and the Stranger Than Fiction documentary series in New York City) asked me to contribute to a pre-Sundance compilation of advice for documentary filmmakers. His request inspired me to summarize my recommendations on festival and negotiating strategies. After I sent him my comments, I decided to expand them for this Distribution Bulletin. I’ve also included fiction features. Distribution strategies for documentaries and fiction overlap in many areas but differ in others.
A CUSTOMIZED STRATEGY
Every film can benefit from having a distribution strategy before its festival premiere and before any rights are sold. A customized strategy can help you maximize audience, revenues, impact, and career.
This strategy should be designed based on your goals, your film’s content, its core audiences, and the opportunities in key avenues of distribution (from theatrical and television to direct sales). If you have a customized strategy, you can look for distribution partners who can help you implement your strategy. If not, your film may receive a formulaic, one-size-fits-all release in which every film is distributed pretty much the same way.
Documentary filmmakers need to proactively design strategies, which will enable them to split their rights among partners. Educational sales and semi-theatrical screenings can be very important and you need partners for each who can help you fully exploit them. Partnerships with nonprofits are another significant element of a documentary’s distribution strategy.
It is essential to be clear about the ultimate goals for your film when you design your strategy. You can have multiple goals but should prioritize them. What is most important: career? revenues? or changing the world? If you are clear about your goals, you will have a useful framework for making choices as you move through the stages of your distribution.
You also need to be clear about your festival goals. Your premiere festival launches your film into the world. It provides a unique opportunity to build awareness among:
- film critics, bloggers, and other members of the media
- colleagues, executives, and others who can help with future films
- the general public
Your screenings will give an immediate sense of how audiences are responding and can create word-of-mouth within the festival. These screenings are an ideal place for distributors to see your film for the first time (even if they discount somewhat enthusiastic audience responses). Your film may also get its first reviews and press mentions. It could also receive festival awards and generate buzz online.
Most films are not sold at their first festival. While some distribution deals are made mid-festival, the majority of them happen weeks or months later. Distributors only attend a small number of festivals and there is little or no sales activity at the rest. Be well-prepared for sales opportunities but be realistic. Don’t focus on them to the exclusion of the need to market your film to the press, the industry, and regular viewers.
A publicist is essential at Sundance and recommended at certain other festivals where the media turns out in force. Your publicist will focus on critics and entertainment reporters and may be able to help with social media. Make sure your website and Facebook page are ready for prime time and that your team can execute a coordinated social media effort.
Your publicist can help you position your film, express what makes your film unique, and convey the passion with which you made it. You should have a trailer, a teaser, or at least a clip on your website and on Facebook, and it should be easily shareable online.
AGENTS AND REPS
Separate your rights into two categories: North American and international.
Having a producer’s rep sell North American rights may or may not be necessary. You may have a teammate (producer, consultant, attorney) with distribution expertise who can help you field offers and negotiate deals.
If you decide to hire a producer’s rep, he or she should be on board for your first domestic festival. Look for one who can help you implement your distribution strategy and who comes highly recommended by other filmmakers. If you find an excellent producer’s rep, decide which North American rights you want them to sell, and which you want to retain (see below). Your rep should make clear to potential distributors exactly which rights are available (excluding those you are retaining) before negotiations begin.
Having an international sales agent sell rights outside North America is essential but you don’t need to hire one before your first domestic festivals. You should retain the rights to sell DVDs, downloads, and streams from your website worldwide (excluding any territories where your sales agent makes exclusive deals for these rights).
Documentary filmmakers should select an international sales agent who specializes in TV sales and always attends MIP and MIPCOM. Have them handle your international digital rights only if they have a track record selling these rights successfully.
Hybrid distribution is the alternative to giving one company total distribution control of your film for many years. It means splitting your rights among distribution partners, while retaining the ability to sell DVDs and downloads directly from your website.
Documentary filmmakers (and some fiction filmmakers) should consider making hybrid distribution Plan A, with Plan B being making a more traditional deal with one company. The hybrid approach enables you to choose the best partners for key avenues of distribution. Splitting up rights will make it possible to implement a customized strategy, refining it step-by-step. It also increases your chances of building a long life for your film.
For some films a more traditional deal may be the best option. However favorable the deal terms, make sure the distributor can do a great job with your film. The best source of information is other filmmakers whose films have been distributed by that company. They will tell you off-the-record how effective and collaborative the company is, as well as how reliably they report and pay. Do not make a deal without doing serious research. While there will be limited time to do this if you are making a deal at a festival, most deals will be made after the festival, with ample time for due diligence.
Remember, no deal is better than a bad deal.
RIGHTS TO RETAIN
All filmmakers should try to retain (whether you make a multiple rights deal or split up your rights):
Direct Digital – the rights to sell downloads and streams directly from your website
Direct DVD – the rights to sell DVDs from your website and at screenings. This needs to be coupled with the right to buy DVDs from your DVD distributor at cost or no more than $5.00
The distributor will have all retail DVD and digital rights, allowing them to make deals with Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and other companies and to sell directly from their websites. Your right to sell from your website will complement their rights. In many cases allowing filmmakers to sell from their websites has incentivized them to promote their films extensively through social media. This has increased retail sales, benefiting both the distributor and the filmmakers.
Documentary filmmakers who make a multiple rights deal with one distributor should also retain:
Educational – the rights to sell educational copies to colleges and universities, high schools, libraries, nonprofits, companies, and other organizations and institutions
Semi-theatrical – the rights to rent the film for single screenings (Note: you can share these rights non-exclusively with your distributor)
Educational and semi-theatrical rights are essential parts of a customized distribution strategy for a documentary. You need to keep control of these rights so you can select excellent distribution partners who specialize in these rights. If you don’t retain them, the multiple rights distributor will end up with rights it may have little interest in or ability to exploit.
(Chris Nolan & Emma Thomas with Peter Broderick at Sundance in 2001)
ADVANCES AND CORRIDORS
Consider the ultimate revenue split as well as the advance. Assuming you are working with an honest company, it may be better to take a lower advance to get a better split. If you are only offered a token amount, you may decide to take no money upfront for a bigger percentage of the backend. The distributor will recoup its advance from revenues before paying you any more. An advance gets you money sooner, but in the end may cost you a substantial amount that you could have made with a better revenue split.
If the advance is big enough, it makes sense to take the money and not worry about the backend. If the advance is small, pay close attention to the split.
Request a revenue corridor so you will receive some money (e.g. 20% of revenues) while the distributor is taking its distribution fees and recouping its expenses and advance. While it may be difficult to get your distributor to agree to a revenue corridor, without one you may receive no share of revenues for months or years.
DIRECT SALES RIGHTS
The value of digital rights is growing steadily. It is better to sell your retail digital rights and your retail DVD rights to the same company. If you sell your digital rights separately, it will be much harder to find a company willing to only distribute your film on DVD.
It is essential to retain the rights to sell your film digitally (and on DVD) from your website for three reasons:
- You will make more money on every direct sale than from any third party sale since you will not be splitting the money with your distributor or producer’s rep
- You will have the opportunity to sell related products and create bundles that are exclusively available from your website
- You will receive invaluable customer data (name, email address, zip code) that you will not get from third party sales on iTunes, Amazon, or anywhere else. You can add these customers to your mailing list, build ongoing relationships with them, and hopefully turn them into valued patrons, who will support you throughout your career
Films with strong core audiences may decide to skip festivals entirely. Many genre films don’t go to festivals, while others focus on genre festivals or target festivals with strong genre sections.
Some of the most successful documentaries (ranging from THE SECRET to HUNGRY FOR CHANGE) have made no efforts to go to festivals. Instead they have trusted their ability to reach their large core audiences directly.
YOUR ROLE IN DISTRIBUTION
Fiction filmmakers are more likely to seek a multiple rights deal with one distributor while documentary filmmakers are more likely to take a hybrid approach working with several distributors. In both cases you need to be significantly involved in your distribution.
You should approach it as a partnership. Distributors bring expertise, relationships, and resources and you bring the passion with which you made the film, your team, and a knowledge of and connection with core audiences. Working together in a complementary way will achieve the best results.
By being directly involved, you will gain a much deeper understanding of the complex New World of Distribution. This will empower you for your next films and hopefully enable you to build a sustainable career.
Thom Powers has solicited and compiled a wealth of useful comments from industry veterans in his DISTRIBUTION ADVICE FOR 2014
Ted Hope keeps updating his comprehensive post HOW TO GET READY FOR THAT FILM FESTIVAL, which links to 18 articles and posts, covering everything you always wanted to know about festivals but were afraid to ask
Amanda Palmer has made an art of asking for help. In May 2012, the singer-songwriter ran a 30-day Kickstarter campaign seeking $100,000 to finance a new album, a tour, and an art book. 24,883 fans contributed and she raised $1,192,793 (five times more than any other Kickstarter music project).
Her campaign video is one of the best crowdfunding pitches ever. It conveys her goals, her passion, and her persona in 3 minutes. Her music drives the video and her spirit makes it infectious and irresistible.
Amanda’s recent TED talk on The Art of Asking is required viewing for filmmakers and other artists determined to maintain their creative independence. More than 2.7 million people have watched it in two months.
Her presentation is very persuasive. Amanda began asking for help when she was busking as a living statue, offering a flower to any passerby who put money in her hat. Since then she has continued to reach out to strangers and has learned how to connect to them more personally.
Amanda’s TED talk contains valuable lessons for artists launching and sustaining careers in the new world of distribution.
Build a personal audience. It is essential to develop a network of supporters you are in direct contact with. This requires hard work, ample time, and single-minded determination. Amanda was not an overnight success. She has spent 15 years developing and nurturing a growing fan base.
Connect in multiple ways. Amanda mixes social media with face-to-face encounters. She is very active online, energentically tweeting and blogging (her team handles Facebook).
These days Amanda spends much more time connecting with people online (up to 6 hours a day blogging, tweeting, and emailing) than writing songs. She connects with fans in person during and after performances and is an avid couch surfer, crashing with fans when she and her crew are on the road.
Be authentic. There is a clear voice in her Kickstarter video, her blog, her tweets, and her TED talk. Her distinctive point-of-view grows out of her personal experience. Her convictions are earned and therefore all the more persuasive.
Trust your audience. She makes her music available digitally for free from her website, using a pay-what-you-wish model. She encourages people to share her music with others; her website urges fans to SHARE SHARE SHARE! COPY COPY COPY!
In return for her trust, fans contribute to her by buying a vinyl album, CD, poster, T-shirt, or art book from her website or by making a donation. Amanda believes in crowdsurfing, both literally and figuratively – “you’re falling into the audience and trusting each other.”
Ask for help. Amanda explains: “Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you.” She encourages artists to “ask without shame” and hopes people will “give and receive fearlessly.” Her Kickstarter campaign gave existing fans a way to continue or increase their support for her. It also enabled her to attract new fans around the world. The patronage of a dedicated and growing personal audience will maximize her creative freedom and increase her chances to have a long and vibrant career.
Make good art. While Amanda was in the thick of her crowdfunding campaign, her husband, acclaimed author Neil Gaiman, gave an inspiring commencement address at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Beautifully written and delivered, it is definitely worth watching. He urges his audience to “make good art” and discusses the revolution in distribution. “The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are.” This month his address will be published as a book designed by the exceptional graphic artist Chip Kidd.
FORKS OVER KNIVES has been a remarkable success. After grossing over $700,000 in theatres, the film has sold over 180,000 DVDs, become a New York Times bestselling book, and created a brand, something very few independent documentaries have achieved. Both fiction and documentary filmmakers can learn valuable lessons from the film’s distribution strategy.
Test Screenings - As soon as the filmmakers had a rough cut in March 2010, they began test screening it. They showed it to groups of 20 or more and discussed it with them afterwards, made changes, and then screened it for another group. Brian explained that the 20 plus test screenings were invaluable in refining their cut.
Advance Screenings - The filmmakers decided to skip festivals entirely. Instead of trying to connect with a broader festival audience, Brian and his team spent their time, energy, and money targeting their core audiences. When the film was finished, they embarked on an ambitious program of advance screenings. This started with a very successful event in Philadelphia attended by 500 people. Local Whole Foods stores co-sponsored most of the 30 advance screenings across the country, marketing them to their customers.
Theatrical Release - Instead of making either an all-rights or a service deal, the filmmakers hired an experienced booker to handle theatrical distribution. They first rented a theater in Portland, Oregon and showed FORKS OVER KNIVES for a week to demonstrate to exhibitors its theatrical potential. The film made $13,000 the first week; the theater then held it over as a regular booking (rather than a rental) for four more weeks.
The official theatrical release began in May 2011. They made 35 film prints and played in 90 theaters in the U.S. and Canada. The release generated lots of awareness with appearances on Dr. Oz and Bill Maher and strong reviews by such critics as Roger Ebert and John Anderson. Brian was glad they had released the film theatrically but acknowledged that they didn’t break even given the costs of advertising, marketing, and 35 mm prints. If he had it to do over again, he would do a smaller theatrical release, possibly opting for a one night national premiere in hundreds of theaters.
Since its theatrical run, FORKS AND KNIVES has screened semi-theatrically and nontheatrically around the country. Swank has booked nearly 500 screenings.
DVD - FORKS OVER KNIVES has utilized a hybrid strategy to maximize DVD sales and revenues. As theatrical distribution was winding down, DVDs became exclusively available from the film’s website. Fulfilling pre-orders, the filmmakers sold over 6,000 DVDs (including Blu-rays) during the first week. Selling single DVDs, 4 packs and 10 packs, the filmmakers have sold approximately 30,000 DVDs from the website so far.
Retail DVD sales through Virgil Films have also been exceptional. They began a few weeks after direct sales from the website. Amazon and other online and brick-and-mortar merchants have sold over 150,000 DVDs. FORKS OVER KNIVES has been the best-selling documentary on Amazon for most of the past year.
The Mailing List - While the film has been very active on Facebook with over 235,000 likes, the film’s 70,000 person mailing list is “the most important thing on the planet” according to Brian. He sends a substantive newsletter to every subscriber once a week. Every time a newsletter goes out, there is a spike in traffic on the website, increasing sales by 50-60%.
Individuals are encouraged to sign up on the website for the Weekly News, which includes both FORKS OVER KNIVES and third party content. Subscribers are asked for their names, email addresses, and zip codes. I always recommend requesting zip codes so you can reach out to subscribers when you’re coming to their area to put on a screening or a special event.
The Brand - In addition to DVD sales, the film has done well digitally. Over 400,000 people have rated the film on Netflix, which may reflect over 1 million views. It is also available digitally on iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, and elsewhere.
FORKS OVER KNIVES – THE COOKBOOK has just been released and is selling well. In addition to FORKS OVER KNIVES books and DVDs, there are many products available from the website, including other books, shirts, jackets, and gym bags. The average shopping cart purchase on the website is around $40.
FARMS 2 FORKS is another successful extension of the brand. The filmmakers combined forces with THE ENGINE 2 DIET team (their book is featured in the film) to organize weekend immersions in healthy eating and cooking. The first four 2-day events were each attended by 250-450 people at a $550 ticket price. The plan is to do six weekend events in 2013, and also 1-night events in major cities.
The extraordinary million-dollar success of HUNGRY FOR CHANGE marks a new era of opportunities for independents. It illustrates how “free” can be used to achieve broad awareness, generate revenue quickly, and build a worldwide audience.
- premiered online (having never screened publicly before)
- was available worldwide
- was absolutely free (for 10 days only)
The results were remarkable:
- 453,841 views around the world during the 10 day premiere
- over $1.02 million in sales of DVDs and recipe books in the first 14 days
HUNGRY FOR CHANGE is a documentary that challenges the myths perpetuated by the weight loss industry and shows how to develop a healthy, lifelong diet. It is the second film by dynamic husband-and-wife team James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch, who I started consulting with in 2008 when they were beginning to distribute FOOD MATTERS, which went on to sell over 230,000 DVDs (see Distribution Bulletin #14). James and Laurentine are based in Australia but came to Los Angeles last week, where they told me the inside story of their historic “Free Worldwide Online Premiere.”
James and Laurentine have learned how to tap the power of free. They’ve been experimenting with the possibilities of free for four years, first with FOOD MATTERS and now with HUNGRY FOR CHANGE.
Free Public Screenings - Instead of following the industry norm of charging organizations fees to hold screenings, the filmmakers took a risk and allowed anyone who registered to host a screening for free. The FOOD MATTERS website encourages the hosting of screenings:
“As part of our vision to provide life-transforming information that is accessible to all people, we are excited to allow free screenings of Food Matters around the globe.”
The website provides a free screening resource pack, which includes handouts, posters, and other publicity materials. James and Laurentine believed that the cost of lost screening revenues would be much smaller than the benefit of positive word-of-mouth from a greater number of screenings, resulting in increases in visitors to the website, mailing lists sign-ups, and DVD sales.
Free, Dynamic Website Content – The filmmakers regularly added content to the FOOD MATTERS website, making it a valuable resource for their audience. This included videos that were freely available to all visitors to the website who registered, which simply consisted of inputting a name and an email address.
Free Online Screening - In December 2010, FOOD MATTERS DVDs were put on sale from the website for one week at half price. This resulted in 4600 sales, the best week in 2 ½ years of sales. In October 2011, the filmmakers took a more radical approach with even better results. They allowed all comers to watch FOOD MATTERS for free for 8 days. This stimulated direct and indirect sales of 9800 DVDs, twice as many as were sold when it was offered at half price. Even more impressive, over 37,000 people joined the mailing list during this event.
As James explained, when you offer a film for free you get sign-ups from a good percentage of everyone who views the film. When you are having a sale, you only get the customer information from those who actually make a purchase. “For us, we’re about creating a long-term relationship with our followers and not just selling to them,” noted James.
HUNGRY FOR CHANGE
After their successful experiments with free, particularly the online screening of FOOD MATTERS, James and Laurentine decided to go all the way with HUNGRY FOR CHANGE. They were aware of some films that had been released free online, such as Michael Moore’s SLACKER UPRISING, but knew of no major ones that had premiered online.
Pre-Release Marketing - They chose the term FREE WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE and released the trailer for HUNGRY FOR CHANGE on March 1, 2012. This was followed by two more eblasts with additional video content, including the first 4 minutes of the film, during the 21 days leading up to the premiere. They also partnered with the experts featured in the film. These experts had their own followers and shared in both the promotion of the free online premiere and the revenues from sales they referred.
Global Reach - The Free Worldwide Online Premiere was an instant hit. On its first day (March 21st) there were 45,211 plays. Tens of thousands of people watched the film each day. The premiere ended with a bang with 58,292 plays on the final day (March 31st). Altogether there were almost half a million views from more than 150 countries across the globe in just 10 days. These are astonishing numbers for an independent film that had never been seen before, had no paid advertising, and was not available through any retail channels.
Subscribers - There were 229,000 sign-ups in 14 days, a significantly greater number than FOOD MATTERS had gained in the previous 4 years. James estimates that less than 30% of the HUNGRY FOR CHANGE sign-ups were FOOD MATTERS subscribers, which means that at least 160,000 were new subscribers, almost doubling James and Laurentine’s already substantial online following.
Revenue - Everyone who viewed HUNGRY FOR CHANGE was given access to three special offers: the DVD for $34.95, the new recipe book for $49.95, or the DVD and the recipe book for $74.95. Each order came with free bonuses and free shipping. In the first 14 days, over 20,800 orders were placed totaling over $1 million in sales. Although most purchasers had already seen the film for free, many wanted to buy a copy for themselves or purchase it as a gift for family or friends.
Good Will - Another major benefit of free is good will, which has allowed the filmmakers to develop a truly interactive relationship with their audience. They talk directly to their followers who tell them what they want. This knowledge has enabled them to make and market films that meet their followers’ needs and continue to be seen by more and more people
Taking free to a new level has also expanded awareness of James and Laurentine and created new opportunities for them. They are now writing a book for HarperCollins, which will be published this fall to coincide with the retail release of HUNGRY FOR CHANGE.
MY REINCARNATION shows how a well-executed crowdfunding campaign can be used to maximize distribution. In addition to enabling the funding of the theatrical rollout, the campaign increased awareness among core audiences, generated substantial press coverage, and facilitated partnerships.
I’ve known and admired the film’s director Jennifer Fox for many years, and consulted with her on the distribution of her remarkable series, FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN. As tenacious as she is talented, Jennifer has learned, during more than 30 years of independent filmmaking, that it’s “change or die.” After exhausting every familiar fundraising route from grants to pre-sales for MY REINCARNATION, she tried crowdfunding as a last resort.
Filmed over twenty years, MY REINCARNATION is a documentary about her teacher, the Tibetan-trained Buddhist master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and “his Italian born son who refuses to accept the destiny he inherited from birth.” Although the film was technically completed and being shown at international festivals, Jennifer still needed $100,000 to pay the bills she’d amassed finishing the film after a producer defaulted on that amount.
MY REINCARNATION became a crowdfunding milestone. Through a 90-day campaign, Jennifer and her team raised $150,456, three times the official goal of $50,000. 518 backers gave an average donation of $290, more than any film had ever averaged on her crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. The average was so high for two reasons. The film attracted two associate producers at $10,000 each (one of which was a group of 50 people living in China). The campaign also offered valuable one-of-a-kind rewards, such as a hand-painted Tibetan chest and a unique statue of the deity Vajrapan, which were available to contributors who gave between $2,500 and $7,500. Contributions were received from 32 countries and more than two-thirds of the money came from abroad.
There is much to be learned from this crowdfunding success. Jennifer contributed seven articles to Ted Hope’s Indiewire blog detailing her 42 crowdfunding tips. They should be required reading for anyone planning a serious crowdfunding campaign. Here are two of the essential lessons:
==> Build a strong team that can put in the necessary time and effort. While filmmakers should be centrally involved in a crowdfunding campaign, they need a substantial amount of help to maximize the effort. Jennifer spent 50% of her time on the 90-day campaign. She had three teammates – a staff member who spent 50% of her time on the effort and two part-time women (compensated by a percentage of the money raised). They handled key tasks including adding fresh content to the website, managing outreach to organizations, and expanding the mailing list.
==> Make a detailed budget for the campaign. This should include the site fee (Kickstarter charges 5% if you meet your goal, IndieGoGo charges 4% if you meet your goal and 9% if you don’t); the payment processing fee (3-5%); the cost of creating, acquiring, and shipping rewards; and any staffing fees. There are also likely to be some defaults in contributors’ payments (Jennifer’s were 2%). If you use a fiscal sponsor, which allows donations to be tax-deductible, there will be an additional fee of 5-7% (IndieGoGo waives its fee if you use one of its partner fiscal sponsors). Jennifer estimates that the total costs of her campaign will be between 20 and 25% of the money raised. It would have been higher if she had been compensated for the enormous amount of time she devoted to the campaign.
MY REINCARNATION is now playing in theaters around the U.S. It opened theatrically in New York City in October, five months after the crowdfunding campaign concluded in late May. It has already been shown or booked in 40 theaters, and was in its seventh week in New York when this went to press. It will surely play 60-70 cities through next April and Jennifer is hoping to reach 100. Erin Owens of Long Shot Factory is booking the film theatrically.
The crowdfunding campaign of MY REINCARNATION facilitated its distribution in ten key ways. The campaign enabled Jennifer’s team to:
One is centered on Namkhai Norbu’s 8,000+ students around the world (they are connected via a listserv and many also meet in local groups). This audience also includes other Buddhists, as well as spiritual, new age, and yoga groups.
The second core audience is centered on Jennifer’s fans and supporters, who she has nurtured over many years and films. This audience also includes documentary lovers and independent filmmakers.
==> 2 - GROW A NETWORK OF SUPPORT. This network consisted of all of the contributors to the Kickstarter campaign plus people who were unable to help financially but contributed their time and effort. These supporters helped by blogging and eblasting. The most active ones were recognized online on the Donors Wall and onscreen in the film’s end credits.
==> 3 - ACCELERATE EFFORTS TO BUILD PARTNERSHIPS. Jennifer explained that the crowdfunding campaign “got us into outreach mode early.” Her team made a major effort to develop partnerships with organizations, including Tibet House and the Tibet Fund.
==> 4 - GENERATE SIGNIFICANT PRESS COVERAGE. During the campaign Jennifer shared her crowdfunding tips in her seven-part series. When the campaign ended with such spectacular results, she and her teammates widely distributed a press release and got significant coverage. Jennifer also wrote an article for The Huffington Post.
==> 5 - EXPAND AND REFINE THEIR MAILING LIST. Over the years Jennifer had developed a personal mailing list of 6000 names. Her team worked hard to expand this list of individuals and organizations, starting with California and New York and then moving on to other states. Jennifer’s list has now grown to almost 10,000 names.
==> 6 - IMPROVE THE FILM’S ONLINE PRESENCE. The team started with a solid website which they expanded with fresh content and videos, including outtakes of the film. They utilized user-contributed content through the website’s “share your story” section. They also made excellent use of the film’s Facebook page, which attracted many people from around the world.
==> 7 - RELEASE THE FILM THEATRICALLY. $15,000 from the crowdfunding revenues seeded the theatrical rollout. Jennifer harnessed the excitement created by the Kickstarter results to find the additional money needed for theatrical from a combination of donors and loans.
==> 8 - BOOST INTEREST AMONG DISTRIBUTORS. Erin from Long Shot Factory explained that many of the exhibitors she approached were already aware of the film. She cited the Kickstarter results to show that there was already an audience for the film. The crowdfunding success also helped get the attention of festival programmers.
==> 9 - STIMULATE SEMI-THEATRICAL AND EDUCATIONAL DISTRIBUTION. Following theatrical, MY REINCARNATION will have a strong semi-theatrical release during which nonprofits and universities will arrange special event screenings. Jennifer is also perfectly positioned to do her own educational sales based on the relationships her team has built with groups and organizations.
==> 10 - FACILITATE TELEVISION, DVD, AND DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION. The increased awareness of the film will foster DVD and digital sales, as well as boost the viewership for its POV televisions premiere. The DVD, which is not yet available, is already viewed as a collectible.
As MY REINCARNATION makes clear, a successful crowdfunding effort can jumpstart a film’s distribution. It accelerates everything that will eventually be done to foster distribution, including making a trailer, reaching out to possible partners, building a network of support, generating press awareness, and refining the mailing lists and web presence. Instead of waiting until the film is nearly done and trying to do all of this in the weeks or months before its release, crowdfunding can give filmmakers a year or two head start.
A crowdfunding campaign can also provide invaluable information and feedback, enabling filmmakers to better define their core audiences, determine the best avenues to reach them, and refine the positioning of their films.
When MY REINCARNATION’S Kickstarter campaign reached a tipping point, things began to snowball. They raised $60,000 during the final five days of the campaign. Jennifer’s team has been able to maintain the momentum from the campaign into the theatrical release and should be able to continue it through the next stages of distribution.
Filmmakers should design their crowdfunding campaigns to power their distribution. While their short-term goal is to raise money, their ultimate goal should be to create a long and vibrant life for their film.
Three new studies assessing the impacts of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, THE END OF THE LINE, and WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN” finally prove Sam Goldwyn wrong. The Hollywood mogul famously declared, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” These reports highlight the real world results these films sparked and provide a new framework for evaluating the impacts of documentaries and features.
In the past, there was little research or rigorous analysis of powerful films such as FAHRENHEIT 9/11, SICKO, SUPER SIZE ME, and FOOD, INC. Instead they were evaluated primarily on anecdotal information and subjective impressions. The appearance of these three new studies finally provides the research and analysis filmmakers need to better understand how to ignite social change.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, THE END OF THE LINE, and WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN” were each made to avert a looming crisis: global warming, the collapse of the world’s fisheries, and the failure of America’s public education system.
This Special Report includes exclusive coverage of the studies of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN,” along with a concise analysis of THE END OF THE LINE report.
THE END OF THE LINE – A Social Impact Evaluation
This exemplary report documents the significant changes THE END OF THE LINE produced, highlights the importance of brand partnerships, and provides useful lessons concerning social media and coordination with partners.
The film was described by The Economist as “the Inconvenient Truth about the impact of overfishing on the world’s oceans.” Produced in the UK by the invaluable Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and financed by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, this beautifully designed report is the product of an 18-month study, which used qualitative and quantitative analysis, focus groups, and media analysis. It concludes that the film had a major impact on public awareness of overfishing—directly on viewers and indirectly on nonviewers through the huge amount of press it generated. The report estimates that the PR value of this media coverage was £4,186,710, more than four times the budget of the film.
The study also concludes that the film helped create “a tipping point in corporate policy” that spurred a number of corporations to switch to sustainable sources of fish. The upscale grocery chain Waitrose sponsored the film’s release and promoted it in their stores, giving customers postcards about film and the importance of buying sustainable fish. The classy Prêt A Manger chain of sandwich shops totally changed its fish buying policy after its founder saw the film.
When I interviewed the visionary Jess Search (CEO of BRITDOC and co-creator of the report with her colleague Beadie Finzi) about the report, she shared her belief that businesses are “engines of change.” Top-down change (requiring legislation and/or elections) and bottom-up change (requiring widespread grassroots involvement) are very difficult to achieve, but if you can persuade corporate decision-makers that the change you are seeking is in their interest, hundreds of thousands of consumers can be affected.
BEYOND THE BOX OFFICE – New Documentary Valuations
This pioneering study assesses the true value of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH in the UK. Jess Search conducted research concerning AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH over a two-year period for her MBA dissertation. After calculating the film’s financial returns, Jess tackled the complex task of examining and quantifying the social good the film created.
The dissertation explores alternative ways of assessing the social impact of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. One approach would be to “measure and then value the effects of the film” from swaying public opinion to changing behavior and reducing carbon emissions. The film generated extensive press coverage, which reached people who saw the film in theaters, on TV, or on DVD as well as many more people who never saw it, but learned about global warming through this coverage. The dissertation estimates the advertising value of this media at £3,732,000. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH dramatically increased the press coverage of global warming, which continues to this day.
Seeing the film inspired the CEO of the Marks and Spencer chain to radically cut the company’s electricity usage while increasing its use of renewable electric power. Around £200 million is being invested over five years to transform the core business, which is on-track “to become carbon neutral by 2012.” The M&S website highlights the company’s goal of “becoming the world’s most sustainable major retailer.”
While it would be possible “to interview a selection of UK companies to discover if corporate policy had changed as a result of the film, and, if so, gather facts and figures on the carbon impact of these changes,” it would be very time consuming, labor intensive, and expensive.
Instead the dissertation uses an alternative “willingness to pay” technique for determining social value. As the study notes, contingent valuation surveys are used by environmental economists “to ascribe a dollar value to things like clean air and biodiversity in forests which had previously been attributed with no economic value.” In 1990 the US government used a major “willingness to pay” study to calculate damages in the Exxon Valdez case. Since then libraries, museums, and other subsidized institutions have used this approach to demonstrate their worth.
Jess applied this technique to film for the first time. She did a “willingness to pay” study to determine the intrinsic value placed on AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH by UK citizens. People who agreed with the film’s message were asked how much they would have been willing to pay to ensure the film was released in cinemas and on TV. Of those surveyed by YouGov, 54% would have been willing to pay something to ensure that others had the opportunity to see the film: 5% would have contributed £82.75 | 2% - £28 | 10% - £14 | 26% - £7 | 9% - £3.50 | 2% - £0.89. The results were similar for men and women, and also across economic classes “perhaps contradicting ideas that the environment is a more middle class pre-occupation.”
Extrapolating from those surveyed to the adult British population, the dissertation gives AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH an intrinsic valuation of £73,411,565. When this value is combined with the estimated advertising value (£3,732,000) and the film’s estimated UK profits (£1,258,972), the social return on investment in the UK for AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH is a whopping 57:1.
The paper demonstrates that the “willingness to pay” approach can be applied usefully to film. The dissertation makes a compelling case that “willingness to pay” studies may be the most practical method for evaluating the impacts of many social issue documentaries. Using a “willingness to pay” approach could provide a way to compare the impact of different films. Filmmakers seeking funding could also do preliminary research to show there’s significant interest in the topic of their film.
WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN”
This substantial study analyzes the impact of WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN” on viewers’ perceptions and attitudes. It examines how successful the film was in changing their views of the US education system. The study also highlights which content was most effective and which was least effective.
The paper concludes that “WAITING FOR ‘SUPERMAN” had a notable effect on audience perceptions of education in the US” and that “the film increased general understanding and elevated concerns over a number of problems plaguing public education.” The report described the film as “one of the most expansive communication campaigns concerning education in America to date.”
However the research showed that many viewers complained that the film didn’t make clear what they could do to improve things. Directives such as “get involved in your child’s education” were vague, and “offered no actionable items for individuals.” Audiences also felt that the film “failed to discuss many of the larger social issues that contribute to low-performing students and schools.” As one respondent noted “bad teachers and bad unions are not the only impediment to educational success… poverty, parenting, resources, and curriculum are just as important.” Viewers also felt that “there was a general overemphasis on charter schools.”
Viewers did respond quite well to the characters in the film and found the charter school lottery a compelling metaphor for the state of US public education. Reactions to the film differed sharply between educators and the general public. Overall general audiences and the press “reviewed the film favorably, giving the film an average rating of four stars out of a possible five.” Teachers disagreed sharply, giving the film an average of 2 stars and challenging the film’s “depiction of teachers and unions as simplistic.”
The report also looked at the ripple effect on organizations that were affiliated with the film’s outreach effort. DonorsChoose.org increased its individual users by 75,000 in 2010 and generated $2.1 million in pledges to fund classroom projects across the country. Being affiliated with WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN” also helped the United Way establish itself as a central player in the education world and changed the way it works within local communities. The lesson for other filmmakers is that “garnering early support from reputable affiliates currently working on a social issue can greatly assist both parties.”
The report notes that although the film played in US theaters for 13 weeks grossing $6.4 million and had 149,000 followers on Facebook as of March 18, 2011, it was “unable to foster a national conversation among those not previously invested in the education reform debate.” However, the study also noted that WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN” was “successful at reinforcing a commitment to teaching among those already in the profession.” One teaching student said, “the film illuminated for her how important teachers are to the success of their students.”
Debika Shome, the Harmony Institute’s Deputy Director, explained that the report had enabled the Institute to refine its methodology for measuring the success of media.
While the report is an internal document, the strikingly-designed highlights are available here.
These three studies mark the beginning of a new era of impact evaluation. They expand our understanding of how films can create real change. They include concrete examples of the significant effects of these films on corporations, consumers, and nonprofits. The reports also explore ways of tracking, measuring, and valuing impacts. Their methodologies will be used and refined by other researchers.
More cutting-edge research on documentaries and features will enable independents to prove that films can make a difference. Filmmakers who learn how others have achieved social impact will be empowered to make films that can truly change the world.
Crowdfunding has taken off. The most successful film projects are now raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, when not that long ago they were raising tens of thousands. The top three films in the Kickstarter Hall of Fame are BLUE LIKE JAZZ ($345,992), THE PRICE ($161,774), and I AM I ($111,965).
Unlike BLUE LIKE JAZZ and THE PRICE which are both based on material written by authors with large and loyal followings, I AM I is an excellent example of how to build support for an original script. After seeing my presentations on crowdfunding, writer-director Jocelyn Towne and her producers Cora Olson and Jen Dubin from Present Pictures (GOOD DICK) convinced an investor to match up to $100,000 in donations. They built a solid website, calibrated their reward levels, planned the stages of their campaign, and created a great video. Done in one long carefully choreographed take, viewer’s found this humorous video irresistible. Read More...
The remarkable story of FOOD MATTERS illuminates key principles of hybrid distribution and online entrepreneurship. It also demonstrates that determined first-time filmmakers with no prior distribution experience can succeed in the New World of Distribution.
FOOD MATTERS is a provocative feature-length documentary best summed up by the Hippocrates quote: “Let thy food be thy medicine.” I consulted with James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch (its Australian, producer-director/ husband-and-wife team) via Skype in the summer of 2008 as they were starting distribution. I finally met them in Sydney in October 2010, where we participated in the inimitable SPAA Fringe conference. By then they had sold 150,000 DVDs. Two months later they did a Christmas promotion online, offering the film for half price. They sold 4,500 DVDs in seven days, their best week ever, two and a half years into their distribution. They have now sold 175,000 DVDs and counting. Read More...
Crowdfunding has exploded. More and more filmmakers are raising money through online donations.
In the early days of crowdfunding, only a few independents managed to raise money for individual projects directly from their websites. Then two new web platforms were created (IndieGoGo and Kickstarter) that made crowdfunding accessible far and wide. Read More...
5,504 miles from Hollywood in Tampere, Finland, five “students and unemployed people” began reinventing moviemaking out of sheer necessity. Lacking the experience and resources to make STAR WRECK: IN THE PIRKINNING their ambitious sci-fi parody, they built a vibrant global community around the production, demonstrating the power of what they call “social filmmaking.” Read More...
In her quest to change the world, Franny Armstrong has already changed how films can be funded. She designed an innovative “crowd-funding” strategy that has raised over $1 million dollars--£590,000 for the production and distribution of her new feature THE AGE OF STUPID and £164,321 for the Not Stupid social action campaign. A documentary/fiction hybrid, THE AGE OF STUPID is set in the “devastated world of 2055,” where a lone archivist (played by Oscar-nominated Pete Postlethwaite) views footage from 2008 and asks “why we didn’t stop climate change when we had the chance.” Read More...
Jill Sobule is as irresistible online as she is on stage. Her persona on the web is so distinctive and compelling that she’s been able to finance her new album with $85,000 in online contributions. Jill is a singer/songwriter whose music is a unique blend of the deeply personal, the socially conscious, and the slyly satirical. Her provocative 1995 hit single “I Kissed a Girl” was the first song with overtly gay content ever played on Top 40 radio, and the hit MTV music video is now a classic. Read More...
BusinessWeek posted an illuminating feature, “Indie Filmmakers Hit Their Target,” analyzing how independents are taking control of their own marketing and distribution. The article explores “the transformation of the film industry” and documents how filmmakers are “skipping [conventional] deals and using the Internet to get their stories in front of people who want to hear them.” The website also includes a useful slideshow with commentary. Read More...
Every independent filmmaker should be building and nurturing a core personal audience. The bigger and more loyal the audience, the greater the revenues and creative freedom for the filmmaker. Read More...
Filmmakers who control their distribution can be as creative bringing their films into the world as they are making them. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice are the poster couple for distribution as a creative act. Read More...
Aspiring to be a superstar? Trying to connect with your fans? Determined to build a core audience? Make it happen online. Create direct relationships with viewers around the world and turn them into loyal supporters of your work. Read More...
It’s not a secret weapon. It’s so powerful that sites ranging from Wikipedia to Ebay couldn’t exist without it. I emphasize its importance every time I do a presentation and talk about it with all of my clients. But “user contributed content” is hard to define and harder to understand. Read More...
I want to devote my first mailing to Digimart, the remarkable global summit that brought together digital distribution leaders from around the world. They came from China, South Africa, Australia, Peru, Brazil, as well as across Europe and North America, to share the lessons learned on the cutting edge of film and video distribution. Read More...