The previous Distribution Bulletin - “Your Website Sucks!” - received a great response. Many subscribers found it very helpful and forwarded it to friends and colleagues. A few people took it personally, thinking it was a critique of their websites, which I assure you it was not.
I’m excited to publish the second part of this invaluable guide to creating a better website. In the first part, James Franklin and Kieran Masterton highlighted 5 critical mistakes to avoid. Here they detail 5 more serious mistakes. Their guide grows out of their work on the frontlines, building sites for independent filmmakers at Assemble and at their previous companies.
Their recommendations are practical and clear. There are very few sites that haven’t made some or many of these mistakes. After you read Part 1 and Part 2, I’d recommend doing a quick assessment of your site and making a plan to improve it. The longer you wait to make changes, the more it will cost you in lost opportunities, revenue, and impact.
- Peter Broderick
5 More Critical Website Mistakes & How to Avoid Them
by James Franklin and Kieran Masterton
Mistake #6. Not Having a Call-To-Action
Make sure people can find you!
A call-to-action is a piece of direction you give to the user viewing your website; it’s usually the action you want the user to take having visited a page on your site. The action should help you fulfill your goals. For example, a call-to-action could be “Watch now for $3.99” or “Back us now on Kickstarter!” or “Request our film when it comes to your city” - these are all strong, directive instructions to the user. It’s important each page on your site has a clear call-to-action. Don’t make the user think when looking at your website.
Some of the most common errors are: failing to link to where someone can watch or buy your film; overwhelming the user with too much choice; focusing on the wrong call-to-action (one that doesn’t serve your goals). For example, don’t put, “follow us on Twitter” front and center instead of “Rent my film on iTunes.” Be sure not to leave an old call-to-action on your site after a campaign or release window has ended. Don’t ask people to “back us on Kickstarter” after the campaign is over and don’t ask them to “request our film in your city” after your Tugg tour has finished. Make sure your calls-to-action change over time so they reflect your current goals.
- Don’t make people think
- Keep your calls to action simple and make sure you always have at least one
Mistake #7. Bad User Experience
An example of good design
Ugly design, bad user interactions, and confusing site navigation all contribute to poor conversion rates. The worse your design, the more confusing it is for users to interact with your site, the less likely they they will follow your calls-to-action. This ultimately means less sales, pledges, requests, follows, or mailing list sign ups; whatever it is you’re trying to achieve will be hindered by poor design and bad user experience.
Some key things to remember in order to avoid this problem:
Make your site’s design image driven, not text driven. Film is a visual medium and a creative product; you want to illustrate that with your design. This will also help when international audiences who don’t speak your language are viewing your website.
Maintain your film’s brand throughout - from your poster through your website and beyond. If you already have a poster, your site should use the same design style. Don’t forget your social networks- they should also be branded to create a visual connection with your other marketing materials. If users spot your trailer on YouTube and then Google your film, they should know that they’ve found the right film the instant your film’s website loads.
Ensure your site is mobile friendly. We’ve all been on the phone and followed a link on a social network to a film’s website only to be forced to pinch and zoom to read the text or play the trailer. This isn’t good enough. When you commission your site, it’s vital you make sure that it’s going to be designed to be responsive/adaptive. This will enable your site to respond and adapt to the size of the screen on which it is being viewed.
If you’re working with designers, help them determine the visual hierarchy of your site by discussing the most important content and where it’s placed. This should be driven by your current goals. Screen size plays a big part in how a user perceives the content on your site. Ask your designer how the site will look on mobile or tablet vs. on a laptop or desktop and and make sure all versions of the design achieve the film’s goals. If that goal is to sell VOD, are your calls-to-action front and centre on both mobile and desktop or are they buried and hard to find on mobile?
Mobile has now overtaken desktop as the most popular device on which to view media. At 51% vs. 42%, it’s vital that you ensure your site is accessible on mobile devices.
- Remember mobiles - check your site design on your phone and tablet
- Maintain brand or ‘look’ consistently across your site, social media, and VOD platforms
- Imagine you want to watch your film, how would do you it - check it actually connects up
Mistake #8. Not Thinking Globally
There’s nothing more frustrating than being locked out of buying a film
When you read about the latest hot indie film and follow the link to watch it, you don’t want to be greeted by a sad YouTube face or a generic “This content is not available in your region” message. Those living outside the continental United States are all too familiar with this experience. While the old world of film distribution is still focused on territory-based sales, it’s important to remember that the web is an international marketplace. You shouldn’t restrict your appeal to people from your country of origin, territories where you’ve sold your film to a distributor, or big markets like the US or UK.
Use geo-technology to be as inclusive as possible. Allow rights holders in different territories to control their release in that region but ensure that isn’t at the expense of those in the rest of the world. Releasing an international trailer with a mailing list sign-up piques audience interest, whereas a door-slam geo-blocking message infuriates your potential audience. It is also important to use inclusive language, offer internationalized pricing, and provide subtitles for your film to ensure you have the broadest appeal possible. Turn a geo-block into a geo-opportunity by asking people to sign up if the film isn’t available in their region yet. You can avoid making people feel unwelcome by using as much visual communication as possible, limiting your written content to the bare minimum, and using universal iconography to denote important functions such as buy, search, download, etc.
Ultimately, it’s about adapting your marketing to the global marketplace. This can be hard when deals with distributors appear restrictive and the technology seems daunting. Geo-detection can be used to block, but it can also be used to direct audiences to the best possible experience for them. For example, let’s say you’ve made a dark, indie thriller: you’ve had some festival success, and sold the rights to Sweden and the US. Those distributors want to exclusively promote the film in their region unimpeded by other distributors. You want them to do this as successfully as possible, after all that’s what they do best and it’s why you sold your film to them.
You also need to remember there’s an enormous audience for your film in the rest of the world. You should make sure your film is directly available from your website in all territories where no company has acquired the rights. What you need is one website that you control and has default content that’s displayed as standard around the world. The site should have an international trailer and a place to join your mailing list so that you’re growing your audience in every region of the world. The website should be capable of serving different content to users in different territories. These versions of the website should be sales focused and could be controlled by the distributors in each territory where you have a made deal.
- Geo-filter your site, trailer, and mailing list to adapt to users in different regions
- When traveling, try out your content, VOD platforms, and website from other countries
Mistake #9. Failing To Use Your Mailing List
Giving away something for free is a great way to grow a following
Mailing lists can be extremely powerful.They are a fantastic tool to connect you to your audience and to sell effectively, but they have to be used correctly.
In the age of abundance, information overload is a real problem. Fear of missing out leads consumers to look for the most direct and effective means to find out about things they don’t want to miss. The best way to ensure this is to have news delivered straight to their inbox. For this reason alone, it’s vital that you have a mailing list and take the running of your list seriously.
All too often we hear, “I had a mailing list but it didn’t really work.” Without a clear strategy, a mailing list can quickly turn into a device for spam. Here are some vital points to remember when running a mailing list:
Share don’t sell. It’s all too easy to bombard your list with spammy, buy-buy-buy-style emails that make you look desperate. Instead, try to build a relationship as you would with a person- share your experience, insights, things you find interesting, and provide extra value through exclusive behind the scenes content. Think “would I want to receive this in my already crowded inbox?”
Keep screening information local to the subscriber. Collect a user’s location when they sign up for your list and ensure they only receive event information that’s relevant to them. There’s nothing worse than living in London and reading that there are 5 screenings happening next week in Boston.
Give things away for free. This can be valuable knowledge related to the content of your film, practical information on how you made it, or free posters with every Blu-ray order. Give the mailing list subscribers something nobody else has and give it to them for free, like you would a friend. The more generous you are, the more supportive they will be on this and future films.
Don’t underestimate the relationships that can be built using mailing lists, don’t spam people, and don’t maintain total radio silence. Deliver value to people’s inboxes and you’ll be rewarded.
- Set up your mailing list
- Give people a compelling reason to join it (rather than self-promoting updates)
- Set a calendar reminder to send out something every few months
- Review your extra content - can you share something for free?
Mistake #10. Not Starting Early
The earlier you start, the bigger your final audience
Haven’t got your film’s website set up yet? Start now! Start as early as you possibly can. Doing so buys you precious time to grow an audience, forge relationships, and encourage people to feel invested in your film. It allows serendipity to happen. It’s very easy to sit back and de-prioritize your film’s website, but ultimately getting an early start will translate into crucial fan support at every stage of your film’s lifecycle.
Usually, the first 100 people who discover your film and join the mailing list will be more valuable to your distribution efforts than the last 100 people. Think of that feeling you get when you discover a band before they become popular. The same is true with films. Early adopters will often be your keenest advocates and most loyal fans. If you don’t have a place for them to interact with you and your film early on, you will lose valuable opportunities.
As soon as you have a website, your audience will be able to start following your story. Your site will enable you to show them your personality, to be memorable, and to take them on a journey with you through the planning, making and distribution of your film.
Your film’s website is a powerful asset that develops with your film. It should never be an afterthought that you throw together without thinking. Starting early means that you can have your website help you achieve each of the vital goals you set for your film.
- Don’t go for perfect first time round, get something simple up early and build on it
- Give early adopters something to do, they will support you
My Website Checklist:
1.) Register the domain name as soon as you have a name for your film
2.) Use your email to register the domain and set it to auto renew
3.) Set up a simple website and mailing list as early as possible
4.) As you progress through each stage of your film, review the following:
a.) Does my website reflect my current goals?
b.) Have I updated my mailing list with what’s happening?
c.) Is my personality coming through?
d.) Is the design attractive and consistent across all my digital presence?
5.) When you enter the distribution stage, review the following:
a.) Can people find where to buy the film?
b.) Do the site and trailers work internationally?
c.) Should I be geo-filtering to make my site more friendly internationally?
(This was a two-part series. Didn't get the first part? Want to make sure you never miss valuable information like this? The Distribution Bulletin is sent to subscribers who are working to have their films succeed in an ever-changing marketplace. If you are not already a subscriber, you can subscribe here. - Peter Broderick)
© 2016 Peter Broderick
How much is your website costing you in lost opportunities, supporters, revenue, and impact?
Your website can enable you to maximize your film’s distribution. It can also help you build a powerful personal audience and have a sustainable career. Unfortunately, few independent filmmakers understand the importance of having an effective website let alone how to build and maintain a great site.
“Independent film websites are frankly dreadful and getting worse” is the latest assessment of an expert with a broad awareness of such sites. “They lack appropriate tone, goals, direction, voice, content, usability-–the list goes on.”
Filmmakers are constantly asking me to point them to exemplary websites but there are fewer and fewer I can recommend. So I reached out to James Franklin, one of the world’s leading creators of independent film websites, and asked him to write a Distribution Bulletin on how not to design a website and how to fix the one you have (see also How Not to Negotiate a Distribution Deal). James and his teammate, Kieran Masterton, have been building film websites for over ten years. Their company, Assemble, has done exceptional work for a host of independent features and documentaries, including CITIZENFOUR, Virunga, It Follows, The Square, Cartel Land, Dirty Wars, and How to Survive a Plague.
I’m very pleased to publish – in two parts – this invaluable guide. It will empower you to assess your website, identify what you have done wrong, and learn how to improve your site. The guide is a short crash course you can’t afford not to take if you want to achieve your site’s full potential.
- Peter Broderick
10 Critical Website Mistakes & How to Avoid Them
by James Franklin and Kieran Masterton
Mistake #1. Not Having a Website
Make sure people can find you!
This should go without saying but sadly it’s far more common than you’d think. The temptation is to think that you’ll leave stuff like this to the distributor or you’ll deal with a website once you’re in post or when you get into a festival, but this is a critical error. You need a website from day one, ensuring you connect with your audience early and giving you the time to build a relationship before your film’s release.
Your film’s website is many things to many people--it’s a hub connecting all the disparate social, commercial, distribution and marketing activities that happen all around the web. It’s your film’s home on the web and wherever someone might discover your film. It’s where you want your audience to ultimately connect with your film. This ensures the strongest possible connection between, you, your film and your audience.
And no, a Facebook page alone won’t do! Why? Because with Facebook, or any other social network, you don’t own your audience, you can’t take them from one project to the next, they’re locked into someone else's network. Likewise, Facebook’s one-size-fits-all solution is not going to best serve your film or sell your film effectively. By all means have a Facebook page, but consider it one of many marketing assets, not your home on the web.
Whatever you do, don’t forget or put off creating a website for your film. Act now or you will be missing out on valuable early fans who could become influencers. Your website and mailing list are where the magic of serendipity happens.
Mistake #2. Failing to Define Clear Goals
The current goals of this site are very clear
This is about planning. Too often the strategy behind a film’s website is, “We need a big trailer and a link to buy,” but we all know selling films isn’t that easy. Likewise, a common approach is “I really like the website for film X or film Y, let’s copy that.” But what you really have to ask yourself is: what are the current goals for my film? Once you’ve established those goals, you can design how your site is going to help you achieve them.
Producing a website for an impact documentary that is in production and looking for finishing funds is very different from creating a website to sell a genre film direct to audiences in the Scandinavian market. You should plan your website carefully, lay out your current goals, whether that be funding, creating social impact, changing minds, promoting your film’s appearance in festivals or selling the film direct. The website design, layout, calls-to-action and language will all be very different depending on your goals.
Remember your site will evolve throughout the film’s life and should serve different goals at different times.
- Align your website design and layout with your current goals
- As your goals change, remember to change your website
Mistake #3. Forgetting the Basics
Put your trailer up front and center
This is fundamental but all too commonly forgotten. What you should consider to be “the basics” is going to depend on the current goals for your film. That said, there are some golden rules:
Show us the trailer, don’t hide it away on a trailer page; your trailer is the best tool you have to sell your film. Don’t make a user click through to view it.
Whatever you do don’t forget contact information. It sounds simple, but it’s vital. Email is a must and a phone number is preferred - you never know, a sales agent might call. Adding a street address to your emails will reduce the likelihood of getting caught in spam filters.
Remember your press kit and press-specific contact information. At a minimum this should be the synopsis and a small but good selection of high-res photographic stills. The more eyeballs you can get on your film the better. Give the press the best possible resources to paint your film in the best possible light. Is your film screening at festivals, and better yet, has it won awards? Don’t be shy, list your screenings, promote ticket sales, display your laurels with pride.
Don’t forget to make sure your site is as discoverable as possible. This means ensuring that each page of your site is optimized to give search engines the best chance of indexing them and accurately gathering information about them. The more optimized the content and the metadata on your pages, the more Google will reward you with traffic. Search engine optimization is a big subject. For more information read this guide to ensuring your site is discoverable.
- Make sure contact details are on the site
- Check your site’s search engine optimization (do a test search in Google)
- Check your site in social media (do a test share of the URL in Facebook or Twitter)
- Add your press kit, trailer, awards, reviews and showtimes
Mistake #4. Losing Control of Your Domain
Uh oh - where’d my site go?
This is a disaster, but a very common disaster. You’ve had an idea for a film and at the height of your excitement and motivation you register the perfect domain name. Two years of pre-production, planning, financing etc. pass and now you’re in production and you want to launch a teaser website-- but what’s happened to that domain? It’s expired and someone is cybersquatting your domain - nightmare!
The other oh-so-common version of events is that an intern or assistant registered the domain to their Hotmail address and you’re not in contact with them anymore. Your domain is one of the cheapest, but most valuable things you’ll purchase for your film and a simple administrative error can see it slip through your fingers.
Make sure you register the domain yourself to an email address you regularly use, store credit card details with the registrar, and set the domain to auto-renew. These simple tips will stop you from losing such a critical asset.
- Register your domain using an email address you use regularly
- Set your domain to auto-renew
- Save your payment details
Mistake #5. Not Being Memorable
People don’t really want to buy from a faceless corporation, particularly one they’ve never heard of. A lot of filmmakers make the mistake of wanting to hide behind a company name or brand, thinking it makes them look more professional, but don’t forget, people really want to buy things from other people.
When it comes to art or entertainment, people buy from interesting, memorable people. There’s huge fatigue among consumers in the entertainment marketplace at the moment as a result of the ridiculous abundance of content. You have to stand out, you have to ask yourself what’s going to make people care. In a world where no one has any time and yet everyone is bored, how do you make you and your film unique?
You have to make your website personal, it has to about you and it has to be authentic. Show personality, include humor if that’s you, write in the first person, but most of all, you have to be memorable. Filmmakers like Franny Armstrong, Hal Hartley, Sally Potter and Kevin Smith have all achieved this in their own unique ways, but most importantly their personality is at the heart of how they promote themselves and their work.
The success that these and many other filmmakers have had is partly to do with the personal audiences they have built. Namely the followers they have, or the following their work has. Some have built this following through email, their website and social media. Building a personal audience brings huge benefits in terms of support, resources, finances, feedback and reach. This is the ultimate goal. Nurturing a personal audience will reap the rewards on each project, but also travel from film to film, building with each project. But having a personal audience requires showing some personality.
- When sending emails, use your voice and personality - be real, be authentic
- Review how your personality comes across in the website content
- Use design to inject personality into your site
(Don’t miss Part 2 of Your Website Sucks! which will be sent to Distribution Bulletin subscribers next month. It will highlight 5 more critical mistakes and reveal how to avoid them. If you are not already a subscriber, you can subscribe here. - Peter Broderick)
© 2016 Peter Broderick
Sean Baker wills his films into the world.
He fearlessly shot his new film, Tangerine, entirely on the iPhone 5s. It dazzled audiences and critics when it premiered at Sundance and is now being released theatrically. It looks great on the big screen and has energy and style to burn. Using the iPhone was the most affordable way to shoot Tangerine, and turned out to be the very best way to make it.
Sean shot his first feature Four Letter Words in 1996 and finally finished it in 2000. Made for $80,000 with 35mm short ends, it's the only movie he has done on film. In 2004, he shot Take Out on standard definition video for $3,000 and “finished it with favors.” In 2008, he made Prince of Broadway on HD for $45,000. Then in 2012, he completed Starlet, which was filmed in HD on a $235,000 budget. Starlet received enthusiastic reviews, won the Robert Altman Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, and was distributed by Music Box Films.
After Starlet's success, “something almost happened,” Sean explained. Having made four features that received steadily increasing recognition and distribution, Sean hoped he could finally access much higher levels of financing. Only interested in directing his own scripts, Sean has been unwilling to work as a director for hire on films he didn’t write. It looked like his script Caviar about the Russian-Armenian underworld in Brooklyn was going to be financed for between $10 and $15 million. After waiting 1½ years for the money to arrive, Sean decided he would have to return to the world of micro-budget filmmaking. He contacted Mark Duplass, who agreed to put together the financing for a new film set in the world of transgender prostitutes. Sean committed to make it for less than half the cost of Starlet (i.e. under $117,500).
CHOOSING THE IPHONE INSTEAD OF A CAMERA
He began his research in the spring of 2013. While he wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, Sean began exploring how to shoot it. He couldn’t afford to use expensive digital cameras. He didn’t want to shoot on more affordable DSLR cameras, which are used on so many micro-budget features. He felt that most films made with these cameras “look the same.” He also couldn't afford to purchase a $4,000 lens to create a more distinctive look, and his limited budget wouldn't allow him to add the two or three extra video people to his crew that shooting on a DSLR would have required.
Impressed by the look of the iPad footage in Spike Lee’s feature Red Hook Summer, Sean decided to shoot a 2-minute test reel with the iPhone 5s he already had in his pocket. He showed it on a large screen at Technicolor to Mark Duplass and the other investors, and they immediately greenlit his use of the iPhone.
He then called Radium Cheung (his DP on Starlet) and asked him to be his co-cinematographer. Sean explained that when Radium, “who has spent 25 years mastering cinematography and was then shooting the TV series The Americans on 35mm” learned that he was planning to shoot the film on an iPhone, he was shocked. Radium then told Sean, “I’ll come to LA and play with you.” Sean responded, “We’re not playing. We are making a real movie. We have to embrace this and discover all the benefits.”
EXPECTED AND UNEXPECTED BENEFITS
When Tangerine was shot in December 2013, Sean and Radium experienced the significant advantages of shooting on iPhones.
It was very cost effective. They bought 3 phones, used 2 and had 1 for backup. Although they had to pay full price because they weren’t buying the phones with service contracts, they later sold 2 of them on eBay.
The other items they needed to shoot on the iPhone were very affordable:
- Filmic Pro (an $8 iPhone app) was used to lock focus and increase the phone’s compression rate.
- a Steadicam Smoothee rig ($149) was used to hold the iPhone still when shooting.
- a Moondog Lab anamorphic adapter ($160) was used to create the widescreen cinematic look of 2.35.
- a painter’s pole ($35) was used for "crane shoots" (see photo below).
It allowed unprecedented freedom of movement. Instead of being limited by camera equipment, they could move freely and quickly. A former bike messenger, Sean was able to ride his 10-speed bike in circles around the actors while shooting them with the iPhone.
It enabled them to shoot in an almost clandestine way. Using consumer phones and working with a tiny crew, they were able to shoot in challenging neighborhoods without most people knowing they were making a film. When two unsuspecting young men walked into a scene being filmed, one of the actors stayed in character and spontaneously challenged them by asking “What the f**k are you looking at?” The men had no idea they were being filmed until a producer rushed up to them and asked them to sign a release.
It made things easier for the nonprofessional leads. Already used to shooting selfies on smartphones, the actors quickly got used to performing in front of iPhones instead of being intimidated by cameras.
It facilitated the creation of a distinctive look. Shooting in such an unfettered way was perfectly suited to the story. In post, Sean and Radium added film grain as needed to the gritty material, and increased the color saturation. Tangerine is the key color throughout the film, but there are many other vivid ones suited to the visceral material.
AMBITION ON A MICRO-BUDGET
Tangerine bursts the bounds of micro-budget filmmaking.
Sean didn't follow the Mumblecore model, which his executive producer Mark Duplass and his brother Jay had used when they launched their careers. Sean explained that many Mumblecore films are limited to a single location, use very few actors, and have a short shooting schedule. Film critic Amy Taubin observed in her 2007 Film Comment piece that Mumblecore films usually focus on "young adults who are involved in heterosexual relationships and who have jobs (when they have them) in workplaces populated almost exclusively by SWMs and SWFs". Instead Sean decided to shoot a wild ensemble piece all over town about two prostitutes, played by a Latina transgender woman (Kitana Kiki Rodriquez) and a black transgender woman (Mya Taylor) who had never acted in front of a camera before. Sean was determined to not let his ambition be constrained by his budget.
Having already made four features with limited resources, Sean had the talent, experience, and teammates to do the seemingly impossible. While he writes, shoots, edits, directs, and produces, he knew he needed a great team to pull it off. He started with three of his closest collaborators - producer Shih-Ching Tsou (Takeout, Starlet), producer Darren Dean (Prince of Broadway), and co-writer and co-producer Chris Bergoch (Prince of Broadway, Starlet). Then Radium Cheung came on board, and Irin Strauss (Starlet) agreed to record location sound. The crew was very small, never more than 6 or 7.
He did agree to limit the story to the events of a single day. He had also initially promised his producers that there would be no music in the film, but eventually was able to acquire music from up-and-coming DJs and musicians via SoundCloud for a total music budget of under $1,700. He insisted that everyone get paid. Following the SAG Ultra Low Budget agreement, he paid his actors $100 a day. He wanted his cast and crew to be able to cover their rent for a few months.
Some of the movie was tightly scripted to make the most of the limited time they had in difficult locations. Many other parts of the film were loosely scripted, allowing the actors to improvise and do alternate takes.
A DIGITAL REVOLUTIONARY
Tangerine marks a new chapter in the ongoing digital filmmaking revolution.
Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration launched this revolution at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Flying the flag of the Dogme 95 movement, these filmmakers proved that films shot on inexpensive digital video cameras could succeed at the world's most important film festival.
The barriers to entering the world of independent filmmaking had fallen. Filmmakers could now afford to own the means of production - a digital camera and a laptop. If you wrote a script that could be made with resources accessible to you, no one could stop you from making a film.
(NOTE: When I saw Tangerine at Sundance, I knew I had to write a Bulletin about its significance. I was an early proponent of micro-budget filmmaking (I wrote this article and then this follow-up article in the early 90's when the movement was just beginning) and then created a finishing fund, Next Wave Films (financed by IFC Films), to provide critical support to emerging filmmakers. When I saw the future at Cannes in 1998, I became a strong advocate of digital filmmaking. Following Cannes, my Next Wave Films teammates, Mark Stolaroff and Tara Veneruso, and I did presentations about this digital filmmaking revolution at festivals around the world, made the Next Wave Films website a resource for digital filmmakers, and launched Agenda 2000, the first digital production arm. Since then, digital has become the production norm and now Sean has boldly taken micro-budget filmmaking into the future.)
Sean was truly inspired by the Dogme 95 movement. Seeing The Idiots liberated him to make his next feature Take Out on digital video with a two-person crew. Teaming up with Shih-Ching Tsou, Sean shot for 30 days around New York City. Working under the radar without permits or insurance, Sean was able "to shoot in a way where I didn't have to worry about the formality of filmmaking I learned in film school. We had the freedom to make Take Out without technical limitations, and the time to experiment." Instead of trying to light scenes perfectly, Sean could focus on "the actors and their character arcs." The Dogme 95 movement also influenced Sean's subsequent films, including Tangerine.
Sean will inspire the next generation of independent filmmakers. Deciding to shoot Tangerine on the iPhone was both a pragmatic choice and a serious aesthetic decision. He realized he couldn't make the film he really wanted to make any other way.
Sean and Radium understood the significance of using a smart phone rather than a camera. “We were shooting on a device that everybody owns. This levels that playing field. The look of the device is available to all.”
Tangerine will also show emerging filmmakers that it's possible to make truly ambitious films on a micro-budget. The achievement of the film is consistent across the board. The acting, writing, cinematography, directing, sound and music are all first rate, making for a fast, funny and moving experience. Sean is well aware of the difficulty of assessing one’s own work but did admit “I’d be entertained by it if I hadn’t made it.”
Sean has written and directed 5 features in 15 years, in addition to being a co-creator, co-writer, and co-director on the long-running cult TV show Greg the Bunny. It hasn’t been easy, but he has been single-minded about continuing to write and direct movies regardless of how much money he can raise.
Sean believes “that you have to move forwards by any means possible.” He understands that it is essential to keep making movies ‘to learn your craft.’ Shooting films on micro-budgets has taught him many lessons. In 1994, one of his friends told Sean that he didn’t want to film his script until he had all the resources in place and could make it right. "My friend is now 50 and still hasn’t made his first film."
While Sean may make a future film on an iPhone, he doesn’t want it to be his next one, which he hopes to shoot on 35mm. “I really want to get to film before it’s dead.”
Tangerine is the fruition of all his previous filmmaking experiences. It is his best film yet. I’m hopeful that great opportunities will come his way, and confident that - one way or another - he will continue to be unstoppable.
I highly recommend an article on the making of Tangerine written by my longtime colleague, producer Mark Stolaroff, who runs No Budget Film School.
© 2015 Peter Broderick
How did AGE OF CHAMPIONS succeed where countless other documentaries have failed? The film has been seen by more than 3 million viewers and has grossed over $1.2 million dollars.
Produced by Keith Ochwat and directed Christopher Rufo, AGE OF CHAMPIONS chronicles athletes who “sprint, leap, and swim for gold at the National Senior Olympics.” The film’s main characters range from 63 to 100 years old.
AGE OF CHAMPIONS premiered at Silver Docs to standing ovations in 2011. The filmmakers developed and began testing their distribution strategy in 2012 and did their major rollout in 2013. This featured a 20 state theatrical tour underwritten by AARP, which generated substantial press coverage, including appearances on NPR, CNN, and ABC.
The film was shown at many conferences and corporate events. The filmmakers also launched a national screening campaign during which over 3000 communities hosted screenings. The film was shown on PBS and is available digitally on iTunes, Hulu, and Amazon, as well as on DVD from Amazon and the film’s website.
Keith and Christopher designed a customized distribution strategy based on their content, their core audiences, the key avenues to reach them, and their potential partners. Unlike major distributors that develop distribution plans and follow them blindly no matter what happens, the AGE OF CHAMPIONS team refined their plan as they went. They continued to tweak their strategy as they encountered opportunities and challenges.
Rather than following conventional indie wisdom, they handcrafted their distribution strategy. They eagerly tried innovative approaches and new routes. They prioritized:
- Core over general audiences
- Conferences over film festivals
- Partnerships over distribution deals
- Direct over third party sales
Here are seven lessons from their success:
1) Focus On Core Audiences
Unlike filmmakers who take core audiences for granted, are afraid to be seen as too niche, or just try to reach the general public, the AGE OF CHAMPIONS team was intent on reaching their target audiences as effectively as possible. They tested potential core audiences and then focused on the ones who were the most responsive. They had assumed that senior athletes would be an eager audience but soon learned that many of them weren’t interested if they weren’t included in the film. Instead Keith and Christopher targeted professionals and volunteers dedicated to providing services to seniors. The film’s ultimate core audiences were seniors and their families.
2) Prioritize Partnerships
The filmmakers were determined to build relationships with the right national partners. They began by compiling a master list of over 250 senior-related associations, organizations, and companies. Keith and Christopher contacted them all and steadily winnowed the list down to 100, then 40, and ended up with 6 strong partners. As soon as they learned that senior living providers loved the film, they began to build win-win partnerships with them that were crucial to the film’s distribution.
Their partnerships with companies and NGOs ultimately generated over $400,000 in revenue, including speaking fees, underwriting, and sales of DVDs, screening kits, and customized materials.
They built their relationships with major partners step-by-step. AARP first gave them a $25,000 grant to support production. Then the organization screened the finished film in a few cities, where it received an enthusiastic response. After that, AARP financed a $100,000 national tour of the film. Then it became an underwriter for the PBS broadcast.
3) Design a Conference Strategy
Instead of just targeting film festivals, they explored the full range of conferences - academic, professional, and corporate. Keith and Christopher believe in “the power of the live event.” They did keynotes and presentations at 30 large conferences for free, and then spoke and screened the film at another 120 events, reaping $260,000 in screening and speaking fees. Before every conference, they analyzed who the attendees would be and what utility their film could have for them.
4) Explore Underwriting
The filmmakers made $200,000 from the companies and organizations that underwrote their broadcasts on public television across the country. While the filmmakers received no fee from PBS (PBS Plus made it available to stations for free), their costs were minimal ($350) and they made far more from underwriting than they would have received if they had been broadcast as part of a documentary strand (which would not have allowed underwriting). Numerous documentaries have tried to secure underwriting and many have failed. Rather than starting from scratch, AGE OF CHAMPIONS successfully sought underwriting from organizations that they were already partners with and ones they had previously approached for support.
5) Create Desirable Products
Keith and Christopher experimented with their offerings to determine which would be MVPs (minimum viable products), a term they learned from the book THE LEAN STARTUP by Eric Ries. Because they couldn’t anticipate which products would resonate with their intended audiences, they tested different possibilities with different groups before they finalized them. This process enabled them to refine their products and determine the best price points. The store on their website includes four types of screening licenses (that come with or without additional promotional materials) priced differently for universities, libraries, and nonprofits. They also sell products designed for consumers, including special edition dvds (with a PDF of a 120 page exercise guidebook for seniors), T-shirts, and headbands.
6) Use Email Marketing To Increase Sales
Keith and Christopher used MailChimp to execute a very effective “drip marketing” campaign. Whenever an individual bought anything from their website, she would automatically receive an email thanking her for her purchase and offering an enhanced product at a discount. For example, if the person bought a dvd she would be offered a screening kit at a reduced price. Then a month later she would receive a second email offering, which was hopefully an offer she couldn’t refuse. They were thus able to automate their upsell process with very good results.
7) Build a Distinctive Brand
Eight years ago the filmmakers set themselves up as a nonprofit and chose a distinctive name - the Documentary Foundation. Keith explained they liked it because it sounded official. The name gave two filmmakers working out of their homes the opportunity to seem more professional. They want potential partners to take them seriously and the name has been very valuable to them. They have turned down offers from people trying to buy the name from them.
Their attitude has been key to the film’s success. From the first time I consulted with them in 2011 until our recent conversations, I have been impressed by their desire to master distribution. Unlike many filmmakers who think of distribution as torture, Keith and Christopher have brought curiosity, enthusiasm, and creativity to it. They enjoy reading business strategy books, designing and testing innovative approaches, and analyzing the results so they can improve their methods. In addition to maximizing revenues, Keith and Christopher have gained invaluable experience and expertise that should enable them to make the films they are most passionate about for years to come. They are already shooting their new film, AMERICA LOST, which will reveal how three struggling cities are working to overcome the major challenges they face. I’m confident they will be able to maximize its distribution and I’m sure they will have fun doing it!
You’ve finally finished your film and have just received your first distribution offer. Now what?
Negotiation is an essential but little understood part of dealmaking. To make fair deals with good distributors, there are mistakes you must avoid and steps you need to take.
I recently gave a presentation on the secrets of negotiating distribution deals to a full house of Film Independent members. My subsequent interview for the Film Independent newsletter evolved into this Bulletin. It supplements my Special Report on festival and dealmaking strategies. It is not a comprehensive guide to negotiating distribution deals but does highlight key dos and don’ts.
8 MISTAKES TO AVOID
- Don’t submit to festivals too early. Most filmmakers do and end up regretting it. If your movie is not as good as it’s going to get but you submit anyway, you increase the already high odds of being rejected. You should resist the siren calls of festival deadlines until you’re confident you’ve made the strongest film you can make. You need to put your best foot forward with festivals, press, and distributors. Utilize test screenings with strangers (rather than family and friends) to determine if your film is ready to premiere. These screenings will help you determine what changes need to be made. Then you can test screen a new cut for another audience.
- Don’t submit your film to distributors or producer’s reps without internally having a customized distribution strategy. This strategy should include your plans for each avenue of distribution. Too many filmmakers follow the old playbook and take a formulaic approach to submitting their movies to the usual suspects without having a clear vision of how they want their films to come into the world.
- Don’t begin negotiating with distributors until you have done due diligence. You should first speak with filmmakers who are currently or have recently been in business with any companies you are seriously considering. You need to go beyond the references that distributors provide. Find out what the real experiences of other filmmakers have been - what is it like to work with the company, what have been the concrete results, and have they been paid accurately and on time. Where there is smoke, there is usually fire.
- Do not attempt to go it alone. Too many filmmakers try to handle by themselves complicated distribution issues, which they know little or nothing about. Many suffer from the rampant “I have to do it all myself” disease. Some don’t know where to turn for help and worry it will be unaffordable.
- Don’t automatically seek an all-rights deal without first having a clear understanding of the full spectrum of distribution opportunities. Magical solutions are usually too good to be true. Many filmmakers who give complete control of their distribution to one company end up regretting it.
- Don’t negotiate distribution deals yourself. DIY filmmaking can be okay and DIY distribution may work in certain circumstances, but DIY dealmaking is not recommended. Assume the person you would be negotiating with has much more experience, knowledge, and skill than you.
- Don’t be a victim of the bird-in-the-hand syndrome. If you only get a single offer, don’t be afraid to negotiate it because you are worried you will lose the deal and end up with no distribution. There’s a way to negotiate a single offer that will increase your chances of improving the deal. The key is to have an internal bottom line. The company you’re negotiating with needs to understand that if they don’t meet your bottom line (which you haven’t disclosed to them), you’re not going to sign the deal. If they believe you will sign their boilerplate contract without any changes, you will have no leverage. Never forget that no deal is better than a bad deal.
- Don’t ever negotiate by email. When you are negotiating on the phone, on Skype, or in person, you have access to valuable information, whether it is tone of voice, body language, or a pregnant pause. This additional information will give you a better sense of where the other side is flexible and what their bottom line is, and make it easier to achieve a win-win deal.
KEY STEPS TO TAKE
Identify the main distribution avenues in North America and overseas. In the United States there are ten:
Overseas, the main avenues are television and digital, with limited potential for theatrical and DVD distribution.
Design a customized distribution strategy that will include plans for each of these avenues and an overall timetable. Planning your windows is very important when you are splitting rights. Although the windows for studio films have been eroding, independents need to carefully determine the ideal sequence and lengths of each stage of their distribution. Splitting rights among several companies and retaining overall distribution control is often the best way to maximize distribution.
Build a distribution team that will include partners with expertise and experience to complement yours. Possible teammates include: foreign sales agents, producer’s reps, attorneys, theatrical bookers, publicists, outreach coordinators, web designers, social media mavens, and dvd and digital fulfillment companies (which can facilitate direct sales from their websites).
Select someone to negotiate deals for you. You need a talented and experienced negotiator who understands film distribution. Make absolutely sure that he or she is up-to-date about the latest deals, how they’re structured, and what’s most important. You don’t want to use someone who is behind the curve and can only negotiate a deal that would have been good in 2009. You need to do due diligence on your negotiator. When you find someone with the right mix of experience and skill and are satisfied with their work on your behalf, you will want to use him or her again and add them to your distribution team.
6 CRITERIA FOR DISTRIBUTION PARTNERS
- Find distributors who are effective and honest. They should have track records that demonstrate this as well as raves from other filmmakers who have worked with them.
- Find distributors who are flexible and will help you to implement your customized distribution strategy rather than requiring you to fit into a one-size-fits-all approach to distribution
- Find distributors who are willing and able to be partners. Some companies are only interested in being masters.
- Find distributors whose goals and strategy are aligned with yours. If your primary goal is maximizing career, then you should be sure that the company will do a proper release with a quality press and marketing effort. On the other hand, if you’ve mortgaged your house and sold your car to make the movie, then maximizing revenue will probably be your most important goal. If so, then you need to be confident that the company can generate substantial financial returns.
- Find distributors that will agree to let you keep your direct sales rights. It’s very important that you retain the ability to sell directly from your website—DVDs, downloads, and streams—because that’s the way you are going to generate more revenue and be able to build your mailing list and your fan base. Building an audience that you can reach directly is a fundamental part of building your career.
- Find distributors who will make fair deals, including splitting rights and revenue shares. Give them the rights they are good at exploiting and keep those they are not good at, like educational distribution. If the company is a digital aggregator (that will pitch your film to iTunes, Amazon and other places), make sure that the split is fair. Some aggregators take 50% or more of revenues, while others take 15%, 20%, or 25%. Make sure that the aggregator is “direct” with iTunes and other distributors (rather than going through a middleman). If not, a middleman will take a percentage reducing your revenues.
Almost every deal can be improved through negotiation. Approached constructively, it is an opportunity to build a partnership that will benefit both parties for years to come.
The unprecedented crowdfunding platform dana.io launches today. Filmmakers, artists, and activists around the world can use it for free. Unlike other platforms, dana.io does not take a percentage of the money raised.
This new model is based on the ancient practice of unconditional giving known as “dana,” in the Buddhist tradition. Just as Buddhist nuns and monks throughout history have been sustained by the dana offered to them by supporters, the dana.io crowdfunding platform will be freely offered for the funding of projects. The plan is that users, inspired by the concept that catalyzed the funding of their projects, will in turn voluntarily gift some of the money they raise to dana.io.
The director of dana.io, Alan Clements, shared his vision with me in a series of exclusive interviews. His passionate belief in the power of gifting grew out of his experience living as a Buddhist monk in Burma during the late 1970s and 1980s, where everything was offered openly and freely on dana: food, medicine, shelter, and the teachings themselves. After being forced out by the dictatorship, Alan became an investigative journalist, a human rights campaigner, and a media activist. After Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma's Nobel Peace laureate and leader of her country's nonviolent revolution) was released from detention, Alan collaborated with her on a series of underground conversations, which became the book, The Voice of Hope.
Here are the key features of dana.io:
- Contributions go directly to users through their payment processors
- Users choose their payment processor (PayPal will be available at launch and will be followed by Stripe; users may soon also be able to receive contributions by check and wire transfers directly into their bank accounts)
- Users receive contributions as quickly as their payment processor completes the transfer (the platform has no control of donations; no donations are held until a campaign ends)
- Users receive all of their contributions minus the payment processor’s fee (PayPal 2.9% plus 30 cents; Stripe 2.4% plus 34 cents - these are the basic fees and don’t include currency conversion charges)
- Users receive whatever they raise regardless of whether they meet their fundraising goal
- Users have complete control over their campaigns, including the ability to change their goals mid-campaign
Alan and his team are committed to engaging directly with those who want to use the platform. They are having detailed conversations with applicants and helping them develop their campaigns. They have created a substantial guide to crowdfunding for their users. They are also developing a pool of experts (many of them will volunteer their services), whom users can work with to design and implement their campaigns.
Dana.io welcomes a great diversity of projects. The team has already considered 150 applications. While anyone from anywhere in the world can apply to use the platform, as the volume of applicants increases, it is expected that the process will become more selective.
The initial group of projects, which will appear on the site over the next few weeks, includes:
- Gift: Robin McKenna’s feature documentary and cross-media project. Inspired by The Gift, Louis Hyde’s groundbreaking book, the project will chronicle gift-based cultures and ask whether life should be about getting or giving.
- Out of History: The Politics of Sex: Harry Sutherland’s transmedia presentation of LGBT history. It will take viewers from the invention of the word Homosexuality in 1869 to the Stonewall Rebellion 100 years later.
- The Corporation Film’s Get Up Off The Couch! Campaign: Kat Dodds and Mark Achbar’s campaign to launch a shorter, downloadable, and affordable version of The Corporation with an unlimited license for school and community screenings.
- Citizen Planet: The Cybernetic Global Rising: Oliver Hockenhull’s documentary essay, e-book, and net portal designed to explore aspirations of utopia and project them into the future. It’s the story of humanity’s unrequited love affair with the idea of one world, one life.
- This Kind of Love: Jeanne Hallacy’s documentary tells the story of Burma’s political transition through the homecoming of one activist who is the first openly gay civil society leader in the country.
Director Alan Clements is excited to be collaborating with “visionary artists, cultural architects, and peaceful revolutionaries.” He is committed to facilitating “conscious crowdfunding.”
Dana.io is a radical experiment. By not taking a percentage of monies raised or charging fees, the platform is working without the standard crowd-funding net. It is testing the possibility of crowdfunding a crowdfunding platform.
The development and launch of dana.io were funded by a generous gift, which will cover costs through August. By then it will be clear whether there is sufficient support from users of the platform and others who find the model compelling.
Achieving sustainability is just an interim step. All contributions beyond what is needed for day-to-day operations will be reinvested to expand services and give back to new campaigns. There are plans for: an Incubator; Crowdfunding U.; and ambassador, affiliate, consultation, and partnership programs. Also in the works is a Dana Pool funded by user contributions, which will provide additional funding to projects on the platform.
The initial goal is to lower the threshold of entry to crowdfunding. The platform is doing this by not charging a fee or percentage, providing rich information resources, and giving users access to staff and outside experts who can assist them. Another goal is to create a “nexus for skills-sharing and collaboration, a hub for the co-creation of bold visions.”
Alan would also like dana.io to explore “micro-crowdfunding” following the example of “micro-lending.” He wants to develop a method that will work for people with very limited resources who have global access for the first time through their cellphones.
The site will make use of what Alan calls “crowdgifting.” For the first 45 days, all visitors to dana.io will be able to download for free his book, A Future to Believe In: 108 Reflections on the Art and Activism of Freedom. The platform embodies the principles in the book and giving it away is perfect for the launch.
Dana.io has exciting potential. Like other platforms, it may enable many campaigns to attract critical support. But dana.io is uniquely positioned to take unconditional giving to a new level outside Buddhist practice. If a crowdfunding platform built on dana succeeds, it could catalyze the application of dana to many other areas of life. This gamble on generosity could have revolutionary results.
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...