Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sheri Candler on "Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul"

Authors of the book are Orly Ravid and Jeffrey Winter from The Film Collaborative, Jon Reiss (author of Think Outside the Box Office /film directing adjunct professor at CalArts and acclaimed filmmaker), and Sheri Candler (film marketer/social networking expert).

What's the biggest misconception that filmmakers have about distribution?

SHERI: That there is some kind of magic distributor fairy waiting to give them a fat check and make their dreams come true. I hear many, many times filmmakers say ‘we’re artists, making films is supposed to be fun’ and I am sure thinking about the business of art isn’t fun to them. But it is imperative. As my filmmaker friend Greg Bayne says, "You may not be interested in the business but you probably like to eat."

It is your responsibility to your investors, your crew, yourself to take charge of this and have a solid plan from the outset that isn’t solely dependent on a distributor coming along and making your film whole, which is to say paying a minimum guarantee that recoups your production budget with interest. VERY few of those deals exist now, no matter what producer’s agents and distributors like to say.

Ask many questions of anyone currently working in film today and if you can get them to admit it, there aren’t big upfront deals going on, there aren’t a lot of presales going on and the likelihood of most independent films recouping is slim. Don’t base your estimations on box office returns either. Until there is a number revealed that shows how much was spent to get those returns, you don’t have a clear picture of profit. A film that has a $10 million box office may have spent $15 or $20 million to get that.

Setting aside the goal of recoupment though, it is more than possible to start building a career off of the attention you can get from a release. That’s where having a prestige festival premiere comes in. Say what you like about the films that play Sundance or how difficult it is to get in, that festival has the cache to change the life of your film and your career simply because of the amount of press coverage it receives and that is why it is so coveted and competitive.

Having the Sundance brand on your film can be very lucrative to your career IF you play it right. One of our case study films in the book, Bass Ackwards, premiered at Sundance 2010 and then launched directly after the festival instead of waiting to see if they would get picked up and released 8 months later per usual. They received a lot of publicity off of that and I hope we will see more films doing something similar this year because there were films last year that received distribution deals and little has happened since then. There were also films at Sundance last year that didn’t get distribution deals and nothing ever happened and that is a shame.

There should now be no reason to NOT have distribution, even worldwide. There are so many tools and so many websites available to filmmakers to get their films out that not having some kind of distribution is just silly. It is building attention and audience that is the problem, not distribution.

What's the most common mistake that independent filmmakers make when they consider distribution options for their film?

SHERI: Not planning for it from the start. There are decisions that need to be made very early in the process, such as who is going to love this film (I mean exact characteristics, not general demographics), how will you reach them to tell them about it, what distribution outlets will be used (is this really a theatrical title or more VOD/digital streaming?), how the audience of this particular film enjoys watching films (because this isn’t all about your screening preference, it is about their habits), whether to start building an audience from preproduction or wait, hoping to be picked up by a distributor where significant money will need to be spent to get attention? It is well and good to think the latter will happen, but if it doesn’t, it is very late to realize that all the work you planned for that company to do will be on you now when you can least afford it from a time or money perspective.

Building an audience relationship early will never hurt your chances, but it directly impacts how the film will sell. If there is a provable audience and you have done all you can to build up a relationship with a sizable group that can be immediately monetized on release, what distributor in their right mind would turn that down? It only gives you leverage in making deals. Part of that leverage is choosing the right partner who can take your film to the next level, not beg around for someone to take it on for little to no money. You also should carve out the right to sell directly because that money all goes to you, why split percentages with someone who didn’t come into the picture until the end? And keep those direct relationships with your audience going so you don’t have to start all over again on your next film.

When looking at self-distribution, what are some of the hidden obstacles a filmmaker might encounter?

SHERI: One obstacle is budgeting money to do it. Depending on how best to distribute your film, you must factor in the costs of marketing and utilizing distribution avenues. If you’re going to use the festival circuit as your theatrical, budget in the submissions fees, DVD/print copies, postage, travel for all that will attend etc.

If you are doing your own tour, you may need to four wall in some cities and that has significant costs in the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands if it is many cities.

If it is digital, factor in how much aggregator costs like Distribber or Tunecore will charge to access iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon VOD and soon Vudu.

If you plan to distribute from your own site using Dynamo Player or Distrify, you may need a little bit of technical advice for your website to integrate that in a seamless way which could cost something.

No matter what, you will need someone to drive traffic to those sites be it iTunes or your own website so there’s a salary or at least a consulting charge to advise you on how to do it best. If your website will be a prime sales location, you’ll want some SEO advice to make sure you are optimizing search engine rankings and pulling in customers. You’ll have printing costs for business cards, posters, postcards, you may need an attorney to look over contracts especially if you want to sign with a 3rd party distributor for some sales.

Despite those costs, I think all artists should be looking at some form of direct distribution. While I realize that distributing your film yourself has the connotation in the industry of lack of quality or professionalism, releasing directly to your fans is far more rewarding in the long term for the artist. I think a lot of the talk about the DIY movement in indie filmmaking has been dismissive mostly by distributors and sales agents whose roles are being diminished which is a scary prospect for them and by filmmakers who really shirk this responsibility and fear it, so it is easier to say that is only done by hacks. I think within 5 years most of these people will have moved on or changed their focus because distribution really isn’t difficult to obtain, but there will always be a role for marketing and attention getting.

The hidden obstacle is a mindset change to tell you the truth. I know that the myth surrounding the industry is if you make an extraordinary film, people will just know and money will fall out of the sky and your mansion in Beverly Hills is just there waiting for you. The truth is this is damn tough work and you will be doing waaay more than just writing a great script and bringing it to life on screen and there really isn’t much money in it, not for a long time if ever. If you can swallow that reality and say “well, I know the truth and I still need to do it” more power to you, your chances of success just went up.

How has the Internet altered the distribution world?

SHERI: It drove the prices for content down that’s for sure. When Netflix is selling unlimited movie viewing for $15 a month, basically the price of one DVD or movie ticket, things have changed. When your film can be distributed worldwide for no cost and with no one’s permission, things have changed. I think it altered it in good ways and bad ways.

Good because it enables totally unknown artists to reach people on a global scale without having to do deals, cut in outside entities for percentages, spend tons of money to reach audiences globally. Bad because now everyone can do it, which raises the noise level, the confusion level. The competition means you have to be that much louder to reach the large scale or much more surgical in your approach and be ok with reaching a small, but highly valuable niche.

Also, there is such overwhelming choice when it comes to finding content, audiences have become fractured and it is harder to reach them and harder for them to know where the “good stuff” is anymore. When there were very few choices, people just lived with what those few outlets offered. That’s bad for someone looking for the unusual, but good for someone who just wants to be spoon-fed and not have to make many decisions. I think the majority of people fall into the latter.

Up will rise the curator, another gatekeeper really, to sort the “good stuff” from the crap and those curators will have great power. It just will be very specialized, not broad interest I think. All of these online movie sites that have cropped up and basically take any film, they will not grow in power. It will be the highly specialized sites like FearNet, Cooking Network, even Troma (which is my favorite example) that will win. They are very specialized in their programming, bringing viewers the best in their niche and really creating a community and identity around their brand, those will be the big winners. There is a huge lesson here for distributors if they will pay attention. There’s more money in the niche than in the mass.

Also the overdependence on selling copies has become a losing proposition. Exact copies of your film are available for free online. Not degraded VHS, shaky camera copies, EXACT digital copies. If selling copies is your only form of revenue, you are really stuck. New business models, new revenue streams must be found by indie filmmakers or they really won’t survive.

Suing your audience into compliance isn’t going to work either. Making your work effortlessly available, for an affordable price, in a way that is convenient to your audience, that’s how you combat piracy. Also building in other revenue streams such as experiences, merchandise, sponsorships, crowd donation, those are all forms of revenue that filmmakers can use.

What were some of the smartest ideas for distribution that you came across while putting the book together?

SHERI: I especially loved distribution that took place in partnership with organizations. This is done particularly well with documentaries where a cause or special interest is involved. If the organization can see a great reason to partner, like their mission goals will be met or there is a financial incentive, then this form of distribution can work REALLY well.

Two film cases in the book characterize this kind of partnership, Ride the Divide and For the Bible Tells Me So. Narrative films will have a more difficult time with this kind of partnership unless their film has some niche interest involved.

As far as the narratives, I was really pleased to hear from many festival award films that had kept the production budgets very low were able to nearly recoup their production costs through festival screening fees. This only works if the film has been an official selection or better won an award at the prestige fests like Sundance, Cannes, Berlin.

The smaller fests want these films to play and they will pay screening fees to get them so leverage all you can from those selections and wins. Programmers will contact you to request a viewing and if they like it and want to program it, then you ask for a fee. Much of the revenue from Undertow (Contracorriente) came from festival screening fees and that was a narrative film.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that we are self publishing and distributing this book too. In fact, we felt it would be hypocritical to write a book about self distribution and then work with a publisher who would take our rights and about 90% of the revenue and then only IF we could get a publisher interested since most of us are new authors and this isn’t a mass consumer oriented book.

Typically, new authors are only offered maybe a $5,000 advance which we would have had to split between 4 people. So we had to find a way to fund our book so that we could take time to write it and develop it as the digital book format we wanted. We accomplished that through selling sponsorships. Not only has the development and the printing been paid for by the generosity of our sponsors, particularly Prescreen, Area23a Movie Events and Dynamo Player, but we are already in the black before one copy has been sold. How many authors can claim that? It also enables us to make one digital copy (a free pdf text only version) free always so there is no excuse for any filmmaker not to read this book.

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Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul Presented by Prescreen and Area23a Movie Events will be available starting September 13, 2011 on major ebook platforms such as Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook and Apple iBooks. Printed copies will also be available directly from the website and soon on Amazon and in retail bookstores. A text only pdf will be indefinitely available for free. To follow all the happenings with the book, “like” it on Facebook and follow the Twitter hashtag #syfnotsys

You can reach Sheri Candler on her website, on her Facebook page, on Twitter @shericandler and on Google+, add her to your circles.

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