I just returned from another exhausting, exciting trip to Sundance and wanted to share with you the DIY indie film distribution and marketing tricks I learned.
Things are seriously popping on this topic, so a warning: this is a long post. Get a cup of soy hot chocolate and a danish and get comfy.
I attended four different indie distribution panels/clinics/summits/confabs, in addition to talking with dozens of individual filmmakers one-on-one. Here are the three key themes I heard time and time again about distribution and marketing low budget DIY indie films:
1) Making a film is not enough. You need to become a marketing and distribution guru too.
2) And you need to be innovative and creative about how you do it. Be unconventional while reaching your audience in a way that's both unique and true to the specific audience.
3) The single best way to ensure you'll recoup your production (and distribution) costs is to keep costs low. Very low. We're talking six figures and way under. The vast majority of $250,000 - $5M movies without stars are DOA from a business perspective, particularly if they are not genre films.
So now, low and behold, us DIY filmmakers are the ones making the microbudget films that have a chance of turning a profit, because we're such damn cheapstakes. Aren't we lucky.
Longtime readers know that I've been crowing on for years about how you shouldn't expect anyone to distribute your film for you -- that DIY filmmakers need to be prepared to distribute their films themselves.
This is now conventional wisdom.
That's why we're planning to self-distribute our sci-fi feature, In-World War (currently starting post-production) -- and why we've been blogging (and now tweeting) about the film literally years in advance of the release of the film.
But this year's Sundance made it clear that the bulk of indie filmmakers get it at last and are turning their prodigious creative talents to the problem of distribution. Out of this cauldron of desperation and resulting "no rules" marketing innovation, whole new paradigms and channels for indie film distribution are being pioneered.
It's an exciting time (unless you want to make a bunch of money on your film, in which case, you're still screwed).
If you want to make indie DIY films, you should be paying attention.
I took a bunch of notes of the ideas and suggestions that resonated best for me. These comprised only about 1% of the topics and strategies that were discussed, proving once again that if you consider yourself an indie filmmaker, you should be at Sundance to experience the whole fire hose of indie guts and glory -- and to learn from the others who face the same challenges.
Why recreate the wheel when you can just go shopping at the tire store?
Since you couldn't make it, here are my notes. Steal these ideas for your film's distribution. Seriously.
[BTW, Sundance is notoriously expensive, but you need to go anyway if you consider yourself an indie DIY filmmaker. To find out my tips for going to Sundance on the cheap, check out my post from last year: Secrets of Sundance.]
The must-get book.
Everyone was talking about it. Even when the author wasn't in the room. Buy it now:
Thinking Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Era
By Jon Reiss
VOD is where the action is at, increasingly.
In two of the key distribution events I attended, VOD (video-on-demand) was a hot topic for indie distribution. It's increasingly seen as a strong revenue source, if (and this is a big if) you can get your film on VOD systems of the big MSOs (cable operators like Comcast, Time-Warner, etc.). Some quick stats and notes from the VOD world:
- You won't be selling your film directly to Comcast, but instead will go through an aggregator like Gravitas.
- Because of this, expect to get about 35% (at most) of the consumer price back to the filmmaker.
- Over the 18 months of Magnolia's day-and-date VOD strategy (where films are released on VOD on the same "day and date" as they are in theaters), $100,000 is a solid performance though it can be lower or higher, depending on the film. But that's gross, so with the (estimated) 35% cut going to the filmmaker, we're looking more at $35,000 net to the filmmaker if you get on nationwide cable VOD and don't screw up too badly.
- Yeah, that still kinda sucks. Let's hope you didn't pay too much to make the film in the first place. Har har.
- Also, look into Distribber. They are doing some interesting things and seems like a simple way to get on iTunes and soon other sites. And they give you 100% of the royalty (!!!).
DVD is still king.
No doubt, but DVD is dying. But it still accounts for 80% of the "home video" revenues. VOD is now starting to emerge as a factor with 20% of the revenue, but still has a long way to go before it eclipses DVD. Unless you're willing to ignore 80% of your potential revenue, you should plan to release a DVD. There's a lot to be said about DVDs, but it's the last time I'll mention it directly in this post. DVD is so not sexy for us forward-thinking indie maverick rebels. It barely got a mention.
Genre films play well on VOD.
Turns out, when the film has no stars, the audience gravitates toward genre. So, horror does well. As does sci-fi. Am I happy? You betcha.
Getting "merchandised" is the key to VOD success.
"Merchandising" is the term for promoting and highlighting a film (or any product) within the store that sells it. So while it might be great getting your film on iTunes, it's INSANELY GREAT to get it listed as a Recommended Staff Pick. Think of all the people who will be exposed to your film if it's featured in some way like that. That's the difference that merchandising can make. So ask your VOD/digital aggregator and any sites you approach directly: how do we get merchandised to go big? (Same is true for DVD -- whoops, mentioned it again accidentally.)
YouTube is now offering paid VOD for feature films online.
A week ago, YouTube started with a small fistful of recent Sundance films, but are seeking more indie filmmakers to join up for the paid VOD trial. This could be huge and we will soon see some film recoup 100% of their production costs (and then some) from YouTube. Watch for the story of the breakout hit that banks it on YouTube alone.
YouTube vs. cable VOD vs. theatrical.
The cable VOD people don't like you to distribute your film first or at the same time as you're on their VOD system. Yet, it makes sense to offer the film a variety of ways at the same time, since you can better maximize your marketing and publicity window. The best idea comes from Peter Broderick: better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. Just do it, don't tell them and kiss up when (if) they find out. Odds are, you're just another piece on the assembly line to them anyway and no one will notice. A smart plan might find the film available in a DIY-day-and-date manner: in theater(s), on cable VOD, on iTunes, available for DVD purchase on your website and on YouTube for paid VOD. Plus you'll offer the DVDs and tie-in products for sale at the theater too, after the Q&A. Milk it baby.
Doing your own theatrical.
Self-distributing your film in theaters is not for the faint of heart. I should know since we did it with our previous feature, Quality of Life. However, this is one of the areas where there's a lot of great innovation and creative thinking going on by indie/DIY filmmakers. Basically, the overriding rule here is to be nontraditional. Do NOT simply book a theater and buy ads. Go off the rails.
Do a live event with each screening.
Find a way to wrap in a cool live event with each screening. It could be a party at a bar (co-sponsored by a local organization that ties into the theme of your film). It could be a concert (if your film has a music hook). It could be an art show (if your film has some art component you can exploit). It is more logistics, but if you partner with someone who is trying to reach the same audience and also wants to travel to all these places (i.e. a band on tour), you're golden. Richard Abramowitz said he's starting a distribution company focused on films with strong event tie-ins especially around music, so talk to him if you think this could work for you.
If your film's a comedy, partner with comedy clubs.
This is really brilliant. If you have comedians in your film, why not book a comedy tour with the film tour? They can promote the film and you give them a hook to work with to bring an audience in. Not my idea, but one I'll gladly steal when I do a comedy (perhaps my next film).
Think like a doc: be a cause.
My fellow narrative filmmakers have a thing or two to learn from our documentary comrades. Since docs have no real biz plan outside of a golden-ticket moment on PBS, doc filmmakers have adapted and become adept at activating their audiences in creative ways. Generally, they attach themselves to a cause and make it clear that their film is part of the movement. Anyone passionate about the cause would be remiss if they don't see or buy the film. For many indie narrative films, we can do the same thing and that's what we did with Quality of Life. We focused on the graffiti/street art movement from the earliest phases of writing, kept the film authentic, involved people steeped in the subculture through the writing, production and distribution and then became an iconic film for the movement. Ask yourself: what's your cause?
Find local partners.
Partner with local organizations who are a good fit for your film. The fantastic film Mine by my pal Geralyn Pezanoski is a great example of this. She is partnering with animal rescue and related orgs in order to reach out to her core audience. Better still if you partner with a national organization that has local chapters in most major cities.
Think outside the movie theater.
Theatrical doesn't have to mean traditional theaters or even traditional art house theaters (don't get me started about Landmark Cinemas). Think of other venues to show your film: schools, community centers, art galleries, house parties, pizza joints, even bars. If you want to get crazy and the weather is good, do a guerrilla screening on the side of building in a parking lot -- you might get arrested, but you'd become a legend in that town (if you don't ask for permission, which is an option to consider).
Go on a college tour.
You know who has great facilities for showing films and does so on a daily basis: colleges. If your film has a particularly strong potential with the college audience, consider a screening, panel and other outreach at the National Association of Campus Activities events (both national and regional). These are the people that bring films and filmmakers to their campuses: and they PAY for them. One filmmaker charged each school $1000 to show the film and $5000 if the filmmakers and stars came too. That adds up real quick.
Get off the beaten path in a clever way.
Naturally, we think we want to show our film in the top twenty markets nationwide. However, consider other options. Smaller metros with more conservative populations might be smart places for lefty fare that is too tame for jaded New Yorkers, but like a cool breeze on a hot day for the minority liberals who live these Red State burgs. In that case, look to the South my friends. If you're a Christian filmmaker, Bible Belt exburbs beckon while LA, SF and NYC might be better left to those with fornication and depravity in their films (as for me, I know which opening night party I'd rather attend...).
Tranny is the answer.
Transmedia that is. What is transmedia? Look it up. In short: don't just think of your film as a film. Think of it as a story machine from which you can spin off other stories in other mediums: webisodes, comics, books, music, games and so on. Imagine that you are George Lucas and the only way you're going to make money from Star Wars is by creating a whole huge universe of stuff for people to engage with. Do that with your film and you'll have multiple, content-rich doorways to your film. You'll stop thinking of it as a film. The film is just one output of the story machine. Once you have the audience, serve them other stories from the same story machine. Basically, you're taking a page from Hollywood. There's a reason why we get all these damn sequels. It's because transmedia works as a way to get more dollars fromthe same audience. This is probably the most important idea in this whole long tortured article. Don't ignore your tranny future!
Transmedia gurus and thinkers.
I'm sure there will be others, but these three were mentioned:
- Power to the Pixel: far as I can tell, a "cross-media" consulting company with a blog, events and lots of free goodies and ideas. They're Brits, so everything sounds brilliant, just brilliant.
- Henry Jenkins' blog: a leading academic/fan (an "aca-fan" as he unfortunately calls himself) of transmedia with a fertile mind and USC chair.
- Christy Dena: an Australian of cross-platform, transmedia DNA. Saw her talk via Skype video as part of a Filmmaker Summit at Slamdance and was quite impressed. Her blog has pics from her trip to the last Power of the Pixel event, so you know this community is tight.
Ask your team for tastemakers.
Your biggest asset is your network and I mean "your" in the plural sense: the network for your entire team: cast, crew, caterer, friends and family. This was great advice that I don't do often enough: Ask each team-member: who do you know that other people might listen to? What tastemakers do you know? What about famous people and/or others that people respect -- particularly among your target audience. People will surprise you with the contacts that they have, when asked. Even Oprah has a good friend or two that isn't famous and might make an introduction. What if that friend was your accountant and you never asked?
Facebook ads, targeting friends of fans.
I'm usually 100% opposed to paying for ads, since our precious dollars are better spent on important stuff like food for crew or hard drives. However, this is something worth trying and came as a suggestion directly from the Facebook guy on a distribution panel. Buy ads that target ONLY friends of people that are already fans of your film (via the fan page you can create on Facebook). The ads show up to these friends-of-fans indicating that the friend is a fan already, hugely increasing click-throughs. I haven't tried it, and If it turns out to be a waste of money, well, let me know.
B-side is worth talking to.
B-side has done some interesting thing pairing up music and movies. Our film was part of their MySpace movies/music tour a few years ago. They do a lot of work with film festivals so they have a huge database of indie film goers to pitch to. I have no idea what they are looking for or what their deals look like, but it was mentioned and seems worth exploring. Caveat emptor.
Paramount is making twenty $100,000 features.
No one thinks this will work. But maybe there's something that be salvaged from this announcement: after the success of Paranormal Activity, Paramount has said they will be funding twenty $100,000 films a year. I was one of the few that thought this could work, until I was reminded that Paramount is a union signatory -- they just plain can't afford union talent and crew for that price. Do-oh! Well, regardless, it's worth looking into. I'm not too proud to beg. [And for everyone offended that Paramount would dare to have us artistes work for nothing and then give up no points on the back-end, I say: welcome to DIY filmmaking. Would you rather earn nada with no budget or do it with $100,000 budget? So stop your griping and make the damn movie. You're not gonna paid either way, so might as well take the $100,000 and get the film made. If the unions let you, I mean.]
Want to sell out? Me too.
So I went up to the William Morris Endeavor exec after one panel and asked her how I can get on the pathway to representation. After all, many Indywood movies (i.e. films with real budgets whose names you know) get packaged by the big agencies. She basically said to give up, since the agency is trying to shed clients, not sign more. After further prodding, she said to try to the literary coordinators at the agencies, since they might have time to direct me to someone (who will never return my call). It's worth a try -- my soul is for sale and it's priced to move.
Why recreate the wheel? Find other filmmakers covering similar subjects or in the same genre and team up. Do a roving festival. Share lists. Swap links. Exchange media outlet and press lists. Introduce each other to theaters and niche audiences. Basically, leverage the work you're all doing to raise the visibility for all your films together. I can't believe how hard it is to cultivate an audience for a graffiti-themed film -- but I only had one to give them and I know we could have kept selling them more.
If you're making a science fiction film, let me know.
Along those lines, let's talk. My next film, In-World War, is sci-fi and I want to connect with fellow indie sci-fi filmmakers to strategize and pool our resources. That's how it's done. Email me brant at studiolomismo dot com. No joke. I have some ideas and want to hear yours.
Special thanks to everyone on all the panels and events (I couldn't begin to list them all), but above all a shout-out to the guru of indie DIY distribution, Peter Broderick. He was our mentor and key adviser when we distributed Quality of Life and continues to be the high priest at the nexus of this rag-tag band of DIY lunatics.
Last but not least, please add your own wacked-out DIY distribution/marketing idea to the comments. I just spent all night writing this (it's 2:30am), so the least you can do is expel a few characters of snark.