EDITORS NOTE: Peter Broderick’s look at the distribution concludes today at indieWIRE. While almost everyone seems to have an opinion about the state of the Old World of Distribution, the New World is much harder to assess. Although its population is growing rapidly and there are a number of boomtowns, much of it remains unexplored. There are no maps or guidebooks. Fortunately I have accompanied hundreds of filmmakers on their journeys, and many others have sent me reports from the frontiers. Here is an overview of what many independents have discovered so far about the geography of the New World:
FILM FESTIVALS are more important for most films. Because it has gotten harder to achieve theatrical distribution, filmmakers likely to get little or no exposure in theaters must make the most of festivals to start building press and public awareness. Festivals continue to play an important role in attracting distributors. But in the New World it is more likely that rights will be split among several distributors in deals signed months after the festival premiere than through an all-rights deal made at 3 AM in a condo at Sundance.
Filmmakers have begun selling DVDs at festival screenings. The documentary feature “Lumo” sold 80 DVDs at a single festival screening. Since today there are a greater number and diversity of festivals and markets than ever before, filmmakers are developing customized festival strategies, and then continually refining them as they receive invitations and start playing festivals.
In the NW (New World), a notable minority of films are skipping festivals entirely, having determined they aren’t worth the substantial investment of money time, and effort. This includes films that have avid core audiences and don’t need festivals (e.g. “The Secret“), films that have urgent political content and can’t wait for festivals (e.g. Robert Greenwald’s “Iraq for Sale“), and films that have immediate commercial opportunities which could be lost during months spent on the festival circuit.
THEATRICAL DISTRIBUTION in the NW is under the filmmaker’s control. Many filmmakers work with a booker or service deal company, enabling them to fully control their theatrical launch while retaining all their distribution rights. To secure a theatrical release in the OW (Old World), filmmakers must give a single company all their U.S. (or North American) distribution rights and total control of their film’s marketing and distribution. Some filmmakers want theatrical distribution so badly that they agree to overall deals even though there is no advance and no chance of receiving a financial return.
The current state of theatrical distribution is dismal for most independent features and documentaries. Theaters are overcrowded with studio films and higher-budget independents (including many mediocre equity-financed movies). When twenty-one new pictures open on a Friday in NY and LA, what chance do films with limited advertising budgets have?
In the NW, many filmmakers view a theatrical release as desirable but not essential. They make pragmatic assessments of the value of a theatrical run and whether they have (or can find) the resources to do one cost-effectively. Rather than hoping for wide release in hundreds of cities, they explore very limited theatrical releases in one to six markets (via regular bookings and/or four-wall arrangements in which they rent theaters and keep all ticket sales). Filmmakers determine whether the possible benefits (reviews, awareness, Academy Award eligibility, career opportunities, etc.) outweigh the costs. If they decide on a theatrical release, they need to be as diligent about managing their expectations as controlling costs. While they can hope that their initial theatrical engagements will go well enough to allow them to go wider, they must be prepared for minimal ticket sales and no expansion to other cities. Some filmmakers decide theatrical isn’t worth it and premier on television or video.
NONTHEATRICAL DISTRIBUTION can generate significant revenues for NW filmmakers. While the costs of theatrical distribution are almost always greater than the revenues, filmmakers can make money from every booking on a campus or at a museum. For each screening, an initial rental fee is paid as an advance on 35-50% of ticket sales. If filmmakers attend, they also receive a speaker’s fee, usually at least $750 plus expenses. Filmmakers also sell DVDs at these screenings. At $20 per DVD, these sales can add up quickly. Some filmmakers work through nontheatrical distributors, splitting rental fees 50/50. Others do it themselves. Benefiting from all the publicity they generated during their theatrical release, the “King Corn” filmmakers organized 150 community screenings across the country.
HOME VIDEO DISTRIBUTION is the biggest source of revenue for most filmmakers in the NW. Choosing the right retail video distributor, structuring a fair deal, and maximizing direct sales from the filmmaker’s website are all critically important. In the OW, filmmakers who make overall deals do not get to select their video distributor or structure the video deal. They are often discouraged or prohibited from selling DVDs directly. Some OW distributors believe that they are operating in a zero sum framework in which they will lose a DVD sale every time a filmmaker makes one. In the NW, most video distributors allow filmmakers to sell directly from their websites. Retail sales have often increased when filmmakers have actively promoted and sold their films online.
NW filmmakers use hybrid video distribution strategies to make the most of retail and direct sales. They often first make a limited edition DVD (just the film, no extras) available exclusively from their website and at screenings. During this window before their film is in stores or on Amazon, filmmakers can maintain their price point (since no retailers are discounting it), receive 100% of revenues within a few days of a buyer ordering it online with a credit card, and acquire the email address of every customer. After this initial window of 3 or 4 months, their home video distributor makes a retail edition of the film (enhanced with extras) available to stores, Netflix, and Amazon. The filmmaker simultaneously sells this edition from the website and at screenings. NW filmmakers often receive a greater percentage of retail video revenues through 50/50 deals or distribution fee deals than OW filmmakers make through standard royalty deals.
EDUCATIONAL DISTRIBUTION can also garner significant revenues for NW filmmakers, but the choices are more complicated than they used to be. In the OW, filmmakers who controlled their own rights often had to chose between making a deal with a home video distributor or making one with an educational distributor who would sell copies to colleges, universities, libraries, and organizations. If filmmakers made an educational deal, they usually had to agree to postpone the home video release of their film, sometimes for as long as five years. Educational distributors were afraid that once a consumer DVD was available for $25, they would no longer be able to sell their educational version for $250.
In the NW, home video rights are more valuable, so many educational distributors are learning to coexist with home video. They have shortened the window they require of exclusive educational availability and are allowing filmmakers to sell from their websites. Some filmmakers have opted to do their own educational distribution, hiring someone part-time to handle it, buying mailing lists, sending emails or postcards to educators, selling directly through their websites, and using their own fulfillment company. It is much more work and is likely to produce fewer sales than an educational distributor can, but some filmmakers would rather keep all revenues after their costs than receive a 30% royalty. Filmmakers who believe they can make more money doing it themselves should consider whether the time required could be better spent on other aspects of their distribution, such as outreach to organizations.
TELEVISION can be an important source of direct and indirect revenues. Domestic television licensing fees range from hundreds of thousands of dollars down to thousands of dollars. For films that have had little or no theatrical distribution, a national television airing may make it easier to make a retail video deal and sell DVDs. Some filmmakers let PBS air their film for no fee if they are allowed to sell spots at the head and tail of the broadcast to underwriters for sums that could total their entire budget. To maximize television sales overseas, filmmakers need a good foreign sales agent and, if it is a documentary, a version of their film that will fit a one-hour slot.
The innovative IFC First Take program demonstrates the growing importance of video on demand (VOD), which enables consumers to virtually rent individual movies for limited viewing periods. Collapsing traditional release windows, IFC First Take simultaneously launches films in theaters and on VOD through Comcast and other cable and satellite operators. The program was so successful that, this year, IFC started Festival Direct, which, skipping theaters altogether, premieres films on VOD.
DIGITAL RIGHTS are the most complicated and contentious rights in the NW. Unlike in the past when rights were clearly separated, today they often overlap. Everyone seems to want some of your digital rights. The digital rights home video distributors want may conflict with the digital rights required in the TV deal which may conflict with the rights needed by Netflix for Watch Now. Few companies are now making much money from digital downloads, but most are hoping they soon will. The notable exception is iTunes, which is best approached through one of its designated content aggregators. Filmmakers must carefully structure any deals that include digital rights so that they are complementary rather than in conflict.
Digital distribution is in its formative stages. While it is impossible to predict its future, it is clear that digital rights will become more valuable. For now, many savvy filmmakers are holding onto as many of their digital rights as possible, including the right to do digital downloads directly from their own websites. They are avoiding long non-exclusive deals. They also recognize that in many cases it isn’t be possible to separate digital rights from analog rights, and that many deals will require a mix of both.
INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION in the NW is still driven by television sales. Independents taking a hybrid approach are working with foreign sales agents to sell their rights territory-by-territory, while retaining the right to sell directly into countries where they don’t have video distribution. Many filmmakers are making their films available to consumers around the world through DVD sales and digital downloads from their websites. In the OW, many filmmakers can’t find a foreign sales agent and have no foreign distribution.
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If you’re ready to venture into the New World, here’s the best advice from the explorers and trailblazers that have gone before you:
Be strategic – In the Old World, most filmmakers have reactions not strategies. They chose the best offer from those they receive. It is essential to be proactive in the New World. You need a strategy to navigate it successfully.
Think long term – Be clear about your goals. Are you creating a business around a group of films with common content? Are you building a career as an artist with a core personal audience?
Stay flexible – Implement your strategy stage by stage and modify it as you go. You learn valuable information in every stage that will enable you to improve your plan for the next stage.
Split rights – Retain overall control of your distribution. Take a hybrid approach, dividing certain rights among distributors and retaining the right to do direct sales.
Target audiences – Research, test, and refine your approach to core audiences. Understand who is most responsive to your films, and how to reach them most effectively.
Find partners – Look for national nonprofits, websites, sponsors, and distributors to team up with to bring your film to their members, subscribers, and customers.
Build a team – Find teammates who can help with the website, outreach, fulfillment, theatrical, domestic sales, and foreign sales.
Harness the internet – Use your website to build awareness, develop a mailing list, attract user-contributed content, and make direct sales. Design a compelling site that will have a life of its own.
Be creative – Avoid formulaic distribution ruts. Apply the same creativity to distribution as production. It is often harder to bring a movie into the world than to produce it. An innovative approach to distribution can make all the difference.
Make distribution happen – Design a distribution strategy and find the distributors, partners, and teammates to help you implement it.
Life in the New World isn’t easy. Determination, persistence, and grit are required. There are no magical solutions and success is not assured. But for all the obstacles and dangers, there are unparalleled opportunities. Free at last to reach audiences directly, independent filmmakers can now take control of their distribution and reap the rewards.
(c) 2008 Peter Broderick