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Film Rights Aren’t Sacred. Just Give Your Audience a Reason to Buy.

Film Rights Aren't Sacred. Just Give Your Audience a Reason to Buy.

There’s nothing sacred about traditional film rights; studios created them in reaction to technology. TV was invented, studios created television divisions; VHS arrived, home video divisions followed. Today, filmmakers can follow their examples by creating “products” for their films. There’s three major categories: Live Event/Theatrical; Merchandise and Digital. (There’s a fourth, Immersive, but that’s big enough to demand a separate article.) Each is a unique consumer experience and, as the filmmaker, you should consider which is best for your film.

Live Event/Theatrical
Consumer Appeal:
Live, communal and unavailable anywhere else.
Filmmaker Appeal: Provides the widest possible theatrical release.

This category is a big one; it includes film festivals, one-night events and any screening in front of an audience without concern as to venue, length of run, pay or unpaid. In this model, a packed one-night screening is more valuable to the filmmaker and audience than a week of partially filled (or unfilled) theaters.

“Note by Note” had Steinway bring the actual piano the film was based on to screenings across the United States and arranged for pianists to perform concerts in the theaters. “Ride the Divide” had concerts, bike valets and relationships with local and national bike organizations. Kevin Smith’s “Red State” tour is another strong example, as is Francis Ford Coppola’s forthcoming tour with “Twixt” in which he will remix the film live ala Peter Greenaway’s “Tulse Luper Suitcases.”

For “The Best and the Brightest,” more people saw the film, the audience was more engaged (sold-out screenings with stars appearing at one-night events), the film made more money and the filmmakers created a tremendous amount of grassroots awareness. Unfortunately, the traditional press still functions to service traditional theatrical, so it was only after they booked the film in NY and LA (compared to the 28 cities that hosted preview screenings) that they secured mainstream film reviews as well as network television interviews for their stars. (My fervent hope: The growing success of live event/theatrical will persuade the traditional media that a film doesn’t need a conventional theatrical release to be newsworthy.)

Consumer Appeal:
It’s all about object/identity: I want that object because it has some intrinsic value and expresses something about me.
Filmmaker Appeal: Merch! It’s hard money for hard goods.

My opinion: DVD sales are suffering because they are essentially 0s and 1s in a crap plastic box. If you can get them online cheaply, or for free – why clog your shelves with these ugly boxes?

“Ride the Divide” created living-room screening kits that included the film as well as sponsored merchandise all in a nice wood box. For “Sita Sings the Blues,” artist and filmmaker Nina Paley created a variety of merchandise all using the filmmaker’s unique visual style.

I am a huge fan of the products that Factory 25 puts out in unique packaging, including soundtrack on vinyl, poster, DVD all in a beautiful package. Here is a video showing how the product works for one of their recent releases You Won’t Miss Me:

Digital Rights
Consumer Appeal:
It’s what you want where and when you want it.
Filmmaker Appeal: You have immediate access to the widest possible audience.

To be clear: The convergence of television/cable and broadband delivery can be a minefield to negotiate. But it’s important to put these rights in relationship to each other so you can satisfy a common consumer experience — the need to watch the film “how I want it, where I want it and on the digital device that I own.”

It’s nearly impossible for an indie to bend audiences to their preferred mode of release. If your goal is to reach as many people as possible, get the film on as many platforms as possible. If you only have the resources to create one-time awareness for the film, then you must maximize those PR and ad effort into sales. This is why we have “Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul” available on as many digital platforms as possible at launch (in addition to a paperback for those who still like to read a physical book). We could issue free copies for a limited time because we received sponsorship and in this way the work will saturate our target audience.

For many independent filmmakers who might have their film on iTunes, Amazon VOD and perhaps a couple of other commercial platforms, it also makes sense to use a direct-to-fan broadband VOD service such as Dynamo, Distrify or EggUp. With each of these sites you can turn off territories selectively so as to avoid conflicts with television sales.

Jon Reiss is a filmmaker who also helps filmmakers strategize and execute the releases of their films and train their PMDs. He has co-authored a new book with The Film Collaborative and Sheri Candler titled “Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul,” sponsored by Prescreen, Area23a Movie Events and Dynamo Player. His latest “film,” “Bomb It 2,” will be released on iTunes and other digital platforms later this year. He can be reached at:, on Facebook and on Twitter.

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Ron Merk

Call me old-fashioned (and you probably will), but after 4 decades in the film business and making a good living from traditional distribution, I saw my livelihood "traded" for the democratization of film-making and film distribution. I actually didn't make the trade myself. The reason studios and professional filmmakers create these product lines like TV, home video, etc., is that it costs money to make films, and films need to earn back their costs if we're to continue to the next project. Simple economics which most harbingers of the new world of film seem to ignore, and hardly ever address in their diatribes about artistic and economic freedom. I've always been involved on both sides of the aisle with my films, production and distribution. So, I understand the beast better than most indie filmmakers. If you want to make films, I think that's where your effort should go, not spending three years afterward trying to find an audience, or creating "products" that help sell your film. If that's how we have to pay for our films, then we've gone to working for minimum wage. Sounds more like a hobby than a business. We need to get back to a model that will reasonably provide what filmmakers need: respect, remuneration for their labors, and a return on investment. The three R's I like to call them. I think it's possible. But we have to get out of this model in which we seem to be stuck: I want to download everything for free, and I don't care who had to pay to make it. This kind of "entitlement" on the part of people is exactly what's wrong with the whole system. Nothing in this life is free. SOMEONE HAS TO PAY FOR IT. I also think that we have to disavow the idea that everyone is an artist and can make movies just because they own the digital cameras and editing suites. It simply is not true, and it's another form of entitlement….that we're all "special." We're not. That's why there are only a few "greats" in the pantheon of filmmaking. It all ultimately gets back to two things: economics and education. We need to begin focusing on these. Learn the basics of both, learn the rules, and then find ways to break the rules creatively. The future is connected to the past. History is part of our story. And I'm just so tired of "people with public forums" (like many who write about the film industry) who neglect this fact. I say fact, because this is not an opinion. We can develop new models that make economic sense, but we have to throw away the misguided notion that filmmaking is fun, a hobby, and everyone can do it. No, it's hard work, and most people have no clue as to make the "toy" work.

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