After a few years operating primarily as a direct-to-fan distributor for musicians, Topspin Media helped Kevin Smith deliver on his bold claim at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival that he would go against the industry standard and self-distribute his festival film "Red State."
Topspin Media is a software company that allows you to sell or give away downloads of media in conjunction with selling physical ancillary products tied to the media. Topspin also offers an internal marketing team or a list of agencies they've worked with before for those that are interested. As for costs for the filmmaker, Topspin has a modest subscription fee, takes a commission off sales, and charges for their optional marketing services.
Topspin's VP of Product and Marketing Bob Moczydlowsky explained to Indiewire that the "Red State" test case proved that the model could work for film. "If the filmmaker wants to be an entrepreneur and develop a direct connection to the audience, it makes sense. I'd rather sell to those people myself, and partner with other folks, like Netflix, to reach the masses. We wanted to team with Sundance Artist Services, and as a result, we started working with Stacy Peralta. As of now, after our success with Stacy, we're actively seeking filmmakers." Moczydlowsky presented his "Bones Brigade" plan last month at Sundance, in a Sundance Artist Services self-distribution panel shared with a case study on Ava DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere."
According to a blog post on the Topspin website, the filmmakers made a monumentally more profitable decision by selling direct-to-fan in addition to selling other domestic and international rights piecemeal, over two they say they were offered to buy up domestic and international rights separately. These more traditional all-rights deals are the same kind that Peralta used for his past films.
After speaking with Topspin about the direct-to-fan numbers while looking at them (the numbers were not made available to publish), it was clear that it was a good decision for "Bones Brigade" to engage in a robust direct-to-fan campaign. The numbers were good, but (as you can see by looking at the pie charts on the Topspin blog) those numbers are especially good because the "Bones Brigade" made individual deals across platforms themselves, without dealing with a distributor middle man.
Moczydlowsky shared with Indiewire why he thinks Topspin's Direct-to-Fan strategy could be reproduced by other filmmaker. Here are some of the ways he thinks filmmakers should think outside of the box:
Filmmakers don't need to sell their film to make money.
The "Bones Brigade" team gave away Peralta's previous film "The Search for Animal Chin" in exchange for submitting an email address to Peralta's mailing list.
"One of the things we found often works is to give away free downloads in exchange for signing up for an email list or to incentivize tweeting," Moczydlowsky explained. "You can also sell merchandise, and with us, Topspin handles the physical fulfillment."
Filmmakers can see what methods of reaching out to fans actually worked.
"Our software can tell you where people came from before they bought something. We can actually tell you to the penny from a Tony Hawk tweet or given away by giving away free downloads, BitTorrent."
Filmmakers can know more about their fans.
"If you gave me a fan on the 'Bones Brigade' mailing list, I can show you what their social profile is like online."
People actually want to sign up for filmmakers' mailing lists.
"Who do people trust to recommend things: Artists. Do you want emails from J Crew? Fuck J Crew. But who doesn't want to get an email from an artist like John Waters? John Waters is a person you want to get an email from once a month. That's real power, leverage for those artists… In a world where it's hard to get people to pay attention to things, if you develop your fanbase, you have leverage to do things like raise money on Kickstarter. " [Topspin does not currently have a relationship with John Waters.]
All you need to sell something as an artist is 2500 fans following your work.
"Until you have between 2000 and 2500 on a mailing list, you don't sell anything. But at that point, you also have a healthy Facebook or web presence. Outside of your friends, family and cousins, that's really all it needs to be. We live in a world where we consume things people tell us that they love. Every time I recommend an album on social media, I get about 15 to 20 people to check it out."
If filmmakers are in control of their distribution channels, they can choose where to market and sell their product.
The Topspin team worked with BitTorrent to develop a promotion with the peer-to-peer downloading site BitTorrent.com.
From the Topspin blog:
This placement created millions of impressions of the offer, just like a very expensive ad buy might. And it had conversion like an ad campaign, too. Three percent of the BitTorrent users who saw the Bones Brigade offer engaged with it and experienced Bones Brigade content. And six-tenths of a percent (.6%) of fans who saw the offer ended up joining the film’s mailing list.
If those numbers sound low to you, think again: there is an awful lot of traffic inside of BitTorrent. For more than a month, this integration put nearly 500 new emails per day into the film’s Topspin account. That added up to 36% of the film’s mailing list, the entirety of which has been collected since August 6th.