Producer David Lombroso started his distribution company, Pictured, with director/producer Jake Witzenfeld to create an alternative eco-system for independent films that get overlooked on the festival circuit.
“Even for the relative few [festival movies] that do sign distribution deals, we’d heard so many horror stories from filmmakers that we knew there just had to be a better way,” said Lombroso in a recent interview with IndieWire. “There are so many important stories being told right now, and we believe that there are audiences for all of them.”
Lombroso believed films were being wrongly eliminated from the marketplace because they lacked broad appeal, but in reality the opportunities to reach a target audience with a niche film had never been easier. To test this plan, he decided their first film would be Witzenfeld’s “Oriented,” a feature documentary that follows the lives of three gay Palestinian friends confronting their national and sexual identity in Tel Aviv.
“To us, a niche is just a very obvious built-in audience,” said Lombroso. “‘Oriented’ was a good test for Pictured because it tells a new, necessary story that stands at the crossroads of a number of niches, namely LGBTQ identity, ethno-religious identity and the Israel/Palestine conflict.”
Their initial strategy was to parlay a high profile festival launch into a string of community screenings and niche/regional festivals that they would pair with international press, along with an active social media presence to generate a steady stream of buzz around the film. This proved difficult because, as with securing a distributor, a number of top festivals shied away from covering a film that was both niche and, supposedly, controversial in subject matter.
“Our festival strategy was simply to hold on to our premiere status until we were able to get into a fest that was high profile enough for us to generate buzz with international press,” said Lombroso.
They got their break with the very well respected Sheffield DocFest, followed by a North American premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Working with Xhibition, a PR company, they were able to secure some press visibility off the back of those premieres, which Lombroso says led to the film gaining momentum.
One of the biggest keys to the success of “Oriented” was their community screenings, which Lombroso described as both incredibly rewarding and time-consuming.
“First, we identified the specific audiences that we believe would want to see our film — LGBTQ, Jewish community and Israel/Palestine activists,” said Lombroso. “Then we literally spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours uncovering those communities, one by one, around the world. We now have lists that are thousands of contacts deep, many of whom were thrilled to hear about the film and the prospect of bringing it to their community.”
They also created a discussion guide that allowed community screening hosts to create a conversation around the film rather than just host a simple screening. The discussions would also help fit the doc and its protagonists’ goals of “changing our reality,” by building global connections at the community level. In total, there were 150 community screenings of “Oriented.” To reach this final number, Lombroso says they reached out to over 3,000 individual community organizations.
“That means that we had around a 5% success rate,” said Lombroso. “In other words, community screening campaigns are incredibly labor intensive, but with over 150 screenings, that’s so many eyeballs, mouthpieces and Facebook friends that the film wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
It also meant they made some money. In order to host a screening, each community would have to license the rights to screen the film. Since the film was not yet available through any other means, this license came with a fee.
“It’s worth noting that this ‘licensing fee’ approach is also true of smaller niche festivals,” said Lombroso. “Filmmakers don’t often realize, but outside of the heavy hitters, many festivals will pay a screening fee — anywhere from $100 to $1,000 — in order to include your film in their program. It helps to have a buzzy premiere, but it’s not entirely necessary. As long as the film appeals to the community or festival, there’s a chance that they will pay for the rights to screen it.”
The idea behind the doc’s festival and community screening strategy was always to build buzz organically ahead the film’s digital release, which they slated for June 2016 to coincide with International Pride month, one year after the film’s premiere at Sheffield DocFest in 2015
“We jokingly called this approach ‘Swell to Sell,’ in other words, we aimed to create a wave of buzz that would then translate into sales when we launched digitally,” said Lombroso.
Part of their strategy of self-distribution was to let each window — from festival/community screening, to VOD, to SVOD — to run its course to maximize profits and visibility. To help the gain access to platforms like iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play, and eventually a premium subscription streaming service (SVOD), “Oriented” turned to Quiver.
“Quiver acted as a conduit between us and the platforms,” said Lombroso. “Currently, none of the platforms will do business directly with filmmakers or independent distributors so Quiver was able to help us secure those deals and work to line up the launch dates that we’d been aiming towards.”
Using social media, along with building on the press and community roots the film established in its first year, the “Oriented” team used the their VOD release as another way to continue to build visibility. This culminated with them being a desired film, with an established niche audience, which made them attractive to major SVOD platforms.
“The campaign worked incredibly well,” said Lombroso. “We’ve now built a fanbase around the world that will tune in to both the filmmaker’s next project and the next film we distribute as a company. We’ve built relationships with communities, with fans, with other filmmakers. And all of that allowed us to build towards a digital release that culminated in a SVOD sale.”
Editors Note: This post is presented by Quiver. Quiver provides worldwide distribution of film and television content across major digital download and streaming retailers. Click here for more information.