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.
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:
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: Reiss.firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook and on Twitter.