As new digital technologies continue to evolve and disrupt the landscape for independent cinema, I continually get asked by filmmakers for my thoughts on how they should adapt.
My answer lately has been…
“Stop acting like a filmmaker, and start acting like a rock star”
And I don’t mean this figuratively. I mean it quite literally.
Unfortunately there aren’t a ton of good examples and case studies on how the film industry is FULLY leveraging the convergence of social media (which in my mind is nothing more than “community building”) and digital distribution. For me “FULLY” means that the filmmaker, not only the distributor, is making more money from leveraging the new model than they would have if they had gone with the old model. While selling and renting movies on iTunes has been around for quite awhile, it’s only now that we have a truly viable set of diverse choices for how to digitally distribute our movies.
But when you look at the case studies that have indeed proven to be real success stories in this new distribution paradigm (INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE, BONES BRIGADE, and BURN to name just a few) you start to see that all of the filmmakers of these films took a page out of the book that rock stars have been reading for a long, long time.
1. Treat your fans like they are the most important thing in the world to you
2. Build your community of fans yourself and then sell directly to them without a middleman
For most bands, their recorded music (which is usually owned by their record label) is only one piece of a much larger pie of their annual income. And for the most successful bands, music sold through their record label is usually the smallest piece of that pie. The real money isn’t made from selling CDs and downloads. It’s made on the road doing live gigs and selling merchandise directly to fans.
For filmmakers, the idea of treating your film like its your latest album, and then “going on tour” to do a series of live in-person events directly with fans in support of the film is a completely new and foreign concept. Common wisdom has been that live events don’t “scale”. And because of this, it hasn’t been part of the current model for film distribution.
But this didn’t stop Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky when they turned down down offers for their Sundance hit INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE, packed their bags, hopped into a van, and then took off on a fifteen city in-person US tour completely sponsored and paid for by Adobe. Not only did Lisanne and James act like rock stars, they BECAME rock stars, doing meet-and-greets with their fans each night just as a band would. They instinctively understood what most filmmakers don’t — that the key to their success was not going to come from selling their film to a distributor, but rather it would be achieved by bringing the film directly to the community of fans that they had built and nurtured while making their movie.
For most, the days when a filmmaker could earn a nice living by selling their film, immediately move on to a new project, and then return to the previous project for a couple of press days is, sorry to say, over. Not only do filmmakers need to adapt to this new reality, so do the distributors. In the future, the real money from theatrical releases of indie films won’t be in traditional box office receipts. It’ll be made by going completely outside the current system. What bands know that filmmakers don’t, is that they can often make more money by taking a larger percentage of a smaller number of events. The key to doing this successfully is that the film itself becomes only one part of the larger attraction. Bands have known forever that what people want when they leave their couch is to be part of a live experience that feels like a truly spontaneous event where each and every night is different. And when that live event over delivers on your expectations, not only do you buy the ticket but you also buy the “t-shirt, cap, and jacket.”
If movie theaters started selling merchandise today, for most films it would be a complete disaster. The merchandise wouldn’t sell, and a lot of money would be lost. But what if that film was a true live event positioned as a “limited engagement” where the filmmaker and cast present the film in the same way as when a band plays a gig? When you limit your audience, the average ticket price can be much higher and merchandise sales not only do quite well, they often become a significant part of the “take”. It works for most music tours and Broadway plays and, in theory, it can work for films too.
Today we live or die on a model that is completely dependent upon the amount of screens a film plays on. Common wisdom is that the more screens your movie is playing on, the more money you’re making. But for most films, this is a complete falicy in which demand is not meeting supply and costs are exceeding revenue. And because of this, for far too many good movies, the theatrical window has become nothing more than a loss leader.
But it does’t have to be this way.
As bands have learned long ago, the key to making money is to make things feel exclusive and special, and then work to get the “average spend per customer” higher. But today, when someone goes to the movies, the sole beneficiary of a higher “average spend” is the theater owner, as increased revenue can only come from the concession stand. But if that filmmaker “owns” the live events for their film, just as James and Lisanne did with INDIE GAME, and then sell merchandise directly to fans as Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez have done with BURN, the money they will make will be considerably more than if they had if they had sold their films to a traditional distributor. Its not a model that will work for every film and every filmmaker. But for those that it IS right for, the rewards will be well worth the effort.
Today most filmmakers are still thinking that their interaction with the public is “film-by-film.” And because of this, the direct relationship they have with their fans is extremely limited and of very little value. But for those filmmakers who think that building community around their creative work is something that THEY need to be doing themselves 360 days a year, and not something that their distributor should be doing for them, the reward for this hard work and expense will be that as their community grows they can go directly to their fans to make money in a myriad of ways.
So if you’re a filmmaker who wants to be part of the new paradigm, stop trying to act like Quentin Tarantino and start acting like Dave Matthews.