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Tim League Reveals ‘Mega-Awesome Distribution Strategies’ During Film Independent Forum Keynote

Tim League Reveals 'Mega-Awesome Distribution Strategies' During Film Independent Forum Keynote

At last year’s Film Independent Forum, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos gave a controversial keynote address in which he warned that theater owners might “kill movies” because of their resistance to day-and-date releases. So it’s only fitting that this year, theater owner Tim League, Founder/CEO, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Drafthouse Films, Fantastic Fest delivered the closing keynote address.

READ MORE: Jill Solway’s 7 Tips for First-Time Directors from Film Independent Forum Keynote

“I didn’t realize I’d be set up to have an opportunity to have counter-arguments to Ted Sarandos,” joked League, who set the tone by cracking open a can of beer. 

League explained to the audience of filmmakers that it’s a “Wild wild west time” in film distribution and that “if a distributor says ‘this is how it’s going to be in five years, they are totally wrong.” His rousing speech managed to be both inspiration and a bit depressing. “The harsh reality: it’s a really really tough business and there are some real assholes out there so beware,” he said, adding that most distributors are “blood-sucking freaks, but the harsh reality is you need the blood-sucking freaks.”

With information and tips from self-help and business books (such as Stephen Covey’s mega-bestselling “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”), League introduced his own tips in the form of “Tim League’s Mega-Awesome Distribution Strategies,” which you can read below:

1. Before you make your movie, figure out your audience.

“You can create whatever you want to but the very harsh reality about distribution right now is there are very slender few movies that get distributed (50,000 movies are made every year, a tiny fraction of 1% of them make money.) You can make whatever you want to make, but if part of your strategy is to make money off of what you’re doing, then there a couple of strategies that might get you a little closer.”

2. To increase your odds of financial success convince a name actor/actress to be in your film… Or make a solid horror or science fiction film. 

Star power always helps. “If you happen to know Luke Wilson or De Niro…” But don’t forget about actors who might be ripe for a career resurgence. League suggests you troll the AFM where you can see who is eager to work, but perhaps not getting worthy parts, such as Danny Glover, who recently starred in “Age of the Dragon.” “Maybe it’s time for the old Robert Forster treatment on Danny Glover,” he said.

3. You are a brand. Work hard and work constantly to develop your audience.

4. Exploit any opportunity to gain social media followers.

League pointed to the “share to dare” social activation campaign for “Cheap Thrills” as a good example of getting the word out about a smaller film.

“Twitter is a great funnel because Facebook is actively throttling back which of your friends and followers see your posts so you have to pay to get access to the fans you built up, not so cool.”

5. Social Media Basics: Strong content. Real conversation. Exploit opportunities to gain followers.

League pointed to the My Dad Was In a Band Tumblr that Drafthouse films created to promote the documentary “A Band Called Death” as an example of a creative way to spark conversation around a movie.

6. Get a Sales Agent.

“A lot of people make a film and are like ‘I can save the money. I don’t have to pay the agent 10-15 percent. I’m going to do those deals…’ You run a very very serious risk of getting into something that you don’t fully understand. That 10 percent is worth it in terms of access, credibility and sheer safety. If no sales agent wants to sell your film, you probably are not going to sell your film…Not all films are sellable. The sales agents are doing the exact same things that the distributors are…Is it worth my time as a sales agent to take this on because I can only represent X number of films a year? If you don’t have a sales agent and try to negotiate your own deal, odds are you will experience violation.”

7. Move to New Zealand.

New Zealand director Lee Tamahori recently turned to crowdfunding for his latest film, “The Patriarch,” but unlike in the U.S., in New Zealand, equity crowdfunding is legal. “New Zealand has cut through the red tape and has actually done it….. I suspect that we’re going to figure it out in the States. You don’t actually have to move to New Zealand. Yes, equity crowdfunding is coming,” said League.

8. Experiment and be open to new concepts.

“We’re very much in this space at Drafthouse Films. We try out everything and some of them work and some of them don’t,” League said, pointing to the fact that the distributor puts their entire catalogue on Vimeo so that audiences can complete a one-click purchase after watching the trailer. Drafthouse has also embraced BitTorrent Bundles, though League said that’s “more of a PR and awareness strategy.”

League suggested that filmmakers without a distributor or a sales agent should check out the Amazon-owned company CreateSpace.com where they can get their film on Amazon Instant streaming and other tools that are generally only available to distributors.

9. Keys to successful self-distribution: 

Niche subject material; the will to become experts in marketing and distribution; worldwide; digital savvy/friendly audience; early, active and constant audience engagement and community building; the will to work thousands of hours over years to engage your audience. Read the case study on indiegamethemovie.com.

10. With or without a distributor, become an expert in PR and marketing.

“Every filmmaker in their spare time should become an expert in marketing and distribution.”

In conclusion, League said, “All distributors, including us, are making it up as we go along. Self-distribution is hard work but possible. You have chosen a tough but awesome business. Make great films. Don’t give up.”

Here are more highlights from his keynote:

On piracy:

When asked about working with BitTorrent even though it’s a protocol used by film pirates, League said, “Unfortunately, the second a movie is available on any platform on any digital device, it’s going to be available on BitTorrent. We are DRM-free, which means it doesn’t even have that protection. I’m not that tech-savvy, but there’s not a movie out there that I can’t steal.”

League continued,” There’s no way to protect yourself against it. I just choose to fight a different battle.” He called on “the Googles and the Yahoos” of the world to make it harder for Torrent files to be made available. Piracy “has become more mainstream and it really sucks….I’m defenseless. I’m pissed off.”

On transparency:

“You’ll never get any information from Netflix. You sell it to them for a certain window and you get X number of dollars. I’ll ask and say ‘how’s it doing?’ And the two answers you get are ‘it’s underperforming’ or ‘it’s doing pretty well.’

“With VOD, everybody is being a little coy. The numbers that are being reported are only the success stories… you hear about the ‘Bachelorette’s that make $6 million on VOD, but a success generally on the VOD space is making about $100,000….but there’s plenty that do about $25,000 so it’s not this magic arrow….The data’s hard to find and the distributors don’t want you to have it.”

On how much Drafthouse Films pays:

“We pay anywhere from zero to half a million [for distribution rights]… It’s just high stakes poker.”

League said Draftouse films generally spends between $50,000-$300,000 on a Prints and Advertising (P&A) budget.

“You never make any money on theatrical…It’s almost like theatrical is a loss-leader unless the movie breaks out. The theater takes 60-65% in the indie film space so even if it makes half a million dollars…it’s a real razor thin margin.”

On Day-and-Date Releases:

“I understand where the exhibitors are on this issue in terms of not wanting to play day-and-date. They see it as if we give way on the independent space then the big studios are next…. The reality is the big three – Cinemark, Regal, AMC, they control 80% of the screens in the U.S. and they’re not going to budge. Landmark doesn’t play any day-and-date except Magnolia titles and maybe IFC.”

“Honestly, it pisses me off. I play day-and-date and ultra-VOD titles at our theaters all the time. We do the same thing with any film – we ask, “Are we going to make money on this film?’

“70 percent of America has never transacted in the VOD space. It’s not a problem in independent film to have that model But on the flipped, going through a VOD or ultra-VOD launch doesn’t mean you’re going to make a ton of money.”

“The way we look at it for our own titles is ‘does it have the potential for theatrical revenue?’ If it’s a hard film and really niche and Landmark and Laemmle’s and bigger players aren’t interested in it, there’s no reason for us to go theatrical, we might as well gamble on iTunes and VOD and give it a go. So it’s complicated. It’s sad and depressing that more folks aren’t willing to experiment with release windows in the indie space because it doesn’t impact your theatrical release at all.”

Watch League’s speech below:

READ MORE: Darren Aronofsky on the Future of Film

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