May 15, 2010

Distribution Goes Hybrid: The New World Paradigm for Getting Your Film Seen

From Sacha Gervasi's <em>Anvil! The Story Of Anvil</em>

This past November, hybrid distribution guru Peter Broderick and new media expert Scott Kirsner (Fans, Friends & Followers) combined their collective wisdom at Distribution U, a day-long seminar that examined the new world of independent film distribution and the changing relationship between audiences and creators. Casual, participatory and supportive, Distribution U was chock-full of useful information with which anyone embarking on a filmmaking adventure should be familiar.

Donning a colonial tricorner hat, Broderick took to the stage to outline "The Brave New World of Distribution," aka hybrid distribution. He coined the term in 2005 to describe the innovative model he'd been developing for several years, by which entrepreneurial filmmakers side-step traditional studio distribution. Instead, they customize their own solutions for getting their films out into the world. As Broderick described it, this involves combining direct sales by filmmakers with distribution by third parties: DVD distributors, TV channels, VOD companies, educational distributors, online outlets, etc. It's a big switch from the "Old World" of either complete self-distribution or giving all rights to one company.

Broderick outlined 10 principles of New World distribution, which can be found in more detail on his website, www.peterbroderick.com. They revolve around the idea of choosing proper partners and then assigning them just those distribution rights that they can most effectively execute. Retaining direct sales rights is a key part of the model, along with nurturing an audience and working with existing entities that can help you do so.

Hybrid distribution is not for the faint of heart. Anytime you try to do a non-standard deal, it means attorneys have to read the fine print. Often, different distribution partners will want access to the same rights, which can complicate negotiations. You, rather than a distributor, may have to take responsibility for guild residuals, deliverables, Dolby licenses, MPAA ratings and more. But if you are persistent, hybrid distribution can be extremely beneficial for films that potentially would have come and gone very quickly had they chosen the traditional route.

"From my standpoint, the Old World model is getting worse and worse for independent filmmakers," Broderick affirmed, explaining how an independent filmmaker starts off having complete control of the film for which he or she has bled, sweat and sacrificed, but then signs everything away just for the glory of a theatrical release. Many distributors will base their release plan on the reaction to the first screening. If it doesn't go well, they lose faith in the film--but even then, they won't give it back to the filmmaker, instead maintaining complete control over what does (or doesn't) happen with it.

Another problem arises when the company gets to choose the DVD/home video distributor. While this market is getting smaller, it's still an important revenue source. The company will use an affiliate if it has one, even if it's not the best fit for a niche title.

And of course, there's the issue of studio accounting, which Broderick described as "not all that it could be." He cited The Blair Witch Project as an example. According to Broderick, the filmmakers made $70 million in DVD/home video sales and rentals, yet their distributor said they were still in the red because of marketing costs.

Cora Olson, producer of Good Dick, and Sacha Gervasi, director of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, joined Broderick onstage to discuss their personal experiences with hybrid distribution. Olson recommended keeping your theatrical window and your VOD/DVD windows very tight, as one market feeds the other. Often, the press generated by a theatrical release can be leveraged into sales.

"It's important to be able to connect the consumer to the point-of-sale at the moment that they are interested," Olson stressed. "If you see the star or filmmaker on TV, but the film is not playing theatrically in your small town, you want to be able to get the DVD at that moment."

Both Olson and Gervasi hired Richard Abramowitz of Abramorama to effect service deals to theatrically distribute their films. They also hired publicists to ensure that they'd get the biggest bang for their buck out of the theatrical release. Each then carved out deals with a variety of partners for rights in other categories, which can include semi-theatrical, non-theatrical, VOD, television, retail DVD, direct DVD, educational, digital rental, digital download and international rights.

Grassroots marketing was a key part of all of these efforts. "You can't compete with the studios who are spending $30-$50 million on marketing," Gervasi pointed out. "What you can do is find your audience and connect with it."

Festivals can also be used to generate revenue. As a form of semi-theatrical release, a festival can generate publicity that can set up a film nicely for DVD sales. If you are playing at a regional festival that's held in a great art house, sometimes you can work with the art house manager or owner ahead of time to use the fest play as a launch for a limited theatrical run. Don't be afraid to think outside the box--perhaps your film can play just weeknights in between larger weekend releases the art house may already have scheduled. But these limited plays can be just enough to produce that all-important press you need to fuel your additional revenue streams.

Broderick mentioned that many festivals pay screening fees, but they won't offer a fee unless you ask. Another money-making option: You may be able to sell DVDs of your film at a festival while you have a captive audience. You should get clearance from the festival ahead of time if you plan on doing so. And make sure to collect the names and e-mails of your customers for future reference.

Collecting names and e-mails is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using the Web to build an audience for current projects and future work. Kirsner talked about this in-depth, beginning by looking backwards. He pointed out that every time there's been a shift in technology, people have fought it because they've been scared new developments will ruin existing business models. Thomas Edison worried that putting movies on the big screen would kill the Kinetoscope parlors. In 1982, Jack Valenti famously told a congressional panel, "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone." Yet by the end of the decade, selling and renting movies on tape became a key revenue source for the studios.

As the Internet continues to become the entertainment outlet of choice, the questions remain the same as they have been every time technology changes: Where is the audience going? How are they spending their time? What new behaviors are emerging? Kirsner explored four ideas about the changing relationship between audiences and creators.

First, the Internet is a great tool for participation and engagement. People now want to be involved in projects rather than just passive consumers of entertainment. The documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto posted work-in-progress footage online during production. An animation class rotoscoped it (for free) and their footage was included in the final film. Video blogger Ze Frank, who posted a daily video every weekday for a year, began issuing challenges to his large group of followers, treating them as collaborative partners. As a result, they created new content that complemented his original videos and raised his profile on the Web.

This dovetails with Kirsner's second point: If you invite people to help you, they will. The prevailing idea used to be that the artistic process should be hermetically sealed or else it would get corrupted. Now, "citizen" participation can actually help to support and market an artist. The band OK Go encouraged fans to make their own versions of its "Here It Goes Again" video, aka "the treadmill video," which was seen 48 million times on YouTube. They incentivized people with contests and recognition, deepening the band/fan relationship. Ultimately, the cumulative reach of telling people to take an idea and put their own spin on it turned out to be a very powerful marketing tool for the band.

When trying to build your audience, Kirsner recommended to go where they are. Before the prevalence of social networking, artists would build websites and then spend a lot of time and energy herding people there. While that's still an important goal, it's now possible--and at times much easier--to identify your core audience and then figure out where they are already spending time on the Internet. Then build relationships with the people running those communities, and they'll help you reach out to a much larger group of people than you could have reached on your own.

King Corn, a documentary about the role that corn plays in our diets, partnered with blogs focused on foodies, sustainable agriculture, environmental practices and the slow food movement. They did everything from guest blogging to running contests to giving away exclusive sneak preview clips from the film. The blogs provided a ready-made audience eager for the information the film had to offer.

In order to do this right, Kirsner warned that it does take a larger commitment upfront. You must do your market research as you are producing your film so that you're ready to hit the ground running when you launch, regardless of the platform. And you need someone involved with the film willing to do the blogging and social networking.

Kirsner's last suggestion addressed the importance of leveraging the power of an audience database. Collect e-mail addresses whenever you can, and if possible, get zip code and country information so that you can geo-target e-blasts with screening information specific to a particular region. Once your e-mail list starts to grow, use a service such as Constant Contact to manage it so that you don't get in trouble with your ISP (internet service provider) for what it might perceive as spamming. And of course, be choosy about what you send out; over-communication with fans can be annoying, and can cause them to hit the dreaded "Unsubscribe" button.

Once you have created a relationship with your audience, they can be immensely helpful in supporting your hybrid distribution plans. Gervasi and his team created a number of special events around their screenings, many of which included live performances by the band Anvil. They capitalized on positive word of mouth and Tweets about the film from film festivals, as well as from musicians such as Madonna, Coldplay and John Mayer, and fans of the band.

"Five, three, even one year ago, many of the things we're talking about weren't possible," Broderick noted. "You can now have the kind of control over distribution you never could have in the past."

Ultimately after finding a lot of success on its own, Anvil! partnered with VH1, which had initially passed on acquiring the film after its 2008 Sundance premiere. VH1 came up with the idea of airing the film trailer, rather than buying TV advertising. According to Gervasi, the channel played the trailer a whopping 240 times in six weeks, then sent the band out on tour. Anvil! has been a wild ride for the filmmaker and its subjects, but all the hard work seemed to pay off when the film won Best Feature Documentary at the 2009 IDA Documentary Awards.

"If you decide to do this, you have to sacrifice the next two years of your life," Gervasi maintained. "It's a big cost to pay, but you learn invaluable lessons along the way."

 

Additional Resources:

- CinemaTech - a blog on new technology and the entertainment business, edited by Scott Kirsner: http://cinematech.blogspot.com/

- Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs (Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah; 2009) - a good ol' fashioned book...although it's also available on Kindle!

- SproutBuilder - a do-it-yourself widget builder and Flash-based authoring tool. www.sproutbuilder.com

- elance.com and guru.com - resources for finding people to outsource tech work, such as building your website.

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