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Case Study #4: Women Make Movies

By Debra Franco

Two lesbians pose in a living room from 'Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives.'

Women Make Movies (WMM) is a nonprofit media arts organization that facilitates the production, dissemination and exhibition of independent films by and about women. Founded in 1972, it established a solid nontheatrical distribution niche by the mid-1990s for many of its documentaries and shorts at colleges and universities, as well as with women's and health organizations. WMM also handles the theatrical distribution of a number of American and European independent features directed by women.

The Home Video Experiment—Introduction

Case Study #1: Fanlight Productions

Case Study #2: California Newsreel

Case Study #3: Direct Cinema Limited

Case Study #4: Women Make Movies

Case Study #5: Northeast Historic Film

In 1994, WMM executive director Debra Zimmerman began to investigate whether to enter the home video market. WMM had released theatrically Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, a lively documentary feature produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The film proved to be a great audience-pleaser during its run at theaters in 60 cities and played for six weeks at The Film Forum in New York. It also received strong reviews in the national press (Variety called it "celebratory, heroic and infectiously funny"). Zimmerman saw that the film had strong consumer potential—it was entertaining and inspiring; had a strong theatrical run that generated positive publicity and word-of-mouth; and perhaps most important, had demonstrated its appeal to a highly motivated consumer­ market niche- lesbians. She assumed that Forbidden Love would not have tremendous potential on the educational market, which made it easier to decide to launch it in home video right away. However, she also wanted to explore the consumer appeal of half a dozen other WMM titles with lesbian or women's themes, some of these already selling well in the higher-priced institutional market. These included documentary profiles of famous women, such as But Then, She's Betty Carter (a film on the well-known jazz artist) and Visions of the Spirit (a portrait of Alice Walker), as well as experimental and independent feature films Joanna D'Arc of Mongolia, Flaming Ears and Crocodiles in Amsterdam.

With a grant from the Arts Forward Fund, Zimmerman hired a consultant to research WMM's home video options. Like California Newsreel (see Case Study #2), she soon realized that it would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for her organization to become a full-scale home video distributor and still maintain its nontheatrical marketing base. Opening and servicing retail accounts for home video titles would require the addition of at least one full-time staff person. And becoming a full-service home video company would require launching between two and six new titles every year—the home video business, unlike the educational market, demands constant novelty. Zimmerman recognized that the bulk of WMM 's nontheatrical titles might not have enough consumer potential to cross over into the home market. WMM had two other options. One was to give home rights to existing home video companies on selected titles that had consumer potential and had exhausted their institutional market viability. This would depend on whether any specialty home video companies would be interested in taking on titles other than Forbidden Love, which had clear consumer potential.

Another option was to become a "supplier." WMM would make deals to sell its home video titles to consumers through specialty catalogs and ads in publications with gay themes, and sell to retail through middleman organizations (like Facets and Tapeworm, which serve video retailers). WMM could decide whether to sell directly to women's specialty bookstores itself or make those sales through other companies. In this way, WMM would still orchestrate, develop strategies and publicize the marketing of its videos but would use existing networks to do the actual selling. This option would free WMM from responsibility for day-to-day customer fulfillment, servicing retail accounts, and engaging in other labor-intensive aspects of consumer-video sales. WMM would stand to keep more revenues this way since catalogers generally purchase inventory at a 40 to 65% discount off retail.

In theory, this option appealed to WMM, but for it to succeed, there had to exist a strong network of already successful channels with similar products that reached lesbian consumers. In this case, there were a number of cataloguers and distributors doing just that. They included Naiad Press, a publishing company that sells books and videos with lesbian themes to a large customer base of individuals and women's bookstores; Wolf Video, a specialty-video distributor selling videos with women's themes to video and book retail outlets; Waterbearer, a specialty­ video distributor selling videos with gay themes to the consumer market; the music company Ladysmith, selling music, books and videos to the women's market; and a number of publications and catalogs that reach gay and lesbian consumers. Not only did these networks exist, they had also been successful in selling videos, especially well­ publicized features like Claire of the Moon and Salmonberries, to lesbian consumers. The catalogers and distributors with whom Zimmerman communicated were all eager to take on Forbidden Love, sensing its strong consumer market potential.

So it seemed possible for WMM to launch Forbidden Love (create the cover and generate publicity) and strike a number of strategic deals with those companies most likely to make the largest number of sales. Although each company pressed WMM for an exclusive relationship, Zimmerman decided it was in the interest of WMM and its producers to have multiple distributors that would reach different markets. She chose Naiad because she knew it would reach individual consumers and women's bookstores; Waterbearer for its good relations with Blockbuster and Tower; and Wolf Video for its overall video retail list. In addition, she put Forbidden Love into the Shocking Grey catalog (a gay oriented direct-mail catalog that has since gone out of business) and later on also added Tapeworm to its list of subdistributors.

In negotiating the deals, pricing became an issue. Because of the film's positive word-of-mouth, some subdistributors felt they could price it as high as $69.95, while others wanted it lower. Zimmerman wanted to launch the video at the higher price and insisted on making the same deal with all companies. Jennifer Stott, director of sales and marketing for WMM at the time, negotiated a low discount of 40 percent off a sale price of $69.95 for all subdistributors. Those who wanted to price the video lower could, but they would owe WMM the same amount. Because all of the sub­ distributors wanted the video, they agreed. Forbidden Love was launched in home video in September 1994, in time for fourth-quarter sales. Zimmerman's plan worked. Without handling any retail accounts or doing any direct mail itself, WMM successfully placed the video into thousands of video and bookstores, as well as into the hands of individual consumers. Waterbearer's relationship with Blockbuster paid off; it sold the video to the chain, which does not often take on controversial materials. After sales began to peak, WMM lowered the price to $39.95 to accommodate sell-through; sales to video stores, where the tapes are predominantly rented, are more price­ resistant. In all, Forbidden Love has sold more than 3,000 units and continues to sell at the lower price.

The other videos WMM considered for home video fared otherwise. Investigating the consumer market for the women's documentaries yielded pessimistic sales predictions. Specialty distributors with similar titles projected figures that would return such low royalties to WMM and its producers that it did not seem worth taking the videos out of educational distribution.

The feature films with lesbian themes, however, seemed to have some potential. Zimmerman gave Waterbearer exclusive home rights to Flaming Ears and Crocodiles in Amsterdam and these have sold moderately well at $39.95. Joanna D 'Arc of Mongolia was harder to sell to home video because it comes as a two-tape set. Zimmerman decided to keep it on the educational market, where it continues to sell at a higher price to universities and museums.

In retrospect, Zimmerman is cautious but positive about home video—for the right titles. Her future plans include a consumer re-release of a collection of short films by Jane Campion. She is putting together two more collections of lesbian short films to market in a fashion similar to Forbidden Love. Once Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter has saturated its wide educational market, she will also launch this highly acclaimed documentary feature about a filmmaker's relationship with her mother who has Alzheimer's disease.

Asked what she might do differently, Zimmerman shared two observations. One concerned selling home videos directly to consumers. A staff member had persuaded her to hand out flyers about Forbidden Love to attendees at the Gay Pride Parade in New York City the year of the NY Gay Olympics. She expected to sell lots of tapes this way but sold very few. "This may sound obvious," Zimmerman notes, "but people don't tend to buy videos from a flyer shoved in their face. We also found it was not cost-effective to do direct mail to video customers in general because of the numbers of people you have to reach."

Zimmerman also learned that working with many home video companies as sub­ distributors can be confusing—each has different policies and ways of doing business. Some want contracts for sub­ distribution, others operate more informally and are surprised that WMM asks for one. Some companies expect to return all unsold tapes at any time, others have different return policies. To avoid any misunderstandings, Zimmerman learned not to assume anything as standard, and to be as explicit as possible whenever negotiating a new agreement.

Women Make Movies, Inc.
462 Broadway , 5th fl. New York NY 10013
U.S.A .
tel: 212-925-2052
fax: 212-925-2052
contact: Debra Zimmerman