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Facing the Music: A 'Note by Note' Journey

By Jon Reiss

Editor's Note: What follows is the edited version of a chapter from Selling Your Film without Selling Your Soul, by The Film Collaborative, Jon Reiss and Sheri Candler. The book is a compendium of case studies in hybrid, DIY and P2P independent distribution. Thanks to Sheri Candler and Jon Reiss for granting us permission to use this chapter.

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway LI037 (hereafter Note by Note) is a feature-length independent documentary that follows the creation of a Steinway concert grand, #L1037. The film spans 12 months, from forest floor to concert hall, and features 12,000 parts, 450 craftsmen and countless hours of fine-tuned labor in Queens, New York. The film was produced, directed and distributed by first-time feature filmmaker Ben Niles.


Festivals and Premiere

Note by Note had its festival premiere at the 2006 Hamptons Film Festival, and, as do most filmmakers, Niles presumed that he would be able to use a prominent festival like the Hamptons to sell his film to a distributor. He obtained a top sales agent, Cinetic Media. Steinway brought the actual L1037 piano to the festival and arranged for a pianist to play it at the premiere, and Niles thought that the buzz and excitement at the event would help land him a deal.

However, that proved not to be the case. In the first year of Note by Note's festival launch, no sale was made. "We didn't make the deadline for Sundance and we didn't get into Toronto or Berlin, so that really took the wind out of Cinetic's sails," Niles says. "I don't think they really felt like they had an opportunity to create that bidding war. So I'm sitting in my office wondering, What's going on?"

Cinetic told Niles that they "are not in the business of putting you in the festivals; we're in the business of selling your film. Well, all these festivals are going by and I haven't sent the film in. I'm missing great festivals, and they said, ‘Well, that's your responsibility,'" (In fairness to Cinetic, no sales agent can [or will] handle the daunting task of submitting a film to every relevant festival; in fact, it is a huge job for individual filmmakers to take on, given the plethora of festivals out there, and even with the help of

"I immediately got on the Web and started trying to figure out which festivals were about to close," Niles recalls. "I was submitting to everything because I just felt like my film was about to die. We didn't have that Sundance or Toronto premiere that leads to other festivals calling you to request your film. It was all new to me."

Niles' lawyer informed him that he had a clause in his contract with Cinetic that allowed him to get out of the agreement if no sales were made within the first year. (My experience with Cinetic is the same: They don't want to hold rights from filmmakers if they cannot help the filmmaker monetize those rights; they are very filmmaker-friendly in this regard.) When Niles amicably parted ways with Cinetic, they supplied him with a spreadsheet listing everyone who had seen the film, and what their notes were. Both Film Forum and PBS had expressed interest. Niles contacted Film Forum, where executive director Karen Cooper was a big fan, and that became their premiere. "We did two weeks," says Niles. "We had great crowds; we got press in every New York magazine, newspaper, television and radio station. We were lucky because their in-house publicist handles two films per month, so we didn't have to spend a penny on publicity.

This premiere was in November 2007, nearly a year after their premiere at the Hamptons festival.

Audience Engagement

The team started with the core audience--Steinway owners and pianists who played Steinway pianos--then moved on to all pianists, music teachers and musicians. Another unexpected audience group comprised of people who worked with wood, such as boat builders and carpenters. Niles explains, "When we screened in Vermont, people came up to me and said, ‘You know, I have a business; I make furniture and I loved watching these guys build this piano.' It really gets down to doing things by hand, so anybody who likes to grow organic tomatoes or cook in the kitchen, or anybody who's really doing something tangible can really identify with the film.

When Niles didn't make a sale, he realized that besides distribution, audience engagement also became his responsibility. He hired a distribution consultant, Peter Broderick, who told him to make his website more engaging and start collecting e-mail addresses at festivals. He added music and film clips to the site. "When you click from page to page, you can hear different pieces of music," Niles explains. "We put all kinds of information about the tracks in the film. I actually never did blog. At the time I was really playing catch-up and frankly, I just had too many balls in the air."

Niles was ultimately able to amass an e-mail list of 6,000 people through DVD sales and attendees at festivals or theatrical screenings.

To keep the film authentic and impartial, Niles had kept an arms-length relationship with the Steinway organization, even though he was filming in their factory. He didn't want to give the impression that the film was a promo for Steinway. However, his lawyer indicated that he needed to get an agreement with them in order to be able to release the film, so he cut a 10-minute excerpt and showed it to company executives. They loved the project, and at Niles' request gave him a letter of support to show to potential financiers. Additionally, they signed a contract permitting him to use the location footage as well as the Steinway name.

When Niles finished the film, Steinway offered to show it at their dealer meeting. "I didn't even know they had a dealer meeting, but of course I was happy to do it," Niles says. "Once we screened the film for the dealers, that really unleashed a wonderful resource for finding new fans of the film because every dealer in that room--and there were hundreds--said, ‘When can I get my hands on this film? How can we help you promote it?' I was nervous about that, because I hadn't set out to make a film to promote the Steinway Company or a Steinway piano. I fell in love with the story for many different reasons. But if Note by Note can help sell a few more pianos, I'm happy. The craftsmen deserve it."

Niles also did a lot of outreach to music organizations, schools and teachers. He took out ads in a few trade publications for music teachers, and eventually hooked up with an organization that had 25,000 member teachers. Before the organization would promote the film, Niles needed to produce lesson plans to sell with the DVDs. He eventually found a professional lesson plan writer. "I didn't know that people do this for a living," Niles admits. The organization then blasted a promotion to its entire e-mail list and Niles offered discounts for a number of months.

Theatrical Distribution

"I was trying to find an indie distributor and I was getting pretty frustrated because these people whom I was told were indie distributors still wanted me to spend $50,000 to $75,000," Niles explains. "They wanted me to get a 35mm print; they wanted a ton of money for prints and advertising, and I said, ‘I guess I'm missing it, because that's not indie to me.'"

Niles met with Jim Browne from Argot Pictures and they agreed on a monthly fee for Browne to book the film theatrically. The successful Film Forum screening was crucial because theaters across the US look to New York box office figures to see what might be good to book locally. "Jim and I worked out a guaranteed three-month deal to see if he could get any traction for the film, and then we would step back and renegotiate if everybody was happy," Niles recalls. "Well, we renegotiated within six weeks. The phone was ringing off the hook." Within the first year, they had 50 theatrical and 20 alternative theatrical dates grossing $100,000.

Argot charged $250 per screening against 35 percent of the door for alternative theatrical screenings. In addition, Niles charged $1,000 for appearances, plus travel and expenses, and he kept any revenue from post-screening DVD sales. Alternative theatrical brought in about 40 percent of the $137,771 overall screening revenue, or about $55,000 of all theatrical revenue.

Since the New York theatrical run happened at Film Forum, which provided the publicist, Niles was able to keep the costs of the theatrical release very low. He spent a total of $4,500 on publicists in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, which he thought was very effective and a wise spend. He also spent $3,000 on print ads--which he considered a waste of money--and $500 on dubs.

One aspect of Note by Note that I personally love is the live events, which feature the actual piano in the film. Steinway offered to move the piano to quite a number of screenings, and the local dealers arranged for a local pianist to play at those events. To date, Steinway has participated in 30 of the 70 total screenings. "The theaters were happy, and then the dealers were happy that they could cross-pollinate, and they're still doing that," Niles notes. "Now that they were on PBS, if it's going to air in Phoenix next month, then they get in touch with the PBS affiliate and they try to do a private screening."


Niles sold DVDs at screenings, although Film Forum did specify a holdback on the DVD sales. "They cut us a little bit of slack because they knew that we needed to do it," he maintains. "[Basically what they said to the theaters was,] the director is going to be there, the piano is going to be there; all they want to do is say that if people want to buy the DVD, they can do that in the lobby."

About 30 percent of the theatrical audience was converted to DVD buyers--around 30 to 40 DVDs per night--which at $20 per DVD came to $800 per screening, a nice bit of added revenue, especially considering the theater generally does not take a commission on these sales.

"Some people would buy six, and say ‘I'm gonna give 'em out for Christmas gifts,'" Niles recalls.

An astonishing 5,200 DVDs have been sold from the website, grossing $124,000. Unfortunately Niles fell victim to the demise of the fulfillment company Neoflix, which still owes him $6,000. He was eventually able to land New Video as a DVD distributor for the film. New Video sold 3,000 units to Netflix, as well as additional sales to brick-and-mortar stores and their online equivalents. The gross from New Video was $133,247 for the first 18 months, of which he netted $80,127. New Video gets 25 percent of gross DVD sales and 15 percent of digital sales for a five-year deal. Gross digital revenue for Note by Note is $15,000.

Music teachers, who were buying DVDs with the lesson plans, bought home-use DVDs.

" [I figured the teachers] are not institutions, and it was more important for me to just have the DVD in their hands because they're exposing it to other people," Niles says. There are different rates for libraries, elementary schools and universities, and even though most can buy the DVD as home use, some actually do pay at the higher educational rate.


From the Cinetic spreadsheet, Niles knew that PBS was interested in the film, but only an hour-long version. As is normally the case, Niles would have to pay for that new edit, which filmmakers need for most documentary foreign television sales.

PBS did not offer to pay for the television rights to the film. Their position was that since they were going to carry the film via common carriage and it would be covered by every affiliate in the country, giving the film massive exposure, they should not have to pay for the film. In essence, PBS felt that they were giving free advertising space (and Niles says that sales continue to spike after these airings). However, PBS did give two minutes of underwriting time that the filmmaker could sell to sponsors. "I think its value is certainly in the six figures for the four 15 second spots that they give you," Niles admits. "The problem for us was that the economy was tanking. We tried everything; we even hired a guy who does this for a living. We had conversations with American Express and Coca-Cola, but nobody was able to do it."

Films Transit took on the international sales of the film, charging a 30 percent sales fee with expenses capped at $3,000 (this expense cap is exceptionally low). They have grossed $20,126 in foreign sales with deals in Greece, Germany, Canada, France, Brazil, Finland, and about five other smaller markets, as well as in the Middle East, via Al Jazeera.

Long-term Career Development

Niles is currently working on a new film titled Some Kind of Spark, which follows inner-city kids taking weekend music classes at the Juilliard School in New York City. He is being much more aggressive with social media this time around, which he didn't do at all for Note by Note. Even though the film is still in production, there is a Facebook page and a website. He will start blogging soon.

A major factor in audience development for Niles' new film was his Kickstarter campaign, which he utilized to generate money as well as audience awareness. Kickstarter raised $20,000 from 200 backers from seven different countries. "[The 6,000 e-mails that were cultivated from Note by Note have been] really instrumental in helping fund this project," Niles maintains. "It's hard to calculate exactly how many people from my e-mail list contributed. I will say that at least 75 percent of those who donated to this new campaign were more or less strangers to me. A lot of people who did donate had bought Note by Note or had seen it somewhere and made a point of saying that they would make the donation. In fact, I heard from a person who had seen it at IDFA in Amsterdam, who was apparently on vacation and got back after the campaign and said, ‘Oh, I just saw your e-mail and I saw Note by Note a few years back and I want to support you.' It's nice to hear from those people, but it's nice to know that we're also reaching people who are new to Note by Note or this new project.

Lessons Learned

There are some things that Niles will do differently in his current and future projects based on his experience with Note by Note: 1) Start the audience engagement process earlier; 2) get help. "I'm much more open to delegating," he says. "There are just too many things to take care of. I'd love to actually start another project while this one is a year along. It's more important to me now to create a body of work than to just hold on to every little aspect of a film."

And there's a third lesson: Partner with organizations. "I'm much more aggressive about finding organizations that could benefit from seeing my film(s) made," he maintains. "For instance, with Some Kind of Spark we are approaching music education and music-related programs to partner with. We can help spread their agenda via our resources while we gain awareness, and hopefully funding, through their resources and social media channels. The right fit is a win-win for everyone involved."


Named one of "10 Digital Directors to Watch" by Variety, Jon Reiss is a critically acclaimed filmmaker whose experience releasing his documentary feature, Bomb It, with a hybrid strategy was the inspiration for writing Think Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution in the Digital Era, the first step-by-step guide for filmmakers to distribute and market their films.  Reiss works as a consultant with filmmakers and numerous film organizations, film schools and festivals to bring a variety of distribution labs and workshops around the world.