Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Ted Hope over at Truly Free Film (which you really do need to place in your Google Readers, kids) had a post up regarding how slow things haven't changed from the dire predictions he made in an older article he wrote for Moviemaker in 1995 titled "Indie Film is Dead.". What's interesting to me is that he lists many problems with the Industry at that 1995 point that make me shake my head a bit.

So I thought I would take a few moments to look at this more closely and add my pithy prose to the mix and discuss the slow drip of change:

Acquisitions are driven by marketability, and marketability alone. Art has no value. Sure a film has to be "good" to be picked up, but what does a distributor truly look for when it acquires a film? Uniqueness of vision? Independent spirit? Discipline? A controlled or unique aesthetic? Try again. Like their Hollywood counterparts, the first item on their menu is a marketable concept, one they already know how to package.

Here's the problem with this statement - As an audience member, I don't care how unique the vision of the film is, or the person's indie spirit, their discipline or unique aesthetic. I want to be entertained. I want to connect to the story in some way and be asking myself, "What happens next?"

Marketability means how easy it is for an audience to connect to and immerse themselves into the movie. If you can't connect to the audience in some way - then why do it?

The major specialty distributors only seek films they believe can gross $2 million at the US box office. There is no small acquisition anymore. When a distributor offers a minimum guarantee of $300,000, they are essentially stating that they believe the film will gross over $2 million at the box office (the MG is nothing more than an advance against future profits – the size of the advance is in direct correlation to a distributor’s conservative estimate of the film’s future revenues).

They know it's a lot of work to distribute a film theatrically. Especially in 1995 when you didn't have digital cinemas. They have to have a reasonable cut off point where they know their efforts are going to be worthwhile monetarily.

There are too many pictures out there that received a theatrical release that did not deserve it. It was the wrong move marketing-wise and choked too many theaters and distributors. The audience simply wasn't there to support it.

The "Big Little" distributors have a surplus of films; they don’t want yours (particularly if it’s an art film). Miramax doesn’t even try to hide the fact that they have over 40 films on the shelf – they promote it. If one of the larger specialty distribs were to pick your film up today, you’d be waiting a year for your premiere.

What's true then is true today...if you're using a "Theatrical release first system." Having a library of content and moving it around so you always have some sort of income flowing in is the model that allowed Trimark to become Artisan to become Lionsgate. No distributor wants to release a movie just to release it. They want to position it so it does its best.

I urge all of you to read the rest of Ted's article and his postscript. Then I want you to start rethinking how to release a movie - and think about what a movie actually is to your business plan - by watching this:

(courtesy of Jill Golick)

Your movie in today's marketplace is simply the tip of the iceberg. Hollywood is The Titannic. We all know how that story ended.

Turn it around. Build the audience first: through email, through the content, through interaction. Then sell the containers: the DVD, the merchandise, and
finally the screening event in a theater.


Aric Blue said...

To me this sounds like a bad idea--spend a lot of money on your movie, GIVE it away, then spend MORE money on dvds/merchandise/etc to attempt to get some money back--and the problem seems to be that most people I talk to don't WANT the container(the physical media) anymore. They're happy to just torrent anything they want, and that's that.

Cunningham said...

K -

This is 21st century thinking here, and you have to understand you AREN'T giving it away. You're luring more people in to sell them merchandise. You're creating an audience, building a demand.

If you've created something that reaches your audience they naturally want to ask, "What happens next?" Then you have them.

DR. HORRIBLE was available for free long before it was a PAID download then a DVD. If what you say were true then it wouldn't have worked. However, they grossed $2M on a $200K +/- investment. They also used Createspace to manufacture their DVD's.

TV gives it away for free with advertising all the time. If people have it on their DVR then why do so many people buy TV DVD sets? They've already seen it. They can call it up and stream it at anytime - but TV DVD is still one of the strongest sellers in that medium.

And look at it this way: If what you say is true then playing records on the radio would never have led to more records being sold.

Warren Ellis is using Cafe Press with his new line of mugs and t-shirts and a book coming out later next year POD. No upfront costs.

Cory Doctorow gives his books away for free online and he sells very well. Even when he wasn't known he did that and it worked.

NIN's front man Trent Reznor gave away tracks from his latest album for people to remix. Why?

Because he knows he's not "giving it away." He's building the audience. ( http://yearzero.nin.com/)

Artists give away tracks all the time - so people will like the song and come see them in concert (where the real money is anyway).

Aric Blue said...

Dunno. Dr. Horrible seems to be the high water mark, but it also seems to be the ONLY one. It also has Joss Whedon, who has a rabid audience, and Nathan Fillion and NPH.

Not sure how this is applicable to those of us sub100K filmmakers.

I don't know how TV shows sell, but I think the question to ask is how many of those watching the show are buying the show. Or are the bulk people who haven't seen it? (because let's face it, viewership of on-air TV isn't THAT large in comparison to the market, right?)

Music is different--we can listen to the same song 10 times in one week. No one is watching a show 10 times in a week.

But the other comparison is still valid--people can download most music for free now, and music sales are way down from years ago. No correlation?

As for cafepress and all that, wasn't it you that was telling me you can't be a filmmaker AND a distributor? But you can be a filmmaker and also do all this other cross-product promotion/creation?

I'm not trying to be argumentative--I'm just very skeptical.

Lindsay Stewart said...

Hi Aric, as a musician and aspiring film maker, I'd like to address the point you make about the music industry sales shrinking. What you've seen has been the collapse of an antique business model and a healthy levelling of the field. Yes, the conglomerates are losing sales, we'll likely never see another sales phenomenon like Michael Jackson or The Beatles again and thank god.

The industry has been fighting tooth and nail to prevent and punish the natural technological and market evolution that's come about with the downward proliferation of recording, reproduction and distribution technologies. I sat in a seminar when industry reps showed off the first CD player, way back when. These things were indestructable, held more music, took less space and blah blah blah. After the big sell job we were told that the initial spike in price per unit would be temporary and once the production capacity caught up the prices would plummet because they'd cost so much less to manufacture. Thing is those prices didn't fall.

When I go into a Best Buy and a new release by a major label artist is the same price as a season of a TV show, there's a disconnect. As a kid I could buy a couple of albums on the weekend with my part time job money and I'd have enough left over for a concert ticket. The industry priced itself out of viability. The internet flattened the market and now as a player, I reach a far larger market than I ever could before and I can reasonably look at selling a thousand or two copies of a release. And make a profit doing that. And there are masses of other artists finding niche audiences in the same manner. Nobody is moving into a mansion but the music scene is thriving and healthier than it has been in decades.

The death of the parasitic organism that feeds off musicians has been a blessing to the creators and fans of music. I expect my next release will move a couple of hundred copies as a CD and then it will become a digital download only product and I'll post it on the honour system under a Creative Commons licence. I'll create videos to support it and amuse myself and then there will be ancillary revenue streams through merch. Heading into my late 40s it will be easier and more fun than it has ever been. And that's as a part time, vanity project. My days of dealing with the criminal usury of the industry are over.