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Inspirations Part III - Sam Green/A Gesamtkunstwerk

Kim Nelson

Richard Wagner popularized the term Gesamtkunstwerk to misprophesize what would be the next cultural juggernaut. 

Richard Wagner popularized the term Gesamtkunstwerk to misprophesize what would be the next cultural juggernaut. 

Gesamtkunstwerk means "total artwork". It refers to the combination of various art forms on stage, into a "super" art form. It's what Richard Wagner was talking about in his essay "The Artwork of the Future" in 1849. I hope he didn't wager too much on this prediction in the office pool, however, because opera, (including any other über-opera variation) got somewhat supplanted by another theater based invention later that century. But now, live documentary seems to me to be a callback to this very grand concept. 

After spending a few years thinking about my idea to merge audiovisual performance with documentary, I stumbled upon someone doing  just that, in his own brilliant way. In 2014, at the Hot Docs film festival, in Toronto, I saw a “live documentary” called The Measure of All Things by Sam Green. What other films I saw there that year I couldn’t say for sure but Green’s film/performance was so compelling and memorable. Green is an accomplished filmmaker in every sense. He studied documentary at Berkley under legend Marlon Riggs and was nominated for an Oscar in 2004 for his documentary The Weather Underground. That film was also a part of the Whitney Biennial of that year.

The Measure of All Things premiered at Sundance in 2014, and was his third foray into what he aptly dubbed live documentary. A term like “live cinema” might describe something that encompasses fiction film, but the experience of watching documentary mixed with live narration and musical performance creates a unique atmosphere that suggests the distinctions between experimental, documentary and fiction are amplified in the live context.

Green’s first live documentary was Utopia in Four MovementsUtopia was intended to be a “regular” documentary, not live, but he wanted to do something conceptual and was struggling with ways that he could express his ideas cinematically, in other words, in a visual language. A friend suggested to Green that he present what he had done so far, as a work-in-progress to get through the impasse. He presented the clips alongside his own live narration and the response was so positive that it became the basis for the film’s form.

After the success of the first, his second live documentary was The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller. With this live documentary, Green continued his exploration of utopian ideals and theoretical concepts, this time with musical accompaniment by the rock group Yo La Tengo.

Green describes this form as a hybrid of lecture performance and documentary. His recipe is to mix film clips featuring fascinating characters, with live music, all channelled through charismatic and arresting narration presented on stage by the filmmaker himself. Sam Green’s command of all of these elements is incredible, skilfully orchestrating a sublime deconstructed film spectacle.

You can check out Sam Green at


Kim Nelson

Jan Van Lieden, one of the characters chronicled in Hardcore History's The Prophets of Doom episode. Image: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Van Lieden, one of the characters chronicled in Hardcore History's The Prophets of Doom episode. Image: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When I say “live documentary,” the most common response is, “like that This American Life thing?” This American Life presented a live show at BAM, and it was pretty much what you would expect to see as the theatrical manifestation of Ira Glass. It’s an ebullient spectacle that includes song and dance. It makes sense that podcasters would take to the stage, as creators in a medium born in the age of transmedia. Podcasters don’t need to stay behind the curtain in iTunes or on Soundcloud. But what I want to talk about today isn’t the live doc angle but how to do documentary history. Enter Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.

Hardcore History is one of the most compelling podcasts I listen to. Wikipedia calls Dan Carlin’s style “Theater of the Mind.” That’s apt. The first episode I heard was Prophets of Doom. I loved this 4 hour + walk through the madness that was the Anabaptist cataclysm in Münster in the early 16th century. He refers to the chaos that ensues as a perfect HBO plot, reminding the listeners about our place in history, and how we are interpreting it. And I would be surprised if a Game of Thrones style mini-series about this debacle was not already in the works, inspired by the audacity of what happened, and especially by Carlin’s framing of it. Hardcore History shows us how to embrace history, in our post-modern era, post-historiography and post-Hayden White.

Mostly this podcast is beloved and I am in that choir. I discovered it via a list of best podcasts from New Yorker magazine, (thank you New Yorker!) And it consistently ranks near the top of the iTunes rankings, but, as you might guess, some historians take umbrage at this podcast and its popularity and populism. I know some academics have been supportive while others criticize Carlin for not contextualizing the whole “historical mission” thing more. Here’s a link to one such critique that lays that argument out well. It’s an engaging, balanced, thorough but readable, list of a historian’s concerns, but also in the end, I think, overly critical.

The core complaint this historian expresses is that Hardcore History does not do enough to foreground that tension between recounting events and backing away from those events, prefacing it all with the fact that we don’t/can’t really know what happened or why. The professor himself acknowledges that for many, including students, that kind of doctrinaire equivocation can be (I’m paraphrasing here) a bit of a buzz kill. And that’s just the problem. When reaching out to larger audiences there is a line between telling the story and contextualizing it into near oblivion. I think Carlin walks that line well. He contextualizes, quotes sources and references historians. He describes the past in an expressive and compelling way, while suggesting alternate interpretations, vagueness in the record, and his own position as the interpreter in this version. Carlin introduces doubt and context into the enterprise of history and that is commendable. The effect is a complex and vivid time travel device, and Dan Carlin is surely a great man of history.


Kim Nelson

Brent Lee performs in Subatomic Time.

Brent Lee performs in Subatomic Time.

Part of my impetus for merging documentary with live performance is the influence of my colleague and frequent collaborator Brent Lee. Brent is a composer, media artist, and musician among other things. He’s brilliant and he’s busy. He’s created more than 100 works, from orchestral music to interactive media pieces and film soundtracks (including scoring and recording the soundtrack for every film I’ve made since I moved to Windsor in 2005). His work has been performed and recorded all over the world; and the list of awards and grants he’s received is longer than your arm in 8 point font. I first met him very soon after I was hired as a film prof at the University of Windsor in 2007. He passed me in the hallway, stopping to introduce himself and invite me to contribute footage to his multimedia performance series. When I first met him I was overwhelmed with my new job but I thought about the invitation a lot over the years and attended his performances all the while. In the back of my mind I always wondered what it would be like to combine Brent Lee’s audiovisual performance work with narrative video. It is with those thoughts swirling through my mind that I have been conceiving an approach to narrative-infused audiovisual performance.

Below you will find a sample of Brent Lee’s work with the Noiseborder Ensemble, featuring music by Brent Lee and Nick Papador (performing), alongside Sigi Torinus’ evocative and arresting visuals, from a 40 minute performance documentary I shot of their piece Subatomic Time.

You can check out more of their work at:

Clip from Subatomic Time


Kim Nelson



Happy New Year! My posts from last year were filed under the category "Live Documentary" but were not quite about live documentary. Not yet. What they've been about so far are questions of historical truth telling and the unique, challenging and solitary view from the editor's chair. These are both interests that have lead to me investigate new platforms for documentary film. This month I'll explain my past approach to film, and my inspirations, and reasons for looking into possibilities for the hybrid projection/performance documentary. 

In 2010, I made a film called Berliner (see trailer below) about women in the Turkish community in Berlin. It probed the impact of the reunification of Germany, ending the island of West Berlin, and 9/11, both cataclysmic global events that transformed the sense of self that was projected on the streets in Berlin's predominantly Turkish kiez's (boroughs) of Kreuzberg and Neukölln.  My interest in the topic came out of a curiosity about veiling and the many Muslim Lebanese women who were the mothers of my children's classmates at school in Canada. By talking to women in a similar minority community in another country, I thought I could learn something about my own neighbors. In Berlin I was an outsider and this gave me greater access to interviewees because it allowed them to be more open with me. They could criticize the sociopolitical culture of their city and country without worrying that I would become defensive. Canada is also known for being very "Multikulti", as the Germans would say, so I also benefited from that perception. I wanted to make a film that drew the audience into a conversation with people they may not have spoken to before, particularly about deeply personal issues. I hoped to make a complex film that does not provide a clear argument stating what is right or wrong or creating a monolithic portrait of this diverse community with many layers of inclusion and othering within it. Complexity of course makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

My major takeaway from the film was to understand how important our identities are to us. I think the more a culture tries to discourage certain identities the more entrenched they become. Since 2010 the issues the film deals with have only become more vital. Engaging audiences in a conversation with the material is a major impetus for me to conceive and mount documentary in the live space, to allow a place for audiences to contribute to the shaping of the narrative in a communal way. 



Kim Nelson

Above, an ethnic German who lived in Poland under Nazi occupation. This still is from the “cutting room floor” of my documentary 130 Year Road Trip. It didn’t fit into the narrative of the overarching film and is not in the documentary. Does it stay on my hard drive until that hard drive fails or can that content be made available to audiences that are interested in watching it?

Above, an ethnic German who lived in Poland under Nazi occupation. This still is from the “cutting room floor” of my documentary 130 Year Road Trip. It didn’t fit into the narrative of the overarching film and is not in the documentary. Does it stay on my hard drive until that hard drive fails or can that content be made available to audiences that are interested in watching it?

One way to be truthful about the perspective and subjectivity of the filmmaker and historian is to invite audiences into the process of authorship, the selection of evidence, of character and plot, framing and ordering. The burgeoning genre of interactive film is one way to enable spectators access to the piecing together process of history. They can be given choices about what to watch and in what order and thereby have more control over what meaning they take from the information they choose to consume.

What a captivating possibility for anyone who is a child of the 70s or later, a reader of "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, and a player of video games, accustomed to choices in narrative. Even more important than the freedom it affords, interactivity can be a way to blur the straight story of the past. Or could it be a way to self-select the past in the same way that we increasingly self-select our political coverage and news? Maybe it allows us into an echo chamber with the past as we cobble meaning from what we want to watch?

Interactive online is exciting to me in the way it could allow the audience member to be placed in an analogous position to the historian at the word processor or the editor at the editing system, where evidence, story and character can be pieced together in a multitude of ways to tell different stories with numerous possible interpretations.

History is not inert, and interactivity in the hands and heads of the audience allows us to frame new relationships with the past in the present. It’s not clear yet how exactly this will happen. Interactive, online or via the App store, is still in its very early stages and one of the most pressing issues for interactive makers is how to engage audiences beyond the Youtube video length sweet spot of 2-3 minutes. There are not many earnest documentary filmmakers eager to capture their audience for only a minute or two and imagine what a historian would think about what they conceive of in 300+ dense pages boiled down to music video size? Talk about a deal breaker. Interactive is still finding its feet as creators decide what to do with it and audiences try to figure out, “am I supposed to click on that?” “Do I move my mouse there?”

With online and apps, film is in a period of testing and transition as filmmakers punch out the borders of the start-to-finish linear story model and find ways to invite audiences into content, creating new relationships and new meaning. I am interested in inviting audiences to sit next to me in the editing chair, but the question is, how?


Kim Nelson

Enthusiastic young Nazis in 1934. What if they controlled the narrative? Image courtesy of Bundearchiv

Enthusiastic young Nazis in 1934. What if they controlled the narrative? Image courtesy of Bundearchiv

Again back to high school. I had a wonderful English Lit teacher in grade 12 named Mr. Redford. In class one day he said to us about the Holocaust: “Don’t think, look what the Germans did, think, look what humans did.” When he said this I wasn’t really able to fully process it or accept it. I had watched all the Indiana Jones movies. What happened in WWII seemed like it could only be perpetrated by those jack-booted villains. As an adult with a better understanding of the world, of history, I know 1939-1945 was not an aberration but part of the cycle of what humans are capable of.

A week or so after the launch of the screen version of The Man in the High Castle, a counterfactual series about “what if the Axis won WWII”, I would like to talk about another film, one that renders counterfactuals irrelevant, a film that many have noted, shows us what would have been, if the Nazis had won: Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing”. A film that introduces us to thugs and perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of 1965, a genocide backed by the West, in which the murderers have been lauded in the national mythology as freedom fighters and “free men” rather than the mass murderers that they are. The main character in the film, Anwar Congo, is a familiar one to anyone who knows Tony Soprano, but to see this life replicating art, and on this scale, is nothing short of paradigm shifting.

I would love to see the American Historical Review reconvene the historians from 1988 (see my blog from last week) to consider this film. It is a psychological study and a very meta documentary that could not have been made until our post-post-modern time.  It features a film within a film, with a verité approach that acknowledges the director’s presence within the scenes with the participants. It is a singular film that does what history should: teach us about ourselves, plead with us to acknowledge the past, and encourage us to be wise enough to learn from others’ mistakes ("others" being those in the past) rather than from making our own.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s much-lauded “The Act of Killing” is a powerful and prime example of what documentary can do with, and for, history, that written history cannot. It proves the importance of audiovisual history. The fact that his approach cannot be formally replicated, or become a sub-genre of documentary, is part of the film’s brilliance. To spend a decade in the making, to have sanctioned killers make buffoonish art from their violence, is not a structure that could be repeatable without being “An Act of Plagiarism”. Oppenheimer’s film shows us the possibilities for documentary and history to grapple with the most difficult lesson of history: the distance between what it is to be human and to be humane.


Kim Nelson

The American Historical Review, volume 93, from 1988. Historians talk turkey about film.

The American Historical Review, volume 93, from 1988. Historians talk turkey about film.

History surely goes back as far back as talking. Having the ability to talk about the past, and adapt, is something some scientists have conjectured separated Homo Sapiens from Neanderthals. Although there are some famous names from way back that we would consider early historians: Thucydides and Herodotus among them, historians as a professional class didn’t actually emerge until the late 18th century in Germany. Over the next hundred years, history as a professional discipline was codified and incorporated into university systems throughout Europe and North America.  If historians as professionals are new on the scene, (relative to the scope of history), is it important to consult them, or worry about them, when we make films? I think it is.

Why? Well, the professionalization of anything is accompanied by standards of practice. Since history sprang up as a profession, many of those historians have spent a great deal of time philosophizing about the context and meaning of such an endeavor. So why would filmmakers making works about the past not consult the very people whose job it is to think about it?

It follows that if filmmakers should consider the perspective of historians that historians should consider the possibilities and pitfalls of history on film.

In 1988, the American Historical Association published a “forum issue” on history in film in the(ir) American Historical Review. To date, it is still one of the most enlightening and thorough explorations of history and cinema from the perspective of historians. The most notable contributions were by Robert Rosenstone, (callback to the blog last week), an established historian who had extensive experience in adapting his work for the screen, and Hayden White the post-modern historiography heavyweight who shook up the world of history in the 1970s by calling out historians for writing and conceiving of history in a manner that, as he saw it, was based on 19th century narrative tropes, and therefore was more storytelling than science. Other authors in the journal are less interested in history on film, viewing it as a novelty or something that can only be carefully unpacked in the history classroom. Rosenstone, however, provides constructive ideas and cautions, while White considers all history so tentatively related to past events that he has no problem in accepting filmic depictions as part of the stew of narrative frameworks that dance with the past.

Hegel, writing at the time of the emergence of academic history in Germany, points to poetry and prose as the two ways history is communicated, and he also considers the poetic genre as one that invites a level of abstraction that is more transparent about the historian’s relationship to the past. Following Hegel, both scholars cited experimental, or poetic, depictions of the past that foreground the present and the artist’s hand in the work, as a useful way to approach the past on film. One such example, that is oft-mentioned in the journal's articles, and is referenced on the cover, (see above) is Jill Godmilow’s “Far From Poland” (1984).  Godmilow set out to make a film about the Solidarity movement in Poland but she was denied a Visa to enter the country and decided to forge ahead, making the film at home in New York City, using a pastiche of reenactment, fictional scenes and archival footage. This was all structured around a very heady, intensely meta and subjective point of view, as Jill Godmilow, filmmaker and character, struggled to make her film. “Far From Poland” was loved by many theorists of history and documentary. But 1984 was a while ago now, and as a professor I have shown the film to undergrads, and I have registered the mix of piercing boredom and bewilderment on their faces. What seems to make the biggest impression on them about the film is how everyone chain-smoked in the 1980s.

So my question is: these days, how do we address historiographical concerns, locate the subjectivity of the maker, and also make something that the average 21 year old can sit through? 

Some suggestions next week...


Kim Nelson

Group of Cree men at Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, 1884. Image: NA-382-1 courtesy of Glenbow Archives.  Questions this image raises: How do we tell these people's stories in documentary form with care, detail and critical distance? Who would each one identify with in The Breakfast Club? Does anyone ever identify with the principal? Note: Mean Girls in the background.

Group of Cree men at Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, 1884. Image: NA-382-1 courtesy of Glenbow Archives. 

Questions this image raises: How do we tell these people's stories in documentary form with care, detail and critical distance? Who would each one identify with in The Breakfast Club? Does anyone ever identify with the principal? Note: Mean Girls in the background.

At university I was on the swim team and an arts student. I remember being eyed cautiously from across the hot tub, after practice, as alien, an “artsy” person. In my Creative Writing class I was “the jock”.

When the Creative Writing students looked at me I think that they saw Emilio Estevez from the Breakfast Club, the swimmers saw Alley Sheedy. But I didn’t identify with anyone in the Breakfast Club! Most people like to figure out who is with them, and who isn’t. It's linked to a reptilian sense of security, I’d guess, and a trait that should be tackled in the name of self-improvement. 

Historians and filmmakers are no different. Historians can feel that their expertise and turf are being invaded when non-professionals of any kind tackle history. And filmmakers rarely show much interest in what historians do, beyond alerting them to, ideally: a Great Man who: refuses the call, is incited, then conflicted, conflicted-internally, conflicted externally… biggest conflict of all, resolution, roll credits. From history, filmmakers actually seek myth, and the more a Great Man can be like Luke Skywalker, (or Han) the better. For many filmmakers, to engage the complexity with which historians approach their subjects, even their choice of subjects, is a direct route to audience alienation, obscurity and the back up plan career. Historians would probably peg the average filmmaker as the Judd Nelson type, and for filmmakers, historians would be Anthony Michael Hall.

Robert Rosenstone is a historian whose work has been turned into both fiction and documentary films: the Warren Beatty epic Reds, maybe you’ve heard of it? And the documentary, The Good Fight, probably you haven’t. He worked with both productions as a consultant and he has subsequently written several articles and books about the experience and the “use and abuse of history” in film.

Rosenstone has a great deal to say about history in fiction and non-fiction film. Because my project is a documentary, I will focus on the latter, and leave the Warren Beatty’s and Julian Fellowes’ of the world to do their thing for the time being.

Here is what Rosenstone has to say about the essential problem of putting history into documentary form:

"Th[e] decision to sacrifice complexity to action, one that virtually every documentarist would accept, underlines a convention of the genre: the documentary bows to a double tyranny-which is to say, an ideology-of the necessary image and perpetual movement."

Agreed. So what to do?

My project goal is in many ways the same at The Breakfast Club’s, to see past clichéd divides to shared perspectives, in this case, to incorporate some of the context and thinking from history and historiography into documentary explorations of the past, while still making something accessible to regular documentary filmgoers with typical, (non-avant-garde) expectations.

Next week: more on what historians have to say about history in documentary form and filmmakers whose work answers their challenge. 


Kim Nelson

IN THE ARCHIVES. Historian Rob Nelson flips though a 19th century book on agrarian policy that is relevant to his research. It was used by soldiers to block out windows in the Battle for Berlin in 1945. Still from 130 Year Road Trip, my feature documentary, that I will be transforming into a Live Documentary: a performance of the the film with onstage music, narration and screened clips.

IN THE ARCHIVES. Historian Rob Nelson flips though a 19th century book on agrarian policy that is relevant to his research. It was used by soldiers to block out windows in the Battle for Berlin in 1945. Still from 130 Year Road Trip, my feature documentary, that I will be transforming into a Live Documentary: a performance of the the film with onstage music, narration and screened clips.

If you have ever broken up with someone, only to hear from friends that you got dumped, then you know how unreliable the witnesses to history are.

Conventions used in films to tell tidy, linear stories about the past have bothered me for about as long as I can remember. For many years I’ve wondered about ways that filmmakers could signal to audiences about the unsteady platform we teeter upon when we endeavor to show what happened before. There has to be a way to foreground the present in the past without completely abandoning narrative, since I agree with Robert McKee, it is the way most of us make sense of pretty much everything.

In the 1970s historiography exploded with critiques of the way that historians present the past. That was a while ago now and yet those conversations have not really penetrated the film world where filmmakers continue to construct historical narratives in ways that historians would label as so very nineteenth century. This puts filmmakers, embarrassingly, a couple centuries behind… or at least pre-Altamont (1969), stuck in the past they seek to re-present.

Thanks to the very good people at the Cinema Research Institute at NYU I have the privilege to blog for the CRI about my project this year, which aims to do the following:

1.    Consider ideas about history from historians that could inform filmmakers’ creative choices

2.    Explain my process of making a documentary about history that seeks to deconstruct some of the conventions of audiovisual history

3.    Create a live interactive experience from the raw materials of my documentary

4.    Take interactive ideas from the digital space and put them into the live performance space

5.    Explore Live Documentary as a way to create unique cinema experiences

I will explore the following questions:

1.    How can we use cinematic language to express different historical interpretations?

2.    Can we reflect postmodern perspectives without alienating almost everyone?

3.    Can new expressions of film online be reincorporated into the live environment?

4.    How can filmmakers tell the “truth” about the past?

5.    Is live cinema a viable way for independent filmmakers to reach new audiences?

6.    Can we reengage film audiences in theatre spaces in new ways?

I will blog weekly focusing on the following topics:

Process – explaining my progress in making a film that engages history theory and transforming that film into a live documentary performance.

Ideas – exploring ideas from history as they pertain to storytelling, and the film world as they pertain to history.

Innovators – Monthly features about innovators in the fields of history, film and live audiovisual performance.

You can check out my websites here:

Thanks for reading and hope you will be back to check out my blog next Monday.

Film Financing Series: Sales

Miranda Sherman

Film sales may occupy the murkiest parcel of the filmmaking landscape for most creators, and rightly so: film sales involve third party agents exploiting their relationships with distributors domestically and internationally, and may not directly involve the creative forces behind the film being sold. It's a world that, while essential to the filmmaking industry, is understood fully by a niche group of industry executives.

The NYWIFT panel, "Sales Agents, Producers, and Packaging" helped to demystify the film sales players and process. The panel featured Tara Erer (SVP of Sales, FilmNation Entertainment), Ryan Kempe (Founder, Visit Films), Adrienne Stern (Casting Director), and Jamie Zelermyer (Independent Producer), and was moderated by Kerry Fulton (Independent Producer). 

Here are the three ways in which sales agents might be involved in your project:

1. Script Stage - sales agents will pre-sell the project based on creators, cast, territories to finance the film while still in development. Agents working in this stage want to package the film to yield the most value, perhaps especially to international territories, so that they can borrow a relatively low percentage of the budget against the pre-sold rights financing. Pre-selling like this typically requires name recognition and a creative track record. 

2. Post Stage - agents will pick up a project to get it through the premiere festival circuit; success on the festival circuit will help the sales agent to sell through to distributors later.

3. Festival Stage - sales agents will work with a filmmaker and a project once the film has already been accepted into major film festivals. They'll then take the film to distributors at and following the festival to sell rights. 

What does a Sales Agent actually do for your film?

A sales agent's involvement in your project's trajectory and lifespan depends, to a degree, on the stage at which they become involved. A sales agent who is packaging your film with cast and pre-sold international rights obviously has more input on the film itself, as well as where it will play once produced. A sales agent who picks up a film at a festival is working with the product as it is, and may have some markets in mind for your particular film. 

In both cases, a sales agent will take a fee on deals made, not claim the rights to your film (which the distributor will do for a given amount of time per the deal you strike). It's the agent's job to know the buyers and sellers in the market at any given time, create a space for your film in the sales landscape, position your film for any specific buyers, negotiate the terms of the sales deal including rights, and compose the deal memo. 

An domestic sales agent will work the domestic festivals to sell your film to outlets whose taste, slate, and ambitions can be serviced by your film. 

An international sales agent is much more involved as the point of contact with the international distributor. An international sales agent will approve marketing budgets and campaigns, review and approve television deals, and be much more involved in guiding the film's release in international markets.  

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Your vision and ability as a filmmaker is integral to your relationship with a sales agent. Film is a relatively insecure commodity, so sales agents are interested in mitigating risk through consistency by forging strong relationships with vision-driven dependable creators. 
  • Likewise, sales agents' relationships with buyers are KEY to the sales process. Sales agents know their buyers - from taste to budget range to market needs - and maintain and nurture those relationships through the sales of films. Agents want to go to buyers over and over. Considering your film as a valuable product that will make someone look good and make another feel good may help you to position it for the best sales at any stage of sales involvement. 
  • American independent films can be viewed as "Sundance Films" to international territories, even if they're not. The international markets are essential for film sales in the current landscape, so it's worth considering how you might diversify your cast, universalize your story, etc. to make your film more attractive to sales agents and international territories.  

Given all this, it's important to remember that not every sales agent is right for every filmmaker. As always, the right person for your film is someone who loves your film and can advocate for it. In the sales landscape, that means someone who will meet your goals as a filmmaker, has a track record with films like yours, and with whom you could imagine a relationship beyond the film at hand. 

Film Financing Series: Distribution

Miranda Sherman

Earlier this summer, I attended New York Women in Film & TV's "Film Financing Day" to learn from the people who live and breathe film finance, production, marketing, and distribution. This series will capture the highlights of that day. 

First up: Changing Distribution Models



The panel for this talk was graced by industry leaders representing the spectrum of distribution possibilities available to filmmakers today: Brian Newman ( Founder of Sub-Genre, The Transparency Project), Amy Slotnick (Slingshot Films), Bill Thompson (SVP of Theatrical Sales, Cohen Media Group), Dan Truong (Director of Release Strategy & Financial Planning, The Orchard), Jamie Wilkinson (VHX TV), and moderator Isil Bagdadi (Co-Founder and President of Distribution, CAVU Pictures).

It's no secret that the film media market is flooded with content given the new and proliferating accessibility of technology, and that this glut on content makes it a challenge for filmmakers to find the traditional distribution they perhaps dreamed of when they embarked on a career in film. Simultaneously, distributors - old and new - are playing catch up with new platforms and windowing opportunities both as resources and as competition. The film distribution opportunities available to independent filmmakers have never been so varied and prevalent, but it doesn't mean that the process is any more simple or profitable. 

Here are the highlights from the panel:

  • As always, know your goals.

Is it more important to you to see your film in a theater, even if it's just for a week in one market? Or is it more important to share it with as many people as possible, anywhere in the world? 

Knowing your goals can help keep you in the driver's seat of your distribution deal. If your goal is to share your film with the broadest audience possible, you'll want to see a special emphasis on VOD and VOD marketing in a distribution deal. The same goes for theatrical markets, specific territories, community screenings, etc. - knowing where and how you want your film to be seen will help you determine the best distribution deal. 

  • Get everything in writing

Every deal is different and negotiable, but the basics of a distribution deal are: 

  • Rights – the scope of ownership the distributor assumes in selling your project, including ancillary, sequel, merchandising (“any future technologies”), and  festival rights
  • Distribution Fees - a percentage taken of the profit usually not inclusive of  any marketing or applicable expenses though those expenses will be deducted before fees are applied 
  • Profit Share - the percentage of profit the filmmaker and distributor will see as revenue comes in; can be proposed as tranches to balance over time/as revenues increase
  • Timeline - the amount and scheduling of time that the filmmaker makes a commitment of rights, and the distributor commits its marketing campaign and windowing
  • Territories - where the distributor has the right to sell the film

As the filmmaker, it's essential that you advocate for your film and goals, and recognize that a distribution deal is often a profit-seeking venture, not a necessarily a career builder*. If you have film festivals lined up or still want to apply, make sure that's written into the distribution agreement. If there's a theatrical market of special interest or value to you, ask that it be specified. Whatever it is you want for your film, GET IT IN WRITING. 

*You can make a distribution deal a career builder with the right counsel, clear goals, and enough of a budget to make choices independent of cash flow. 

  • Keep your costs low and focus on the film's "distribution currency"

What's low? According to one panelist, $350,00 is the maximum budget at which to produce a film and make your (and your investors') money back. Films in the $350,000-and-under range most consistently see a return, meaning those filmmakers can create trusting, long-lasting relationships with investors who will be available invest again. 

The dollar amount you spend on your film has no direct correlation to its value in the eyes of a distributor (though it may inform the kind of distribution deal you take, or reject). Focus on increasing the market value of your film by paying attention to the territories of special interest, market size, and audience engagement. Can you co-produce in the UK and therefore be of special interest to UK theaters, television channels, and audiences? Do it! Can you cast internationally to increase your appeal and tap into existing audiences? Do it! This kind of packaging increases your distribution currency - it gives sales agents a broader set of interested parties and more ammunition to demand a higher price. 

  • Plan Your Budget & Your Release for Maximum Financial Return

Reserving or raising 30-50% of your total film budget for distribution and deliverables will give you leverage to make smart distribution choices. That chunk of change will enable you to decide if a more traditional deal is the best way forward, or if independent distribution (and independent marketing & publicity) makes more sense for your goals. And it will pay for the deliverables either way. 

Screening in 10-15 major markets positions your film for the premium VOD price point. In independent distribution terms, this means at least 300 community screenings, plus awards. 

Consider a service deal where traditional full distribution deals aren't optimal. Service deals can mimic a traditional distribution release, but the filmmaker retains rights in exchange for direct payment of marketing costs. 

  • Audience, Audience, Audience

he audience is your most valuable asset whether you go with traditional or independent distribution. In a traditional deal, your audience can provide you the leverage you need to reach your goals. An identifiable audience can justify a theatrical release, improve your VOD price point, and help you hit your market benchmarks as the distribution campaign rolls out.  In an independent distribution campaign, an audience is the engine that drives the success of your film. Audiences can create a conversation, meet the market requirements for high value VOD deals, and - most importantly - become advocates of your filmmaking career. 

IndieLoop to Rep NYU at NYU-Yale Pitch Competition!

Miranda Sherman

In the Spring of 2015, the CRI granted Dagny Looper its first research and development grant for her project, IndieLoop. She and her team were then selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants to participate in the Leslie E-Lab's prestigious Summer Launchpad, which provides NYU's most promising entrepreneurs with skills, resources, and connections to develop their startups into commercially viable ventures. 

IndieLoop is a web platform for indie filmmakers to collaborate and share resources

IndieLoop is a web platform for indie filmmakers to collaborate and share resources

IndieLoop is a web platform for indie filmmakers to collaborate and share resources, dramatically lowering the cost of filmmaking. IndieLoop's co-founders, Dagny Looper (CRI '15) and Colin Whitlow (CRI '14), are filmmakers themselves from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Prior to coming to NYU,Dagny got her PhD in Astronomy and studied acting in Hawai'i. Colin came from a tech background, working for 5 years as a Senior Strategist at YouTube.

As one of nine teams selected for the Summer Launchpad 2015, IndieLoop will launch in August 2015 in beta beginning with the NYC film community. IndieLoop is one of 6 teams competing in the NYU-Yale pitch-off on Thursday, July 16th from 6:30-9:00 pm. 

The pitch-off will take place at: 

NYU Global Center for Academic & Spiritual Life
238 Thompson Street 
Grand Hall, 5th Floor 
New York, NY 10003

Admission is free, so check out this game-changing project and support filmmakers helping filmmakers!


IndieLoop is supported through a Cinema Research Institute 2015 grant, the Leslie e-lab Summer Launchpad 2015, and the IFP Made in NY Fellowship.


Miranda Sherman

In April 2015, the 2014 CRI Fellows - Forest Conner, Artel Great, Michelle Ow, and Colin Whitlow - presented their yearlong research as well as  the models and tools they've developed for the independent filmmaking community at AOL BUILD. Check out the Fellows' presentations right here, via our Vimeo Portfolio, and in FILMMAKER MAGAZINE!

The 2014 Fellows rocked their research and we are excited to follow each as they continue to develop their tools for independent filmmakers. 

2014 CRI Fellow Forest Conner presents his research on Film Personality at the Cinema Research Institute's PROJECTIONS, hosted at AOL BUILD in April 2015.

Follow Forest Conner on Twitter @forestmconner to get updates on his film personality research, and follow @vhxtv to see how he uses data to help filmmakers sell their work online.


2014 CRI Fellow Artel Great presents Project Catalyst, the first app dedicated to connecting multicultural filmmakers to multicultural audiences, at the Cinema Research Institute's PROJECTIONS, hosted at AOL BUILD in April 2015.

Follow Artel Great and his work with Project Catalyst on Twitter @pjcatalyst and at to get updates and stay connected to all the exciting new developments around the first multicultural entertainment mobile app, Project Catalyst.  


2014 CRI Fellow Michelle Ow presents her research on Dynamic Movie Pricing at the Cinema Research Institute's PROJECTIONS, hosted at AOL BUILD in April 2015.

Email Michelle Ow at if you'd like to receive updates and her whitepaper about dynamic movie ticket pricing.


2014 CRI Fellow Colin Whitlow presents his Quantified Film Tool at the Cinema Research Institute's PROJECTIONS, hosted at AOL BUILD in April 2015.

Follow Colin Whitlow on Twitter @colinwhitlow to get updates on his thinking and further development of the Quantified Film Tool, an examination of objective features that impact film revenues.


Thanks to our Fellows for their amazing thought leadership, and to our followers for liking, sharing, and thinking along with us!