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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 

B-Side and “Super High Me” (Interview)


B-Side and “Super High Me” (Interview)

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn


In this post, we present our conclusions from our interview with the former Marketing VP of B-side Entertainment, Liz Ogilvie. Although the company went out of business during the recession, it was a top priority for us to learn about B-side, given their apparent success in using grassroots outreach and community screenings to distribute the film “Super High Me,” which grossed over 3 million dollars with almost no marketing budget. The Start of B-Side

The inception of B-Side Entertainment came from Chris Hyams who previously worked as the V.P. of Engineering at the software company Trilogy. Chris became interested in exploring new ways to distribute independent film when he noticed that his brother John Hyams would screen his documentaries at sold out film festival audiences -- but then the theaters would be empty when studios distributed his film at large. Liz explains: “Chris decided it must have something to do with the audiences that is going to the festival and the experience the audiences are having at those festivals. Is it the element of discovery; is it the fact that the filmmakers are there? … Chris decided that he was going to find a way using technology to seek that answer.”

The Data Behind B-Side

Chris formed B-side in an attempt to use digital tools to discover a more effective way to monetize and distribute independent film. It began by offering an interactive, online festival guide that allowed audiences to plan their experience by organizing their own schedule and then reviewing films. In this capacity, B-Side became an invaluable resource for festival organizers and goers alike, eventually partnering with 245 film festivals, representing the largest online audience dedicated to film festivals. The company did this for free in exchange for the email addresses and other information collected from the audiences that used their program. Liz explains how the data process at festivals worked, “you would go in and be able to do recommendations, comments and reviews and see who else is buying tickets and see how popular the films are … And behind the scenes Chris and a group of tech engineers would be looking at all the data that was coming in.” This gave B-Side valuable information about what films were drawing the largest audiences and what kind of audiences were going to what kind of films. Chris and his team were then able to mine through data to find undervalued films to distribute. Also, half of the more than 3 million people that used the B-Side program opted into their email list, which resulted in B-Side collecting a massive online community they could tap into to help them distribute their films.

The Distribution of “Super High Me”

In 2007, Red Envelope, the distribution branch of NetFlix, decided to partner with B-Side in an effort to distribute the documentary “Super High Me.” In order to avoid the expensive cost of conventional film advertising campaigns, B-Side created their own “Roll your own screening” website that empowered users to host a screening on the celebratory marijuana holiday, “4/20.” Liz explains, “Everybody felt that this was really special and the fact that they were being allowed to do this. They just thought it was the coolest thing imaginable. And the website that we created was really funny… I think people thought that they were involved in a movement that only they knew about and I feel like that is the reason we got so many people talking about it.”

B-Side used its massive email listserve of over 1 million festivalgoers to spread the word about the “Roll your own screening” campaign. Just as B-side built its email list from audience surveys taking at film festivals, the Obama campaign gradually built its massive listserv though offline sign-ups at events, field offices, or canvassing, and by offering things like bumper stickers to supporters on their website. From taking advantage of “opt-in” moments like these, the self-fulfilling cycle of data collection helped both the Obama campaign and B-side grow huge online communities, which in turn made it easier to publicize anything occurring at the community level, with almost no expense. To complement this outreach, B-Side contacted and built relationships with the top pro-4/20 organizations to further publicize the screenings offline.

The diagram below explains how B-Side would identify and target the passionate supporters of a film, and empower them to spread the word of screenings to others through grassroots tools on their website.

You might notice that the graphic resembles the Obama campaign’s Snowflake Model we mentioned here. The Obama campaign similarly empowered volunteers by giving them more access and ownership of the campaign, that made them want to reach out and engage others.

The Success of “Super High Me”

Social media and digital marketing tools helped ignite a word of mouth campaign that equaled the impact of traditional film advertising. Ultimately, the “Roll Your Own Screening” campaign lead to over 1600 screenings on April 20 (the highest number of same-day screenings for a documentary ever) and cost only $8,000 (paid mostly for DVD’s) in print & advertising. For a point of comparison: that is significantly less than what one full-page ad in the New York Times would cost. As word of mouth spread from the screenings, the film sold 85,000 DVD’s in the first year of its release according to Rentrak, resulted in 650,000 NetFlix rentals and grossed a total of 3.4 million dollars. To date it is the second most watched title available on NetFlix Instant.

Lessons from “Super High Me”

B-Side was able to successfully distribute “Super High Me” while avoiding expensive marketing costs by combining three key ingredients: data, social media and grassroots organizing. 1) B-Side gathered data and contact information from audiences at festivals, 2) they created a social media site where fans could easily sign up to express interest in hosting or attending a screening of the film 3) B-Side staff met offline with pro-4/20 organizations to convince them to help publicize the screenings.

B-Side sets an important example of how innovative social media and grassroots methods can save filmmakers millions on marketing costs while at the same time organically build their audience at the local level. In addition, building for local events open up new revenue opportunities for filmmakers. Similar to how bands sell their CD’s and other merchandise when on tour, filmmakers could sell their DVD’s, t-shirts and other merchandise at community screenings to gain more revenue. For example, in B-Side’s distribution proposal for the documentary “Under the Great Northern Lights” about the band The White Stripes, they proposed a t-shirt contest and DVD sales at their “flash” screenings.

Although B-Side folded, Liz was confident that if they had stayed in business for six more months they would have been out of debt and making money for their investors. This leads us to wonder if another company could further develop B-Side’s model of distributing independent films in crowdsourced, locally organized supported screenings to effectively avoid spending millions on advertising for conventional movie theater distribution runs. Additionally, the experience of B-Side begs the question of what other ways start-up distribution companies – not to mention filmmakers individually – can access the kind of similarly huge data set that B-Side was working with? Is it necessary to create technology that has an altogether different use entirely (as they did) in order to gather such information?

-Josh, Michael and Carl