It seems no festival or event related to independent film is complete these days without a panel dedicated to contemplating the future of distribution in the industry, given the ever-changing landscape of possibilities. (In fact, this morning, our team will participate in an illy Salon through the Cinema Research Institute, where we contemplate an iteration of these very questions). It also seems no panel like this is complete without much commentary, many observations, and almost no sense of what will actually happen to independent filmmakers in the future, near or far. It is a very disruptive time, indeed. Consider this most recent summary of everything plaguing the indie soul, from a write-up from IFP, article titled "The 7 Questions That The Indie Film Community Is Grappling With Now":
[A] "growing frustration at how money circulates in the community, how people can develop careers as filmmakers where there's so little funding to go around. There's also a growing concern that... the indie filmmaking industry is getting too concerned with building itself around institutional funders and the work from corporations that indie filmmakers use to help pay rent and sustain themselves."
That's a litany of problems to start with... and we'll get back to them. However, one such panel I recently came across did offer a distinct conclusion I thought particularly helpful when thinking about grassroots distribution and do-it-yourself solutions. That conclusion? That "doing it yourself" should not necessarily be the default solution if you do not get traditional distribution! And similarly, that traditional distribution deals should not necessarily be the first thing sought -- in fact grassroots solutions, or retaining rights and carving them up yourself may prove more lucrative and successful for everyone involved, if it's the right film. These thoughts came from Andrew Herwitz of the Film Sales Group in a conversation about Stacey Peralta's Bones Brigade. Bones Brigade had a built in industry around it -- it was a history of the birth of skating. This provided multi-faceted opportunities for branding, premium content other than the film. The representative from TopSpin -- the Direct-to-Fan service that was engaged -- noted that "there were deals to do"; in other words, traditional distributors were interested in the film, in significant ways. But it turned out it was not the best economic model for this film, given its particulars.
What really made the difference here is that Herwitz and the filmmakers took the deliberate step to actually stop and calculate -- through some math and science -- which distribution mode (in their hands or someone else's) made sense for the film. That is not normally a step; the default of a filmmaker is that if no one wants their film, they should push it out through other modes themselves. But Herwitz says "listen to the marketplace." The idea that because no one wants your film means that you should do it yourself is not actually necessarily the equation. Bones Brigade just happened to be about something that would offer enough premium content and keep momentum with fans and supporters such that it ended up being four times more profitable for Peralta than other distribution modes would have been. (Their summary: free downloads of non-film content built the marketing database; the database and social sharing of this material drive attention to the pre-sale of theatrical tickets and ultra premium high margin products; the pre-order ends the same day the film is available on transactional VOD; direct purchasers and social sharing drive more fans to VOD and DVD on release. The campaign didn't have anything for people to spend money on until Day 95 of the campaign -- that's how much excitement there was).
What made Bones Brigade a successful grassroots distribution campaign is the same thing that made the Obama campaign successful. There was a built-in, almost cult-like audience, with momentum along the way defined by the unlocking of or access to new content: be it videos from or about the campaign, new bumper stickers or similar swag, or events that the President or his surrogates would be at. For example, if you opted-in to the email list or donated a set amount, you got an item in the mail. Similar to how the Bones Brigade audience was not asked to spend money until well into the campaign, every part of the Obama machinery and brand was set to prime supporters to turn out for the most important day: Election Day.
There is strategy, math, and science to this. At another panel on the same inevitable topic, "Digital Discourse -- The Future of Media Distribution and Content Creation," held at the WGA and hosted by No Film School's Ryan Koo, Mark Schiller of Bond360 opined that "it used to be that you would hold everything back and wait and wait... Effective strategies now mean sharing immediately." I'll disagree; I think in fact that the expectation of sharing that fans and audiences have these days makes it even more important to be deliberate and patient with how and when content is shared. Just as the primaries built momentum into the start of the general election campaign, which then led to a marker of 100 days from Election Day, which then led to the revelation of the Vice Presidential candidate, which then led to the beginning of Early Vote, which then led to the Get Out the Vote drive of the last few days, films should deliberately punctuate their distribution campaign in a similar manner.
That takes a lot of effort and time. And yet somehow, increasingly the consensus seems to be that independent filmmakers should have a second job. "If your goal is to make films, then you need to look at it not as a place to make your income," was a quote that came out of the aforementioned 7 Questions panel. But then again, this shouldn't shock everyone. Yes, political campaigns are careers for some people. But not the candidates themselves. The idea is to take a few months to campaign, to achieve office so that you don't have to do it again for another four or six years. Similarly, filmmakers should not wear themselves out thinking that this kind of large scale grassroots outreach campaign has to be their whole life. In fact (and this may come as a bigger shock), it's not even necessarily the right choice for their film!