Self Distribution Not All By Yourself @ SXSW, March 15, 2009
Sunday March 15, 2009 at 1:00pm
Austin Convention Center, Austin, TX.
Scott Macaulay, Editor, Filmmaker Magazine
Richard Abramowitz, Abramorama
Caitlin Boyle, Paradigm Consulting/Semi-Theatrical Distribution Consultant
Chris Hyams, Founder & CEO, B-Side Entertainment
Jon Reiss, Hybrid Cinema, Filmmaker & Consultant
As specialty film subsidiaries dry up and smaller distributors close up shop, self-distribution has become a much more viable option for the filmmaker. "Self-Distribution Not All By Yourself", moderated by Filmmaker Magazine editor Scott Macaulay, explored the many avenues and options for the filmmaker to self-distribute. Macaulay was inspired to give the panel its title following a conversation with Peter Broderick, in which Broderick said that no one truly distributes their movie by themselves.
The panel took a look at the expanding venues by which a filmmaker can self-distribute their film, and the panelists represented a diversity of venues by a which a filmmaker could exhibit their film: Jon Reiss is a documentarian who self-distributed his last movie, Bomb It; Richard Abramowitz has worked as a distribution consultant for over twenty years; Caitlin Boyle also works as a Semi-Theatrical Distribution consultant, working with filmmakers on finding the best venue for their work, whether it be a public library or an art house.
Macaulay began the panel by refuting a common assumption about the distribution process that filmmakers and the general public seem to have:
"The old way was that you'd take your film to a film festival, it gets picked up, the company that distributes your film buys all the rights, and they would provide for theatrical, DVD, etc., etc....The models we are talking about today are very different from the old model that used to exist for filmmakers. Filmmakers need to realize that it never really existed in the first place--that maybe it existed for about five percent of the people."
Caitlin Boyle reassures filmmakers that just because your film doesn't get picked up for distribution, that doesn't necessarily mean your film is a failure. "Doing it yourself and alternative models of distribution shouldn't be considered to be a failure, or what you do when you're groveling up from being knocked down. I think a lot of people are releasing their films theatrically by themselves, melding traditional distribution schemes with alternative distribution schemes, trying a little but of everything and making sort of a comprehensive plan, and exercising more control."
If anything, both Hyams and Abramowitz see filmmakers bypassing more traditional distributors and either releasing films themselves, or through a company like Hyams' B-Side. Self-Distribution gives the filmmaker more control of the outcome. Hyams points to the success of Super High Me, a non-fiction parody of Supersize Me starring Doug Benson which premiered at the 2008 SXSW. Between the premiere and April 20th, B-Side and the filmmakers managed to book 1,100 screenings in 820 cities with their "Roll Your Own Screening" distribution plan. They have since sold 65,000 units on DVD, and $1.4 million in DVD sales. The total spent on marketing? $8,000.
Macaulay suggested that filmmakers consider thinking about their distribution strategy early on. "I really recommend thinking about that while you're writing your script. Especially narrative--there's so much stuff now that you can do on the web to develop an audience, and also with documentaries. It will really help to figure out who your markets are. 'Where am I going to sell this? Who am I going to sell this to?' I know this sounds like a Hollywood way of thinking, but it's not. It's a smart way of thinking about your audience."
Theatrical self-distribution can be cumbersome, but there's still a payoff. Says Reiss: "I don't regret what I did. It was a lot of work, but my DVD company is very happy that I did what I did."
Q: How much does the P&A (Prints & Advertising) cost to the value of releasing films?
Hyams: We'll be releasing 15 films this year. Part of that is when you lower the risk, you can take on a fuller slate. If we had to put up $250,000 or $500,000 for every film, it would be a lot harder to take something on. One of things we try to have is aligned expectations. If for whatever reason that doesn't work, and those films don't do [the business] people hoped for, at least you don't go too far into the hole in the process. Frankly, we are in a position to take more chances on movies we think there's an audience out there for.
Erin: One book aimed at would-be filmmakers titled From Reel to Deal advises against self-distribution. While the author acknowledges that filmmakers often get low and sometimes unfair deals, he says, "attempt self distribution and you'll spend your entire life in small claims court trying to collect from each and every theater owner." Have you ever had a problem collecting money from theater owners?
Reiss: I'm the smallest fish, so I should probably talk. I was actually shocked everyone paid within two weeks. There was one guy I had to nudge--he had the biggest check. That came about a month after the screening. I was shocked I got paid. I think partially because he was working with a chain, and I've had films distributed by bigger chains who didn't pay. I dealt with the small independent cinemas, and I got paid.
Abramowitz: I can speak on the other end. I've rarely had trouble getting paid from the chains. They just put the money into the system, and they pay you. You may not get the amount you want, and it may not be as quickly as you want it to be. It's an honest count--the chains check themselves to make sure their local managers are honest.
Boyle: I've worked with everyone from tiny public libraries to large universities to art houses, and I have the same story: no one has ever been more than a few weeks. Everyone has been eager to pay.
Abramowitz: And you can get these people to pay in advance.
Boyle: They all pay in advance. They even pay without having seen the film.
Abramowitz: It's important to get counsel from someone who's done it before. John just said that he's remarkably lucky--he was incredibly persistent. Knowing which theaters to play, and which not to. There are people I have not done business with in 20 years because they don't pay. Ask around, ask other filmmakers. Check the theater's website, and which theaters play those types of movies. Check three films that are similar to yours, and you'll see 80% of the same theaters there. You'll get a sense that they're regularly playing these kinds of films, and that they're treating the filmmakers with some degree of honor.
Hyams: Another question that might be a better one is, "What do home video distributors pay?" Without naming names, there are those that do, and those that are notorious for not paying. I would encourage you that if you haven't done a home video deal, talk to other filmmakers who have and find out if they've paid, and how prompt they are. That's going to be the bigger bulk of the money coming in. Some of them make a business of sitting on their money as long as possible.
Q: How do you manage expectations for you and the filmmaker? You look at 65,000 units for Super High Me, which is great. But have you ever though, "I could've done 100,000!", or, "Why didn't I do 100,000?"
Hyams: Netflix's original estimates were around 20,000. Docs don't sell--we beat expectations pretty dramatically on that one. We have had cases where filmmakers' expectations are so out of wack that I concluded that it wouldn't be a good idea to work with them. I think it's really important to have aligned expectations up front, and to be happily surprised if it succeeds that. Docs on home video is a tough business, but 5,000 units is doing pretty well. 10,000 is doing better.
Boyle: My personal philosophy is that your film has value. Don't give your film away for free all the time. I see it as being a matter of raising expectations, but staying realistic about it. I think that a lot of filmmakers sort of undercut themselves. I meet people whose expectations are very low, very modest. They often give their movie away for free, or formulate it without a plan. I'm constantly saying to people, "You should be charging for that!" People will not bat an eye having to pay admission. I work in a different way [than the other panelists]. I often struggle with too low expectations, not too high. I'm constantly being a cheerleader.