Recently, Ted Hope posted a list entitled 38 More Ways The Film Industry Is Failing Today the first point on the list focuses on building richer theatrical experiences.
1. We cannot logically justify any ticket price whatsoever for a non-event film. There are too many better options at too low a price. Simply getting out of the house or watching something somewhere because that is the only place it is currently available does not justify a ticket price enough. We still think of movies as things people will buy. We have to change our thinking about movies to something that enhances other experiences, and it is that which has monetary value. Film’s power as a community organizing tool extends far beyond its power to sell popcorn (and the whole exhibition industry is based on that old popcorn idea).
This and the other 37 points are definitely worth reading. They raise numerous questions while hinting at possible solutions. In relation to the first point that Ted raises I was struck by the fact that “Hosted Screenings” present an interesting option for those looking to roll something out in today’s theatrical market.
We had a chance to catch up with filmmaker Sol Tryon from Mangusta Productions to hear about his recent experimentation in the hybrid distribution world and how he and his team are working around a “Hosted Screenings” model for their theatrical releases.
What lead to your hybrid distribution efforts around your slate of films?
Over the past few years we have seen the independent film industry flip on it’s head. With the number of films getting big advances for all rights deals dropping drastically, it became apparent that in order to be independent filmmakers with sustainable careers we were going to have to know how to market and distribute our films ourselves. We began exploring and comparing the different options for self, hybrid and traditional distribution. Fortunately, there have been a few other filmmakers blazing these trails already giving us some points of reference to work from. For the most part though, these strategies are only being implemented as a one off sort of thing for specific films. Seeing this as a developing trend, we decided to try to shape our company around eventually being prepared to release all of our films ourselves theatrically. With that as the strategy, we have begun including a modest P&A (prints and advertising) budget into our production budget in order to finance a theatrical release. This puts us, the filmmakers, as well as the initial investors in a greater position of power when it comes to managing the distribution options. If one of the precious few large all rights deals comes our way, we can take it and just distribute the remaining funds back to our investors. If there aren’t any offers we are jumping up and down about, we have the ability to distribute the film ourselves in a way we feel it deserves. The ideal situation being that we develop this strategy for distributing our films to a point where other filmmakers and distributors want to work with us because they see the value we are able to add to a project.
Can you explain how you’re approaching theatrical and the results you’ve seen so far from your efforts?
Our first theatrical release was FIX (directed by Tao Ruspoli; starring Olivia Wilde and Shawn Andrews). We opened in New York and played for two weeks at the Village East. We generated a lot of press and saw a real tangible jump in awareness for the film. One of the most effective strategies we employed was setting up hosted screenings where we invited cast, crew, friends and influential personalities to take part in themed post-screening Q&A’s. For instance, we invited Daniel Pinchbeck, a proponent of hallucinogens, to participate in a discussion with Tao Ruspoli titled: “Drugs: Culture, Addiction and the Exploration of Altered States of Consciousness”. Pinchbeck promoted the screening on his Reality Sandwich blog which, combined with our promotional and marketing efforts, enabled us to sell out a Tuesday night screening.
With our two current films, The Living Wake and 2012: Time For Change we’ve continued in this direction. With 2012: Time For Change we partnered with Green Festivals (the largest green expo in the U.S.). They hold five events throughout the year (San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Washington D.C., and San Francisco again). We premiered the film April 9th at the San Francisco event where we organized panels on the green festival main stage featuring participants in the film and set up a booth to promote our screenings, build our mailing list, and sell merchandise. Outside of the festival, we booked a Landmark Theater for one screening a night for three nights. With the awareness we built up at the green festival and our grass roots marketing, we sold out all of our screenings and built a strong base of interest in the area for our film. Each night the film was followed by a Q&A featuring a different lineup of luminaries from the film. These events became great opportunities to bring together an eclectic mix of personalities into one space for unique discussions. The guests included Paul Stamets (Mycologist), Rob Garza (Thievery Corporation: Musician), Tiokasin Ghosthorse (First Voices Indigenous Radio), Richard Register (Ecological City Design), Barbara Marx Hubbard (Futurist, Writer), and many more.
We are continuing this approach next in Chicago and are expanding the idea in Seattle to incorporate a full one week theatrical run. The thinking is that Seattle is a great market for this film and with the green festival’s outreach, as well as the attention we received from our San Francisco event the time is right to explore taking things to the next level. We are also planning an event screening in NYC for early July with Sting, Paul Stamets, Ganga White, Daniel Pinchbeck and director Joao Amorim where we will be doing simultaneous screenings through several platforms and streaming the Q&A/panel discussion live after the film.
With our latest release, The Living Wake, we are collaborating with Dylan Marchetti of Variance Films on our theatrical bookings. We started by booking theaters in New York (May 14th) and LA (May 21st). From there we used those dates to build around with other cities. We currently are planning on releasing the film in Seattle (June 4th), Chicago (June 25th) and several other cities through June and July. We have also recently secured separate deals for the DVD and VOD rights, coordinating them both to be released on August 3rd.
Can you share how you design your self hosted screenings?
For our New York release of The Living Wake this week we have a total of twenty hosted screenings set up, and are planning to do the same in Los Angeles next week. Many of the screenings will be hosted by the Filmmakers and Cast members themselves (Sol Tryon, Jesse Eisenberg, Mike O’Connell, Jim Gaffigan), while others will be hosted by special guests such as Shirin Neshat (Women Without Men), Mark Webber (Explicit Ills), Cory McAbee (American Astronaut), Daniel Pinchbeck (2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl), Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness), and Jimmy Miller (Step Brothers). Several companies and film festivals we have screened at are also jumping in and hosting select screenings in support of the film.
Our goal is to create an event type of experience within the traditional theatrical format. The approach with each host is slightly different. Some hosts are trying to just promote us and our film by bringing people that they think would enjoy it to a specific screening. Others it works two fold for, where they are promoting us, but we are promoting them as well and it becomes a mutually beneficial experience. All of it though is targeted at creating a particular experience around each and every screening for the audience.
What tips would you offer for someone who is interested in booking their own event / hosted screenings?
Give people as many reasons as you can to go out and see your film. It’s hard to get people into the theater, it’s expensive, and you’re competing with a zillion other things so you have to work to make the experience unique and memorable. Form partnerships whenever and wherever possible with groups and individuals and help promote each other. Get as much advice from people who have done it before as you possibly can, but remember that Self and Hybrid Distribution is still very new, there are no set rules as to how it is done so be creative. Lastly, be prepared to work harder than you ever have. The only guarantee in going this route is that the fate of your film rests on you and how much work you are able to put into it.
What’s next and will you be releasing theatrically in more cities?
The Living Wake and 2012: Time For Change will be rolling out to more cities throughout the summer and fall. The next film on our slate for distribution is Being In The World, a documentary directed by Tao Ruspoli (Fix). This project we have been with from the beginning and are devising a strategy for a theatrical tour building on the experiences gained from Fix, 2012: Time For Change and The Living Wake, but gearing everything specifically for this film. We have also decided to work on supporting other indie films that we think deserve a theatrical release, but have not had the opportunity for what ever reason to make it happen yet. In that vein, we are providing the P&A financing for Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench to be released by Variance Films. We have a few projects in development and plan on continuing to do theatrical releases on our own films as well as others. Our goal is to work with filmmakers on establishing a sustainable environment for us all to continue creating the projects that inspire us.
Posted in audience biz distribution doc event
“What the hell am I doing? I can’t write. How do people fucking do this for a living?” These are the poisonous phrases of defeat that loop inside my brain prior to my turning into a robot and heading toward the refrigerator to binge on cheese even though I’m a vegan.
I’m a firm believer in rolling up your sleeves and jumping into whatever project moves you. Passion can be an immense driving force, even if you don’t have any formal training in a particular endeavor. This obviously precludes any dangerous stuff. I’m speaking creatively. I don’t want to get all ‘Life Coach’ on you guys, but I feel pretty strongly that anyone can go as far as their passion leads them. The only obstacle is self-doubt.
Jeff and I are writing a screenplay, a narrative based on my mom and dad’s life story. We’ve read the books we’re ’supposed’ to, we’ve brainstormed, we’ve nitpicked over tiny grammatical stuff to avoid the larger issues of structure, character development and figuring out the intricate puzzle of Act II. To all of the countless souls who have been down this path, we feel your pain.
The creative cycle is as predictable as the seasons. You settle down to write, you get distracted, you procrastinate. Then you hear weird noises coming from next door, you’re thrown off balance, you lose focus. So you go eat some more cheese, walk the dog, make some coffee, sit down and force yourself to write a little bit, you gain confidence, not too much…oh no, here it comes…”What am I doing? I can’t fucking write!” Writer’s block is back.
Jeff and I take turns writing. We rely on one another. He is definitely alpha when it comes to making the larger decisions, because he is the one who started this project. It’s his baby and I don’t want to tamper with a direction or vision he may have. But having said this, if he were to bear the entire burden alone, it would be incredibly overwhelming. Not all artists want to work with others, but I’ve come to learn the value in partnering with someone you respect and admire. There are times when Jeff comes up with an idea, incorporates it into the script and I read it and get goosebumps. This is when I know it’s exactly what belongs there and how the story should go.
I think that Jeff and I make a good team because of our ability to communicate with one another. Again, we’re learning as we write. Since he and I are pretty green, the writing journey has been an especially slow process. We’ve been locked in our cave for the past year-and-a-half, not having shown a word of the first draft to a soul. We’re almost ready for a select group of writing friends to have a look. We’re both a little nervous. It’s going to be like standing up before a crowded room to make an announcement and then dropping your drawers…and there you are with all of your pimples and sagging parts, getting gawked at by critical eyes.
Some might argue that working in a vacuum is dangerous. I think that when you’re ready to let someone see your ‘creation’ it should never be a half-finished work or something that starts out solid and peters out because you’ve rushed to complete it. You cannot go out onto the stage without practicing first. Always put your best foot forward. Whatever the end product is that you’ve created, it has to be something that you are totally proud of…not something you half-assed in a half-baked state.
Our project started out as a 10-page treatment that grew to 40 pages over the course of several months and then the realization set in that, instead of trying to tell someone else how the story should go, we might as well just write the script ourselves. Jeff and I didn’t know what the hell we got ourselves into when we started working together on the documentary, but that film is still out and about and maintaining a steady momentum fed by word-of-mouth. So it’s not a totally radical concept for us to take it a step further and fictionalize my dad’s life story for the big screen.
Whatever it is that you want to create, study what others have done before you, not to mimic, but to be shown the light. Jeff and I watched hundreds of documentaries before we set out on the journey to make our own first film. And for our current writing project, we try to study as many screenplays as possible. When they’re written well, you can’t wait to get your hands on another one. It’s a total addiction. Honing in on certain styles, subject matter and writers we like, we’ve read screenplays like ‘Man on the Moon,’ ‘Hudsucker Proxy,’ ‘Adaptation,’ ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,’ etc.
Recently, I’ve become fascinated with articles detailing how long it takes other writers to pump out their screenplays. I was giddy over the fact that some professional writers take years to complete their first draft. This means there truly is hope for us!
Posted in Storytelling doc screenwriting
How small festivals can be the future of meatspace film distribution
In the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and listen to a lot of conversations about the shifting role of film festivals, particularly as those shifts apply to mid to high level independent festivals. There are a number of conflicting opinions on the role of film festivals – from ‘they’re useless and will die’ to ‘they are the future of theatrical’. In truth, all theorizing aside, nobody knows the role film festivals will take over the course of the next few years because nobody know how time-based media will evolve. I do, nonetheless, believe that they can retain their relevance… if they adapt.
What follows here are the last of four thoughts that came to me about the functionality of film festivals, and in no particular discursive order.
What festivals should do to better serve their communities.
The motivations that guide independent film festivals vary wildly: Whereas some were founded solely to develop industry in a second-city environment, others take radical stances against the industry altogether, shifting their focus towards serving their local creatives instead. Others, still, strive to function as arts-based businesses, leveraging sponsorships and ticket sales in an attempt at joining the ranks of corporatized culture-hawkers.
It is hard to generally classify the purpose of pre-existing film festivals, then, as their needs and motivations are often so divergent. One can nonetheless begin to make an attempt at creating a sort of style guide outlining some pragmatic ways that festivals can better serve independent filmmakers and artists, their contradictory purposes notwithstanding.
Based on several conversations had with such luminaries as Lance Weiler, Brian Newman, Paul Rachman, Peter Baxter, Lisa Vandever, Roger Mayer and others, here is the beginning of a list of how festivals can better help independent filmmakers.
NB. I see the following 5 points as responsibilities, not suggestions. I believe that arts organizations, due to their very nature of being the cynosure of dialogue and thought, have the responsibility to guide that discussion in the correct, honest direction.
I. Manage Filmmaker Expectation (No dangling carrots)
Too often festivals obliquely play into a system based on false promises and permission-based access. In this, they encourage and fail to manage filmmaker expectations, and inevitably end up with some seriously disappointed filmmakers on their hands.
It is crucial for independent filmmakers to understand how the system actually works, and to understand, also, that there are alternatives. It is therefore crucial for a festival to actually explain what they are to expect – from an industry point of view- from inclusion in the festival.
Action point: Clarify what will and probably won’t happen at the festival with your filmmakers along every step of the way, from the call for submissions to the acceptance letter.
II. Be transparent:
If a filmmaker, however naively assuming that his independent festival of choice has scads of dollars to throw at promoting his screening, throws up his hands and lets the festival do all the work, imagine the shock and dismay he may feel when finds his big premiere empty. Conversely, if a filmmaker is aware that the festival has no marketing budget, he might be inclined to engage in a little marketing of his own, and in so-doing will support the festival’s efforts (with the happy accident of helping ticket sales, to boot).
My point is this: Anyone who’s worked a festival knows that they are damn hard to run, and are often on the verge of collapse. BUT: Most filmmakers and attendees do not realize this. In order to – again – temper expectations and ensure a good experience for all, it is simply a question of a festival engaging in a little transparency in its affairs. Open books and open access (within reason, of course) can be positive for several reasons, most saliently in helping people know what to expect of you- what you are capable of providing as a festival. It also allows a community to help where they see problems or deficiencies.
Action point: Clarify and publish your budgets, be clear about shortcomings and explain how your community (including your filmmakers) can help fill them.
With transparency in festival affairs and transparency about the reality of what to expect, festivals also have a responsibility to provide their filmmakers with information about alternative solutions for independent film. This can be done simply by shifting the focus away from old-industry panels towards realistic, functional and educational seminars centering both on the ‘art’ side of the filmmaking process and, of course, the business.
There are several areas that are drastically changing with the advent of new(ish) technologies: New fundraising stratagems (crowdsourced); New storytelling techniques (transmedia); New production processes (crowdsourced); New distribution strategies (online, VOD, etc); Open culture
Action Point: Taking a cue from The WorkBook Project’s DIY Days, create open access educational seminars around the new models in distribution and fundraising. Make the information available online.
IV. Develop access to new distribution models
In addition to educating filmmakers about new models for film production and distribution, festivals should also provide optional distribution solutions for its filmmakers in new media platforms, VOD and theatrical. These should allow filmmakers to exploit their rights piece-meal, monetize their films and gain new audiences, with the appui of the festival’s curatorial credibility behind them.
This is a hugely lengthy topic to go into, but for examples of festivals that are attempting to do this, take a look at a few examples: Slamdance’s deal with Xbox; Sundance’s deal with YouTube; Tribeca’s recent VOD deal
Action Point: Use your festival’s organization cachet to broker deals for your filmmakers, and offer those deals as optional systems to complement their distribution strategies.
V. Share resources and organize year-round community screenings
Imagine a scenario where the audience winner at Nashville FF is given a 15 city theatrical run through community screening programs run by Nashville FF partner fests.
In line with the previous point, festivals could increasingly work together to further four-wall film exhibition through year-round screenings, and by combining marketing and local resources with other festivals.
In turn, by leveraging partnerships with other arts organizations and venues worldwide, festivals can help their filmmakers reach wider audiences, and also provide them with a de facto theatrical release. Of course, the benefits of partnering reach beyond only helping filmmakers, as these sorts of partnerships can help spread a festival’s brand, vision, and curatorial voice- in turn allowing for higher levels of sponsorship or- better yet- more participants in its next crowdsourced fundraising campaign.
Action Point: Organize year-round screenings in your community. Make friends with your colleagues and organize film exchanges. Share resources and programming.
All these points, to me, demonstrate one overarching fact: In order for an independent arts community to thrive, it must take a conscious stand to stop trying to emulate a corporate business methodology of exclusion, competitiveness and opacity.
In copying a system that, really, has little to do with how we as independents actually work, festivals are unwittingly incorporating all the nasty little habits that are anathema to thriving collaboration and creativity: Status-based ranking systems for humans (‘VIP’ passes, for instance), one-way payment systems, the obsession with celebrity attendance, fearful and covetous business practices. In following this approach, of course, we effectively stop innovation and discourage the development of new collaborative systems altogether.
In servicing the arts, a festival services the arts community in all its forms – even those it sees as its competitors. One will never exist without the other.
How to sustain without selling out: An exercise in ego management.
In the last several posts I’ve argued that film festivals should take a step away from the commercial approach and should adopt a community-centric view in their strategic direction.
Maslow's pyramid, as applied to film festivals
However, if we apply Maslow’s taxonomy of human needs to film festivals, it becomes quickly apparent that it’s all well and good for festivals to try to better serve their communities, but when they’re barely surviving, simple basic needs end up perforce taking precedence.
Most independent festivals function at the ‘safety’ level of the pyramid—trying to securely retain theatre space, staff, volunteers, film submissions… It’s hard for these hard-working people to discuss the philosophical approaches towards how they serve filmmakers (the top of the pyramid) in these tenuous circumstances.
Running & funding a film festival
Consider the bare mimimum needed to run a festival: Theatre rental; Projectors, seats & screens, if you use alternate spaces; Special decks (beta decks, for instance); Liability insurance; A budget for marketing (banners, festival programs, lanyards and passes, any further visibility needs), and a budget for the design thereof; A publicity and advertising budget to garner submissions and audiences; Transportation; Online operations (email, url, web design & maintenance, submissions tracking); Staffing (Fest director, programming director, submissions manager, volunteer manager, ticketing manager, print traffic manager & runners, sponsor liaison, filmmaker liaison, venues manager… etc.)
Festivals are, in short, pricey. Looking to fill these basic needs without going out of pocket, most festivals survive through four options for revenue sources: Public funding, ticket & merchandise sales, submission fees and sponsorships (private and corporate).
Unfortunately the United States happens to be a government that has piss-poor public funding for non-profit arts institutions, so the European model of public funding is, for the most part, out of reach for US based festivals.
Similarly, ticket and merchandise sales are helpful, but usually provide a tiny financial drop in the big bucket of need. If you take an average independent festival—7 days long with 3 screenings a day in a 100-seat house, selling tickets at an accessible $9 each- the festival stands to bring in $18,900 IF EVERY SCREENING IS SOLD OUT. More realistically, they can probably hope to bring in about half that.
Looking at submission fees- say a small independent festival gets 800 submissions in (it’s usually less for most festivals) and charges an average of $30 per submission, it stands to make an income of $24,000. Though distasteful to many, submission fees nonetheless become the bulk of the funding.
In this climate, then, it is not surprising that most festivals immediately turn to sponsorships, which have proven in some instances to be very helpful. However, this is an approach that is problematic on many levels, not the least because it turns festival directors into glorified salesmen. Further, still, corporate sponsorship is a double edged sword.
Both support and interference in the arts, corporate sponsorship, when done wrong, turns an inherently let’s-talk-about-art sort of experience into a hyped-up advertising vehicle, potentially void of substance. Also, in today’s world of ‘branded content’ and ‘online properties’, it DOES bears reminding: Corporate Sponsorship is cheesy. Nothing says independent film more than a miniskirt-clad alcohol-wielding would-be actress imploring you to try her company’s vodka. Right?
Though there are many examples of sponsorship deals that do not force the festival to scream “AUDI!!!” from the rooftops, it remains a fact – to me – that corporations should not be our answer to the Medici. One might correctly point out that ulterior motives existed from time immemorial (the Medici were really into self-image, after all- a sort of precursor to the obsession with branding and corporate image), but the ulterior motives of late are just too base. Neither lofty, nor profound, our experience of philosophy and thought evolves into an experience of commerce. ‘What do you think he meant by his reference to Nietzsche in that one piece of dialogue?’ turns into ‘Oh, shit! They’re giving free Nikes away down at the filmmaker lounge! Do you have the right pass to get in?’
So: How can festivals survive without selling their souls?
I believe the answer – the way to survive without selling our souls – is in a crowd-sourced / crowd-powered film festival – a no/low sponsor film festival that is small, community-driven, and community-funded. This is possible to achieve, and would additionally be a solid step towards empowering the festival’s audiences and participants through transparency and involvement.
This would require a few action steps:
- Think about what you want to accomplish with the festival—what you think you should provide to the arts community and how you can best provide it.
- Band together with local community groups as partners to share expenses or trade assets, band together with other festivals to create larger incentive and reach
- Create comprehensive, community-based micro-donation strategies to meet goals, as they arise.
- Maintain your relationships with your community through transparency, accessibility, invitations to curate/ host screenings/ participate in whatever way it sees fit.
- Embrace your role as a community-based organization by lowering the klieg lights, ditching the red carpet and toning down the ego.
Festivals taking ownership of their small part of a bigger whole means that they allow themselves to expand more organically and buoyed by bigger better support systems. Not trying to be the next Tribeca implies a level of humility and restraint that many festival directors would probably rail against, but one must ask oneself, how does raising $500,000 for an exclusive red carpet premiere of the latest Big-Studio schlockfest really help independent film? Is the ‘visibility’ one gains from this type of event more helpful for the festival and its filmmakers, say, than that gained by having a series of smaller open screenings in venues that are invested in the success of the film they are showing?
Festivals with high overhead are festivals that are forced to toe the line- spending the lion’s share of their time wooing and maintaining sponsors. Smaller festivals – I would argue – actually have it a lot better than they typically think. Yeah, they’re not raking in the dough, but their overhead is controllable, and they can focus on programming and their community.
There’s this ‘marketing guru’ called Seth Godin who wrote: “Big used to matter. Big meant power and profit and growth. [...] Today, little companies often make more money than big companies. Little churches grow faster than worldwide ones. [...] Small is the new big because small gives you the flexibility to change the business model when your competition changes theirs. [...] A small church has a minister with the time to visit you in the hospital when you’re sick. [...] Small is the new big only when the person running the small thinks big.” (Seth Godin, ‘Small is The New Big’, Portfolio, 2006)
How does this apply to us in the fest world? Simple: Provided that the festival director is OK with slow growth, small fests are in a position of power vis-à-vis the increasingly irrelevant behemoths. Enjoy!
Posted in audience festival promotion