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How We Learned Self-Distro
by Kim Webster
We finally got our film "Sniff" made, a doc about dogs wrapped in a comedy. The latter follows two guys (British actors Neil Morrissey and Richard Huw) who go to San Francisco to be concierges at a high-end dog hotel run by the fanciful Juliette (Amanda Plummer) and her bewildered husband (Maurice Godin). The Brits also make the doc. Phewff! See
sniff the movie
We were fortunate to have a few investors (mostly family and friends). Barry Stone, the director, also shot the documentary segments, and his wife - yours truly - produced. In addition to the two editors (producer/editor Eric Sullivan and editor Hypatia Porter), who split the documentary stories, Barry helped out, first honing his skills using Apple's One-to-One.
Our cast and crew were great about partial deferments, and an international selection of musicians kindly helped us keep out-of-pocket costs low. The dog-owners and trainers were most generous with their time and expertise - particularly Guide Dogs for the Blind, San Rafael, and the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, Gilroy, CA. It seems everyone loved the project: a film about dogs that is both educational and fun-loving, with a bizarre back-story that involves men in dog costumes.
The project was massive for our $140,000 cash budget and took three years: a year to set up the LLC, raise funds and do the research; a year to film the documentary; two-and-a-half weeks to film the drama; and a year to edit - roughly speaking. We knew from the start that we could get the film made, but we were shy the funds for distro and marketing - a classic dilemma, and one we tried to avoid, but to no avail.
We read and listened to what self-distribution pundits Peter Broderick, Jon Reiss and Thomas Mai had to say about using social networking and other wonders of the Internet. As indie filmmakers, we determined that our best route was self-distribution. Eight months into the process, here are some of the lessons learned.
A Good Website Is Job One for self-distro-ers. 'Sniff''s was designed by a neighbor in exchange for points in the film - a recommended way to go, since its street market value is around $20,000. photo: courtesy Sniff the Dog Movie
Set up a Good Website
We have a wonderful and talented neighbor who took up this challenge (how lucky are we ?!?). He set us up with a Website that we can update ourselves through Blogger. This is essential, especially once you begin to have screenings and/or sell tickets online. We use E-Junkie to take orders, PayPal to collect the money, and Kunaki to fulfill DVD orders - $19.99 for "Sniff" - on demand. (You probably don't want to store a ton of DVDs in your living room, nor turn over your cinema dreams to become a fulfillment house - trust me on this one!)
We decided to start selling DVDs on our site as we launched the film at the Grand Lake Theatre last November. This has given us a certain amount of cash flow - more on this later. We have a trailer on YouTube (which can also be seen on our site), and of course we have a Facebook page, but we're not on Twitter or My Space, admittedly - not enough hours in the day (intern, help!).
Splitting the Pie
Because we knew our film would appeal to a particularly targetable audience (dog lovers), we decided to keep all English-speaking rights to ourselves and engaged a foreign sales agent to sell as many foreign rights as he can. He'll go
to the markets, prepare advertising materials and do industry screenings as he sees fit and will take a percentage of the sales. (No news on this yet, but we're keeping fingers crossed!)
We have not put too much emphasis on film festivals. For one, the festival gets all the ticket revenue; secondly, our film is a hybrid of documentary and fiction, which we suspect will confound juries who only watch five minutes before spot-checking the rest of the film. As a doc, we have more than five minutes of dramatic exposition. As a drama, the juries wonder why they're seeing the training of a guide dog in the middle of what starts out as a "buddy movie." Creative, yes - categorizable, no. So we are working without festival "buzz." But we're creating our own. Here's how:
We have a film about dogs that appeals to dog lovers - possibly all animal lovers - and there are enough of them in English-speaking lands alone to sink a flotilla or two. But how to reach these folks? We're working just as hard as we can to get articles in dog magazines and on dog blogs, and we're networking with dog organizations. We've set up an affiliate program on our Website so that a canine organization can sign up and get credit for sales that come to us via their Website - a win-win for all concerned, and it helps us get the word out.
This is a term for putting on theatrical screenings yourself. As a producer, you rent a theater (from $200 to $1500, depending on day of week, screening time, size of theater and location) and you pay all expenses related to advertising and promotion. The theater keeps the concession (i.e. popcorn and soda) proceeds and the producer keeps the gate. We tried this in several cities (we did a Southwestern tour to Phoenix, Tucson, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, for example). But we could only afford one or two screenings per venue, and our advertising relied on contacts we made with local dog organizations who e-blasted their membership. Hence we found we had limited financial success at the box office.
However, because the people who did come really enjoyed the film, we were saved from ruin by selling DVDs and T-shirts. Putting a show on for just one night leaves no chance for word-of-mouth to work in your favor. Our next Bay Area shows are 7:15pm, July 29, Elmwood Rialto, 2966 College, Berkeley, and 4:00pm, July 31, Four Points, 1010 Northgate, San Rafael.
We've approached a few independent theaters and proposed a 60-40 split of the box office to those who were interested in running the film. We've had success with this in theaters where we four-walled, primarily because the theater managers were able to see first-hand how well an audience receives the film. We offer a lot of support (press releases, email blasts to local dog- industry people, posters and postcards mailed to local pet shops, DVDs to local film reviewers, etc.), but this takes a lot of time in phone calls and envelope stuffing. We have also found that many independent theaters or small chains will not host the film because it is already out on DVD. There's the rub! We need the income from DVD sales to stay afloat and yet it has worked against us in some cases.
Cause-Related Marketing and Benefits
This is where we've had the most success so far. When we team up with a dog-related charity and arrange a screening for their benefit, it's a win-win situation. The arrangements can be as creative as you are. We've shown the film for free in a hotel lobby, we've had wine and cheese affairs in art galleries, and - if the luck of the Irish is with us - we'll be screening it outdoors in Ireland after a performance by one of the bands in the film, whose members are dog lovers and big supporters of a dog charity! People love their nonprofit causes, and if the nonprofit puts on a fund-raiser that includes your film, chances are you'll gain an appreciative audience. What you give up in box office, you might make up in on-the-spot DVD sales and word-of-mouth referrals to your Website.
We're in the process of searching for a manufacturer's representative who specializes in pet stores. There are hosts of manufacturers' reps to be found on Google. We called some and have discovered that there is no norm for methods and commissions. We had certain reps dangle the distribution carrot to Wal-Mart and other big chains, but beware - as big as the orders might be, if the DVDs don't sell, they come back to your doorstep, and you can be out-of-pocket big-time not only for the DVD manufacture, but possibly for your rep's commission on the original sale. Tread carefully!
Video on Demand
DVDs are the best source of revenue, but there are people out there who will never buy a DVD. Pay-to-view downloads are being eclipsed by free downloads with embedded advertising. Again, we're just exploring this avenue, so no news to report - other than that it may be another source of income with not much ongoing effort.
The distribution game is changing quickly, and opportunities abound far beyond the scope of this article (and our two-person team). Self-distribution is undoubtedly the way to go for most independent filmmakers, since traditional distribution deals are hard to come by and in
general are financially unrewarding. Self-distribution requires innovation and can be a lot of fun - but it is infinitely more work than actually making the movie - and your income comes from a number of sources, one event and one sale at a time. Patience and undaunted enthusiasm are both necessary virtues!
Kim Webster lives in Oakland with shooter/director Barry Stone and a grumpy cat:
Posted on Aug 12, 2010 - 07:32 PM