Recently I was reading this AWESOME blog post. The analysis of film distribution in the future was done by Ben Hicks. Thanks Ben for doing all the ground work! I'm a fan! :D (Check out the original article on his blog here.)
Ben Hicks has lived in California, Florida, Chicago, Tokyo and now lives by the ocean in Taiwan. For cash he’s taught English, sold knives, washed cars, moved furniture, plunged strippers toilets and countless other jobs. His hobby is making films. To date, Ben has written and directed two award winning short films and helped co-found Elephant Dreams Pictures and Fandependent. Currently Ben is in the middle of making his first feature film, Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time.
First, I want to start out by saying that this post has nothing to do with Fandependent. We have been working hard over the past year to transform Fandependent into something bulletproof and soon we will be talking a lot more about where we are now.
But this isn’t about Fandependent. This post is bigger than Fandependent. This post has to do with the evolution of film independence, both where we’ve come and where we’re going. If we look at history we can see that we have made some very clear and important steps towards true independence. With each step there was great change and great films as a result.
I felt compelled to write this post after I saw all the excitement over the recent Studio purchases at Sundance and hearing phrases like “independent film is back!”. Yes, studios are again paying over $1,000,000 for independent films but lets pause for a second and look back at a little film history before we abandon all the hard work we’ve done these last few years and run back to 1994.
After this post you’ll be able to see that independent filmmakers are about to hit a fork in the road. A road that will divide independent filmmakers into two different groups: those who took the path back to studio distribution, and those who boldly took a step forward, to write a new (and possibly final) chapter in the evolution in film independence.
So grab a comfy chair, this one is a doozy (17 pages long) but I assure you at the end of this, you will look at our future in a whole new light.
First, some selected history in the evolution of film independence in the U.S.
STUDIO PRODUCED FILMS and STUDIO DISTRIBUTION
aka - The Golden Age of Hollywood
The late 1920’s to early 1950’s was known as The Golden Age of Hollywood, and during this time there were 5 major movie studios. These 5 major movie studios (Twentieth Century Fox, RKO Pictures, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) not only owned the lots and studios to produced their own films but they also owned all of the equipment, they owned the theaters to screen their films (MGM made Gone With the Wind and owned the Loews Theaters, as seen above) and they even owned the talent to some degree as every star was contracted by one of the major studios and could then only appear in that particular studios films. During the Golden Age of Hollywood people could tell if the film was a Warner Bros. film or a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film simply by which star was in the picture. The studios used this contracted talent as a way of effectively distinguishing itself from the other studios and took great pride in the talent that signed on with them. (As you can see here in this 1948 MGM actors studio photo.)
There were other smaller studios at the time but since most of them didn’t own any movie theaters, it was much harder on them to guarantee sales on their films. In fact it was so difficult to compete with the 5 major studios that the federal government won a case against Paramount in the Supreme Court, which ruled that the vertically integrated structure of the movie industry constituted an illegal oligopoly. This along with the creation of a new technology called television, would help bring an end to The Golden Age of Hollywood.
An interesting thing to note is that even though these 5 studios literally had a monopoly on the motion picture industry, these studios still produced arguably many of cinemas finest works to date. Films like: Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Gone With the Wind etc. How was it that under such a highly regimented studio system, that so many notable works of art came to be produced? The answer lies in the amount of control these studios had. These studios had so much power, content and control that they could afford to take risks on small to medium budget films and they could afford to let new artists take risks on the types of stories they wanted to tell.
Now I just want to point out that it would be impossible to make an “independent” film by today’s standards in the Golden Age simply because the tools to create a film were large and expensive. The cameras were enormous (as you can see in this early Technicolor camera), film stock was also in it’s early stages and in order to get exposure you needed lots of large lights that needed lots of power just to get a decent exposure.
The other problem would be distribution. How could one distribute their film if the studios owned all the theaters? I guess technically the only way you could do it would be to negotiate with the studios and strike a deal with them (most likely in their favor) in order for your film to ever reach an audience. (Sound familiar anyone?)
In short: The Golden Age Studio Films was a successful model because they produced and distributed their own films (through an oligopoly). They produced films that took risks and had contracted artists which gave each studio its own style and characteristic touches that made it possible for people to easily distinguish which studio created each film.
STUDIO PRODUCED FILMS (with artists in the driver’s seats) and STUDIO DISTRIBUTION
aka - The New Hollywood
The Paramount case and the creation of television had severely weakened the large studios. In addition to that, the content that the studios were creating in the 1960’s was starting to feel “old”. The baby boomers started moving away from the typical musicals numbers and historical epics and started identifying with foreign films that dealt more with real life. Films that were unafraid to try and express new ideas, films unafraid to show nudity, films that experimented with the art form itself and took risks. With the studios finding it difficult to compete they decided to give up some of their control and put their faith and money into a new generation of producers, actors and directors.
On a side note, the tools available to filmmakers at this time had also changed. Since the size of the cameras where now smaller, it opened up the doors for new methods of film expression through the use of camera movement. Film stock had also greatly improved and enabled filmmakers the mobility and ability to shoot in real locations since they no longer were dependent on massive studio lights.
This new generation or New Hollywood also created arguably some of cinema’s finest work to date: personal, counter culture, entertaining and artistic films like Easy Rider, Harold and Maude, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown, The Graduate, The Godfather etc. And although the directors did not have complete control over their films, they did have an amount of control that was unprecedented at that time.
In short: The New Hollywood studio films was a successful model partly because the studios took risks by producing content which gave a lot of creative control to the artists and by the studio’s efforts to distribute these films out to independent theaters around the country.
But The New Hollywood Era would not last forever. Films like Star Wars and Jaws gave studios a glimpse of the potential a film could make if you targeted your films to a new, larger and younger audience. This new target audience not only had an abundance of free time but they bought merchandise too! The profit potential from this age group was so large that the studios created a new rating for it (PG-13) and have continued to create most of their content for this age group ever since. The 1980’s and 90’s also ushered in a new, highly profitable technology: VHS and more notably, DVDs. Home video technology enabled people to watch films any time they wanted in the comfort of their own home. Distribution companies were no longer only responsible for getting films into theaters, they were now also responsible for getting films into video stores, supermarkets and DVD players across the globe.
INDEPENDENTLY PRODUCED FILMS with STUDIO DISTRIBUTION
aka - The Independent Film Era
After a long period of large studio films, a breath of fresh air came around the 1990’s and roared throughout the early 2000’s. Suddenly there was another explosion of some of arguably, cinema’s finest work to date: Do the Right Thing, Pulp Fiction, Kids, Boogie Nights, Amores Perros, Memento, Chunking Express etc. There was an enormous amount of support around incredibly small films like Clerks, El Mariachi, The Blair Witch Project, Swingers and Pump Up the Volume. It wasn’t only because these films were good but partly because these films were being created independent of any movie studio. There was a sweeping realization that if you had guts, drive, passion and something to say, you could make a film on your own and have your voice heard.
Filmmakers were now creating compelling films independently from any studio and because of that, there was a boom of independent studio distribution companies. These studios paid the filmmakers for their hard work in producing the content and then turned a profit by distributing the filmmakers films into theaters, getting their DVD’s into video and retail stores and even getting their films on cable TV. It was also a time of great contrast. The independent film studios were acquiring, producing and distributing very personal films that took risks while the large studio films were focusing on the potential that CG could play in cinema. Many people could guess which studio put out a certain film much like during the Golden Age of Hollywood. This time it wasn’t stars that gave it away but in many cases the complete lack of stars.
In short: Independent studios and filmmakers were successful because the studios took risks in buying content that the filmmaker produced, and the filmmakers were able to take risks because they had complete creative control of their films because they produced them independently. There was now a new partnership between those who produced the films (the filmmakers) and those who distributed the films (the studios) and it was a very successful relationship, in part because the Independent Studios, like in the Golden Age, had their own style and characteristic touches that made it possible for people to easily distinguish which studio put out each film.
But the independent film era wouldn’t last forever. Technology has not only made it possible to shoot and edit a film at an affordable price. It has now gotten to the point where consumer digital video cameras can rival 35mm film. The internet has also made it possible for anyone to upload their films with the push of a button and make their film accessible to a global audience that was never before possible. Wait, aren’t those good things?
INDEPENDENTLY PRODUCED FILMS and INDEPENDENT (SELF) DISTRIBUTION
aka - today
Although technology has now made professional cameras and editing equipment accessible to the masses, and the internet allows anyone to have their film seen by potentially millions of people, now a new set of problems have popped up. The problem is that the market is now saturated with independent films and the internet has made it possible to find any film ever created, and watch it for free online. The entire movie industry suffered from this but the independent studios suffered more. With films that were already for niche audiences, it became hard to effectively distribute these films when they were competing with a sea of other niche films (which could be found for free online), while also competing with CG blockbusters that continue to pound away at the box office week after week. Independent Studios had a very difficult time distributing independent films and because of all the competition, many of the indie studios died off and most could no longer afford to pay filmmakers enough to even recoup their budget. With indie studios no longer able to pay filmmakers a fare wage in order to distribute their films, filmmakers started to simply distribute their films independently.
Until a month ago most independent filmmakers liked to use the line “the model is broken” but if we look at history we can see that the model has always changed and evolved and it’s usually because of technology. The model isn’t broken, it is evolving. The best thing about these last few years has been the realization that if no one is willing to pay us a fair price to distribute our films, then we as independent filmmakers can do it ourselves. There have been countless interesting stories, ideas and methods independent filmmakers have come up with in order to distribute their films some with great success. (As pictured above with The Age of Stupid’s 550 screen global premier) For the first time ever, filmmakers have essentially become their own studios. Filmmakers today are not only creating all of their films independent of a studio but they are also distributing their films through theaters (although usually few), manufacturing and selling their DVD’s themselves and getting their films seen thousands and in some cases millions of times online (usually free). The problem with all of this is that it is a lot of work and in most cases, while filmmakers are able to make some money it usually isn’t enough to sustain.
In short: With a saturation of filmmakers making films independent from any studio control, the proliferation of the internet and the ability to view films for free, independent studios were no longer willing to take risks on content in an extremely competitive and new marketplace. Filmmakers then took their content and distributed it themselves with minor success but not enough to sustain.
So what does all of this mean? What can we learn from this? Time has shown there is always a demand for innovative, thought provoking content that takes risks. Time has also shown that it is possible for filmmakers to make films independent from large studios. Time has shown that there is an advantage to having a distribution company that has it’s own unique characteristics so people can easily distinguish one company from another. And unfortunately time has shown that filmmakers can self distribute but at this time it is still not a greatly successful method.
So what can we learn from all of this? Before I jump into what I feel is the next logical and practical step for true film independence, I want to talk about three instances where artists attempted something similar to what I am about to talk about. Two of these attempts failed but one was, and continues to be, an astounding success.
This wonderful photo was taken on the day Mary Pickford (actress), Douglas Fairbanks (actor), Charlie Chaplin (actor/director) and David Griffith (director) formed United Artists in 1919.
These four artists were some of the leading figures in the Hollywood silent film era. Even in the silent film era, artists grew tired of the studio’s controlling hand and decided to join forces and create a company that would allow them to create freely and have better control over their work and futures. The terms of the company were that each of them owned 20% of the company (the other 20% went to their lawyer) and they were each responsible for independently producing 5 films a year.
Even though films typically weren’t as long as they are today, they soon realized that it was difficult to create that much content. The trend was also pushing for longer and longer films, which put even more strain on each one of them. After only a few years Griffith dropped out and then the rise of sound films quickly wiped out the careers of both Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
So although the idea of a company formed by artists to independently produce and distribute their work sounded great, the key problems seemed to be that they were unable to create enough content to make a successful company and that they were unable to adapt to the new changes in technology.
THE DIRECTOR’S COMPANY
In 1972, Charlie Bludhorn, who was critical in reviving Paramount Pictures by taking risks on films like The Godfather and Chinatown, came up with an idea. What if he got three of the hottest directors of the time and allowed them to make any film they wanted for under $3 million dollars. He recruited Francis Ford Coppola after the success of The Godfather, Peter Bogdanovich after the success of The Last Picture Show and William Friedkin after his success with The French Connection and together they formed The Director’s Studio. At the time it seemed like an idea that couldn’t fail but after producing only 2 films, greed quickly tore The Director’s Studio apart.
The problem with The Director’s Studio lied in the ownership agreement. Each director owned an equal part of the company, which meant that they also would share in each others successes and failures. This quickly led to problems as directors quickly realized they had a lot at stake financially with the other director’s films.
What happens if my films always make money but his don’t? It wouldn’t be fair if he always gets paid off of my work and I always lose money off of his!
There are also issues about how frequently a director puts out content.
So how is it fair if I’ve already made two profitable films and he’s still developing his first? He’s making money off my films while he takes his sweet time with his!
The disintegration of both United Artists and The Director’s Company were based on pressures to continually pump out a large amount of content and the inevitable greed that takes over once every artist is financially invested in each others work. But we can learn a lot from their efforts and a model came after them that seemed to hit the nail on the head.
A model where a group of artists banned together to gain complete control over their work and figured out the elusive and difficult task of how to sustain.
I’m guessing most of you are wondering wtf just happened but please bear with me. Now on the surface comics don’t have anything to do with independent film but lets look a little closer into the origins of what is now one of the most successful publishers in American comics today.
In the early 1990’s a group of talented freelance artists grew tired of working for one of the largest comic companies, Marvel Comics (the creators of Spider Man and the X-Men). The main complaint being that after these artists would create characters for the books they were commissioned to work on, Marvel Comics then technically owned them, and they were able to merchandise and take control of the characters (profiting from them) and also had the power to creatively do whatever they wanted with them.
In short: the artists wanted more control over the work they created.
So in 1992 seven artists set out on their own and formed Image Comics.
But instead of all owning the company equally, they did something very unique.
Image’s organizing charter had two key provisions:
- Image would not own any creator’s work; the creator would.
- No Image partner would interfere – creatively or financially – with any other partner’s work.
Image itself would own no intellectual property except the company trademarks: its name and its logo. Each Image partner founded his own studio, which published under the Image banner but was autonomous from any central editorial control. One of the artists withdrew during the formative stages to deal with his sister’s illness, so Image originally consisted of six studios:
- Extreme Studios owned by Rob Liefeld
- Highbrow Entertainment, owned by Erik Larsen
- Shadowline, owned by Jim Valentino
- Todd McFarlane Productions, owned by Todd McFarlane
- Top Cow Productions, owned by Marc Silvestri
- Wildstorm Productions, owned by Jim Lee
This group of independent artists still thrives today and for a brief period of time, their comics even outsold DC comics (the comic brand that created Superman and Batman).
What can we learn from this model?
Essentially they are a company of individual independents, who produce content on their own, yet share the logo with a group of artists who share similar characteristics, giving the company a unique style, which makes it easy for people to distinguish their content from other companies. They use their umbrella company as a way of distributing a body of consistent content, as opposed to a single title, which enables them to distribute their work into more places than anyone could individually, and they have created a business model in which no one is dependent on each others work. Financial successes and failures of a single independent does not (directly) have any affect on the other independents involved.
Do you see where I’m going with this? We as independent filmmakers already have our own production companies. What we need now is to form group distribution companies or “Film Collectives” in order to effectively, independently distribute.
This next step is inevitable. We can choose to avoid it’s the next logical step in a long history of fighting for our independence.
The Evolution of Film Independence has gone as follows:
Studio Produced Films and Studio Distribution
Studio Produced Films (with artists in control) and Studio Distribution
Independently Produced Films with Studio Distribution
Independently Produced Films and Independent (self) Distribution
The biggest problem facing filmmakers today is that this latest era of Independently Produced Films and Independent (self) Distribution doesn’t quite work.
So we have two options: we could retreat back to the era of Independently Produced Films with Studio Distribution OR we can modify all that we have learned these last couple of years and take the final step in securing our independence.
This next evolutionary step towards total independence will be…
Independently Produced Films and Independent (group) Distribution.
aka - The Independent Film Collectives
So what is Independent (group) Distribution?
Independent (group) Distribution is when a team of independent filmmakers unite under one Film Collective, in order to effectively distribute their collective works. A Film Collective is nothing more than a trademarked name and logo that the Film Collective’s members share. No one is the owner of the Film Collective and the Film Collective does not own any of the films, the filmmakers do. Each filmmaker is only responsible for their films and are not involved creatively or financially with any other filmmaker’s work. Each Film Collective member must have their own production company from which each individual filmmaker’s films are produced through and which any and all money earned through the Film Collective is paid to. Each Film Collective member’s films should share similar characteristics to help distinguish their films from other distribution companies, and all films (and film related merchandise) should be available for viewing and purchasing on the Film Collective’s website (although not exclusively).
So what is the advantage of Independent (group) Distribution over Independent (self) Distribution?
Let’s take a look.
INDEPENDENT (group) DISTRIBUTION VS. INDEPENDENT (self) DISTRIBUTION
First and foremost we must remember that although film has incredible artistic and social relevance and is one of the most powerful art forms of our time, we also have to remember that the distribution side of things is a business (which is why most of us would rather let studios deal with it).
But this is all we have to know.
Like any business, no matter what you sell, you have good customers and bad customers. A good customer is someone who continues doing business with you throughout the years. A good customer is someone you can rely on, a bad customer is someone you can’t.
Going up to a movie theater with your one film and asking if it can play there one weekend may be possible at some mom and pop theaters, but by and large it’s a very difficult process. Why? Because for larger movie theaters they have good customers that continue to give them consistent business through a body of content. Business usually feels so cold to many of us because it’s simply a numbers game without any heart, but if we realize that all we have to do is play by the numbers we’ll be able to get our foot in the door. A lone filmmaker with their one film is an unknown, maybe they’ll take a chance but most likely they won’t because their other clients (studio distribution companies) bring in typically a known amount of people. They can see that this distribution company is usually good or great for business (or they wouldn’t continue to use them) and why would they choose an unknown client over a client that is typically good (or even great) for business?
But what do you think would happen if you went to a theater and said, “Hi, I’m a filmmaker who works for an artist owned Distribution Company. We are a collective of award winning independent filmmakers with thousands of devout fans and if you would like to do business with us we can guarantee 5 to 10 films a year for theatrical screenings. We do our own promotions and in the past, our numbers show that 70% of our screenings get sold out while another 10% usually sells close to 80% capacity.”
Now we’re talking their language and by forming film collectives the amount of doors that will become available to us will increase considerably. Not only for theatrical screenings but also for DVD markets, streaming and downloading options, international markets, EVERYTHING. If we join forces we can leverage our collective content to make leaps and bounds towards sustainability.
Next, and on a much more human level, which sounds like a more rewarding and enriching experience: self distributing your films or forming a company with a bunch of artists you respect and are inspired by - a group of artists that you can now call friends - or continuing to do everything alone? Now I don’t know about you, but to me the idea of rolling into a festival with a bunch of friends, watching and supporting each others films while being on the lookout to recruit new and talented artists/human beings (for the Film Collective), sounds way cooler than eating popcorn alone in a dark theater.
Last but not least, forming a Film Collective will also make everything easier on our fans. You tell me, as a film fan, which site do you think you would visit more frequently.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo or Factory 25?
Now let me start off by saying that I really do love the Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo site. It has all the info I need, one of the best trailers I’ve seen in a long time and I’ve referred back to it every once in a while to see how her film is doing. In short, it is as effective as a single film website can be.
The Factory 25 website on the other hand is a website I check out much more frequently. Even though it is just a DVD distribution company (and a fine one at that) I still find myself frequenting that site just to check out their growing list of interesting looking films which they consistently expose me to. So the reason I check out this site more is simply because there is more stuff to check out. Now imagine if this were a Film Collective. Imagine if all the filmmakers on here were selling their DVDs, streaming their films and writing their blog posts all on this one site. How much more exposure do you think your film would get then? How much more frequently would your fans check out that site?
In short: Independent (group) Distribution not only would open more doors for filmmakers financially than with Independent (self) distribution, but it would also be more rewarding to be amongst a team of your peers, it would require filmmakers to share the workload as opposed to doing everything themselves, and it would create a more compelling and simpler way for our fans to follow, share, and support us.
What is the advantage of Independent (group) Distribution over Studio Distribution?
STUDIO DISTRIBUTION VS. INDEPENDENT (GROUP) DISTRIBUTION
aka - the great indie divide
The future of independent film will be split into two groups: those that use studio distribution and those that use self (group) distribution. Each path has its own set of advantages, risks, and requisite sacrifices, each of which will weigh differently from filmmaker to filmmaker . So let’s dissect each one a little bit to see which path is better for you and the types of films you want to make.
Studio Distribution companies have again been willing to pay a lot of money to essentially purchase the film off of you and attempt to turn a profit (for themselves) off of your work. This is great for the filmmaker because distribution companies are again paying filmmakers a million dollars or more for their films and they take the work (and headaches) of distribution off the hands of the filmmakers. In an even more ideal world, the distributors will make a lot of money off of your film and then when you are ready to make your next film the distribution company, which also acts as a production company for certain films and filmmakers, will then fund AND distribute your next film for another handsome fee.
This is the partnership Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and other filmmakers were fortunate enough to get. The distribution company took a risk on them, which paid off, and in turn they continued taking more risks with these artists because they believed in them. If you can find a distribution company that believes in you and will continue to allow you to make the kinds of films you want to make, then I say go for it. You are in a small, small minority and you are fortunate to be in such a position.
But consider this. Let’s say you sell your first feature to a distribution company for a million dollars. The distribution company makes a good amount of money off your film and everyone is happy. Then you are ready to make your second film. The distribution company decides to both produce and distribute your film for a pile of money. Life is awesome! You then make the film and they distribute it but this time it doesn’t make much money. Now you are ready to make your third movie, which isn’t your typical film because you are trying to grow as an artist. The distribution company is no longer willing produce your film for you (unless you make some fundamental changes that alter the intent of the film) but if you do get it made they would consider distributing it. So since you are unwilling to compromise you go and make the film independently and raise enough money through financiers after showing them your previous body of work. You complete the film but the studio that has distributed your two previous films are not interested in distributing this film because it’s a little too controversial or not marketable or too unique. Okay fine, so you sell your film to another distribution company for a small profit and they only play the film in a limited release and don’t heavily push DVD sales.
Now this example is all made up but the point is, what do you do if these studios don’t believe in you? What happens if they aren’t willing to produce or distribute your next film. This is a situation many filmmakers find themselves in. Sometimes filmmakers can find a compromise, sometimes filmmakers can’t. The point in all of this is that essentially your future is not in your hands, it is dependent on the studios who have the final say in what is worth producing and distributing and they could essentially put you in the exact same spot as Independently Producing and Independently (self) Distributing your films at any stage of the game.
If you think you would be immune to something like this, look at the last projects Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderburg tried to put together
Steven Soderburgh’s films have earned 14 Oscar nominations; his films have won five and he’s even won for Best Director. The star that was attached to Moneyball: Brad Pitt, the biggest film star on the entire planet! But those credentials didn’t stop Sony from pulling the plug on the project just days before shooting the film.
The reason they pulled the plug was because Soderburgh turned in a rewritten script that was much different than the script that was approved before. In short, the studio didn’t believe in him. I also imagine that the fact that his last film Che was considered a flop didn’t help.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have also earned 14 Oscar nominations with two of them winning. His follow up film to his most nominated film to date (There will be Blood) was also unable to secure financing. Universal passed on producing the picture and as of now it has been unable to secure financing. I haven’t read the script but from what I’ve read it’s a $35 million dollar religious-based film.
Now it’s easy to put together that it isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s skills or ability to make back money that is in question. I’m guessing that the reason that no one will pick this film up is because the filmmaker has chosen to make a film about a controversial topic. A topic that no studio will get behind no matter how talented the artist is.
In short: Going through the studio distribution route can offer a lot of money and take the hard work of distribution out of your hands. However, for the most part, this relationship only remains in tact as long as your films continue to make the financiers money and as long as you don’t make films about daring or controversial subjects.
With Independent (group) Distribution your work isn’t over once the film is. After the film is done you are now responsible for distributing your film out into the world.
But what exactly does distribution entail?
1) Advertising (spreading the word about the film)
2) Theatrical screenings
3) DVD manufacturing and sales
4) Online streaming/downloading
Hmmmm, it doesn’t seem quite as intimidating when you break it down like that.
Now let’s update this a little more so it’s more relevant to today
1) Advertising - As we all well know now, word of mouth has always been the most effective form of advertising and the proliferation of social networking and the internet has only made word of mouth easier and more wide spread then ever before. The idea of paying a lot of money to advertise your independent film today almost seems comical. Google and social network sites have allowed good films to explode overnight and create a demand for content that is felt all over the world.
in short: If you make a good film that people like, today’s technology allows people to spread the word and more effectively market your film better than any marketing campaign could ever do.
2) Theatrical Screenings - This years Academy Award nominated film Blue Valentine (through a distribution deal) opened on 4 screens on opening weekend. Together with the Academy Award Nomination, the fantastic reviews and the amazing word of mouth, the film is now playing in 39 cities in the U.S.
Now I don’t know about you but after forming a film collective, the idea of opening on four screens across the U.S. doesn’t seem like an impossibility and it also doesn’t seem like a huge personal risk. The Distribution Company opened the film on 4 screens and since then have expanded and expanded due to demand created by great reviews, fantastic word of mouth and Academy Award nominations. This is a formula that isn’t restricted to only Distribution companies. If you were to sell out shows in one area, it would be far easier and realistic to approach other theaters and see if they are interested in having a screening. Will the option be available to us to have our films seen in 80 cities across the U.S. on opening weekend? Probably not but if you look at almost every single independent film that gets studio distribution, it usually starts in NY and L.A. and if the tickets sell, it slowly makes its way out to more and more cities. Film Collectives could also follow this exact same model.
In short: By building a fan base through a Film Collective, filmmakers will have nearly the same ability to get films into a small amount of theaters as distribution companies. Then, depending on how well the film is received, a Film Collective filmmaker will have more leverage to expand the films release into more theaters. At this time Distribution Companies have the advantage but after a few years of screening and networking with lots of different films and filmmakers, the Film Collectives audience will grow as will theaters who enjoy doing business with them.
3) DVD manufacturing and Sales -
Today if you simply google “DVD manufacturing” you’ll get pages of places that can print professional looking DVDs and DVD packaging for an affordable price. Also by manufacturing your DVD yourself you can guarantee your film won’t get a garbage packaging job which misleads people as to what the film is actually about and turn fans off because as a collectible, it has no aesthetic or artistic value.
In 2009 DVD sales dropped 13% and DVD players have dropped to its lowest level in 7 years. This trend is echoing the same change that fundamentally changed the music industry as people are starting to watch more films through downloads, VOD, Netflix, and TV digital recorders as opposed to buying hard copies.
How could we possibly get our DVD’s into all the stores across the U.S. that studio distribution companies could? We can’t, but fortunately for us, DVDs are going the way of the dodo. In the near future we won’t have to fight for shelf space in a sea of Hollywood films. With each passing year DVD sales will continue to go down and down and the easiest way to find the DVD you want will be on the internet - the great equalizer. Those in Film Collectives will be able to sell their DVD’s on their websites and also be able to create accounts on sites like Amazon, simply because the Film Collective will have a continuous body of work. In fact in the future, it will be those in Film Collectives that will be better equipped to sell more DVDs than independent studio distribution companies. Why?
While DVDs are well on their way out, the desire to have a physical copy of one’s favorite films will never go away. DVDs are going to be the equivalent to vinyl records for musicians: a collector’s item for the true fan. And who do you think will have an easier time making and selling well crafted, personal DVDs that hardcore fans will be more likely to appreciate: those made by a studio distribution company or those made by the filmmakers themselves?
In short: While seemingly impossible to out do a Distribution company ten years ago, the internet has leveled the playing field and will soon create the demand for DVDs almost exclusively for hardcore fans, a position which Film Collective filmmakers will find themselves at an advantage.
4) VOD/Online Streaming/Downloading - The sole reason that studios bought so many films at this year’s Sundance is because they are starting to see the potential profit that can be made from VOD/online streaming and downloading. Do you think this many Studios would buy films if they weren’t feeling confident they could make that money back? Of the 22 films (that I could find) that were bought up, 20 of them were bought for worldwide or U.S. rights. Kevin Smith has decided to take his film on the road and self distribute and one other film only sold the U.S. theatrical rights.
So what is happening here? Where are these studios going to make their money back? According to the L.A. Times, in 9 months in 2010 VOD, sales rose 20%. But rose 20% from what? How much money does an average film earn on VOD? How much money has any film earned on VOD?
These are questions that you will not find any answers to. I encourage someone to prove me wrong. I would actually love to get some numbers on what some of the possible earnings have been for indie films. But again, these numbers are a well kept secret. The only info I could find that could give me a clue at what these VOD numbers could possibly be, comes straight from the mouth of Comcast’s VP of Entertainment Services, Diana Kerekes, “the company’s number of indie offerings on demand has grown from 26 films in 2006 to more than 2,000. And with more than 200,000 indie purchases a month, the appetite for niche films is growing.”
200,000 purchases a month for niche indie films! How much do they charge for Comcast VOD films? $4.99. How much of that money goes to the Studios? According to the NY Times, As much as 80%. So lets see, that’s $798,400 a month for niche indie films and that’s JUST COMCAST. That isn’t counting Amazon VOD, Apple TV, Google or the other beast that is about to change, Netflix.
According to Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings, their entire approach is quickly changing. “By every measure we are now primarily a streaming company that also offers DVD-by-mail,” Hastings said. “DVD-by-mail shipments are still growing, but streaming for us is much larger and growing much faster.”
Now the most important thing to remember in all of this is that those who have content that is in demand will always have the upper hand. There is fierce competition going on in order to get as much content as they can because as I said, those with content that is in demand always has the upper hand. Those that do have in demand content are now able to leverage that power in a BIG way. According to the NY Post,
Netflix is making an aggressive play for in-season episodes of hit TV shows to expand its Web streaming service. The company is in talks with studios about gaining access to current episodes of primetime shows and is willing to pay between $70,000 and $100,000 per episode, according to a person familiar with the matter.
So hopefully you can see in all of this, that there is a LOT of money to be made in the VOD/online/streaming world and the numbers are only going to get higher and higher as they compete with one another over who gets first dibs on the content.
This is why Distribution Companies are back and buying up content. These are big numbers, numbers so big that they can afford to spend over a million dollars on an indie film and feel confident they can turn it into a profit.
This is an option that isn’t available through self distribution because these large corporations won’t deal with an individual filmmaker with a single film. Large corporations want large clients and if you are able to build up a Film Collective that can put out about 5-10 films a year, I’m guessing, with the type of money that is now being made on niche films, you’ll be able to play with the big boys too. Then we’re not talking about a million dollars, we’re talking about millions of dollars.
THE PRICE OF INDEPENDENCE
Now all this talk of money and the possibilities of earning lots of it independently comes with some responsibility. This post isn’t about the money. What this is about is being able to take control over your own future and being able to, for the first time ever, be allowed to freely create the films you want to create and sustain without having to answer to investors, studios or distribution companies. We as filmmakers will have the opportunity to have our voices heard in numbers never before possible.
So let’s say you earn one million dollars off of your film through your Film Collective. Now what? With this newfound freedom also comes new responsibility. If I were you I would put at least half of that money into your production company and divide the rest up with your cast and crew. The money in your production company is essentially your budget for your next film. The money that goes to you is essentially the money you have to live off of. Hopefully that money will be enough so you can work on your art full time and then when the time is right, you’ll have $500,000 ready to go to make your next film truly independently.
Do you have to follow this model? No, I can’t tell anyone what to do but if you want to get into a cycle where you are able to continuously create an uncompromised body of work, this is what you’re going to have to do. You have to invest in yourself and in your films. Now I can already hear the critics squawking about no one wanting to put their own money into their films. If you are in a Film Collective I wouldn’t think of it exactly as “your” money. I would think of it as money your fans gave you in order for you to continue making uncompromised work. As this last step of the evolution of Independence unfolds, you can no longer think of yourself as just a filmmaker and your fans just as fans; you have to think of yourself as your own micro-studio and your fans as your financiers. You have to consider your next project and make sure you have enough to continue making films. If you squander that opportunity you will then have to go through more traditional paths in order to make films, paths that don’t offer you the opportunity to create a body of uncompromised work.
If this sounds silly or ridiculous to you then I guess I’d question your motivations to become a filmmaker in the first place. To me personally, all I want is to live a comfortable life and make the films I want to make. It’s as easy as that. Forming a Film Collective could enable that to happen. If you’re strictly in this film business to make money, that is fine but this is obviously not the path for you. This is an option where the idea that is trying to be expressed is more valuable than the money it makes. An option where your future ideas are worth investing in with your fans hard earned dollars, because you know without them your ideas would never be able to see the light of day.
We are a species whose creativity sets us apart from all others on this planet. Creativity has always been the precursor to innovation and change. It was the Wright Brothers passion and creativity that enabled man to fly, not the idea of how much profit could be made as a result of it. Creativity is vital for us in order to evolve as a species and by something as simple as forming a group with other like minded filmmakers you could have an opportunity to use every creative bone in your body and try to express yourself more freely than ever before. In addition to all of that, you’d also be taking part in a beautiful trend that is happening across the U.S. A trend in which people are choosing to go to farmers markets instead of chain stores, buying a CD off of a musician on kickstarter as opposed to illegally downloading it for free, it is a trend in which people are consciously going out of their way to give their money to the people who help their community, not the corporations that profit off of it.
In short: Forming a Film Collective is a viable method to create a body of uncompromised work that can be accomplished by teaming up with like minded artists in order to gain leverage to get your films in theaters and enable VOD/online streaming and downloading deals with bigger companies. The small size of the group allows you to connect to your fans in a much more personal, tangible and meaningful way.
So how do we get from here to there? How should we form Film Collectives?
Fortunately, a lot of the ground work is already done but I’m not going to get into it now because this post is already long enough as it is. But in the next post I’ll say exactly how I personally would go about forming a Film Collective and give you the stepping-stones I plan on using (once my film is finished) in order to get your Film Collective off the ground.
Thank you all for your time,
An exciting future awaits.
Ben Hicks has lived in California, Florida, Chicago, Tokyo and now lives by the ocean in Taiwan. For cash he’s taught English, sold knives, washed cars, moved furniture, plunged strippers toilets and countless other jobs. His hobby is making films. To date, Ben has written and directed two award winning short films and helped co-found Elephant Dreams Pictures and Fandependent. Currently Ben is in the middle of making his first feature film, Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time.