With First Signal now accepted in eight film festivals, I am pleased where the project is going so far. We have had a couple of wins and finalist positions for the trailer which makes for a nice build up to the festivals considering the feature length version. Time will tell where the festivals will take us along with other theatrical and special event screenings.
The point of festivals and screenings is to develop interest in First Signal that goes beyond those that saw the film in a theater. It is about word of mouth and, hopefully, some choice media placements to develop a following for the film, so when the film goes to VOD, there’s a waiting audience. Like the journey of most films, that is the plan. What’s not in the plan is losing control of the film in a bad distribution deal.
For some years, I have heard from numerous filmmakers that after they sign a deal with a distributor or sales agent, they receive little to no money from sales of the film despite the grosses. In more instances than I can go into here, they sometimes wind up in court. The Dallas Buyers Club matter was relatively high profile, this article in Deadline hit the nail on the head and the collapse of Distribber had indie filmmakers taking solid note.
The last three contracts I reviewed were so heavy in the favor of the distributor/sales agent, that I could not see any path to profitability, yet they would hold the rights to my film for over ten years. Translation? Once I sign the rights away, I won’t have the rights to exhibit my own film. In each of my last three calls, they all talked glowingly about First Signal, promising encouraging sales estimates and things they can do for the film. But when pressed to offer those estimates (that I know are only estimates) and details in writing, they somehow were not available. Worse, on two occasions, the contracts stated they would have the rights to any sequel I write and work products. Was there ever a minimum gurantee? No. Was there a fancy computation of proposed acquisition price for a sequel that didn’t benefit me at all? Yes. Would I ever enter one of these contracts without some sort of minimum guarantee or entertainment lawyer reviewing my contact? Never. I generally remember this “atmosphere” when I was marketing Justice Is Mind. In the end I went with a wonderful digital aggregator that I will mention shortly.
Unless you are just making a film to put on a shelf, a film requires a distribution plan. It requires a plan that has some sort of path to profitability and/or the ability to leverage the film towards a larger project (sequel, etc.). There is nothing sadder when I hear from a filmmaker that has been taken by one of these companies. The years and capital they have spent to bring their projects to life only to be tied up with nefarious distribution expenses, horrid customer service or legal doubletalk. The last thing anyone wants is to get into litigation (one of the filmmakers I talked to was preparing to file action against his sales agent). Even more insulting two of the three companies I talked to stated that they would require Executive Producer credits. Let us be clear, I don’t care what industry you work in, nobody likes a coattail rider. You do not have the right to ask for a top credit on a film just because you are offering a contract. Period. Nothing is this world is free, most certainly not an Executive Producer credit to make you look like a prolific producer. I know Hollywood is all about smoke and mirrors, but I only tolerate that act on the silver screen not in the boardroom.
There is a silver lining to all of this. Yes, there are great sales agents and distributors. Yes, they do pay their filmmakers. But sadly, there are enough in the other camp that simply require substantive due diligence along with a crack lawyer to protect your interests. You may have heard the saying “Caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware. That could not be truer than in this industry. At the end of the day, we must just do our homework.
One area of this industry that has been part of the silver lining are the digital aggregators. If you have a film, want to see it on a variety of VOD platforms BUT also retain your rights, I highly recommend FilmHub. I’ve had Justice Is Mind with them since 2014. If you are looking for no upfront fees, payment every quarter and excellent customer service, then FilmHub just might be your answer. Will I place First Signal with them? It honestly depends on a variety of factors, as we are in the early days of the release plan. Our next steps are festival, theatrical and special event screenings that will commence in the 4th quarter of 2020.
Thousands attended the Marché du Film Online. In a world of uncertainty, the entertainment industry came together to insure the continuation of this worldwide marketplace. Of all the industry events I’ve attended over the years, Marché had the best panels that not only informed on the current state of the industry but demonstrated innovative new business models and predictions for the years to come.
One innovation that ramped up exponentially during the crisis has been the virtual cinema. With the majority of movie theaters closed around the world, some distributors joined with cinemas for a virtual experience. Customers visit their theater’s website and order a movie to view online. The revenue is split between the theater and distributor. With one distributor reporting $700K in sales from 13 movies, the early adopters certainly did well. But as another distributor stated, the early novelty dropped considerably during the last month. With restrictions easing and people going out more, the “stay at home” audiences have drastically changed in numbers.
Another thing that distributors learned during the last few months is that content is truly king. Films that they couldn’t previously sell, suddenly started to sell. With the proliferation of VOD platforms and offerings, new content is critical. Two tech pioneers from the Czech Republic introduced Artinii. A service that screens films in alternative settings (outdoor non-theatrical venues such as a bar or restaurant).
But all this available content on VOD also brought the conversation back to data of who is searching for and watching what. With so much of this data controlled by individual companies, it was discussed that this data should be available to all distributors to give customers what they want regardless of the platform they are watching it on. Proponents said that it would benefit everyone from the distributor to the customer. Opponent VOD platforms want to protect their data to benefit their catalog of offerings. While I understand that the platforms want to protect their own customer data, I have to believe that a neutral third party could hold general data that could be used by the industry to ascertain what’s working and what isn’t. This is why the theatrical experience is critical — distributors know by ticket sales what films are resonating in what market. Needless to say, the data debate will be going on for some time.
The one thing the general public doesn’t know, is the system that brings films to audiences. Imagine the following: films are produced year one, year two they are in post and year three they wind up at a market (AFM, Cannes, etc.). A release date is set, advertising dollars are spent, the marketing and public relations machine goes into overdrive a buzz is generated. Then suddenly, without warning, the theaters shut and all marketing comes to a grinding halt. Honestly, I don’t even want to know the tens, if not hundreds, of millions that have been lost in this industry.
With some theatrical markets just opening and others in the opening planning stages, from what I heard audiences aren’t rushing back. One of the primary issues is that the system is holding back new films as nobody really wants to do a release to near empty theaters. It could also be assumed audiences don’t want to see old releases or they are still concerned about the crisis. There’s also the issue of capacity. With social distancing still employed, who can make any money on capacity limits? How can you plan a theatrical release strategy when reactionary Governors threaten to shut down states again? And, honestly, who wants to sit in a theater with a mask on for three hours? Seriously, how do you eat popcorn? I know I won’t return to a theater until masks are no longer required. Given the amount of information available, they are a prop that has no meaningful benefit in the mainstream. I want my choices of recreation to be enjoyable not overly regulated to satisfy the hysterics. In Canada and the UK they give you a choice. Hopefully, in the United States we will soon have freedom of choice (odd, I thought we did with something called our First Amendment…I digress).
It became quite clear during the market that release windows are rapidly changing between theatrical and VOD. The customer wants the choice on where, when and how to watch new releases. You might not want to go to a theater and pay $14, but you may pay $19 to watch it on premium VOD at home. Cinema, however, is going to be jammed in 2021 because of the films that are being held back this year. At the end of the day films are financed by distributors in advance…they need a return.
I will say this, theatrical is critical to a movie’s success. This is where substantive revenue is made. This is where substantial press is received. Without some sort of theatrical exposure, a film gets lost among VOD offerings. One of the most thoughtful discussions was how to properly advertise a film on a VOD platform. You can advertise a film as in theaters, but VOD specific advertising is still a nascent possibility. Recognition on the platforms is critical. Just putting a film on them isn’t enough. You need audience engagement and that largely comes from a theatrical release and the media.
A panel I particularly enjoyed was when a well-known producer covered the process of constructing a proper script and presenting the package to the industry (investors, sales agents, etc.). What I loved was her no-nonsense practical approach. This is an industry about continued learning and expanding your network. It’s about meeting and working with new people.
I was generally pleased with how First Signal was received during the Marché. Several sales agents requested a screener and one sent me a deal memo to review yesterday. In addition to submitting to a variety of festivals with 4th and 1st quarter events, I’m closely monitoring the reopening of theaters and other screening opportunities to plot strategy. Fortunately, First Signal wasn’t “caught” in the crisis from a release point of view. We were still in the fitting out phase.
In the end it was a great job by all concerned. The team behind the Marché du Film, turned the most prestigious film market in the world to a successful virtual event. But as all agreed, virtual markets won’t work for the long term. This is an industry that requires socializing. It requires in person meetings as that is the only way you can really decide if you want to work someone. You can be introduced on a video chat, but the real works starts when you meet in person.