A couple of weeks ago I sent an update to the actors and crew of First Signal about what our release strategy may look like. I believe, if all goes according to plan, our first theatrical screening will be sometime in October. I hope that follows with additional theatrical and festival screenings into the second quarter of 2021 with a VOD release around May.
As someone who reads the trade publications, I see how release dates and general overall strategy is changing on a daily basis. This article in The Hollywood Reporter today, pretty much summed up the current state of the industry. Fortunately for First Signal, the film itself wrapped principal photography last year and just finished post in early June. So, all things considered, our release strategy hasn’t changed all that much.
I do believe one of the real issues that’s going to face this industry next year is available inventory of new product. With very little being produced over the last several months, eventually this empty space will catch up to the industry. I believe this is why we are seeing studios and distributors stagger their releases from the 3rd quarter of this year into 2021. They need commercial films to bring audiences back to theaters. Honestly, who really wants to see a previously released movie in a theater when you can watch it from the comfort of your sofa for a fraction of the price? Of course, I would love to see classics return to the silver screen. Particularly those from the 1930s, 40s and 50s!
So far, the festival market is going well for First Signal. I was delighted to receive a Best Director win from the Eurasia International Monthly Film Festival last week. To receive an accolade of this stature from a festival is truly an honor. This is all about building a momentum so when First Signal goes to VOD, a hopeful following has built up for the film. From a media point of view, there is so much noise to cut through to get noticed.
The release strategy I’m looking to employ is the model I did with Justice Is Mind. It started with a world premiere followed by a limited theatrical and special event run before it went to VOD. My feeling with Justice, and now First Signal, was to follow the studio model. If it works for them, why try to reinvent the wheel? I just adapted it for the scale of my project. At the end of Justice Is Mind’s run, we had numerous media reports and reviews that helped propel the film when it was released on VOD.
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.