Another part of the article in The New Yorker I quoted from last week now needs to be referenced, “If making films weren’t challenging and fun for the people involved, they wouldn’t do it.” Indeed, making films is fun. Challenging? Absolutely. But as we know nothing worth doing is easy.
This past week I was reading up on all the activity, or should I say, lack of activity at the European Film Market (EFM). Like Sundance, there doesn’t seem to be a buying frenzy or absolute breakout hit. It appears that everyone is waiting for Cannes. But we shall see. None of this news, or non-news, however is going to stop a creative from being creative.
As I prepare to announce additional theatrical screenings for Justice Is Mind along with our initial VOD plans, I was reminded this week that there are always new markets to explore for a film. In the case of Justice, I started do a simple Google search on “law school film festivals” and “neuroscience film festivals”. To my surprise, I was more than pleased to see a variety of festivals (generally connected to higher education and associations) reveal themselves. You can’t find these as part of Withoutabox or similar portals. I’m pleased to say that after contacting a variety of them, conversations are already starting. Will we be part of their programs? I don’t know. But it’s always worthwhile to reach out to see what the possibilities are.
Apparently some of the conversations coming out of EFM centered on having not only well known directors and stars but a marketing hook as well. I’ll be honest, there are painfully few films I go to because so and so is directing or so and so is in the film. For me it is all about the “hook”. There is no perfect formula in this business anymore if there ever was. Sure you have to push past some gatekeepers and figure out a way to get your film to market. For anyone that has worked with me, they know when I hear the word “no” I am just going to keep working an angle until I hear “yes”.
This reminded me about a film I read about in The Verge that was a Sundance selection last year. They took a direct distribution (theatrical and VOD) route and seem to have done really well. In a smaller fashion this is what we have been doing with Justice while we continue conversations with distributors. As I’ve said before, it’s not just about doing a deal, it’s about doing a deal that makes financial sense. What’s the most important thing? Justice Is Mind has been made. What’s the next important thing? Justice Is Mind is being seen by audiences.
I’ve reached that point in my business plan for SOS United States where I discuss the budget and projections. Indeed, these are like New England weather and are always “storm centric”. I can hold to a budget without any issue (that just comes down to planning), but film revenue projects seriously can change at the drop of a hat. I believe the key is having a reasonable budget and reasonable expectations.
This is an exciting time for Justice Is Mind as we go into what I call Phase Two of distribution and marketing while I look to finish the details on SOS United States. There’s always something new to learn, and things we need to avoid, there’s just one thing we all need to remember in this industry.
When I wrote the business plan for Justice Is Mind in 2010 it called for certain assumptions based on what I knew at the time was working, or not working, for independent filmmakers. The plan called for actually “renting” theatres for a limited theatrical run and going with a distributor we already had a deal with (and still do if I want to engage it) to get on certain VOD platforms. The dramatic change in distribution and marketing in three years has been unprecedented.
As of today, Justice Is Mind has enjoyed a limited theatrical run of nine theatres with no rental involved (full disclosure, one was fully sponsored). Rather we are actually being compensated on a split arrangement. We proved the point. A truly independent film can have a theatrical run without a distributor involved. As I mentioned to my investors and producers last week, I’m fairly confident that if we had a distributor involved in these theatres, after their expenses, the run would have been a financial loss. It was the exact opposite for us. With a track record of revenue and attendance attached to the film, we can approach theatres with confidence. We are working on additional theatrical dates for Justice and hope to make some announcements shortly.
In 2010 a distributor I had planned to work with on Justice had a revenue sharing system that I could project from. Since then they have retooled their compensation and minutes viewed has now turned to literal pennies. However, another VOD platform I’ve been working with for just over a year has delivered real cash of over $1,000. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or expert in this industry to see the change in distribution revenue models. A couple of posts ago I talked about the amount of “product” coming into the market. I think this is a great thing. Audiences want more films. But distributors are playing catch up. One distributor (with some limited success) who was introduced to me a few months ago said that the days of them just loading up content to the various VOD providers is gone as even their content has to be approved. Obviously this is not the case for all films, but I’ve been hearing similar coming out of various trade interviews.
This change, particularly on the digital front, has created a ton of new platforms eager to fill the gap. Some have raised millions with new technology to get your film in front of the right audiences while others enable you to sell your film directly off your website. But, in my humble opinion, as they have no track records they need to be watched as well. One we worked with on the short film Evidence (Constellation TV) has since closed after all kinds of positive press, which is a shame because I thought they had a great idea. So what’s my point? Sure, I’m all for new technology and trying new things, but I think it’s important to be part of the established landscape as a fail safe as there’s only so many ways to reinvent the wheel.
We know there are no guarantees in this business. The reports from Sundance concluded that while getting your film into that festival is obviously great there’s zero guarantee of a distribution deal. The Hollywood Reporter’s story on Ron Howard’s acclaimed Rush losing over $10 million was particularly eye opening. And how many stories do we need to read that having “A listers” in your film is no guarantee of anything. The New Yorker summed it up “The trick is that no one knows which films are going to be excellent or genre-bending before they are made, or even before they are screened.”
I’ve always viewed business plans as flexible documents. Yes, you have the product you want to produce and you estimate revenue based on understood norms at the time. But by the time you get to market, the market you may have planned to be part of probably will have changed somewhat if not completely. It all comes down to what audiences want to see and how they want to see it. So as I write the business plan for SOS United States, I look at what’s being done presently with Justice Is Mind.
There are a few things I do know and can predict. There’s a lot of wonderful talent on both sides of the camera. They rely on producers to rise above the noise and have their work seen. I believe in discovering new talent. I know from our screenings this is what audiences want. At the end of the day they want a good story.