Orly Ravid had some good advice for us all before Cannes. Now that another festival is over, she's got some more critical advice for all with a film made, in process, or contemplating existence. Orly looks at what gives films "value" to distributors, but points out that those are not the only factors, and with a little effort and willingness to take it into your own hands, there's good business to be had. There's one key rule though: Don't Wait For Godot. Film is a perishable good.
In future posts, we intend to track the progress and releases of the films that did deals at Sundance. And we also will track deals and respective progress related to other fests such as Tribeca and Cannes (which seemed to be largely a SundanceSelects play with an occasional TWC and Magnolia deal and a few others coming.). But for now, I want to address a phenomenon that I keep seeing and strongly feel needs to change.
Filmmakers are approaching us with films that had their festival run a year or even two years ago, OR, a film that did not have the benefit of an A-list festival selection, or maybe not even a B-list festival run, or is even more than two years old. I guess they assume that deals are still out there for their films and they are holding off on moving into the market until those deals are struck.
Film sales happen (when they happen) more often than not, for these reasons (I am speaking to filmmakers in America and trying to sell films in and/or from America):
1. FESTIVALS & AWARDS& REVIEWS: The film has the good fortune of being an official selection of a prestigious name film festival (and attended by or at least tracked by industry). By virtue of being an official selection, the festival brand helps the film’s brand and perceived value of that film to potential buyers. Also, publicity that actually occurs as a result of being part of the festival helps the film get noticed and attain perceived value to potential buyers. Winning prizes helps (especially Audience Awards) and getting great reviews help in attracting potential buyers.
2. The value (actual value of a deal that can be done) starts to go down after a festival premiere. Meaning, films that don’t sell at festivals or do not start negotiations at or close to the festival’s start or end date, go down in price. The perception in the market is the length of time between a festival premiere and settling on a distribution deal indicates the amount of value the film has. If there is a long passage of time, the price goes down accordingly and the likelihood of getting any deal fades. of course this depends to a greater or lesser degree on who is selling and who wants to buy and what their motivation is. But usually, prices go down in direct proportion with the passage of time.
3. CAST: The film has cast that increases the perceived value. And if #2 is accompanied by #1, all the better. This is not a cast of unknowns or a cast of former notable talent.
4. GENRE / DEMOGRAPHIC APPEAL / NICHES: Genre appeal, including horror, sci fi, western films often sell better than dramas; docs sell better than mockumentaries, often not always. Hot topic or big concept / trend topic documentaries or documentaries involving key niches or names often sell than more obscure or more personal documentaries, of course there are always rare exceptions. Best not to bank on your film being one of those. Films appealing to specific large enough demographics seem more “valuable” than those that don’t seem to have any specific appeal. Broad comedies can sell but highly depend on notable cast and when they don’t have the cast, it’s almost always the case that they need a big festival to create the buzz that gives them the commercial push. Foreign sales are not attractive for American-centric stories unless they are studio films, genre films, and/or have the cast or had/will have a big l theatrical release.
5. THEATRICAL: A small US theatrical can help usually only if the reviews really were strong and the film has some commercial appeal or at least niche appeal (and there are distributors catering to that niche if it’s not more broadly commercial). Theatrical in the US can’t hurt foreign sales but a tiny US theatrical can also have no impact on foreign sales whatsoever if the film is perceived as too American and does not feel either commercial enough for other territories to compete with all the world cinema or does not fit into niches for which there are buyers (if it’s not broadly commercial enough). Or the film can fit in to the niche but the niche is also glutted so competition is stiff. For Broadcast sales, sometimes it is simply a matter of programming and timing luck; the film fits what the stations are looking for.
We all know there’s no guarantee of a sale and sometimes even when a sale occurs, it’s not necessarily a great one. Even at the top A-list fests, many films do not “sell” so even for those filmmakers a strategy of building community around your film WAY AHEAD of your first public exhibition / premiere is wise, because this way, even if you are afraid of or counseled not to start any distribution in tandem with that premiere or necessarily soon following it, and even if you think you have a shot at the big deal, or a deal and that is what you want above all things.. even then, all that community building will do is increase the perceived value of your film. And guess what? If that deal never comes, or if the offers suck (which you may be more scrutinizing of and careful about when you do the math based on your acquired ability to distribute directly to the fans), you will always have that back up plan.
Many filmmakers come to us with thousands of even tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter fans, lots of traffic to their site, an email list started and even good reviews of their film if it played smaller fests or if their genre was reviewed by niche film sites and this has all happened months ago or even a year ago or even two, and they are waiting for a DEAL, I have to say, DON’T WAIT. * You already have a deal*, direct to the fans of the film, the ones you have been connecting with and getting the attention of for all this time. Let them see it/buy it and stop waiting! They’ve been waiting and if you make them wait too long, they will either wander off in frustration or they may feel no other alternative but to view the film via P2P networks for free or get a DVD via E-bay that a journalist or programming staffer is selling for extra lunch money.
In short, and yes this blog is short compared to the usual (whew), don’t wait for Godot. There is nothing this marketplace is signaling that merits the wait. Broadcast sales are a different matter, you have a doc, or Latino-interest film, or gay film, or genre film, or even film with some cast.. a TV deal can MAYBE be done but still, there’s all the rest YOU should be doing sooner than later, or working with people who can help you do it if you don’t know how. This includes DVD and Digital off your site, it includes all the key digital platforms and it even includes hybrid theatrical / events and other public performance of the film (educational and/or commercial). And if your films has legs, you can carve out deals and DIY and work it all out. But if you just sit on your film and wait you are risking losing everything and I have to ask you, based on what? What information are you working with? Part of your distribution plan should include how long will wait before you start distribution? What is your path to sales? Plan A, B and C and how can you plan for all of those? It is no longer enough to hope for distribution and sit and wait.
Filmmakers, don’t hate the messenger… I say this with love and as someone who embraces deal making as much as I do DIY. ☺ You must have a plan of action early in your process.
Here’s an example of a filmmaker who we think did it right, and he worked with Peter Broderick:
And we’ll have other examples and even more details in our forthcoming digital case study book entitled SELLING YOUR MOVIE WITHOUT SELLING YOUR SOUL: Case Studies in Hybrid, DIY, P2P Independent Film Distribution (co-authored by The Film Collaborative, Jon Reiss, and Sheri Candler). Until then, stop waiting and get moving toward bringing your film to its audience.
-- Orly Ravid
Orly Ravid has worked in film acquisitions / sales / direct distribution and festival programming for the last twelve years since moving to Los Angeles from home town Manhattan. In January 2010, Orly founded The Film Collaborative (TFC), the first non-profit devoted to film distribution of independent cinema. Orly runs TFC w/ her business partner, co-exec director Jeffrey Winter.