How Big Brand Sponsorship Saved Our Indie Film (pt 2 of 2)

Guest Post by Amy Lo.  Yesterday Amy started the tale of Planet B-boy's march into brand sponsorship and how they teamed up with Samsung.  Today she concludes with how it was a win/win and some thoughts towards the future. Taking the long view We were relieved that our immediate need for post production funds was met, but our proposal also kept the door open for a much bigger fish to fry: distribution. Our initial strategy was the typical indie film non-strategy of keeping the film under wraps, doing a big premiere at a festival and waiting for any offers to come along. With Samsung unexpectedly involved at an early stage, we started thinking about how we could partner with them to bring the film out, either with or without a traditional distributor. We came up with a plan for live dance events combined with the film screenings, a 25-city tour presented by Samsung.

In the meantime, we finished the film and got it into competition at the Tribeca Film Festival. We had a magical outdoor premiere on the riverfront with Fab 5 Freddy as emcee, live performances, and breakdancing lessons before the movie. More than eight thousand people turned out. We’d made it an event. We knew we could be on to something.

We pushed Samsung and came so close – with no less than the Chief Marketing Officer for North America behind us – but internal politics and timing ultimately thwarted further P&A support. Planet B-boy still had a great run with distributor Elephant Eye Films, held over in NY theaters for 10 weeks and spreading to about 50 other cities. We threw some fantastic events, too.

Working towards the future I’m convinced there’s a still lot further to go with sponsorship and indie film, particularly for distribution and the hard work of getting finished films to audiences. Folks like Rooftop Films , Alamo Drafthouse , and Range Life are making movies more of a communal event. Film festivals, too. Brands get behind those curators without dictating programming, so if a filmmaker’s vision is clear and resonates with audiences, why not experiment with individual film releases, too? Or theaters? Kind of like the old days of TV – Wild Kingdom never had anything to do with insurance but the show’s always been presented by Mutual of Omaha. Sponsorship’s coming back for indie music , why not indie film, too?

Samsung didn’t take any ownership or approvals of the film, and our deal with them paradoxically, became our best guarantee of creative freedom, no strings attached. Sponsorship wasn’t our plan at the outset, but by focusing on the film first, by preserving its quality and originality, we had something for others, both audiences and sponsors, to get excited about.

It most likely won’t happen the same way for me again on another film, and on each project, we as producers have to be more resourceful and more imaginative than ever, looking at every option. I’m telling you this story because the lesson learned is: You never know who might save you. When some doors close, just find new ones to knock down.

Amy Lo is a 2010-2011 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow. Through her production banner Mental Pictures , she develops and produces feature films, documentaries, and new media, focusing on director-driven original stories. She can also be found on twitter @amy_lo .

For more on this subject check out: "Can Brands & Indie Films Collaborate Without Sacrificing Integrity Or Goals?"

How Big Brand Sponsorship Saved Our Indie Film (pt. 1 of 2)

Guest Post by Amy Lo

Behind every finished film, there are 1,001 war stories.

This is just one small part of how we willed into being a film called Planet B-boy , and maybe it’s a rare, lucky case. But when it mattered most, it was a big-time brand that 1) came to our rescue with cold, hard cash; 2) allowed us to keep complete creative control; and 3) gave us greater ownership of our own film to boot. They didn’t even realize how crucial it was to us, but the truth is, Samsung saved our indie film.

Starting on our own
I met a filmmaker named Benson Lee who had a great character-driven story structured around the vibrant resurgence of breakdancing around the world. I didn’t know how, but I wanted to produce it. Industry broadcasters and production companies loved the idea but said essentially the same thing – go and shoot it, show us a rough cut. Fair enough. We turned to equity investors and scraped together enough to buy plane tickets and cameras….Fast forward through production highs and lows, and three months later, we had 300 hours of footage to log in four different languages. We also had a negative bank balance. So what next?

Rallying our cohorts
Between going back to investors and trying to raise money, we didn’t wait around. We posted a clip on YouTube, rehauled our website, and started reaching out to b-boys and folks online for feedback. While Benson went through footage, I spent days seeking out those who would become our most ardent supporters. Our video racked up tens, then hundreds of thousands of views, netting us our first featured spot on the YouTube front page. As the momentum grew, we did our part to keep it going.

One of our first videos showed main characters dancing in distinctive settings, like the Eiffel Tower and a Buddhist temple. We started getting messages from all over the world “Come film here!” and “What about our town?”, so we figured why not open it up through a video contest? Anyone could send us footage of their own choreography in front of their own city landmarks, and selected shots would form an epilogue to the movie during the end credits. With the community involved, our film ended up covering dancers from every continent – except Antarctica (though we did get b-boys from the Arctic Circle in there!).

It was a simple way for people to connect with the film, and individual participation naturally fit with the film’s themes about self-expression – how each dancer interpreted the art form and made it their own, feeding their own culture back into it. Early on, I had also gotten the idea from Four Eyed Monsters to collect email addresses and zip codes as “screening requests” – and we got 500 subscribers from Poland in a single day – a fan in Warsaw had built their own mini-movement around the film.

Sticking to our story
Meanwhile, we had been shaking the money tree and editing the film simultaneously but were running out of equity investor options. We didn’t have a rough cut yet to show distributors or production companies who might put up finishing funds – and if we were able to get that far on our own, would we necessarily want to give up creative control and rights to our film?

When we explored the idea of sponsorship, we were clear on our parameters. Our first priority was being able to make the film our own way. That was never in doubt and wasn’t negotiable. One key difference between commissioned work versus independent work looking for support: We were the ones who could set the terms. Any sponsors would have to be on board with our creative independence, and we made that authenticity itself an integral part of our proposal.

Figuring out our strengths
Once we established what we wouldn’t do for sponsors, we still had to think carefully about what we could offer them. There weren’t many indie film examples we could turn to. We weren’t cult filmmakers like David Lynch, Spike Jonze, or Wong Kar-wai. We had no guarantee of distribution or a film festival premiere – we didn’t even have a film yet.

But we did have footage – 300 hours of amazing dancing and stunning back stories that wouldn’t all fit into our feature-length film. We had plenty of “content” to lend to a willing partner. Going back to our initial YouTube clips, we also had a growing following and the potential to transcend a niche audience once we had a finished film. The creative goal for the feature was to show b-boy culture in the truest light possible, and through our characters, also make it a relatable story about identity and self-expression. It was a story we were passionate about, and it seemed like something a sponsor could get behind.

Doing our homework
Where to start? We connected to Samsung after much due diligence and research. We asked around for help and suggestions within the b-boy community, and we drew up lists of target companies. We found as much information as we could about each: decision makers, past projects, other forays into sponsorship, and what their mandates might be. Some companies supported the arts through non-profit arms, while others fielded proposals through their in-house marketing departments or ad agencies.

Samsung seemed our best match as an electronics company. They had empty hardware; we had content to fill it. I built a sponsorship proposal tailored to them around this idea. We promised to give them a series of five trailers as exclusive content – for embedding into new Samsung cell phones, mp3 players, and other portable media devices, and in retail displays and product road shows. The videos wouldn’t be commercials for Samsung product; they would strictly promote the film – and identify Samsung as our supporter. And for this, they were willing to put substantial money towards us finishing our movie, a mid-six-figure sum that meant all the difference for us, and was less than the cost of a traditional 30-second ad for them.

Tomorrow, Amy concludes with some thoughts on "Taking The Long View" of brand sponsorship of indie film.

For more on this subject check out: "Can Brands & Indie Films Collaborate Without Sacrificing Integrity Or Goals?"

Amy Lo is a 2010-2011 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow. Through her production banner Mental Pictures , she develops and produces feature films, documentaries, and new media, focusing on director-driven original stories. She can also be found on twitter @amy_lo .

Tools: Organizing Audiences

Mike Hedge pointed out to me that we now have a major distributor using Eventful to organize screenings on a local level. Back when Adventureland was released, I few fans found me to let me know that they had organized screening groups on MeetUp. Both of these are powerful tools, that the indie film community needs to make more use of.

And of course, let's not forget where we first heard of this sort of thing. Arin & Susan paved the way for Dreamworks... ?! Let's make sure this kind of thing becomes an indie filmmaker staple.
Imagine that when a filmmaker announced that their film is going to debut at a major film festival, that in addition to launching their trailer and going into a new phase with their blogging they also utilized these tools to aggregate audiences on a local level. There might be a film that was able to go on a tour immediately following the premiere taking the work directly to the core. I wonder what sort of impact it would have with the old school distributors to hear that a filmmaker already had thirty or more dates that the fans themselves requested.
Filmmakers could motivate fans to organize these screenings and to recruit audiences by offering a wide variety of incentives from exclusive music downloads to Skype Q&A's afterwards. Film clubs could easily do the same. Heck, so could distributors. We have an Indie Film Promotional Army out there, already armed, and waiting for the call.
When I look at the number of tools we have at our disposal (check out the list on the right to start) that filmmakers are still underutilizing, I feel like we have all been given crate loads of matches but we still all live in the Dark Ages.
I would love to hear of some filmmakers direct experiences utilizing these specific tools.

Who Is Making Additional Material For Their Features?

I am not even talking about true transmedia work with developed story lines and expanded narratives; I am just wondering what examples are out there of additional material that has been used by filmmakers, mainstream and the indie DIY side both, to help bring audiences to the films.

Rainn Wilson tweeted about the shorts he did with Slash for The Rocker a few days ago, and I checked them out, but at that time, six months after the release less than 300 people had watched them on YouTube.
We have the videos s that Arin & Susan did for Four Eyed Monsters and set the bar for indie film promotion.  We have Judd Apatow's Knocked Up skits, and Wes Anderson's short for Darjeeling Express.  But what else is there?  Why isn't everyone doing it?  I would think that it is by now standard practice, but no.  It's not truly a money issue because there are lots of ways to do work on the cheap.
On Adventureland, we came up with a couple of short pieces that will soon debut on iTunes and elsewhere, but that was the first time that a studio "let" us do it.  I want to do it on every film now, and hopefully scripted well in advance.
Let us know what other examples you've found.

Jamie Stuart On The Evolving World Of DIY

Ted:  I reached out to Jamie, and as he explains...

Since my earlier e-mail generated a bit of traffic and comments, Ted asked me if I'd be willing to write a follow-up that addresses some of the subsequent points raised. I won't be commenting directly to any commenters, but in a more generalized manner.

Just to note, though I tend to write in a straightforward manner, I'm not angry with anybody or viewing things in black & white. And while I used my own work and experiences as a viewpoint for much of the preceding entry, I don't want there to be any confusion: Insofar as DIY filmmaking goes, over the past half-dozen years or so, I've been incredibly privileged and lucky. As well, my e-mail to Ted was not "unsolicited" -- I've known Ted for nearly 5 years at this point, as he was one of the first producers to offer to look at one of my screenplays.

Some commenters have been unfamiliar with my work and wondered how it can be seen. My website is The Mutiny Company (www.mutinycompany.com). Most of my web filmmaking has revolved around press opportunities (filmmaker interviews, film festivals), and in using that as a centerpiece, I've then created narrative short films and web series based around these documentary situations, functionally blending reality and staged fiction. This form of filmmaking arose out of plain pragmatism. In 2001, I worked as Jami Bernard's assistant, and from 2002-2004 I co-ran the website MovieNavigator.org, for which I was in charge of interviews and essays. By the time MN ran out of gas, the web was ready for large amounts of streaming video, so I tried to convince the film publicists I knew to let me shoot video interviews. However, at the time, independent cameras were not allowed at junkets and web video was not considered legitimate. This started to change in 2004 when The Film Society of Lincoln Center gave me carte blanche to shoot a 14-part web series from The New York Film Festival. Aside from their house videographer, I was the only other camera regularly shooting at the Walter Reade Theater. That led to a 6-month series in 2005 on Movie City News that expanded the established narrative/press format. In 2006, I started doing videos for Filmmaker Magazine, and in 2007, I began contributing to FilmInFocus. This niche of filmmaking has allowed my work to be posted regularly on many major industry news sites and blogs, guaranteeing a certain level of exposure.

There have been two basic strategies in the initial wave of digital DIY filmmaking -- one group immediately made no-budget features that didn't receive distribution and subsequently went to the web to gain exposure, and the other chose to start on the web to build exposure before making a feature. I belong to the latter category. I think a lot of the feature filmmakers weren't ready yet, either technically or in terms of contacts, and the lack of initial distribution success is a testament to that. While I would love to have made my first feature already, I'd rather be patient about it and do it right than to just do it. In the meantime, I can continue to polish my craft, gain greater exposure and make contacts.

DIY filmmaking has been uniformly revolutionary to the filmmaking process. Nowadays filmmakers can own their entire means of production and distribution: Prosumer cameras, affordable post software and, finally, the internet or DVD as a means of self-distribution. The industry as a whole has offered a surface embrace of this while actively seeking an offensive strategy against it (they talked up user-generated content, but their real agenda was to shift established/signed talent to the web rather than to promote upstarts). One thing that first-gen DIY-ers have invariably influenced is marketing. Personally, I haven't been too impressed by most of the filmmaking itself, but nobody can deny the success of Four Eyed Monsters' use of every social networking tool under the sun or Joe Swanberg's (always denied) mumblecore movement. In both cases, people remember the marketing a lot more than what was being marketed, and the legit industry has imitated and absorbed their techniques.

While the first generation's filmmaking output hasn't been terribly ambitious on the whole, I'd be willing to bet that's going to start changing. The recession is going to force a lot of aspiring filmmakers to fend for themselves rather than working their way up through an industry in a downturn economy. I also think that as more ambitious films start being made and noticed, this approach will no longer be so derided but embraced. You'll start to see more and more that filmmakers and production companies will own their own digital equipment, thus dropping the budgets. Furthermore, the movies produced will start to shed excess weight (crew) and become more stealth in their operations.

In general, I like the idea that filmmaking has become more regional, in that films can now be made anywhere at any time, exposing audiences to places they're unfamiliar with. The reason I refer to what's been going on as "regional folk art" is because most of the examples of regional filmmaking haven't had the ambition to be anything more than slice-of-life films made for niches. In theory, this is a phenomenal development -- filmmaking is down to the pencil and paper. The problem is that in the past aspiring filmmakers sought to impress their idols by displaying a great command of craft, but currently, many filmmakers simply don't have that ambition. I think there's room for both -- and both approaches are important. My point is that one needs to feed off the other; we need breakouts that generate enough attention so audiences are then made aware of the smaller pictures. Right now, we just have the smaller pictures. It's really just a marketing strategy.

While I don't think it's incumbent upon the older generation of indie producers and execs to nurture the younger, I brought that issue up because I think a lot of them really wish they could. I believe that new filmmakers are the lifeblood of indie film. I just think that when the dependent phase opened up, with it went a lot of the so-called community pillars, and there was a chasm left in the nurturing pipeline. Unfortunately, this occurred just as digital DIY filmmaking took off, which further exacerbated the situation by creating a de facto economic gap. Now that the dependent bubble has burst, a lot of veterans have been writing essays about how the indie model is broken. They sound a lot to me like print film critics complaining about younger bloggers -- and we know who's winning that battle.

The generational changeover is happening slowly, but it is happening. People have learned the new landscape on their own, and they'll be fine. The most important thing is for the veterans to learn from the new guys rather than feeling threatened. To me, one of the biggest red flags of disconnect was when Sundance hired established filmmakers to create a series of shorts designed for mobile phones. The whole thing seemed like an attempt to seem up to date. Had they really been on top of things and wanted to promote new formats, they should've picked upcoming indie filmmakers that were already using the web to hold up as examples. As these things go, a shift is already underway at Sundance now.

I actually have a lot of ideas about how to integrate DIY filmmaking into the traditional process and how to promote it and profit from it, but for the time being, as I'm developing some models on my own, I'd prefer not to get into that. Hopefully, sometime soon as I put my ideas to work, I'll be better able to discuss them.

One final note. I don't think that most of us are really that far apart in how we view things. A lot of what's being debated is really semantics. And I appreciate that most of the comments to my initial ramble were civil and respectful. Hopefully, that will continue.

-- Jamie Stuart