The New Independent Film Distributors’ Business Model (Pt. 1 of 2)

Guest post by Sheri Candler. In this second post, I want to focus on how to rehabilitate the film distribution entities so that they may continue to exist. I know what you are thinking “What’s she on about? We’re fine. We survived the latest shake out and are all the stronger for having less competition.” I am here to tell you that is fallacy. The old ways of bringing films to market are fading fast and it is time to reinvent your business. I want to acknowledge my gurus Gerd Leonhard, Seth Godin and Clay Shirky (though he is more my go to guy on all things having to do with immersive storytelling and audience collaboration) for being a constant source of inspiration for me in looking toward the future of media.

When Ted announced on his Facebook page that he would take part in a panel discussion at the upcoming Woodstock Film Festival concerning the new distribution paradigms, I had to look at who would be involved in this discussion. What people and companies would be taking part who are practicing radically changed business models for film distribution? It was as I thought; none. I posted a link on his page (http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100326/1452138737.shtml) asking all involved in the discussion to read it and then talk about how they see the new paradigms. I don’t know if anyone did, but I did get a response from Dylan Marchetti from Variance Films explaining to me how his company functions to actively engage audiences for films they’ve booked in the theater. It was a lengthy exchange that resulted in my writing this post. I don’t think he read the article before he spoke because the point of that piece was to inform on how businesses need to form ecosystems around their companies, not continue only to sell copies of the content they distribute. Distribution companies should not be focused on selling copies, either for viewing or for owning. They should be selling access, creating networks of devoted fans around their brand and developing customized experiences instead. In other words, selling things that cannot be copied. This means they must first gather and cultivate a community of engaged followers and then develop, acquire, produce, and source material with only these people in mind.

Of the companies taking part in the Woodstock panel, I would say only Cinetic with their Film Buff organization has started with the potential to do this, but rather than building an engagement platform, they have merely built another online distribution portal (like so many others in existence that consumers have never heard of) to put copies out on the internet. Actually you can’t see any of the films on the site, it just directs you to their existence on VOD channels. Their “community” engagement is only a call for an email address so that they may send marketing messages. What is communal about that? What connection would a consumer have to the company itself besides advertising? None. Cinetic has no idea who these people are, what drives them, motivates them, interests them. It is not fair to pick only on Cinetic, I can’t think of a single distributor currently connecting directly with audience who can answer those questions. Troma comes to mind as a distributor with a very clear brand identity but even they are not directly in dialog with their audience. All current distributors are far too dependent on push marketing, usually hired from outside the company, and sourcing films purely on guesses based on audience reactions at festivals , favorable press or from hottest trends in market research. Every investment prospectus will tell you future earnings are not indicative of past performance, so why is that how decisions are continually being made?

What would I suggest for these companies? First, a total rethink of what business they’re in. Distribution of goods is no longer needed from you. You should not think of yourselves in the film distribution business because distribution has become easy to access by anyone online. (I know Dylan, you’re not online, but art house theater days are numbered too). Attention getting is now your main role. But from whom? If you don’t have a following as a company, a deep relationship with a community, how will you get attention and keep it? By building a tribe around the people in your company and, in turn, the company brand itself. This starts by identifying what kind of group you appeal to or want to appeal to, actively seeking them out and forging those deep connections. At first, this will mean attracting people through outside means, appealing through media and various outside groups to introduce yourself. Eventually the effort to enlarge the circle will be done by the community members, but until you have one, you must do that work.

Often, in a rush to monetize, companies jump right over the relationship building. The dismal failure of paywalls in newspaper circles only serves to prove my point. They did not build up an engaged community first, and then ask for payment. They falsely thought that their paper subscribers would be willing to continue the previous paid relationship even after it was possible to get most of the news stories from aggregators for free online. There is a great video from Jeff Jarvis explaining the new business models for newpapers here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jsb9NfJmqPY&) and lots can be gleaned from it for all corporate endeavors.

The reinvention “The future leaders in business will be connectors, not directors”-Gerd Leonhard The new model will be to build and foster a community around the brand as a company and to be in the entertainment fulfillment business. This community will have interests that the company can fulfill and that is the company’s ONLY function. To try and serve a well balanced diet of wide ranging content is to spread too thin and attract no one. Mass is not your target. You will be a resource to your community not only in entertainment but in anything that interests them. This means you MUST know what “that” is. Is it books, is it music, events, clothes, games, causes, other similar tribes? These will be your other revenue sources as you create a network of interconnection with other companies who have their own niches, their own tribes. Also, consider enabling community members to profit in what you have sourced, to be affiliates and to create networks of their own. The network will feed each other spreading the brand even further.

A key part of your site will be to connect your community to each other. Some companies have sites where they connect to the user, but they don’t allow for intraconnection and some networking platforms are merely housed on a company website but members are never engaged by the company, merely left to use the tools as they see fit. Listening and collaboration will be cornerstones for this model to work. This isn’t work to be left to interns, by the way, but by those in power within the company.

You will also partner with other tribes of like minded individuals. Through these interactions, you tribe influence grows. There is no need for shouting out messages, gaining favorable PR placement, buying media for attention or forcing members to spread the word. If you are fulfilling their needs admirably, they will do it. You will however, generously reward those members in your community who do enlarge your circle. Instead of paying large amounts of money to outside companies to get “buzz” and “traffic,” you will invest that money in building experiences tailor made for your community. Development of experiences can only be done from active participation in the community and collaboration with them.

This model is far simpler to run as you won’t be going for masses, you will only cultivate your community. It will be labor intensive work, but not prohibitively expensive. You will need to develop tools so that the tribe members can speak to each other and so that they can spread the word to their friends easily. You should be facilitating sharability at all times, not closing it off and being insular.

The filmmaker/artist whose content you will source (not acquire as creators will have an equal partnership in your tribe) will be encouraged to participate with the community. In fact, if they will not, then their work is not very attractive to your community. Engagement at all times is key, this is no place for egos.

Tomorrow: How To Make Money With The New Model!

Sheri Candler is an inbound marketing strategist who helps independent filmmakers build identities for themselves and their films. Through the use of online tools such as social networking, podcasts, blogs, online media publications and radio, she assists filmmakers in building an engaged and robust online community for their work that can be used to monetize effectively.

She can be found online at www.shericandler.com, on Twitter @shericandler and on Facebook at Sheri Candler Marketing and Publicity.

The NEW Independent Filmmaker

by guest columnist SHERI CANDLER

I will start by giving credit right off the bat to my futurist heroes Gerd Leonhard and Seth Godin who spend way more time than I do contemplating issues on the future of the media business and how to succeed. What I get out of their talks and posts has helped me to formulate this post and bring my thoughts into order on how I see filmmakers sustaining themselves in the very near future.

There is a ton of talk right now on how independent filmmakers can sustain themselves by making their films and how independent film can be “saved.” So much talk, without many answers. I felt maybe I should take a stab at providing one. This is purely my reaction to all of this talk and I fully expect that I will be challenged for what I propose. It isn’t going to be palatable to the vast majority of filmmakers or others who profit from their work in the industry.

First, let’s address why we need a new business model. Gerd Leonhard has said as a filmmaker, it is all about the story and the connection to the audience. Everything in the middle will be redone. That means the way films have been distributed to audiences in the past, through very constricted routes (theaters, tv, physical stores), is now open via online and through mobile devices, and all over the world. The access to those routes is open to anyone, not just through companies who stand in the middle between the filmmaker and the audience. Our problem is no longer distribution, our problem is attention. How to get and keep and convert that attention in order to live as artists? With this open access, there is a glut of content and, as consumers, how to know what to watch and where to find it? It will be through friends or through the tribe and more and more we are finding this work online. There will be a mass of niches, not a mass audience. Who can access the niche?

Going forward, here is what I see. Two roads to take for sustainability.

Filmmaker as Tribe Leader

The selection of the word “tribe” does indeed come from Seth Godin. The word “tribe” – as the anthropologists use it – means a society or organized group largely based on kinship that looks to a leader for guidance. This is not to be confused with a “crowd,” a non-organized group with no leader. There are lots of crowds in indie film, very few leaders. Filmmakers must create and cultivate an identity around themselves as artists. This identity will serve as leadership in forming a tribe of passionate supporters who will sustain their artist in order for this person to live and keep making the art the tribe enjoys.

This route will only serve the entrepreneurial filmmaker. A person who is good at sharing, making connections, mobilizing, contributing and engaging with audience on a regular basis will be the ideal tribe leader. Those who prefer to create without need or concern of anyone’s enjoyment will not prosper here. The tribe leader must constantly stay engaged with his/her audience in addition to creating so that the leadership does not wane and the tribe begins to feel isolated and wander off to find another leader. The advantage to being a leader is that you are the resource on which the tribe depends, they enjoy your leadership and their kinship with you and the other members. This work cannot be given over to outside companies who are not directly involved in the tribe, they will not be trusted and trust is the cornerstone of this model.

Filmmakers who follow this business model will have no need for advertising in or reviews from mass publications. The media is not going to support you financially. The leader has permission to talk to his tribe, he doesn’t shout at them with uninteresting messages. This is what advertising is about, shouting loudly and repeatedly in the hopes that someone will act/buy. This tribe is small and the leader talks directly to the tribe, not through a large intermediary. He will also collaborate with them and bring them into his process. The tribe will expect to be able to produce and contribute as this is what is becoming the norm for storytelling now, the opportunity to interact directly with the story and the story creator.

Tribe members will speak to others outside of the tribe, share their enthusiasm and, through them, membership will grow. The filmmaker /leader may speak to leaders of other tribes in an effort to find a common area of interest and facilitate a connection for members of both communities to enjoy, but the goal with this is to simply connect people with common interests, not push one group’s interests onto another. This is not a one to many dialog but a many to many dialog with the leader serving as moderator.

“If you make a difference, people will gravitate to you. They want to engage, to interact and to get more involved.”-Seth Godin.

In a future post, I will talk about how you form a tribe and manage it.

This scenario offers the freedom to create content around many different subjects since the tribe is formed around yourself and your vision of art is appreciated. It is also far less stressful because you only have to focus on creating for a small group, not try to conquer the world all at once.

Filmmaker Creating Content for Other Tribes

For filmmakers who are not interested or not capable of creating their own tribe (basically, they CHOOSE not to lead; EVERYONE is capable), they will make content for passionately engaged tribes where they are not the leader or embedded in the community. This will be tricky because to gain the trust of the group, you have to show an affinity for their passion. You will have to win over the leader, gain his/her trust and find out exactly what kind of content you can create for them that they currently cannot get anywhere else. If successful, this tribe becomes your support, a group whose content needs you can fulfill over and over since there is seemingly no end to the want of fresh, interesting content.

This would lock you into the same subject matter over and over. Perhaps you could wander from tribe to tribe in order to change subjects, but the trust gaining process has to be started over each time, a very labor and time consuming process. You are a traveling minstrel going from small empire to small empire to entertain. Again, there is no need for mass advertising or mass interest because you create content only for small niche audiences. Those niches must be highly engaged though, so you will spend your time researching and finding them. But if you can get permission to create for them and your creations delight them, you have the power to make a living that is not dependent on companies, gatekeepers, shouting to the world in hope that someone will buy.

Neither of these scenarios discusses fame, massive fortune or creation just for creation’s sake. Fame is fleeting and if that is why you are interested in filmmaking, it wasn’t going to last (if you achieved it) for long. Fame also depends on creating a very large amount of noise to gain attention in the attention deficit world.

This doesn’t take into account massive fortune because your success will be limited to the size of the tribe. Small, engaged tribes are where the success is, but it won’t make you a billionaire, it doesn’t scale like that. The minute you shift focus to go after people with different interests, your original tribe falls apart. It is the intimacy and trust that holds it together. The auteur who is only interested in their own vision and creativity makes a good audience of one. The auteur who is a tribe leader can sustain, but the obscure, lone wolf with a vision will not.

However, tribes can and do grow through the enthusiasm of the community; that enthusiasm is shared with outsiders who are brought into the tribe. The leader does not need to do this work, in fact it is far more authentic if the tribe does it instead. As long as the leader’s focus remains on the care and feeding of the tribe, the tribe will thrive.

Will there be anomalies, people who are creative and do not connect directly with audiences? Yes, there are always exceptions and I expect that someone will list a few in comments. But I am talking about a sustainable business model, not the rarity or the lucky. If you are willing to step forward to build and lead a group of interested individuals who have not been mobilized or you are willing to identify and connect with already established groups and make quality content only for them, you will sustain.

This post first appeared on Multi-hyphenate and is reprinted here with permission and sincere appreciation.

Sheri Candler is an inbound marketing strategist who helps independent filmmakers build identities for themselves and their films. Through the use of online tools such as social networking, podcasts, blogs, online media publications and radio, she assists filmmakers in building an engaged and robust online community for their work that can be used to monetize effectively.

She can be found online at www.shericandler.com, on Twitter @shericandler and on Facebook at Sheri Candler Marketing and Publicity.