Hunter Weeks On Three Lessons from Three Films

Guest post by filmmaker Hunter Weeks. I’ve now produced, directed and distributed three documentary films. It’s been exhausting, time-consuming, super-challenging, but all the while, the most enriching collection of experiences I could ever imagine. I don’t know how Ted’s done what he’s done, but I’m pleased to have met him a year ago at Power to Pixel and to now be a guest on his blog.

Yesterday, I released my 3rd film on YouTube free for approximately two days (2711 minutes to be exact). 2711 minutes because the focus of this documentary is about the world’s longest mountain bike race - the Tour Divide - which crossed through 2711 miles of the rugged and beautiful Rocky Mountains when I filmed it. I’ll tell you the path that led to this strategy down below.

With each of my three films, I’ve learned a ton about how to market and distribute independent films (and by that term, I mean truly independent or as I like to say baby indies). I’ve had to learn these things because I’m not part of the elite establishment in film (and with the competition that exists to get there, I’ve found it easier to go solo and build my own audience, thereby increasing my chances of survival and growth within this industry). Looking back on the marketing of each film, I’ve gone away with one key learning from each effort.

For each of my films, I’ve given ballpark hard costs (these clearly do not account for all the sweat equity invested). And the gross figures are loose estimates on total revenue we’ve brought in before subtracting marketing and media production costs.

10 MPH – Make stories about your story $65K hard costs (grossed greater than 2x)

It seems that the media is fascinated with anything that is new. So, when Josh Caldwell and I set out to make a film about Josh’s attempt to ride a Segway some 4000 miles across the USA, we certainly got our fair share of major media attention, including multiple interviews with Liane Hansen on NPR Weekend Edition, a feature story in The New York Times, spots on CNN and FOX News, and at least one hundred other decent spots, not to mention thousands of blog articles thanks to the then power house blogger, kottke.org.

As luck wouldn’t have it, all this attention came before we had a product ready to sell. It would be a year and half before that happened. But something about this new fangled, risk-taking spirit carried into the way that we created the film, finished it up and got it out the door.

We didn’t get into any top tier festivals, nor receive recognition from the elite film establishment, so we figured we’d pave our own path. We started creating stories about our product and worked the PR angle hard. What would perk the media’s attention?

In 2007, we launched the film using a combination of DVD release with RepNet, LLC (a sub distributor that sold us into Netflix and dozens of online retailers) and then launched a 26-city theatrical tour. The news stories from these events created momentum for the rest of our strategy. We knew we had to be talked about. So, we kept experimenting and back then very few people were (now, we’re all at it and that includes the bigger establishment). We did a pick your own price model right after Radio Head did it. I wrote the 10 MPH DIY Manual as an effort to be transparent (thanks to influence from Lance Weiler and Workbook Project). All of this got us press and attention.

But we saved the best for last. In early 2008, after what we deemed a successful release, we became the first feature-length documentary on YouTube. It’s still up there and the attention we’ve received from this, the speaking opportunities I’ve had and the pride we have for being first is indelible (It didn’t hurt that we closed a TV deal and also had significant bump orders for DVDs from Netflix and elsewhere, as well).

10 YARDS – Don’t market something you aren’t 100% ingrained with $75K hard costs (grossed less than 1/3x)

Boy, we blew it with this one. While wrapping up 10 MPH, Josh and I felt the need to get another project going quickly. I still feel this is a fundamentally important for any indie filmmaker hoping to create a career, but if you aren’t careful or too hasty, it can come with consequences. After making 10 MPH, Josh and I were pretty spread thin and had just been making enough money to pay back the debt we’d incurred while making 10 MPH. So…not a lot of positive cash flow going on.

We figured a documentary about fantasy football, a subculture in America that purportedly included 20,000,000 raving participants, was a surefire way to make a very widely know and successful film. We had to make it quick and more debt seemed like a good way to get things going.

Making the film was fun, especially considering the fact that we focused on our own fantasy football league. That was likely major mistake number one. While we all are our own greatest subjects, that doesn’t necessarily work for the 19,999,990 other fantasy football players out there. They don’t care about our own league as much as we did. And had we really understood the aggregate of that market, we would have made a trashy film with lots of boobs and some ridiculous highly-sensationalized depiction of the male experience of trash talking and thinking you are actually in control of your own NFL team.

By the time the movie was ready to market, Josh and I were exhausted and had very little motivation and understanding of how to reach the market that we were supposed to make the movie for. We thought we could trick them and get them (and maybe enlighten them) on what we thought fantasy football was all about; your bros and camaraderie.

Unfortunately, this misfire led Josh back to the cubicle land to get that consistent revenue stream (a fate I think most independent filmmakers eventually face). And while he’s thrilled with his new direction in life, I can’t help but imagine if he had an opportunity to make films for a similar work/income ratio, I’m sure he’d be doing that and having an incredible impact on society. As for me, I limped forward and lucked out when a third opportunity came along just in time to avoid going down a similar path.

RIDE THE DIVIDE – The Power of the Niche Market $80K hard costs (grossed more than 2x in 5 months of pre-season)

Mike Dion was working in corporate America as an executive producer for a major television cable network in Denver and was facing an opportunity for voluntary lay off. He was turning 40 and had dreamed of racing in this little known mountain bike race of very large proportions. He started to tell me about it when he was searching for advice and potentially a team to help him make a film about it. I remember thinking that it was a great story, but feeling like it was super niche. If less than a hundred people at that point had ever finished the race, I couldn’t imagine there was much of a market for it.

He offered a little cash and I figured it was worth taking a risk with it. As I learned more and became invested in the project, I really got excited for the story that was developing (but up until the last few months have always worried about what it might be like marketing it). I’ve been blown away. After completing the filming and then working with Mike on the edit, I was definitely confident we had something really special and super strong. I was ready to finally break and get into Sundance or SXSW.

But, like my other efforts, the established film elite didn’t find it worthy of bringing it into a top tier festival. That was truly crushing, especially after I got the rejection from SXSW at the beginning of 2010 (Janet Pierson has since sent a very sincere and unique email explaining the challenge of leaving out so many quality projects; more proof that the market for baby indies like myself is way saturated).

Fortunately, Vail Film Festival (which also launched 10 MPH in 2006) picked up Ride the Divide and we held our World Premiere in the beautiful winter setting of the Rockies and got a surprise by picking up of Best Adventure Film, beating out a multi-million dollar production, among others.

This boost gave us the momentum we needed to get on a fast track to launch the film to our core market – mountain bikers. We felt if we built this up enough, the film’s universal message of living life to the fullest would eventually reach much bigger circles. Working with Jon Reiss at the Slamdance Film Festival earlier this year and scanning blogs like this one also helped us focus on how to approach this niche audience. We launched an aggressive program of event-based screenings – both that we produced and that were put on by cycling clubs, enthusiasts and bike shops for a licensed fee. In a matter of a few months, we had fifty screenings booked and to this day they keep rolling in. On Wed 9/29/10, we played in Boise on a theatrical screen for the 99th time. And once again, it wass a sell out.

The screenings have been wildly successful, as we’ve focused on making them events, sometimes adding musicians from the soundtrack, the filmmakers, the stars, bike exhibits, silent auctions for charities, and more. It’s exciting to see this niche audience embrace the film and show up in large numbers at all our screenings. Out of the shows we produced (approximately ½), we’ve only lost money one time. Our best grossing show was in Boulder, Colorado where we grossed close to $10,000 (helped by a ticket price of $18.00).

All this excitement for the film has generated massive social conversation online and we’ve done very little conventional marketing and PR. The title continues to have demand on every platform we release on. We are now considering ourselves out of the “pre-season”. It’s prime time and we’re launching every way we can. To mark this occasion, The Documentary Channel premiered the movie on 9/22 and we partnered with LIVESTRONG and held a benefit screening in Austin, TX (LIVESTRONG’s HQ).

We decided with the success of the pre-season along with our niche marketing approach that we should partner with a major non-profit organization and find ways to benefit the organization with the release of the film. LIVESTRONG was a perfect fit given their underlying principle of living life to the fullest. And as an aside, I have to say it’s been quite a rewarding experience to raise close to $13,000 for LIVESTRONG in just a few weeks.

And that brings us to our YouTube launch. We’re hoping to do a lot of good for LIVESTRONG, while also increasing awareness for Ride the Divide. To do this, we’re offering everyone a chance to watch the movie free for two days on YouTube. Not only does this get us attention and hopefully raise some money, it helps get us beyond the niche market we’ve been heavily focused on. As a bonus, we experiment in a big way in an area the entire industry (established elites, baby indies, and independent) all have to figure out; and of course we make another story about our story.