By Doug Gritzmacher
Creative Director, Z-Channel Films, Denver, Colorado
I hate clutter in my email inbox so I am extremely selective about what I might subscribe to. “Nofilmschool” is one of those weekly emails that have made my cut. They consistently provide high quality articles and news relevant to the filmmaking industry, whether documentaries, feature films, or commercials. One of the most intriguing articles they have produced arrived in my inbox this week. It is titled, “How We Made $1.5 Million Self-Distributing: The 6-Step Playbook.” Mind you, this was for a documentary film, not a dramatic feature film. In today’s documentary film climate, unless you are Michael Moore or Davis Guggenheim, this is absolutely unheard of.
Nearly every documentary film loses money. How do I know this? My video production agency has produced documentary films. I have many, many friends who have also produced documentary films. Let me tell you how many of those films made a profit: less than 1 percent.
So not only do these guys claim to have made a profit, but also a substantial one at that and, most impressively, did so without the help of a film distributor. Given my own frustrating and disappointing experience with a major distributor (First Run Features) and those of my colleagues and friends, the news of success without one is highly intriguing.
The conventional wisdom in film producing is a distributor is absolutely necessary. A distributor gets your film on DVD, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, VOD, Hulu, and whatever other platforms are available. The doors to those platforms have been mostly closed to anyone striking out on their own independent of a distributor.
While other aspects of the filmmaking landscape have been changing rapidly — funding, film and video camera and lighting technology — and in the process changing and in some cases destroying previous norms and lowering the barriers to entry, the distribution pillar has held stubbornly firm to the consternation of independent producers everywhere.
Perhaps now that pillar is finally showing signs of vulnerability. Article author Keith Ochwat, who produced the film that made $1.5 million, points to a way forward and provides fellow documentary filmmakers with a flicker of hope. How did they do it? Let’s take a look at each of those platforms mentioned above and see things might have changed for an independent film producer to get their film on those platforms.
“Soldiers of Paint”, a documentary feature film produced by Z-Channel Films that was available on Netflix for a two-year run.
First, let’s point out the obvious: the DVD is dead. Disc sales are declining at an accelerated rate every year. In 2014 it was 11 percent from the previous year; last year it was 12 percent. I can attest to this — my distributor, First Run Features, sold a paltry amount of DVDs of my documentary film. I knew that would be the case going in but for some reason that is what their business model is built on — even as recently as 2013 when they began distributing our film. They focused on DVD sales while allowing for a release on digital platforms like iTunes to happen at a later date. I raised a fuss and managed to get the digital release dates moved up.
Should you ignore the DVD then? Ochwat’s case study would seem to say not so fast. The key behind their success was partnering with relevant nonprofits and organizations. One of those relevant organizations was the Alzheimer’s Association. They struck a deal in which they allowed Alzheimer Association members to view their documentary film for free on their website in exchange for an email blast to the organization’s 700,000 members. DVD sales came pouring in. They made $500,000 total in DVD sales.
Is this because people are still buying and watching more DVDs than we thought? I don’t think so and I would attribute much of their DVD sales success to the fact that their audience is an older demographic and the one most likely to still be using DVD technology. In effect, they lucked out a bit with their topic but I commend them for the strategic partnerships that led to the DVD sales and their strategies are something we can all learn from.
Want to know who else is still using DVD technology? Libraries. Ochwat’s producing team purchased an email list for university libraries. This is not new news but how much they were able to sell their DVDs for to these libraries might be: $250 a pop. As they show, you can sell to libraries under an “academic license” that commands a higher fee than a DVD sale to a consumer. They packaged in additional elements to sweeten the deal for the libraries, but at minimal cost and effort. If you have a film with content that could be of interest to universities, as Ochwat did, this is one stone you must overturn.
These are the platforms where every filmmaker wants to be now. When we finished our film “Soldiers of Paint” in 2013, a distributor with access to the gatekeepers at these platforms was mandatory. Independent film producers did not stand a chance. And frankly, given how little effort most distributors put into selling films relative to the cuts they take, it was the only argument left for going with a traditional distributor. Yet Ochwat managed to get their film on all three of those platforms without a film distributor. This is what most piqued my interest about their success story. So I did some digging to see how it might be possible to get on those platforms today as an independent producer.
ITUNES: The bad news is you still need to work with some kind of third party iTunes approved aggregator to get your film in front of the iTunes gatekeepers. The good news is you don’t have to sign over a huge chunk of the rights to your film and the profits to do so. There are now several entities out there that will take on your film for an upfront fee. One such entity is Distribber. If they manage to get your film on iTunes, they claim you keep the revenue. If they are unsuccessful, they refund much of your fee.
This is great news but keep it mind that placement on iTunes is key. Prominent placement is necessary to gain attention and sales on iTunes. Few get that and suffer accordingly. No distributor or aggregator can guarantee special placement — it is up to the iTunes gatekeepers.
AMAZON: This is the same deal as with iTunes — you need a third party aggregator to access Amazon and Amazon Prime. But again, a traditional distributor is not necessary for this. Distribber also helps with Amazon.
Amazon Prime, which is adding more subscribers than green grass through a goose, offers movie streaming services to their prime members. As a filmmaker you want to take advantage of that and unlike Netflix, which pays an upfront fee whether your film gets one view or a million views, Amazon pays by the number of views.
With that in mind, it pays to put effort to promoting your film on Amazon once it launches there. Get as many people as you can to do searches for your film so it gets ranked in Amazon’s referral algorithm. With enough activity your film can catch fire.
NETFLIX: Want to get on Netflix? Good luck!
I’m not kidding. Unfortunately with Netflix you still largely have to go the old fashion way, which is through an established distributor or sales agent with a Netflix relationship. Even then your chances are pretty slim. At the very least you should have a massive social media following and a lot of traditional publicity.
First Run Features was successful in getting “Soldiers of Paint” on Netflix. We got a two-year deal in 2014. When it came up for renewal earlier this year, Netflix declined. This was not unusual. With Netflix’s increasingly investment into original programming, they have become ever more selective in the content they require.
Even IF you managed to get your film on Netflix, it may not be the great windfall you think it is. Sure you will get a ton of exposure, but you can kiss any prospect of a profit goodbye. That’s because Netflix signs films for an upfront fee. You get the same amount no matter how many views your film gets. And the fees they offer are laughable. Their contract to us was 15 percent of the cost of making the film. Since most people these days get their content from Netflix … well, you do that math.
With the exception of Netflix, which I argue is a bad place to put your film anyway, Ochwat demonstrates convincingly that it is indeed possible to achieve successful distribution independent of a traditional distributor. Yes, you have to put a lot of time, effort, and money into promoting your film, but you would have to do that anyway with a distributor. The cold reality that hits many independent filmmakers upon signing a deal with a distributor is that they do little to no promotion and marketing. So if you are doing all that yourself anyway, then why would you want to let someone else keep the money the comes from your hard work?
I invite you to investigate further into Ochwat’s documentary film distribution success story. In many ways, their film topic seemed to dovetail perfectly with many of the methods they used to realize a profit. Could other topics and content have similar successes?