Indie Landscape and Building a Festival Strategy.

Building a festival strategy is a lot harder than it sounds. One would assume it would be just to “apply to festival, show, hobnob with beautiful people, get acquired” but it doesn’t really work that way. Sure, every year we get a list of films that have been purchased at Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and SXSW, but we must also keep in mind the odds - there are maybe a dozen acquisitions for every two to three hundred films shown. And by acquisition I’m talking about films slated for a theatrical release. This year the festival darlings that are making waves in the theatrical space are Another Earth, Bellflower and my colleague Asif Kapadia’s Senna, all of which were bought / won at Sundance. They’re all tremendous films that have been smartly marketed.

But what about those hundreds of other films that are not purchased by a major or mini-major distributor? There will be other options such as video-on-demand, dvd and self-distribution, but those deals will not be struck at a festival.

Gone are the days of the bidding wars for the latest indie gem, of Harvey Weinstein screaming on a phone and making multimillion dollar offers hoping for the next Sling Blade or Reservoir Dogs. Today’s indie purchasing is far, far more modest, with acquisition figures in the six figure range for award-winning material, and the occasional seven-figure deal for something truly buzzworthy.

There are three factors contributing to this: the economy and shrinking DVD revenues, the dominance of the international marketplace, and the closure of art house cinemas. The DVD market, once seen as a larger revenue stream than theatrical, has dwindled as the economy plummeted. Many argue that a lack of interesting content and the high price of the Blu-Ray format has killed interest, others will insist that it is the emergence of Video-On-Demand (which is still expensive) and streaming sources such as Netflix, Vudu and Hulu which have killed the home video market. The closure of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video would support that. The studios will insist internet piracy is the culprit, which I don’t buy into, but I think all the other arguments are valid. In any case, the DVD is not as lucrative as it one was.

What has replaced the DVD is the international market. We see in the box-office reports the strength of overseas revenues. A failed film such as Green Lantern which made $114 domestically (against a $200 million budget, $400m expenditure with prints and advertising), has made an additional $176 million overseas, thereby making it’s ability to recover and break even a strong possibility. The take of the latest Harry Potter film was equally impressive, with a $356m take domestically, and a staggering $1.2 billion take overseas. The US is no longer the dominant theatrical revenue stream, it’s overseas where the money is.

But (and there always is a but) the consistent theme to this is that the movies that make money overseas are all A-list starred action tentpoles, animated family fare, or established franchises. Where does this leave the small indie? Can we count on an excellent film like Bellflower to triple its earnings abroad? Likely not.

The closure of many indie arthouse cinemas across the country (we just mourned the closure of Piper’s Alley here in Chicago) also means there are fewer screens to show indie films. And yet we still need to make independent films, because where else will we nurture new talent to feed into bigger films? Cinematic talent, not television talent.

Want to ruin my day? Then tell me that they chose Penn Badgley to play Jeff Buckley. Yup.

It’s not hard then to see why the independent film landscape is as bleak as it’s even been. Even with six-figure acquisition prices, the deals paid out hardly cover the average cost of production. But indie filmmakers persevere. Evan Glodell made Bellflower for less than $20k. Another Earth was made for a little north of $200k. Digital technology and DIY ethics have brought budgets down, but the micro budget films like the aforementioned - those that are able to turn DIY limitations into aesthetic beauty or come with strong performances and high concepts - are far and few between. The average independent film with a decent cast and solid production values is costing anywhere from $1-2 million, and the “indie darlings” like The Kids Are Alright and Black Swan each cost $4m and $11m, respectively.

All of the aforementioned films made splashy debuts at festivals, but the festival itself was not where they primarily found distribution. So our festival strategy must not be one towards getting purchased, but rather getting exposure. While getting acquired would always be welcome, we have to view it as a bonus happenstance as opposed to a festival endgame.

We want festivals that allow us to connect to our intended audiences, and if we don’t know who that audience is, we have to use festivals to allow an audience to find us. Once that audience emerges, we’ll have a far better idea of how we want to approach things like distribution channels and pricing. We also want to get favorable press reviews, hopefully from sources that understand both our genre and our audience. This is perhaps the greatest gain to be made from the festival circuit - good press.

Of course it boils down to how well your film is received, and also of how well the individual festival promotes your film alongside your own promotional efforts. For my debut feature 19 Revolutions I got favorable reviews, averaging about 2.5-3 stars on a five star scale, and was praised in Variety for my “Godard-like pranksterism.” It was enough to get me some industry attention, and I was able to sell the film for a very, very small profit (even the word “profit” might seem a bit strong in this case). But my buyers wouldn’t have even known of the film if the Cinequest Film Festival hadn’t championed it, and also if I didn’t personally invite journalists to come to the screenings. It’s a confluence of efforts that hang on the lynchpin of the great unknown, which is whether or not people will like your film. There’s no way to calculate or determine that in advance.

So we strategize as to what festivals will benefit us the most. Sometimes for a smaller film, a festival like Cannes, while prestigious, is a place where movies get lost and cannibalized. Got a DIY, handheld film about twentysomethings in Brooklyn? Try the Williamsburg Film Festival or South By Southwest, where films from the Mumblecore filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz and the Duplass Brothers have been showcased. For a horror film like Lilith, we’re looking at fests like Screamfest LA or Fantastic Fest in Austin among others. The biggies like Toronto and AFI would be nice simple for the fact that the world focuses its attention and media on those events, and you’re in esteemed company. But as small indies we’re also competing with films like The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire so the odds are against us even before we drop the screener in the mail. I’m not saying it’s impossible, in fact there are many programmers at the big fests that like to champion that small indie-that-could, but they have to select one or two from a pool of thousands. It’s a job I don’t envy because I’ve done that job before.

We also select festivals that benefit us geographically. I’ve looked into Denver and Chicago because they are the places I was born and currently reside. Festivals know I can bring in a crowd when it’s a hometown filmmaker. There are festivals I’ve looked into that showcase Asian-American filmmakers. There are literally thousands of film festivals all over the world for just about every niche and type. Which is another reason why it is important to have a strategy - if we simply carpet bomb our applications and send out to every festival under the sun, we’ll be looking at thousands of dollars in application fees, screeners and postage expenses. So we have to choose carefully. I spent almost a month researching festivals, and whittled my initial round down to fourteen festivals, of which I have yet to hear back from any.

And that’s where we stand, and it’s killing me. For two years I had absolute control over every microscopic element of Lilith and now I find myself powerless, waiting at the hands of others to decide my next move. It’s frustrating and humbling all at the same time, and that combination makes for sleepless nights and general lunacy. I’m driving my wife and cats up the wall with my anxiety.

Still no word from Toronto, fingers and toes still crossed to the point of cramping and skeletal damage. I’m ready to explode.

Please don’t forget to tweet a message of support for Lilith with the following hashtag (#LilithAtTIFF2011). Thank you!

Lilith University: Film MBA, Lesson 1; Innovation.

It’s going to be a few weeks until I get into the final audio mix and color correction, and right now I’m in the process of switching hats, taking off the director’s cap and putting the producer’s cap back on. It’s time to move into the final act of the life of Lilith, and that is promotion and distribution. We’ve worked so hard to make a film and now we just have to get people to see it.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of selling Lilith, I want to propose a base way of thinking when it comes to the business of film. My film business primer, if you will. When I got my MBA in 2002, generally the case studies we did were pretty cut-and-dry. A product was designed to meet a need, it was differentiated on the market through innovation, it was marketed, and then it was consumed. Film is a little bit different because it exists in an ether - the product doesn’t tangibly ‘exist’ in a traditional form, and when we address a ‘need’ in society, it’s as vague and ambiguous as they come - we’re addressing the need to be entertained. And to be entertained can take on how many millions of different iterations, so we have to approach the business of film with a slightly different perspective.

In our first lesson, I’m going to start off by deconstructing one of the cornerstones (and MBAese mainstay) of a business education, Innovation. You ask any Harvard or Wharton MBA and they’ll tell you that “innovation is the key to a competitive advantage and creating a unique niche in an overcrowded marketplace.”

These are the paraphrased words of Michael Porter, the guru of competitive strategy and the most oft-quoted scholar in current business school curriculums. I’m not going to argue with what Porter has professed - in fact every single thing he’s said is true. When we innovate (i.e. create something new and unprecedented), then we stand out from our competitors and we build a more intimate relationship with our customers because we addressed a need of theirs, and we gave them something unique. This is all very true, and is the basis for the success of companies like Apple, which has been innovating and pushing the personal computer world since its inception.

Got a great idea? Steve Jobs has already thought of it and made it better.

But where business schools fail is that while they preach innovation, their solution to creating value is to cut costs. Moving monies around on the balance sheet - to impress and meet the expectations of Wall Street - is the innovation that most MBA’s are learning these days. What is not taught is that when you cut a cost, you must replace that cut cost with an innovation. You simply cannot cut spending and leave it be. When you cut something, your overall infrastructure loses a brick. You have to replace it with something that is either cheaper with just as much strength, or with a new technology that might be more expensive but provides returns in the long run.

When we look at the film industry, however, we see that the opposite is happening. Costs are not being cut, nor is innovation happening. If we take Michael Porter’s word on innovation to heart, then the film industry (and by industry I’m referring to publicly traded studios) has failed to innovate for more than a decade. Supposedly 3-D was the big innovation to deliver value, and while it has translated in to higher ticket prices (ergo more profit), it’s not anything new or innovative. 3-D has been around since the 1950s, and while it is more refined and definitive in its current avatar (pun intended), it’s really nothing new. It’s just a hell of a lot more expensive.

If we look at the summer movie lineup, we also see that innovation is lacking from a product standpoint. We’re being fed a glut of sequels, remakes and adaptations. My wife and I went to a theater a few weeks ago and all we had to choose from, on 20 screens, was Pirates 4, The Hangover 2, Kung-Fu Panda 2 and Fast Five. Not an original screenplay in sight. The movies that are expected to carry the industry are all adaptations of previously written work - Thor, The Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.

Note that I haven’t said these movies are bad - infact most of them are very good. They’re highly polished and slick, and a lot of work went into creating them. But are they good for the industry? Initial profitability says yes, but the fundamentals of business school says no. They’re not delivering innovation, and when we don’t deliver innovation, the market begins to tire of the product. It’s the same shit, different day. In fact when we saw one of the few original screenplays of the summer season, the delightfully funny but uneven Bridesmaids, it was, ultimately, still a remake of The Hangover but with women, right down to the character archetypes. In the end, we’d seen it before.

Harold and Kumar beat you to that Wilson Phillips punchline, ladies, and did it so much better.

From a cost perspective, Hollywood has not embraced Porter or the MBA mantra of cutting costs, instead the cost of making major studio films has ballooned. The prospect of getting a return on a film like The Green Lantern, which by the time the marketing costs are tallied up will amount to somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 million, can easily give any studio executive a heart attack. Innovation is seen as “creative” casting from an ever-shrinking and aging roster of expensive A-list actors. But with the cost of these actors, along with the expense of CGI and 3-D, is rendering these juggernaut films that have nothing new to offer as ultimate risks.

In this regard, a conservative Hollywood should indeed look at a film like Bridesmaids as an innovation, but in the loosest sense of the word. The film cost $32 million (for what?), but this is a relative STEAL in comparison to today’s average budget of $60 million. And the innovation was to make an R-rated comedy for women, a leap of faith that is being praised as the next untapped horizon.

So Bridesmaids ultimately did what Porter asked, and what should be done. They cut costs and replaced those costs with an innovation, albeit a pretty weak one.

But when we look to independent cinema, we see this model being applied full in effect. Evan Glodell’s brilliant Bellflower, made for the budget of probably the cost of catering on The Green Lantern (more likely less than that), cuts costs at every conceivable angle and replaces them with innovations on every front, right down to custom built cameras designed from the ground up to give a unique image. Bellflower, because of its low cost and innovation, stands to carve a very strong niche in the film market, and even a few million dollars business will hail it as a resounding success, greater than the profit margins of a Bridesmaids.

So the first lesson of the Lilith MBA is this: cut costs and innovate to make up those costs, and in doing so you will make your product immediately stand out from the competition. Embrace Porter but do so with the adventurer’s heart, with no fear, and with genuine abandon. Making The Green Lantern is not a leap of faith, but putting $350 million into it is. And it’s not a wise one. That’s throwing money at at a problem, which anyone can do, and which sustains the trillion dollar consulting industry. True innovators come from left field, devise a way to get the same (if not better) product at a significantly lesser cost using technology, creativity and pure hard work. The grind is immense but the profit margins when you succeed are more than anything a Green Lantern can deliver.

Next lesson: The Nuts-and-Bolts of Marketing


sellthezoo ASKED:

Do you have any movies you're anticipating in particular? (besides your own lol) Check out my list!

Will you be premiering in any film festival?

Thanks for the question! I have to admit I haven’t been as up on new and upcoming releases as I normally am. Your brilliant list already has many of the films I’ve been wanting to see, so I thought I’d add a few films that I’ve been buzzing about.

The first is Monogamy directed by Dana Adam Shapiro. I love the references to Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Coppola’s The Conversation in the film, and the work of cinematographer Doug Emmett takes digital photography to the next level. I really like Rashida Jones as an actress, so this film seems to have a confluence of many things that I like.

It’s always fun to put different genres and the name ‘Lars Von Trier’ together; what if LVT directed a comic book movie? A romantic comedy with Jennifer Aniston? A stoner movie? Well at least one of those propositions gets answered with Melancholia, Von Trier’s take on the ‘meteoric end of the Earth’ genre that was so ruthlessly dominated by Michael Bay. Von Trier’s audacity is second to none, and the confluence of global disaster with the brittle relationship between sisters is not only something I’m near to (sisterhood is a key theme in Lilith) but is a masterstroke humanist juxtaposition that someone only with the balls of Von Trier can pull off with conviction.

Continuing on the ‘M’ theme, I really want to see Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt. I’m a big fan of her film Old Joy and to see her visually breathtaking take on the frontier days is exciting. I love that there is a burgeoning renaissance for the American Western, and it’s a trend that i myself hope to someday capitalize on in the near future.

Evan Glodell’s Bellflower is another confluence of things that I love - American muscle cars, post-Apocalyptia, and DIY ingenuity at its best. I’ve read that it’s a decidedly twisted movie that is shockingly personal, which is awesome. I love the spirit of this film, and everything it stands for.

In the same vein, I totally want to see Hobo With A Shotgun.

I also want to see Aaron Katz’ Cold Weather. Seems like a really interesting take on the crime/ mystery genre and I’m a big fan of actress Trieste Kelly Dunn (she’s a star in the making, and she also happens to be the cousin of my production manager). But my biases aside, I love little movies that have such big scope. Should be cool and interesting, a classic Twin Peaks-style whodunit couched in the soul of a low-budget indie.

Last on my list is Romain Gavras’ Notre Jour Viendra (‘Our Day Will Come’). I’ve been an ardent follower of Gavras since his beginning days as a member of the Kourtrajm√© collective, and absolutely loved his music video Stress for the band Justice. I love that in the film Vincent Cassell looks like a fucked-up version of Jean-Luc Godard, and that Gavras, whose family roots are in agit-cinema (his father is famed cinematic troublemaker Costa-Gavras), seems to be making a proper balance between quiet solitude and his standard over-the-top gritty hyperviolence.

BTW, trailer is NSFW

Even if these films end up not being good (which is subjective), I know from the outset that I will applaud the effort and courage that they are taking to make something both different and compelling. It’s easy to applaud the effort when you know the filmmakers put their hearts and soul into their conviction and belief in their work.