Category Archives: Film Distribution

Netflix: An Unfinished Love Story

I have been a Netflix subscriber since the first year it came into being.  I, like millions of users look forward to getting that red envelope in the mail every couple of days.  I watch a lot of movies and nothing I had access to before gave me the vast amount of films in such a convenient manner.  Sure I had to wait a few days to get them, but I have since gotten used to it.  It was still better than driving to the video store, finding out that everything was out of stock and then wandering around for an hour looking at Jason Priestley movies.  When the streaming option came along I purchased a Roku player but never really found myself using it that often.  It was a nice supplement, but the selection only had a fraction of the films and TV shows I wanted to see.   The DVD library on the other hand remains amazing.  Read about an obscure film and the chances are you can have it in your DVD player in a few days.

I try to keep tabs on what is happening in the world of film distribution so it is obvious to me that one day soon films will be predominantly digitally delivered.  I am also very aware that the process of delivering postage-paid DVD packages is the most costly part of the Netflix operation.  All these rumors about the US Post Office ceasing to exist aren’t making this business model seem all that prudent either.  Then the bomb dropped.  A price increase.  Without rehashing the details, Netflix decided to separate the services and raise the overall price for having both.  This was their attempt to address the realities facing them in marketplace.  It took me less than the time it takes me to put a DVD in an envelop and drop it in a mailbox to not only cancel my streaming subscription but to lower the number of DVDs I can have at a time just to make sure Netflix was listening.  I understood that things were going to have to change, but ripping the band aid off at this point in time seemed a little pre-mature.  The price increase didn’t bother me as much as the way they went about it.  I will gladly pay more for a better service, but they were making me pay more for a lesser service.

The thing is, I was already starting to harbor ill feeling towards my favorite movie dealer as the result of their apparent lack of interest in carrying our film, The Waterhole.  I mean, the film does star Patrick J Adams after all.  (This fact doesn’t really matter much, I just want to put his name in this blog post to get more web hits. Go ahead, judge me.)  After discussing this with our distributor, they confided that in recent months Netflix had gone from ordering 100% of their releases to maybe one in five.  This was confirmed later in a discussion I had with Adam Chapnick of Distribber while on the Film Courage radio show that indeed, Netflix was losing interest in indie films.  Indiewire published an article this month with similar conclusions.  Netflix was too busy trying to compete with other monthly film subscription services and they did not need indie films to accomplish that.  They needed studio films and television shows.

Not only was Netflix screwing me as a customer, they were screwing me as a filmmaker, someone who was creating content for them to exploit for profit.   So over the past few weeks I have been complaining vocally and perhaps obnoxiously in such a way I probably deserve my own heading under White People Problems.  Many of my filmmaker peers have been surprised that I am so upset.  Why would I even want my film on Netflix?  They pay little to no money.  They can make it hard to get on other platforms.  And in the digital space there are so many options that offer so much more control.

My answer mirrors the reason why I loved Netflix as a customer.  They had a great selection of films.  I wanted my film to be a part of that selection and I wanted their millions of film lovers to have easy access to my film.  It kills me that when someone asks me if they can get The Waterhole starring Patrick J Adams on Netflix I have to tell them no.  Not to sound like a self-conscientious sissy, but it’s embarrassing.   As far as the money is concerned, screw the money.  I want word of mouth.  I want fans.  I want the Netflix audience.  Who cares about a few dollars for a few downloads?  In an earlier post I stated that I would let the Independent Film Channel show my film for free and I was dead serious – too bad they don’t show independent film anymore.  Maybe I am shortsighted for thinking this, but let the money comes when it comes.  (And make no mistake, I do truly do want to make money and I look forward to the day I can race yachts with Lucas McNelly)

Thus, this love/hate relationship with my primary film provider tentatively continues.  By the time the next big Netflix evolution occurred in the form of Qwikster I had all but given up… waiting for the right time to explore new options.  I was not alone of course, the stock was tanking, subscribers were dropping and other customers were furious.  Maybe in the future they will be able to convince me these changes were needed to address their long-term goals and that we will all be better for it.  Until then I am still disappointed, both as a filmmaker and a film lover.

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Note: The day before I wrote this someone from Qwikster reached out to me via Twitter to ask why The Waterhole starring Patrick J Adams had been rejected.  I told them I didn’t know and they replied that they would look into it.  I have little hope, but I would still be thrilled if we could work something out.  Until then, The Waterhole starring Patrick J Adams is available to rent from Blockbuster.com.

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Filed under Film Distribution, Film Marketing, Filmmaking, Independent Film, Netflix, Patrick J Adams

A Final Thought on Film Festivals

The Waterhole has now been released on DVD and as I polish up the script for our next project I wanted to jot down a few last thoughts (read: aggressive opinions) on my experience with film festivals.   My first post on this “Why I Will Never Pay Another Film Festival Submission Fee (Unless I do.)” has been by far the most popular post on this lonely blog and with it I thought I had pretty much exhausted all I had to say on the subject.  That was until I attended SXSW last month with a press pass and got a whole new perspective on what it means to have a film at a festival.  It was eye opening.

Of the festivals I have attended, with a film or without, SXSW has by far been my favorite.   This had little to do with their approach to film, but rather how they use the great city of Austin as the backdrop for one big party, where film, music, booze, wonderful food and a little bit of business mix easily and you don’t have to work too hard to have a good time.  I was hooked after my first visit and vowed to return.  This was also primarily my basis for it being a fest I would recommend any filmmaker spend money submitting their film to, if you get in, you get to premiere at a prestigious fest and are practically guaranteed to have truckloads of fun.

As the 2011 fest got closer, I was scraping together the money for a film pass when I was told that I could probably get a press pass for the magazine I have been writing for.  Perfect, I thought as I imagined everything that such a pass would grant me access to.  The press pass, as I would find out, came with very few perks and one great burden.  When the first few emails came in from publicists I was excited.  Especially the ones that included invitations to see some of the films in LA before the festival started. The novelty wore off quickly, when dozens of emails began to flood my inbox every day in great numbers leading up to opening night.  There was the occasional party invite (yes please!) but for the most part each message was a desperate cry for attention.  At first I felt a responsibly to know every film that was showing and try and give them them equal attention but after a while it was too much to process.

In the midst of this avalanche I remembered something.  I was a filmmaker.  These emails were coming from publicists on behalf of the filmmakers that were lucky to get into a festival like SXSW and the fact was, I was only going to see a very small fraction of films that they were hoping I could see.  How could any filmmaker that did not show up to the festival with name talent or pedigree have any chance of getting anyone’s attention?   Through this process I can only remember one or two films that stood out to me simply because of what a publicist sent me, and these publicists weren’t working for free.  That is not to say that they weren’t earning their fees, but it definitely apparent that they were fighting for attention in a very crowded arena and only a few films had a chance of standing out.  It was a daunting realization.

A bigger problem is that the filmmakers were not only competing for the eyes and ears of the press, but they are also competing for an audience.   When I was planning my festival experience, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities.   I wanted to see at least three films a day, plus listen to several panels and hear some of the thousands of bands that flood the city for the last half of the festival.  I ended up averaging 1.5 films a day.  The fact is it is very hard to see everything you want to.  For the filmmaker your audience will have many options competing for their attention.  I watched many world premieres where the theaters were half full.  In fact, I didn’t attend a single film that was sold out.  I can only imagine that the films that did sell out starred Mel Gibson or Jake Gyllenhaal.

Think about it.  You beat all the odds and secure a slot at your dream festival only to have absolutely no guarantee that anyone will see your film.   When I first embarked into the film festival world, my initial shock was how difficult it was to get into any fest, let alone a top-tiered fest.  Now having been on the other side of a festival such as SXSW I now have a better picture of what the reality of getting into such a festival is.  I am not sure how many films sold out of this year’s fest and most of the films that do have deals seem to have had them in place before the festival started.  At the end of the day, the exposure has got to be better than nothing and if you position your film the right way anything is possible.  The fact is, the only guarantee you have if you get into a festival like SXSW is that you are just another indie filmmaker trying to stand out, just like you were before you got that fateful call.  Although, it has to be said, you will probably have the experience of a lifetime, and that is worth quite a bit.

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Filed under Film Distribution, Film Festivals, Film Marketing, Filmmaking, Independent Film

Long Live the Movie Theater

Yesterday marked somewhat of an unusual landmark for me.  It was the first time since the birth of my son that I have seen a film in the theater for three straight weeks in a row (it will be four if I make it to next week’s Film Courage Interactive).   This is significant in that ever since I could drive I have seen at least one film a week in a movie theater.  I love going to the movies and the reasons I no longer make it out as frequently are not because I spend too much time on the internet, playing video games or that the theatrical experience is bad (which it is), it’s simply because at this stage in my life it isn’t as convenient.  I still go as often as possible, I just have to be more selective.

During these recent trips something occurred to me as I watched the previews, all ten thousand of them that preceded each film.   Of all those films I had to look forward to, there was only one that aroused my interest enough to make me think:  “I have to see that yesterday!”  That film was the first part of the final films in the Harry Potter angst-ridden boy wizard series.   I have seen only two of the prior films in theaters.  I enjoyed the books but find them utterly forgettable, yet my desire to see this film is high.  Feel free to speculate as to why this is, but what interested me most is all the other films previewed.   As I watched one after the other I mentally cataloged each: 1) Must See 2) Rental 3) Seriously, do they really think people want to see this shit?  Going to the theater is as much of a choice about content as it is about experience.

The future and viability of the theatrical window is always the subject of morbid speculation.  How long does it have left?  How many more gimmicks like 3D can they attach to its dying body to keep it alive longer?  The fact is that the theatrical window will see a decline but not because people aren’t willing to go to the theaters.  Do you know how expensive it is to take a family to the movies?  It’s about as much as my bar tab*.  Even faced with this expense families pile into theaters every time a kid-friendly film arrives.  And just like I did, those kids will fall in love with the experience and they will return again and again.   As long as there is something that compels them to.

Any reason you could give me why people won’t go to the theaters will more than likely be valid, but the fact is that people do go to the theater and they must like it because they do have other options to see a film.  Many people are willing to wait.  The thing is, nobody ever says – “Damn, are you telling me I have to go to the theater to see that? Oh well, I guess since there is no other way to see this film in my lifetime I will have to make this tremendous sacrifice.”  People aren’t stupid.  Well, that stupid. People still pay to see Katherine Heigl movies and she has scientifically been proven to be awful.

Granted, theaters must improve the experience if they want to extend their life expectancy.  They need to  keep the prices reasonable (Hey AMC – charging $3 extra for an “E” ticket to a film in a theater with good projection and sound is truly awful marketing.  Shouldn’t that be ALL of your theaters?) and accept that short windows are the new reality.  Distributors need to better leverage marketing costs, choose carefully what needs to go to theaters and not make decisions too hastily that could unnecessarily kill their theatrical markets.  Independent filmmakers have always had a tough fight to get their films into the theatrical arena, and maybe it just isn’t right for most films from an economic standpoint, but if the audience for your film is there, they will see it in a theater.  You are just going to have to work your ass off to get them there.

Seeing a film in the theater can be a special thing.  Viewing our film “The Waterhole” at the high-end Arclight in Hollywood was one of my proudest moments.  I suspect that when the Harry Potter finale reaches theaters it will be a tremendous success, maybe even breaking records.  There are many things I dislike about going to the theater, but if you create a story I really want to see, you can bet I will be there and I will not be alone.

*Alas, in reality I never get to go to bars anymore either.

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Filed under Film Distribution, Filmmaking, Independent Film, Movie Theaters, Release Windows, Uncategorized

Become a Successful Filmmaker in One Difficult Step

Every day I read dozens of new articles, blogs and tweets piling on to the mountain of advice on how to build a career as a filmmaker.  Some of these posts have proven very valuable, some have spawn heated debates in the comment section, and others seem to beg the question as to why they were written at all.  It’s a lot to sift through.

Given all this information on film making I think it is helpful to remind those that aspire to make a film, are currently making films or even those that have successfully made films to the point where driving their Bentleys off a Malibu cliff side is a weekly occurrence of one simple fact.  You need to make the best film you can.  Duh, right?  I guess another way to put it is if you have an idea that you would like to spend years of your life getting made into a movie, you had better be clear with yourself as to the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.  This must be the driving force behind everything you do to subsequently get the film before audiences.

If you cannot do this you are setting yourself up for failure.  Anyone can make a film, the trick is to make a good one.  If you have a good project that you have a complete vision for it will help you tremendously in making the decisions to get it made.  It will also help draw those who can help you get it made and made well into your fray.  I truly believe that talent rises.  Your work will be your best advocate, your best marketing tool.  Never forget that.

Nobody wants to make bad movies and yet so many bad films get made.  Hollywood tries to second-guess audiences or re-heats past successes but even after decades of experience they still make more flops than hits.  As indie filmmakers we are just as susceptible to these trappings.   If you think of all the greatest independent films what was the one thing they have in common?  They are made by artists that were true to their vision.  Artists that saw something new and exciting and fought for it.  This is why independent film found an audience to embrace it and this is what me must continue to do.

There is no “right” way to make a film.  When I was lucky enough to chat with filmmaker Gary King he shared the same sentiment and I instantly liked him for it.   I love this philosophy, a more constructive take on William Goldman’s famous statement about Hollywood that “Nobody knows anything.”  It is true.  The final product is the only thing that matters and the only tool you truly have to get to that point is your idea and the will to do whatever you can to see it through to the finish.  Depending on how you eventually decide to make your film, you will have to wear many hats.  If you get too bogged down with all the other things that can occupy your time it is easy to lose sight of the original goal.  If you spend too much time obsessing about technology or money or marketing or audience – although they are all important factors – the film will suffer.

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Filed under film budgets, Film Distribution, Film Festivals, film financing, Film Marketing, Filmmakers, Filmmaking, Independent Film, Uncategorized

What We Would Do Differently

Occasionally I get asked for advice on the best way make a film.  This is a tough question.  What has become my favorite non-answer is that there is no right way to make a movie.  This may sound flippant, but I assure you, it is only meant to inspire limitless possibility.  I have discussed this with other filmmakers and we all generally agree, if someone tells you you have to do something a certain way, never listen to them again.  No two films come together the same way.  Ever.  The only thing a film must do to become a film is to get moving images on a screen.  It may or may not be good, but at the end of the day “good” is just a matter of taste.  You can’t teach that.

That said, there are many things we have learned through the process of making “The Waterhole” and now that we are fortunate enough to have a distribution deal I wanted to share some things we would have done differently.  In a nutshell, we really thought that if we made a good movie the rest of the process would take care of itself.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  Things to consider as you make your film:

1. Audience Building: I had no idea what Facebook was until after we finished shooting.  I didn’t join Twitter until the week of our world premiere.  I still am not sure what I am doing with either or what ultimate effect they have on getting the word out about the film, but I can tell you this, they help.  Help in ways I would have never imagined.  At the very least they have led me to meet many terrific filmmakers and film supporters that are eager to discuss film and share experiences.   These are not the only tools we should have been utilizing.  I will always wonder what might have happened if I had used Facebook and Twitter, in conjunction with an active and interactive website with production updates and an active blog (seriously, I started writing on this blog almost three years after pre-production). I can tell you one thing, it would not have hurt.  It takes a lot of time and energy, but if you see a film as your baby, it deserves that kind of time and energy.

2. Budget for Marketing/Distribution: This idea is becoming more common place to the point where soon it will be simply accepted fact.  You can not rely on the hope that anyone else will buy your film and sink any amount of money into getting it out to the world.  We have a very fair distribution deal, but it does not include theatrical or much marketing.   We have no money left to effectively get the film into even a limited amount of theaters which, combined with a modest amount of marketing could mean a more-than-likely increase in DVD sales and thus money back in our pockets.  Instead we are scrambling to hustle whatever interest we can in whatever manner we can.  This money need not be anything great, but something – something done right – is better than nothing.  We are unfortunately are not in a position to find out.

3. Have A Festival Strategy: If you read my first blog entry, you know I think the festival system in general is broken.  The sad fact is that our rejections had less to do with the system and more to do with us not having a strategy.  Our fault.  We really thought if we submitted our film “cold” we would have the same chance of getting accepted as anyone else.  Cue the laugh track.  You have to apply to the top five or so festivals, but any fest you apply to must be done utilizing every possible resource to make sure that the film is viewed by the people who make decisions.  This is not an easy task, but it has to be attempted and the earlier the better.  Personally, I would have started this process well before the film was finished.  With a plan like this in place I would then greatly reduce the number of festivals I would apply for.  After a certain point, it is just money down a wishing well.  If you don’t get into few good festivals early, you are better off making your own screening events with the money you would spend hopelessly applying to small regional festivals.

4. Hire a Music Supervisor For many independent filmmakers this may be a luxury.  For our film we needed a lot of music, a lot of music in addition to the score.  Most of the songs we got were for free, but the few we didn’t were an unbelievable pain to secure and pay for.  Music companies are much more willing to deal these days, because something is better than nothing, and you would be surprised what songs you can get relatively inexpensively.  To do this, you will need a lot of time and tenacity or someone that knows the right people and how to get the paperwork in order.   In my opinion it is worth its weight in gold to hire a person with this knowledge, and it might even save you a chunk of money in the long run.

At the end of the day we made the film we wanted.  Barely.  It was a high wire act that was constantly one mistake away from falling apart, but we got there.  The problem is, there is nothing worse than reaching your destination and not knowing what to do next.  My co-producer mentioned that there were things he might have done differently, such as hire a known star or work the script over with potential distributors in advance and I know where he is coming from, but at the end of the day we have film we are proud of.  I just wish we had been ready to for what came next.

Note: My Co-producer and our sole investor, Daniel Menahem, has agreed to share in greater detail his thoughts from an investment perspective.  Check back for his post.  In addition, I will try and update this post as I think of new things.  Questions welcome.

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Filed under Film Distribution, Film Festivals, Film Marketing, Filmmakers, Filmmaking, Independent Film