Recently, on our Business of Film podcast we chatted with former co-President of Lionsgate Releasing and co-Founder of ThinkFILM, Mark Urman, who now runs indepedent film distribtion company, Paladin, in New York.
We felt there was so much amazing information in our time with Mark, that we’d synthesize some of the more important points of the discussion here. We’d encourage you to check out the Business of Film podcast for more awesome chats. Enjoy.
1. How has the distribution landscape changed in the last decade?
Well its become very decentralized. It used to be formulaic and rigid. Films were released by companies, big or small, they played in theatres for as long as they were in demand, which was normally over a year, then they were available through various forms of home entertainment. You saw movies and then you wouldn’t see them until a full year later on either paid TV or you go out and buy the videotape.
Now there are an almost infinite and ever changing and increasing number of ways to see movies because of the digital revolution. Movies can be made very inexpensively and it no longer takes a large infrastructure or a large amount of people or money to make a movie. So there are more feature films being made at staggeringly low cost. What we have now is an enormous increase in the amount of product and an enormous increase in the way in which films are consumed.
So instead of it being rigidly controlled by gate keepers its completely customized. People literally program their own entertainment. Films made 75 years ago are now available through digital download. So now every new film that opens isn’t only competing with other new films but its literally competing with the history of cinema.
2. How critical is publicity to get indie films recognized?
The great misconception is that publicity is free. Technically, if attention is coming from the journalistic community then that is free, you don’t pay for that attention, but of course you have to spend a lot of money to hire a publicist to create materials.
The fact is that publicity is important, it really is the best way to get information out about a film but the point is publicity like every other aspect of the business, has changed. The film critical community is eroding. Newspaper & magazines are either cutting back so that they have fewer writers on staff, many of whom are not trained in film culture, history, criticism or aesthetics.
The information has migrated to the internet. Which is an enormous bonus because one can obtain this information rapidly and from a seemingly infinite number of sources but it is also a lot of noise one has to cut threw. In general the more things change the more they stay the same.
An excellent film that gets a considerable amount of critical acclaim and that strikes the imagination of the journalistic community is probably going to have a better chance of penetrating and becoming part of the discourse, and have a better chance of becoming culturally central and enduring, than a bad or negligible film. The fact is there are a lot of bad and negligible films that do well because they are propelled by a lot of money, and there are a lot of very excellent films that do bad because they are either too specific or there’s not enough time in our rapidly moving culture for them to get traction and gain a following.
One of the reasons I remain so committed to the notion of theatrical distribution as an important and enduring component of the life of a movie is that it is really the one element that allows most films to become visible, to get written about or reviewed because they show up in theatres. They sort of impact upon the information universe. If a film is just flunked down, it used to go straight to DVD or straight to video, but now they go straight to digital. They’re one of 4,5, 600 movies that people can see at any given point – not to mention the extraordinary amount of other content that people can see.
There is so much going on and there’s so much wonderful content readily available at our finger tips that if their isn’t a really consorted publicity campaign then films are virtually invisible. It used to be you went to the movies on the weekend and went to work on Mondays and talked to people about the movie you saw, recommend it, and if you were convincing they would go see it. Its much more instantaneous now. Just by putting something up on your Facebook time line can let a thousand people know how you felt about a movie.
3. How do you feel about the movement towards self distribution?
The Tugg and Gathr thing, which is really theatrical on demand – meaning that you make a film and are then responsible for marketing and promoting the film & creating an awareness or appetite for it – if you succeed in doing that and if enough individuals subscribe to attend that screening it tips over into reality and it takes place and everybody makes money.
That model works for films that have to be in demand and have to be a movie for people to gather and get together, a minimum of 65 people, to organize as a group. So its only a very specific kind of movie this mechanism works for. There are people who are distributing films to download off of their websites. You can pay under 2,000 dollars and have your movie available for streaming off of Amazon just by converting to their digital format. But once again the burden is on you to create an awareness and appetite otherwise you’re one of tens of thousands of films available on Amazon, how would anybody find it?
There are many portals that curate films and have developed a fan base and an audience. Some of them are subscription, you pay 100 dollars a year or $X amount a month and they put together a catalogue of films to which they have attained non-exclusive streaming rights, and it can be all classic films or all Japanese films, you name it. It’s a unique approach to film distribution so the consumption is amazing.
Producers really need to know what they are doing because it’s as hard to get a film out into the public as it is to make them and it can even be harder, or take a lot longer, but if you’re in for a penny then you have to be in not for a pound but a tonne.
Every once in a while people make a movie and they go to a film festival and somebody buys that movie for millions of dollars, and then use millions of their dollars to sell it to an audience and whether it be Little Miss Sunshine, Slum Dog Millionaire or 12 Years a Slave, it seems to work out very well for everybody. But, even one tier down – or two or three tiers down – if there isn’t a bidding war, if the cheque isn’t for millions of dollars, if the amount of money and effort this company is spending isn’t sufficient you might be worse off with a distributor.
The fact is that one can do better financially if one holds on to the film and distributes it to the various mechanisms themselves then selling it all off to one rights holder. Even with Kickstart, its not money that falls from heaven. A successful Kickstarter campaign is a marketing undertaking. You have to create a mythology and folklore for your film, you have to develop friends, you have to offer premiums, its like a beauty pageant & you have to make your film the prettiest film on the block to get people to write cheques to see the best film walk the run way.
The joke of it is that do-it-yourself distribution is never done by ones self. There are filmmakers who sit in their basements and do social media and contact groups and organizations while selling DVD out of their basement. They are do-it-yourself distributors, some of them with great success; but, it is a full time job and that film has to have a very specific target.
If you look at the case studies of successful examples of DIY distribution, it really means filmmakers are retaining their rights and hiring practised professionals to do the work for them. They are not selling the film to a full service distributor, they are retaining the various components that fall onto the heading of distribution and marketing & enabling themselves, funding it themselves, but they have people working with them.
4. How much money should filmmakers be thinking about to execute a theatrical release?
First they need to think about what are their goals. Some people need their films to be seen to affect the architecture of their careers and get themselves on the map, some people need their movie to be seen to recover the investment that went into production, or it can be all of the above.
So the first question is how much money can I make back if I release the film theatrically? Its a marketing investment. Even if the theatrical isn’t going to yield much money, you are putting money into marketing the title in the hope it doesn’t become one of the 500 titles on a digital menu; but, its is one people have heard of and that has developed some sort of profile.
As for what it cost there is obviously a long range. It can be ten’s of thousands of dollars, hundred’s of thousands of dollars or even millions. We’ve done it all and each film depending on the elements, the size of the cast, project, the potential following the theatrical determines what you spend.
In general its very difficult to do for anything below six figures so you’re talking one hundred thousand dollars or more depending upon the number of markets you want to be seen in and things like talent. Films that have stars are better off sometimes then ones that don’t but working with stars and moving them around to get the publicity is expensive. If you have an actress in a movie and she can get on the David Letterman show, its a great thing because your movie will be discussed on the David Letterman show, but if she lives in Los Angeles and the show is in New York, you have to buy her airfare trip, you have to put her up in a hotel and pay for her make-up because she is a star and must look beautiful. So that one television segment can end up costing you ten’s of thousands of dollars. Talent can be the poison gift when they’re in your movie. They make it easier to publicize but they come with an enormous price tag.
5. What should filmmakers trying to get into a film festival think about to help them get their film in front of an audience?
I think one thing every filmmaker should think about long and hard is raising money for distribution. When they raise their production financing, keep some money in their back pocket in the event the distribution landscape doesn’t come together. In that way, they will be in a position, without loosing momentum, to do some distribution themselves.
If your feeling a film is not hot and you’re going to end up with a bad offer from people who are going to do a bad job, you reach into that back pocket, and you spend it on the distribution and proceed to do it on your own. You have to think from day one the possibility that your investment is only going to be protected with the guarantee of distribution.