Monday, June 23, 2008

The Film Distribution Gamble: 9999 to 1

I attended a Film Financing Conference on Saturday and learned what it takes to finance your film.


But more importantly how to get millions of dollars from perfect strangers to help you make your film.

The answers are actually quite simple, and you don't have to spend the $200 (or $150 for FIND members) for the seminar, nor can you. It's over. But I can tell you everything I learned that you need to know. Though you probably won't take it seriously coming from me, because I don't have the years of experience of the industry panelists of lawyers, producers, casting directors, and distributors represented at the conference.

Anyway these are the elements you need as I understand them:

  • A damned good (no make that great) film ( or script. It doesn't have to even be started, just written.)
  • A film that has a clearly defined audience
  • A film that has a defined audience meaning you didn't just make it for yourself
  • Marketable roles
  • Marketable roles that name actors will want to play
  • A film that is low budget, though that could mean up to $10M now.
  • Names
  • Credibility - who are you?
  • A damned good (no make that great) film.
  • Your own money ( to the tune of tens to hundreds of millions)

Doesn't this all sound too familiar? Us high and mighty altruistic indie filmmakers, in service to humanity, don need no steenkin marketable shit, do we?

Well, ah, yeah. We do if we want people, beyond the cast, crew, their friends, and family, to actually see and get something out of our films?

Now you could make that script of yours and it could get seen and even win some festivals. Then you have your world premier, and the cast and crew would be there, and your parents would be there, and you'd be happier than a pig in shit along with all your cast and crew.


But, would you get a distribution deal? The chances as put on the table at the conference are 99.99%, no you won't.

So don't bet the farm on making your film unless you have no problem losing it. You see it worked for Kevin Smith because he had an audience. He had a great film. It was unique. It hit home with people. But did he know who his audience was in advance? Maybe. But that's easy to say in hindsight. He certainly didn't have any distribution or marketing until way after the film was completed and Weinstein decided to pump some cash into marketing and post, something like $300K.

How many filmmakers went out and had similar films targeted (or not) to a similarly undefined audience, but failed?


Getting into a festival is great. Winning there is great. But how about a year or two down the road when you still haven't had a distribution deal? You go straight to DVD and no one ever hears about you or your film again. That sounds so useless. Why even bother going straight to DVD? So you can tell people, "I made a feature and it's on DVD?


That and the lack of marketing that goes along with it, plus another $4.55, will get you a nice Grandé at Starbucks to celebrate. Then you'll never be heard from again. Why bother? You'd do better to hold out for a deal with marketing, like at least an HBO run. I don't care if no one ever sees it, because they won't anyway.

Still I think it's not wrong, or even a bad thing, that filmmakers don't necessarily have a defined market. Distributors often don't either. They just have the money to make people think they do. One of the conference speakers mentioned that when distributors don't really know what they're doing, or can't define a market, they just lie. They just put out marketing that makes the film seem like something it's not, to get people into the theaters. They'll pick a market and go after it, even if it's the wrong market.

See, a lot of these guys are aware of this stuff and not happy with it either.

Well, No shit. Isn't this the rule and not the exception? So if they don't really know what they're doing and they have to lie about the film content and make like it's for some certain market segment of people, why then do they demand that filmmakers have to figure this out before making a film? I'm talking about those trailers you see that get you all hyped to see a film. Then when you see it, it's a big let down. It's something completely different than what the trailers lead you to think.

When a filmmaker goes to a distributor, what's the first question asked?

Who is your target audience? Where's the market? How can we sell this film?

They want filmmakers to do the legwork for them. Know your audience and you'll have a shot at getting s distribution deal. But it has to be an audience beyond cast, crew, family and friends. The film has to have universality. That's a screenwriting term that means masses of people will relate to the story and want to see it. Sounds reasonable. See, you have to do this part before you make the film, while writing the script. If you have a great film, a great story, but no universality, your film ain't going nowhere.

On the other hand, what is universality? Some think it means having a solid genre. Eht! I don't think so. That's just a smoke screen, a trick to get people in the theaters.

I think universality simply means that people have to relate to the subject. But people are sophisticated and complex. They aren't all 16 year old teenage boys trying to get into their date's pants by taking them to a horror flick that scares them into their arms, the epitome of genre.

No. People can related to those abstract weird unusual concepts, and they wll, if the story is great and the execution is excellent. You need to make a great film. You need to have a great story. Those are really the only two things you need before you start. But you do need them. You can't forsake them for a deadline. You make a film with a half baked script because you want to make the Sundance deadline. That's a waste of everyone's time and money.

So the distributors' and the filmmakers' definitions of universality are very different. Still, that element is necessary.

Now, not only are all these factors at play, but the indie industry is in a downturn. These industry pro guys say this because three major Hollywood indie subsidiaries are folding, the biggest being Warner Independent.

Here's where I really differ with them.

I say any indie company affiliated with a big studio isn't really an indie company, I don't care what's in their name to tell me it is. These companies tried to jump on the indie bandwagon when they saw indies taking off. So yeah, they bought some real indie films at the festivals. But they aren't truly independent. They bought films that they think fit into their predefined marketing strategies. Indie films, good indie films, aren't bound by that narrow definition.

David Lynch is independent. He distributes his own films. If any of these guys were really indie, they'd distribute David Lynch. But they won't touch him. They're too hooked on the whole conservative business model that requires them to make well educated decisions based on marketing factors. Yet, their failure rate is astronomical. Duh. Even the .o1% of films that get distributed films have a very poor rate of success, something like 30% t0 50%. They just don't get it. Guys, the business model you use doesn't work. Do you need to be hit over the head with a sledge hammer to see this?

They still think you have to hit a certain market. Well I guess I agree. It's works in theory. It's just I don't know if they can ever know what that market is in advance, because the film market can rarely be defined before the film finds it after it runs a few weeks and word gets around. Markets are not really sp clearly defined as 18 to 35 year old males or whatever. No, they are dynamic and change with the wind.

This comes back to Goldman's statement that no one in Hollywood knows anything, meaning no one can predict what film, what story, what genre, or what concept will be a hit. Subsequently, they can't accurately define a market or target audience. They can try, and they do, and they fail a lot. They go out of business.

It's the nature of filmmaking. This isn't a widget business. That is, film is art first, business second. You can't market concepts. You can't market art before it's been completed and before you know what it is that you're marketing, and no you don't know what it is. You can't know this stuff until audiences have seen it and decided with their wallets whether it's worthy or not. Because art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, not the marketing depatment.

Goldman was right. No one knows anything. It is an unknown. Why can't this fact be accepted. Do they have to be so self centered and pompous to believe that there can't be a thing, like this, that they can't grasp? I'm sorry, but all the experience, MBAs and education in the world will not give you the ability to know or second guess the markets, or see the future. Accept it. Admitting this is the first step.

"Hi, I'm Jon and I'm a filmmaker. "

"Hi Jon."

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