Jon Reiss on Actually Making Money from Self-Distribution: a Case Study
This is a guest post by filmmaker/author Jon Reiss, whose brand new co-authored book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul is 100% free (until the end of September) and 100% essential reading for filmmakers. Seriously: do not miss this book.
Two years ago I wrote a book Think Outside the Box Office which is a nuts and bolts guide to direct distribution and marketing for films that I wish I had when I released my feature Bomb It (about graffiti and street art all over the world). Last week marked the launch of Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul (SYFWSYS) a book that I wrote with Sheri Candler and The Film Collaborative – which is available for free digitally until October 1 and also available in paperback. SYFWSYS includes marketing and crowdfunding strategies, distribution spends, community building and detailed ancillary and digital distribution numbers for the following films: Ride The Divide, The Cosmonaut, The Best and The Brightest, Sita Sings the Blues, Note by Note, Bass Ackwards, Adventures of Power, American: The Bill Hicks Story, Undertow, For the Bible Tells Me So, and the webseries PioneerOne. What follows is an excerpt from one of my chapters in the book about the release of a film Ride the Divide.
Ride the Divide is an inspiring journey about the world’s toughest mountain-bike race, which traverses over 2700 miles along the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. The film weaves the story of three characters’ experiences with immense mountain beauty and small-town culture as they attempt to pedal from Banff, Canada to a small, dusty crossing on the Mexican border.
I met Hunter Weeks and Mike Dion at the Slamdance Filmmaker Summit in 2010 when they were on the verge of releasing their film into the world.
The two were hardly neophytes to the new world of distribution; Hunter previously self distributed 10 MPH and wrote a book about his experiences distributing that film. Because of their experience they avoided falling into the trap of depending on film festivals to sell their film to a distributor that most likely would never come.
(the following is an excerpt from the rest of the Ride the Divide Chapter - I chose this section because the points made here cannot be repeated enough)
Make Your Film as Good As Possible
Hunter and Mike screened Ride the Divide repeatedly to make it as good as possible.
Hunter: That’s the hardest thing when you’re making your first film…cutting it down. You’re going to cut and cut and cut. You’re going to lose so much that you don’t want to lose. You have to realize that you’re so inside a project you really don’t know what it looks like to people outside, but an audience teaches you that, and it’s critical (to screen your film to audiences) before you go out and try to market something.
At Slamdance, we identified two main niche audiences to focus on: The first was bike enthusiasts. The super-core of this niche would be people who actually participate in the Tour de Divide race. The next layer out would be mountain bike enthusiasts. The next layer (secondary audience) to reach out to would be devoted bike enthusiasts. The large outer tertiary layer of this audience would be people who live life to the fullest and embrace a positive lifestyle. As they left Slamdance, Hunter decided that they had to reach out to Lance Armstrong, because he was someone who exemplified this tertiary audience and was deeply connected to this niche. Another related niche was people who are involved in endurance contests of one kind or another, but Hunter and Mike smartly decided to focus on bikers.
The second niche audience we identified at the Summit was geographical: people who lived along the Continental Divide, e.g., the communities along the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. The core of this niche is the communities that live along the race route itself. A super-core would be bike enthusiasts, who live along the Continental Divide. (It is totally fine to use two ways of looking at the audience to identify a core or super-core).
It was clear from the start that their niche audiences (especially the first one identified above) would be grouped into organizations, and it would make a lot of sense to partner with these groups to get the word out to their niche. This was tremendously successful for Ride the Divide as they engaged a two-prong strategy: (1) National organizations for awareness and (2) local organizations to promote specific events and screenings.
Hunter: We have a couple of different classifications of partnerships. We have our corporate partners. Sometimes they donate money, sometimes they donate hard goods that we need, and sometimes they just commit to helping to bring exposure to the title. We worked with Smartwool on this film in a fairly big way. They came onboard with financial assistance to help us shoot this film. In turn, we would give them exposure and give their beanies to some of the riders, and if they happened to make it into the film that would be great. Then you have other types of partners, which are more oriented to the niche audience. In this case, that’s cycling for us.
Mike Dion: Adventure Cycling Association is a non-profit that actually designed the ‘Great Divide’ mountain bike route where the race and the film takes place. Once we hit the theatrical we worked with localized groups; for instance, when we were in Boulder we connected with the Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance that has a newsletter list of 7,000 people that helped market the film for that particular show.
Their list of national organizations is impressive in addition to the ones mentioned: People for Bikes, Siren Bicycles, Spot, Ergon, Moots.
Note that Hunter and Mike approached working with these organizations with a win-win scenario in mind.
Hunter: With a partnership you have to look at what you’re doing for that partner and how you’re bringing visibility to what they do. Sometimes at our screenings we’d kick back a buck per ticket. We’d find little ways that made it beneficial to them to really partner with us.
Not only does the film speak to these organizations’ constituencies, but Ride the Divide partnered with Livestrong. From 9/22 to 10/2 they are donating 50% of the proceeds from DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes sales to Livestrong. This gives another incentive for the consumer to buy the film: It is not just a film, it is a cause! Note that they give 50% of the profits to Livestrong–not 5% or 10%. In addition, this motivates the partners to help the film.
The Extra Benefits of Donating to Charity
I don’t recommend that filmmakers work with charities in a purely mercenary way. As Hunter points out, you have to want to do good for the world and you want to be passionate about your charity.
Hunter: And, you have to be able to set aside the fact that you might not make the money back that you need to for your film. You have to be okay with that. But, when you do good, usually it comes back to you. In this case, the Livestrong community started to learn about the film and they helped support the screenings and buy some of our living room packages to raise additional funds for Livestrong. So, by working with a charity and helping to raise money for them, you’re helping their audience understand what your film is about and what you’re doing, and they start to give back to you in different ways.
When dealing with your audience, it is critical to be as authentic as possible.
Mike: If you’re aligning with a charity or a non-profit you’ve got to be passionate about that particular thing. You can’t just go do it because other people are doing it. Your audience is going to see through it, and it’s going to seem fake and un-genuine. For me in particular, an inspiration of mine was a gentleman named Elden Nelson, otherwise known as the ‘fat cyclist,’ whose wife was affected by cancer and the Livestrong foundation really stepped up for him and really helped his family get through what they were going through. Elden has a blog called fatcyclist.com, which I was a big follower of, and he’s got a pretty big audience. He inspired me to get back on a bike and start doing 100 mile races and inevitably step up and do what you know of as “ride the divide.” With Elden as an inspiration for me, Livestrong just was a perfect tie, to kind of continue that movement. We’ve since worked with Elden and fatcyclist to raise money, and he’s talking about the project in his inner circles, which has been fantastic.
Jon Reiss is a filmmaker who also helps filmmakers strategize and execute the releases of their films and train their PMDs. He has co-authored a new book with The Film Collaborative and Sheri Candler titled “Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul” sponsored by Prescreen, Area23a Movie Events and Dynamo Player. His latest “film” Bomb It 2 will be released on iTunes and other digital platforms later this year. He can be reached at: Reiss.firstname.lastname@example.org | Facebook | Twitter