How New Day Films Reinvented Self-Distribution
With all the recent talk about new forms of distribution, producers sometimes forget the tried and true alternative distributors that have been making money for independent filmmakers (and collecting data, no less) for decades. New Day Films is a veteran distribution company that has been operating as a filmmaker-run collective since 1971. With decades of results to showcase their success, New Day is less of a gamble for producers whose projects are selected to join the elite roster of social issue films. “Member-owners” put more time into personally marketing their films through New Day, but their efforts are more effective than some third-party distributors because of that personalization. Steering committee chair Ellen Frankenstein gave NFS the lowdown on member-owner marketing, the benefits of a collective knowledge-base and the differences between New Day and traditional distribution.
Frankenstein’s films released through New Day include Eating Alaska, No Loitering and Carved from the Heart. She’s also the director of Artchange Inc., a nonprofit that uses art to “delve into contemporary issues, and articulate experiences, struggles and aspirations to inspire reflection and action.”
Though New Day couldn’t discuss their decades-worth of sales and income data with much specificity (alas no distributor does, which puts newbie filmmakers in quite the pickle) Frankenstein, along with steering committee members Katie Jennings (The Teachings of The Tree People and The Red Pines) and Lidia Szajko (Girl Trouble) did their best to break down the inner workings of New Day and how they use collective knowledge to help filmmakers help themselves.
NFS: How did New Day get started?
Ellen Frankenstein: New Day was initially formed when the women’s movement arrived and a group of independent filmmakers couldn’t find distribution for their feminist films. Inspired by ideas of collaboration, hope and social change the founding members created a cooperative alternative.
A lot has changed in media distribution since 1971 when the early members were selling 16 mm film prints. We’ve grown to 155 active members and 135 classic members and 290 titles. But the commitment to quality content, to cutting edge distribution and to illuminate, challenge and inspire audiences with our films continues. Read more on our founding here.
NFS: How did you get involved with New Day?
EF: I’ve never thought the story ends when the credits roll. If something stirs you enough to make a social issue film and to tell a story, isn’t the audience part of the process? Why wouldn’t you carry your passion and commitment to the issues and the people in a film to the users?
I was in my early twenties when I finished a short 16 mm film called Miles from the Border, about a family caught between cultures. One of the first independent filmmakers I met, Ralph Arlyck (critically acclaimed independent producer, and noted practitioner of the personal film essay form) was part of New Day. So, after I finished Miles from the Border (a film that grew out the passage of an “English as the official language” resolution in the community of Fillmore, California) and started to see how it stirred up conversation and impacted audiences, I contacted New Day.
I remember two distributors from another company following me around at the Margaret Mead Film Festival, contract in hand. They approached my parents too, telling them, as they told me, self-distribution would keep me from making more films.
I didn’t listen. I wanted to be part of using the film to help shape understanding and be part of some kind of change so we’d understand and think more deeply about immigration, the immigrant experience and the borders we put up. I also wanted to be part of a community of filmmakers with similar passions.
NFS: How does New Day differ from traditional distribution? What are the pros and cons of each?
EF: New Day is hands on. If you are a member-owner in New Day you shape and develop your own marketing plan, collaborate with other filmmakers and take part in the business of distribution. As part of the coop all active members volunteer time to run the business, from acquisition to promotion, website to finance. In my case, before taking on a two-year stint as chair of the steering committee, I had a job of doing research and reporting on trends in the field.
Working on my task on trends in the field over a period of ten or so years, I developed a lot of respect for the “traditional distributors” I interviewed and surveyed each year. They typically take a larger percentage of the proceeds from sales, but they also do the work of marketing, dealing with changing technologies, vagaries in the educational market and juggling lots of titles at once.
Clearly if you decide to go with a “traditional distributor,” and to not spend time on distribution, you can spend that time on the production of another project. It just takes a lot of “to do’s” off your list and you still could get checks in the mail. Who doesn’t like getting a royalty check when the work that generated the check is long in the past?
However, as much passion as distributors have for the collections they sell, they just can’t give the ongoing focus to promotion and outreach to individual titles the way a filmmaker with New Day can. The potential for revenue can be much higher, both because of this attention and because of our “share ladder,” our system of splitting revenues between what goes to covering the coop’s overhead and what goes back to member-owners.
Again, from my perspective, I feel like distribution is part of the filmmaking process. I’ve learned a lot of skills from leadership to the principles of participatory democracy from being in New Day. I’ve learned to see how the whole collection can have an impact and it is has made me a stronger cheerleader, for lack of a better term, for other films in the coop and for the field of independent social issue media making.
NFS: Are many of your filmmakers represented by traditional distributors on other projects?
EF: I think quite a few filmmakers in New Day have worked with and do work with other distributors. Once you bring one title into the cooperative and are up and running with marketing, it makes sense to submit your other titles and add them to the collection. Of course the way you decide to distribute depends on the project. Who else was involved in the making, the target audience, and other variables impact what makes sense.
NFS: Do filmmakers often divide up their rights between ND and other distributors?
EF: Not within the U.S.
For films in the coop, New Day is the exclusive US non-theatrical distributor. We don’t take home video distribution rights for members’ works. Theatrical distribution, broadcast and cable rights, and/or foreign distribution is not included in New Day’s distribution contract unless members explicitly release to New Day the rights to represent titles in these markets.
There used to be a prohibition about signing a commercial home video deal for three years. We’ve lessened the window to a year, but are cautious about signing home video contracts that can seep into educational sales. New Day Films may hold non-exclusive Educational Use rights throughout the rest of the World, at Filmmaker’s option. Some of us have foreign distributors.
NFS: Let’s talk numbers. Do you have data on your filmmakers’ average income through New Day? What provides the lion’s share of directors’ profits (educational, VOD, broadcast, etc.?)
EF: While we are not comfortable divulging our filmmaker’s revenues, I can talk in percentages about educational sales through New Day. Over 65% of members on our last share ladder received over 80% of their gross royalties from sales. Another 16 % received between 65%-80% of their gross.
What happens to the rest of the earnings? Because we are a co-operative of filmmakers in business together, we share all the expenses. We do this primarily through a system we call the Share Ladder. Shares, extracted from earnings, are assigned to all members with active films, according to a formula based on the amount of each member’s bookings.
As for what percentage of profits come from educational or other sales, really depends on the film. Some titles get broadcast deals and sell well to home users, but for others educational sales are the lion’s share of the profits.
NFS: There is so much competition to become part of the New Day Films community that you’ve turned away a record number of applicants this past year (yours truly included.) What recommendations can you give to next season’s applicants?
EF: The tools of making media are so much more accessible than when I picked up a camera, at the end of the 16 mm era. That makes media making more democratic, but it also means there are a lot more films out there. Other distributors have reported the same phenomena.
Rejections are awful. I am sure we have turned down some amazing films and some potentially wonderful member-owners. The problem is we have a limited carrying capacity. We can’t do justice to working with a lot of new filmmakers at once.
For next season’s applicants, if you have a strong social issue film, and are committed to being active in your distribution and part of a group like New Day, please contact us. Think hard about if working with a cooperative is what you want to do, about who your audience is. Test your film and tell us about that. If you have multiple versions of a film, send us the one you think will work best with an educational audience. Often if you made a 90-minute film and have a 60-minute film, that might be your strongest bet. If you get a rejection, don’t be afraid to apply again. There are a lot of variables and a matrix of factors that impact the final decisions.
NFS: How is New Day pivoted throughout the years to take advantage of modern changes in the distribution industry?
EF: In all my years of being involved in New Day and working with other distributors in the field, we’ve had to deal with changes in formats. I came in as 16 mm faded. With VHS there was a fear that educational market would be gobbled up with ease of reproducing films into the new format. New businesses claimed they would change the field then too. Then VHS turned to DVD. That too created concerns about the market. Now we have VOD. Streaming and downloading are a huge transformation in delivery of content, but we are plugging onward once again.
We’ve got our own digital platform, New Day Digital. We’re taking steps to move the platform to our website and are constantly researching and updating best practices for working in a world of digital sales. In the meanwhile, the majority of our sales to the educational market continue to come from DVDs.
Note: Producers also have to be cautious about VOD rights and sometimes can “lose” them in the process of signing funding agreements.
NFS: What are the most valuable skills directors acquire by becoming part of the New Day collective?
EF: We all learn about the nuts and bolts of distribution, from designing e-mail blasts to tricks and tips for reaching out to buyers. From our tasks we share and learn specific skills from helping to design a catalog or setting up digital distribution. We learn to look at films and think about their markets and their use in the world vs. the lens we might take to the same issue.
Member-owners run and manage New Day. Our management team is elected from the membership. There are opportunities to learn leadership skills by being on the steering committee and leading a team working on communications or intake or finance. I’ve learned organizational skills and principles of working democratically in this national organization that I’ve carried to local and regional projects.
This is not a skill per se, but we are a resource to each other. We help each other film and edit, test out rough cuts and resolve issues we are having with productions. The filmmaking process with all the steps of turning ideas into compelling stories can be isolating. Ever felt like you are almost in a state of quarantine after a funding rejection, amidst a pile of raw footage and a fear that you will never find a structure to your story?
While many member-owners live in New York, Oakland or Los Angeles, I happen to live on an island in Alaska. For me, the skills I’ve gained, the community and wider view I’ve referred to throughout this interview, have been integral to living off the urban grid attempting to create work that travels beyond the setting it starts in.
NFS: Do you publish a blog or another resource where the public can learn from your collective experience and knowledge-base?
EF: We have a monthly e-newsletter you can sign up to receive on our website, as well as a blog. We share our experiences on panels around the country, at film festivals, conferences and talks. We are also using social media, including Facebook and Twitter to share our knowledge and resources.
NFS: The New Day website reads that filmmakers market their own films to “lists of prospective buyers obtained from list brokers.” Which list brokers do you use and recommend?
EF: Can’t answer!
NFS: Can you describe the marketing that New Day filmmakers do to sell their films?
EF: New Day markets the entire collection through our website, catalog, emails and newsletters, while each filmmaker is responsible for direct marketing of her or his own film(s) using postcards and emails as well as speaking engagements. We use fulfillment service and hire consultants including a facilitator to help us manage the business.
Additional marketing activities undertaken by New Day members include obtaining reviews in professional journals, attending conferences, entering festivals, and organizing educational and benefit screenings. All filmmakers are responsible for producing professionally made and packaged copies of their own films. When new filmmakers join, they are paired with two buddies, one to mentor and support direct marketing efforts, and the second, who has a film in a similar subject area, to aid with market targeting.
Once a year, all New Day members gather from across the United States for a four-day conference. It is a time we democratically make decisions about our business and to elect the Steering Committee, New Day’s management team, but it is also a time we get to network, coach filmmakers with new titles and share ideas on what is working for our individual distribution efforts.
NFS: What are your top three tips for independent directors and producers marketing social issue films?
EF: #1: Think about your audience. Who do you want to use your film? What classes, courses, community organizations are appropriate? Test it. Don’t assume.
#2: Find allies/partners and work with them. You probably worked with funders, organizations, leaders, experts in making your film. Involve them in getting it out, be it a conference, a classroom, a network or a mention on a listserv.
#3: Think about who will buy your film. Festivals make us feel good and give us copy for promotion, but why would someone actually buy and use your title? What does it add to their classroom or community event? How does it enhance talking about an issue? What does it inspire viewers to do? It is great to be a blockbuster, but think beyond and around that.
After years in New Day, I’ve seen films that haven’t done gangbusters in the festival or broadcast world and weren’t funded or financed by a national foundation or place like ITVS, sell and be used as inspiring educational resources for teachers, librarians and community groups.
For more insight into New Day Films’ inception and business model, check out their “How to Start a Distribution Company” panel at Full Frame 2012:
The collective-ownership model seems like one of the best ways to test distribution practices within a tight-knit group of devoted filmmakers. At the same time, not everyone has two years to spare after producing their film in order to self-distribute the thing. The real question I’m left with at the end of this interview is how many New Day filmmakers are able to juggle new projects along with the distribution of their own former films — and do the sales compare to those of competent traditional distributors with similar films?
Any New Day Filmmakers out there? How has their model changed the way you distribute your films? For non-New Day filmmakers, would you consider the collective-ownership distribution model?
Link: New Day Films website
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