We are back to play hardball with Emily Best, Founder of Seed&Spark, a new crowdfunding and digital distribution platform that claims to be part of "the future of filmmaking." Yesterday we explored the genesis of the website and its differences with other crowdfunding giants. Today, the conversation gets more interesting.
Now, we all know that the film industry is changing fast, and it seems everybody and their baby mama is coming out with platforms proclaiming that the revolution will be digitized. With all the noise surrounding the release parties, focus groups, festival workshops and futurist film consultants, it can be difficult to separate the viable revenue streams from the hype.
Yours truly has been conned out of many a dollar through digital distribution platforms offering the future of film financing on a silver platter. After all of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed meetings, phone calls and inauspicious contracts, believe it or not, my production company's revenue comes almost entirely from traditional sources (grants, donors, old school distribution and DVD sales).
So, we're going hard or going home with this Seed&Spark interview, digging for those numbers which digital distributors never want to release (like success ratio and average revenue). Emily holds her own and then some, but we'll leave it up to the comments section to give the verdict on Seed&Spark.
NFS: Most major film festivals require either a global, national or at least regional premiere status for the films that are showcased. How are you approaching the conflict with digital streaming releases?
EB: Film festivals are an excellent way to reach audiences all around the country and the world. The sooner you can leverage the publicity and word of mouth that comes out of those festival theaters, the better.
That said, we’re in a difficult moment as most festivals still claim you cannot play online while you’re still out festivaling. There are some important exceptions to that rule (see what Tribeca does during the festival with its competition films), and I know from talking to many festival heads that views on this are changing.
We think we should be part of any ancillary distribution plan. We have had a great day-and-date release experience with I Send You This Place, which played festivals and then had a week-long run at rerun Theater in DUMBO, Brooklyn. We are constantly exploring new relationships with festivals and even with distributors to experiment with new release tactics. Filmmakers are always the most innovative thinkers in this space, so we’re working with all our filmmakers to learn from their ideas and come up with creative new strategies.
NFS: Filmmakers keep 80% of the revenue from streaming on your site. How does this compare to other possibilities for streaming (Chill, Vimeo VOD, Reelhouse, iTunes, PUMit, Distrify, etc.?)
EB: All the platforms you mention charge between 7-25%, although on iTunes it depends on which aggregator you went through what your deal with them might be. You left out Yekra and VHX, both companies which I think are doing cool work, too.
We have a unique platform that is constantly on-boarding new audiences with our crowdfunding side, and we’re paying attention: when we know a new crowdfunding campaign is going to bring a lot of audience of a certain interest or geographical area, we make sure the films they might like are highlighted.
We do social media outreach and press releases on behalf of our films. Most of the other platforms are just straight platforms. VHX and Distrify are mostly to help you distribute directly from your own website, which is fantastic if you know how you plan to drive traffic to your website.
NFS: My international distributor has a "search and destroy" method for dealing with online pirating of their films. I brought up the argument that more eyeballs can be good publicity to the CEO of the agency and he told me that the first thing national distributors and sales agents do when considering a film is to google it. If it's available for cheap and easy download or streaming, they will not license it. Since the big bucks are in broadcast television, why would someone risk losing the $100,000 deal for a series of $3 deals? It would take a whole lot of social media marketing to get the same result.
EB: Is this for documentaries? Well, if you’re lucky enough to be offered a $100,000 deal, maybe you should take it. For the rest of us, we’re trying to figure out how to leverage every single word of mouth recommendation that our outreach efforts generates, right? I can’t remember the publication but Nick Gonda (from Tugg) mentioned the other day that monetarily speaking, 1 word of mouth recommendation is as powerful as 200 television ads.
To me, that makes it clear where to spend the P&A dollars (if you have any at all) on grassroots outreach, on goodwill screenings, on anything that gets people to see your film and makes it really easy for them to share that they liked it.
And honestly, for independent film YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY that people are pirating your film. In many ways, that’s a great problem to have, because it means demand is really high.
HBO is having to reconsider not offering HBO Go as its own subscription, because social media immediately blows up after Game of Thrones and people are so worried about spoilers, they will pirate an episode. A friend of mine (who borrows his mom’s HBO Go password as so many do) said to me the other day, “I don’t want to steal it, but I have to!”
We’re streaming only, so piracy is not a problem we’ve encountered. But we’re also very clear that we’re a Fair Trade Filmmaking movement. This is about building a relationship between the audience and the filmmakers. The filmmakers want to deliver them a high quality product and the audience wants to pay to see it to support that filmmaker.
NFS: In your most honest estimation, what percentage of donors to your campaigns in the studio are friends of the project owner beforehand? What percent are strangers drawn by the social media campaign? And what percent are S&S browsers who hit upon a project they like and decide to donate?
EB: Across platforms, not just S&S, I think it’s 60-80% friends and family. But that’s almost entirely because most campaigns are $5000 short film goodwill campaigns that don’t require the filmmakers to reach out very far beyond their circles. It’s not really true that people are browsing crowdfunding platforms for movies to fund. (For consumer goods to pre-buy, much more common.) That’s why crowdfunding is much harder than people think.
We have had four projects so far funded primarily from people NOT known to the filmmakers. In one case, the filmmaker raised $10,000 on Kickstarter six months prior. On Seed&Spark they raised over $12,000 from 40 states and 15 countries, almost exclusively from people they did not know. They all had exceptional pitch videos, a clear social message (although not all were docs), and filmmakers with very diligent plans to reach out far beyond their own networks. Most of the big campaigns you hear about hire a professional team to run their campaigns either for a fee or for a small percentage of the total raise.
NFS: Explain the spark system to me. I'll warn you, it reminds me of frequent flyer miles and credit cards point systems (creating a new currency to disassociate value). I see that 250 points will allow me to watch a movie which otherwise costs $2.99. Should I assume that a spark is worth a little more than a penny?
EB: Most film crowdfunding campaigns promise a reward of a digital download of the film. We see two problems with that: 1.) That download will likely not be delivered for 6-12 months (on the low end) after the contribution was made, at which point the supporter has likely forgotten it was even coming to them. And 2.) If you send a digital download to someone before you have wide distribution and they want their friends to see it, they would just send that download to their friends. Your ability to turn their word of mouth into a transactional stream is diminished.
SO! Sparks do two things: they provide an immediate, tangible reward not just for making a contribution to a campaign, but for all sorts of engagement behavior: following and sharing projects, building out your profile, commenting on project updates. You also get Sparks bonuses when a project you are funding or following hits milestones: if they become a staff pick, when they get the Green Light, and when they hit 100% funding. Sparks are a way to let the audience know that there are a lot more ways to help beyond just pitching in dollars or stuff.
So we don’t think of them as having any monetary value. They’re social currency.
If you help get films made, you get greater access to watch films.
NFS: I raised less than $50,000 for my first feature documentary and I give away 30% to my distributor, who invested a minimum guarantee up front and did a huge amount of marketing and networking that I never could have done on my own (I have a fair number of Facebook friends, but none of them are CEOs of major media networks). What does S&S provide that bridges the gap between online social networking and major media attention, and why is it worth 20% of my film's revenue?
EB: I would be happy to make a reliable, living wage as a filmmaker, and honestly, I think that’s the best most of us could ever hope for. This is not some silver bullet. If you want to have a sustainable career in this industry, there are several ways to do it. (Work other jobs, do commercial work and fit your stuff in between.) A direct-to-audience relationship has recently emerged as a new possibility. But it does take work, and it doesn’t come right away.
Most of us would just like not to have to wait tables, or take those brutally difficult production jobs that exhaust us for the creative work we really want to be doing.
Audiences have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they want to support the creators who make stuff that matters to them. Look at Patreon -- through micro-donations there are creative artists (musicians and video artists) making a couple thousand dollars a month in small contributions from their fans. They weren’t making that on day one, but were diligent about using social media and direct outreach and it’s LITERALLY paying off.
You don’t have to be an expert marketer, but you do have to learn to do things differently, and not just on Seed&Spark. Hundreds of REALLY smart people have built REALLY smart tools to help you do so -- at no cost but elbow grease.
I think NFS is built on the premise that if you’re a self-starter you can teach yourself the skills to be a filmmaker by getting mentors, reading stuff people write, watching how-to videos -- right? So why would you not also apply that to the outreach tactics that could build you a sustainable career?
Seed&Spark amplifies the messages of all of its filmmakers throughout our networks -- and we’re constantly meeting distributors and major acquisitions folks, building relationships with them, and many are looking at our site for content.
So what's the verdict? Is Seed&Spark onto something with their audience-inclusive one-stop-shop model? Will you be launching your next film through their studio and releasing in the S&S cinema? Why or why not?
Link: Seed&Spark website