Okay, so you've made your film, now what? The wheels are turning in the world of independent marketing and distribution, and as filmmakers we now have a slew of options that we didn't just a few years ago. Assemble is one of these options; an independent platform designed to empower the independent filmmaker and to be a partner through the tough marketing decisions. Assemble has been working with filmmakers and building project-specific tools since 2010, and have seen many projects go on to successful distribution paths. For anyone embarking on the daunting task of creating an online presence for your film, Assemble wants to get involved as early on in the process as possible and see you succeed. Assemble V2 recently launched along with a new admin dashboard, so whether you have a short film and you're trying to make a feature or you're sitting on a finished film, read on for our in-depth interview with James Franklin, founder of Assemble. [Ed. Note: No Film School founder Ryan Koo's site for MANCHILD is powered by Assemble.]
No one has got a magic bullet for how to build an audience. It's a combination of tools and techniques.
NFS: What is your background in the industry and how did Assemble come together?
James: I'm a graphic designer. I used to run a design studio in London. We specialized in working with independent films and creating the look around a film. A brand that would turn into key art for posters, DVDs, that sort of thing. So 2006-onwards we've been working with filmmakers around trying to create a web presence for the film. Generally working in the online area, designing lot of websites, campaigns, that kind of thing.
Over the years we got frustrated with the tools that were available to us to work with filmmakers online. We were working with a lot of CMSs, web store tools and things like that, and we just found that we were constantly re-inventing the wheel and pushing up against the limits of those tools. We decided we would just build our own tool set to power the web presence for a film, based on our experience from the previous years.
So, Assemble is a way for creating a web presence around a film and interfacing with all the emerging tools so that, as an independent filmmaker, you can navigate what is quite a difficult path of building an audience online and then effectively selling to that audience.
NFS: What's the process like?
James: We like to work with filmmakers who've got more than one film. We're interested in creating a more sustainable model for a filmmaker to create multiple films with the same audience in mind. Then we approach more as a partnership. So we become a little bit part of the team. There's a limit to how much you can really be part of the filmmaking team, but we see this as a little bit of a family. That sounded corny when I said it.
NFS: No, that's great. I saw on the site that you're fully self-funded. What's that like? Because I think the No Film School audience can identify with what you guys have gone through to create this.
James: Yeah I mean, we are entirely bootstrapped. We've funded the entire platform that we've built based on working project to project. We start working with a film, we give the client all the tools that we've built so far, then we discuss some new tools or new ideas or new directions -- build some extra tools. And it's taken us it lots of different directions, which has been absolutely fantastic, because it gives us the flexibility to do all sorts of things that perhaps we wouldn't do if we were just focused on, say, providing downloads to the end user.
Because we start early with filmmakers and are there through the process we can just switch on tools as we need them. And also what's really nice about being bootstrapped is that the price that we can offer filmmakers is -- well, it reflects the nature of the business and the nature of independent filmmaking. We're priced really competitively compared to going to a web agency. And that's just lovely. It means we could work with filmmakers who couldn't normally work with someone on this.
NFS: Is there a sense of competition for the online marketing tool-based websites?
James: No, not at all. If anything, we partner with them very well. We work a lot with Vimeo On Demand, people like Distrify, iTunes and so on. We see ourselves as the filmmaker's friend and we start with them on the journey through the life of their film, and we start with them as early as possible and we provide tools that are going to benefit them later when they sell the film. We don't dictate how they sell or who they do a deal with. Our aim is to support them in whatever model they go for.
So, whether they end up going to Sundance and being part of the %0.1 of people who actually get a really good distribution deal -- that's fantastic, we support them through that process. For most people who are looking at a hybrid model, where they're doing deals in certain territories and in others they are going direct, we support them there as well. Our aim is to be distribution platform agnostic. We’re focused on the audience building. Ultimately, the technology behind downloads and so on is relatively straightforward and proven, it’s building an audience that’s the hard part.
NFS: There seems to be an idea that self-distribution or digital distribution is a kind of a 'last resort.' Why do you think there is this perception and how do get people on board with this kind of end-game for independents?
James: We've seen a shift in attitude towards this, definitely. Three years ago when we started Assemble most people were holding out for a deal and to have done anything other than that would have been heresy. There has been a little shift now to the idea that controlling this yourself is actually Plan A -- it's the best idea -- and if a distributor has something to add to this mix then that's great, but otherwise, let's do it ourselves.
But, I would say still the majority of people are hanging on for that deal. I think the motivation behind that is not necessarily one of return or box office success. The motivation seems to be more validation for filmmakers that their film is good.
So, I think the reluctance on filmmakers' part to embrace these new models is still the stigma that to do it yourself means that no one else would do it for you and that somehow you've failed. I think that's a big problem for filmmakers to get over. When often the people who are having the biggest success are those who went direct. Right now.
Filmmakers are scared to do it because it's such a steep learning curve and it's a lot of work. And it is, but to think that there is another option now is perhaps the foolish thinking. And for most films this is the way it has to be done, because there aren't other options. And there are one or two noisy success stories going through the old model, but for most people this is the only option. Better to embrace it and do it well than hold back from it.
NFS: I think that's a great point. I'm going through the beginnings of those decisions with my first film. We'd like to go to festivals and then it's a question mark for us, so that fear exists within me.
James: I don't think it's a bad thing or an unreasonable thing to feel fearful. That probably shows a healthy respect for the task of taking it on. But I think it's good for filmmakers to really be honest with themselves and try to take the emotion out of the distribution decision.
So, actually saying, "Do I want a distributor because I know it's better for my film? Or do I really want a distributor because I want a big glitzy premier so I can take my mum?" If you can be honest with yourself as a filmmaker then it does allow you to take a more rational look at what you're going to do with distribution. And probably a more realistic one too.
NFS: What does all this have to say about the theatrical experience? How do film festivals fit in?
James: Film festivals have a very important part to play. They put the film in touch with taste-makers. Film festivals still hold a certain amount of kudos, so to have those laurels on your poster makes a big difference I think, amongst people who watch indie films.
We have a lot of films that use the Assemble system that are doing theatrical runs and we get a lot of activity around the listing for screenings and showtimes. But people don't necessarily use the online tools to their best ability to try to get people into theaters.
They see it as an either/or rather than something that can be supported online that can make a theatrical run more of a success. So, a lot of our tools are based around getting people to the theater to see it. And we've spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking, “What things will help me online to push me to go to the cinema?"
So, we have the ‘demand it’ and 'invite a friend' tools or 'remind me' and ‘rsvp’ tools so that we can capture a little bit of data from people who want to see the film in the theater and push them towards it in a more structured and measurable way.
At the moment, theatrical is disjointed -- you watch the trailer for a film, you like the trailer, but you probably don't remember when it is in the cinemas. You have no way of signing up or getting a reminder, so you forget about the film. You miss the 3 days it was in your local cinema and then the opportunity is gone.
Well, I know we can do better than that, surely. So, we’re just joining things up in what I think is a basic way, and isn't being done elsewhere that I can see. There's a huge wasted opportunity by just not doing the basics right. Everyone who's interested in seeing this film in a theater -- let's convert them from general interest to going with their friends to the cinema.
NFS: I think it's only gonna speed up, and there are gonna be all kinds of screenings happening everywhere all the time.
James: Definitely. And we see a huge revenue stream for filmmakers in the idea of people putting on their own screenings. Not necessarily the idea of putting on screenings in a theater near them -- which Tugg is really good at making happen -- but the idea of putting on screenings in places you wouldn't normally have thought of: community centers, church groups, corporate events and things like that.
We see a lot of revenue coming through for selling screening licenses in that area. I'm really excited about that side of things. Maybe 4 or 5 years ago we saw one or two documentaries doing this, now it feels like everybody is doing it. So we're asking ourselves, What's the best way to do this? How can we make this better? How can we convert interest in a screening into someone actually hosting their own screening." So, we’ve answered that with best practice, proper management tools and automation.
NFS: Pretty soon we're gonna have the filmmakers with 4K projectors in the trunk of their cars going around from house to house.
James: [Laughs] It's been done! It already happened!
NFS: I knew it!
James: Which is great! And I think that also comes back to the filmmaker being honest with themselves. Because for some filmmakers, the idea of doing a huge tour of community centers really suits them and they really get a buzz out of connecting with their audience so directly. For other filmmakers they can't think of anything worse.
So, being honest with yourself from the beginning, "What do I want to do? What will exhaust me? What will burn me out? What will I get inspired by?" These questions do inform what your distribution plan will be -- amongst other factors.
NFS: I just recently deactivated my Facebook because -- I just did. It feels awesome, but I look to platforms like these and it seems that Facebook is such an important part of the social gamut. Do you see Facebook as a permanent piece of the puzzle here?
James: The importance of getting 'likes' has been overhyped a bit. It's been pushed out of proportion. And hopefully we'll see people reassessing how important that particular social platform is. At Assemble, we don't really see 'likes' as being a big part of the picture. Yes, Facebook is one of the platforms you can use to generate some interest in the film, but at the end of the day, the way these social platforms are being used is really just to point at a film.
So we always advise people not get too stuck with the idea of trying to do everything, "I must be on Facebook every day. I must Tweet every hour. I muse be posting Instagram photos. I must have 100 Pinterest boards." When people hear this advice, "You must have this conversation with the audience," people get exhausted, because it sounds like a whole bunch of extra work when frankly they're already working at 110% to get the film out.
I think there's a fatigue for filmmakers around the social platforms, so our advice is always to use the tools that suit the way that you think and work and don't get too worried if you're not doing very well on Facebook.
At the end of the day, converting people from general interest to seeing a film in the theater or buying the DVD, it's not Facebook likes that walk people through that process -- it's lots of other things, like friends and good 'old-school' tools like mailing lists. A big mailing list equals a much bigger response to sales we’ve found.
Facebook is a profit-making organization and they've set it up in such a way that the data is on their terms. So, your communication with the audience on Facebook is dictated by the way Facebook wants you to do it, and they want to sell you advertising. So, it's very hard once you've got 100,000 likes to actually contact those people. If you had 100,000 email addresses, that's a completely different story. Facebook is a good starting place but it's not the end point.
NFS: I saw the 'request invite' button on there. How does the invite-only model help you as a platform?
James: It's by invite only and the reason for that is not so much that we are extremely picky, but it's more a question of doing justice to the films that we do work with. We're not a self-serve platform where you just sign up, pay, build something, get frustrated and then get left alone. We see this as a partnership, so it has to be a good match. Most of our projects come from other filmmakers who have used us, so word of mouth or our other partners that we've worked with.
NFS: Any favorite examples of a project that you've worked on?
James: We worked on Vimeo On Demand's first exclusive film which they just released called Some Girl(s), which was out in theaters and Vimeo at the same time.
NFS: Oh yeah, I've heard of that. Something about that --
James: Yeah, it made some noise last week. Vimeo was talking to the filmmaker and then Vimeo introduced the filmmaker to us. And that kind of relationship happens a lot for us.
Another example is Dirty Wars, which is a film that went to Good Pitch last year, which is a pitching forum for connecting documentaries to NGO's and other partners who can help a documentary get off the ground. We started working with Dirty Wars last year and subsequently they went to Sundance, got distribution with IFC, and they're looking at VOD and DVD in October.
We worked with them through that whole process starting with an initial design for the website last year. Then when IFC brought up their poster, we changed the design of the website to reflect the poster to keep everything consistent, and now we're looking at their distribution coming up. So, I think that's a really nice example of working with a partner, being introduced to a filmmaker early on, and then supporting that filmmaker as they discover what distribution they're gonna have.
NFS: It's a good time for filmmakers. They have help.
James: I think we're about to see a golden era for film. Everyone talks about how the model is broken, the film industry is broken -- I think the opposite. Yeah, the old model is gone, but the new one is gonna be the best one ever. The next 10 years for filmmaking is just gonna be amazing and I'm so excited that we're gonna be a part of it.
. . .
V2 of Assemble is now live, and they just launched a new admin dashboard, screenshots of which can be found in this post. Head over to Assemble's website to learn more and take a tour of their features. For independent filmmakers, we are finally starting to have some marketing tools in our hands, and I look forward to finding out how they affect the lives of our films.
It's an exciting time and a time of abundance, so any fear from filmmakers about marketing should be quelled by the fact that we have the opportunity to use tools that we didn't have before.
As always, join the discussion in the comments below.