Drugs and music go hand-in-hand arguably as well as independent filmmaking and direct distribution, and I can't think of a better way to exemplify the parallel than the Barnes Brothers' latest "hypothetical documentary" East Nashville Tonight. The film follows songwriters Todd Snider and Elizabeth Cook (among others) in an honest and refreshing portrayal of the musician's predicament. Hit the jump for NFS' interview with the filmmakers and Bond360 front-man Marc Schiller as we discuss the film's marketing and distribution strategies.
First, a little taste of East Nashville Tonight:
"It's really all about demand and community."
NFS: How did your release strategy evolve after you completed the film?
Todd Barnes: Getting involved with the release is very similar to how the film got together. The film happened because we knew these talented people and we knew if we just jumped into making it we could make something good. So when we found Bond, they were totally the kind of people we wanted to work with. We like to get out of the way and let smart people do their thing.
Marc Schiller: Most often the digital release is months and months after the initial announcement. We made pre-orders available that day that the movie was announced. It doesn't sound that sexy, but it just doesn't happen often. Usually you announce a film and then you sort of hope they will remember your film when you release it. Now we're able to track everything that we're doing, and that opens up an explosion of data that we can build upon. Nobody has had access to real-time data around the release of a film until now.
NFS: What unique strategies are you employing for East Nashville Tonight's release?
Marc Schiller: What we learned a lot time ago is: "Serve the film." Every film is unique, and one of the challenges you have when you work inside the system is all that uniqueness gets stripped away for the sake of efficiency. With this film, the way we're rolling it out fits it really well. The innovations come out of the DNA of the movie: it has people who are excited and have been anticipating this movie since they heard that it was being filmed. These are people who followed Todd [Snider's] or Elizabeth [Cook's] career. There was demand for the movie, so the pre-order works really well.
NFS: With the plethora of distribution platforms and models out there, how did you come to choose VHX and why?
Brad Barnes: I had seen a presentation at Artist Services retreat at Sundance, and VHX was one of the platforms there. When [our Executive Producer] Todd MacDonald did more research it seems like they were the right fit for us, and it definitely feels that way now.
Todd Barnes: It's so robust inside it, it's an absolute pleasure. It's like "Oh I have a coupon idea." And I just do it. You think you're maybe in a box and nobody knows who you are, but when you reach out to people they really appreciate it. A guy bought the movie before we even went live, and he also played music. I went to his website. That guy bought a movie from me, and now I know about his music. That's pretty cool.
Marc Schiller: And that insight you're talking about is brand new. It's the first time that filmmakers have ever had the opportunity to do that. The VHX guys really get this space. What I love is when we have a crazy idea in the middle of the night, VHX are then there at 9:00 in the morning figuring out how to try to make it happen, and that's the kind of technology partner that you want.
It's not about VHX as a company as much as it's about a way of thinking about what's available to us. As an industry we need to rethink the way that we approach marketing and PR so that we're building an asset that filmmakers have worked hard for and can use in the future on their movies.
NFS: How much does the aesthetic of a certain platform or model play into your decision?
Marc Schiller: Websites become so bloated that you don't know how to buy the movie. When you try to buy a film off a film's website it's usually a pretty terrible experience. The approach we took was putting the emphasis on the pre-order buy, putting the trailer next to the buy, using social media to give the audience content and driving them to buy. And I already know it was more effective than if we had built out this big website with thirty other bells and whistles. The simplicity of the VHX platform and the fact that the website is the store is a game-changer.
"Usually everything is front-loaded before you go to digital. We're able to be as flexible as we want, there's no rush because there's no studio that's going to move on to the next movie."
Marc Schiller of Bond360
NFS: How does the pre-order work? Are you doing any theatrical runs?
Todd Barnes: The pre-order means they can download it starting on the 19th. On the 18th we're having a premiere screening in Nashville followed by a rock concert. We want to plan each screening like a live show instead of just having a string of screenings and hope people show up.
Marc Schiller: The cool thing is that the life of the film is as long as we want it to be. Usually everything is front-loaded before you go to digital. We're able to be as flexible as we want, there's no rush because there's no studio that's going to move on to the next movie. That's the difference when you own the movie.
There's no reason not to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. It's really all about demand and community. We're looking at serving a growing community around Todd and Elizabeth, we're not trying to reach the audience with advertising quickly, get them to buy and move on.
"We do PR to drive good-will so that the PR will continue and grow without us having to manually pitch people to make that happen."
NFS: You mentioned you decided to go "exclusively direct." Will we see the film at other destinations or will it just live on the East Nashville Tonight website?
Marc Schiller: The great thing is that we don't need to have a plan set in stone. I don't think it would ever make sense to say we will never do something else. Right now the plan is to make the movie available in the way we're making it available now. But there's no reason to say that we won't explore new ways of sharing the movie with people.
Todd Barnes: The community will be a part artist in the film. The community will tell us what we need to do.
Marc Schiller: When you own the copyright, if you come up with a good idea you just do it. I know that sounds straightforward, but there's nobody telling you: "No, no we can't do that." We can just evolve the relationship we have with the movie.
NFS: How are you driving people to the website?
Todd Barnes: We started with a TopSpin mailing list, personal email lists, connections via Facebook, etc. So when we launched, we had a few emails go out to those people and actually have a lot of data on the convergence of that. For our fans it was incredible, almost everyone clicked through and pre-ordered. Todd and Elizabeth put stuff on Facebook, Elizabeth put her coupon code on her Twitter. People came through Indiewire, it was from all over.
Marc Schiller: Some of the best stuff happens organically. We plant a lot of seeds and do our job well, and then if you do it right the seeds you planted become avenues of interest and excitement and then sales. People tell other people, an article you didn't expect to be written gets written. Our role is to create good-will around the movie so that the movie is not only being driven by our marketing and PR efforts, but is also being driven by people championing the movie without any PR. Bond does PR completely different from most people. We do PR to drive good-will so that the PR will continue and grow without us having to manually pitch people to make that happen.
Brad Barnes: Yeah, that's a really important point and one of the reasons we were so happy to partner with Bond. We went to Sundance with our first feature and a lot happens really fast. Todd and I came away from the experience loving it, but felt like we really failed at staying in contact with our audience.
We really wanted to rectify that on subsequent projects. I think what's great is you start to see your email lists merge and overlap, and you see fans coming together from different worlds. And that's what's really exciting to us as filmmakers. And even for our next project, we want to bring that audience along. And the fact that we can track all that is new and exciting.
Marc Schiller: And that's the beauty of Google. You hear about the movie, you Google it and our website is gonna come up first. That's the beauty of this model; we don't need to do advertising. My job at Bond is to go to my team and say, "Come up with 3 ideas in the next 48 hours to keep the conversation going. A new press hit, a new idea." And if they are keeping the dialogue going around the movie, it will convert into sale. And that's the only way we're gonna have a sustainable industry.
"You become envious of the freedom of not only the musicians but also the Barnes Brothers, because they're not worried about anything other than capturing the moment in front of them."
NFS: How did you decide to make the drug-use the hook for the film?
Todd Barnes: When we started we said we didn't want to make a movie that can appear anywhere on television. We wanted to go as far as we could with that. It was the hook, but it was the substance of the movie too. We came up with this phrase: "The Hypothetical Documentary." I think that whatever it is, even though it's really funny, I think it's really truthful. It's a documentary, but they're playing themselves. It's funny, but it's also getting at the truth.
Marc Schiller: I think from a marketer's perspective, freedom, empowerment is what we all seek. We all want to be self-depreciating and free and funny and not worry about image, and that's why the movie is so infectious to watch because you become envious of the freedom of not only the musicians but also the Barnes Brothers, because they're not worried about anything other than capturing the moment in front of them.
The one theme you have to walk away with is: "Fuck yeah." We live in a celebrity culture where everything is so watered down and manufactured and nobody wants to take any risks, and you look at this movie and you know these are real people and you're like: "My god, I've never seen anything like this." You really have no idea what you're gonna watch. Serve the film. People are smart; they get it. Don't try to put something in a box.
NFS: Marc, you said, "The film industry is the only industry I can think of that still discourages creators from selling their work directly to their fans." How do we turn this around?
Marc: We're turning it around with East Nashville Tonight. Filmmakers are like a pack, they all want to succeed together. And when the Barnes Bros. take the leap that means that other filmmakers are now able to take the same leap because they're not doing it alone.
Selling direct is incredibly discouraged in the film industry, because just like the music industry everyone said you can't sell your music direct, because you're gonna piss off Tower Records. Well guess what? They're all out of business, and the only ones who are in business are the digital distributors. This already happened once. And we have much better tools than we had before. To discourage someone from selling direct means you're leaving a lot of money on the table potentially.
Check out the film when it becomes available on November 19th. Hopefully we can learn something from the Barnes Brothers' approach. The marketing and distribution process for filmmakers is becoming more organic, and I think films like this one go a long way to prove that. As always, keep the discussion going in the comments below.
Link: East Nashville Tonight