These filmmakers single-handedly ensured that their movie hit #1 on iTunes. Here's how they did it — numbers and all.
Director Steve Yu studied economics at Cornell and worked at companies such as IBM before finding his way to filmmaking. After he saw Super Size Me, Yu started to understand the power documentary film can have in affecting change. What started as a plan to help pro wrestler Jake "The Snake" Roberts turn his life around soon became an incredible story of redemption. With help from friend "Diamond" Dallas Page, the filmmakers moved Jake (whose signature move was throwing giant snakes on his opponents) to Atlanta to film the process of facing his inner demons.
We spoke with Yu about seeing moviemaking through the lens of an economist and crucial distribution lessons learned after releasing to $75,000 in revenue and staying #1 for a week on iTunes.
NFS: How did you approach making this film?
Yu: Whenever I think of a project, I try to evaluate whether or not it will have some type of appeal to an audience. I think some people will make a film because they are super passionate about something, but I try to weigh those things. The economic side of it is what makes people decide to do things, and that is interesting to me. I just didn't know how crazy it would get! The film is not about wrestling in many ways, so it seemed like a possibly compelling premise — so we just started filming. I had a hacked GH1 at the time and some of the footage from early on was shot on terrible camcorders. You can see the difference as it progresses — ultimately we shot most of it on Canon DSLRs, like the 5D Mark iii.
"When we were in the middle of negotiating the sale of the film, I felt like I was stuck in a limbo state: 'Should we continue this festival run or should we take this deal?'"
NFS: How important was your festival run for a successful online release?
Yu: I submitted to a lot of the major festivals and didn't get into a lot of them. We got into Slamdance and then we started getting approached by other festivals. I probably would have submitted to a lot more festivals. When we were in the middle of negotiating the sale of the film, I felt like I was stuck in a limbo state: "Should we continue this festival run or should we take this deal?" We just had never been through that process before. We only showed it at probably 4 festivals.
We got a lot of offers. We got about four or five offers right after Slamdance. Some were international, some were small theatrical, and some were for SVOD. We felt very strongly about the film; we knew it was powerful. Showing it to audiences, people get very emotional. We knew we had that element and we knew that we had this gigantic potential wrestling fanbase (tens of millions). One of the big goals was to make a movie that was for everybody, not just for wrestling fans. We had confidence in the film and we thought, "We're not gonna take any offer." In some ways we were naive, because offers don't last forever. You can't always go back and take an offer after you've explored everything.
"You really have to have your marketing in place going into these theatrical tours. People don't show up to the movie theater and decide what to watch; they've already decided before they go."
NFS: You did a theatrical run with Slamdance, which is something they don't traditionally do. How did that come about?
Yu: Slamdance really saw how people responded to our film when we did a screening at the Arclight with the film; it sold out really quickly. So Slamdance was really interested in trying to work with us to get it out there. It was a learning experience. The biggest thing that I learned was that you really have to have your marketing in place going into these theatrical tours. People don't show up to the movie theater and decide what to watch; they've already decided before they go.
We didn't lose money, but I think it's fairly known in the industry that you don't make money doing theatrical; it's more for exposure and reviews and marketing. We got to go to all these cities and do all these Q&As. It was really fun and really grueling at times. As a filmmaker it was really fun to do — there's nothing more exciting than watching a film with an audience and seeing them react.
NFS: An audience that's specifically not a film festival audience.
Yu: Yeah, totally. Sometimes when you're trying to make decisions on where your film is gonna go, you don't know who to trust. Slamdance was super transparent about everything. They are so much about supporting the film. They don't make you to feel like they're trying to profit more than you; they want you to be the successful one. So there's a level of trust there. They would introduce us to other people with no financial interest and it was refreshing to see that in this industry.
We agreed to split the proceeds of the theatrical and Slamdance invested time and resources into it. I don't think either of us profited from the arrangement but it was probably good for both of us. We did about a dozen cities, and the event screenings were the ones that were sold out.
NFS: How did you decide to work with Distribber as your aggregator?
Yu: In the end, our decision was to do things as much as possible on our own. It's such a new thing — people are throwing numbers and MGs at you, you don't know what to trust. We were kind of okay with the idea that [self-releasing] might not be the right decision, but at least we have control over what happens. When I found Distribber, it was the first time I saw things clearly broken down. They don't get revenue after you've paid the upfront fees — we looked for a catch and didn't find one.
Around Thanksgiving, other sales agents and distributors were saying we could go on VOD in April or May. We told Distribber we'd love to get on iTunes for Christmas time. So we scrambled and made sure we had the right assets. It was right around Oscar nomination week; probably not the best time to go live, because then you have to compete against Oscar-nominated documentaries, but they made it happen.
"If you know who loves your film, you have to make sure you're asking them to review your film. Otherwise you're just leaving it up to chance."
NFS: What do you think accounts for the explosion of sales you experienced on iTunes?
Yu: We had big names in our film from the wrestling world who have a sizable social media footprint, so we knew that we would probably be using social media mostly to get the word out. So we created some marketing assets, videos, a Facebook page. The network of celebrities would help get it out there and the wrestling fans who had heard of the movie were waiting to see it. So we were fortunate we had a fan base for the film who were ready to buy it.
On the first day we got in the top 25 — it was surreal passing all the Star Wars movies on the best-seller list. Those lists are a very real-time reflection of what's selling; you're sort of jockeying for a position that changes hour to hour. We stayed #1 on the documentary list for about a week and a little longer in the UK, Canada and Ireland. We also wanted to give iTunes an exclusive with the hopes that they would give us more favorable placement on the carousel or the noteworthy section. Distribber pretty much negotiated all of that and they did a good job fighting for our placement in iTunes.
Once we saw people responding to the film on social media, we immediately contacted them and asked them specifically to rate and review our film on the platform they watched it on — it makes a huge difference. If you look at our entry on iTunes, we have 292 ratings; 287 are 5-star. So it's a huge skew to positive reviews and if you look at all the other films it's very different. If you know who loves your film, you have to make sure you're asking them to review your film; otherwise, you're just leaving it up to chance.
"On the first day we got in the iTunes top 25 — it was surreal passing all the Star Wars movies on the best-seller list."
NFS: How important was having an effective trailer?
Yu: Our original trailer didn't generate an emotional response. It didn't make it look like an uplifting emotional story; it just makes it look intense. So we cut a new one that tries to tell you how inspiring the movie is. We did some paid sponsorship on Facebook and it got so much more traction. It probably got a million views on Facebook—though it's weird what Facebook considers a view— and was getting shared way faster.
NFS: What do you do after the sales flatline? Are you making a physical DVD or BluRay?
Steve: You'll see a movie shoot past you on the list and it's usually because they changed their price to 99¢ rental. We have tons of unseen footage and DVD extras and it's a collectors item for fans — we had all the guys autograph them. Some people feel the DVD market is dead, but we could actually do pretty well. Especially when the wrestlers go to events; they could sell autographed DVDs for $40 or $50, probably. So the next thing is DVD, which will probably be in late March / early April to time with Wrestlemania. And we're also speaking with SVOD: Netflix, etc.
We also expanded to multiple countries; when we released in English we didn't know what determines whether or not you can release in different regions. You have to have subtitles in specific countries or they won't put it on iTunes. That's another service Distribber offers and they do it a la carte — they just ask what countries you want to be in and they will tell you what language you need to translate it into. Doing translations for different countries isn't that expensive, it's generally less than $1,000 per language — except Japanese and Chinese are more expensive. There's a huge wrestling fanbase in Japanese; if anything, we could easily break even and get more exposure.
NFS: What's the major takeaway or something you will do differently next time you go through this process?
Yu: Now I understand a bit better what offers you should consider. I would use an aggregator like Distribber again just because you have so much control. There's too much uncertainty to the other way (selling all the rights). So if you're willing to do all the marketing stuff on your own, to me it's the clearest path because you know what's going to happen.
I think if I did theatrical again I'd be more prepared to spend marketing money. If you don't spend money marketing for your theatrical, you're not going to see it really take off.
Now I know how easy it is to get the movie out digitally and how accessible distribution can be through people like Distribber.