How to Find Your Audience in the Digital Age: Alternative Distribution
Industry radicals discussed alternative distribution methods in a panel at IFP Film Week 2016.
In the auditorium of IFP’s futuristic Brooklyn space sat five innovators of the film distribution field. Representing the more traditional ends of the spectrum were Ryan Krivoshey, Founder and President of Grasshopper Film, and Aliza Ma, Head of Film Programming at Metrograph, a new Manhattan cinema that’s blown up over the past year for its impeccable indie and film-buff curation.
On behalf of “white label distribution” was Jamie Wilkinson, CEO of VHX, a streaming platform which was just recently acquired by Vimeo. There to talk about Shutterstock’s contribution to indie filmmaking was its Director of Footage, Derick Rhodes, a self-proclaimed outsider on the panel and “Brooklyn filmmaker and example of someone who did distribution somewhat poorly.” And rounding out the team was Missy Laney, Director of Creative Initiatives and ambassador for the rebel distribution outlet BitTorrent.
With the advent of digital filmmaking and the supersaturation of the market, old school theatrical distribution has changed tremendously. These five organizations have formed and adapted in response to the evolving atmosphere. What was most heartening about these panelists was their affection for the underdog. Brandon Harris, the moderator, from Filmmaker Magazine, began the conversation with a question about how each company is listening to the changing habits of consumers.
There are no wide nets in the age of the internet.
Almost immediately, a trend emerged: curation. Throughout the hour, it became apparent that in this world of constant media barrage, having a strong and clear personality— and knowing how to communicate that to your specifically tailored audience— is the key to success. There are no wide nets in the age of the internet.
Below are some of the most interesting takeaways from IFP’s New Innovators: Distribution panel.
Plan your theatrical and digital releases to complement each other
The conversation kicked off with a debate around the place of cinemas in our digital age. Ma weighed in for Metrograph: “We have a physical space that reflects the changing state of exhibition and distribution.” Though modern culture seems down on old-fashioned movie-going, Ma advocated for a new perspective. "Our programming approach has been to work in a symbiotic way with open-minded distributors to tailor release strategies for each film," she said, "so that we can reach out to those niche markets and give the films a theatrical life that they might not otherwise have.”
Ma also mentioned a harsher reality that some pro-digital fans might not care to admit. “It’s important to keep in mind that most— maybe 99.9% of filmmakers— make their films for the big screen, so it’s important to give their films a theatrical life as much as possible.”
"99.9% of filmmakers make their films for the big screen."
“Every year, there’s a new article about the death of cinema or the death of theatrical,” Krivoshey chimed in, “but in reality, as Aliza said, most people want their films screened in a theatrical setting. And I think it’s all very much a viable option. Sure, if you really want your film to be seen and to get out there, you need to put it on the various online platforms. It needs to be everywhere.”
Krivoshey went on to note the same symbiosis that Ma mentioned earlier: an almost pushback from theaters. “What I find very interesting is the more we’re shifting towards a digital space, there seems to be a greater life on the theatrical circuit," he continued. "It’s almost kind of calcified the theatrical market."
Krivoshey joyously pointed out ways in which cinemas have adapted to indie needs. "There are not only more theaters that are willing to show art house and challenging films, but there are more venues popping up," he said. "Cinematheques, public cinemas that are charging little or no admission, that are working with their communities, or they’re doing single screenings instead of week long runs.” With respect to his company, Grasshopper, “it’s really been heartening for us because for the first six months, we were operating like it was 1975, no DVD, no online, just strictly theatrical, and we’ve been very, very, very pleasantly surprised to see how robust the theatrical market is today.”
"The theatrical existence of a film actually helps its VOD life."
"I think it’s important to keep in mind that the theatrical existence of a film actually helps its VOD life," Ma said. "That’s what a lot of people don’t think about when they sign a deal for a film to go straight to VOD or day-and-date. Especially being in New York, a theatrical release helps so much with press and marketing. People will just talk about it more, and it snowballs from there."
Missy Laney added that “it's no longer a marketplace where it’s either A, B, or C type of film out there. We’re really seeing a wide variety of films screen in theaters, screen in unique venues, and then also have a life online. I think that’s a great thing."
Tailor your release strategy
The conversation turned to the specifics of what’s right for the individual project. Derick Rhodes used his two children, ages 16 and 12, as examples of the youth market. “They’re only are interested in going to three or four movies a year, and every single other thing that they consume is on their computer," he said. "It’s on Youtube, it’s on Vimeo, that’s their world." With that in mind, Rhodes advised, “If your project is geared towards younger folks, you have to think differently about distribution than you do if you’re making a film that’s an Academy Award feature.”
"In a world frustrated by algorithms, curation is the key," Krivoshey added. "It’s that personal touch that’s the differentiator."
"My kids only are interested in going to three or four movies a year, and every single other thing that they consume is on their computer."
At Grasshopper, he said, "we pick up basically every film we want to be behind and then we figure out the best way to get it out into the world. That could be a theatrical release, that could be a VOD release, that could be a non-theatrical release, which is showing films at schools, universities, and libraries, which is a really great strategy for documentary films in particular. And then once we figure out the best audience for that film, we move on to how to reach that audience."
He gave an example of a film with an older-skewing message. “We knew we wanted to reach an older audience, so we did a lot of print advertising in the Times and other papers in every major city we released in, and it did great," he said. "When we want to reach a younger audience, we concentrate very heavily on social media."
Wilkinson brought the focus back to digital. "To the point of theatrical distribution, I just want to mention, as like the digital bad guy on the panel, that I grew up in a very small town in Arizona," he said. "The closest movie theater was 30 minutes away. It is an AMC, essentially. I would never get to see any of the movies. So, I pirated them all. That’s how I got to watch movies. To that point, the internet is incredible because it reaches into even the smallest pockets of rural Arizona. It has global reach."
Build up your fan base
Wilkinson expanded on his point about the power of the internet. "As far as best practices go, look to the model that’s been set up by YouTube and by social media," he said. "It’s not a magic bullet of having a big event and then suddenly the people will come. It’s a long slog, and it's very hard. But [in terms of] getting people to pay attention to what you’re working on, as far as tactical hacks, Kickstarter campaigns are an excellent way of drumming up some really legitimately market-tested grassroots support.”
Laney piped up; this is her terrain. "We live in a very exciting time where there are all these tools available at your fingertips to essentially release your film just as a distributor would," she said. "You may need funds, which is why Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites are super valuable." She admits that "yes, it is a lot of hard work, but study what the great distributors are doing. When they acquire a film, they don’t just put it out the next week available online. This sounds crude, but you need to create demand for your product by doing all the wonderful things Jamie just laid out.”
"Yes, it is a lot of hard work, but study what the great distributors are doing."
"Part of the reason I think Kickstarters are really valuable," she continued, "is because you have that direct contact. Something we see a lot in the trades right now is transparency, so, having 1K hits on YouTube is great, but wouldn’t it be even better if you know who those people were?"
Very few basic streaming platforms offer the data analytics that Kickstarter campaigns can help a filmmaker cull. "If you thought that your fans were females between 18-24, but really it was men between the ages of 35-45, finding that information is really valuable, which is why you should be using platforms that give you that information because those are the ones you can build a career off of."
Harris asked if BitTorrent is acquiring this kind of information, and Laney nodded vigorously. "Yeah, so we believe that every fan who interacts with your project— those are your fans, not our fans, we don’t keep them. We pass all that information directly to you. Email addresses, location... all of that is on your dashboard, which you can export at any time."
Show personality and process
As the conversation returned to Kickstarter, the theme of personality and transparency persisted. It seems that in our social media world, people just don’t have the bandwidth to engage with anonymous content anymore.
"A lot of the best releases we’ve seen are where people treat it as an ongoing project," said Wilkinson. "It’s a multi-month, multi-year process where you’re releasing clips and talking about your work. People love the process and I, as the worst kind of filmmaker, love hearing about the process behind the films that I’m interested in. Seeing the behind-the-scenes footage, hearing about the struggles, too, like the bad stuff, is really interesting. So instead of thinking about it like you’re working on a behind-the-scenes documentary, just give away all that stuff as the promotional material."
"People respond to that personal touch."
Of course, many filmmakers tend to hold these secrets close to home. "I think there’s a lot of preciousness around all that," Wilkinson said. "This fear of giving away all the secret sauce, but it really gets people excited. I don’t think anybody’s ever skipped a movie because they saw all the behind the scenes stuff beforehand.”
In terms of showing personality, Ma believes it to be the key to getting young people back to the theaters. “If you come to Metrograph, it’s a very diverse range of people from different backgrounds and different ages, and it does tend toward younger audiences," she said. "The theater is a welcoming space that you want to spend time in between screenings, or you want to hang out there getting a drink. People are responding to that. So, refining the theatrical experience is very important to us. In terms of programming, that means infusing a personality and a sense that the whole space is curated. People respond to that personal touch."