Sheri Candler Brings Independent Films to Market – Part 3

Published On February 27, 2011 | By admin | film distribution, Film Festival, film marketing, Independent Film, Q&A

The final part of the Filmmakers Notebook Q&A with the very bright, talented and opinionated independent film marketing expert Sheri Candler.  This time we focused on film festivals, self-distribution and revenue streams.

After seeing a number of film festivals up close, how important a role do you think they play for independent filmmakers?

I think there are way too many and there will be a culling out over time and that is ok with me.  There is a lot of old world thinking and a lot of ego in the circuit and now a lot of fear.

I was at a party at Sundance talking with a woman from some other festival’s board of directors.  The things she was saying were just devastating to me.  I can’t name the festival because I didn’t catch it, but to think she serves in that capacity was just mind blowing.  Basically her attitude was it isn’t a festival’s role to play distributor or launching pad.  Filmmakers must respect their rules about distributing work ahead of playing festivals.  Almost everything she said I believed the exact opposite.

I DO think the new role of festivals is about audience building in local communities, to play curator of the best content for their audiences and to help artists sustain themselves in whatever way they can.  I think filmmakers should look at the festival circuit as a form of theatrical screening tour and use those screenings to fuel sales and build up email lists and connections to the people who attend.  They should tour with their films and really meet the people attending.  See it as a club tour in the music world.

I think film festivals should do more to provide audience data from screenings and have filmmaker/audience mixers, so the two can meet in a facilitated way.  Festivals also shouldn’t be active only during festival time; it should be a year round endeavor and strive to make that happen.  If it can’t be afforded, maybe they should rethink what they are doing.

Considering the expense of submitting, what criteria would you suggest filmmakers use when selecting which festivals to enter?

Sheri and Class

Research, research, research.  There are books on the subject, there are websites on the subject, there is information from filmmakers on which fests are good and which aren’t.  Don’t just buckshot approach festival submissions.  Be very clear about what you want out of the process, besides people seeing your film, and how it can be best accomplished.  No, there is no master list of the “best” film festivals because every film is different and best for one person’s agenda may not be best for yours.  I say that because I have heard that question asked.  You can’t get out of work, I’m sorry but you will have responsibilities here.  There is a lot of graft, rip off, fraud in this business and you have to be prepared.  You prepare by doing thorough research.

You can start research on Withoutabox, but remember they are a business. As my friend Roberta Munroe says, they send those festival submission reminders not because they care about you and your film, but because they get a cut of the submission fees.  It is to THEIR benefit you submit to as many as possible.  Don’t fall for it.

There are people who are festival consultants with years of experience. Check them out, make sure they have actually worked at festivals and are familiar with the circuit and are well respected.  I can say that they are valuable resources.  Not only can they tell you which fests you are likely to be accepted to (or why your film needs work before you submit), they also have valuable contacts that can help get you the second consideration you might need.  None of them should be promising to get you in, they would endanger their rep and contact list that way, but absolutely programmers at festivals know these people and trust their judgment.  It could make a big difference to your career if you choose to use a festival consultant.

What tools and platforms do you consider critical for filmmakers who are planning to self-distribute

Social networking tools are an absolute must.  Unless a filmmaker plans to go door to door or cold call audiences (!) I don’t see another way to form relationships with people in any feasible way.  Social networking tools earn you permission to sell (but don’t use them to sell), collecting email addresses allows you to have deeper connections and make your sales offers.  Email is another essential tool.

 I think advertising still has a place, especially around release time, but highly targeted and cost efficient advertising.  I am absolutely stunned at how wasteful most distributors are with their advertising budgets.  They seem to all use the same sites and avenues with no differentiation of the product or audience.  I guess it is because most outsource to media buying agencies that don’t differentiate.  When you control it and you know with certainty where your audience consumes media, you won’t be wasteful.

Publicity has a place especially, affinity sites and outreach to influencers whether that is influential bloggers, directors of groups or organizations (this could be Meetup groups, churches, women’s organizations or cause organizations), high profile speakers, anyone who has an audience similar to the one you are trying to reach.  Reviews from major publications if you have a theatrical tour are certainly important.

Use Demand It applications like Crowd Controls to find out where you should be booking your film.  Consider alternative venues and allowing your fans to help you in their local areas.  Again, many distributors just book in the same cities with no regard for demand.  When you are in charge, you can spend more wisely and have a better chance to recoup.

All of your efforts should be tied back to one central hub, the one piece of “real estate” you own, your website.  Using 3rd party apps are great but you have to transition people to where the deep engagement and commerce happens, on your site.  Keep it fresh, give them reasons to keep checking back.

Which revenue streams do you think will provide the most income for them in the next few years?

Sheri, Trevor & Roberta at Sundance (Photo by Fish Griwkowsky)

Lots of little revenue streams will be needed.  I see almost no benefit in pursing DVD as a revenue stream, but it would be dependent on your audience tastes and preferences to help you make decisions.  Every film is different and every audience is different.  DVD has a fairly big upcharge attached for manufacture and distribution costs including the returns and “shelf premiums” and I just don’t see making the money back on that.  A fairly recent Tribeca Institute study I read said that most films sell under 2,500 DVD copies.  Pretty sad.   I think we will start seeing a huge increase in streaming revenue; it just won’t be at the price a DVD retails for now.  Where you might have commanded $14.99 for a DVD, you’ll now be getting $2.99 for stream, but if the costs are lower for delivery and you are able to do it on multiple platforms in non exclusive contracts, you could make more. Marketing costs don’t necessarily have to increase, but marketing efforts certainly will.

Also, I think it will be increasingly short sighted for filmmakers to only sell copies of their films.  There are many ways work can be monetized and many different business models are being developed by forward thinking artists, not just in filmmaking, but in music and books.  Those same models can and should be used by all artists.  It means developing an audience base for your work, connecting people with similar interests together, charging for access to custom material, charging for live events, looking into ad revenue and affiliate marketing, providing alternatives for ad free material with an upcharge.  Artists are creative people and they shouldn’t be spending all of their time being creative on the work and complacent with their business.

What does self distribution for independent filmmakers look like to you in the future?

First, I want to stress that it doesn’t look like doing this work all by yourself. My friend, Kim Adelman, gave a talk a few years ago and one of the things she said stuck in mind at the time and still does to this day.  “You are the studio.”  Filmmakers need to stop thinking about one project at a time and hiring different crew for each project.  Think of your endeavor as a small business, a small studio.  Find a core group of good people who all enjoy working together and make your films that way.  Outsource what you can’t do best yourself, but control the rights and the costs like any other small business.

It is no coincidence that Kevin Smith is distributing “Red State” himself.   He has been working on an audience for over 15 years and his reliance on third parties that take the rights to his work in exchange for enabling him to go to other projects is no longer needed.  But he isn’t releasing that film all by himself.  He put together a team of people who advised on the outlets, helped book the theaters, he has press contacts that have been cultivated for years; he has built his own “studio” to handle this task (in fact he is launching a studio called SModcast Pictures).  He controls the process, but he isn’t so self centered as to say it all has to be done by him personally.  He is the front man to be sure, but there is a whole back office working on this.  Work with your own back office and outsource what you can’t handle in house.

Parting words

I want everyone to stop making films if they don’t know who is going to see them.  If you can’t visualize that person in detail, down to the clothes they would wear to come see the film, don’t make that film until you can.  I’m serious!  It is so important to the future of your career as an artist to be able to build relationships with a group of people so dedicated to your work that they will see/buy/tell other people about it.  It starts with being valuable and making exceptional work.  A person who shares their work and their passion is so valuable in the world and most artists I know have this in them. Start giving and you will find people congregate around you. That is the first step.

Hope you enjoyed all 3 Parts of our Q&A with Sheri.  You can keep up with her activities on Twitter @shericandler and read more of her thoughts on  her website at http://www.shericandler.com/.

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