I had the great pleasure of moderating a panel on Demystifying Digital Distribution at the Available Light Film Festival in Whitehorse earlier this month. There were some great insights on this topic shared by my fellow panelists who included producer and distributor Avi Federgreen from IndieCan, distributor Dylan Marchetti from Amplify Releasing and Suzanne Crocker, a multi award winning filmmaker, All the Time in the World.
During our discussion we explored the changing landscape of releasing a film in Canada and discussed some of the opportunities and challenges filmmakers face today. We also discussed the various facets of distributing a film, from festival screenings, to theatrical release through to online distribution. We all agreed that the theatrical release is no longer the ‘be all and end all’ for a film’s release. As Avi said, it’s great for a filmmaker to get a theatrical release and have their film play on the big screen, but often it’s not practical and can be extremely costly. Dylan argued that in many cases it makes no sense to book a film in a movie theatre for multiple screenings per day for a week, particularly a low budget film with no star’s attached. Most of those screenings play to an audience of two or three people at best. What a colossal waste of money. I agreed that in many cases it is better for the filmmaker to book a theatre for one screening in their home city, pack the house and then release day and date, or shortly thereafter, on VOD.
Although there was general agreement with this approach, Avi pointed out that some films are required by Telefilm Canada to have a minimum of one week in three cities, and if a filmmaker wants to be reviewed by the critics they must have a proper theatrical release. We speculated as to whether Telefilm will change their policies as we start seeing more success with alternative distribution models. There’s no way around getting those critics reviews though. The question is, how important are they? I know you can’t guarantee that your film will get reviewed and even if you could, there is certainly no guarantee you’ll get a good review.
The other consideration for going the theatrical route, is if you want to play in a Cineplex theatre, which dominates over 80% of the theatres in Canada, you cannot release on VOD within 90 days of it’s theatrical screening. That’s a long time to wait after a one or two week theatre run (three weeks if you are lucky). Any buzz generated for your film during it’s theatrical will be long gone and forgotten. You have to start your VOD marketing campaign from ground zero and with a limited budget you may have little to no impact.
In a perfect world, you would have a strong festival screening at a significant, well respected festival, then quickly move into your theatrical release in Canada, day and date with your US release, and then immediately follow that with your launch on VOD. Unfortunately, we seldom see that perfect scenario unfold, and it’s particularly unlikely for the smaller films. In fact, it is very difficult for low, or smaller budget films to even book a theatre, and it can be near impossible to time it with an American release. If you happen to get an American release, your southern distributor will then insist that you not release your film online until it has had it’s theatrical release in the States. This is something Suzanne is currently experiencing with her film All The Time In The World and her American distributor is basically forbidding her to release online in Canada. Unfortunately, unlike the title of Suzanne’s film, filmmakers don’t have the leisure of time, and if there is too much of it between festival, theatrical and online distribution your film can quickly go stale.
I like Dylan’s recommendation. He said a low budget film that is likely to be subjected to this kind of waiting game torture is much better off to plan a VOD launch immediately following a significant festival screening. By doing so you can ride the wave of publicity buzz generated by the festival and people will more likely seek out your film to watch online. It’s a cost effective way to build your audience and keep the momentum rolling.
From here we moved into talking about aggregators – that’s an expensive business and from what I gathered it’s not necessarily the best approach for smaller films. First off, you have to pay approximately $1,000 to work with an aggregator and every time you want to send your film to a VOD platform the aggregator will charge you another $175 for delivery. They don’t help market your films, but just dump them on the VOD sites and walk away. The problem is, if you want to get your film on iTunes or Netflix you have to either have a distributor or work with an aggregator as these two giants will not deal with individual filmmakers.
There are other platforms that filmmakers can go directly to though. Suzanne is in favour of Vimeo as they only take 10% of sales and you set the price. This is the DIY approach to distributing your film, which works for those who are great marketers and already have an existing and well established fan base. The biggest problem with Vimeo is that it is difficult to find new films unless you know exactly what you are looking for.
Another great platform is CanadaScreens – Ok, I know I’m a tad biased about this one but it really is pretty cool. First off, if you already have a pro-res file it will cost you nothing to get it on CanadaScreens. If the film needs to be digitized, it will just cost $100 (much less than the $1,000 to go through an aggregator). Content is curated and actively marketed by a savvy social media team; and we promote the service as a place to discover great Canadian films so people who haven’t heard about your film will be exposed to it. You can find out more about CanadaScreens here.
Once you figure out your online releases strategy and what platforms you are going to be on then make sure you have the assets to attract your audience. Avi commented on how important it is to have a simple, clean poster. Remove all the laurels, keep your graphics to a minimum, don’t have actor names or quotes. Remember the VOD poster is not the same as the theatrical poster as your audience’s first exposure to your movie will be captured in a thumb nail. Keep it simple.
Dylan said if you can’t get a professionally cut trailer (and he sternly advised against filmmakers cutting their own trailers) then just take a :30 second clip from the film – a teaser of sorts. You must have something to preview. Both Avi and Dylan also strongly recommended that filmmakers have their own YouTube channel where they post their trailers, and warned filmmakers against trying to monetize them. You’ll frustrate you audience if you make them watch an ad before your trailer, which is in fact another ad.
In closing, it’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker. It’s easier then ever to make movies and if you have some social media savvy, are committed to promoting your work, there are many avenues for you to take to help find your audience.