As a Pommy (an Englishman in Australia for our international friends), I thought I had the monopoly on whingeing. It has taken me years to develop and hone my genetically, god-given craft to its current exalted levels. But even I am impressed with voluminous levels of whingeing that emanates from so many quarters of the Australian Film Industry at the moment; from the media that voraciously laps it up and propagates it further; from the government bureaucrats who see it as a perfect opportunity to cut budgets. It seems that everywhere you turn, it’s all doom and gloom. My whingeing is genetic – at least I have an excuse.
Yes, the film industry, both locally and internationally, is challenged at the moment; yes, it is at a major turning point – a technological cusp if you like; and yes there are significant challenges. But if there’s heat in the kitchen – you either get out, get a fire extinguisher, or embrace it and go out selling combustion based services. Charles Darwin may not have been everybody’s cup off Philosophical Rosy Lea, but he was right when he said “adapt or die” – it’s unfortunate we can’t actually ask the Tyrannosaurus Rex their opinion on the matter – but it’s the commercial and economic reality for any industry, for any business – just ask those in the Telex business; the fax machine business; the film processing business. Change hurts, but it has upsides – we just need to see them. Is it just a cloud or a silver lining?
Whilst there are so many other well-worn cliché’s that reflect the challenges of change, the one that comes to mind is the old sales cliché – there are never problems – only opportunities. To reflect this for the film industry, and Independent films in particular, I did a masterclass at the 2014 Walkley’s Storyology Summit.
My presentation was on disruptive distribution and financing models for the film industry. This was based upon my own entrepreneurial experience as an early stage adopter of the internet back in February 1995 and my own experience financing and distributing our crowd funded, Independent feature, 54 Days. In preparing for the presentation, I reflected on the strategic positioning of the Australian film industry as a whole (although the model applies more widely), and where Australian films, especially independent films, had their place. Unfortunately, within the current distribution models, with very few exceptions, they don’t – not in Australia anyway – and this is driven by the structure of the global film industry.
Hollywood is and will always be the Behemoth in the room; a force to be reckoned with at every turn. Some may not like the studios or their system, but they represent an almost invincible force that is impossible to stop. Put a King’s Ransom behind the promotion of a movie – get results on the first weekend and the rest is easy. It’s pretty simple; it’s pretty effective and they are good at it – very good. To understand how this affects us as Indie Film makers just consider good old Abe Lincoln when he said.
“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
That now infamous quote is permanently locked in the DNA of most marketeers, worldwide – most that is. Hollywood, as always, plays by its own rules. Joseph E. Levine, an historic and seasoned Hollywood Producer of around 500 films put his own spin on this cliché:
“You can fool all the people all of the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough.”
And so it is with Hollywood, They have the expertise and the depth of pockets to buy mindshare; to buy bums on seats; to buy the box office. When you consider the average International Marketing Budgets for Studio films, it makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for local home grown films to even contemplate competition.
In an article 31st July in The Hollywood Reporter reported the trends in the International marketing Budgets of Studio Films:
Average International Budget 1980 $4.3m (c $12m in today’s money)
Average International Budget 2007 $36m
Average International Budget 2014 $200m (anecdotal discussions the magazine had with the studios)
Just think about that for a moment. The equivalent of 43% of the GDP of Tonga (World Bank statistics for 2013) is on average being spent on International Marketing for Studio films – that’s even forgetting the production budgets, themselves. Their “top down” approach to marketing means that there is a tsunami of marketing messages coming out – Billboards, PR, Advertising, TV, Radio, Social Media – it’s pervasive – all geared towards one thing – the opening weekend. Realistically, and in the absence of severe Government Regulation, how can local films possibly hope to compete? The box office numbers unfortunately show they can’t.
In November 2014 IF magazine produced an article looking at the market share Australian films had at the Australian box office. In 2013 it was 3.5% – down from the ten year annual average of 3.8%, which in its own right is dismally poor. In 2014 thus far, figures are looking even worse – substantially below 3% and getting dangerously close to 2%.
Now there are as many theories as to why the local box office figures are poor – with poor quality stories seeming to be a core mantra from many quarters. I would argue, however, whilst poor stories may indeed have a part to play, even if a story is exceptional, the sheer weight of marketing spend by Hollywood makes it almost impossible for Australian based movies to get above the noise to generate worthwhile box office figures . Of course there will be exceptions – and hopefully so – but if fully funded Australian films cannot compete head on with Hollywood – where hell does that leave Indie films?
In seeking to prepare for the marketing of our own movie, 54 Days, I had been listening to interviews, podcasts and reading articles from Indie filmmakers and commentators from across the world to understand experiences from the trenches – from the front-line. I have to say the story was not very pretty.
Anecdotally I heard such numbers as 13,000 films getting submitted to Sundance, 130 getting shown and 30 getting distribution. Similar numbers were said to come from Tribeca – 6,500 being shown and 15 getting distribution. That’s 0.2% of indie films getting theatrical distribution – it’s worse than the odds of Qatar winning the world cup! Even then, once through the A-list festival circuit, significant International Indie films have to compete head on with the Hollywood Behemoth. So with Australian indie films – what chance do we have?
The immediate and perhaps natural instinctive reaction would be like many I have heard “We are well and truly f***ed !“. I would then hear (and have heard) the diatribe of excuses – blaming Hollywood, blaming the Australian public funding bodies, blaming distributors, blaming the Aussie public – without taking a step back and looking at the core power that as Indie films and film-makers we actually have – flexibility, ingenuity, speed of action, risk taking and PASSION.
Now passion doesn’t pay the bills – I wish it did – but as indie film-makers we don’t have thousands of mouths to feed on a daily basis; we don’t have a massive bureaucracy to fund; we don’t have lawyers watching our every word. We can explore; we can experiment; we can boldly go where others fear to tread – or perhaps frankly, don’t understand. Whilst I am not suggesting complete recklessness, we don’t have risk aversion genes built into our Corporate machine .
The corporate beast is a compliant beast; compliant to shareholders and a corporate culture. Their reticence to tread into untried territory is primarily driven by their sizeable financial commitments to movies, meaning risk has to be at best mitigated or at worst squeezed out of the agenda. Their problem is our opportunity. Enter stage left digital distribution.
First off – Digital Distribution is NOT a panacea for every indie film-maker – it won’t solve the malaise and discontent that exists. It does mean, however, film-makers have the opportunity to market their films directly to their audience – cutting out the distributors – how incredible is that! In the internet strategic parlance it is called disintermediation – cutting out the middle man, if you like. The flip-side, however, is that it means that film makers have to come out of their comfort zone and become their own distributors; their own marketers – from the inside out; from the get-go; from the script stage.
Instead of adopting a “top-down” Hollywood approach , indie film-makers have to exert a “bottom-up approach” and take a longer-term view of the returns. It takes time, patience and passion with the often spilt blood, sweat and tears all washed away with the oily rag used to fund the film in the first place. It also needs a touch of insight.
I’m not saying I have all the answers – I don’t – but I got involved personally with the internet in 1995 – to be precise on 12th February 1995 at 2.16pm – it was that cathartic for me. I immersed myself entrepreneurially within it, culminating in building up and selling a web design house 6 weeks prior to the crash in 2001. The experiences overall taught me one thing. Whilst the internet, and the ancillaries of it – social media – are fantastic for communicating and selling to a significant numbers of people quickly and easily – it comes into its own for niche marketing – worldwide.
For those that are not familiar with the concept, niche markets exist for products that have a limited, even specialist marketplace away from the mainstream. It’s where the big boys either don’t want to play in or can’t make enough money to make it viable to play in. For example, I found these little beauties on Pintrest.com
In general it would be a challenge for anyone to find these for sale in the majority of mainstream High Street motor accessory stores. But there are people round the world who would look at those and say – wow how cool are these! (if you know any of them please direct them immediately to our next crowd funding campaign). So if you were a manufacturer of these beauties how would you get access to those people? The mainline distributors of car accessories would not generally stock them because the demand is not high enough. So the internet becomes their store front.
Niche marketing works fantastically on-line – you can influence people quickly, effectively and most importantly, cheaply – the words every indie film-maker loves to hear. And this is where indie film comes into its own. For niche marketing read genre.
54 Days, our award winning indie movie, is a sci-fi thriller. Gratefully, we are getting positive reviews and the movie is doing the international film festival circuit currently. But it is genre based – and was deliberately designed to be so from the get-go. It was also deliberately designed with an international focus right from the writing of the script. We have four different accents within the bunker where our five heroes are trapped – to position the movie as “mid-Atlantic”, rather than purely “Australian” – the harsh reality is so many International Audiences don’t like Aussie accents. We knew from the start the chances of getting mainline distribution would be infinitesimally small, so from the initial writing perspective we worked on the basis that digital distribution would be the only pragmatic way to go.
Now that we have finished the film, we are selling it via our digital platform partners, and are engaged on our promotional campaigns looking to generate awareness – but focused on our niches. To this end we have been working on niche marketing strategies. We have been :
- Targeting festivals that fit our genre and style of movie – sci-fi, thriller, horror (Psychological thrillers like 54 Days overlap here) and Indie festivals
- Targeting reviewers, bloggers vloggers, reviewers in these niche spaces.
- Getting interviews with indie sites, sci-fi / thriller bloggers and journos, getting talked about, slowly building relationships with the genre space and building marketing collateral in that space – building “buzz”.
- Using primarily Facebook, Twitter Youtube, our website – linking them together, cross-promoting each, drilling deeply into the genre and niches of our film.
- Working with key marketing partners – all niche partners – e.g. foreign language TV stations – more details of which we will share in subsequent articles.
The end result, is that (gratefully once more) we have been getting a series of great reviews from genre based influencers. These build leverage; leverage to get easier acceptance into genre festivals; leverage to get access to bigger bloggers who have more influence; leverage to get to quality journos, critics and bigger platforms and magazines to start taking notice. And so it goes on. It becomes a self generating cycle – where success breeds success. That is not to say it is easy – it is not – it is like pushing a snowball up a hill. It requires so much pro-active effort and energy for the snowball to gather snow as it begins to move – but it is moving, nonetheless.
We have also recognised – we won’t get immediate game-changing results – it will be a slow burner – but, by going slowly, but very steadily 54 Days will build a solid bedrock,a firm foundation to build upon and will generate long-terms sales through our various distribution platforms. The snowball does grow with momentum, and especially with enhanced credibility.
One example of this is that we had pro-actively targeted reviewers and had secured about 6 reviews – all positive; some even gushing. We had an Electronic Press Kit, which we updated regularly and made available to festivals, reviewers, bloggers – anyone that could be an influence on the success of our movie. Supported by some initial festival success, it reduces risk to new film festivals – after all they want bums on seats – like any theatrical partner. I’m not saying this was the festival’s overreaching reasoning behind selecting us, but we have been accepted into the Idyllwild festival in CA in Jan ’15 and have been informed we are having two screenings as one of the featured films in the festival. Now we are very grateful to all the parties that supported us along the way – especially one of our US reviewers, @MikesFilmTalk who independently tweeted the festival giving us a good wrap and congratulating the festival on their choice of our film – priceless.
Now it could all fall apart – I recognise that fully – as we are a small, independent film with no known names – but the snowball is building. Sustaining that momentum still requires phenomenal effort but it is helping with sales. It’s actually not rocket science – the more people that hear good things about your movie the reduced risk there is in terms of them paying to watch it .
We have already recently started selling via our technology partner Distrify.com, which gives us access to a multi-currency, worldwide distribution platform, and a built-in affiliate structure – giving us a potential worldwide footprint. Their offering is great but it’s the main platforms – Amazon, iTunes that offer the widest branded distribution in the purest sense – but they take time – up to 120 days.
By the time these platforms review our technology and our movie, and accept us on to their platform, we are planning to have a solid bank of reviews and festival appearances to make our promotional job less hard (less hard – not easier). But in all this maelstrom of promotional activity, there has been one beautiful touch of irony.
Through all our promotion into the genre spaces we have had a number of International genre distributors beginning to approach us. Having seen us make inroads into the genre space, they now see the risks of distribution beginning to ease away. For them, it is easier to back a film with actual buzz and sales than one which has just hit the film festival circuit. Whilst it is so very tempting to open up formal dialogue with every Tom, Richard and Harold that approaches us, it is too early. The preference is for us to have more marketing collateral that proves the market exists (e.g. consistent reviews, a sales pattern on Transactional Video On Demand) – and gives us leverage – and frankly more choice to negotiate a better deal, if actual distribution were to happen. I liken it to the old Indie music model – where if you built your own audience through live gigs and CD sales, distributors would get behind you. However tempting it is for the ego to be brushed by the vaguest allure of theatrical distribution we know we have to continue to build awareness – one influencer at a time.
In summary, therefore, whilst the film industry is tougher than it has ever been, is going through dramatic changes and is subject to the unparalleled power of the Studios, digital distribution offers immense opportunities for film-makers, especially indie film-makers if it is approached with an open mind and the same passion that got the indie film made in the first place. Now, there is the opportunity to be in control of a film’s destiny, its success, as the film can find its natural audience. But be warned it’s hard work. It’s one blogger at a time, one Facebook like at a time, one tweet at a time, one reviewer at a time but with time and effort you will find your audience and, with time, the snowball will roll down the hill by itself.
Editor’s note : Tim Lea is a Sydney based Writer and Producer, with a speciality of digital distribution. His first feature 54 Days is available for digital download on Distrify.com and is expected to be on Amazon, iTunes and other platforms in early 2015.