Here’s another excellent article from my friend Director/Producer/Coach Eric Sherman. If you haven’t checked out his website (www.EricSherman.com) I highly recommend it – there’s a link to his blog from there, or click the title below
The complexion of the film industry has changed immensely in the past two decades. Prior to the mid-80’s, a picture had to be a success on U.S. screens in order to have any chance at profits, let alone to return even initial investment capital. However, with VCRs here by 1986, with the proliferation of cable, LaserDisc, satellite, DVDs and God knows what other media just around the corner, a modestly budgeted film in the right genre has a chance to recoup its cost even without a U.S. theatrical release. With the media technological explosion in full force (and predicted to continue indefinitely), the “pie” constituting the potential revenue of a movie is growing, with more and more slices being added.
How can the independent moviemaker tap into these growing alternative marketplaces? If the independent does break through the gates and secures a release deal – either with a major or an independent distributor – what can he do to ensure a fair chance at box office, and perhaps most importantly from the viewpoint of his future ability to raise production funds, how can he be sure to collect his due?
All these questions are answerable – not all in the space of this article – and must be answered if the independent moviemaker wants to survive as an independent, separate from the media giants.
A key to understanding these issues is an awareness of one of the current myths of the film industry: that there is a “glut” of films. The truth is that while there may be a glut of films at prime release times (e.g. the summer season, and from Thanksgiving to New Year), exhibitors often go wanting for titles during the “off season.” These nonprime times last approximately from the beginning of the year until Memorial Day and from Labor Day to just before Thanksgiving. Exhibitors have even been known to call producers directly during these off-times and ask if they have any available pictures!
Another common mistake made by independent moviemakers is that when they are budgeting their production, they do not include a line item for marketing expenses. Who do they think is going to pay for preview prints and screenings, for press kits and public relations efforts, for video copies and trailers, for trips to festivals and wining and dining that occurs there, and for the legal work done in analysing offers and contracts? These are all vital expenses incurred while hunting up a distributor.
Indie producers often cut themselves short by thinking that when the picture is shown, the world will come to them. It is not at all uncommon to spend $50,000-$100,000 just to secure a decent deal. And in the age of CLERKS, SWINGERS, and CHASING AMY, that’s a huge percentage of the overall budget. This is a reason why so many worthy films end up being prey for “vulture companies” (quasi-distributors who, for the price of “finishing funds” and a modicum of p.r. materials, buy your movie for cents on the dollar). Thus, it is my strong recommendation to budget for this preliminary marketing and do not begin shooting until you not only can finish the picture, but can fuel the primary market outreach.
Another shortfall for the typical first-time independent is a lack of audience testing prior to seeking distribution. It’s one thing to show a picture to your cast, crew and friends. It’s quite another to recruit a neutral audience and poll their opinion of the movie. Assuming most low-budget independent pictures are somewhat “quirkier” than the typical Hollywood mainstream, what are you going to say when you’re presenting your film to distributors and they say “it’s weird” as a method of avoiding paying you an advance? You can’t say much – unless you’ve tested the film in front of an audience and have analysed the results of your polling. In such a case, you can come back with, “It may be an unusual picture, but 90% of the recruited audience said it was excellent and very good, and 90% of those say they would recommend it to their friends.”
Perhaps the back-off from the audience testing by independents is driven by two factors: fear of numbers and of over-staticizing an art form, and the expense associated with it. I assure you that in both cases, you’re in for a surprise. When a real, statistically and scientifically valid test is done, you will learn much about your picture that you didn’t know (e.g. who the favorite characters are, what parts were too long and too short, even what kind of a film it is). This information can radically alter how you present your film to viewers (e.g. sales reps, distributors employees, etc.). And regarding expense, you will more than get back in terms of distributor offers what you spent on the test screening. A final warning note: no matter what you think, you will get a significantly different response from an audience who knows you than from one that doesn’t. So don’t delude yourself into thinking that a simple request by you to Aunt Ellen to tell you what she really thinks will result in objectivity. It won’t. It’s not humanly possible for family, cast or crew members to divorce themselves from the energy and effort they know you expended on making the picture – whereas, a neutral recruited audience is only concerned about the effect created on them.
(In Part Two of Selling Tips, I’ll give you more specific hints on how to overcome barriers to selling your film.)