The Audience Fund for Indie Film

“If you’re gonna make it, LEARN HOW TO SELL IT!”

Bob Lefsetz

Platforms, like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, VHX, Vimeo, Tugg and YouTube are designed for indies who are prepared to reach their audience through “direct distribution”.

It is not the responsibility of the platform to get your audience—it is yours.  Each platform gives you tools that help you achieve success but in order to succeed you have to aggressively use them.

This approach is fundamentally different from licensing your film to a traditional distributor, a method I would call “indirect distribution”.

Most filmmakers do not understand the difference between “direct” and “indirect”. This gap in understanding holds many (if not most) indie filmmakers back.

How can this gap be closed and indie film dragged into the 21st century?

Let’s imagine an audience fund for indie film. 

We start with 1 million dollars.  We want to underwrite direct distribution for up to 15 films that will be released roughly over the same year period.  We will put in between 50K to 100K per movie.

Filmmakers must have skin in the game so we require a few things from them.

Each filmmaker must bring a minimum of 25K to the effort, preferably through a crowd funding effort.  If they come with 25K we give them 50K, if they come with 50K, we give them 100K, a 2 to 1 match.  So each audience building campaign has a range of 75K to 150K to work with.

They have to commit a substantial amount of their own time to the audience gathering effort.  It has to be a central part of their job during their film’s release.  (For this we allow a modest filmmaker fee as part of the budget.)

We require that these filmmakers learn and use every tool of every platform they need to use.  We design a boot camp that educates them quickly and thoroughly.  (Best if they already use some of the tools and this boot camp is about intermediate or advanced work.)

We bring in experts to advise and implement the campaigns that each film requires.  People like Caitlin Boyle, Sheri Candler, Jon Reiss, Marc Schiller, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky.

We also bring in companies outside the world of indie film like Collective Digital Studios or Maker Studios who understand the YouTube ecosystem and people who get where the Internet is headed like John Borthwick or Andy Weissman to connect our filmmakers with the latest in social media thinking and practice.

We require that the filmmakers write publicly and often about how they are building their audience.  They must blog about what they see, what they learn, what works and what does not.  

They need to tell us where they experience success and where they find failure.

We stipulate that they collaborate with the other filmmakers supported by the fund.  They must promote each others work. They must share information about the strategies they plan to implement and how the implementation is working (or not).  They must act as resources for each other.

We stipulate further that all the filmmakers share the numbers. How many email addresses did you collect, how many tweets or emails did you send and respond to? How much money did you spend and how much did you make? 

This all has to be shared with each other as well as the public at large.

Why all these stipulations and requirements?

This is a fund that aims to fundamentally change the way indie filmmakers think about their audiences and how they distribute their films.

A few filmmakers have used the models that this fund will support– but not nearly enough.   This fund intends to amplify the work of those that are funded and create models that many others can follow.

As Bob Lefsetz writes,

“The point is people have plenty of money to give you, you’ve just got to find a way to make it palatable.  That’s Amanda Palmer’s genius.”

This fund will create and support some new Amanda Palmers in the indie film world.

Who is in?

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at chris@digitaldorr.com or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Out in the Street Films

    This sounds pretty cool. What about budgets well over $150K (perhaps $500K to $1M)? Would this model allow for collaboration with other investors, tax incentives, or even pre-sales?

    • chrisdorr

      Good questions. Ideally yes, it would allow for all kinds of collaboration with other investors, etc. and for higher budgets.

      • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Out in the Street Films

        Cool. I might be interested. Onward to crowd funding. Thanks.

      • Davidmth

        How do I contact you via email?

  • Scott McMahon

    I like the “Call to Arms” sort of speak. This is very much like the case study with the Veronica Mars movie and crowdfunding effort. Rob Thomas had to prove to Warner Bros. that there was still an audience willing to pay for the property.

    I’m sure the first thing is to get it started and work out the details as you go. Kinda like Sir Richard Branson’s saying, “Screw it! Let’s do it!”

    • chrisdorr

      Thanks Scott, it needs to be fluid, move fast, and urge filmmakers to jump in, experiment, share and amplify. It however, cuts against the grain of most of film as the idea proposes collaboration (between films and filmmakers) and transparency (talk about the real numbers, not the spin). As such many will not want to participate, but some will and will gain much as a result.

  • Linda Nelson

    Would love to talk to you more about this concept. My partner and I have a small but nimble digital distribution company, called Indie Rights, that is really a hybrid of direct and indirect distribution with many shared philosophies that you’ve expressed. We’ve helped more than 200 filmmakers get placed on every major digital platform out there. Our filmmakers enjoy direct participation in the revenue stream created for their films from dollar one and we constantly try to educate them about the importance of becoming and artist/entrepreneurs. At the same time, we see that they get their films up on platforms that they can not access themselves. Recently, we’ve realized that there is power in numbers and we are starting to cross-promote each others films, write reviews for each other, which helps push films along in the recommendation algorithms used by digital stores and share best practices for marketing. I’m up for meeting with other people in LA to help promote this concept. We are also filmmakers working on our fourth feature, so are very motivated to see this work from both sides of the equation.

    • chrisdorr

      LInda, thanks for your comments. Email me at chris@digitaldorr.com and we can set up a time to talk by phone.

      • Linda Nelson

        Look forward to it.

  • http://www.almccann.com/ Alastair McCann

    I think the best way to support independent film today would be for a fund to to match crowdfunding support dollar to dollar.

    I’ve always broken the larger ‘distributing culture on the web’ problem into two parts: the production bucket and the distribution bucket. For independent film, the production problem is tightly linked to the distribution problem because the production budgets are so high. Investors need the film to reach a large audience to recoup (this is part of the reason the quality of web content is low).

    The terrific thing about crowdfunding is it starts to solve both problems at once. A successful crowdfunding effort validates there is an audience for the project, and that audience can then be reached off the back of the campaign.

    Another consideration is the medium itself. You assume that a feature length film is the approach. But the feature length film will probably become the equivalent of the album for music. Its necessary to reconsider the business model for the web, and by extension the format. Is pay-per-view the best model? What about ongoing series with extended characterisation like successful ‘TV’ shows of late, sold via ongoing subscription. Is there a tiered subscription to build an audience that then kicks up to the feature length version, kind of like in-app purchases? That is move from a hits business to a subscription business. Crowdfunding platforms are a terrific way to test different business models for film distribution, again because the model becomes validated by customers.

    YouTube has a massive audience but it will never support independent film on the advertising side. YouTube advertising operates at enormous scale so its deflationary. The CPMs are insufficient. There is a pay-per-view option. Vimeo has a VOD product too.

    A model for the fund could be similar to a VC firm in the technology industry: financially supporting efforts that show traction at the right time, but focusing on ongoing revenues/returns rather than one in twenty hits.

    • chrisdorr

      Alastair, thanks for your comments. A lot of great points.

    • Linda Nelson

      I believe that YouTube has enormous potential for indie filmmakers. Our company, Indie Rights, is fortunate to be one of Google’s global rental partners, so our films are distributed to more than 200+ territories through Google Play, YouTube Movie Rentals and our Global and Domestic Indie Rights Movie Channels. Once indie films are available to billions, they start to scale in terms of revenue potential. As other platforms like Amazon, iTunes, etc. expand their global operations, the opportunities are just going to increase. Long-form storytelling is here to stay. It’s an important part of our culture. It used to be around a campfire, now it’s in a theater or in front of a big screen TV. Technology is leveling the playing field and while you still need to work with a distributor to get placed in the major digital stores, there are a number or companies that are now sharing gross revenue with filmmakers. This changes the whole game. It empowers the filmmakers because they know that the more they engage with their audiences, the more exposure and success they will have not only for their newest film, but for the whole body of work they are creating. It’s a great time to be making movies. With revenue from digital distribution growing rapidly and easy access to global digital stores, financing could become less risky, encouraging new investors. There will be more films, but it’s also a lot easier for people to find films they want to watch, especially when there is a particular niche audience.

      • chrisdorr

        Linda, very well stated. I think the potential for YouTube has hardly been touched to date, much more will come of it in the next few years, as with other digital platforms.

      • http://www.almccann.com/ Alastair McCann

        It’s awesome you’re bullish on indie film, I hope you’re right :)

        I definitely agree that storytelling is how people will always communicate. I also agree feature length film is part of our culture now, but I don’t agree that necessarily means it always will. For example, many of the great works of literature of the 19th century were serialised. Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert and Dumas were all originally published in serial format over time. That doesn’t say anything to whether their stories hold up as complete works, it just means that economic and technical conditions at the time meant ongoing publications of short segments was an appropriate publishing model.

        I see the feature length format as an outcome of 20th century technical conditions (cost of film, cost of projection, cost of distribution etc). I’m talking about the format, not film as a medium. Perhaps the format stands as a cultural tomb, or perhaps it evolves with time like the format of literature did.

        The distribution problem today doesn’t relate to actually reaching people. The web, mobile phones / tablets, iOS, Android, YouTube – they’re all platforms to reach billions. The distribution problem I see isn’t about that, rather its about actually connecting people in the context of those platforms. How do I reach *my* audience for my particular film? From the audience perspective its a discovery question. If I want to watch something tonight, how do I know which actual film to watch, whose recommendation do I trust? If I’ve never heard of the actors or director, how do I know I won’t regret clicking play after watching 20 minutes? You see this discovery problem now in the App Store. One homepage doesn’t scale discovery for millions of apps, rather one in some number are featured and downloaded a lot and the rest are buried.

        This is why I think filmmakers should build relationships with their audience over time (and not just filmmakers by the way, but any brand). That’s why I think there is something in serialisation, because its a way to develop a relationship with a customer over time. This may be particularly pressing for independent film if the themes and styles are less palatable for large audiences.

  • http://www.ArmakProductions.com/ Armak

    Why do you think the world needs more Amanda Palmers? The world needs better artists, not better salesmen. Conflating the two is not the answer.

    • chrisdorr

      It needs great artists who are also great at building their own audiences. The two are not incompatible. It is also how they can protect, have control over and better support their own art. I don’t conflate the two, I just suggest that one can help feed the other.

    • Nathan Proctor

      The world also needs a better way of supporting those artists – or, as Chris states, a way for artists to support themselves. We also need to use different terminology. “Salesmen” is not only gender specific, it also comes with way too many negative connotations. When I see a trailer for a really good indie film, I’m being sold on it. Is that such a bad thing?

      • http://www.ArmakProductions.com/ Armak

        I agree wholeheartedly with your first sentence. My point is that selling something, and creating something, are fundamentally different jobs and both should not be on the shoulders of artists. I’d even be willing to concede salemanship (the ‘man’ in salesman is short for ‘human’ btw) is an art onto itself, but it’s still a different art fundamentally different than a filmmaker’s. Trailers are a good example; very few directors cut their own.

        • chrisdorr

          Armak, good points. It is also true that the best directors have final cut/say over the trailers for their movies. Some filmmakers are inherent “salesmen”, think Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore, others are not. It is however true, that with the current state of direct distribution that if a filmmaker is not very involved in the “selling” of his movie, it will not find an audience. They have to take it on their shoulders or simply rely on middlemen who may or may not do a good job. (They will certainly be glad to take a substantial fee upfront or a big cut of the proceeds however good they are.)

          • http://www.ArmakProductions.com/ Armak

            Agree with all of that, except that “taking it their shoulders” and “middlemen” is a false dichotomy— there is another way: collaborators. In fact these partners already have an established role in the film business, they’re called producers. It is fundamental that directors need good producers, and in this modern era, perhaps no producer is as important to the indie director as the PMD. IMO what we need are a new generation of indie producers who understand contemporary media and audience film consumption, and who employ original tactics tailored so each project navigates this fractured landscape in a unique and effective way. The money in the film fund would be best spent on that— finding or training marketing collaborators for the directors so that they can focus on the films themselves.

          • Nathan Proctor

            I completely agree that we need a new generation of producers who can navigate this new terrain. It’s so very true! We also need a much more organized, efficient, and centralized system so that both producers and filmmakers can harness their power. But resources are limited. If filmmakers can learn these tools, then they will not only make a better living for themselves. They will also have more creative control. It’s then up to them if they want a producer to work on digital marketing and distribution for their film – instead of being forced to. Check out this great article on Ted Hope’s blog regarding a program he launched last year called Artist to Entrepreneur:

            http://trulyfreefilm.hopeforfilm.com/2013/05/1-best-practices-for-a-sustainable-creative-life.html

          • http://www.ArmakProductions.com/ Armak

            With all due respect to Ted, Chris, Sundance’s Artists Services, etc… Turning filmmakers into entrepreneurs, promoters, hustlers, and/or carnival barkers isn’t the answer. Better producers is the answer. Centralized, decentralized, online, in person, whatever, the industry needs a training camp for it. I’m an alum of Sundance’s producers lab and it doesn’t really do training per se. Are there any film schools with a producers’ program?

        • Nathan Proctor

          No one’s asking the artist to do everything on his or her own. That’s one of the fundamental purposes of this proposition – to help each other, to support one another by sharing. The fact of the matter is I want to be sold something and quite frankly artists are the best person, in my opinion, to sell it to me. Let’s not draw the line between creation and distribution so rigidly. We need to be in this together.

  • Stefano Pierpaoli

    Several authors, directors, indie producers asked me to organize a meeting on the new tools of independent production and distribution. I presented to theme the possible scenarios in order to best exploit the potential of building audience. (During the past 5 years I have organized in Italy many independent events and cultural taunt/provocation)
    In addition to that we are trying to form a working group to create a network path in Italy.
    Regarding that it would be interesting to share experiences and proposals.
    My idea is to connect us to several independent theatres (20-40) in Italy. Then to promote this project creating a direct relationship with people who come to the screenings. This way could allow to develop some events in many towns not delegating only Internet to build the audience.
    It could be profitable for independents to create a direct theatrical network sharing film from different countries, having a direct/real dialogue with audience and to become a social event.
    On the immediate second step to distribute film and docs on line using all the platforms but already being settled in several territories.