Film festivals have long been powerful tools for indie filmmakers who seek audiences for their films. They serve as launching pads for that elusive big distribution deal that catapults an obscure filmmaker and unknown movie to fame and (sometimes) fortune. The glare of the festival spotlight often creates magic for all concerned.
Last year’s Sundance festival certainly did that for Benh Zeitlin and his movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild. A masterful film done on a low budget with unknown actors it has received richly deserved praise and box office success. It shows that the current system of indie development and funding can still support a worthy indie movie and help it reach a large audience.
Unfortunately, however, this kind of story is all too rare. Most of the indie films that go to film festivals do not get a distribution deal nor do they achieve anything close to this level of success. This has always been the case. By and large, films that go to Sundance and other well known film festivals never reach an audience beyond the festival. They remain obscure-even after a major festival showing.
I assume that every film that makes it into a film festival has an audience beyond the festival itself. It just has to be found. And today, getting a distribution deal with a traditional distributor is not the only way to find that audience.
Another Way To Seek An Audience
There is another film that premiered at Sundance a year ago that won praise and found its audience. And remarkably, this film, Indie Game: The Movie, did so without a traditional distribution deal. As such, the example of Indie Game: The Movie provides a glimpse into how filmmakers can find an audience using a little bit of the old (getting into a film festival to gain attention) and a little bit of the new (reaching their audience before, during and after production).
Fortunately for the indie film business, Lijan Pajot and James Swirsky created a case study that lays out the details of the journey from the conception of their film through its release. They have left a treasure trove of data that should inspire other filmmakers who might consider taking a similar path. I will concentrate on just a couple of their many data points.
Usually a filmmaker uses a film festival to begin the process of gathering an audience.
Pajot and Swirsky did something markedly different. They gathered an audience while they made their movie, long before they even applied to a festival.
A key vehicle for this gathering of fans was Kickstarter. They did two campaigns on Kickstarter. Through these two campaigns they gathered 2,893 supporters who contributed a total of $94,676 toward the film. In addition to the monies raised, Pajot and Swirsky gathered a significant number of fans with whom they could regularly connect with over the course of the film’s production and release-with Kickstarter updates, tweets and email conversations.
Essentially they followed Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans Strategy. By the time they were accepted by Sundance they had close to 3,000 fans in tow. Importantly they had a fan base with whom they could share their major film festival experience. You can imagine that their excited group of fans were more than happy to share their involvement with this film. You can see the tweets: “The movie I supported on Kickstarter got into Sundance!” This in turn gathered a larger audience.
Pajot and Swirsky used the Sundance festival as their midpoint in gathering their audience-not their starting point.
As a result the normal amplification of buzz that festivals provide was even greater as they had a solid base to build on.
This is a scenario that will become increasingly common in the future as more independent filmmakers begin to use the 1,000 fans strategy early in the film making process. And it will create another situation that Pajot and Swirsky encountered at the festival.
Though they were offered several traditional distribution deals, they said no to all of them. With their ever increasing fan base in their back pocket, another route was made possible. They made deals that allowed them to directly distribute their film through a number of digital channels, ranging from Netflix, iTunes to downloads from their own website. They were also able to get Adobe to underwrite a series of special theatrical screenings around the country.
One more thing to notice as well. As a result of their strategy, they held on to the ownership of their movie, which means that they alone control its future.
Much of their success can be directly traced to a decision they made early in their film making process- to gather their audience long before they entered their first festival.
It will be fascinating to observe which films come to Sundance this year with their fans in tow and take a similar route out.