Friday, June 27, 2008

Erica's Dispatch from Silverdocs: Part III (the Conference)

This is the last installment of my trilogy of dispatches from the SILVERDOCS Film Festival. I already gave my general impressions of the festival and some of the films I saw at the festival. Now I conclude with some tidbits I took away from the International Documentary Conference which is a sidebar to the festival.

As noted previously, I split my time between the festival, the conference, and some private meetings, so this is hardly a comprehensive guide to the conference. I was able to attend only five conference sessions:

DocuClub Screening of work-in-progress STAGES: I'll refrain from commenting on this session too much since I was the moderator, but I will give a shout-out to Felix Endara at DocuClub and the filmmakers of the Meerkat Media Arts Collective. Felix wrote a nice wrap-up of the session on the DocuClub website. Though the audience was relatively small (hey, it was a Tuesday afternoon), the people who made it to the screening gave excellent feedback and I too am curious to see what the Meerkats do with it.

The first few panels I went to were underwhelming. Does Public TV Have a Future? dealt with the issue of public media at a very macro level, but really didn't shed new light on how this will impact independent documentary filmmakers. Similarly The Documentary In Action: Civically Engaged Media: A Look at Next Generation Marketing, Funding, Outreach and Distribution panel sounded more promising than it actually turned out to be -- at least if you were hoping to learn some new tips on how to get their films funded and distributed. I missed the first part of the session because the handy brochure-size schedule of the festival and conference did not have the correct start time (and I didn't think to look in the clunkier conference notebook). But I did get there in time to hear Sandy Herz from the Skoll Foundation talking about how Skoll's emphasis has been on supporting social entrepreneurs to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But, in case you're a filmmaker thinking you are a have-not, you may need to look elsewhere since Skoll's focus is not on funding individual film projects, but on supporting large organizations (like the Sundance Institute and public television and radio entities). Given the audience for this panel, it seems like it might have made more sense to have someone from ITVS or another direct filmmaker-funding entity which wants a heavy outreach component; maybe even someone from Sundance to explain their new initiative funded by Skoll. The panel went on to feature some interesting (if somewhat depressing) statistics from Rick Allen, the Executive Producer of KICKING IT. He cited the statistics that, out of 9000 films submitted to the most recent Sundance Film Festival, only 118 were accepted. Less than 40 of those were documentaries -- of which only seven were bought for distribution. He also noted that, in 2007, only three documentaries grossed more than $1 million. But lest you think he was trying to be a downer to prospective doc-makers, his point really was that the system is broken. His point of view is that forcing the consumer to pay for a film upfront ultimately hurts creativity and experimentation and that he sees Web 3.0 as a way to blend the social networking tools of Web 2.0 with professional content. The next phase of online video will feature more curated programming than the chaos of YouTube. But what he didn't fully explain was how this can be economically viable for the filmmaker himself. Or at least he didn't explain it while I was there. The challenge of the conference schedule was that panels on mutually-themed topics often coincided or overlapped, so I had to skip the last part of this panel to head to another one.

Thankfully the last few panels I went to all proved to be useful -- indeed, even inspirational -- for indies.

There was a great session on pitching with Cynthia Lopez from POV, Josh Green from Emerging Pictures, and Mark Rabinowitz from Cinelan. The information they offered was not news to most doc filmmakers...

* Know who you're pitching, including what kind of content they generally pick up (e.g., POV is for social issue documentaries, Cinelan only takes three minute shorts, etc.), any little tidbits about them personally which may help build a connection (without coming across as creepy), and how they prefer to be pitched (in person? by phone? e-mail? etc.)

* Know what other films have been done on your topic and be ready to answer questions of how yours is unique? Anticipate difficult questions.

* Know how to contain your pitch into a short package so you can "contaminate" others with your film's topic. Be clear on the perspective of the story.

* Know that distributors view films as "one big bundle of risk," so be ready to answer questions which may show you already have a built-in audience or have done some test marketing.

"Be positive throughout a pitch. Never say anything like 'I don't know if there's an audience for...'"

...but they spent the bulk of the time actually taking pitches from audience members, asking good questions, and providing useful feedback. This was a breath of fresh air after years of attending other DC panels where programmers from Discovery and National Geographic basically say they can't take any pitches because of their requirement for filmmakers to sign legal forms basically giving away their right to complain if their pitch is not picked up but the network produces something similar. The only panel I ever went to where an exception was made was one where HBO's Sara Bernstein attended and Victoria Bruce made a passionate pitch for her work in progress THE KIDNAPPING OF INGRID BETANCOURT; the film ultimately screened on HBO. I'll be curious to see if any of the films pitched at SILVERDOCS find equal success.

Though, of course, "success" is in the eyes of the beholder and is often very much in the control of the filmmakers themselves, albeit with a lot of time and effort. Nowhere was this more clear than at a case study session on MADE IN L.A. with filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar (who we featured in our Docs In Progress Spring 2008 feature on houseparties). Finally some down-to-earth advice on how independent filmmakers can effectively bring civic engagement into their plans for fundraising, marketing and distribution. Some of their tips:

* Don't be dissuaded by grant rejections. They were initially rejected by some of the larger foundations. While it was frustrating, it also helped them look at other, more grassroots means of fundraising. By focusing on grassroots fundraising in the early years, they ultimately built their core audience and paved the way for the outreach once the film was complete.

* Clarify who your core audiences are and don't presume there may just be one. In the case of MADE IN L.A., their core audiences included labor activists, Latino organizations, and women's organizations. By establishing connections with these organizations, they were able to hook in to smaller grants from foundations focused on shared issues. They were especially interested in looking at organizations which had good networks and were well organized.

* Keep a good database. At every event, they had sign-up sheets not only to add people to their mailing list, but also to keep track of different levels of donors, who was interested in eventually purchasing the film, etc.

* Don't put all your eggs in one basket. They went to the IFP Market and left with great spirits but empty pockets. Similarly, it took them three tries before they got money from ITVS.

* Don't think of production as being separate from distribution. It is all towards the same goal. Too many filmmakers lose energy after the film is done, but outreach is where the real work begins (though of course it began long before the film was completed). In the year since MADE IN L.A. premiered at SILVERDOCS 2007, the filmmakers have been on a strenuous grassroots outreach campaign which has taken them around the country and around the world. They expect this campaign to continue for another year.

* Once the film is done, if possible, always have DVDs with you to sell -- whether at festivals or outreach screenings. People are more likely to buy the film onsite rather than going to order from the website.

Distribution expert Peter Broderick moderated this panel and later made his own presentation on the Cutting Edge of Distribution, based on the experiences he has had working with more than 100 filmmakers on hybrid models of distribution. His presentation was a great addition to the information because he cited many examples of films which would not easily fit into the social-issue category that MADE IN L.A. does. Among them:

FASTER, about Motocross racing. Though the film had a limited theatrical release, it saved money on an expensive advertising campaign by only using online outreach. It managed to sell $13,000 in tickets for the first few days by reaching out to the core audience of Motocross fanatics who spread the word virally. Online DVD sales were even more amazing with the filmmaker doing his own fulfillment for a preview DVD which sold 13,000 DVDs within two months of release. New Video eventually sold 52,000 more DVDs of a 2 disc set collector's edition of the DVD.

HELVETICA. Who could imagine that a film about typeface would be a sleeper success story? But there are a lot of typeface fanatics in this world and they helped the film make $60,000 in poster and T-shirt sales before the film was even released. The film premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, played a number of other fests, and had a semi-theatrical run internationally. Like FASTER, it made money from two DVD editions.

THE SECRET. Gosh, I never even knew that there was a movie before there was a book to make Oprah wide-eyed about the power of positive thinking. But, according to Broderick, I must be in the minority because the documentary pre-dated the book, involved some very slick online trailers which made their way around the Internet virally and drove people to the website where they could watch the film for $4.95 online or buy the DVD for $24.95. Interestingly, 90% of those who watched the film online also bought the DVD. It has sold more than 250,000 copies.

Though some of us may cringe at using THE SECRET as a model of marketing, Broderick went on to cite and detail many other examples, including 1:6 RIGHT, THE FUTURE OF FOOD, IRAQ FOR SALE, NOTE BY NOTE, and KING CORN. His key points:

* Most successful films start off with an idea of their audience and then build and add audiences as they go.

* Retain as much control over your film as possible. This does not necessarily mean that you need to self-distribute, but many filmmakers have found success with a hybrid model of distribution which allows them to split up the rights and retain as much of a revenue stream as possible.

* Even for films which have traditional distributors, smart distributors should want filmmakers to sell films from their own website because more online activity can benefit sales all around. Broderick believes no filmmaker should have to pay more than $5 wholesale to their distributor to sell on their own website.

* Be creative with ancillary materials. Signed posters. Soundtracks. T-Shirts. All these can boost sales on their own to build buzz ahead of a DVD release or as added bonuses for special edition DVDs at a higher price.

* If you have a partnership with a community organization interested in the topic of your film, you can make a deal to sell them copies of the film at a lower cost which they can then in turn sell to their audience at a higher cost to make money for their cause.

* Sometimes you have to unlearn the rules of distribution and work backwards. Think of Four-Eyed Monsters which got its start on the Internet through video podcasts of six-minute episodes; created a theatrical market by promising to "four-wall" a screening in any city where more than 150 people said they would attend; eventually put the whole movie online for free on YouTube in exchange for some advertising revenue; eventually expanded to MySpace; and ended with a retail video and TV distribution deal.

* Partnerships come in multiple forms. They can include everything from simple link exchanges to affiliate marketing to sponsoring houseparties to on-site screenings at conventions or meetings.

* Websites need to be more than just a press kit. They need to have an idea bigger than just the film. There needs to be a clear persona. The content should be dynamic to keep people coming back. Blogs should focus on the issues and incorporate experts, characters, and/or user contributions. And, most of all, the online presence needs to be fun for the filmmaker.

This last point was also covered in a panel about online presence, called MARKETING BRAND YOU, which I referenced in an earlier blog entry since the panelists and audience members actually gave some very cogent feedback on the Docs In Progress website. Some of the more general points the panelists made:

* Your website is your brand. It is your promise and your premise.

* It should be a positive user-experience so it is key to think of who your users are and make the site as easy to navigate as possible for them.

* Aim for social media optimization by linking to all your online presence spots and increasing your linkability. Make tagging and bookmarking easy, as exemplified by clicking the "share" button on

* Be transparent, honest, and helpful. Thank people who link to you with a message or a counter-link. Don't be afraid to link off your site for fear of losing readers. Search engines like Google actually reward sites with lots of links with higher ratings on the search engine list.

* Make content travel with videos, PDFs, etc.

* Why have your blog in a separate place from your website? Keep them together. (Yup, that's something which will definitely be changed in the revamp of Docs In Progress/Docs Interactive)

All in all, the SILVERDOCS Conference offered plenty of food for thought and a welcome reality check to accompany the films in the festival. There are always critiques which could be made. For example, I do wish the education sidebar to the conference could have preceded or followed the conference itself, so I could have made time to go to some of those sessions on a topic about which I would like to know more. Time simply didn't permit it for me. And I do realize that it is difficult to put together sessions which are aimed at multiple audiences (my critique is coming from the perspective of an independent documentary filmmaker, but there are also programmers, funders, distributors, educators, academics, and others to please). But I would have to say that, while I would not say this year held the most energized festival program of the six SILVERDOCS I have attended, the conference continues to get stronger and stronger every year.

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