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December 21 at 8:15am

If I were a filmmaker going to Sundance….

By Ted Hope

Today’s guest post is by Orly Ravid of The Film Collaborative (TFC), the first non-profit, full service provider dedicated to the distribution of independent film.  Orly was featured as one of HFF’s Brave Thinkers Of Indie Film, 2010.

* This is part 1 of 3 parts to this Sundance focused blog.

* Part 2 will be written during the festival.

* Part 3 will be written in the aftermath of the glow of the fest.

If I were a filmmaker going to Sundance, and let’s say that I had a film with no recognizable press-generating cast that would be attractive to a distribution company for a large MG… What would I do? Seriously, I asked myself that question. And I realized how tempted I would be, even I, to find some sexy publicists and rockstar agents or sales company so that I could get the hot sexy sale at Sundance and make all my dreams come true.

What can a distributor do for you that you cannot do yourself with just a little bit of money, not even a lot, and some low fee consultation? And above all, what are you giving up by not building community for your film before and during the fest, instead letting other people run your show, potentially losing out on the momentum of the festival?

Let’s look at some films from Sundance last year that were in this position and the routes they took and what they may have netted. These are films that cut distribution deals of some kind and got less than wide releases from their distributors:

A Small Act (Doc): Distributed by HBO, I don’t know exact sale price but suspect it was less than $150,000 and they did not need a sales agent to do that.  They are also a TFC client for festival distribution. TFC handled film festivals for the filmmaker though by the time we got involved HBO had aired the film and that hurt our festival bookings and hence diminished potential revenues to the filmmaker. The director, Jennifer Arnold, is presently closing a DVD deal as well that she got herself.

*Gasland (Doc): Distributed by HBO, TFC consulted at Sundance along with their lawyer Michael Donaldson, and they did not need anyone to help them get a good HBO deal though they did have help handling offers and pursuing interest. The deal came to them directly and would have come to them regardless.  They did some self-distribution for theatrical (Box office $30,846) and festivals. The film is now available for DVD.  Zipline did PR and the film got its good rightful share of it.  The filmmakers received a deal that has worked out very well, with some great PR and it played lots of fests. It’s shortlisted for the Oscars too.

*Extenuating circumstances: Debra Winger executive produced this film and she definitely helped a lot. Josh Fox is a very committed activist and spokesperson of the film’s critical message so he is very embedded in the community that would be most interested in this film. It’s a great example of a film that got a lot out of being at Sundance and the filmmakers got a deal they are happy with and they probably recouped as a result given the low budget of the film.

A Film Unfinished:  Distributed by Oscilloscope. I will say that $320,000 theatrical box office is very very good (I have no idea what they spent though to release the film but it’s likely some money was made on the theatrical). The film had a sales agent (CINEPHIL from Israel) and I am almost positive the MG was less than 6-figures. My judgment is that the filmmakers could have done just as well releasing on their own with just some money set aside for a booking agent and a publicist, especially for this niche.  It is a doc that hits a niche audience that works consistently and is lucrative and I can’t say that the filmmakers needed a sales agent and a distributor to be in between the film and its audience. I doubt the filmmakers will make as much money as they would have handling the film on their own with just some low fee consultation.

The Dry Land – reported budget from imdb $1mil, box office  $11,777

Most likely a service deal since it was theatrically released by Freestyle Releasing. Freestyle service deals are not cheap; most of their releases involve budgets of $200,000 + (though sometimes less) and most for-profit service deals involve fees of tens of thousands of dollars). Clearly not a good result here, but we assume hoping to recoup in home video.

Douchebag -Paladin is distributor and so that generally means it was a service deal paid for by the filmmakers. However the filmmaker Drake Doremus told us: “douchebag was not a service deal paid for by the Filmmakers. Paladin bought the film from us for an amount way above the budget of the film.” Bravo! Box office return however was $20,615. Also, not a good return.

Bhutto – Distributed by First Run Features. Just released December 3, to day box office $16,216, only playing 2 theaters. A large advance was not paid and most of what was accomplished could have been done by the filmmakers themselves without large percentages paid.

Taqwacores: Distributed by Strand , most likely a very small advance was given. The box office was $9,347 on 2 screens. Another example of a film that could have done this much better and faired better overall without a distributor involved. With just some low fee consultation, time and money set aside, the filmmaker would still be in control of their film and able to work up the audience.

I am not knocking these deals, simply noting that if one is to do them, one should at least cut out excess middle men and do them smartly, reserve some rights, negotiate carefully on the back end, monitor expenses, maybe even have been better off not doing these deals.  It would have helped all of these films to build community around the film leading up to the festival and exit the festival with a bang, ready to reach audiences immediately. I think a lot can get lost during the time it takes for distributors to bring films to market, especially for the smaller films.

I think the decision to cut a deal with a distributor, no matter what, is emotional because even when I put myself in the filmmakers’ shoes I realized the emotional power of having an offer made to just take care of this for me. It signals that what has been made must have value and was done well. It also allows for one to not have to get hands dirty with the money stuff and the business stuff.

But, if you are a filmmaker, you did choose the most expensive art medium in the world and unless you are rich or your investors don’t care about getting their money back, I want you to at least consider this: You don’t NEED traditional distribution. For MOST of you, without special connections or name cast, MOST traditional distribution will not serve you. Most distributors don’t pay enough or do enough or are fair enough, and many of them have to raise P&A anyway, or hire the same service providers you can, so do the math, think twice, and be careful.  And remember, buyers are happy to buy direct, especially many TV buyers and VOD platforms, and you can get inexpensive help negotiating.

The more you can set up to do on your own the better for you and your investors in the long run. You run a risk doing nothing in terms of building community around your film or not setting up a distribution plan, having several layers of middle-men and waiting for Godot.  When you do the math, the Sundance dream often connects up to cast-driven films and just a few rare gems each year, and there are those to be sure, each year, but just a very few.  Most other deals you could get anyway if you wanted them, with someone on the side advising you in a fair way.

PS: Here is additional info on films from Sundance 2010:

* 3 BACKYARDS: Screen Media all rights, no verifiable release.

*12th AND DELAWARE: HBO Films, premiered on 8/02/10,currently HBO OnDemand.

* ANIMAL KINGDOM: Sony Pictures Classics, Box office $1,008,742 and this is a great example of a film that might otherwise have done no business were it not for Sundance.

* CATFISH: Rogue Pictures / Universal with a box office of $1,315,573 and it is definitely a great release for a doc and if the deal is good for the filmmakers then it’s a dream come true. Of course that’s an ‘If”.

* CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY: Magnolia Pictures, $175,865 – and this is directed by Alex Gibney one of the most famous doc directors but sadly probably lost market share to the feature starring Kevin Spacey.

*EXIT THROUGH A GIFT SHOP: Producer’s Distribution Agency (a distribution company set up by John Sloss specifically to handle this film), Box office $3,291,250. I am in love with that film, and it’s to Banksy’s credit the film did what it did and some in the industry actually think it was a financially weak release given how much was spent, estimates are put at over a million. In any case, most filmmakers cannot imitate a set up that had John Sloss turn down a just over 6-figure advance (as far as I know) because he wanted to handle the release himself and he did with the help of Richard Abramovitz and had the reputation and cult following of Banksy, Shepard Fairey , and Thierry Guetta.

*FAMILY AFFAIR: OWN the Oprah Winfrey Network, air-date:  possibly spring.

* THE FREEBIE: PHASE4, the box office was just  $16,613 the deal was allegedly worth low – mid six figures for US & Canada, all rights.  The film was sold by Visit films.) Now I have inspired Phase4 to buy two films I did not take a commission on.  I am not saying Visit films is not great and I am not saying it’s not great to have guidance at a festival or market especially when there is a bidding war, which there was apparently, I am just saying buyers buy films they want, not because of who is selling them.  We hope the filmmakers of all these films weigh in on their overages and overall bottom line.

* FREEDOM RIDERS: PBS with an outreach campaign by outreach campaign by American Experience…www.pbs.org/freedomriders, film to

be shown in May on 50th anniversary of the original rides. Ok that’s cool.

*GROWN UP MOVIE STAR, NO US or INTL distribution, E1 entertainment is the sales agent, Mongrel Media (distributor in Canada)

* HESHER: NewMarket, reported budget $7mil, no release info

* HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE (DISTRIB: Anchor Bay, release was supposed to be in March but as far as we know it has not happened yet).

* THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE: no info

*JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: The Radiant Child (Arthouse Films (which also produced the film), Box office was $250,129. A big hit in France, what a great niche and great doc. The producers did handle their film themselves in the US.

*LAST TRAIN HOME, Zeitgeist Films, released: 9/03/10-TOTAL GROSS: $282,092

(Here is a good example of a good doc sales company from what we hear and a good US distributor and a doc that probably sold well relatively speaking).

* LOVERS OF HATE: IFC –which is primarily a VOD play and some very traditional deal terms.

* MY PERESTROIKA: no info

* THE OATH: Zeitgeist, box office $42,273

* OBSELIDIA-reported budget $500K, still with a sales agent it appears

*THE RED CHAPEL, Lorber Films, opens 12/19/10 at IFC Center, Lorber Films plans a theatrical release of the film in the U.S. and Canada, followed by television broadcast and a DVD release.

* RESTREPO (US distribution: National Geographic Entertainment, Box office $1,330,058 –another Sundance success story to be sure, assuming terms are good for the filmmakers, which we have no information about

* SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS: Maya Entertainment (US, media)

* SKATELAND: Freestyle Releasing in March 2011 – and this means most likely it’s a service deal and paid for by the filmmaker. I should note that sometimes Freestyle helps raise the P&A. (though I don’t know what their cut is; one day I will ask).

* TWELVE: DISTRIBUTOR is Hannover House and the box office gross was $183,920 (somewhat shocking given the cast and the director.

*UNDERTOW: (Sundance World Cinema Audience Award Winner) TFC is doing theatrical and worldwide festivals and consulted on the distribution deals. We will be covering this in a case study to be written after the release is completed.

*WASTE LAND, Arthouse Films, released 10/29/10-TOTAL GROSS: $96, 597

Arthouse Films handled the theatrical release later followed by a DVD and digital release on the Arthouse Films label in early 2011…E1 Entertainment holds the international rights and is managing worldwide sales which to date include Australia (Hopscotch), Hagi Film (Poland) and Midas Filmes (Portugal). E1 Entertainment will also distribute the movie in Canada and the UK. Downtown Filmes is the Brazilian distributor.

* WINTER’S BONE: Roadside Attractions, Box office $6,210,516, and this is a great example of a film that would have likely lingered in oblivion were it not for Sundance and the right distributor);

* Other films not listed in detail are Cyrus, The Kids Are Alright, Waiting For Superman, Splice, and The Runaways because they all have big names involved, in a few cases the deals were done before Sundance and not all of them even had great releases in the net analysis.

Orly Ravid has worked in film acquisitions / sales / direct distribution and festival programming for the last twelve years since moving to Los Angeles from home town Manhattan. In January 2010, Orly founded The Film Collaborative (TFC), the first non-profit devoted to film distribution of independent cinema.  Orly runs TFC w/ her business partner, co-exec director Jeffrey Winter.


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14 Comments

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  1. Mark Savage / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Orly, this is one of the most helpful, honest, and pragmatic pieces on distribtion I've read in a long time. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. As an indie filmmaker myself, I took much from this.

  2. SaraJane / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    I think you mean Freedom Riders with an outreach campaign by American Experience…http://www.pbs.org/freedomriders

  3. Nikyatu / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    great piece! Very informative.

  4. Nikyatu / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    It will be very interesting this year, with so many predominantly black casts (particularly for Sundance and with no big stars) in competition in the feature films, what kinds of distribution deals are disseminated.

  5. Orly / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Hi, it's Orly. I miswrote and the offer for Exit Through A Giftshop that Sloss walked away from was just over 6-figures, i.e. low, 7-figures as far as I know. And if you are going to Sundance, the part I deleted from this blog (along with much more to make it not endless) was about the cheese danish at the Java Cow. Yum.

  6. FollowMyFilm / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Thank you, Orly! Always great to read your thoughts and insights. Though I don't have a film in Sundance, I sure plan on it some day, so you're prepping me! :) Looking forward to Parts 2 & 3!
    -Christopher J. Boghosian

  7. Orly / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Thank you, SaraJane. That was an oops. I will correct on the blog on our site. Thanks!

  8. copernicusfilms / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Excellent and sensible advice to independent film makers. Several years ago I had a distributor for my first film (an arts documentary) and quite soon I realised that despite the goodwill of the distributor I was better off doing my own distribution for all the films I make for good or bad. In this new environment for independent film makers, I think it is even more worthwhile to follow this path.

  9. Visit Films / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Hi Orly, A few quick notes – Visit only worked on international for The Freebie and did not close the domestic deal. We did the sale to Strand for The Taqwacores as well as the rest of the world.
    As a sales agent, we work in a very specific way to bring additional value to the films and filmmakers that we don't believe that they can always do on their own. Often, despite if it is “better” for a filmmaker to keep the rights to their film and try and do it themselves, they don't have the time or money to do this. It takes years to release a film properly in all windows and this is money lost as income from not doing another job. Filmmakers are often that, filmmakers. They don't want to be distributors.
    I would strongly disagree that all films sell themselves. Like any product, a film needs to be packaged and marketed to buyers. Whether this is by the filmmaker, festival, publicist or festival someone has to sell the film to the buyer(distributor). Nobody would know about the iPad without Apple's marketing machine.
    Depending on who you have as your sales agent and distributor, you may be in a better or worse place. We have sold many films that may have had mediocre returns at the box office but because they had a release at all in the theaters, the distributor was able to package that film in a sale to Showtime, HBO, Sundance Channel, etc… at a much higher value than it would have been on its own. Same goes with streaming deals these days with Netflix. All of these companies are looking for volume buys and an individual filmmaker can't do this.
    I had made a note in another blog post on Ted's blog about international and hybrid opportunities there but to reiterate here, it is extremely hard for a smaller (unknown) film to have any traction in the international marketplace without a sales agent as an ally. There are so many films in the market and international buyers tend to license films from people that they know and trust.
    Last note – since theatrical has often been a loss leader for other windows, I think an accurate reflection of success would include VOD, DVD and TV sales numbers here as well as international (since we ofter see 2-3 times the domestic MG numbers outside the US).

  10. Orly / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Quick note about Douchebag: the producer, Drake Doremus, wrote to Ted that his deal with Paladin was not a service deal but a good acquisition price that he says was “way above the budget of the film”. That is the first example I know of in which that is the case for Paladin or most films and distribs but hats off to all if so. Congrats!

  11. Orly / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Hi guys at Visit, so you glad you wrote and I have some comments, very specifically in response to yours.

    1. Thanks for clarifying about The Freebie. I like Phase4 btw, we did a deal with them, though I understand that deal was not yours. You also know we do sales too and I am not undervaluing the value of having professionals help contextualize films and target buyers. We do it and we recommend folks such as yourselves, Josh Braun (in US), Cat Le Clef, Films Transit (the latter two for docs)… my point is, one should be careful in choosing whom to work with and also that it is not always necessary and depends on the film. I am sorry to say but Stand would have bought Taqwacores with you or without you, as Wolfe bought Undertow and would have regardless of Shoreline. And especially for niche films that is the case. I am not suggesting filmmakers go it alone. I am suggesting that when one does the math and factors in all the factors, there are many ways to get the job done and not all of them involve quite as many middle men, or quite as deleterious deal terms as can be the case with some of the more old school companies.

    2. With respect to ancillary value and volume. Of course I know this. You know I have worked in distribution for 12 years. The point still holds. There are filmmakers who do things the way I suggested and get their films onto Netflix and Cable VOD and iTunes (via Distribber, Gravitas, Fluent, New Video, TFC, Brainstorm etc — and even there not all terms and not all splits are alike but that is a topic for another day) and they do not need a traditional distributor to do a mediocre theatrical. They can do that on their own and they often do. We have spent as little as $10,000 or $20,000 as some distribs do to, to set a film up for better Broadcast sales and better digital distribution consumer activity. I agree middle men or professional consultants and services are usually needed.. I am simply advocating for more filmmaker friendly ones.

    3. Back to the international, I absolutely agree that for actual sales, it's very hard for smaller films without some help. Having said that, again, I was just at IDFA and we are working with a doc there but I can tell you that the buyers wanted the film and would buy it with us or without us, and with you or without you.. so I guess it depends on the film sometimes and depends on the buyers. I just want filmmakers to be smart and careful about their choices.

    Having said all this, I have never heard a bad word about Visit films and hence I do recommend you guys. Keep on keeping on. Peace and happy holidays!

  12. Orly / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    oooh, one more little note, you mention MARKETING (and Apple's iPad and marketing machine).. it's a great point, but I think speaks back to mine which is, IF a distributor is spending real money on releasing and marketing the film and the deal is good, then all can make sense…. but often that is not the case… obviously one weight what one has and wants to spend in terms of time and money vs what one is getting from a distrib.. but again, that is the point.. let it be an educated and measured comparison, not a blind pursuit of a dream that may never come true, especially if one does not realize how empowered one can be without just turning a film over without careful analysis.

  13. JESUSOFMALIBU / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Get a clue, LEARN HOW TO READ Sundance is Corrupt. Want proof?
    Read when you do you will understand,http://sundancefilmfestival201…/
    We are the REVOLUTION, we will bury everything corrupt; while Sundance was withering away from trite nothingness, we were International News. Proof?
    http://sundancefilmfestival201…/

  14. Mark Savage / Dec 21 at 8:15am

    Bloody great piece, Orly. Telling it like it is. Most distributors are crooks, so very important to carefully identify the ones who can be useful to a marketable project. There are still a few around, but they’re definitely in the minority.

    Great point about filmmakers often feeling legitimized by a distributor’s “offer”. Best to sleep on it and look at it from a dollar point of view, not an emotional one. Something you’ve sweated over for years should not relinquished so easily.

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