Sunday, September 27, 2009

Distribution and Your Part of the Long Tail

As we make our films, we can start to feel our audience (at least we should) but then when we finish, suddenly we are subject to an audience of one – the distributor who thinks they can take our film and sell it. Of course now (depending on our model), we'll ideally want a theatrical release, but we (I suspect) imagine that if we don’t get that – AT LEAST there will be some long tail for us – some long term niche that we will fit in and hopefully get some recompense/audience for all the hard work we put in. Right?

To do this, we have a vague idea that we can make a deal with iTunes or Netflix. Right?

But if you've depended on this, (up until a few months ago) you'd be up for a disappointment: Distributors take your rights, and a percentage of your revenue for years. So the distributors will take between 15% and 50% on top of iTunes 30%. And depending on your deal, that could be for the length of your long tail. Hard Tail’s Journey into Night – right?

Well a guy named Adam Chapnick heard this persistent complaint from filmmakers that he was working with in his marketing and distribution consultancy (called DocWorkers and he decided to do something about it.

So, he self funded a company called Distribber

Here is the idea: you submit your film and your trailer to Distribber – it has to be 70 minutes or over for now, though Adam is working on getting shorter films included too. If he thinks it’s viable, he’ll submit it to iTunes. If your film gets accepted by iTunes – Distribber takes a flat fee, (currently $1295) and for a $79 yearly fee pays you 100% of your revenue from iTunes. If iTunes doesn’t accept your film, no sweat, no fees no nothing.

Most films on the service sell for the $9.99 rate set by iTunes. That means from the beginning you get your whole $6.99 after iTunes 30%. Distribber gives you back your long tail. (that means in 186 sales, you make back the initial fee)

I thought this all sounded very intriguing – so I set up an interview with Adam to find out a bit more. Here’s what he had to say:

Hey there Adam.
Hey Stephanie.

Stephanie: So, what are you looking for in the selection process?

Adam: We have a sense of what iTunes wants – and they have a sense of what they want. We give them as much information as possible so that they can say yes or no. We give them a link to each film’s trailer. Also, there is a field in the submission form where the filmmaker can list their film’s selling points. The filmmaker will say things like “we won Sundance and won five other festivals” or tell us, that it is about certain relevant subject matter – or that it it aired on PBS – anything that helps us pitch the project.

S: Are you submitting these into a black hole then?

A: Oh, no, we have relationships with the folks at iTunes - and on top of that, I really want to be available to all the filmmakers, they all have my number, and call me if they have any questions. My number is (323)304-5039 and my email is

S: So let’s say I have a film that gets in – now what?

A:Well, we have to check that all your rights and licenses are in order, and that’s pretty well covered because we require that films come in with E&O insurance.

S: So how is it going?

A: Well our offer is very attractive. Filmmakers love it – the more money you make the better deal that it is. My whole goal is to make this something that is not murky.

We are making it clear and simple, and I am willing to talk to everyone all the time.

Filmmakers tend to be very wary, and weary, of distribution deals, and one of the hesitations I hear most often is based on the fact that filmmakers really don’t believe our deal, but it’s real, and it’s working great for the first 13 films, which are just coming online to sell right now.

S: Wow – that’s great, but what do you say to the filmmaker of a worthy film that gets turned down by iTunes?

A: Well we are actually doing a lot to address that.
    1. we are working to initiate an appeal process with iTunes. And
    2. I am working to set up deals with NetFlix, Hulu, all of them so that Distribber can be a flat rate a la carte service, super easy to sign up for all the different companies in one place each for a flat rate.

S: So sounds like you're in this for the long haul.

A: (laughing) Oh, of course. Every one is so wary of the process of distribution, I see this as a long term trust building exercise, and I am up for it. In the short term, we are working to get the approval process to happen more quickly.

S: Can you tell me any of your titles?

A: Oh, sure – our first two were “Runners High” and “New York Doll” – both well received great documentaries with good audiences. We’ve attracted a lot of films that fit their profile, but we are also getting smaller films and placing them too. It’s been really exciting.

S: Well thank you so much Adam, it’s been a pleasure hearing about your business based on the Long Tail.

A: Well Thank you Stephanie, thanks for doing this.

S: You’re welcome.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Notes for Beginners

I was just in another forum where I was asked to give advice for beginning documentarians.

For some of you this will be a review - but hopefully helpful non the less.

As a veteran, award winning editor, I've seen too many independent (read - self financed and beginning) filmmakers shoot and shoot and shoot and not give much thought to their story beyond the initial idea.

In response, I've started a workshop and we really hash out a lot in there that has really been helpful to my students.

We think about WHAT do I really want to say or explore with my film -

We ask HOW do I want to say it -

Because sure, you can interview 25 people about junk food, or you can follow yourself around while you eat only junk food for a month.

The HOW is often the most elegant part of creating a really good doc.

Also we pay attention to the ongoing conflict between what the main character Wants and Needs - and how this evolves into a satisfying transformation.

We also identify the different aspects and wider themes that come up in our story - because really - my favorite documentaries are always Trojan Horses for bigger issues and questions than I realized I was going to get into when I started watching - that is the true gift you give your viewers - so why not start thinking about it before you're done shooting so you can have that material when you start editing?

My students have all gotten a lot out of going through this process - both in how their final films will end up, but also in terms of saving $ by shooting what speaks to what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Stephanie Hubbard