Can We Create The Future Of Indie Marketing & Distribution -- Or Is It Already Dead?

by Ted Hope
August 11, 2011 3:00 AM
19 Comments
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We speak of the need to utilize PMDs (aka Producers of Marketing & Distribution) on Indie/TFF movies these days, but how do these people get trained (not to mention, paid for)? Where do they learn their skill sets? Two or three years into this DIY Indie Movement of sorts, can you name more than three or four people (at best) who do this? Isn't this the missing piece? How come we all aren't doing more to train these folks?

Two or so years ago, Jon Reiss and I developed a pretty extensive proposal for a Marketing/Distribution Lab. Our goal was to make it long term, six months to a year, with films in all different stages participating. We brought it to most of the indie film support organizations, and got a great response. Tribeca, Sundance, IFP, and FIND all said yes. Well they said "yes, but...". Financing it, maintaining it, and in one instance, monetizing it, were unsolvable issues too big for each for them to truly take on. IFP committed to bringing Jon in to speak to their lab participants, so not all was for naught, but the problem remains. Everyone recognizes it. Where will the people who can do the M&D work well come from?

On the agency level, I hear the problem amplified. Their clients, filmmakers, can make excellent movies at a very low out-of-pocket price point, but how can the movies get out and find audiences. Creators who have any regular work can not usually make the commitment to push their work out to audiences, let alone build vibrant communities. And often the agencies don't want them to, as it is perceived to "devalue" the clients if they go the DIY route. They need to find reputable and ideally prestigious entities to take on the film, and hopefully not in a manner that takes the rights forever and has little hope of upside.

Sundance has made great strides under new Executive Director Keri Putnam to not only recognize that most independent film won't find a traditional corporately-backed distribution home, but also most shouldn't even opt for that. Sundance's Artist Services is the first real step The Industry has taken to help build a true Artist/Entrepreneur class. Through this lens we can see a real creator middle class being born, not dependent on building their work to appeal to the widest audience, not self-censoring from the start, but recognizing that every option is theirs, if they are willing to take responsibility for their work.

But their lies the rub: are artists willing to take responsibility for their work yet? Is it even what is best for them? Twenty years in to being led to believe that great work will always not just find an audience, but also make money for all concerned courtesy of the golden hand of distribution entities, can we even glimpse what an alternative approach may bring?

I encounter the problem with myself. I know what I need to do to truly prep a film, but have a hard time allocating the labor and expense to it. I can imagine a better life where I distributed the majority of my films. Yet, how do I shift my priorities when I feel that my top skill set is in the development and production of feature length movies? Really, what I would like to do is supervise talented up & comers on the marketing and distribution of my films -- but I can't trust my work to total newbies. And I don't see a supply of PMDs coming out or up the pipeline and ladder.

Is it enough to hope that the producers that are pushed into or opt for the DIY or Hybrid approach are the ones who will build those skills and turn to that type of producing, if they enjoy it and are successful -- much the same as other producers focus on financing or packaging or development or physical production? Can we rely on partnerships developing between those who focus on it and those who focus elsewhere in producing pipeline? One can hope that this develops, but if I had to wager a guess, at the very least it is a ten year wait for such a natural progress, and that is ten years of not only good movies not being seen, but the entire chain of distancing from audiences and communities that will be indie's ruin.

In the studio world, there are producers more focused on marketing and distro than any other part of the process, and they are very successful at it. But Indie Film is a different calling, and a far different reward structure. Those of us in it, have chosen it fully because of the content, and are not compensated well for that choice. Fees for indie producing consistently have dropped over the last five years, requiring working producers to take on more jobs and commit less time in the process. The focus on marketing is something those in the indie world simply cannot afford to do.

So what is to be done? I could be wrong, but I think pure economics prevents a PMD sector from developing naturally in the indie world. Intervention is required. Starting out, I recognized I wanted to be a "creative" producer, but could not get a job remotely in that area for the longest period. Production skills were what was valued in NYC -- and still are. I was fortunate enough to have paying script reading work (in addition to my production stuff) that exposed me to some of the process and players -- but that wasn't enough to earn a living on. To get development work I had to first save my money, and then sell myself cheap in the dead production months to producers who were happy to find there was someone willing to be exploited. I eagerly agreed, but it was the only way open.

The newbie producers coming out of film school understandably look to make movies, and the desire to make the next one is never as strong as when you have just wrapped the prior -- you can feel your skill set at it's peak power and it wants to play in a new field.

We've known we need new blood in the distro field for decades, but as the previous crew won't (and some shouldn't) yield their seats at the table, there has never been much incentive for folks to try to step in that direction. The new generation has taken over international sales, but there is no equivalent in domestic distribution. Glen Basner who runs Film Nation, one of the true leaders in international sales. He was my assistant and for the longest time resisted the move into sales -- despite everyone at the company recognizing it was his calling. He was drawn to the lure of creative producing. Now he gets more movies made than most producers combined, and earns a far better living too, but it wasn't something that happened over night. He was fortunate to have great mentors in the sale business and a corporate structure that allowed for it. I can think of several others in his field that have a similar story. To foster similar innovation, growth, and success to that of the international sales arena that Glen and his compatriots have delivered, we need a structure in the marketing and distro world that can actual facilitate it.

We simply don't have the time to hope that a natural process of film by film growth will yield the new breed that we desperately need. I don't think it can be done without incentivizing producers to venture in that direction. They need to know that they will not only be expanding their skill set but also gaining prestige, connections, and opportunity. It won't just come naturally. People show their best when you can give them a path that promises the best view. They need a lab and other incentives. Where will the funding and leadership come? Can we get them to act before it is too late? Will the community recognize this as a real need and act to make it a reality?

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19 Comments

  • Ted Hope | August 14, 2011 8:51 AMReply

    Kris & Nayan,
    You make me want to see your films. It sounds great what you both are doing. Please keep us all posted as to your progress. I hope it works well for you in a really big way. Ted

  • Kris Hulbert | August 13, 2011 5:15 AMReply

    The solution isn't about finding away to play with the big boys in the biased sandbox they created. The solution is to beat the big boys to the NEXT sandbox and establish ourselves in it before they get there....


    Our project has been all about timing and seizing the moment. The whole industry is in flux right now making it RIPE for opportunity. All the major studios know that movies will eventually be immediately released online but the business model is not currently set up for it to be done that way. So none of them want that to happen over night, fearing the collapse of theaters and rampant piracy as a few examples.

    They want the change to happen gradually as they figure out how to assert control and cost inflation over that as well. In the meantime, in order for it to happen over night there needs to be an indie film that generates the revenue Paranormal Activity did except with out the help of a Studio like Paramount. The success would come from first the quality of the product but second the power of social media. The right film marketed the right way and released online WILL take off like wildfire. Think about the youtube video that gets 2 million hits over night. When that happens 2 things will come from it.

    1. Whoever owns that movie will have basically won the lotto overnight. We are talking 20+ million or more with in the first few months with only minor success. Immediately you become a highly respected indie production company and on the fast track to becoming the first new studio to emerge from the online market.

    MEANING
    We can fund our own films, hire who we want and make what we want and our audience already knows exactly where to find every subsequent release... On facebook. Every film we make has an established successful streamlined pipeline in place from concept to funding to distribution! The only risk is we need to practice "Responsible Filmmaking" We need to keep making quality products because its OUR money on the line not some strangers. Thats a GOOD thing for audiences

    2. The next thing that happens is the Studios realize they just lost a TON of money, they now have to pay MUCH MORE for the dvd rights to even get anything out of it. They are definitely not going to let that happen again, starting a pattern and allowing indies to gain confidence. So they will have to start releasing blockbusters immediately online to compete, they will also be forced to offer fair market value to the rest of the high quality indie films out there or risk them doing the same thing.

    MEANING
    A viable distribution threat for indies doesn't have to work for everyone, it just has to work ONCE to even the playing field. Now high quality indie films would have viable leverage in negotiations.

    BENEFIT TO SOCIETY
    Immediate access to the newest movies at costs roughly a THIRD of the cost of a movie ticket.
    The desire and need for piracy decreases because of the convenience and affordability of just paying a couple bucks for it.The quality of content being created goes up due to the increase in "Responsible Filmmaking" by the emergence of self sustained production companies.

    Thats why facebook is the key to the whole thing. Now that we have an agreement to be the "first film to premiere on facebook" its just about marketing it in a cutting edge way that grabs everyones attention creating a pop culture event. For 3-4 bucks whose not going to check it out and spread it online? WE HAVE THAT CUTTING EDGE MARKETING PLAN ALREADY CREATED AND IN PLACE.What? You thought I was going to tell you all of our secrets? The marketing plan is the silver bullet, its the perfect plan for the perfect timing and the perfect opportunity. Its already happening and the wheels are already in motion....

  • Nayan Padrai | August 12, 2011 11:44 AMReply

    The future of Indie is hardly dead. Its alive and kicking and we are proof of it. In fact, in my opinion, it could not be brighter.

    I made the film "When Harry Tries to Marry" and we went the "direct distribution" route. (I prefer Direct Distribution versus DIY, which is actually incorrect and cheapens the process).

    We hired some of the best folks in the business:
    Marketing and distribution strategy (Matthew Cohen Creative)
    Professional vendors for trailer, one sheet, tvcs (Zealot, XL)
    Online marketing team (Brigade)
    A traditional PR firm (PMK*BNC)
    Music publicist (Flipswitch)
    Media agency (Callon)
    Social media marketing (Advantage and Naqeeb Memon - who worked on Mooz-lum)
    A theatrical booking service (Alerion)

    We travel to markets such as AFM and Cannes to meet folks for our ancillary and just get a taste of what's happening.

    Now for our VOD (avail on 100+ cable systems) and upcoming DVD/BluRay we are continuing the momentum, working with our distributors to ensure that we push each other to get the best placements in stores (retail/rental), and online.

    But the key is that we as the film makers and producers realize that marketing is as much a part of the filmmaking process as anything else. None of this was DIY as we essentially did what any other distributor would do by hiring the same or similar folks in the business. In fact, we are working with our foreign sales agents to help international licensors of the film leverage fan bases, mailing lists, and other resources we have accumulated.

    My partners and I do have 10 years of experience in running media and advertising businesses but we didn't try to do it all ourselves. In our case, we have realized that the power of marketing and distribution isn't some opaque black hole and the property of some mystic movie Gods, but within our grasp. We may fail or we may succeed, but as filmmaker and producers we brought the horse to the water so to say.

    There's Hope yet... at least we think so.

  • Ted Hope | August 12, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    What a great bunch of comments! Thank you all for contributing to this conversation. Maybe we can start to lift this rock over the hill!

  • Philip Wood | August 12, 2011 9:49 AMReply

    Interesting article and comments, but taking a step back, do people not think this is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole?

    The production to sales agents to distribution to exhibition grew from the traditional largescale film industry. The individual roles within each area grew out of market forces - i.e. producers valued the role of a sales agent and were willing to give a cut (which was sufficient to keep the sales agents in business) in order to make money.

    Within the 'independent' sector, as opposed to the commercial or corporate sector, there simply isn't enough market value in the links in the chain to support the kinds of roles like PMDs as discussed, therefore people with skills and talents won't choose to move into these areas because they know there is better money to be made in other areas of the chain. Yes, many 'creators' be they filmmakers or producers etc. work for little money, but that is because their incentives are greater - they are more willing to do it 'for the love' or in the belief that by building their reputation they will make real money in the future.

    What I'm saying is that so called 'PMDs' are not something that the independent film sector can sustain, and any funding or grants, however astute or long-term are much more likely to put their money into roles or projects with much more visible results - all grant bodies still have to show their trustees etc. that their money is put to the best use.

    So rather than trying to apply the rules and conventions of the commercial sector to the independent sector, shouldn't we be trying to come up with new sustainable, models for distribution that work for the independent sector?

    And I was surprised that no-one has mentioned exhibition. The exhibitor market is a relatively level playing field - as an exhibitor there's little difference between booking a 'commercial sector' film and an 'independent sector' film. Perhaps more thought needs to be given to the relationship between production, distribution and exhibition. There is not enough market value in most independent films to warrant the many middle men that exist in the commercial sector between the filmmaker and the audience and so I believe more thought needs to be given to creating models that reduce the steps between the two in order for independent film to be sustainable.

    What that model is, I'm not entirely sure, but I feel that looking at the wider picture and trying to find better (i.e. simpler and more economical) ways of getting from filmmaker to audience would be more beneficial and sustainable in the long run.

    The exhibition sector is changing rapidly with digital technology and audience viewing habits. More thought should be given to change and innovation rather than adapting or trying to improve existing models.

  • Bob Germon | August 12, 2011 3:33 AMReply

    Using numbers I heard Ted give out: There were 45,000 films made last year and only 600 of them will get theatrical releases (with 125 of them being studio films.) So that means over 44,000 films required someone to do PMD work on them, whether they had the job title or not. That's a lot of on the job training. With that many people doing the job it's hard to believe we're talking about a shortage.

    I'm sure most or all of them worked for little or no pay as a titled or untitled PMD too. So maybe the question really is how long will they continue doing the job for little money? Do they continue advancing their skill set in the hopes of eventually working on one of those 600 films that get theatrical release and, therefore, probably pay for a PMD?

    And here's one that perplexes me: Does a PMD require the same unpaid/internship path as that of directors, DPs, writers, and actors? Is it really the same? Or would it be better to get paid work in marketing or distribution and then crossover to film? I get the passion and sacrifice that inspires creative producers, writers, directors, actors, DPs, editors etc., but I don't get it for a PMD, at least not at the same level. What am I missing here?

  • Mike Akel | August 12, 2011 3:06 AMReply

    I think this quote from your article Ted sums up the dilemma best: "Glen Basner who runs Film Nation, one of the true leaders in international sales... was my assistant and for the longest time resisted the move into sales—despite everyone at the company recognizing IT WAS HIS CALLING". Everyone in the indie world wants to be the director...not a 'business person'. (nothing wrong with that). Just like a great football team, the indie world needs people who feel called to be a Linemen, Running Back, Wide Receiver, etc...Having worked some in the studio world, the one thing that was prominent was there were very few JACK OF ALL TRADES...Most everyone is a MASTER OF ONE THING.
    My thought is that we need to look for partners with business and marketing "Callings"...most likely outside of our indie world! my two cents

  • Jason Kohl | August 11, 2011 11:09 AMReply

    I'm a third-year graduate student in UCLA's MFA Directing program, and as far as I know, the first student to ever take on the role of PMD on a thesis project. The film is called Acting Like Adults, which also seems to be the first low-budget feature to come through the program with the school's blessing.

    I am blessed to work on that project with filmmakers who understand the importance of the PMD. That being said, the majority of filmmakers remain reticent to see the PMD as a person worthy of creative input and a portion of the budget to manage (and pay themselves with). As others have said, a traditional reaction when I tell fellow students what I'm doing is "Really? What do you actually do?"

    The implication is that anyone who has a Facebook page or a twitter account can be responsible for identifying, creating, and interacting with audiences. The climate prevails, at least in the film school world, that this work is not a "real" position, but merely a passing hobby for those with ample time.

    That being said I think that there is tremendous potential for this position within the independent film community. I speak to and counsel with filmmakers on a variety of projects and never cease to be amazed by the power of this new culture.

    I think the PMDs of the future, as in everything else in filmmaking, will self-educate out of necessity, a sense of entrepreneurship and possibly an attempt to monetize their internet addictions :)

    I can already see a new string of PMD gurus appearing in Germany, where I worked before moving to the US. Here we already have our triumvirate of Peter Broderick, Jon Reiss and Sheri Candler, who have begun the process of educating the broader indie community on PMD principles.

    Right now it feels like the wild west, and what a fascinating one at that.

  • Eddie Kalish | August 11, 2011 10:52 AMReply

    As an experienced marketing and distribution person (who did work for Good Machine btw) with decades of experience at both the studio and indie level I can attest to the fact that the biggest problem is not the need for expertise but rather the willingness or ability to pay for it. I have worked with hundreds of producers, companies and everyone in between over the years, both domestically and internationally, but, lately, it has been hard to convince people to take advantage of the expertise on offer. I am personally more than willing to lend my support to an indie marketing and distribution initiative to keep the independent film alive theatrically as well as in the ancillary marketplace. This need not be a lost cause; in fact it should be a serious objective. I'm ready when you are!

  • @AudreyEwell | August 11, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    To speak directly and in practical terms to your question about what to do right now:

    Divide and conquer. If you're not finding the talented and experienced people to hold the marketing and distribution reins: find two people who can excel at each. Fold marketing into your PR budget (I'm ducking right now, if there are any straight PR people in the room) and work with people who know how to integrate traditional PR (which is still 100% essential) with new media strategies and grassroots outreach campaigns. Also hire someone for distribution, who then may hire multiple local people for other territories, or may be able to run that themselves - depends on who and what they know. (That's if you're talking about handling international, not just domestic, releasing). The thing is, this isn't terribly hard or rocket science. People just don't know that yet.

    These three people: Publicist, New Media Marketer, and Producer of Distribution should be working in conjunction before your first festival. Obviously, the publicist might come on a little later than the other two, and the PoD (catchy, eh?) might come on first - but when it matters, this becomes your new PMD triumvirate. And they don't have to work fulltime on just one film, especially if your budget prohibits it.

    One size does not fit all. Each film will have its own unique personnel needs. It will have its own audience, its own potential. This is what DIY/DIWO is all about: downsizing to a more personal experience and controlling the release if you the filmmaker (producer/director etc) know best who your audience is. (And you WILL know this if you've been talking to them throughout!) And yes, that means the director (and cast - get it in writing if you can) also has to be involved, period. That's just the deal.

    The bottom line is this: just as people have come to understand that it might be a good idea to work a P&A budget into their production budgets, so too can they come to understand that marketing and distribution need to be a factor. They must realize that along with the power and opportunity that comes with DIY/DIWO releasing, there are also costs. You can either take your MG from your traditional distributor and walk away (and most likely never see anything else from that film), or you can retain control: and then you pay for what the distributor would. But hopefully smarter, streamlined, and more tailored to your film, utilizing the core audience that you've obviously been building since before the film was finished, or if I had my way, shot.

    As far as labs, and teaching people how to do this: track records mean more, and this is the renewed era of DIY (or DIWO). People will doubtless spring up to teach their knowledge, but by the time these labs take place, their knowledge will be dated. You're exactly right that people are at their most powerful when they've just come off a job. This stuff moves fast, and the best way to know it is to do it.

  • Stephen Dypiangco (@Dypiangco) | August 11, 2011 8:52 AMReply

    Ted,
    Thank you for writing this post. I appreciate you pushing the industry and community to recognize and foster the PMD position.

    I decided to become a PMD after finishing the NYU grad film program and then later working for Jon Reiss. While I have been fortunate to learn so much directly from Jon and to work as a PMD on two excellent films (Luke Matheny's Oscar-winning live action short "God of Love" and Mark Wexler's documentary "How To Live Forever"), I know that there is still so much about the intricacies of marketing and distribution for me to still grasp.

    I also know that I can't continue to develop my PMD skills, work with similar-minded producers and help other filmmakers without getting paid a decent wage. My wife just won't let me.

    I'm firmly believe that your ideas for a PMD lab, incentives and a legitimate path to greater opportunities would encourage many talented and forward-thinking individuals to take up the PMD role and embrace this exciting and very necessary work.

  • Nicholas Jayanty | August 11, 2011 8:19 AMReply

    Additionally in terms of training - it all starts with knowing the market place - a sales agent background helps learn the plays and what markets will pay, a passion and deep rolodex in the tech industry is key, strong relationships with ad agencies and brands, the ability to package P&A funds, and the ability to develop strategic partnerships and a win-win negotiation perspective is also crucial.

    How do you train these people? They can come from the ad agency world, the talent agency world, the sales agent world, or the indie film world with a hunger to learn all of these other worlds. As someone who often has to justify my existence and fee on an indie production, this conversation is one I have all the time, and a lot of times it feels like the indie film industry has to catch up.

    Another challenge that I've seen is getting those in control of production credits on a billing block to relinquish that real estate to the Print and Interactive Designers who help aggregate the audience for an indie. Marc English in Austin Texas, (AFS Board member, designs for Linklater) and Daniel Perlaky (City on Fire - designer for the Indie rock doc, Echotone, sweeping the country) are prime examples. Without their help in a production the audience aggregation starts way too late (see festival premiere) and by then its too late.

    Ego is not our amigo in the world of indie film - hopefully we can keep this fundamental tenet in mind when collaborating with the people that are keeping an eye on the audience and marketplace while the filmmakers focus on the details of production.

  • jim hearne | August 11, 2011 8:09 AMReply

    OK folks...anyone seen/experienced "Cinedigm"?

  • Julia Short | August 11, 2011 7:51 AMReply

    As an ex UK distributor of many years, I always felt there was a role for a PMD and felt that was a potental future career, but like Rachel feel that producers do not think longer term than the production. Whilst happy to raise production finance they don't think about allocating money for a PMD or raising financing for a P&A budget at the same time. As more producers are beginning to self distribute they will need to put as much priority into the financing of the marketing and distribution of their title as they do to raising production finance. Steve, if a film works its because it was a work of genius if the film fails its because the film was badly marketed! Have you ever worked with a film maker who isn't also an expert on marketing and distribution? Yes on second thoughts I have, the Coen brothers.

  • Nicholas Jayanty | August 11, 2011 7:41 AMReply

    Well the first step is getting the Producer's Guild of America to recognize the position, so PMD's actually have an incentive to put time into this career path. Ted, you think you can rally folks to make this happen, because I'm down!

  • Rachel Gordon | August 11, 2011 7:11 AMReply

    On the flip/positive side, 10-15 years ago there was no real chance for indies to self-distribute, or divide up rights to get more out of their content, as there is today...

    I think it's scary because it's still very new and trying to find legs. However, I agree Audrey that few filmmakers think about, and budget (time or money), for people who know what they are doing (and there are more of us out there everyday) and we also need to remember that marketing and distribution is actually a ton of different roles...because there's usually more than one simple audience for any given film.

    I like to think of it as a good challenge, personally...
    Rachel

  • Steve Lustgarten | August 11, 2011 6:46 AMReply

    I've been both producer and home video distributor for 20 years and though many tiny budget films made 10s of $1000 through net deals, no one ever seemed to be satisfied with that. It was never enough for their expectations. We are the messengers of sad tidings. Distribution is a kind of thankless task and the motivations for doing it will have to be different than those for producing. Maybe we should be looking for masochists.

  • @AudreyEwell | August 11, 2011 5:38 AMReply

    I'm working as a Director of Digital Media - same as PMD, but different title, since my role in distribution is something that I work out with each person/film/tv show, etc - but the point is the same: audience building, PR, outreach. I just wrapped a tv show gig actually, so if anyone is looking for a PMD or new media marketer, I'm here.

    We do exist, our ranks are growing, the problem is that filmmakers have a hard time with the idea of paying someone to do something that at first glance it seems they could do themselves. And of course they could; if they weren't doing 10,000 other things and had the time (and experience) to really sit down and work out strategies and then the time for the massive upkeep it takes.

    I talk to other filmmakers (I'm one as well) all the time who have no clue about this. No idea. They didn't budget for it, and now they're wondering how to let people know about their movie. It's crazy, because a lot of them don't even know the first, most obvious steps to take. Or others know that they're not doing enough but don't know what else to do or how to find the time to do it, or the money to pay someone else to spearhead it.

    I don't know what to say, I'm just really glad that I exist to do it on my own films, and I'm happy to work with others, but this is my day job so I can't take on a bunch of passion projects - and most filmmakers just don't have the money set aside.

    But I do think this will change. We're seeing so much change in the corporate world around people hiring digital marketers and new media brand strategists, it's just a matter of time before the indies realize that this is a must, in terms of return on investment and the ripple effect this kind of awareness brings.

    My point is: I don't think you'll need to be frustrated about this for long.

  • Aaron Cohen | August 11, 2011 5:36 AMReply

    Ted:

    I really feel strongly that the tech industry has models to support this kind of thinking. The challenge, as I found out all summer long, is to get them to understand that the indie movement matters to the economics of the industry. What really needs to happen is to find ways to cross-pollinate between the startup tech sector and the indie movie sector. There is plenty of capital and enthusiasm for risk in tech. Great passion for film also exists. We need to build more bridges between the two industries. That will become part of the solution to the vexing problems posed in your post.

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