The most important thing for filmmakers is to have an audience. Survival (aka Economic Returns) probably falls next on the list. Using the available tools to distribute and aggregate, are these two pursuits compatible?
I just got back from a very successful Cannes (hence, my inability to post for the last couple days -- my apologies!). Among my pleasures there was hosting a Producers Roundtable. I was fortunate enough to have a great group to discuss the state of film with, and among them was producer Ross Howden, who is doing something truly bold with his latest film, The Tunnel. And it is working well. I am excited that he is now sharing his experience with the rest of us. Read on!
A few days before leaving Australia for Cannes, I agreed to sell Australia’s first crowd funded feature film: The Tunnel (www.thetunnelmovie.net). In another first, the film is legally being given away on BitTorrent the week of the Festival.
The Tunnel is a compelling thriller/horror about a female reporter who takes a crew down to the deserted tunnel system beneath Sydney to investigate why homeless people are disappearing. My business, ScreenLaunch (www.screenlaunch.com) is an Australian sales/distribution/production company that specialises in low budget features and innovative distribution models. This particular model was very innovative, even by our standards.
On the plane over I was asked “So how do you sell a film that is being given away?” It's a good question – one I'm in the process of answering.
A friend once told me the secret to selling is to first find out what the buyers want. We already knew people wanted to see the film - the audience had paid for its production. Co-producers/writers Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey developed the "135K Project" model, raising the film’s budget of $135,000 by selling each frame for $1. This acted as a great way to finance the film and gave a chance of profit share for less than the price of a lottery ticket - with greater odds of success.
So the audience wanted the film. And logic dictates that's what buyers would be looking for - a film that has an audience. But there is an inherent risk in this model – won't people just download the torrent version? In Australia, the traditional distribution channels took a different view. Transmission/Paramount bought the DVD, and Showtime bought the Television rights. The special extra footage on the DVD and the ease of a TV on demand purchase was valuable to them despite the fact it was being given away.
Armed with this good pedigree of attached local distributors, we hit the Cannes sales booths and a round-robin of meetings.
The first lesson we learned was that the film is not being "given away." We found the best way to explain things was that all rights are available but only 'non-exclusive' internet rights are available. Part of the deal with the crowd financing model is that those inclined can download the film legally for free. The producers were clear that this was a promise to their investors that they were not going to break. And they haven’t. It is released on Thursday, 19th May.
But it seems the Cannes market is not so forgiving of alternative online distribution. One of our salespeople got this crude response from a Cannes sales agent: “buying a film that has been released on BitTorrent is like going to a brothel and paying for a hooker that is giving services out for free.” Oddly, we've found that many other sales agents particularly from companies promoting a multiplatform interest didn’t actually know what BitTorrent was. Others acted if we had sworn at them and went looking for the skull and cross bones above our heads.
The response was curious, if not a little disappointing in a market that prides itself for the breadth of its thinking. We all know that the models are changing; surely there would be greater interest in at least exploring the options around new distribution models?
We certainly don’t support piracy or want to get involved in “windows wars." We just want people to see our film. And, we're keen to start moving closer to a distribution model that embraces new audience habits and choices – before those habits become so overwhelming that it's a game of catch up with the crowd.
Many buyers liked that the film was finished yet they didn't have time to watch it. Some wanted DVD screeners to view later (or toss in the bin when reducing their luggage weight.) The producers didn't want us to hand out screeners of the film, which some buyers found ironic given they could download it on Thursday. (Assuming they knew how!)
We concluded some buyers might think we have something to hide – or that the movie had problems. We knew the film was great, so we decided to screen the film in a theatre. And now we are busy handing out invites to buyers for a film that we believe can easily be as big as District 9 and Blair Witch (perhaps better as something actually happens!)
Tuesday night, 17th May at 8pm, The Tunnel, the first film legally released BitTorrent film associated with a major studio screens for sales in the Palais at Cannes. I already have post-screening meetings booked to discuss a sale, so the minds may be opening. Is this a small step towards the distribution model of the future? We will know on Wednesday.
How do you sell a film that is being given away? My answer? Make sure it's a good one, and stay open to the wisdom of the crowd.
Download the film now at: http://vodo.net/assets/torrents/The.Tunnel.2011.720p.x264-VODO.torrent
-- Ross Howden
Dr Ross Howden is founder and Director of ScreenLaunch - a sales, distribution and marketing company for innovative digital screen content. Prior to establishing ScreenLaunch in 2010, Ross spent fifteen years in the entertainment industry as a film producer, sales representative and entertainment technologist.
The Tunnel just got a month of theatrical screenings in Sydney at Hoyts the main theatrical chain -- a rarity for Australian independents. The BitTorrent release also got a great article in Cannes Market magazine: http://www.lefilmfrancais.com/cannesmarketnews/cmn7/index.html