Sundance and Topspin Bring D2F to Indie Film

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by Bob Moczydlowsky
December 7, 2011 8:30 AM
5 Comments
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The following post was originally published on TopSpinMedia.com.


Sure has been a lot of talk about movies around here lately, huh? ;)

This morning, the Sundance Institute announced an expansion of their incredibly forward-thinking Sundance Artist Services program, and we at Topspin are honored to be included alongside distribution outlets iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu, New Video, Netflix and Sundance Now as the provider of Direct-To-Fan Marketing and Distribution tools. We’re humbled to have our first major expansion outside of music to be with such a storied and benevolent institution, and we’re quite literally stoked to start helping Sundance filmmakers connect with fans and create new channels for their amazing work.

This quote from Robert Redford really says it all:

“When I founded the Institute in 1981, it was at a time when a few studios ran the industry and an artist’s biggest concern was whether their film would get made,” Redford said. “Technology has lessened that burden, but the big challenge today is how audiences can see these films. The Artist Services program is a direct response to that need. We’re not in the distribution business; we’re in the business of helping independent voices be heard.”

If you’d like to read the official press release, you can DOWNLOAD HERE.

In addition to the expansion of the Artist Services program today, Sundance also launched an online alumni community containing blog posts and essays from some of the brightest and bravest minds in indie film, like Tim League and Ted Hope. The goal is to provide a place where Sundance artists can share data and advice, and interact with distributors, technology partners and each other. Somehow, I managed to sneak my two cents in there, too. Below is a reprint of my “Direct-To-Fan Keynote” that appears inside the Sundance Artist Services site.

My hope is that all filmmakers find it useful. Please share it liberally.
You can it download it as a VIDEO or as a PDF.

Hello. My name is Bob.
I’m here to talk about Direct-to-Fan Marketing (D2F) and Distribution. I work at a software company called Topspin. We’re honored to be a part of Sundance Artist Services.

Topspin makes software used by 
Kevin Smith, David Lynch, Ed Burns, Trent Reznor, Arcade Fire and thousands of other artists to sell downloads, merchandise, tickets and memberships directly to fans. Our company mission is to create an artistic middle class, and we’re doing it by building a self-serve application you can use to market and distribute your work yourself.

You may think I mean self-release. Or DIY Distro. Or “creative” distribution. But those are not the same as Direct-to-Fan. What I’m talking about is a distribution and marketing strategy that should be a part of every filmmaker’s career. I’m talking about making sure you are directly connected to your core audience. I’m talking about selling premium products to super fans. And I’m hoping to persuade you to treat your audience like your most important asset. It is time to invest in your fans.

Here’s the problem I see: Filmmakers have been taught to be wholesalers, not retailers. Filmmakers make films — so the teaching goes — and then it is the job of distributors to market and distribute films.

There is actually a stigma attached to doing it oneself, as if every direct release was a sign not of true independence and autonomy but instead an indicator of the film’s quality or filmmaker’s professionalism. “Did you hear about XX film? They couldn’t get distribution. They have to self-release.” Sounds familiar, right? The goal is to make films and sell them to distributors. That’s the model.

That shit is broken. Permanently. I mean it. Yes, the “traditional model” still exists as a best-case outcome for a few films. But most likely not for your film. Sorry. Just being honest. It’s time to stop calling the best-case, long-shot, home-run option “the model”. Let’s get realistic about what’s happening:

Everyday, the odds of the traditional indie model working for your film get longer and longer. Even at Sundance, upwards of 80 percent of the films fail to find traditional distribution deals. A ton of interesting and excellent films don’t reach audiences and fail to grow the careers of the artists who made them. That’s sad. And yet, more and more excellent films get made everyday. Because technology makes production easy.

And the Web makes distribution easy, too. My phone will shoot video and upload to YouTube. Production and distribution is in your pocket! But here’s where the trouble starts: Free content, empowered fans and unlimited choice make marketing very, very hard. Fans can watch and share all day, effortlessly. But competing for their attention is really tough. Fans who want to watch a movie used to choose from the 10 films at the theatre on Friday night. Now they choose from the entire historical catalog of filmmaking on their laptops, phones, set-top boxes or VOD services. Or they skip the film altogether and play Words With Friends online. Think about your own habits. Getting fans to pay attention is harder than it has ever been.

“So, how will anyone see my work?” you ask. It’s simple, actually. You need to grow a database of fans, and market to them. Here’s how you do it:

First, make amazing films. I don’t mean pretty-good films, or better-than-average films… I mean INCREDIBLE films. Invest in quality, and invest in new. New sells. But also please make sure to budget appropriately, based on the size of your audience. Don’t have an audience? Then keep the budget LOW.

Second, give away free downloads in exchange for connection via email, Facebook and Twitter. This might mean a soundtrack, or the opening scene of the film, or some killer making-of footage. The point is to get fans excited, connected and sharing. You can’t make dollars until you have fans, and giving away incredible content is the best way to attract new fans.

Third, offer premium products fans actually want to buy, and sell these premium products at a mix of price points FIRST. Many of the folks who will end up with the $2.99 rental on iTunes would be even happier with a great-looking shirt, HD download, photo book and a Skype-call-with-the-lead-actress for $75. Don’t miss the opportunity to convert your core demand into a high-revenue product. Get creative with your products and your prices. You’ll earn more money and create happy fans who spread the word online.

Now, once you’ve grown your database and you can monetize your core fans, it’s time to look around for distribution partners. If you can prove there is demand for your art, you will have traditional distribution opportunities. But long-term success requires reversing the common logic:

Direct-to-Fan is NOT the last resort. Direct-to-Fan is the foundation of your career. Think about this way: Imagine your career is a ladder.

Each rung represents more audience paying attention to your work. Which rung are you on? For the sake of example, let’s say the ladder has 100 rungs. On rung 100 is Steven Spielberg, smiling down from the top. At rung zero is every first-time filmmaker just trying to get a project made. At rung 25 is someone like Miranda July (one of my personal favorites) and at rung 75, someone like Kevin Smith, who has a rabid fan base and relative autonomy.

Everyone starts at the bottom. From rung zero to 25, Direct-to-Fan will likely be 100 percent of your income. You won’t have traditional distribution offers, so you’ll do it all yourself. If you do it well, your audience will grow and you’ll move up the ladder. Once you start climbing, you become much more attractive to potential partners.

In the middle, you’ll mix it up. From rung 25 to 75, the mix of Direct-to-Fan income and other distribution deals will vary depending on the project.

You’ll have to license rights to move much past 25, but you’ll do it in a way that allows you to retain your control of your core audience and monetize them via premium products you control.

At the top, you’re really in control. If you make it to rung 75 or higher, Direct-to-Fan will start trending back toward a larger percentage of your revenues.

You’ll have a dedicated, connected following, and you’ll want as much creative control over your fan experience as possible. Read Kevin Smith’s Red Statements for a perfect example of this return to Direct-to-Fan in action. Sure, he’s done deals, too… but on his terms and with his audience as the top priority. In music, we’re seeing well-run D2F campaigns with top-tier artists earn 15 to 35 percent of gross revenues — and the lion’s share of the profits. There is no reason those numbers can’t be replicated in film. And during this year.

And there are many more practical examples out there, too. The film Broke* is giving away its soundtrack to grow its database. NYC filmmaker and musician Cory McAbee opted to take his serialized film Stingray Sam out exclusively via Direct-to-Fan, and he gets you hooked on the first two episodes before asking for your money.

Ed Burns has killer posters and t-shirts bundled with downloads of his new film Newlyweds, and William Morris and Barry Ptolemy have created a killer Direct-to-Fan experience for the Ray Kurzweil doc Transcendent Man.

With a database of fans, you can raise money on Kickstarter, sell premium products and ticket your own event screenings with a director Q&A. Like Kevin Smith is doing RIGHT NOW, TODAY. But most importantly… you’ll be able to RETURN to the same group of core fans for all of your future products. Build an audience. Build a brand. Always compare the money you’re offered to the value of your fan database down the line.

You may find that you’re better off keeping your film under your control than doing that no-advance, all-rights distro deal. Especially if we’re talking about short films!

Now, I know I’m getting long-winded, so I’ll wrap it up.

Here’s the summary: It’s time to make Direct-to-Fan Marketing the foundation of your career. It’s time to assume your films will be marketed by you, not acquired in a Sundance bidding war. It’s time to start building a database of core fans that you own and nurture throughout your career.

Stop calling it Self-Release. Stop calling it DIY Distribution. It’s called Direct-to-Fan Marketing, and it works for filmmakers at every rung on the ladder.

Direct-to-Fan Marketing is:
- Growing your email, Facebook and Twitter database by giving away free downloads and encouraging sharing
- Maintaining a great website that sells merch, downloads, memberships and tickets directly
- Owning your fan marketing data, and using it to raise money and promote your work throughout your career

Good Direct-to-Fan Marketing will make you more attractive to distributors. But you may find yourself telling them “No, thanks.” Your audience is your biggest asset. If you sell it, make sure you get full price.

Questions? I’m accessible. Let’s chat.

Thumbs up for rock ‘n’ roll,
-bob
@bobmoz

VP, Product & Marketing

Bob Moczydlowsky has been kind enough to offer HOPE FOR FILM readers his service for free:

The code HOPEFORFILM entitles you to three free months of Topspin Plus, the most powerful direct-to-fan platform on the planet.

Topspin empowers you to:
- Promote your film across websites, social networks and mobile devices
- Connect with fans and offer free downloads for emails, Likes & Tweets
- Customize your store & sell digital media, physical items, tickets and more

To redeem your free account, go to topspinmedia.com and submit your email. Follow the instructions in the email to create your account, and then click "Upgrade" in your account header. Scroll down and enter this code: HOPEFORFILM

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5 Comments

  • New World Producer | December 9, 2011 7:13 PMReply

    The whole traditional distribution model is broken. It's been broken for some time. There's no state license to be a distributor. Filmmakers have to thinks of themselves more like individual companies. They should try to go after deals with Netflix and other content providers themselves. Content providers like Netflix and others should be wise to revolution coming. Instead of shunning and looking down on individual content owners. They dump major money on major studio content and ignoring individual content owners. I guess, they didn't learn from blockbuster. Who almost went under because of this? They will be doomed again if they continue to follow same way. Producers should go after deals themselves or partner with someone that can, without giving away their complete distribution rights. Most of these distributors have raped and destroyed film producers in this country for years. They offer nothing for your film, just to add to their libraries and line their pockets. The old model of destroying and controlling film producers in this country is over.

  • Dylan Bradford | December 8, 2011 11:11 AMReply

    The Sundance Film Festival's 6 head programmers have acknowledged that they do not in fact watch the over 10,000 film submissions, and that they hire "someone" else, ( 30 to 40) other people to screen them before they are passed along ( in their own words) so why don't they divulge the information as to the qualifications of these people? Why would any serious filmmaker feel comfortable about the fairness and spend 65.00 or 75.00 to simply let anyone look at their film? Would you "pay someone from craigslist" for instance and say, I will give you money to let you look at my film and tell me what you think.
    This is about as ludicrous as stupidity can get, but Sundance operates as do other film festivals off of desperation, and John Cooper doesn't care about watching these films, he is out and about traveling the globe looking at films from other festivals, he does NOT watch the films.
    Sundance films are not independent, its who you know, not what you know or what you have made, they could care less and there is proof of that being made into a film that reveals the corporate corruption including interviews with those who worked at Sundance and behind the scenes. The movie is called "Scam Fest" and this film will open filmmakers eyes to what really happens to their films, and money. John Cooper, Shari Frilot, Jill Miller, Keri Putnam and all the rest of them are sold out and corrupt people, they have no talent, never made a film, have no qualifications other then to sit in a chair and push around paper and distribute money, and all the while Robert Redford does nothing, he simply states his usual rhetoric, "We support filmmakers" he is like a wind up doll.
    Well known film reps bring in 4 to 10 films and have private screenings and pay nothing, while your film sits in a box waiting to be watched by some college nit wits busy on their text phones forwarding through submissions, that wouldn't have the time, patience or intelligence to know what a really great film is, and know what? Who gets duped in the end? You the people, the arts, movie goers, and so we have the same old cliches only boxed up "independently" and the real gems go to the garbage. The only people that have the nerve, and the integrity to stand up to Cooper and all his cohorts in their money making scams is the Yeager's whose film Jesus of Malibu was never given the chance, the film trailer, e-mails, and info all reveal specifically how corrupt Sundance is and has been for over 25 years. It is only a matter of time when the states attorney shuts them down from ripping the general public off of millions of dollars each year, millions do the math, and has every filmmaker agree to their terms which is a contractual agreement, if this were any other institution, these people would be behind bars in prison, but the same old show goes on and on, smoke and mirrors, and the on-line publications encourage it, and they don't write about it either, Filmmaker Magazine, Film Threat, Indie Wire, all of them don't want you to know either because they are all making money in this, if not why don't they tell you some really important information like Sundance is corrupt? Why don't they get down to the question and interview; "Dear programmers tell us, who watch's the 10,000 films and can we speak with these "people" please? That won't happen, and so in the meantime I not only tip my hat to the dear filmmakers William and Anais Yeager who have in my mind made the greatest film the world my ever have had a chance to see, but has brought all this to our attention, and it is quite obvious when you look at the film trailers for Jesus of Malibu, that this could be the most creative and solely true independent film ever made, way ahead of it's time, and when you consider that Sundance had no interest in simply answering the Yeager's e-mail or phone call regarding their film trilogy, it is obvious that it is about who you know, and Kevin Smith will always get in line before you or I ever do.
    Lets call this what it is for once and for all, its a big party, its about money, not about art, and it is about ripping people off, real indy filmmakers who keep submitting for years and years what a sad thing this has become, and shame to all those who don't tell you about it, shame on them and you filmmakers who keep feeding this "beast".

  • really bummed out | December 15, 2011 4:49 PM

    I wish I had read your article before sending in my check and hopes.....

  • David Payne | December 8, 2011 1:00 PM

    Well said, sir !

  • Kholi | December 7, 2011 2:40 PMReply

    Would love for him to throw out an example of an "incredible movie", not decent, not better-than-average, that didn't cost more than 250K.

    Then show us how it made that money back in less than a two year forecast without traditional distribution deals. You can't use Kevin Smith in your examples, or anyone else on that list: not a single one of them got where they are now without traditional distribution deals.

    If you change the over-achieving note of "make incredible movies" to "make something someone will watch, enjoy, and share"--which doesn't necessarily mean incredible at all (see: freddie wong) then we're talking about an entirely different model. One that doesn't necessarily strive on quality but quantity and consistency.

    To me, this isn't talking about making good movies, it's talking about creating a fan base on whatever kind of content you make, becoming a social conversation.

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