In the January 2008 issue of MovieMaker Magazine, I discussed the pervasive role that fear would likely play throughout the 2008 Sundance Film Festival marketplace. As predicted, fewer companies acquired less films and paid modest, if any, minimum guarantees. Fear contributed to an ultra-conservative market atmosphere that discouraged risk-taking by distributors, producers, financiers and moviemakers.
What role will the “fear factor” play within the Sundance and “Indiewood” marketplace this year? How can independent moviemakers and producers best succeed inside this specialized and competitive arena?
Keen observers anticipate a continued flat market with even fewer “marquee” seven-figure acquisitions. The escalating costs required to release a film theatrically will continue to drive distributors away from significant commitments for multiple screens in numerous markets. The majority of independent films acquired last January underperformed with their traditional theatrical releases in 2008. Fear figures to play a prominent role again this year given the surplus of films in the market, the present recession, the credit crunch and competition for audiences who are viewing many of last year’s independent films on their televisions and computers through broadcast, VOD, downloads and streaming.
Given this uncertain and challenging marketplace, how can the independent moviemaker navigate the choppy waters to a safe distribution harbor? This article offers some practical advice.
1. Action cures anxiety: As soon as possible, if you have not already done so, organize a marketing and distribution game plan. Create marketing materials that embrace the unique aspects of your film and your anticipated target audience. This exercise helps focus your team (sales consultants, publicists, etc.) on your film’s key selling points and facilitates getting everyone on the same page. Additionally, busy distribution executives appreciate user-friendly materials that minimize their time expended and money spent.
2. Create your own DIY distribution platform: Develop your own your Plan “B” distribution strategy. This will be vital in the event you do not hit a grand slam and secure a significant distribution deal from a mini-major. The exercise will also help you to better understand the current distribution landscape and will provide leverage and confidence as you assess your distribution options at the bargaining table. Seek advice from other moviemakers, producers and leading industry professionals about their experiences. Recruit experts to guide you down this specialized road, but do not take your hands off the steering wheel. The savvy independent moviemaker understands that he or she must also retain direct involvement in the marketing and distribution of his or her film.
3. Manage expectations (yours and others’): The road to investment recoupment can be long and bumpy. Be realistic and examine all distribution options. For the most part, a substantial distribution deal with a mini-major is unlikely in today’s marketplace. You may find yourself carefully assembling your distribution choices like pieces of a puzzle. Pay particular attention to the digital horizon where the greatest number of people will eventually view your film. Understand the immense value of your digital rights; they may be your primary route to future revenues. Finally, avoid so-called “digital rights experts” seeking disproportionate commissions from your gross revenues to secure deals that may already be within your grasp.
4. Be prepared with distribution-ready elements: If you have not already done so, prepare your film’s elements, including E&O insurance and all music licenses (sync and master use), so that you are capable of prompt and seamless delivery. Your ability to deliver your film may influence a distributor’s decision to work with you. At a minimum, it will accelerate the payment of any minimum guarantee. Needless to say, having a delivery-ready project will also come in handy, should you decide to release the film yourself.
5. Be optimistic: There is a silver lining in every cloud. In fact, these are favorable times to create and distribute breakthrough independent films. In the new marketplace, you can have more involvement and control with your distribution matters and greater opportunity to share your film before larger audiences. While it is useful to understand how fear has transformed the traditional marketplace for distributing independent films, it is even more important to focus on the emerging opportunities to manage your film’s distribution in the new marketplace.
Steven C. Beer is a shareholder in the international entertainment practice of Greenberg Traurig’s New York office. He concentrates his practice on film, music, television, licensing and media law. He has served as counsel to numerous award-winning writers, directors and producers, as well as industry-leading film production, film finance and film distribution companies. Additionally, Beer has served as counsel to numerous multi-platinum musical artists and has worked with high-profile production companies and record labels. He is the founder of R&B FM, LLC, a production company specializing in music-oriented films, and a co-founder of the Center for the Protection of Athletes Rights (CPAR). Beer received his BA, summa cum laude, from Washington University in St. Louis and his J.D. from Villanova University School of Law.