Industry Focus: Irish Distribution... Doing it Alone
The struggles of the independent filmmaker are endless and varied. The discipline required to write a script; the patience required to pull together a cast and crew; the earnestness required to raise funding and see a film through all the way to post-production ensures that making a film is guaranteed months or years of stress and challenges. But now that the masterpiece is complete, what next? In many ways the battle is just beginning. The quality of work is of little consequence if nobody watches it.
Catching the eye of professional distribution companies can be difficult and first-time filmmakers are often wary of being caught up in bad deals which will prevent them from ever making money from their film. With internet technology providing so many new, free platforms for films, self-distribution is becoming an increasingly popular option for filmmakers.
But how good a deal is self-distribution? It might be a more inviting option but without the resources available to professional distribution companies, can it be more of a curse than a gift?
Patrick O’Neill of the Irish Film Board has been observing the trend of filmmakers experimenting with various forms of distribution and has noted the positive and the negative aspects of each. He believes that one of the most appealing aspects of self-distribution is the flexibility it affords a producer and the fact that the filmmakers themselves are in charge of the film’s destiny since they know the limits of their own funding. He also believes that an enticing aspect is the fact that you can be creative about how you wish to market the film. The aesthetic of the campaign and the means used to raise awareness is at the discretion of the producer.
Some of the negative points of self-distribution are that producers may have a lack of expertise in the area of marketing and publicity. A professional distribution company will bring a fresh perspective, years of expert experience and most importantly, exhibitor relationships. A distribution company will have the key contacts in the area of DVD rental/retail and will have good relationships with cinemas.
Another key danger, as Patrick points out, is that “a producer can often have too biased an opinion of their own film and think it is actually better than it is, therefore inflating expectations which results in higher expenditure incurred in the distribution that is not recouped – a distributor can provide a balanced opinion and provide realistic expectations.” Thinking realistically about your films appeal is key to successfully marketing it. The more you can zone in on your demographic, the more focused your campaign can be.
Patrick advises that “when self-distributing you first need to look at your film and see what “hooks” there are that can be effective in your marketing campaign, i.e. is there an obvious theme, a cast member with a public profile, etc.? From here free marketing tools such as Facebook and Twitter can be exploited, directing your output at specific groups.
A recent example of a self-distributed film is Risteard O’Domhnaill’s The Pipe, a documentary about the Shell to Sea campaign in Corrib which is being self-distributed by Scannáin Inbhear. Rachel Lysaght, producer of The Pipe has found that taking on the distribution themselves has proved to be highly successful. Though it is too early to know if the film will be a financial success, Rachel has found that the film’s socially relevant subject matter has allowed them to use social media to create a bona fide community around the film. At the moment the film is being screened in a number of cinemas all around Ireland and they are also utilizing Access Cinema and Cinemobile. The screenings, often accompanied by Q&A’s, have been enormously successful. The company has maintained the film rights for the U.K. and Ireland but has sales agents abroad after a successful run in the film festival circuit culminating in a standing ovation at their screening in the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The only drawback that Rachel found was that staying on top of social media and community-building can be extremely time-consuming. It is a full time job engaging with the various platforms The Pipe has been using to promote itself.
A word of advice from Rachel is that filmmakers should be aware of who their potential demographic is from the first day. They should know in the pre-production stage and consider the demographic all the way through the production and to the marketing phase. Knowing your audience is the key factor in strategically advertising your film. TG4 will screen The Pipe in Febuary 2011 and a DVD release is tentatively scheduled for Spring 2011.
Another recent Irish documentary, Pyjama Girls has been successfully self-distributed by Still Films. Pyjama Girls examines the phenomenon of inner city Dublin teenage girls who wear brightly coloured pyjamas on a day-to-day basis. This observant and sensitive documentary was certainly suited to engaging with an online community because of its subject matter. The film’s director Maya Derrington believes that documentaries might be more suited to self-distribution “because it's easier to track networks and target groups who have direct interest in the subject matter. You can direct market to those groups either online, virally or physically by phone or in person.” She also thinks that films can potentially get a much better financial deal by distributing theatrically without the aid of a separate company. “The venues take 65% and distributors would on average get about 35%, of which they retain 65%. So in the traditional set-up, the filmmaker comes away with 35% of 65%.” Bearing in mind how difficult and rare it is for an independent Irish film to make a profit from their film, every little helps and the money the company decides to budget for distribution will most likely be much smaller than the cost of outsourcing. Because Pyjamas Girls has already broken even (with the aid of some funding from the IFB), Maya wouldn’t hesitate to self-distribute on their next project, though she would give the marketing campaign more time if she were to do it again.
The introduction to Ireland of digital cinema has made the physical distribution of films much cheaper and easier. Films no longer require huge reels. A small hard drive, simply packaged is all that needs to be delivered to the cinema now. One of the first Irish filmmakers to take advantage of this was Liam O Mocháin whose company Siar a Rachas Muid Productions released his film W.C. theatrically by means of digital hard drive in 2009.W.C. was the first film to be released theatrically in Ireland via digital hard drive. It played at Movies@Dundrum, SGC Dungarvan, and Eye Galway. Liam believes that it is distribution rather than getting the film made that can be the real hurdle for many indie films.
Nonetheless, Liam sees plenty of opportunity for filmmakers who aren’t afraid to think outside of the box; “However much it costs to make or how it’s out there, it’s what is on the screen that counts for the audience…Digital distribution from VOD, streaming, downloads are all part of the new world of distribution. You can now split your film rights giving digital to one company, TV and home video to another and sell the film on your own website.”Being savvy about the possibilities of the digital world has given Liam an edge as an indie filmmaker. Although it is always difficult for a self-funded, indie film to become a financial success (W.C. still hasn’t quite recouped its initial investment) Liam believes the only important thing is that your film gets made and gets seen and the advice he offers to fledgling filmmakers is “Get your film out there, but remember as well as getting the glory you also get the bills!”
Last summer saw the nationwide release of recession-themed comedy drama Situations Vacant, produced by Anne Marie Naughton for Park Films who took another route entirely. The film was distributed by the company itself but she asked Brendan McCaul (formerly of Buena Vista) for his expertise in Marketing and Distribution. Because of his knowledge in the field and his contacts in the industry, Situations Vacant avoided some of the pitfalls of non-professional distribution. The film screened in eighteen cinemas nationwide from a digital hard drive. Anne Marie believes the most important thing about self-distribution is to give attention to detail and not to presume that publicity work is being done; “It is important on a national release to make friends with the cinema managers and projectionists and pop in to check that the posters are being displayed correctly and that your trailer is being run as often as possible.”
Anne Marie hired a PR company to deal with the release and in the end believed that the company, though highly professional didn’t really aim the film in the right direction. One of her regrets is that they film wasn’t directed more towards its young demographic. The film was marketed in a rather non-specific manner and when asked what she would do differently next time she said she would “choose PR to match the film. It is important to understand the movie and its audience and then to create awareness through the target audience”. Another aspect that Anne Marie was lucky to be able to exploit was high-profile cast member Mikey Graham, a singer with Boyzone, who proved to be a major selling point despite only having a small role in the film. Situations Vacant is now finished a theatrical run and Park Films are looking into an Xtra-Vision Exclusive deal for the DVD rights.
Each of the above filmmakers seem to have a common tip for budding distributors; know your audience, find a hook and be aware of what your film is. Some films are better suited to self distribution due to particular social relevance, having a marketable name attached, or subject matter that can easily find a community on the web. Before you decide how you will distribute your film, look at your film, look at your demographic and figure out a strategy. Above all, it seems, you need to be creative in your approach to marketing outside of traditional means. The world of transmedia is constantly evolving and creative, tech-savvy people are coming up with new, inventive, non-traditional ways of distributing art. With new VOD websites launching all the time it is important for filmmakers to keep an online presence and to make it their business to keep up to date with the changes in the technology.
Filmmakers must also think, from the pre-production stage about who their target audience is and how they can exploit aspects of the film in order to reach out to their potential audience. With technology moving so fast, DVD rentals plummeting and piracy soaring it is difficult to predict where the market is going so the most important thing for anyone embarking on a filmmaking venture is to know the market and the various resources available. Keep abreast of how other filmmakers are getting creative and always try to think outside the box.