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The money is gone

Using Crowdfunding to kickstart distribution

For many people not fully invested in the world of distribution there are likely to be some misconceptions about what is needed for a successful release. Film distributions might seem like a brief time after the film is finished when it is sent out there in the world, where it magically travels to the cinemas, TVs, laptops, and smartphone screens of the eager audiences that have long been waiting for it.

Not so much so! Filmmaker and distribution consultant Jon Reiss has been stressing heavily for a shift in perspective on film distribution.

It is hard work and costs a lot of time as well as money. In his book Think Outside The Box Office, Reiss introduces a 50/50 approach to DIY distribution. The 50/50 model does not refer to net profits but to resources, time and money, needed to get one’s film to its audience, in other words, to market and distribute it.

Reiss argues that many if not most filmmakers fail to put enough money aside to cover distribution and marketing. In the DIY model money and time go hand in hand. Many vital parts of the distribution can be outsourced, but that will cost more. If one wishes to go down the cheap route, more time needs to be allocated. Pretty simple.

The fresh view from Jon Reiss, is that one should split the resources between the film’s production and distribution 50/50. Meaning that if one spends about a year making one’s film, they should expect to use another year releasing it. Especially if they wish to exploit all rights with a proper theatrical release. And the same principle applies for money. Filmmakers should expect the marketing and distribution costs to be roughly equal to the costs of production.

Simply put, the distribution doesn’t just magically start bringing profit for the film, as it itself can be very expensive and time consuming, meaning that salaries will have to be paid for those hired for the release.

What can help?

Crowdfunding has traditionally being seen as an alternative way to finance films in addition to grants and bursaries and private investors. But perhaps crowdfunding is much better suited for later in the film’s lifespan.

I chatted on the phone to a New York based film producer Ella Nuortila, who has worked on documentaries and short films, and she highly votes for saving one’s crowdfunding campaign to kickstart one’s DIY distribution.

‘If you start a campaign to fund the production of the film, there is a great chance that by the time you are finally ready for exhibition your devoted audience has long gone and moved on to something more current. Filmmaking can take years. If you’re goal is to crowd fund and and built on audience, it is much better to do that right before the release, because you can then use the money and the hype to drive that release and after the campaign you will have an audience ready’.

The distribution consultant Peter Broderick also wrote an article about using the crowdfunding as a force to drive distribution. According to him the main benefits of a crowdfunding campaign is to build awareness among one’s core audience, and generate a significant press coverage.

Especially for documentaries crowdfunding can be very successful tool make up for the limited financing resources available (for example the lack of private investors, due to low profit estimation). As seen from the chart below, docs are by far the most popular film genre among Kickstarter projects.

More statistics on crowdfunding film projects can be found here.

By their nature, docs have a core audience, a group of people who already know about the subject, but who have never seen a film about it. Those are the audiences that are going to back up the project and enable its distribution to a wider audience.

Coming back to the timing of a CF campaign, Ella stresses the benefits of a late campaign to fund P&A rather than production.

“If you think about it, in one case you are empty handedly asking for people to enable your project. In the other, you already have something (the film) to show and you can say ‘ Look we made this’ now we just need a little help for people to see it”.

To conclude, DIY approach to distribution can be much more difficult, expensive and time consuming than many filmmakers would have thought.

The beauty of the new landscape comes in the vast amount of options out there, but the down side is all the expenses and time that the full exploitation of the distribution world will take. Luckily the new online world comes with crowdfunding that is a great tool for distribution and marketing as it simultaneously works for the cause and funds the cause.

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