I’d say it’s been a hell of a week, but the week isn’t over yet. Last Thursday was the second and last screening of Dolphin Lover at Slamdance. Shortly after that we received an honorable mention for short documentary from the jury, which was awesome.
Clearly this thing is getting some traction that a 4 minute parody video would be produced about it. It started snowballing from there. Over the weekend all the major British tabloids picked up the story (because how could they not). Now this wasn’t original reporting – it was just a mesh from the few original sources and interviews, plus oddly some of my videos pulled from Instagram merged into an ‘exclusive’ clip. Sometimes they didn’t even cite sources (*cough* Mirror). Quotes usually stay the same, but it sometimes becomes a game of blogger telephone.
From there things just kept picking up speed. On Monday I woke up to interview requests from the UK, Australia, and some US outlets. Online the game of telephone kept moving rapidly (with some original reporting). Here’s a sampling:
A man's summer-long fling with a dolphin named Dolly is the subject of a new documentary short called Dolphin Lover http://t.co/nP5kVATNGZ
There’s still more press to come. There’s been a lot of lessons learned in viral strategy. We definitely weren’t prepared for this and have been adjusting the website, videos, YouTube channel, and other media as we go. I’m noting it down – will round it up in a future post.
Though we live in a digital world, for anyone that’s run a Kickstarter campaign, the reality of manufacturing and shipping is a frustrating, hair pulling event.
Obviously if your campaign is for a product this is to be expected, but I’m specifically focusing on films because, you know, that’s what I do. DVDs, posters, t-shirts: most Kickstarter film campaigns have physical goods involved which need to be made and eventually shipped.
As a one man band this can get costly and time-consuming. For Strike, one of the rewards included a bowling pin. But I only had to ship 5. Thinking about buying the boxes and packing material for such a low quantity, I knew it would either be pretty costly, eating up about 15%-20% of the cost of the reward, or I’d have a shit ton of boxes and packing material lying around from buying bulk.
So once I finally got the bowling pins and DVDs and posters together, it sat for a good month or two as I delayed trying to figure out how to ship them.
Then came the magic of the internet. I had been seeing ads for Shyp for a few weeks, mainly since they launched in Miami. For $5 they come to your house, pick up what you need to ship, and take care of the rest. You just pay the carrier fee (they price shop based on the weight and go with the lowest) on top of the $5 service charge.
I gave it a shot with something else I had been meaning to ship. Now I assumed that it was a $5 service fee per package. So when the Hero (Shyp’s name for their package pickup team) arrived I chatted about the service fee and found out that no, it’s not per package but per pickup. That’s the cost for them to go to your place. The number of packages doesn’t matter. He gave an extreme example that you could move your apartment for $5. Don’t think I’ll go that route next time I need to move but good to know.
As soon as I heard that it’s unlimited packages it wasn’t hard to guess where my thoughts went.
So I got back onto Shyp and started adding every reward that needed shipping. The annoying part was individually taking a picture of each shipment and typing every address out on my phone. A bulk upload feature would be nice but I realize this is probably an unusual use for the app.
I submitted to Shyp, the Hero arrived, we put each shipment into it’s own bag and he took it all away. Later that night I got an email confirmation saying everything had shipped along with tracking numbers. Weeks of procrastination finally over with a simple app.
You can use this promo link to sign up to get $30 credit towards a shipment (if you do ship I’ll also get $30 credit. Win / Win).
On Tuesday the NY Times wrote about internet service providers offering low cost internet options that restricts your monthly data usage, similar to most smart phone plans. This obviously has huge issues for online video content creators. What’s the first thing people are going to stop doing if their data is limited? Cut bandwidth heavy videos.
Yesterday there was a House hearing on whether current laws address the demands of new technology, and the NY Times article was brought up.
Represented were Netflix, Roku, Hearst TV, Dish Network, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and others. Here are some interesting points:
1:17:30 – The committee asked about the article and restricting data. The general reply was it boils down to competition. If someone offers unlimited at a fair cost, people will subscribe to that. One executive said this was a blunt solution to handling demand peaks. If she’s backing up data at 3 AM, demand is at a minimum, but that’s counting against her quota.
1:55:00 – Debate about the Dish’s Auto Hopper feature, which lets you skip ads on recorded programs (it can also lower the audio on commercials on live broadcasts).
2:09:45 – Pretty much split vote on if they thought customers were offered enough choice to watch content whenever and wherever they wanted.
2:17:00 – A showdown between Dish and a congressman over the Auto Hopper feature when the congressman didn’t seem too happy that someone could skip over his political ad in November.
Giving up my unlimited iPad data plan to go to Verizon, I can say data caps are extremely annoying, having gone over them twice. And even AT&T is a pain, sending me text messages that they’re going to start throttling my ‘unlimited’ iPhone data (thanks to Spotify). But I don’t think limited data, especially at the home, will last for long. People won’t put up with it and the market will sort it out. Google already has fiber optic internet that’s 100 times faster than broadband.
The Auto Hopper debate is interesting. They’re arguing that it takes the three steps a consumer is already doing to skip commercials and boils it down to one. But studies have shown that people still remember commercials while fast forwarding them. I have no problems with commercials, especially on the web, like with Hulu. But that’s because I understand the economics of why they’re necessary. I find a few minutes of my time fair payment to watch something for free online. Maybe the commercial break needs to be redesigned to highlight the economics behind it and how it pays for the programming you’re about to enjoy.
With DVD sales for Bots High, I’ve been handling the fulfillment myself. Order volume has been low enough that this isn’t a big time suck, and when I learned I could order and print postage straight from PayPal and avoid the post office I was sold.
I’d log into PayPal and view the latest orders. I could either click each one and buy postage individually, or launch PayPal Multi-Order Shipping, which is a completely separate web app that let’s you make batch changes and apply presets to numerous orders, and then print them all out at once.
I’d place my orders and print them on regular letter size paper. (This only works for US shipping. Interntaional required a customs form that is available to buy online, I just haven’t made the jump to get that and the sticker label I’d need to mount it to the package.) It’s formatted so you can cut or fold it in half, and then stick it to the package. I’d tape all four sides with packing tape and drop it in the mail.
Not a terrible workflow, but my dream was to print out a bunch of labels with all the shipping data, slap it on the package and drop THAT into the mail. Bam! Done.
Unfortunately my Brother label printer wasn’t listed as compatible with PayPal. So I decided to get one that was. Or at least try.
I got the DYMO 450 Turbo, which technically isn’t on their list, but that’s because it’s so damn old they haven’t removed the now discontinued DYMO 350 Turbo. 450 is the new version and a quick web search said that was the one to get.
I got the label printer, hooked it up, went to print some orders, and…it printed the fragment of a label formatted for another printer, rotated 90 degrees the wrong way.
Went into the settings, set everything to format it for the DYMO 450 Turbo with the PayPal specific label 99019.
I got it to display the correct layout for the label, but still it wasn’t printing correctly. The most annoying thing is that the label loads in a Java program that bypasses the normal printer dialog box, so I don’t have the great options I’m normally used to with rotating and scaling. All you can do is pick which printer to send to.
The closest I got was 90% of the label printed correctly, but the super important barcode was getting cut off, which made the label useless.
So what else could I do? I could try to print the label to a PDF, and then print that. But the printer dialog box that gives me the PDF option won’t show up, so how?
After a lot of searching, the Etsy forum proved most useful. Yes, this is an issue for a lot of people, and it’s pretty much only an issue for Macs.
One post recommended exactly what I was looking for – CUPS-PDF. It’s a free program that adds a printer to your list but it automatically creates a PDF when you “print” to it. Since the only option I’m given with PayPal’s Java label printer is what printer to use, this would be the perfect solution.
I sent the label to CUPS-PDF, pulled it up in Preview, printed it on the label and voila, I got my mailing label on a sticker.
So in the end it works, but not exactly the seamless workflow I envisioned. It won’t work with PayPal Multi-Order Shipping, so I have to individually type all the memorized weight and package info into each order, print it as a PDF, pull it up again and then print it to the label.
But less paper, less tape, and a more professional packaging look. Anyone have any better experiences with a different label printer through PayPal?
Two Thursdays ago marked the long awaited Bots High screening day, a launch for the film that enabled anyone to host a screening of the film for free (plus they could tune into a live streaming Q&A). The highlights: 27 cities, 7 countries, and a release of the film into the world, for sale on the website and Amazon. I had hoped it would be on iTunes by this time but Distribber under estimated the iTunes approval time. And still trying to get onto Netflix.
Aside from the awesome people that hosted a local screening, it was pretty much a solo job to coordinate and market. But it wasn’t without the help of a lot of (mostly) free online tools. Here’s a recap of some of the tools that I used, along with the good, bad, and what I’d do differently.
Meetup Everywhere – 4/5
Everything started and revolved around Meetup Everywhere. Everywhere is similar to Meetup.com except the Meetups are all about the same topic or cause, in this case a Bots High screening. I’d direct someone to Meetup.com/botshigh, Meetup would detect their location, point them to a nearby group (screening) or give them the option to start their own. Plus when people join a city, they have the option to give me their email. So show up or not, they can get on the mailing list. This looked like a really good tool to help people organize and find screenings based on location.
And it was mostly good. My biggest issue was Meetup’s interface and lack of documentation. I ended up serving as Meetup tech support a lot, even leading to making some how-to screencasts. Some issues: not clear on how to actually add your city, in addition to adding your city you also need to join the specific Bots High screening day event, and not clear on how a user can become recognized as the Meetup Planner. Another issue was converting people who just listed their city but didn’t go the extra step to fill out the form and confirm the screening, for whatever reason. There are about 50 cities listed on Meetup Everywhere, so conversion rate to an actual screening was about half.
Aside from hiring a developer to make something custom from scratch, I don’t see any other tools that would accomplish everything Meetup Everywhere does. I’d just like to see them tweak their UI and have better documentation.
Wufoo – 5/5
Wufoo is awesome. This was how I converted the Meetup planners to actual venue hosts and collected all the information I needed. Wufoo is a really simple way to create forms. I upgraded to a higher plan for the event which would let me collect payment through PayPal. This way I could have one form for the host to fill that would give me their information AND the option to buy add-ons, like a Blu-ray screener or fundraising pack, and pay for it right away. Made things a lot easier. Plus great integration with MailChimp.
Cost: Free for 3 forms. Plans from $14.95 and up. $29.95 for payment integration plan.
MailChimp – 5/5
MailChimp is the best newsletter service out there, and as a company they have such an awesome vibe. I use this for the Bots High mailing list, and I created a separate list for venue hosts, to make communication easier.
Really good free plan. Pay plans are based on total number of subscribers in all your lists (plus you get a lot of templates and more premium goodies).
YouSendIt Pro – 4/5
At first I was going to send a DVD screener to all the venues. But with no money this would have been a few hundred dollars. So I honored DVDs to those that had signed up before, but I switched gear to deliver the file digitally.
I briefly debated putting it on Vimeo with a password, but a lot of these screenings were at colleges and they have a habit of throttling bandwidth. So the movie had to play off the computer, and a file was the best way.
I have Dropbox and a server which I normally use for file transfers, so I never gave much thought to upgrading YouSendIt. But sending an HTML link to a large file or trying to explain FTP is a pain and leads to a lot of issues and delays. YouSendIt is really good at doing the hand holding stuff to make sure anyone can download a large file.
The free YouSendIt has a 100 MB file size limit. Pro or Pro Plus bumps you to 2 GB, enough to compress an SD copy of the movie and ship it. Plus they were running specials for about $60 a year for Pro Plus (normally $149), so I got an account. It seems like if you sign up for a basic account they’ll offer you Pro Plus for the lower price.
Livestream – 4/5
I had done a comparison of different live streaming services before and I found Livestream to have better options. Account is free (with ads). It has an extremely impressive Livestream Studio, which is basically a web based video mixer. You can mix camera sources, YouTube videos, lower thirds, scrolling text feed, bugs, and a bunch of other professional effects.
They also have a free desktop app that makes the streaming connection better. Only downside is they don’t have a native iPhone streaming app. You can connect it to Qik and stream that way, but whenever I do my videos have a blue hue over them.
Cost: Free or $299/month ad free
Google Hangout – 5/5
Will and Liz, two of the main characters from the film, are in college but I wanted them to join in on the Q&A. So I had a separate computer hooked up to the projector, with the sound feeding to the live stream computer, and I had Liz and Will join in through a Google Plus Hangout. I was surprised by how well it worked – good video and sound quality, plus it automatically switches the large monitor to feature whoever is talking.
– Handwritten note on a festival rejection letter
The above note sums up the festival experience of my feature film Bots High quite well. A film that people who see, love, yet didn’t get much traction on the festival circuit. It played at some festivals, won some Best Documentary awards, got some goodreviews, and I had some great experiences and am thankful for the festivals that took a chance on the film. But obviously not the Sundance, SXSW, TIFF festival run you imagine while making the film 1.
Below I’ll be outlining how I’m taking my film’s future solely in my own hands, and the ideas that led to this strategy.
What Can You Do That I Can’t?
Epic festival run or not, the next question is, “Now what?” This is a question most of us filmmakers face once we have a finished film. Even the top indie films with recognizable actors are having a hard time getting distribution deals with upfront money. Three Sundance films just posted Kickstarter campaigns to raise distribution money. Dying to Do Letterman has run a phenomenal campaign to raise money to do their own Oscar qualifying theatrical run.
Do you try to raise more money and do everything yourself? Do you tour the film around and hope to break even, like Total Badass? Hope a company comes along to pick it up? With so many digital outlets yet so few companies putting money into buying films, choosing the right path for your film reminds me of the stress of picking the “right” college.
I received some distribution offers, but nothing that paid anything upfront, just some backend percentage. This means I’m going to have to sign away broad definitions of certain rights for 20 years (essentially forever as far as the film is concerned), no guarantee that any money will be put into a marketing campaign, and hope that maybe I’ll see a couple of thousand in return.
The main question I asked for every offer is, “What can you do that I can’t do myself?” Let’s take the best offer, one from a company whose name I actually recognized. They wanted all digital rights and would get the film on iTunes, Netflix Instant, Amazon, Xbox, etc, and keep 25%. Not a terrible deal, but not many guarantees on marketing, prominent placement, etc. I can handle the online stuff through Distribber – pay a flat fee, keep everything, both money and rights. With a lot of new online-only companies out there, I feel like they’re all just trying to build their library instead of putting their time and money behind something because they believe in it.
Good deal for someone whose film has been sitting on a shelf, not for someone that just wrapped and still has some fight in them.
Check Out the Film…Possibly at a Festival Near You…Or Online…Soon
Packed theater at the Bots High World Premiere
Bear with me as I take you through three realizations I had that will soon merge into the mega-idea.
The bigger question wasn’t how to get it online, it was how do I launch. How do I build enough buzz so the online launch is relevant? How do I get the film on people’s radar? Previously, if I told someone about the film, or pitched a blog to write about it, it’s like, “Maybe the film will play at a festival near you…or sign up for the newsletter and I’ll let you know when it’s on iTunes.” There was no target date, no time to build towards, that people writing about the film could say, “Here is a cool film, you can watch it on this day.”
Around the same time of this brainstorming, when I was crashing SXSW with an underground screening, I found it was incredibly easy to set up a free screening (shocker!). I held a screening at the University of Texas. They donated a theater, I didn’t charge admission (but sold some DVDs), super easy – no worries about rental costs and breaking even.
Get Your Priorities Straight
If 2 you read Jon Reiss‘ great book Think Outside the Box Office, one of his key points when making your distribution plan is to figure out your goals. Do you want to make money, promote a cause, or use the film to market yourself? Going into this, as I’m sure most filmmakers do, I’m thinking, “All of the above! It’s going to make money, and because it’s making money that means it has enough buzz that I’m being promoted as a filmmaker.” Clearly, not the case. But one of the main reasons I made this movie instead of trying to work up the Hollywood ladder was to have a feature film to my name to lead to more, paid work.
So with a reworking of priorities, #1 now being to use the film to market myself as a filmmaker, that means getting the film out as wide and far as possible. Combine that with my previous two realizations, and the strategy is quite clear…
A Free Worldwide Screening Day
Yep, one day to direct everyone towards that launches the film. “Hey, Mr. Reporter, check out my film. Your readers can see it October 6, for free!” Using free tools, such as Meetup Everywhere, groups can organize based on their location and create their own screening. I want to empower people to create their own theatrical experience, which as Jon Reiss redescribes as “people watching ‘films’ with other people. Any place.” ‘Theatrical’ is not a 35mm print screening in a movie theater anymore. 3
Even if people don’t come out to a screening, here are my goals from the plan when someone mentions Bots High to someone else.
“Oh, I heard of that film.”
“I saw that.”
“I love Bots High, I own it!”
The more blogs that right about it, the more someone is aware of it, the more that will help when I need credibility for other projects.
Free Doesn’t Mean No Money
Let’s be clear, ‘Make Money’ is not off the list (to the comfort of the patient people I owe money to). From my screening experience at festivals and ones I organized, about 2-5% of the audience buys the DVD. My thinking is cast a really wide net and if 1%-3% buy, that’s still a decent amount of money.
But I can’t have a Bots High representative at every screening selling DVDs and counting money. So in the way that I’m empowering people to organize a screening, I figured I could empower them to be retailers as well.
I sell the DVD for $20 on the web site and at screenings. But I’d be totally happy selling a guaranteed 10 DVDs for $10 each, which is what I’m doing with the event organizers. They can buy a 10 pack for $100, and then sell them at their screening for $20 each and keep the profit. I’m happy, they’re happy, win-win!
I foresee a lot of groups hosting screenings being connected to robotics programs or robotics teams themselves. I would love for the film to be used to recruit new members, whether the team does combat robotics or task oriented. I feel like teams could also use this as a fundraiser. So I also setup a ridiculously low $100 fundraising license which lets any non-profit charge admission to the screening as a fundraiser. 10 tickets at $10 and they cover the fee, then everything else goes to their program.
Make it an Event
Q&A at Bots High World Premiere
I am all about Ted Hope’s and Jon Reiss‘ talk of making screenings an event. I want the film to be used as a platform for teams and schools to create an event around. Show off their robots, have mini battles (Google loves sumo-bots), get guest speakers – anything to go beyond just a movie screening and make it a unique night. Also, there needs to be something special about playing the movie on October 6 other than me saying you have to.
The one thing that’s great about festival or independent screenings is the Q&A. I didn’t want to lose that element, and with all the free streaming services out there it doesn’t have to be lost. I’ll be setting up a live webcast of myself and people from the film to answer questions that are tweeted to @botshigh. I figure most of the screenings will be in some sort of college auditorium that’s hooked up to a computer, so switching over to a webcast shouldn’t be a problem.
How You Can Help
And that’s the plan – a free, worldwide launch of my film. So far the press has been good (WIRED, Laughing Squid, IndieWire) and I’ve got screenings set up in India, Spain, South Korea, Bolivia, and 26 other cities. My goal is 100. With schools getting back in session, and constant emailing, I anticipate the numbers to pick up speed pretty quickly.
Of course you, independent film lover / maker who’s reading this, can play an important role and help set up a screening. Go here for all the details.
You can follow me on Twitter at @C47 or the film at @botshigh. I’m toying with an idea of running trailers for other independent films in similar positions before the screener disks of the movie, so if you’re a filmmaker with a movie and might be interested in this, email me.
I’ll be posting more about my experiences with this, including Distribber and getting the DVD on Amazon. Stay tuned!
I don’t have a definitive answer for why this is, especially since festivals don’t really give feedback, just some theories from an attempted objective viewpoint, such as the film is light hearted, has a narrow focus, and doesn’t tackle a heavy issue. All the rejection letters cite record high submissions, thanks to the digital revolution which now creates a higher level of noise. I’d like to imagine my film was buried in a Raiders of the Lost Ark style pile and never watched. But who knows.
Obviously this experience has left me a little bitter about festivals, which led to question their relevance at all. Especially after my short Space Miami got over 50,000 views and more onlinepress than any festival could give a short. That’s another post, though check out this Fest vs. Online comparison.