It’s been a long time under wraps, but glad I can finally announce that my short doc Strike: The Greatest Bowling Story Ever Told is now on The New York Times, kicking off their new curated Kickstarter documentary series. Check it out below and please share it!
Exciting news to kick off 2015. Papa Machete, the film I co-produced in Haiti, will be having its US Premiere at Sundance. Dolphin Lover, a short doc I produced, shot, and edited, will be having its World Premiere at Slamdance.
Excited to finally head out to Park City for the festivals with two projects. Though coming from an 80 degree beachy winter in Miami I’ve got a lot of cold weather gear to buy.
Papa Machete trailer below.
Dolphin Lover to come soon, but let’s just leave it with the Slamdance logline. The true story of a man with a porpoise.
– 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 good reviews, 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
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
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 online press than any festival could give a short. That’s another post, though check out this Fest vs. Online comparison.
- ‘If’ shouldn’t be there; if you make movies and want them to have a life after creation you must have read Think Outside the Box Office. ↩
- I’ll be writing in more detail about the online tools I’m using to organize this. ↩
Bots High was rejected from SXSW. Bots High is playing next Tuesday in Austin in a SXSW venue. This Friday it will also be represented at an official SXSW event. This took about two emails and ten minutes to make happen. And it’s free. Here’s how.
Bots High is my feature documentary on high school battling robots. I finished it about two months ago and have been working on a DIY distribution model at schools, theaters, co-working sites, and pretty much anywhere with a screen. SXSW was obviously a top choice to premiere at, but I got the rejection email and moved on to other plans (like having a World Premiere on my own terms).
Fast forward a few weeks, I get an email from a friend about documenting a Miami StartupBus that’s heading to SXSW. 30 entrepreneurs have 48 hours to start a company on a bus to present at SXSW.
So now that I’m going to end up at SXSW, I figured I might as well capitalize on that opportunity. I jokingly threw out an idea of an underground screening – set up a projector and show the film on the side of a building or something. But from this joke I got a pretty good response – people said they would come if it was playing.
A projection on the side of the building didn’t seem ideal, so now I started thinking of other venues. This is about two weeks before the festival – any obvious place will either be booked or insanely expensive.
Then I started thinking about schools – there’s University of Texas nearby, have to be a bunch of high schools and middle schools – and they all have auditoriums. I checked out UT’s website – not only do they have an engineering school, they have a Women in Engineering Program. And I’ve got a film that features all girl teams building robots – I feel a win-win happening here.
So I shot them an email, got a reply from Tricia the Director who thought it was a great idea and booked an auditorium Tuesday evening, the week of SXSW. The day before there will be a SXSW panel in the same room – so it’s not a venue in the middle of nowhere.
I feel like this was bizarrely too easy, and that leads me to wonder why I’ve never heard of other films doing this, aside from maybe the start of Slamdance.
Major festivals attract large crowds, and what festival goers wouldn’t love a free screening of a film? This is a really interesting model I definitely want to explore further. I wish I had more lead time so I could get more swag together, like stickers, t-shirts, 3 lb. robot battles…
The other SXSW event I’ll be at is an Ignite/Dorkbot event. Ignite is a collection of 5 minute presentations, 20 slides each set to auto-advance every 15 seconds. They’re really cool. But it was Dorkbot that drew my attention – if you have the word ‘robot’ or ‘bot’ in your title, you’re a target for my film.
Before the Ignite talks there’s going to be a “science fair” with booths setup with projects on display. I emailed them, knowing I was late to the game, if I could get a booth for Bots High and surprisingly they had some open spots. And this is an official SXSW event. So if I play the whole movie on my laptop, does this mean Bots High officially played at SXSW?
The timing works out perfectly as well, because Dorkbot is Friday, the screening is Tuesday, so it’ll be a great opportunity to promote the screening.
My other SXSW experiment will be how to make the most of the festival without a badge.
So if you’re at the festival, please come by one of the events. Or shoot me an email and we can meet up. And if you’re not there, please spread the word! Here’s the Facebook Event Page.
This Tuesday I’ll be getting on a bus of about 30 entrepreneurs for a road trip from Miami to SXSWi in Austin, TX. During this trip these entrepreneurs will be working in teams to launch a company, in time to pitch at the conference. It’s the Miami StartupBus. And I’ll be filming the whole thing.
I got the offer for this project about a week ago its been a bit of a rush to get things together but I’m really excited.
It’s being billed as The Apprentice meets Amazing Race meets Startup Incubator – should be cool.
I’ve got a few responsibilities as it relates to video. First off is to document the experience – what happens when a bunch of strangers get together and have to create a company in 48 hours.
Second, part of the StartupBus competition is to turn in a pitch video, where online viewers will vote on the idea and then the top 6 will move on to the final presentation at SXSW. I’ll be working with the teams to create that. Six videos in a few hour turnaround, should be fun.
And finally I’ll be handling the live streaming – or at least moderating the channel. What would be ideal to me, and I think more awesome, is if every bus member was a camera person, using their phone to broadcast their experience. I want something that would be one official StartupBus Miami channel page, multiple screens of different camera sources going on this page, and the user could pick one to watch. But I haven’t been able to find anything that can do that, though I feel I’ve seen it.
The main chocies are Livestream and Ustream. Ustream can broadcast from phones. Livestream can’t but can hook up with Qik. At first I was leaning towards Ustream, but Livestream seems to offer more for free, like a complete control center to mix live video, online video, overlay text, and setup playlists of looping video if you’re not broadcasting live on your channel.
For the documentary filming part, I’m borrowing a Canon T2i to play with. I’ll be doing most of the filming on my trusted EX1, but I wanted to try out a DSLR as a B-Camera and this seems like a good project to start.
Also, since I’m now traveling to SXSW, I figured I might as well try to find a venue to screen Bots High and tap into the SXSW crowd. It’s looking like I found a place; I’ll find out tomorrow. But for sure I scored a booth at Dorkbot, a mix of booths of geeky projects and Ignite 5 minute talks. So if you’re in SXSW check it out this Friday.
I’m stuck in the airport right now due to there being no one who can fly the plane or something. I have one book in my bag (thanks to the versatility of the iPad) – the 3rd Edition of Chris Gore’s Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. “3rd?,” you may say, “but the 4th edition is the latest!”
And you would be right, the 4th Edition is the latest and I bought it as soon it came out. I’ve had the 3rd Edition as soon as I started making films and realizing I should be sending them to festivals. I don’t think there’s a book on my shelf that has more highlights, more dog eared pages, or more post-its and flags sticking out. The FFSG is a great directory of festivals, along with a great selection of curated lists and indexes sorting the festivals by date, genre, and location.
It’s a pretty thick book, so I was surprised when the 4th Edition came in that it was nearly half the thickness. It has all the articles written by filmmakers about navigating festivals and distribution – interesting stuff and good articles. But as for the directory and lists of festivals, in the back of the book is a note pointing you to a website, where it says all the festival information is now online.
On the surface this seems like a great idea. Festivals are changing all the time. The information is old as soon as it’s printed. With a website you can keep everything up to date. People can review festivals, lists can be curated, you can search based on different factors.
Great idea – horrible execution. ((I should note this has bothered me for a while, ever since getting the book. It’s resurfacing again since I just sent the first batch of festival submissions for Bots High out and am looking for particular niche festivals.))
So I signed up for an account, put my book’s serial number in, and went to the Fests A-Z directory. Unsurprisingly is a festival directory in alphabetical order. I tried to find lists, like Festivals for Women on the Screen, or Best Documentary Festivals. Nothing. Nor could I search festivals by genre. I could just look at a long list of festivals in no useful order, or search for a festival by location. If I wanted to do that I could just use Withoutabox. I want curated lists and a way to find out about festivals that’s better than Withoutabox. This has none of it.
So that’s why I have a copy of 3rd Edition. I know a lot of the festivals in it have ceased to exist, but it’s worth sorting through it to find niche festivals.
If anyone’s had a similar experience but found the secret tab that I’m missing, please share.