Saturday, August 20, 2011

Monetizing festivals, part two

Festivals are all about love. I've never seen audiences show more affection for movies than they do at festivals. I think it's about the discovery. It's easy to like something knowing that you've discovered it. Now you can tell your friends about this rare gem that only you know about. It's exciting and empowering. For the filmmaker it's wonderful, but also dangerous. I know many a filmmaker who buy into the festival audience's love, and when their film is released theatrically they wonder... what happened? People are much more critical at the multiplex. The whole experience is very different, and much harder.
For our movie White on Rice we started to self-distribute theatrically while we were still playing in festivals. A lot of people think this sounds counterproductive. If the movie is in theaters, why would you still show it at festivals? But since we were self distributing, and of course broke, we couldn't turn down the opportunity for great publicity (paid for by the festival) and the buzz generated by the loving festival audiences. I give full credit to our amazing team: director Dave Boyle, and Nguyen Tran of Wave Releasing and Dylan Marchetti of Variance Films.

To make the festival work to our advantage we tried always to release theatrically in the festival city the week following the festival screening. That way the festival had a great promotional hook (a sneak peak screening, just before it arrives in theater), and we got all the buzz from the audience who went home and told all their friends about this great movie they just saw AND that they should see it because it would be in the theater the following week! Normally that buzz fizzes out and by the time you return to theaters, nobody cares. This strategy overcomes that dilemma.

The two cities where we pulled this off most successfully (and it's not easy to be able to pull off, mind you) were San Diego, where we won an audience award at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, and Honolulu, where we had a great screening at the Hawaii International Film Festival. In both cities we had our longest runs.

In these tricky economic times it's important to constantly think outside of the box in this way, and potentially dangerous to simply assume a traditional release, or even a "traditional" DIY release (whatever that could be) will work for you.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Monetizing festivals, part one

Film Festivals do many things for filmmakers. Mostly they give them a much needed platform to launch their projects. They also provide a forum for films that may be more "Challenging" than most films that have a better chance at finding an audience in regular theaters or straight to DVD. They provide filmmakers the invaluable opportunity to network with other filmmakers. For the independent filmmaker, film festivals are as important as breathing is to normal humans. However, there is one thing that festivals normally are not... and that is an opportunity to make money.
     It's amazing really. My first film, Big Dreams Little Tokyo, premiered at the AFI festival in Los Angeles, which is a wonderful festival. As filmmakers we worked very hard to raise interest for our film. We hired a very competent publicist (who helped us get into the festival) and went to work making sure the seats were full for each of our screenings. Our film had a sumo-wrestling subplot, so we hired a bunch of local sumo wrestlers to walk around outside the Arclight and pass out information about the film. It was a great bit of promotion and we were proud that our film got more better photo coverage than the Penelope Cruz tribute that was going on at the same time.

Director Dave Boyle, actress Rachel Morihiro and friends on the AFI Fest red carpet.
     The end result of our efforts? More people came to see our film -- which is great. At a festival, however, all ticket sales go to the festival (and venues, etc), but not to the filmmaker. So by spending thousands of dollars on publicity, all we did is line the pocket of the festival a bit. Well, everyone who sees your film is good of course, but there's got to be some way to monetize this thing. Is it worth breaking your bank and back, just so a few more people can see the movie? I would suggest it depends on who they are. If they're industry types, critics, festival programmers, then absolutely. If not, it might be wise to let the festival's publicity team do their job. I've started to concern myself mostly with "Industry-targeted-publicity" for festivals, saving broad marketing for when the dollars come back to me.
     We also discovered that your film never gets more love and attention than it does at festivals. At almost every festival everyone goes in wanting to love it. They're cheering for you because they feel somehow connected to you. They are discovering this new film that no one else has seen. But we found that when you finally release in that same city (six months to a year later), all of that love, as well as any promotion you may have done, is long gone.
     I'll return to this subject in a bit to talk about what can be done.