3 questions about your film and its distribution that you need to answer

As promised, a quick recap of the panel I sat on at the Ann Arbor Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, called "Multiplying Eyes: Film Distribution."

Panelists were myself, moderator Debra Miller (of Outfest & AFI), Bob Alexander of IndiePix, Mitch Levine of The Film Festival Group, and filmmaker Brooke Keesling.

The panel ostensibly concerned distribution but ranged to any number of topics related to making a living as an independent filmmaker. Below are some of threads of the conversation based on my notes and fuzzy memory. A lot of these ideas came up during the panel but I've also included my thoughts since then.

• Mitch Levine introduced his 3 essential questions as a starting point for the distribution of any film:

» What are your goals for the film? These should be as concrete and actionable as possible -- do you want your film shown on TV? How important is theatrical exhibition? Do you want to make all of your production money back, or is it enough to get the film "out there?" How long are you willing to wait before you move on to other forms of distribution? Don't close the door to opportunities you didn't think of, but you should definitely think about what you want.

» Who is your audience? Beyond just "moviegoers," think about specific segments of the populace who appear in or are otherwise represented by your film. Does the film appeal to senior citizens? 20-something skateboarders? Ice fishermen? Identify particular interests, hobbies, occupations, and pasttimes that appear in your movie.

» How do you reach that audience? Not just "by email," but what specific groups already exist to reach those people? Those groups have existing mailing lists, often segmented by geographical location, that can help you fill your festival screenings and sell your film. Are there current movements in popular culture related to your film or upon which you can capitalize? Exploit them.

• Brooke Keesling's Boobie Girl went to 80+ film festivals, and she went to as many of those film festivals as she could. Meeting so many different people helped her secure not only more festival appearances but also distribution for the film itself. Brooke emphasized the importance of keeping a short short - under 12 minutes if possible.

•  My main launching pad for conversation in this panel was a pair of concepts I encountered recently on the Technium, one of Kevin Kelly's blogs. The first is the concept of the concept of 1000 true fans -- that an independent artist could be supported for life if he captures the true fandom of 1000 people. A "true fan" is defined as a person who loves your work so much that he's willing to spend about $100 a year on just about anything you put out there. Read the whole thing, it's a compelling and thoughtful blueprint for the future of independent artists.

• The second concept is the idea that internet is a giant copy machine, and that trying to hold back anything that can be easily copied is essentially a losing proposition, especially if there's a large demand for it. Hence the decline of the music industry and (one guesses) the film industry, because their business models traditionally depended on selling things that couldn't be easily copied. This area is a huge tangle of laws and conflicting desires that I won't get into here -- read Better Than Free instead. Kelly argues that selling copies on the merit of simply having a copy is a business model that will diminish (if not evaporate altogether) -- rather, adding value around the copyable object by selling things that can't be copied (tangible and otherwise) is the winning move.

Kelly presents his ideas in a way that can be applied to many disciplines, but it is especially relevant to filmmakers, in particular those who specialize in shorts. (The ideas will be more applicable to features when they can be copied, transferred, and consumed in a way more convenient than is currently possible.) It's a fairly safe bet that your short film will be co-opted by YouTube or similar at some point in its life, so you're better off including YouTube in your plan instead of policing all the different video sites.

The ways that these two concepts can be applied to independent filmmaking are manifold and I'll continue to write about them. For now though, I'll simply point out two examples of filmmakers who have applied these principles to their work and seem to be doing fairly well at it:

Lone Sausage/Beyond Grandpa - the folks behind the amazing "Doctor Tran" series of films. The concept is simple but the execution is so amazing that true fans are created in mere minutes. In Doctor Tran, Breehn Burns and Jason Johnson have created a beloved character, but the real star of these short films is their warped sense of humor -- that's what people keep coming back for. So long as they continue to churn out depraved animated material (and it's been a while since the last short, though I hear another one is on the way), these guys could probably sell t-shirts and compilation DVDs until the end of time.

Bitter Films - Don Hertzfeldt may animate his films the old fashioned way, but he makes good use of the internet to connect to his fans and to offer them incentive to buy his shorts on DVD. And when it comes to selling things that can't be copied, Bitter Films is a great example: when the collected works "Bitter Films Volume 1" came out, Don included goodies (like strips of film cut from the 16mm prints and hand-drawn sticky notes) with the DVDs of those folks who pre-ordered. Not only are the shorts brilliant, but the marketing and delivery of the work (the DVDs are crammed with extras, etc) is top-notch.

• Some of the questions that came up in the panel were pretty basic. It's obvious that there's a hunger for the simple facts about film distribution -- how it works, what a "standard" deal looks like, etc. This is very likely because there don't seem to be any good, free resources about film distribution out there on the web. Those resources that exist offer sketchy, imprecise information up front, and often hide the real information behind a wall of paid membership or in the pages of a book or ebook you have to pay for.

This is not to say that information about film distribution and ideas about how to accomplish it for your film aren't valuable things for which one could logically expect to pay. However, I find it interesting that you can find reasonably good information about most other aspects of filmmaking for free. This makes me think that 1) film distribution is a murky and unpredictable subject about which few solid "facts" are known and 2) when money enters the picture, the knowledgeable are reluctant to give up information without compensation.

The facts of film distribution aren't that difficult to understand but are beyond the scope of this blog entry -- I promise I'll write something to illuminate the subject soon, and hopefully a bit more research into the subject will reveal some good web resources on the subject too. (Feel free to email me good sites if you know of them.)

• Don't be intimidated by the festival "rules." One of the better takeaways from the conversation was a reminder of the fact that festivals are desperate for great films -- if you have a real winner on your hands (and so very few filmmakers really, really do), a festival will bend the rules for you, especially if you're polite. Festivals put their submission rules into place for a reason, but a quality film will always trump a rule. The trick comes in convincing the festival staff that you have a really great film.

• Take advantage of whatever prizes you get for your film -- use it as leverage with distributors and other festivals. Do it quickly and don't be embarrassed by an award from a smaller festival.

• Use the low budget of your film as a selling point, not something to hide. Don't run down your own film by saying it was "only" made for $800, that you "only" had non-professional actors, etc. etc.

That's the extent of my notes and after-panel thoughts; thanks to my fellow panel members for their expertise, to those who attended (standing room only!) and to the Ann Arbor Film Festival for putting me on a panel and for creating an amazing event. I wish I'd had more time to spend there.