What "Stripped" teaches us about the future of self-distribution and the marketing power of "Calvin & Hobbes."


The staff at VHX, blogging for No Film School:

We get a lot of questions about pricing, specifically for bonus content.

How much should I charge for my deluxe edition? Should I sell bonus content on its own? For how much?

We loved watching STRIPPED, a documentary and love letter to the art of cartoonists. But we were also excited to see how the filmmakers experimented with bonus content. Here’s what we learned.

A few days ago I clicked through to this post about Stripped (a documentary by California filmmakers Dave Kellett & Fred Schroeder) and skimmed through to the "interesting bits" of an article about DIY distribution, which is VHX's business. The article concerns bonus content -- what to offer, how much to charge for it. The main thrust of the article is that some of your customers want more material than your movie provides. You don't want to offer too many choices, but if you offer none, you're leaving money on the table. This is especially true if you hit the pricing sweet spot with your superfans. With the right combination of bonus material options, argues VHX, you can increase your earnings in a way that makes customers happy -- and without feeling like they've been gouged for the extra content.

Upon investigating the Stripped web site, however, I felt like the authors buried the lede by not mentioning that the bonus content for this particular film is, to put it mildly, a remarkable example of product-market fit. When it came to satisfying their target audience (fans of newspaper and online serial comics), these guys absolutely crushed it. Unedited interviews with old-school comic strip giants like Jim Davis (Garfield) and Cathy Guisewite (Cathy) give way to extra time with popular authors of more recent web comics like Matt Inman (The Oatmeal) and the creators of Penny Arcade. If you ever wanted to watch Mort Walker talk about Hi and Lois or Beetle Bailey for 70 minutes, your dream is about to come true.

And if that weren't enough, the film itself features the first-ever post-Calvin & Hobbes interview with Bill Watterson, which is a feat akin to capturing Sasquatch. Even better, they convinced Sasquatch -- I mean Watterson -- to illustrate the film's poster. The reputation of Watterson's already popular comic strip has only become more refined since the author retired and withdrew from the public eye. His recent three-day return to comics, ghosting on the strip "Pearls Before Swine," can't have hurt sales of the documentary either. By now your eyes may have glazed over at all this inside baseball of the funny papers, but for enthusiasts of panel comics, "Stripped" must be home-run Grade-A video heroin. (At least it seems that way on paper -- I haven't had time to watch the film yet, but I definitely plan to do so.)

According to the No Film School article, Stripped "debuted at #1 on iTunes" and it has a 4.5 out of 5 rating from nearly 300 customer reviews on the iTunes Store, which means that the filmmakers must have done their subjects justice. Even if they hadn't been committed to making the best film they could, Kellett and Schroedrer could simply have spliced the interviews of the industry's big names end-to-end (like they kinda did in the $65 deluxe edition) and comics readers everwhere would still have waved credit cards at them to see the footage. It's doubtful that bonus material would have come into play at all had the original film not provided such a compelling mix of voices to the target audience.

Credit must also go to the filmmakers for holding onto the rights to the bonus material to sell from their own web site. At first I thought to congratulate them for not sharing those rights with their distributor, but as I poked around for information about the film I realized: they don't have one. A quick email to the address on their web site confirmed it -- Kellett wrote back to say that the film is entirely self-distributed. "It's just us," he wrote. "Two directors, retaining all rights to the film and to the bonus materials."

This is the future of film distribution that "the industry" has anticipated in increasing degrees over the last decade: filmmakers creating quality content, cultivating an audience (largely bypassing the festival circuit along the way, I might add), and selling directly to that audience with as few middlemen as possible. One might argue that VHX and iTunes still constitute middlemen, but the cuts they take are trivial compared to traditional distribution. The tools for this distribution model have been sneaking up on us but now they seem ready for prime time. More importantly, there finally exists a critical mass customers who are comfortable watching, buying, and owning films in a purely digital way. Independent film has been waiting a long time for the attitude of average consumer to catch up to the available technology, and it looks like that is actually starting to happen. It's a big moment.

So yes, offer a variety of bonus content and price it fairly. Ardent fans then have the option of rewarding you a bit more while also getting more of what they want. More importantly, however, understand the audience for your movie and make sure you're really delivering the film that will make them sit up and take notice (and that you own as large a portion of the profits as possible). All of this is harder than it sounds but nevertheless true. Make something people want badly enough and the marketing becomes a whole lot easier.