FUTURE OF FILM: LAURIE PEDERSON: Local Film Festivals—Sacramento Film & Music Festival
(This is part of an on-going series of articles, essays & interviews on the changing face of films & filmmaking.
When I first got into the indie film & film festival scene, it was a different world from where independent films, filmmaking and film festivals are now. Unfortunately, I think that an awful lot of in-coming filmmakers are still living in the past and not how things are now.
The 2014 Sacramento Film & Music Festival kicks off this week. I think it’s a terrific festival. But, like much of the indie film scene I was describing, the festival has changed a lot over the years. And it’s needed to in order to survive. In the early years the festival was longer and played more features that had played in other big festivals, like Sundance and Toronto, as well as international films, in addition to local/regional films. Now it is almost entirely a regional festival. This only makes financial sense. Run a night of short films made in and around this area and you fill the house with all the filmmakers, actors, family and friends. You sell a lot more tickets than a foreign documentary. This is part of the evolution of film festivals.
This interview is about a person who I have known from my earliest days of the Digital Revolution, who became involved in the festival, and is now involved in independent film distribution. She offers a lot of insight, history, and wisdom for filmmakers.
This is a long interview. But Laurie’s perspective is extremely valuable. If you can’t read it all in one sitting, print it out and read it over time. Her words are worth it.)
The first time I met Laurie Pederson she was manning a craft services table on the short film Power that I shot for writer-director Michael Dryhurst. She was then working at the Sacramento Bee newspaper. From that time on she thrust herself into the Sacramento filmmaking scene, producing and assisting on films and giving encouragement to new and emerging filmmakers. She is also one of the founders of the Capital Film Arts Alliance (CFAA), www.capitalfilmarts.org which holds meetings once a month, bringing together filmmakers and artists from all around the area, and unique speakers.
For several years she has been working with Nehst, an independent film and distribution organization that is the brain child of Larry Meistrich, who was involved in the Shooting Gallery and getting Billy Bob Thornton’s Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade made.
UPDATE SINCE I CONDUCTED THIS INTERVIEW WITH LAURIE: She is no longer with Nehst, but has joined local producer and business entrepreneur Joe Mendoza and his company ILine Entertainment LLC and GearNex CineToys, making a re-invention of the geared pan head, which is fabulous (and I want one!!). She still runs the CFAA, which is celebrating their 10th anniversary this year.
LAURIE PEDERSON: You know what? It’s like making soup. There’s so many different recipes and you just have to really apply what makes sense to you. What tastes good to you. What ingredients do you have access to and what can you create with those elements. And it’s going to be a different recipe for every person and for every project, whether you were cooking for one or your cooking for 5,000. There is no one best way.
I had recently gone through a divorce. You have habits when you’re married and when you have a certain life, and when that changes, all of a sudden everything is different.
I had a friend who is interested in getting into film producing. At that time that was like someone saying, “Give me a cigar and give me a limousine. I’m going to be a film producer!” I knew nothing about some production.
I heard about a call for volunteers for a local filmmaking competition where people were going to be making their own short films and have them screened at the downtown cinema. I thought that was kind of interesting. So I literally said to this friend, “Let’s go to this meeting and see what it’s about.”
So we went and one of the films that was going to be made was a short ministry called Sac Noir that was going to be directed by Matt Perry, a Sacramento-based filmmaker and teacher. Afterwards I went up to Matt and said, “I don’t know anything about movies, but I’m really organized and I can make coffee and I can make phone calls. I’m sure I could be helpful somewhere and I’d like to work on this project with you.” So my friend mark and I jumped onboard with this project. I was very aggressive in saying, “What can I do? When can I do it. When can I get involved?”
So Matt put me in charge of casting, but at that time I didn’t really know what that meant. So he really had to walk me through all the steps of what it took. So I did that and he said to me, “Dude, you did really great with that. I’ve had an upset in that the production supervisor isn’t going to be able to do it. Would you like to be the producer?” And I said, “Well, if you can teach me, ‘cause I really don’t know what that means.”
That was my first film project and I swear to you, I learned as much or more from that one film project and working with Matt because he followed all the right protocols. He understood the system and the process of how a movie should be made. He taught me some of the most elementary basic things that have stayed with me through every project.
More importantly, it was just one of those things where you just have an “Ah-ha” moment in life sometimes where you’re doing something and you just know you were meant to do this. That’s what came across to me when I was working on that first very short film. I just loved it. I loved the environment. I loved the people. I loved the challenge. Creativity.
At one point I was calling around trying to get grips and gaffers because our original D.P. had baled on us and taken his crew with him, so I had to find grips and gaffers and I didn’t even know what a grip or gaffer did.
I was learning every second of the way. And I was really proud of the film and how it turned out. I can still to this day recall all of the dialogue from that movie becausw we were all so involved in the rehearsals and everything that took place to get prepared to shoot this.
Something I have told people many times since then is, “The more you do—the more you do.” If you’re good you’ll find that you’ll just be busy and busy and busy and busy. And you will continue to be requested to work on other projects and you’ll continue to have other opportunities. And that’s exactly what happened.
After that I did three short films back-to-back, which lead me to producing a feature film for another local filmmaker whom I met.
After having a number of experiences where I pushed myself as much as I could to prove myself and learn in a short amount of time, I was getting double- and triple-booked working on these independent films—all while I was also working full-time at The Sacramento Bee, where I had been working for ten years. I was by then basically spending every weekend and evening working on film stuff. I was amassing this huge list of contacts of people and locations, and by this point people were coming to me and were asking me, “Where did you go for this?” “How did you do this?” And, “Who do I need to talk to to do that?” I thought, we need to have a resource so that information can be shared.
At that time there was the Sacramento Film Group, which was more of a social networking group that met periodically to talk about the movies they wanted to make, and that group was gradually diminishing into never meeting and was falling by the wayside. Tony Sheppard was trying to run it at that point and he asked me if I would be interested in helping. I said, “If we’re going to have a dedicated film group, let me take this and repurpose it and really take this to where I think we are as a community right now.” From that I re-created it as the Capital Film Arts Alliance. That was in 2004. I just realized that there was a need and an opportunity and it was something that nobody else was doing, and that was important to a lot of people.
About that same time I connected with Nathan Schemel, because I’d been submitting films to his festival, and I’d never even attended his festival before, and just naturally I said to him, “Whatever I can do, if I can ever help you, just let me know.” And Nathan said, “Actually, yeah, I could use your help. If you want to come this night and I could really use you on this other night.” And that was the beginning of my relationship with him. And I thought the festival could be so much bigger than it was. So the next year I came on board as one of the directors of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival. I saw there was a need. I saw there was an opportunity. I saw there was a way I could co in and make a difference for, not just myself, but for a lot of people, for the whole community.
So I was working full-time, I was starting the C.F.A.A., which was a whole lot of work at that point, and getting on board with the festival. So it was all a whole lot of work, but I couldn’t have been happier. I was so busy, but it was exactly what I wanted to be doing.
Within the first six years I’d produced over twenty different projects, ranging from music videos to short films to two different feature films, a podcast—there were several things that I had my hands in. and I call this period my “education.” I didn’t go to film school, but in the projects that I took on over that time I learned everything. I learned the good lessons and I learned the bad lessons. What to look for and what to run away from. It was just a real interesting education.
By 2007, I’d been with the festival for a couple of seasons, when Nathan and Tony connected with Larry Meistrich, who had been a part of The Shooting Gallery, which produced Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade.
He was starting this whole film boot camp, was starting a pitch site. He was actively seeking projects for production. They had him come to the festival as a speaker to talk about filmmaking, talk about his history. I had to pick him up at the airport and drive him to the hotel and he and I started talking and we just hit it off. Every now and then you meet somebody and you speak the same language. I got what he was doing and I appreciated everything he was creating. We spent a lot of time together over that weekend. Then when I was taking him back to the airport I told him, “Here’s my background, here’s what I do and here’s what I’ve done. And I totally dig what you’re doing, so let’s stay in touch.”
He contacted me soon after that and we set up a film boot camp here in 20098 and it was extremely successful. We had Joe Carnahan (Sacramento-based filmmaker and writer-director of Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane and The A-Team, The Grey) as a speaker. More than anything, for me, it really cemented my working relationship with Larry and we continued on a couple more projects the rest of the year.
During this I was still working at The Sacramento Bee newspaper full-time and just watching the print media slowly suffocate itself. It got harder and harder and harder to be in that environment and work for that industry. I just was not happy in it anymore and I needed to find another option. Ideally I would have loved to have been able to work in making films in Sacramento, but there’s really not much you can do in the film industry here. Not a whole lot of jobs. And certainly not full-time jobs.
Then Larry called me and said, “Okay, I have a project and Pepsi is funding and I want you to project manage it. I can offer you this. Are you ready?”
So I quit my 20-year full-time job with The Bee, which was both easy and hard at the same time, and came onboard with Nehst (pronounced Next), working full-time working as the project manager for his pitch site, which was being funded through Pepsi. About a year after that Larry offered me the position of president of distribution, overseeing all the distribution and marketing for our film catalogue.
SEEING THE INDIE SCENE–FROM INSIDE THE DISTRIBUTION SCENE
LAURIE PEDERSON: Ironically, taking on this full-time job with a film distribution company has taken away any of the time that I used to have to help produce any local indie films. This is because when you’re doing something as a full-time job that you used to do as a hobby—and escape from your full-time job—it becomes more difficult to look at it in the same light as the joy you got out of it as a hobby. Now it’s your full-time job and you’ve got to focus on that all of the time.
I did co-produce a short with Chris King that we shot back in 2009 or ’10, but I just haven’t had the mental bandwidth to take on any independent artistic projects.
In the work that I do now, it’s really a very different way of thinking about filmmaking. When you’re working in the business it becomes so much more about the business. Whereas when you’re in the independent side of things it’s so much more about the creative side and the freedom of expression and team work. When you’re working it on the business side, you don’t have the luxury of seeing it from the attitude of, “We’re going to make this work. No matter what, we’re going to find a way to make this movie.”
Now, as soon as I start talking to people realistically about their projects, I start seeing the holes in them. I see where they’re being unrealistic. I see where they don’t have a plan and don’t have a budget. They just have that ballsy mentality of, “I’m going to make this movie and it’s going to be the best thing anybody’s ever seen,” without any of the due diligence behind it to actually make it a successful business venture.
Inspite of that, I still try to inject everything that I can into the C.F.A.A. because I still feel it’s a really valuable filmmaking resource for the local region. And I do miss being a part of local productions and being a part of that.
Nehst is a film production and distribution enterprise. We’ve produced a few films over the last couple of years, but the real focus has been on the distribution of titles, which we acquire.
With each film we break it down as to who is the audience for this film and how do you reach them? What are the marketing aspects that you’re going to use to reach that audience?
We’re still kind of a start-up company and we’ve evolved quite a bit, so everybody wears all different kinds of hats. It’s almost like an indie film project because there’s one day where I’ll be submitting Academy Award applications for a film and the next day I’ll be grinding out a data base from information that I can find online, which I should have interns doing but right now it just has to get done so I have to sit down and do it. My job is to oversee the distribution and marketing of all of our films. Whether that means something that has theatrical release where we have to coordinate with multiple theaters in multiple media. I deal with everything from the delivery of materials from the filmmaker to getting the film out to all of our different outlets and at stores and at websites.
We have several different films. Some of them have very specific, limited audiences, as well as films that represent distribution to a global audience. Obviously, the distribution and marketing behind each film varies quite a bit based on: What is this film? Who is this audience and how do we reach them? We have some films that mean something to a handful of people, not to a global audience, so we have to find the ways to reach out to those people.
We have other films that have really blown up and the viral growth, especially social media is such a huge aspect of social marketing, has been intense and immediate. When that happens we have to be able to respond right away.
We have one film that is a football documentary that we’ve submitted for an Academy Award. When we opened this film it was the second biggest documentary film to open in the nation, opening in over 140 theaters. We’re just getting ready to launch the DVD and digital download of it, so right now I’m focusing on getting that messaging out in as many different places as we possibly can so. That we can generate sales of that product now that it’s gone through its theatrical run. And if we can get the nod of a nomination for an Academy Award then we can use that to further promote the film.
We have another film opening in December (2013) with a comparable opening of over 500 theaters. This is a Latino-based and somewhat faith-based family-oriented narrative movie with Latino characters who are shown in a really positive light, and that also has some of the Latin community’s highest valued stars from both Mexico and the U.S. The Latino audience is hungry to have that kind of entertainment and are capable of knocking huge mainstream Hollywood blockbusters right off the charts. So we’re following that footprint to promote this particular film.
Every film is like a child and they all have a different need and a different potential. My job is to find the audiences for these very different films wherever they are.
LAURIE PEDERSON: I think it would have been 2005 when I came on as a director with the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and worked with Nathan Schemel and Tony Sheppard on putting that festival together.
MC: That’s about when I remember first attending that festival. It was a time when everybody was still talking about Independent Films and the film festival scene was on fire across the country and around the world. I remember seeing a great German documentary More Than 1,000 Words about Israeli photojournalist — crossing over into the Palestinian side and documenting the antifada.
People at that time were going to festivals to see the films that they had heard about from the big name festivals like Sundance and Raindance and Tribeca and SXSW, which was just starting to emerge as a force in the indie film scene.
LAURIE PEDERSON: In the early years we were submission-based. You’ve got film festivals that are curated, meaning that the directors of that festival program a line-up of films based on a particular theme, such as horror or western or foreign or classics. The local French Film Festival and Japanese Film Festival look for certain films and pays for screening rights to screen the films. In those cases it’s all about catering to an audience and marketing to an audience that’s relevant to them. The Sacramento Film & Music Festival is submission-based and accepts films through Without-A-Box.
Film festivals are basically about creating an event and promoting it to your audience and using any media method to get the word out.
Back in 2005 we were still getting 35mm prints submitted from filmmakers. There was nothing digital. Everything was hard copy and VHS tapes and DVDs. I look back on it now and it’s kind of like, Oh my God, how did people do that.
Film festivals back then were a gathering point. That was the way that you could see content and get information that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Festivals would build a name and build a reputation based on who was participating. But mostly, it was about the films. And it was easy to market because this content wasn’t something that you could see anywhere else.
Fast-forward ahead ten years and between iTunes and Youtube and so many events, both online and physical events, to promote independent film—the opportunity to promote a film festival has changed dramatically. You can’t keep on doing film festivals the way they’ve been done in the past. You have to address what’s out there that you are competing with now. If you can’t bring high caliber celebrities or supporters to your festival—and there really aren’t many celebrities who we can attract to come to Sacramento for any particular reason—and we also don’t have the sponsors or the revenue to make it a fancy schmantzy thing. So we have to make our festival into an event with something that we can offer that people can’t get somewhere else. We can’t just run a film that someone could watch on Youtube or order online or download off a torrent. And I’m that way, too. I’ll hear of a film and I’ll want to see it, but then I’ll think I’ll just wait and order the DVD or download it. With films now it’s not the priority to see it right away. To get people into theaters and to come to your festival you have to make it an experience that people can’t get anyplace else. That’s what we’ve tried to do with our festival to make it a priority in our community.
To me, what makes a good film festival right now is not so much about the individual films as it is about what all can you see, who can you meet and what can you do there. How can you make the movie going experience different than if you just stayed at home.
MC: I used to go to festivals to see what was going on in the independent scene. To see if I was on target with what I was doing. To see what new trend is out there. To try and be somewhat up to date with what was happening in the heartbeat of independent films so that I’m not just working away in my own cinematic imaginary universe.
It used to be that festivals were targeted at attracting a wide audience. Today it seems like festivals are more focused at a narrower portion of that audience. It used to be a short film or a couple of short films leading up to a feature, which would be the main event.
I noticed that just this past year’s Sacramento Film & Music Festival (in 2013) had fewer feature films and more short film programs. Now the film festival program for a regional or local festival seems to be more focused to the multiple film program.
LAURIE PEDERSON: Yes and for a very good reason. The audience attention span has lessened. And when you rent a cinema for your festival, the time that you use for screening a feature film is huge. Whereas, if I have a two-hour block program with three or four or more films that are going to appeal to three or four different types of audiences, I’m going to have more to market, and more ticket sales. If I’m going to have a feature film that nobody really knows anything about and it really doesn’t have any kind of star power to draw the audience. It could be a good movie and a good story and it should be seen—but I’m going to have a much easier time marketing this other content because there’s just that many more people that I can sell tickets to.
What we have found, and we have proven this time and time again, is that—you want butts in the seats. You need butts in the seats. And the way that you do that is to have local films and people represented because they will bring the audience.
As a filmmaker having a feature film screened in the XYZ film festival, I can guarantee you that the film festival’s marketing is going to be limited. Film festivals really expect the filmmakers to participate in the marketing of their film’s screening and to do everything they can to get a paying audience to come out for their film.
As a festival director putting up a festival, first and foremost you’re marketing an event. Then you break that even down into how many days it will run and how many different screenings you’re going to run. From the marketing standpoint, you can’t do enough. And if you’ve got one feature film that’s going to take up an entire one of those screenings and it really needs to be explained to be introduced to an audience in order to get them to be interested in it, that’s one film out of forty or fifty over a weekend. You’re never going to have the amount of time to devote to the marketing of an individual film.
However, on a local level, you already have that invested audience of actors and crew and their friends and family who have been hearing about the making of their movies that are playing in a short films program, and that puts the butts in the seats, which makes money back for the festival. The high audience turnout also helps to make the filmmakers feel valued for their films and their time.
MC: Like when you have the music video program where local filmmakers make music videos for local bands, there you get the filmmakers, the musicians, all their friends and family and fans. That’s a program where you don’t have to worry about attracting people in from out of town or strangers right off the street with no relationship to the films to recoup the investment that you’ve put into putting on the festival.
LAURIE PEDERSON: Right. And I’ll tell you, this year’s festival was probably one of the most successful to date. And on opening night we ran a locally produced feature film, Broken Promises (dir: Elizabeth Nunziato), and we almost sold out the theatre, which is a huge thing to do since there are almost a thousand seats in the theatre.
Friday night we had The Poe Project, a collaboration with the Sacramento Public Library where local filmmakers submitted short films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. A huge audience. Great participation. Tons of films—all local. A very successful evening.
Saturday was Sacramento Shorts & Music Scene. Again, all local. We create the programs and the competition, local filmmakers create the films and the community comes out to see it and support it.
Then on Sunday we had the 10×10 competition with films made in ten days that run up to ten minutes long. One of the best audience turnouts that we’ve ever had.
Additionally, there are programs that play earlier in the day, international shorts and documentary shorts, other features and narratives and animation. But those four nights that were based on local programming all more than paid for the low turnouts for the other events. And we made a profit this year that was probably greater than what we’ve see so far. At the same time, the focus of the festival itself was much more dedicated to local productions and local people and supporting, screening and showcasing the talent in this area.
Now you’ve got to ask yourself the question: If I want my film festival to have the reputation of showing the best films in the independent world, and that’s why people need to come out and see them, it kind of argues with the concept of, “I’m going to put up as many locally produced films as I can because I know people will come out and support them.
Realistically, you’re going to have much higher quality films if you open that net wider so that your festival is not just made up of local films. While we have some local filmmakers who are extremely talented, we have others who are really neophytes and struggling to find their voice and to do it right. When they have a film in a 10×10 or one of the programs that we create, it’s not the best film content.
But for me, not just as a festival co-director but also for being a cheerleader for the California Film Arts Alliance, I want to give people the opportunity to see the god work with the bad, let filmmakers compare their work with what other people are doing locally, because that’s how they get better.
I can see where people become challenged and they want to succeed so they try harder. Or in some cases they go, “Yeah, I didn’t like that. I’m not going to be able to do any better. They’re stupid if they don’t love my film.” It’s that I-am-an-artist complex that says you’re never going to get any better as a filmmaker because right now you’re already as good as you’re ever going to get.
You have to make it more of a participatory event, as opposed to just a screening—in order to stay vibrant and exciting.
THE CONSTANT BATTLE: CREATIVES VS. BUSINESS
LAURIE PEDERSON: There is a constant battle between the creative and the business. Even the filmmakers I deal with through Nehst, where we are marketing their content on a professional level, we deal with filmmakers who make films from a purely creative standpoint—and I applaud that and I understand that because that’s what brought me into filmmaking to begin with. They don’t have anything to do with the business application of it.
Realistically, anybody who’s making a movie, if you haven’t spent significant time considering:
What is the business side?
Who is your audience?
How are you going to reach them?
How are you going to recoup?
How are you going to set a budget for a movie if you don’t even know what your marketing plan is?
There are filmmakers who go blank when we start talking about that. All they want to know is that they are getting the kudos and their film I hitting the screen and they just think that everything else will happen magically.
I’ve now come to find that on the local level, all kinds of people who are creating films are hobbyists. They’re creating films from the creative standpoint. They have a story they want to tell. They have a process they want to pursue. They have something in mind that they want to see come to fruition creatively. But what that means and how they will pursue that from a creative standpoint, the percentage of people who understand it and have the wherewithal to focus on that—because you need to be invested in that process from the minute you start thinking about your movie. You don’t do that after the movie’ been made and then think, “How do we figure out our marketing plan?”
Your marketing plan should be part why you’re making that movie and what that journey is and how you can start building your audience, who that audience is, and so on and so on.
You also cannot convince somebody who has a day job and has a family and has other responsibilities, to ditch all of that in order to focus on how to succeed in business as a filmmaker. There’s too many things that are pulling on them.
I’m always looking for people who want to take their filmmaking to the next level. But within the filmmaking group, a lot of people aren’t looking to take it to the next level. They just want to hear about how to create for the sake of creating. Sometimes I have to tell myself that now that I am so focused on the business side of filmmaking, that that’s what everybody else is interested in as well.
We have a couple of filmmakers in the C.F.A.A. who are incredibly talented and have been extremely successful as far as getting their films into festivals, but they are essentially hobbyists. Their dedicated focus is to their day jobs. They’ll take their filmmaking to the above and beyond level of creativity, but they don’t make their films from the standpoint of how to market them from a business standpoint. They’ve got the creative urge and they just continue to create.
I would say that 95% of the people I know who are making films, even if they’re really great films, could benefit from tighter editing. That is a problem with every single film I see that is created independently. Make your point and move on. Every scene should be driving forward. It should be dragging you through the beauty or the grandiose cinematography or whatever.
Editing comes naturally to you because you’ve been doing it for so long and you’ve probably been able to overcome the problem that I see in so many other locally homegrown filmmakers who shoot a movie very one-dimensionally, instead of getting into the story and presenting it from a point of view of one of the characters.
There are a lot of filmmakers who run their film and say, “I want to know what you think. I want this to be better.” But they will have a very specific range of what they can take as criticism.
A PRODUCER’S STORY
LAURIE PEDERSON: I worked on one feature film that left me so disappointed. From a producer’s standpoint it was a success. We did it in time, under budget. We did everything we could do to make that film a reality—casting, locations, all of the components that go into a shoot. But what we were working with was a writer-director with too limited of a script and too limited of a vision to make it something that really worked.
As a producer, I was still so new that I was putting my faith into the director and assumed he knew what he was doing. If I was doing that job today I would have so much more awareness of red flags and things to really put my foot down. In hindsight I think that we never should have started when we started, we never should have cast that actor, we never should have used that location.
When you go through the school-of-hard-knocks filmmaking where you’re learning as you’re doing, you learn the lessons after the fact, too late to realize what should have known and could have prevented ahead of time. But what I learned is that I’ll never find myself in those positions again. I’ve learned what makes sense and what doesn’t by living through it.
A lot of the people in the C.F.A.A. are in that same position of just starting out and haven’t really done a whole lot and are just starting to spread their wings a little bit. But look at the lessons of everything you do. Even if you can’t avoid something that happens that isn’t good, you can learn the lesson and make sure you never make that same mistake again.
DISTRIBUTION & THE INTERNET
LAURIE PEDERSON: I think what the Internet has done for filmmakers is that it has given them so much more opportunity, not as a hobbyist but as a business practice, in developing an audience, getting feedback, getting engagement. As you’re making that movie you can be building that audience and involving them in the process. You can get their feedback and get their support in sharing and supporting—in sharing your film with their friends or getting some votes in a contest, or even to get donations through Kickstarter or Indigogo in crowdfunding. The Internet and social media has given us an opportunity to find a voice and find an audience for your film before it’s done, so that theoretically.
This is what Larry Meistrich was doing with Nehst when I first met him and is what made me most excited to work directly with them. They were creating films where they would have a footprint and a website and a process that the audience could be engaged in the film as it was being made. This way, by the time the film is finished you’ve already got this audience that’s interested, that already feels like it’s a part of it. And if you’ve been collecting their data, then literally with the touch of a button you can then have them be your ground source for helping to market and promote and sell your film. Nobody was doing that before.
People were still making films with the mindset of, “I’m going to make a movie and then I’ll figure out how I’m going to edit it.” Or, “I’m going to make my film and then I’ll worry about how I’m going to market it.” Whereas Nehst would be making a movie and thinking, “We’re making a movie about these two marathon runners who are going to run across America. We’re going to put the route online. We’re going to post the stopping points to allow moments of engagement in each city. And we’re going to post blogs and video logs of every day that they shoot talking about the process.” We are trying to wrap the audience up and get them involved in the process so that by the time we get to the final day’s shoot there will be a huge crowd. And by the time we have the DVD ready we can just push a button and get the message out that it’s available for sale of if it’s theatrically screening anyplace. And we would have that plan in place from the very beginning of production.
It’s all about intuitive marketing and reaching the audience that is interested in what you’re doing and finding ways to engage with them so that you not only have them as a customer base, but you also have them as a ground source helping to promote the film.
We distributed a documentary about cancer, Cut, Poison, Burn. The amount of people who were interested in that topic and who took the message of that film and promoted it in so many different ways, whether it was through Dr. Oz on TV or sending a link about the film to a family member who has cancer so they can help to understand their situation better.
The executive producer of the film actually died of cancer. His goal with this film was not necessarily to recoup money from the film but how to get the information in the film to as many people as possible.
We saw a viral explosion in this film and one of the things that we did with it was we put the film out there once we started marketing it. You could go to the site and order a DVD and purchase it. Or you could watch the film online without any obligation. A “pay what you can afford” or “pay what you think the film is worth” type of involvement. If you liked it you could pay nothing or you could pay fifty dollars. If you tried the film for free and you wanted to support the content, you could make a contribution after you’d watched the film.
The idea behind the film was to get the information in to film into people’s hands, and then the audience would pay-it-forward, kind of what the band Radiohead did with their self-produced album In Rainbows, where they posted the album online for free and fans paid what they thought the album was worth.
After we did this with the statistics of how many people paid and how many people didn’t Cut, Slice and Burn, we had more exposure for that film using that method of distribution. We had many people who downloaded it for free and thanked us repeatedly and promised to share it and pay-it-forward as much as they could. And we had many people who told us, “I value what you’re doing and here’s $50 for this download.”
That was an interesting experiment in distribution. Obviously, we wanted to make money from it, regardless of what the producer’s end goal was. But we also recognized the need to get the information out and to help him accomplish a goal before he passed away, which is exactly what we did.
MC: I think one thing about the film festival scene and distribution, especially for people like me who where out there pretty close to the beginning of the indie film movement in the early 2000s. There are a lot of different types of film festivals—Sundance, Telluride, Toronto, and so on—and then the more regional festivals across the country, and then the targeted festivals, like the horror film festivals, which I think do well because they appeal to a very specific and dedicated audience.
The power of using the Internet to put your film out and attract an audience.
You can no longer live by the old model (which was not even a wise or dependable model at that time) of: 1) You make a movie 2) Have it accepted into film festivals 3) Six months to a year later put the film out on DVD.
I believe very strongly in using the Internet. Put the film out in some way, tut also, at the same time, have available the DVD/Blu-Ray with extras. Everything has to be simultaneous. You don’t want anybody to think twice before they want to purchase your movie. You don’t want you film to be playing at a festival and have people in the audience think, “Oh, that was good. I’m going to buy that movie later when it comes out.” You can’t count on people still wanting to purchase your film a few days later or a week later or a month later, because that impulse will be gone.
LAURIE PEDERSON: If you are going through the traditional model of marketing a film when it comes out to get the audience in and have butts on the seats, then you go through all of the same thing several months down the road to get people to buy the DVD, you’re having to go through all the same marketing all over again. You’re doing twice the work.
We’ve secured theatrical partners who we now release our films through, and through them we have build relationships with other theatrical distributors to where we can open a documentary movie in 140 theaters across the country. That’s huge! Normally, when you’re talking about getting theatrical space, it’s very expensive because you’re literally renting their theatre to show your movie. But they’re not marketing your movie. You’ve still got to go into Vegas and Paducah, Kentucky, or wherever the films is being screened and you’ve got to get those butts into the seats in those theaters. By having the partners in the theater world and meeting their needs, which is purely dollars in the theater stream
The trade off is that we’ve got a 45-day hold on documentaries and a 90-day hold on dramatic features, meaning that when we show the films in the theaters through these partners, we then have to wait 45 days or 90 days before we can make the DVD and download available. I understand the theatrical motivation because they want people spending their money to go to the theaters, but it’s very frustrating on our end. You lose all of the exciting momentum that a movie can generate when it’s playing to good audiences in the screening process. Under our arrangement with the theaters we can’t even do pre-orders. Because I know that when a film is screening to good audiences, there are so many prospective buyers that are there in that theater, but we can’t even tap that for a month and a half or three months. It’s a battle to translate that into sales of DVDs and downloads for additional revenue. But it is a definitive criteria that we have to adjust to.
We have to be able to put information out there somehow to keep the interest levels peeked and to not have to start all over again from scratch when we are able to put out the DVDs and downloads.
It makes it a longer haul to try and figure out the fiscal viability of a film. we have to figure out a better way to address that.
MC: When Gravity was in it’s initial release I heard an interview with writer-director Alfonso Cuarón saying that he loved that people were seeing his movie in 3D and IMAX, but that he had totally prepared himself to accept that six months or a year later more people would be watching his movie on iPhones than had ever seen it in theaters.
LAURIE PEDERSON: Mobile platforms are a huge wave right now. And those platforms are going to continue to grow.
MC: I think forward to the next movie that I make. I don’t have one in mind, but I’d like to make one more. But I think ahead to the question of how to get it out there, how to get it seen, how to try and get a few dollars back from it.
I’m thinking about making it totally available over the Internet. Then it’s down to how to spread the word so that people can find out about it and can download it. I’d like to get it out on iTunes, but that’s incredibly complicated for films. You need to go through an aggregator, a middleman, but they demand that you sign a contract. I was approached by one group who sent me their contract and it was twenty pages long. I don’t trust any contract that’s more than a page or two.
LAURIE PEDERSON: Yeah, iTunes is still very complicated for films.
That whole plan of how you are going to distribute your film needs to be in your plan from the beginning with your pre-production.
Don’t spend any more money on a movie than you have any dream of recouping. And you need to have an idea of how you are going to do that.
I will tell you that most filmmakers are ego-driven and feel very entitled, whether their movie is good enough or not, the fact that they finished it and they want to be acknowledged for that. That’s what drives most of their planning. It has nothing to do with doing real good research on what the movie represents and who the audience will be and how you’re going to reach them. It is all about, “Notice me, notice me, notice me!” Then, when they don’t get noticed they get pissed off about it, without ever realizing that their expectations were unrealistic to begin with.
It is very rare—very rare—when a distribution company will pay in advance for a film anymore.
Even if you find a distributor, there are sub-distributors that have very exclusive relationships with a few retail outlets that are out there, like Target or Wal-Mart , for getting your movie onto shelves as DVDs. Your profits get watered down dramatically every time you have to go through a different level of professional access. Most of the sub-distributors who are out there who can reach the big box stores and the big retailers, most of those will take 70-80% of the profits of the film.
So many platforms are now distributing as digital, which takes away so many costly and complicated issues of inventory and shipping, dealing with percentages of DVD disks that have manufacturing flaws and having to provide replacements. I’m seeing a big change in distribution of DVDs in a retail environment, to a lot more opportunity and a lot less hassle with digital platforms and making them available through video on demand (VOD).
MC: Sure, because all you have to do is provide one digital file and all the customers purchase and download from that.
FOLLOWING UP: After posting this interview I received this note from ANTHONY SHEPPARD, one of the co-directors of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival:
We’ve actually kept most of the same content in terms of our submission pool categories, and we’re still submission based just as we’ve always been for the bulk of that content. We’ve got 12 programs this year and only 3 are targeted local programs – and they’re the ones we’ve had for a decade or more: Sac Shorts, Sac Music Seen, and the 10×10.
One feature also happens to be very local (which isn’t unusual) but the bulk of the programming is still the traditional lineup (student films, narrative shorts, documentary shorts, late night shorts, and several features from the pool that were made in other places). As a submission-based festival it’s potentially damaging if it seems like we’ve shifted to all local content when we haven’t actually done that.
We do have fewer features than several years ago, but we have fewer films in every category simply because we’re shorter. And the length of the festival actually grew from where we are now and has returned to being short because the long festivals were killing us (that’s another conversation). So the local content now seems more dominant and we tend to try and screen it at appealing times, but we haven’t really become quite that local or regional on balance.
We’ve actually discussed doing exactly that several times over the years, and Laurie has heard those conversations for sure, but we’ve never really made that transition in practice – which is not to say that we won’t, simply that we haven’t yet. It’s honestly a very tempting idea but we still program the majority of our screen time for films made elsewhere that few people will come and see. The underlying problem being that people don’t need an event like ours to access that kind of content any more.
The next feature film we would have picked this year if we’d had one more timeslot was a comedy from Romania and we have several foreign films this year, including in the student program. It was just less convenient for this year’s compressed schedule to line them up in a single program, but they’re still there.
Anyway, I hope you don’t have the impression that we’ve changed everything we do. We’re actually presenting a festival this year that’s a lot like we might have done before the days when I (stupidly) convinced Nate that we should be 10 days long. And even 10 years ago, 35mm was a rarity!