How to Get Your Indie Film Seen

An inside look at building your film's audience and getting distribution.

 

“If a filmmaker can define their audience clearly and continue to engage and communicate with them, they will be successful, as they are creating their own brand.”

Here at Lights Film School, we work hard to keep the pulse of the film industry’s top trends and developments so as to help indie filmmakers make their films – and get them seen.

We recently had the opportunity to connect with the independent film distribution experts at Quiver, an aggregator that helps filmmakers distribute to worldwide audiences via video on demand retailers like iTunes, Google Play, and Netflix. They were happy to share some of their insights into the film industry – and specifically into indie film distribution – with our students and readers.

If you’ve made a film and are wondering how to get it seen, if you’re curious about how to build an audience, or if you’re just looking to learn about how films are released into the world, then we encourage you to read on! The Quiver Team brings nearly a decade of experience to the table, during which they’ve worked in both Hollywood and independent contexts.

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Thanks for sharing your thoughts on indie film distribution in the digital age, Quiver Team! Let’s set the stage for our students and readers today. How have digitization, the internet, and disruptive forces such as streaming services impacted the film industry? What doors have been shut; what new opportunities have been created for indie filmmakers working within or seeking to “break into” the business?

Sure! The entertainment industry is shifting like no other time in history. For the past 15 years, DVD distribution has been the primary revenue driver for films, particularly smaller films. However, over the past 5 years, DVD purchases and rentals have fallen consistently, year over year. As a result, DVDs are no longer a stable revenue source for most filmmakers.

The theatrical landscape is changing as well. The expense required to distribute a film to theaters means fewer and fewer films have access to major theatrical release. As revenue from both theatrical and DVD sales has reduced, distributors have had to adjust their business models. Most distributors no longer offer upfront money (ie., minimum guarantees) for independent films. So, less DVD revenue, fewer theatrical options, and the reduction in upfront revenue from distributors makes it very hard for independent filmmakers to generate sufficient revenue from traditional distribution.

At the same time, Video on Demand (VOD) is exploding. More than 50% of American consumers are now regular users of some form of VOD. The barriers to entry for distribution via VOD are much lower than theatrical or DVD distribution. As a result, filmmakers have a huge opportunity to generate revenue from VOD distribution, even if they are unable to find a traditional distributor. Our goal at Quiver is to help filmmakers take advantage of the opportunity to build their own audience and generate significant revenue from VOD distribution.

Interesting. Clearly, Many indie filmmakers don’t have trouble finishing their films; instead, they have trouble distributing them. I’ve heard it said that the easy part is making the film – the hard part is getting the film in front of an audience, let alone realizing revenue.

At risk of generalizing, indie filmmakers are faced with three distribution options today: (1) Pursue a traditional distribution deal on the festival circuit or elsewhere; (2) Work with an aggregator – like Quiver – to get placed on iTunes, Netflix, and other top VOD platforms; and/or (3) Self-distribute fully on one’s own, via free platforms like Vimeo, Amazon Video Direct, and even Tugg, if it’s important to the filmmaker to see their work on the big screen.

What are the pros and cons of each approach? Why might a filmmaker choose to pursue one distribution strategy over another? How, if at all, do these strategies play together?

Every film is unique and the distribution path a particular filmmaker should choose should be driven by the individual goals of that filmmaker.

If the goal is to make industry relationships and build a buzz so that you can go on to work in the studio system, then traditional distribution or film festivals might be a great option. If, instead, your goal is to make the most amount of money per transaction and keep the maximum creative control, then self-distribution might make sense. If you want to reach the widest audience possible while retaining the bulk of your revenue, then companies like Quiver are likely the best choice.

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In terms of how the strategies play together, filmmakers are in a unique position in today’s world. There are numerous distribution options, along with countless territories and markets for film distribution. For filmmakers who want to craft a unique strategy, a hybrid of multiple types of distribution may be a good option.

The definition of “film distribution” is the licensing or sale of rights to your film in the various territories it can be sold. In the old industry, most filmmakers sold all of those rights at once in exchange from a large minimum guarantee from distributors. In today’s world, minimum guarantees are rare; therefore, filmmakers do not have to sell all of their rights to one company. Instead, filmmakers can choose to sell the Latin American rights to VOD distribution to one company, and the theatrical rights for US distribution to another, while still maintaining US VOD rights for self-distribution. This allows filmmakers to use whatever distribution options are best suited to their specific film.

Quiver is designed to allow filmmakers this kind of flexibility. If a filmmaker only retains VOD rights for the US market, then they can choose only the US territory for distribution to iTunes, Amazon, or other platforms. If they retain worldwide VOD rights, then they can send their film to more than 50 English speaking territories using Quiver. And they also can use Tugg or Gathr for a small theatrical run. Every filmmaker has many options, and they can distribute their film however they like.

Film distribution is a Rubik’s Cube of possibilities. It’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to match the colors by evaluating what twists and turns are most strategic for their particular film; no two solutions are the same.

That said, do you have any words of wisdom for filmmakers strategizing their own digital distribution windowing sequence? For example, should a filmmaker investigate Transactional VOD options before Subscription VOD options before Free VOD options? With what options can an aggregator help, and in what order?

We should address the idea of the ideal distribution strategy. If you work with a distributor, they likely will create your release strategy. If you choose to self-distribute independently or through Quiver, you should follow a windowing strategy that maximizes transactional windows early in the release. Generally speaking, you should release on Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) and free TV windows later in the release, unless you receive a significant license fee from a subscription service like Netflix.

Netflix and other SVOD options are obviously desirable because they offer a cash license and help to potentially take a title worldwide with very little work from your end. The major factor to keep in mind, though, is 1) Netflix will determine when they want the title to go live, and that can be 4 weeks or 4 months from the date of their offer depending on where they think the title will fit in their library. This can be a problem, because 2) Once a title goes on any SVOD platform (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) where it can be viewed “for free” by people with a subscription, it dramatically eats away at transactional sales from rental/download sites like iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

Generally, we recommend doing a 3 or 4 window structure, or 5 or 6 windows if you plan to do some form of theatrical release or you plan to sell your fill for release on free cable stations.

3 Primary Windows would be:

  1. Transactional retailers (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Steam, etc.) of your choosing
  2. Cable VOD and other VOD platforms (InDemand, DirecTV, Comcast Xfinity, Dish, PlayStation, Microsoft, etc.)
  3. Streaming VOD platforms (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc.)

If the marketing budget is tighter on an independent film, then we recommend combining 1 and 2 into the same window to create a day and date release, going as wide as possible on a single day so that all marketing efforts are supporting maybe 8 platforms, as opposed to just 2 or 3. You get more bang for your buck, essentially.

Netflix and SVOD services are generally where you want your title to end up, because you have a guaranteed cash flow coming in that requires no further support from you. It’s like putting your film into a very nice, acclaimed nursing home to enjoy the last major wave of its life cycle (unless you are a franchise like the Marvel movies, always supported by more sequels, spin-offs, and reboots).

Optional Windows would be:

  • Theatrical
  • Self-distribution platforms (VHX/Vimeo, etc.). This is for those with a built-in audience. You can sign up for your own account, or you can deliver through Quiver.

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There are a number of reasons you might want to do a theatrical release. For instance, if you have a cause documentary with a large audience, a theatrical release could be a great way to generate revenue and build more buzz around your film. You could work with services like Tugg or Gathr to coordinate screenings.

Like the example above, if you have a large built-in audience, platforms like VHX/Vimeo can be a great second release window after theatrical. Since these platforms take the least percentage of each sale (10% for VHX/Vimeo vs. 30% for iTunes), giving your audience time to buy your film where you make the most revenue can be a good idea.

If you don’t have a built-in audience, you might want to start with a wider VOD release so that you don’t waste the marketing effort to acquire customers on your own site. Promoting a title on a major platform like iTunes will probably get you more traffic, again if you don’t already have a built-in audience.

Once a film is available on free TV stations or AVOD platforms like YouTube, they are very unlikely to generate any transaction revenue. After all of your release windows have expired and your contract is over on any SVOD platforms, then ad supported channels like free TV or AVOD platforms might be a good final release window. But if you choose this distribution window, it should be long after you’ve released through all of the other windows described above.

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Thanks for sharing such a comprehensive overview!

The film distribution landscape is full of options – including Quiver. Why did Erik Anderson decide to found Quiver and jump into the game? What motivated him to work to rethink traditional film distribution?

I’ll answer this one! I started in LA as an editor and had dreams of becoming a filmmaker myself. I soon realized that I did not have the talent to make a sustainable filmmaking career. But what I did have was an affinity for, and skills in, technology.

My career led me to Apple, where I was one of the first employees of the iTunes movie store. In that role, I would often hear from filmmakers who had no clear reporting or information about their earnings on iTunes when working with distributors.

I realized that it didn’t have to be this way. I could change it. I quit Apple and set myself on the goal of turning indie film distribution on its head. My thesis was that there are more films made independently than with studios each year. But studios clearly have much more volume and consistent releases than independent filmmakers. So before I could work toward my goals of helping the independent filmmaker, I chose to establish Quiver’s parent company, Premiere Digital. Premiere’s clients are largely major studios and small independent distributors. Within 7 years, Premiere has become one of the largest digital media servicing firms in the industry.

With the stability that our studio clients gave Premiere, I realized it was time to work on my original mission to help the indie filmmaker, so I launched Quiver. Quiver has been operating quietly and largely in secret for the last six years. We’ve built up a client list of hundreds of filmmakers, thousands of titles, and have paid out millions of dollars… all through word of mouth. We’ve worked with major celebrities and total unknowns. We’ve been the engine behind many of our competitors.

At Quiver, we want everyone to know that there is another option. There are better tools, faster paths, and honest answers. You don’t have to give up a part of your dream to make it possible for people to see it. Don’t sell your years of hard work for a small upfront payment and a vague promise that will most likely result in nothing. You made your movie. You had the vision. You should be the one to see it through to the end. You should keep as much of the reward as possible. That’s why I started Quiver.

Inspiring! I’d love to hear a bit about how your team positions Quiver so that it’s different from other aggregators. Can you tell us more about how Quiver is related to Premiere Digital? To Sundance? On a related note, why did Quiver choose a flat fee model?

Erik’s initial mission when starting Premiere was to disrupt distribution. That is our primary goal: to make it easy for more filmmakers to generate revenue, and hopefully profits, by self-distributing their films. Quiver was built from the ground up to meet this mission.

The system itself is user-friendly but extremely powerful. We allow for complex order scenarios that truly allow filmmakers complete control over how and where they release their film. That’s why Sundance’s Artist Services department chose Quiver to provide the technology for their filmmakers to access VOD distribution.

We’ve also worked hard to establish direct contracts with the largest VOD platforms in the world. The deals we have with iTunes and Google Play are the same deals that major studios have. That gives filmmakers the ability to distribute their films and access a worldwide market alongside major studio releases.

Finally, our parent Premiere is one of the world’s top media services firms. Premiere works with leading studios and distributors to encode and deliver content to global broadcasters and VOD providers. Quiver offers the same best-in-class delivery service for independent filmmakers that Premiere provides to studios.

Quiver and Premiere also have preferred partner status with leading retailers including iTunes, Google Play, Netflix, and Microsoft. Quiver’s reputation and experience allow you to save time, save money, and prevent frustrating delays so that you can launch your film on-time.

We offer the same pricing to independent filmmakers that we give to our large studio and distributor clients. Flat rate pricing makes it easy for filmmakers to budget and understand their costs. Since our goal is to make distribution as simple as possible for distributors, flat rate was the only way to go.

What happens when a filmmaker decides to work with an aggregator? Generally speaking, what is the process – the costs, the workflow, the tools, the timeframe from submission to launch? The more details the better!

Here is the way the process works with Quiver, as we cannot speak for other aggregators.

The filmmaker creates an account on our site and an order for his or her film. The beauty of Quiver is its simplicity as an ingest system – the filmmaker gets to make all of the decisions without dealing with the technical aspects. After entering information on the film, the filmmaker can choose the territories that the film will be released in, as well as the pricing and release dates. After entering all of their metadata, information, and submitting assets, the system begins.

The Quiver interface in action.

The Quiver interface in action.

The first thing we do is check and conform all assets. Often, we will discover an issue that requires action on the part of the filmmaker, and we will reach out. This process can take days or weeks, depending on the quality of assets received and our workload. Once we have finished mastering assets, then we deliver the film to the various platforms. We’ll encode and package your film, then deliver it for sale in stores like iTunes and Amazon. Once we make deliveries, retailers require 30 days to ingest and put a title live.

Once the film is available for purchase, your sales numbers will begin showing up in our Finances Tool. Different retailers offer different revenue splits, but you keep 100% of all money that is paid out. We aggregate and process these payments for you into a monthly payout. Please be advised, however, that our Finances Tool does not show sales on all retailers, and different retailers have different timelines for processing sales.

What happens after the film launches? What role does the aggregator play, and what role should the filmmaker play?

As an aggregator, it is our job to secure placement on the VOD platforms that your film or series will eventually live on. We coordinate deliveries and ensure that pricing, artwork, and metadata are all accurate so that your film is presented the way you see fit for consumers to rent or download.

Because Quiver works on a flat service fee and we do not take rights to any projects, the most important thing to note is that we do not provide outright marketing or advertising support. We are doing the technical work and ensuring delivery so that you and your team can focus on the marketing efforts required to help your film break out of what is usually a very crowded marketplace.

These efforts might include social media campaigns, securing press interviews and film reviews, and placing advertisements or promotional opportunities online or in print where you know your audience is bound to find them. Without that creative marketing support from the filmmakers, it becomes highly unlikely that a film will break out on its own solely by positive word of mouth.

Sobering and all too often true.

In Quiver’s introductory video, Erik says the filmmaker’s worst case scenario “is that their film is made available to half a billion people.” That is indeed a fantastic starting point, but how can a filmmaker push their film from “available” to “popular”? In other words, how can an indie filmmaker start to build their audience once their film is out there for the world to see?

As a filmmaker looking for success, you really shouldn’t be thinking about building your audience after your film is out there – you should consider this from the moment you decide to make the film!

The key is to constantly be open to marketing opportunities during the process. Everything can be a marketing tool. You can write a blog post online about how you got the idea for the film, record cast bios, take photos and videos of the filmmaking process – and don’t stop here. Some of the best ideas are the most creative when marketing a film. You should consider all areas of marketing: ads, social media, organic, email, etc. for getting the word out there about your film. If you can partner with a small (or big!) brand that has a large social media following, do it!

The possibilities are endless. We often share some ideas about marketing your film on our blog – you should check it out!

The film industry is (arguably) in a state of flux. Hollywood is struggling to adapt to new technical developments and demands, while audiences flock to entertainment alternatives, including television and online content. What do you at Quiver see as the future of the film industry? What about film distribution specifically? In your opinion, does the increased demand for new content signal new opportunities for indie filmmakers? Why or why not?

It is certainly easier to make a film than ever with the tools available – entire films can be shot on an iPhone today and Video On Demand allows for easier worldwide distribution.

At Quiver, we see that the new challenge for filmmakers will be marketing and branding for their films. Therefore, there are opportunities for filmmakers who can fill content niches for consumers. If a filmmaker can define their audience clearly and continue to engage and communicate with them, they will be successful, as they are creating their own brand.

In a world of decentralized distribution, filmmakers who are themselves celebrities and have a built-in following will likely not be turned down by retailers. Good films from an unknown filmmaker, however, will have a harder time finding their audience as many people nowadays are reluctant to take risks with entertainment. They would rather go with a safe option that they know will be good and will satisfy their tastes. This creates new opportunities for filmmakers who can cultivate an audience and become this “good, safe” option.

Another thing to consider is that VOD is the fastest growing distribution option for film. Currently 30% of all media viewing is on VOD, and the number is growing. As other models fall, VOD is a new market that presents a new field of possibilities. The filmmakers that learn now how to best target their audience and find an audience that will work with them will be in the best position to succeed. In the future, we see that people will be less likely to consume mass-marketed content and look for unique content that indie filmmakers produce.

Thanks for sharing your perspective, Quiver Team. It’s an exciting time to be an indie filmmaker!

For more from Quiver, head on over to their website.

 Michael Koehler, with


For more insights into how to distribute your indie film in the current industry landscape, explore the rest of our yearly series:

Part I – How to Distribute Your Indie Film in the Digital Age
Part II – 3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2015
Part III – 3 Trends You Need to Know for Distributing Your Film in 2016

If you’ve yet to make a movie and are wondering where to start, then check out our online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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