GOING BIONIC: DISTRIBUTING INDEPENDENT FILMS INTERNATIONALLY – GOING BIONIC TURNS 100!

Hi everyone. Welcome to the 100th edition of “Going Bionic!” That’s right, it’s been 100 weeks since Mark Bell published the first “Going Bionic” article on May 18, 2010. Since that time, I’ve written these articles from Redondo Beach (home base), Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Seoul, Korea, on planes, in cars, at the hospital right before my twin daughters were born and at both Lakers and UCLA games. However one thing I haven’t done is missed a week. This column has become a part of what defines who I am, so I truly thank all of you for reading. Sappy, I know, but the statement I just made is abundantly true.

So, as we slide in the 100th piece to our bionic puzzle, I’d like to share some of the “puzzle pieces” that brought us from our humble roots to where we are tonight. In an effort to simply your journey, I’ve broken down some key excerpts from 2010, 2011 and the first part of 2012, along with the links to the complete articles. So, without further ado, let’s get bionic!

Key Excerpts From 2010

May 18, 2010 – “Film Markets” (Our Maiden Voyage)
Film markets are essentially “swap meets” for movies; a place where international distribution companies (also commonly referred to as sales agents), trek from every corner of the globe to meet film buyers in order to negotiate, deliberate and orchestrate film and TV sales to several countries.  Imagine a collage of cultures, languages and traditions meshed together in a convention center style atmosphere, all taking place at some of the most amazing destinations on the planet (Cannes, Hong Kong, etc). Sound flawless?

Now imagine that most international film buyers know exactly what they will – or will not buy – before they see the first frame of the film in question. Thus, getting them to consider anything outside of what they’ve been instructed to buy for their country, is not the easiest task on your to-do list. Being rejected by buyers before they even consider your film, is a lot like being shot down by your object of obsession in high school, before you get a chance to say “hi” (of course I’d know nothing about that)…

May 25, 2010 – Genres That Sell!
Only certain genres sell well internationally:

1) Action – Always a slam-dunk.
2) Thrillers – Often do well.
3) Sci-Fi – Are replacing the dying demand of horror films.

The reason why these genres perform so well is because audiences don’t have to know the language in which these films were made, in order to understand their basic story. Think about it. You wouldn’t need to know English to follow “Die Hard,” “Fatal Attraction” or “Star Wars.” The opposite is also true, as in the cases of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life is Beautiful,” American audiences didn’t need to know Chinese or Italian to follow their basic stories through action and visuals.

June 1, 2010 – Packaging Your Film
Actors who are “sellable” overseas may not be sellable in the USA (I use the term “actor(s)” for both male and female actors, since my wife is a doctor and nobody calls her a “doctress”….)

You could be considering several actors for one role – all of which may cost the same money. But, they could all bring you vastly different international values. One actor could guarantee you most of your budget back internationally, while another could bring you virtually nothing in sales. This phenomenon certainly isn’t the actors’ fault; it just reflects how tastes around the world differ. Sadly enough, it also reflects a few “ugly truths.” As you absorb these following two Neanderthal-minded “ugly truths” that I personally find appalling, just know these are truths that most international distributors and film buyers will never share outside of their circles – much less ever to filmmakers. But, since reading this article puts you into “my circle”, I’m (un) happy to share the following:

a) Films with minority-based leads have little value.

b) Films with female leads have even less value than films with minority-based male leads.

Yes, there are exceptions, but you can count those exceptions on one hand. As a minority myself, I’m working diligently to change these senseless trends by showcasing good work starring minorities and women, but I just wanted to share the information with you to keep you informed.

June 8, 2010 – Film Festival Strategies
I’ve attended well over 100 film festivals and have had the honor to be a judge, screener or panelist at several of them (including Sundance, SXSW, Slamdance, and Nashville (NaFF) to name a few). Thus, I have picked up a few trends about film festivals – all festivals – big and small – short and feature – that may be helpful. So, here’s eleven key Film Festival Strategies:

1) Submit A Completed Film – Not A Rough Cut.
Filmmakers should refrain from applying with a rough cut or an otherwise incomplete film because your first impression is just that, your first impression. Trying to get noticed off a rough cut, would be like me back in my dating days, showing up on a blind date with my 5’4”, rail thin and somewhat disabled body, telling my date “Hi, I wanted to meet you right away, but don’t judge me for what you see. Give me a few months to make myself look better and I’ll come back a foot taller, far more buff and able bodied.” Obviously, that tactic would never work in dating, nor does it work while applying to a film festival. People can only see what they see, and what they see is forever tattooed in their memory.

2) Shorter Is Better.
Of course I believe “shorter is better” because I’m a short guy. But, with regard to films, this trend applies to both shorts and features. With shorts, try to keep their total running time in single digits – under 10:00 – because the shorter your film is, the easier it is for the festival programmer to find it a slot. It’s easy to program a six-minute short in front of a feature film or in a shorts program, but a thirty-six minute short makes that task much harder. This is because most screening slots are two hours long including an intro and a Q&A session. So, a “long” short will miss out on several festivals that may have liked the film, but simply couldn’t find a slot for it. The other reason for keeping it short is that distributors, executives or agents can review it between meetings. Conversely, a long short may sit on their submission pile for eternity, because the thought of watching something perceived to be too long is daunting.

With features, I’d try to keep your film somewhere between eighty-five and ninety-five minutes long, especially if your film isn’t laced with well-known actors. Longer indie films without stars tend to become less effective after about ninety minutes or so. For example, when I was a screener for Sundance in 2005, I saw seventy-eight features in five weeks. When all you’re doing for over a month is watching movies from morning till moonlight, there’s a noticeable difference between watching a very good ninety-minute film and a drawn out two hour film that could have been a very good ninety-minute film.

3) Avoid Student Film Markers.
Most student films are littered with drugs, weapons, nudity and foul language. While I love these elements when they enhance the fabric of the story, like in “Scarface” (1983) and “Raging Bull” (1980), several indies use them so incessantly that their film gets lost in the mix with thousands of other films just like it. I’ve always believed that doing something fresh and different is a far more potent weapon than using a potent weapon.

History tends to support my claim as most Oscar winning and nominated shorts of late tend to be fresh and quirky, rather than dark and deadly.

4) It’s Where You Start, Not Where You Finish.
Unlike most cases in life when your finish is more important than your start, the perceived value of your film on the film festival circuit is based on the first film festival that accepts you. Thus, having your “World Premiere” at Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, SXSW or Tribeca is a dream come true. Subsequently, premiering at a small festival before you find out if any of the larger ones want you may turn into a nightmare because you will probably be disqualified from larger festivals for playing a smaller one first.

5) Be Careful Not To Play Too Many Festivals.
Do you know what a distributor thinks when an indie filmmaker says their film played thirty-eight film festivals? He or she immediately realizes that since the film has already played in so many cities for free, most of the people the distributor wanted to sell the film to have already seen it.

6) Hide Your Treasure Before Your Premiere.
Never show anyone a copy of your film before its Worldwide Premiere – unless a buyer/distributor is willing to buy your film before it premieres.

7) Don’t Hold Back DVD Copies From Distributors.
After your World Premiere, show distributors what you have. Most distributors can’t make screenings and it’s easier for them to watch it on DVD anyway. Don’t worry, if your film is solid on the silver screen, it should hold up on the tube.

8) Wine Is More Expensive Aged, But Films Aren’t.
If the goal is to get your film distributed, then you should think twice about going on a full-fledged, year long festival tour, because all you’re doing is making your film older and worth less money. Just play some key festivals, and then get your baby sold while it’s still perceived as being new and fresh.

9) Construct A Great Website And Viral Campaign.
Make your website and Internet campaign hip and memorable by giving festival programmers and distributors a reason to visit it more than once. Just make sure that you don’t upload your actual film upon the Internet, because doing so may quickly disqualify you from many festivals.

10) Get Film Festivals Engaged Early On.
First do your research on what film festivals best suit the tone and genre of your film, and then contact them early on in your filming process. If you can get them engaged into your film, you may have a better shot at getting into their festival. Of course, your final product is what really matters, but a healthy relationship with a festival can often times tilt the chances of a “yes” into your favor.

11) Don’t Burn Bridges With Festivals.
There are quite a few reasons why festivals may pass on your film. They either didn’t like it, they liked it but it didn’t fit into a time slot, or it didn’t fit into their program’s theme, to name a few. Either way, do not call festivals that rejected your film and give them a screaming piece of your mind. Always remember, not only do festival programmers have feelings, they have memories…

Much like a sixteen year old getting a driver’s license, getting accepted by a film festival is a privilege, not a right. Filmmakers should embrace film festivals as a privilege because they may be your film’s best platform to thrive.

June 15, 2010 – Online Distribution
There are three points that filmmakers should know about the world of online distribution outside of their home country.

1) Always Have Internet Rights Clearly Defined.
When a filmmaker sells a distributor the retail distribution rights to their project, the filmmaker usually wants to hold back their Internet rights, or get an additional fee from the distributor for those rights. But, the filmmakers rarely read their contract close enough to realize that most distributors seize control of the Internet rights without having to pay for them, or even listing them under their rights held. Here’s how: If a distributor sells a film to Wal-Mart, Target, Blockbuster, etc., under a “retail deal,” all of those retailers will put the product up on their own website. Since they are considered retail companies with physical store locations, sales from their websites are considered to be a division of their retail stores and not Internet sales. So, if several major retailers are already selling the film on their websites, then the actual “internet rights” are primarily worthless because nobody is going to pay for something when everyone else is already selling it. This practice is especially ridiculous in the case of Amazon.com, because they too are widely accepted in the distribution world as being a retail store and not an Internet based sales. Amazon isn’t classified as an Internet based sale? It’s crazy, I know. Much like the time when my fifth grade teacher hit me over the head with a book for not comprehending a story problem that asked what a field gopher stood on (answer: his hind legs), I clearly cannot fathom how Amazon.com is considered to be a retail store and not a source of online sales.

2) Define Exact Territorial Boundaries On Sales.
Once your distributor buys your Internet rights, you MUST make sure they limit your sales to only the addresses within the country they bought your film for. Think about it, if a distributor buys your Internet rights for France, what’s stopping them from selling it to an address outside of France? Absolutely nothing if you don’t specify they can’t sell it to any household without a physical address in France. This can prove to be an important contractual distinction in your favor. Because if your distributor is selling you film to everyone on the planet who wants to download it, they are effectively killing its value. Not only will your internet rights in most countries be worth about as much as a used VHS cassette of some film student’s ten year-old short film, but such careless and unethical distribution practices will lead to the death, or near death of your TV, cable, and DVD values. Remember, if your Internet distributor doesn’t hold the other rights (TV, Cable, DVD), then they clearly won’t care if they destroy the value of those rights.

3) Send “Cease and Desist” Letters To Violators.
If you find that other Internet companies are selling your film illegally, notify your distributor immediately so they can have their lawyers send out letters demanding the violators to refrain from selling your product immediately. Most unethical companies are like criminals in the sense that they never think they’re going to get caught. Subsequently, they never think filmmakers have the wherewithal to do something about it, if and when they get caught. Even though the practice of sending out cease and desist letters may seem daunting, don’t stress too much over these pesky pirating issues, because a forceful letter from your distributor’s legal department should solve most infringement situations. Of course, your distributor will also monitor such violations, especially if they attend the major film sales markets worldwide. I’ve always believed that nobody protects his or her creation more than the creator. In other words, it’s your job help your distributor keep your baby safe.

Online distribution has always fascinated me because it truly embraces the essence “Going Bionic” by giving each and every filmmaker the opportunity to become an independent distributor. Filmmakers are no longer required to beg the major studios or agencies to approve or endorse their creativity, as all filmmakers need these days to get discovered by millions is a good idea, an Internet connection and a You Tube account.

July 5, 2010 – Territorial Insights
Listing Of Percentages From Territories
As stated earlier, these are general guidelines on what percentage of your budget you should get from sales to the following territories. They are based on budgets between $5-$15 million, so smaller films will skew a bit lower.

Britain 7%-10%
Germany 7%-10%
France 6%-7%
Italy 4%-6%
Spain 3%-5%
Scandi [Navia] 1.5%-2.5%
Netherlands 1.5%-2.5%
Russia 2%-3%
All others in Eastern Europe 1%
Japan 0%-8%
Australia 2%-4%
South Korea 1.5%-2.5%
All Territories in Latin America 2%-3%
India, China, Mideast, Turkey, South Africa 2%

September 28, 2010 – Delivering Deliverables
Definition Of Delivering A Film
Delivering a film means all technical, practical, quality and legal aspects of the film are completed and delivered to the buyer in order to complete the sale. The thing to remember is all international distributors/sales agents are going to demand you have all of your “deliverables” ready to go, before they sign your film and far before they ever attempt to sell it. The reason for this is your international distributor never wants to strike a sale for your film and then realize you haven’t cleared the music, bought the necessary insurance, or completed any one of a myriad of issues that will cancel even the healthiest of sales.

December 14, 2010 – Playing The Calendar Game
The Good Months To Release Independent Films 
January, February, March, September and October are the very best times of year to release independent films, because there is very little studio-based competition the box office. Studios spend less on advertising on the films they do release during these months, which opens the door for independent films to get noticed. However, each release month comes with a set of challenges, so here are some things to think about:

Key Excerpts From 2011

January 11, 2011 – Options, Part 1
For those of you who are unfamiliar with what an option is, it’s basically when a producer/filmmaker leases the rights to an intellectual property for a specified period of time, for the purpose of selling the property to a third party before the “option” expires.  If this seems a bit confusing, don’t worry. It makes more sense when it’s laid out, so here’s an example:

  1. Dolly wants $100,000 sale price for her screenplay.
  2. A producer/filmmaker pays Dolly $5,000 for a 12 month  “option” term, against the $100,000 total script purchase price.
  3. During the “option term,” the producer/filmmaker holds exclusive rights to the intellectual property. This means if an entity wants to buy the project during the option term, they must purchase it from the holder of the option.
  4. The holder of the option can develop the project as he or she sees fit; with or without having the writer involved. Yes, this means they can have the script rewritten and or story changed as required by those entities interested in buying (don’t worry, most indie producers/filmmakers will try to work with the original writer to get the script in shape to sell).
  5. The producer/filmmaker must pay Dolly the balance of her script’s sale price ($95,000 in this scenario) before the end of the option, or all rights to her script revert back to Dolly.
  6. If the project goes unsold at the end of the option term, Dolly keeps the initial $5,000 given to her at the beginning of the option, and becomes free to option her script to another entity.

April 26, 2011 – The Art of Pitching
Here are a few key insights into “pitching.”

K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid!
It all starts with a kiss. The most effective pitches are the ones that are easy to envision. Your pitch should immediately convey your concept in such a clear and simple manner, that even a four year old, or caveman, can understand it.

Pitches Are Like Jokes: Short Ones are Easy To Remember
Another reason for keeping your pitch short and sweet is short set-ups are easier to remember than long ones.

Your One-Liner Must Actually Be A One-Liner!
If I had a dollar for every time I asked a filmmaker if they had a one-liner for their pitch idea, and they responded with a paragraph or two of ill-crafted random gibberish, I’d have a more dollars than I have now. A long pitch will earn you an even longer walk on a short plank, and you’re pitch will die a quick death. Simply put, you only have a few seconds to either grab, or lose the attention of the person you’re pitching to, so the first words out of your mouth have to be your best.

Have More Than One Idea Ready To Go
In layman’s English, “What else you got?” translates to “I’m not buying your idea, but you still have my attention for another six seconds, so use it to sell me something else.” The biggest mistake most people make in pitching is to only go into the meeting with one idea.

Be Flexible, Shut Up and Listen
Assuming your pitch was received in a positive manner, spend your time listening to the ideas, concepts and suggestions that the person you pitched to is giving you. They may love your idea, but not love exactly how you’ve laid it out. The worst thing you can do in this position is say “no way, I can’t change that.” Just listen to what they have in mind. They are probably testing you, to see how flexible and easy to work with you are.

May 10, 2011 – Distributing Documentaries
Talking Heads Can Cause Severe Drowsiness
Make sure your documentary isn’t two hours of “experts and witnesses” sitting in a chair and talking. Remember, your viewing audience is already sitting in a chair, so the last thing they want to see is other people sitting in chairs. Hence, showing movement on screen is the key to keeping your audience engaged.

August 9, 2011 – The Curious Case Of Falling Stars
Understand The Current Financial Climate
Agents and managers may not give you a price when you inquire about their client, unless that client‘s fee is public knowledge or the client has a predetermined price.

For example, last week a producing partner of mine inquired about an en vogue “A list” actor who has been in at least two $300 million-dollar box office smash hits in recent years. The actor’s representation got back to us within 24 hours and said his client “only looks at fully financed films that have at least $5 million dollars set aside in an escrow account for the actor.” Two things surprised me about that response:

1) “A list” actors will field indie offers these days.

2) Everyone really must be hurting to call indie producers back in 24 hours. Under normal circumstances, the Hollywood-to-indie response time is 24 days to eternity, not 24 hours.

November 15, 2011 – Breaking In From The Outside Part 1
Change Your Phone Number
Probably the easiest way to change your perception of being an “outsider,” is to change your phone number to a Los Angeles or New York City area code. This is especially important if you’re sending your resume out for a job or a film crew position, because being perceived as a local will severely increase your chances of getting considered for the job. Simply put, “locals” and perceived to already be aware of the “industry rules of engagement,” while outsiders have the perception of having to be taught everything. Even if you need to be taught everything, it’s better to have the perception that you don’t.

The main area codes in Los Angeles are 310, 424, 323, 213, 818 and 626. The lesser-known area codes include 805, 949, 562, 559, 661, 909, 760, and 650, and I’m sure to be missing a few more. My point is, even if you are in Los Angeles, but have a “lesser known” area code, you’re still be deemed an outsider.

As for New York City, the main area codes are 212, 718, 917, 646, 347, and most recently, 929.

Side Note: Even if you utilize this tactic, you should still plan on moving to Hollywood or the Big Apple, because that’s where you need to be – at least until you establish yourself.

Get A Los Angeles Or New York City Mailing Address
For the same reasons as listed above, you have to appear to be on the playing field to be invited to play the game. Since most post office box services offer actual street addresses without having a P.O. Box in the address, appearing to be in Los Angeles or New York is far easier than you think. Thus, you should set up a mailing address in either Los Angeles or New York, and then have the service mail you your mail weekly.

Side Note: This step is merely a formality, since most correspondence occurs through e-mail.

Be Aware Of Happenings In The City You Supposedly Live In
This move is simple. All you have to do is read the Los Angeles Times or New York Times Daily online. Doing so will not only give you insight on current events, but it will also start conditioning you to what living in these cities is like.

Side Note: Like good sex, the “real thing” is far better than reading about it, so this step should be a step toward moving!

Key Excerpts From 2012

January 10, 2012 – Non-Excusive Contracts
Non-Exclusive Distribution Devalue Your Film
The first thing to remember, about all non-exclusive distribution deals, is that they devalue your film. Nothing says, “I don’t think my film is very good,” like offering it to every online distributor you can find. While adhering to this tactic will technically make it possible for more eyes to find your film online, those eyes won’t find your film to be very special if it’s readily available at every corner of the Internet. Simply put, if Rolls-Royce Phantoms (a $600,000 car) were as common as Ford’s and Chevy’s, nobody would think it’s a big deal to own, drive or be driven in a Rolls. The same rule applies to your film on the Internet. Treat it like it’s something special, and the masses may agree with you. However, if your film gets blasted out everywhere without having a buzz created around it, then it will die an uneventful, buzz-less death.

Never Sign With Multiple Sales Companies
When dealing with a film sales company, never, under any circumstances, grant your film’s rights to more than one sales company (even if both companies agree to representing your film in a non-exclusive situation). If your sales companies accidentally (or not so accidentally) sell your film to two different distributors in the same country, there will be a very ugly lawsuit. This is the very last thing you want to happen. It will be cumbersome and expensive. Besides, making a few extra dollars (if they ever pay you) is not worth the headache.

Okay, people. I know I say this every week, but I truly mean it: I’d like to thank each and every one of you for lending me your eyes for the past 100 weeks, and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday. With our first C-note of bionic insights in our rear view mirror, here’s to our next 100 bionic Tuesdays together.  I thank you all for reading, and I’d I’ll see you next Tuesday!

I can be followed on Twitter @Lonelyseal.




Posted on April 10, 2012 in Features, Going Bionic by
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3 Comments on "GOING BIONIC: DISTRIBUTING INDEPENDENT FILMS INTERNATIONALLY – GOING BIONIC TURNS 100!"

  1. shamim Zaidi on Tue, 10th Apr 2012 4:03 pm 

    Nicely written, Hard work and great mind shows.


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  2. Bwakathaboom on Wed, 11th Apr 2012 11:43 am 

    Congratulations on reaching 100!


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  3. Sev on Wed, 11th Apr 2012 2:43 pm 

    Congrats on “turning” 100!! I’ve really enjoyed your posts and particularly find the distribution articles poignant in the current indie film environment. A new forum in development to distribute independent content, YEKRA.com, is working directly with filmmakers to distribute & monetize on their content digitally, at a marginal cost. Really cool IMO. Keep up the good work, “Going Bionic!”


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