film budget, finance, distribution independent filmmaking Online Film Festivals

Indie Filmmaking – Distribution 101, your best bet to insure The Calvary is Coming!

Recently I read an article werein several successful filmmakers answered questions poised by an independent filmmaker. We’ll call the indie “Michael, a low budget filmmaker with a dream.” Along with my interjections, below is an excerpt from the “Shooting People” website.

Michael, a low budget filmmaker with a dream: “I am searching for a way to make exploitation movies with loads of action, gore, fun & excitement that people can watch over a beer (the way that the Sy-Fi channel make countless “Shark” exploitation movies).
And I’d make them cheap, for £5,000 ($8,000). I have all the equipment so no need to rent lights, cameras, etc.”

A response from Film Composer, Kays Alatrakchi: [On Imdb, Kay has an enormous list of films since 1992. This guy knows his business.]
Get to the back of the huge line? Because what the world really needs right now is more shit films!

Several friends of mine work for The Asylum (if you have no idea who they are…google them). I’ve also had the misfortune to work on a couple of their films, mostly because one of those aforementioned friends talked me into it. The Asylum does follow a Roger Corman type of model in the sense that they pre-sell everything. They have been around for long enough that they have strong relationships established with distros all over the world. What they literally do is custom-create their films to fit whatever markets they’re trying to pre-sell…hence the shit that they turn out because Germany wants a tornado/disaster film, and shark films are really huge in Japan right now.

Their films are typically budgeted in the $250K range, even so; most of the budget goes for them to get the have-been F-list actors that (once again) the distributors require to close the pre-sale. The Asylum generates good earnings as it’s been reported in a number of industry trade rags. On a movie where they invest $250k, they typically have made $750k without breaking a sweat.

But they have a system, and they have an established distributor network. They have enough muscle to be able to negotiate lucrative deals. They also can pickup the phone and speak directly with SyFy Channel’s program director and work out inside deals for exclusives etc. Did I mention that they also have an in-house CGI dept, sound design/foley/mixer, green screen and shooting stage, and a music composer who does great work because he knows that he will make money through cable airings and so he’s willing to work for peanuts up-front. They pay their crew about $100-200/day on their shoots which are typically in the 7-10day range for a feature.

The point that I’m trying to make is that The Asylum is not making films for $10k, they are very business savvy and have the type of workflow and connections that you don’t have. To look at them as an “example” of how to make movies that make money, without looking at the rest of their picture is to set yourself up for failure.

A response from Documentary filmmaker, M. Rossato-Bennett: [This filmmaker does not have a long filmmaking career, but his documentary is rated 8.2 on Imdb, and I think that means that he’s done something right and is worthy of listening to.] I would like to submit that there is another way- What the world needs is not more distraction- think about it, if someone wants to be distracted your film is now competing with virtually every other film ever made! It used to be there were just a few films playing in your town any given week. That is real competition!

So I made a doc that I cared about because I wanted to change the world. I knew there was an audience, I knew I could help a million people. I never expected to get accepted to Sundance, as a matter of fact I almost did not apply.
…Why not change the world rather than try to recreate what has been done? I think everyone is always following dead dreams- after Picasso there was a huge generation of want to be painters. After Lucas there was a huge generation of want to be Spielbergs. If you want to make money make a low budget VR movie! Look to the future not the past for inspiration!

Here is my truth- Emotion is everything- Make a film that makes people feel deeply and it will find an audience. People need to feel. Distracting entertainment is so overdone I would not want to compete there.

Response from Michael, a low budget filmmaker with a dream: (…I’d like to clarify that I don’t intend to re-work or make a ‘Corman’ type film, but make a film in the same ‘business’ style as him. Making it dirt cheap, shoot for a few days (Little Shop Of Horrors was shot in just two days), mainly one or two takes max and move on…)

Another response from Kays Alatrakchi: Nothing good can come out of that type of filmmaking. Good films take time, talent, resources, and a great screenplay. If that’s what you’re setting out as your goal, I think you’re doomed from the start.

My take: I think that both Kays’ and Bennet make valid points. While back in film school (circa 1997) I did think that what Michael proposed would be a good idea. Because genre films were selling to territories across the globe. But that was when low budget films were being produced on 16mm or the new Sony and Canon DV cameras. It was an era before the over-saturation of low budget Genre films.

Nowadays you can shoot your low budget zombie film on a cell phone. And you likely will get an offer for distribution. But you likely will not make any money. Rather, it will cost you money. Here’s what typically is happening in the distribution landscape. Because there’s just too much low budget product out there, and you want to get your film seen, then you likely will end up paying your “distributor.”

You’ll pay them to prepare art. Yes, I know you have your own art, but they could insist on using their studio artist, and this is not cheap. (let’s call it $1,500. to start.) See the list of delivery assets in order to help you to avoid or minimize this charge.

Then, you’ll likely pay them to prepare your content for delivery. This is another area that hits filmmakers in the pocketbook. Even if you mastered in MOV or Pro-Res, they’ll want to check the film for formatting errors, and that’s just to start the process. In order to eliminate charges to you, keep in mind that a distributor will likely suggest all or some of the following assets for a digital release (we’re not talking about DVD, etc…)

  • Video should be at native frame-rate.
  • Video should be at native dimensions (aspect ratio.)
  • Do not convert from PAL to NTSC.
  • Do not upscale SD to HD.
  • ProRes 422/HQ (preferred) or DNxHD.
  • Nothing before/after the video except at most 1 second of black (no slates,color bars, counters, etc.)
  • Audio embedded, stereo OR 8ch with mono tracks and usually stereo on tracks 7, 8.
    • A trailer or preview clip is required. If a trailer is not available, A distributor may charge you to create an official trailer for (about $400 and up) — or pull a preview clip for $50 or so, in the same format as the feature file provided.
    • Trailers or clips should be 30 – 90 secs.
    • Must be Green band “appropriate for all audiences.”
    • No references to the physical format or bonus features.
    • No URL’s of any kind and no call to action tags (e.g., “Coming Soon” or “Available Now.”)
  • Closed Captions are usually required. If you have CCs already then they might want a .SCC file.
  • If you do not provide closed captions, they have charges for this service – typically costing $1 per minute (based on run time).
  • You’ll likely be asked to name the files that you submit using a UPC, title, and the type of asset (feature, trailer,captions). 
  • ARTWORK: Key/Cover art: Usually 1920 x 1080.
  • Key/Cover art: 1200 x 1600 (3:4 aspect ratio.)
  • Key/Cover art: Layer intact PSD (Photoshop) of hi-res or 3:4 art.
  • Stills: 3-5 stills from the main feature. Native resolution, ask if they prefer a JPG or other format.
  • Also optionally you can provide a 1920 x 1080 “background image” (“to convey the mood of your content.”)

Regarding formatting errors, let’s say that you shot in 29.9FPS, but during the editing process, you placed a clip in your film and it runs at 24FPS. This can create streaming problems. Video playback can studder or freeze intermittently if the video was made with a mixture of clips that have different frames per second.

Yes, this is true even if you’re exporting to a 29fps because every brand of editing software, from AVID to Premiere has difficulty creating frames when they are missing. Back in the days of 16mm filmmaking, we ran into this kind of problem when transferring film to the AVID digital systems. It was called 3:2 Pulldown back then — and you don’t want to mess around with this. So don’t transfer from PAL to NTSC, and try not to mix clips from sources that are not native to your editing project’s settings.

So, this is why distributors check your film for formatting issues, and why it could cost another $5,000 or more for “delivery.” In the end, you might just get your movie placed on Hulu. And when your film doesn’t get watched by enough viewers in the first week or so, HULU will drop it from their catalog.

You may be wondering why a Distributor does business this way. Well, think about their mode of operation. They have a large catalog, with some “A-List” titles that add clout when the distributor negotiates with platforms like Netflix. 

Do the distributors “A-List” titles go through the same nightmare I described previously? Heck no, these titles have legs, and bankable-talent. So no, let’s get back to you, the low budget indie filmmaker. 

You’re there to fill space in the Distributors catalog, and you’ve been chosen because you need to get your film seen, and you’re willing to pay to play.

Before you lose all hope, please read on…this is NOT ALL BLEAK!

If you think you’ll make money from sharing ad-revenue. Ohhhhh, my filmmaking brother, I wish it were true. Google it…You won’t find any success stories. And the reason is in one word. Subdistribution. If you manage to land a distributor who does NOT require payment for their services, then you have be weary of the tricks of the online distribution system.

Here’s a typical scenario. A Distributor promises you 50% of the Rental or Ad-revenue. But, they don’t actually have a direct deal with the platorm (VUDO/HULU/NETFLIX.) No, they typically allow another “distributor” to make that deal, and in exchange that distributor gets…50%. Okay. So now you’re getting 50% of 50%. See what I’m getting at?

Let’s say you do manage to get a reputable distributor. One that really has a direct relationship to a streaming platform. I’m sorry if this sounds so bleak, but now imagine trying to get paid your $75 ad-rev royalty. They don’t want to issue a check because you haven’t reached the tier required. If you manage to get $200 in a payment period, then maybe they’ll send you the money if you haven’t accrued any other weird fees like data charges for uploading your film to their server. And that’s if you can rely on them to pay you.

In some regards, you have to understand their position. Imagine, dolling out $25 checks to hundreds of filmmakers every month, that’s something that is timely and costly. Bookkeeping is of course is the oldest, most common complaint in regards to Distributors.

You could produce a film that’s easier on the eyes. Something that doesn’t depend on the Genre. Something with Marquee value. What’s Marquee Value? It’s that little thing that talks to the potential film-watcher. It says “Oh that might be a good movie, it has that guy from Alien in it.”

That’s Lance Henriksen, and no I don’t know him and I’m not endorsing him – but you get the idea. What talent like this costs you will return you many times in Marquee Value.

Okay, so what’s the take-home or main-thrust of this article? Here’s ann alternative that costs the price of a large Latte. If (IF) your movie is good enough — OR HAS MARQUEE VALUE — then Roku and Fire TV channels like mine will stream it. I cannot endorse the slew of Roku and Fire TV channels out there, but I can tell you that mine have been popular for 6 years now, and I think it’s a nice way to go. You’ll have to submit your film to me via my film festival (a measly 5 dollars) but in the end, if it’s good enough I can get you about 50,000 views on my connected TV channels.

Note that my TV channels have over 1 million subscribers…but the actual viewers are less, so I won’t Blow-Smoke.

But hey, 50,000 viewers is pretty darn good, and imagine if you put your point-of-sale on your film, film-art, and logline? Have you imagined? Well, think about setting up your website for donations, T-Shirt and Coffee-Mug, and DVD sales. And then when people from my channels visit your website, you could actually make a buck, ehhh?

Additionally…if your film isn’t quite ready for prime-time, then you may stream it on my Android App or Youtube channel. No matter where you are in your “release window” check out to take advantage of all my almost free ($5) Streaming Opportunities. — (c) Dean Lachiusa

film budget, finance, distribution Film Festivals Free Film Festivals Online Film Festivals Uncategorized

The Lift-off Rip-off Festival

I recently entered a Film Festival known as the “Lift Off Sessions.” This is part of a series of film festivals hosted by the Lift-off network of international festivals. I was very happy to get the notice that my webisode, Lights Camera Aliens – was accepted, Yay!

Here comes the “but.” It’s always an ego boost when my films get accepted by a Festival. Because Film Festivals are subject to the judges taste, and sometimes your film just isn’t a good fit for the theme or the agenda of a particular Fest.

For example, in 2019 I entered the London Lift-Off Festival (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH THE “SESSIONS” FESTIVAL REVIEWED BELOW!) The London Lift-Off Festival is a very important Fest to me because they are associated with the infamous Pinewood Studios in London, and when a filmmaker gets selected to this Festival, it means that industry leaders (distributors, PACT producers, etc) will see your film.

Mine was not selected in 2019. Why? Well, I screwed up. I entered a 37 minute Pilot into their “Web Series” category. My content was too long. If it’s one thing I’ve learned: When you enter a Film Festival, make sure your submission is an exact fit. Don’t enter into a category with the idea that the judges will understand if your film doesn’t exactly match what their category guidelines are. Additionally, do not assume that the Fest judges will invest time into imagining how to best make your film submission fit into their Festival.

Here’s a brief look at what I submitted. (Here’s the Youtube url for those of you using a mobile device.

Secondly, agenda. Some Film Festivals are geared towards Hollywood content. You know, the film that has a Marquee value talents of an A or B list talent — the “bankable” film.

And then, there’s so many other Fests that are geared towards the indie filmmaker – the low budget production with storytelling that ends the film on something less than the “happy ending” that we tend to see in big budget Studio Films.

Independent Film Fests have a wide range of agendas and mode of operation, and it really takes allot of time to find the right “fit” for an indie-made film.

Okay, so onto my review of the Lift-Off SESSIONS. Firstly, it was not a live event — it was an online festival. Movies like mine where placed on Vimeo by the Fest, and then largely we the filmmakers voted on each one of the films. Lift-Off suggested that we contact our friends and cohorts and ask them to vote, and the Fest provided a link for use on Facebook, Twitter, etc. That was the first round.

As the Fest progressed to another round, it became quite evident that the filmmakers would have to leverage social networking in order to entice more people to watch their movies. Trouble is, there was a 14-Euro (about 20 bucks US) fee required to watch the Lift-Off Fest’s online movies.

Well, that folks is what we call a PAY TO PLAY scheme.

And while I may sound a bit harsh here, I have to say that I feel that this is a horrible way to conduct a Festival. There’s just NO WAY TO GET AN OBJECTIVE VOTING PROCESS when a Fest is conducted the way Lift-Off Sessions worked.

But don’t let me sway you entirely. Below are a few reviews that are only available to participating filmmakers. (That’s right, the Lift-Off Sessions reviews are NOT ON PUBLIC DISPLAY.) Now, because I participated, I am able to copy and paste some of the reviews here for you to read…

A review by participant, Naima Duyser
“Grossly disappointing festival. If, like me, this is your first time submitting, then do not bother with this festival. They are only trying to squeeze money out of the public.

First of, they mention that the public will determine the first round of votes. What they fail to mention, is that in order to vote, one has to pay FOURTEEN euros and 20 cents. Your film will be one of a hundred films clumsily thrown together in a vimeo-on-demand page. This means that the votes are pretty much a popularity contest. Whoever has friends and family willing to pay that amount for one single vote will be the one who’s film goes into the second round, regardless of whether it is a good film or not. I’m guessing the reason they choose over a hundred films to enter the first round is so they increase their chances of making money. What I find particularly disturbing is the fact that they are making money off YOUR films, without giving a cent back to the people who deserve it.

They also mention that after the first round, “a team of judges” will judge your film based on several aspects and go in deeper to evaluate your film. What one might think this means is that after making it into the top five, you will get a detailed, more personalized report, or some type of commentary from the judges in which you can use to further develop your film. No. After a week of raising awareness to the festival, inviting friends and family to pay to give your film a vote, and then getting into the top five, you would expect better treatment from this festival.

Even the winners are not ranked, just again, thrown in a final, clumsy, long list that makes you feel irrelevant and like you wasted your time. What a grossly disappointing waste of time and what an even more disrespectful panel of judges.

Also disgusting that the event has disabled public reviews. Am utterly ashamed in myself in taking part in such a horrible event.”

A review by participant, Evrim Karadağ. “I was proud to be a part of this festival but your system is just not working. I am from Turkey and lets say I made a film with the best idea possible. In The Lift Off Sessions, I have to compete with 100×5 other films from many other countries. What is even more not working was the voting system. You probably have no idea the meaning of some 15.50 dollars in other countries with brightest ideas and worthless currency. Still, thank you all for trying. #supportindiefilm.”

A review by participant, Jonathan Nolan. “Well intentioned, but the voting system makes the whole thing a farce. Not that I expected to “win”, but the voting system is 1990s tier and frankly, embarrassing. This festival conglomerate presents itself as a big operation of a high standard, this festival indicates otherwise.

As for not allowing public reviews on FilmFreeway, that makes me go “hm.” as well.”

The end? Okay, maybe not quite.

I do (somewhat) agree with Jonathan about the technical operation of the Fest because, it was clunky. However, as a developer of SDK’s on the Android, Fire TV, and Roku platforms, I can tell you that software engineering is costly. Therefore, as much as I did think the Lift-Off Fest was a technical cluster-frak, I have to give them a pass on this because their submission fees would have to reflect the cost of upgrading their technical operations — and, we (the filmmakers who submitted to the Fest) didn’t pay for anything uber-technical.

Secondly I do obviously agree with the all the reviewers regarding the fact that Fest reviews are not being released to the public. And the cost to watch the movies was akin to a PAY TO PLAY scenario. Uggh! Oh well, noone ever said indie filmmaking was easy. And the post-filmmaking journey, from the Film Festival Circuit to finding a Distributor is just as challenging as the process of making a film.

Bye the way, my web series may be sampled free on my TV channels.

See the Apps on the TV-APPS link to watch the sample and upcoming episodes of “Lights Camera Aliens.”

— (c) Dean Lachiusa