As indie filmmakers and their sales agents jockey for face time with buyers over drinks during Hot Docs’ industry networking events, at least two among them had removed Happy Hour from the distribution plan before production shifted into gear.
In May 2010, after two months of research and four days of shooting, Winnipeg-based filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot set up a page on crowdfunding website Kickstarter to raise $15,000 in financing for Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary that would give a human face to the video game development process.
Two days later, they’d surpassed their goal, raising just over $23,000. More importantly, they also amassed a following of nearly 300 fans that would become integral to building buzz around the film when it was time to secure distribution deals two years later.
“It was definitely a moment for us,” Pajot told a room full of filmmakers during the “Strategic Distribution 101” panel discussion at Hot Docs on Wednesday. “We knew there was an audience and we wanted to grow that audience beyond video game fans. Everything we did was about the audience throughout production.”
The message hammered home during the candid panel discussion – which was moderated by nextMEDIA executive producer Mark Greenspan and featured director and digital guru Jon Reiss, Variance Films founder Dylan Marchetti and Greg Rubridge, president of content aggregator site Syndicado – was that, in a fractured and competitive media landscape, indie filmmakers need to identify their core audience early on and create their own distribution strategy around it.
In Swirsky and Pajot’s case, nurturing a fan base in the video game world throughout production meant that they had a pre-existing audience to market to if the film didn’t do well on the festival circuit. “We worked with the [game] developers to increase our audience and their audience,” said Pajot.
During the two years of production, they’d released 88 minutes of exclusive content – most of which didn’t make the final cut – to their funders. They initiated a second Kickstarter round, began nurturing a mailing list, took creative suggestions from their online forum and sent out updates on the games the subjects of their film were developing. In the end, they sold a cool $150,000 in DVD pre-orders.
“If all you have is a feature film to market your film, you’re dead. You need other assets,” said Reiss, who estimated that if 50,000 films are made in a year, roughly 600 would end up on the festival circuit and of those, probably 100 would sell.
When programmers from the Toronto International Film Festival rejected Indie Game, the duo started to set plan B into motion: a North American tour of independent cinemas.
To their surprise, the film was accepted to the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. In one day, their inbox blew up with 3,000 emails from sales agents, distributors, PR reps and other “random people.” They hired a sales agent, cancelled the tour and flew to Park City where their agent put out offers to the tune of $1 million.
Marchetti was one of the distributors to receive that figure, which later dropped (he didn’t end up with a deal). He termed the feeding frenzy aspect at Sundance as “batshit crazy,” adding that his M.O. eventually became “call us when Sundance is over.”
The directors said that as Indie Game started attracting buzz (and offers), the hardcore group of gaming fans started to have misgivings about the film’s festival success. The directors realized a simultaneous worldwide digital release would be the best course of action, but theatrical distributors weren’t willing to give up digital rights.
“What we wanted to do… wasn’t matching up with other peoples’ visions [for the film],” said Swirksy. “Having the rights divvied up and windowed doesn’t play to our core audience.”
In the end, they opted not to go with a distributor and financed a 10-week North American tour with their pre-orders and a sponsorship from Adobe during the month of May and are planning a digital and special edition DVD release this summer. After that, they plan to make another film.