TIFF ’13: Distribution and the art of the email

In a pair of TIFF Doc Conference talks touching on the distribution stories behind docs including Exit Through The Gift Shop (pictured) and Indie Game: The Movie, experts Marc Schiller and Peter Broderick laid out their visions for the future of doc marketing and distribution.
September 12, 2013

In a pair of TIFF Doc Conference talks touching on the distribution stories behind docs including Exit Through The Gift Shop (pictured) and Indie Game: The Movie, marketing and distribution experts Marc Schiller and Peter Broderick laid out their visions for the future of documentary marketing and distribution.

By most accounts, street artist Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (pictured) was a success. It grossed nearly US$5.3 million at the worldwide box office, received an Oscar nomination, and was one of the most talked-about films of 2010.

But Marc Schiller, the executive behind its marketing campaign, believes it could have been even more successful. During a talk at the TIFF Doc Conference on Wednesday (September 11), the founder and CEO of New York-based firm Bond Strategy and Influence looked back at the campaign for that doc and others to find future marketing and distribution lessons for doc-makers.

A veteran marketer, he has conceived campaigns for recent docs such as Senna, Marley, Our Nixon, The Imposter and Samsara.

With Exit, his team set out to build an online community that grew as the film gradually rolled out in cinemas. First, they targeted a niche market – Banksy fans and people interested street art – who in turn helped build buzz that attracted general audience moviegoers.

The campaign succeeded, but in the three years since the film exited cinemas something else happened: people kept watching it on DVD and online platforms and keep ‘liking’ it on Facebook.

As of 2013, the number of people following the film on social media has grown tenfold and 50% of those fans are outside North America, even though the Facebook page is now dormant and no marketing dollars were spent abroad.

For Schiller, that is a missed opportunity – but a common scenario for docs that land traditional distribution deals. “What typically happens is we front-load all our dollars so the spend ends after one week,” he told the crowd. “Because the movie will have no sequel, there is no incentive to do anything else.”

As such, Schiller is advocating a shift to what he labeled an ‘artisanal’ distribution model, which leverages data derived from online communities to bundle content at dynamic price points aimed at a variety of viewers, from hardcore fans (who buy pricey DVDs packaged with extra features and collectible merch) to general audiences (who just buy or rent the film).

One of the most successful films to capitalize on dynamic pricing is the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie. Entertainment marketers are closely watching how directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky continue to release new versions of the film that drive sales at mid-range price points.

In July, they released Indie Game: The Movie Special Edition, which comes with 300 minutes of new material is available at prices ranging from $14.99 to $89.99.

“Every distribution innovation is coming from Indie Game because they are not stopping,” he said.

To make this model work, filmmakers must lay the groundwork – often as early as pre-production – by building up a robust email list, which he said is more important that social media, and by ensuring they retain ownership of both copyright and online data when finalizing deals.

“You have to own your own community like a band does because they tour,” he said, noting that musicians earn most of their revenue from performing rather than album sales. “Filmmakers don’t have a second revenue stream, which is a problem. Owning a community means you own data.”

Noting the belated popularity of Exit internationally, he also said the marketing strategy must be global in scope as same-date domestic and international theatrical/digital premieres become increasingly as they already have with album releases.

Indie Game also came up in distribution strategist Peter Broderick’s preceding keynote presentation, “Becoming Truly Independent.”

To be truly independent, he argued, a filmmaker must be able to make the films they want to make without chasing financing, to pick and choose their distribution partners and have a completely self-sustaining career.

Directors Pajot and Swirsky have achieved that, he said, even though Indie Game is the only title in their filmographies.

In addition to Indie Game, he presented a series of successful non-traditional distribution strategies members of his 400-strong client base have employed over the years, including the firefighter doc Burn, Stacy Peralta’s Bones Brigade and Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized.

The common thread throughout the varying theatrical self-distribution strategies, content bundles and price points was the integral role played by the filmmakers’ mailing list.

He used the example of Food Matters and Hungry For Change co-director James Colquhoun, who sold 50,000 copies of his 2008 diet doc Food Matters online. He later marked it down to half-price, bringing sales up to 250,000 and later made it available for free online, leading to another 10,000 in DVD sales. Over that time, he amassed 90,000 names on his mailing list.

His second food doc Hungry For Change, co-directed with Laurentine ten Bosch, came out in 2012 and sold more than a million DVDs and recipe books,  leading to a distribution deal and a book deal with HarperCollins. His mailing list subscribers are now in the 475,000 range – a built-in audience of fans which they can leverage with each new project.

“They are in a position to self-finance their movies going forward. They don’t even need to do crowdfunding,” he said. “They’re picking and choosing their distribution partners and they are self-sustaining.”


About The Author