(16/08/07) – Despite the glamorous image, being and becoming a filmmaker is no picnic. Besides the gargantuan amount of work that producing a film involves, not to mention the costs incurred, then there is the challenge of getting the film seen and, for a lucky few, making some money out of it. After the digital revolution, producing a film has become relatively easier than distributing the work, which, once finished, is cast into a saturated, inflated market. We can all make a film with a little help from our friends and a digital camera, but will it travel anywhere?
In order to get a better picture of the current distribution scenario, we have spoken to Alex Agran from the UK-based distribution outfit Arrow Films about how his business works. A veteran of the independent cinema scene, Agran gives some valuable advice to filmmakers who want to get their film ‘out there’. We have also spoken to Karl Mechem, from the innovative The Journal of Short Film, an initiative that is breaking new ground in the circulation of short films with the focus firmly on quality.
Alex Agran, Head of Sales & Marketing, Arrow Films:
Background: "Arrow has been going for 15 years and has built up a library of over 200 films on DVD. Its origins were theatrical distribution and then VHS and finally DVD where there was a burgeoning market to bring catalogue films to DVD. Our remit is quite simple: to bring the best quality world cinema, horror and cult films to DVD in the best possible transfer with the most striking packaging."
Distribution: "We distribute mainly through specialist retailers such as HMV, FOPP ( before they went into administration) and, increasingly, online retailers such as Play.com and Amazon. A sizeable chunk of our business is done through wholesalers such as Golds."
Marketing: "A lot of our marketing is focused on PR – we put a good press release together and circulate it to all the DVD magazines, all the national press, consumer press, trade press, DVD websites etc. We also buy paid-for advertising and viral campaigns if we think the market will be big enough."
The Internet: "Digital downloading is starting to influence quite a lot – all distributors are ensuring that downloading and streaming are included in the deals that they do going forward. There are a lot of players out there with a service looking for content. It’s still very early days and I haven’t spoken to anyone that has made any money yet but, within a couple of years, growth will have expanded due to better technology and take-up from consumers. People still want packaged media so the DVD is here to stay for the next 10 years at least."
Advice to aspiring filmmakers: "As a beginner you should think about the market and who is likely to buy the film you have made. The market is literally flooded with product at unbelievably low prices. So how is your film going to get a distribution deal? Some ideas are:
Aim high. always go for a theatrical release if you can, get your film playing in as many festivals as possible. The more publicity around a film and the more feathers, the more it is likely to succeed.
Don’t shy away from self promotion – do a website, get trailers out there. It only takes one distributor to take a shine to it and you have a deal.
Learn how to sell the film you have made – be succint but punchy, categorise the film, sell the fact it has stars, liken it to other successes.
Going straight to DVD is still possible but the best route in for this is rental so check out the rental market.
Buy the trade magazines such as Hme Entertainment Weekly and RRP to see what is coming out.
Be honest as to how good it is and be realistic about the kind of deal you would be happy with. All distributors will be able to tell the quality within one minute of watching a film."
Karl Mechem, Publisher, The Journal of Short Film:
Background: "We started The Journal of Short Film to remedy the ridiculous lack in short film distribution. Any filmmaker and most film lovers know about the huge body of work—thousands of short films—floating around. Most of this work goes unseen and collects dust. And, in the heady days of 2004, it became clear that DVD production costs were low enough for us to put out a quarterly DVD and ‘publish’ some of this work. The idea was not terribly novel: short film meets the literary journal. There would be peer review, periodic volumes, and an editorial sensibility that the audience could come to know. We would be independent and non-commercial enough to support experimental or challenging or bold work."
Distribution "We distribute them directly, and they’re also available through Amazon.com and one or two small distributors and subscription agents. Besides the newly (relatively) low cost of DVD production, the other thing that makes this model of independent distribution possible is the low cost of the Internet business. None of this would be possible without the Internet, especially putting out the call for submissions all over the world for free."
Marketing: We’re still in the early stages of relying on good reviews, free publicity and word of mouth. The reviews have been great, including some major papers like the Washington Post and L.A. Times. We’re still a modest operation, and a conventional advertising budget isn’t possible. Sometimes we’ll pinpoint a niche, like film schools or libraries, and target them directly, but none of us are marketing geniuses (being more creative types than business types), so we still have a long way to go in marketing."
The Internet: I think the Internet has obviously been a help for film productions (aiding in collaboration, education, crews, etc.), but I still think it has not solved the problems of short film distribution. We still think the Internet—as it is now—is not an adequate venue for distribution. Ask us again in five years, but for now, the Internet isn’t enough. Short film deserves permanent archiving and high-quality distribution, neither of which is being provided by the Internet. While we’d like to see short films in mainstream theatres, we think the Journal is the next best venue for the art form. Not that I’m an Internet naysayer. I’m very excited by the documentary possibilities of the Internet and the ability to post raw, cheap DV footage in minutes. This is a pretty radical notion and hopefully will lead to some media reform that is sorely needed. Until most homes have cheap converters connecting their computers to their televisions (in front of which people spend most of their leisure time) plus enough storage for many, many gigabytes, we won’t provide digital downloading. We really care about quality, permanence, and access for all, so downloads aren’t in our near future. But we’ll revisit the idea every now and then."
Advice to aspiring filmmakers: "Right now I’d encourage hard work and recommend a lot of patience. The problem is: this is a transition period and new distribution channels that really benefit filmmakers haven’t arrived yet. The hurdle isn’t just creating effective and fair distribution businesses; audiences have to come around, too. The distribution world has been undemocratic for a long time, and it’ll take a little time for people to realize that they don’t need to watch commercial films and TV anymore. So it’s still a challenging scene for independent filmmakers. But: there is more potential than ever for filmmakers right now, so they should be making as many films as they can. And on their own, since they can’t expect production help just yet. In terms of marketing and distribution, they should work on building a body of work and a reputation for themselves. The short film world is definitely changing, but it hasn’t provided any new ways to pay the rent, just yet. So, while mastering their craft and making great films, they should still submit to festivals, try to get written up, have a nice website, burn a lot of screeners, and try to get known. And make great films, I mentioned that, right?"
To visit the websites of Arrow Films and The Journal of Short Film please follow the links provided on the left of this page.