Jon Reiss: Thinking Outside the Box Office
by: Lyn Norfor
Thursday 15 July, 2010
Jon Reiss, independent filmmaker and proselyte, wrote Thinking Outside the Box Office, and is running a series of events around Australia, including MIFF. Lyn Norfor was reminded of the 50% rule – “50% of the time and resources to make the film and 50% to connect the film to your audience..”
In 2007, Jon Reiss screened his documentary, Bomb It, about the global explosion of graffiti art and culture, at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. He did all the right things and, with five sold-out screenings and people lined up round the block for each screening, he expected a good distribution deal plus sales. But – nothing, no deals. A week later, Bomb It was available for sale on Canal Street – as a bootleg.
This is a story that Reiss relates regularly – in his book and his workshops, as an example of how radically the film distribution market has changed and how essential it is now for filmmakers to rethink the way their films are marketed and distributed. Reiss is a big fan of Do It Yourself (DIY) as a philosophy and attitude for marketing and distributing your film and which, he says, does not mean doing it all on your own. Rather, it means not leaving the distribution of your film to others and to build a team to reach as wide an audience as possible for your film.
Reiss is a working filmmaker who walks his talk. After his experience at Tribeca, Reiss went about distributing Bomb It through a hybrid distribution model, a term coined by distribution strategist and SPAA fringe regular, Peter Broderick. Reiss organised his own theatrical release and did a no-advance deal with New Video who handled the DVD release and download-to-own digital rights.
Based on his experiences, Reiss then wrote his book “Think Outside the Box – The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Age” which he self published. He has also built a website, created a two-day workshop and is planning updates for his book. In addition, he is currently filming material, as he travels round the world delivering his workshops, for a Bomb It web series – two to three minute webisodes, for which he received an advance against an ad revenue share from Bablegum (a free-to-view internet television platform supported by advertising).
An important step for filmmakers, according to Reiss, is to know what you want from your film and who the audience is for your film. Once you know that, you can then begin designing a marketing and distribution plan specifically for your film. And ideally, before you begin making your film – or at least during production. Now, some filmmakers may shudder at this but, Reiss says, they need to remember the 50/50 rule – 50% of the time and resources to make the film and 50% to connect the film to your audience.
Reiss is also very quick to point out that, although the filmmaker needs to understand the whole process, they also need to work with other people who have skills in those areas the filmmaker does not.
He has created a new film position, the Producer of Marketing and Distribution (PMD) and Reiss reckons it is a huge growth area in our industry. With less funds available and less films being picked up by traditional broadcasters and distributors, more filmmakers are left to their own devices to distribute their films. So build your team, find people with the marketing and distribution skills and bring them into the film industry to work with you. Reiss’ enthusiasm and excitement at the opportunities being created as old structures and ways of doing things break down is tempered by the realities of being a working creative entrepreneur – which he says all artists need to be.
Karen Pearlman (Head of Screen Studies, AFTRS) first heard of his workshops last year and encouraged AFTRS to bring Reiss out to Australia. So this July AFTRS and Screen Australia, in conjunction with MIFF 37 Degrees South in Melbourne, present the workshop Think Outside the Box Office.
Reiss has designed the two-day workshops to be practical as well as providing a place for filmmakers to share and discuss their projects. The first day is about content and information, using Reiss’ own films plus those of the participants as illustrations and discussion points.
The second day is focussed on selecting a number of participant projects for which market and distribution strategies are created. Reiss asks three key questions of each project – what is the goal of the film and the filmmakers? Who is their audience? What are their resources? The question that typically takes the most time to figure out is the audience question. Opening this question up to the group can be extremely helpful to the filmmakers, Reiss reports, and one of the favourite parts of the workshop for many participants. Reiss believes the workshops can appeal to a wide range of people –to anyone who is interested in marketing and distribution but may not necessarily want to make films.
Audience development is the new buzz word and one that will be music to the ears of our funding agencies. Reiss emphasises the importance of beginning to develop an audience for your film before the film is broadcast or screened. In the US independent distribution market, Reiss says, broadcasters and distribution entities are looking for partnerships with filmmakers who are interested in sharing the work of audience development. The marketplace is changing and so are release strategies. Reiss cites as examples the shorter windows between theatrical and DVD release for films such as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland and how that helps influence independent distributors.
Reiss is very strong on split rights, where the rights to each of the various revenue streams (theatrical, DVD, VOD etc) are split apart so they can be sold individually. A split rights scenario is at the heart of a hybrid strategy to release your film and, in general Reiss claims, the filmmaker can make more money than with an overall deal (where a distributor buys all the rights for your film for a long time).
He divides rights into three groups: (i) live event/theatrical – and includes all types of theatrical, non-theatrical, alternative theatrical and grassroots screenings; (ii) consumer products/merchandise – a tactile product such as DVD (individual DVDs, boxed sets, signed sets, special editions etc), educational sales, t-shirts, CDs, books etc; (iii) digital – television and cable (including FTA and subscription TV), Pay-per-view/Video on demand; (iv) digital rights and mobile – internet channels such as download to own, download to rent and various forms of streaming. Reiss’s book, “Think Outside the Box Office”, provides loads of information on this subject.
Again, Reiss reiterates that the distribution market is changing rapidly and many independent distributors are being forced by necessity to become more flexible.
Reiss finds this a ‘super exciting time’ and says it should inspire us to think about film more expansively, with longer storytelling structures – all of which helps create a long term career in film. When filmmakers have control over their distribution contracts, over a longer period of time and across multiple outlets, then a career arc can be developed with more predictable income streams and a ‘sustainable business’ built. With filmmakers holding onto more rights, there are also more opportunities to develop cross media extensions from the film. Knowing your audience is the key to deciding which products and packages to create for your film. Reiss tells how he is currently developing an iPhone app for street and graffiti art.
Although Reiss recognises that the amount of work is increasing as the money decreases, he says this is true not just for filmmakers but for all artists and content creators. His next version of “Think Outside the Box Office” is targeted at musicians, visual artists and all media content creators. He encourages us all to embrace the new opportunities and be inspired to re-conceptualise ourselves as filmmakers!
Reiss’ workshop dates:
Sydney: Sat 24 – Sun 25 July AFTRS Melbourne : Monday 26 – Tuesday 27 July AFTRS
Lyn Norfor is a producer with factual and drama television projects in development.