The Steed Symposium Focuses on Digital Distribution

In a perfect illustration of where the industry is heading, the 2014 Steed Symposium took place on the same day as the day-and-date release of the feature film Veronica Mars. Day-and-date, a release strategy that has films opening in theaters and in the home on the same day, was just one strategy highlighted at the ninth annual event, held in March. This year’s symposia, Burning Issues: Everything You Need to Know About Distribution, featured guests Melanie Miller, vice president of acquisitions, Gravitas Ventures, Erick Opeka, senior vice president of digital distribution, Cinedigm Entertainment, writer-actor-director Mark Polish and producer Matthew Perniciaro.

The morning panel, “Digital Distribution 101,” was moderated by LMU alumnus Ted Kroeber (Kish Productions) and featured Miller and Opeka in a discussion surrounding direct to consumer platforms such as iTunes, video on demand (VOD) and streaming sites. “People are far more accessible these days,” said Miller, whose company Gravitas is actually one of the two largest suppliers to Hulu. “The ability to create content has freed and, as a result, there’s a huge need for more content.”

Gravitas has a submission process where filmmakers can contact them directly online and, if selected, receive help through the entire distribution process. And Opeka added, “I want to dispel the myth that you need a third party – Cinedigm welcomes direct filmmaker contact.”

In this new model, a filmmaker needs to think like a studio executive before making a movie especially when it comes to investors, post-production costs and deliverables – items that are often overlooked in a film’s budget. Documentarians can use their subject matter to get a built-in fan base and support from like-minded organizations. For narrative work, casting a “name” actor can add a commercial element to your film, which can help significantly with the distribution process.

Both Miller and Opeka touched on various trends in distribution and said the international market is the fastest growing part of the business. Opeka is even seeing U.S. content translate globally more so than in years past. “A viral hit in the U.S. reaches everyone in the world; there are no more borders,” he said.

Writer-actor-director Mark Polish (For Lovers Only) and producer Matthew Perniciaro (A Band Called Death) presented a realistic view of the distribution landscape based on case studies of their work at the afternoon session, “Case Studies: Distribution Breakthroughs,” moderated by Dana Harris, editor-in-chief, Indiewire. Digital distribution, they said, is revitalizing independent film; that, and the use of social media to connect directly with their fan bases.

Polish’s film, For Lovers Only (2011), was promoted without an advertising budget or film festival strategy via Twitter and Facebook and utilized what is now called a direct-to-iTunes strategy. This is a film worth looking into: he made it with his brother, Michael Polish, on a shoestring – the budget was under $10,000 – shot it on a Canon 5D (HD video), and cast the well-known actress Stana Katic (Castle), who deferred compensation. For Lovers Only had a VOD release in late June of 2011, and on iTunes globally in early July 2011 for both rental and sale. Its first week on iTunes brought in roughly $60,000 and put the film into profit immediately. Release on Amazon Instant Video followed shortly afterward. To date, the film has grossed upwards of $500k. The film is available to view on YouTube.

“Ultimately, we made a movie we wanted to see. A black and white, French New Wave movie by American filmmakers,” Michael Polish said of the project in a published case study, which is now their most profitable thus far, by a ratio of budget dollars to revenues. “We’re not chasing Hollywood productions anymore. It’s truly an independent way of making movies now.”

Matthew Perniciaro’s distribution strategy for his documentary, A Band Called Death (2012), was influenced by the success of the Polish brothers direct-to-iTunes strategy. While Death followed a different path–it went the film festival route–it also relied heavily on social media for promotion. Death obtained distribution through Alamo Drafthouse, the distribution arm of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, an alternative cinema chain founded in Austin, Texas in 1997.  Drafthouse was a perfect fit for the film, a documentary about a 70’s African-American punk band that had a built-in fan base. A comprehensive website was created for the film, including an interactive site called My Dad Was In a Band, where fans are encouraged to upload images of their dads in vintage bands. The site also sells band merchandise and, of course, offers links to 15 platforms to watch the film, both online and on demand.

The symposia also featured keynote speaker Josh Welsh, the president of Film Independent, the nonprofit arts organization that champions independent film and supports a community of diverse and visionary artists. “It used to be ‘how do I get my film made?’” he said.  “Now it’s ‘how do I get people to see my film?’” In this “golden age of distribution,” he reminded the assembled student filmmakers that even with so many outlets, “you still have to make the very best movie you can.”