BETTER ON THE B-SIDE: INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HYAMS Image

Doug Benson’s film “Super High Me” made history in April, setting the record for widest opening for a documentary. Chris Hyams, mastermind of the company behind the grassroots screening program for the film, B-Side, talks with Film Threat about the challenges of today’s film distribution market, finding “undiscovered” films and the audience as exhibitor…

First off, Chris, you’re related to Peter Hyams, correct? The director of one of my favorite, underrated gems “The Star Chamber” (convinced this will be re-made sometime soon… and saw on IMDB that it is)? What was it like growing up in such a filmmaking-friendly environment?
Yes, Peter Hyams is my father, and it was an incredible experience growing up on movie lots. At an early age, I was convinced that I would follow in my father’s footsteps, as my younger brother has. However, at the beginning of my professional career in the business, I began to understand the economics of the industry and the challenges now facing filmmakers. At the same time, I saw how many great independent films were being made and not getting exposure beyond the festival market. All this led me to create B-Side.

Have you entertained the idea of making, or perhaps already have made, some of your own films?
Absolutely. I have a closet full of old Super 8s. While filmmaking was a longtime dream of mine, I’ve pursed some very cool opportunities that ultimately led me back to B-Side, my goal of creating a way for great “undiscovered” films to get exposure to audiences.

My knowledge of B-Side, for quite some time, has been seeing the logo associated with a number of film festival websites. Can you fill myself, and the audience, in on what B-Side does?
B-Side is an entertainment technology company– we capture audience opinions at festivals around the world to discover the hidden gems from the tens of thousands of films produced each year, and we develop alternative programs to market and deliver films to viewers around the world.

We run the web sites for more than 150 festivals, so we have a direct link to the millions of festival attendees, providing us with the world’s largest film focus group. Amazingly, no one has ever truly polled, on a large scale, festival audiences on which films they liked. Of course, this information is highly valuable.

We have also developed alternate marketing initiatives, such as our grassroots screening program, that enables films to generate the same amount of buzz as through a theatrical release in order to prime the pump for the ancillary services, where the money is made today in film. Based on our relationships that we have with festivals, they represent a fantastic channel for grassroots screenings and other programs.

Our grassroots screening program is a technology-powered exhibition service for film distributors that delivers a non-traditional theatrical run by motivating audience members to become exhibitors

How did B-Side come about? What was the impetus behind the creation of the company?
B-Side was my solution to a simple problem. There are great films being shown at more than 4,000 film festivals worldwide each year, that end up falling through the cracks of the traditional model, which selects only a few independent films from just the top independent film festivals. We looked at the data and found that over 50,000 films were going unnoticed. We also discovered that the audiences at these film festivals were not being asked what they thought about the films. Our business is based upon a powerful quote by Billy Wilder – “The audience is never wrong.” We simply use this approach to work to work with film enthusiasts to identify the best “undiscovered” films around the world.

B-Side is involved with film distribution as well, and before we get specific on the company’s involvement with “Super High Me,” what are your personal opinions on the state of film distribution, independent or otherwise, today? Is it still a world run by theatrical, are video sales still viable, where does the web come in, etc?
The model driven by the economics of the industry, rewards minimal risk taking in filmmaking and a rote formula for commercial success. Focus today is on a film’s “marketability” versus its “playability.” As a consequence, mass audiences are only exposed to a limited number of proven film formulas, such as a story everyone already knows, a director with a proven box office track record, an A-list cast or the possibility of creating a franchise with multiple sequels. The established studios believe that the cost is too great and the risk too high to do anything else. As a result, of the 36,000 movie screens in the US, 30,000 are limited to the mostly banal top 10 grossing films. As in other industries, technology is poised to shake up the film business, from a production and a distribution standpoint.

How did B-Side get involved with “Super High Me”?
We have a relationship with Netflix Red Envelope Entertainment, having worked with them on other films, and they brought us in to accelerate the marketing. The idea was for us to develop a grassroots screening program along the lines of what we had done for other films, such as “Before the Music Dies” and “Two Days in April.”

A pot-documentary definitely lends itself to some creativity when it comes to getting the film to the masses. What were some of the ideas, techniques passed around (no pun intended) to get the best exposure for the film possible?
We created the phrase, “Roll Your Own Screening” to promote the grassroots screening program, and had overwhelming success. Just as we did with “Before the Music Dies,” we energized the natural constituencies of the film to get the word out. Similar to how Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are now providing music for free to create the buzz that drives future revenue streams, we were blazing a similar path with “Super High Me.”

We had the focus of the program center on April 20th, which is well-recognized as a pot-smoking holiday, and we worked all the angles to get the word out to people and organizations interested in hosting screenings. It worked, and the film opened at 1,076 locations, setting the record for widest opening for a documentary.

Are home theatrical engagements nowadays just as viable as theatrical engagements, and worth tracking with the same distributional vigor? I ask because “Super High Me” may have broken the record for widest release for a documentary, but these numbers are usually very reliant upon theatrical releases and “Super High Me’s” numbers appear to be based on everything from bar screenings to livingroom screenings to limited theatrical engagements. When does, or did, the definition of theatrical change and, if it hasn’t yet, how important is it that it does?
It all comes down to generating the buzz and excitement for a film that translates into ancillary revenues such as DVD sales, cable, international distribution, etc. Theatrical releases currently are money losers for studios, with the primary purpose of driving these ancillary revenue opportunities. What we’re offering is a zero dollar investment to generate a level of buzz that is on par with the release of a film like “Super High Me” in the traditional theatrical model.

We estimate that more than 35,000 people have seen the film thus far and that the average number of people per screening has been 30. An early measure of interest was Google Trends where search terms are measured. Throughout the weekend or April 19-20, “Super High Me” was in the top 100 of searches, far ahead of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” another film released the same weekend. On June 17th, the DVD will be released and we’ll have another measure of the success of the program.

How can filmmakers looking to work with B-Side get in touch with the company? What are the steps toward distributing with B-Side?
We’d love to hear from them – the best way to learn more and get in touch with us is through our web site.

What other projects does B-Side have coming up?
We’re continuing to nurture the relationships that we have with more than 150 festivals and we expect to sign up another 100 new festivals this year. We’re a key technology partner to them, and earlier this year we introduced four new services that will allow festivals to increase revenue while improving the experience for attendees. The services automate ticketing, sponsorship engagement, online streaming and Facebook community outreach.

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