I was on a flight home from New York in the spring of 2003 when the man sitting next to me was bawling his eyes out. While I respected his right to wallow in his pain within the confines of his own seat, after two hours of incessant wailing that rivaled a spoiled child on a bad day, I couldn’t take it anymore. So, somewhere over Kansas I finally asked him what was wrong. The man sheepishly replied that: a) he was getting divorced b) his wife won his dog in the divorce settlement (a dog she hated) and c) to “stab him with the knife of hatred,” his wife just had his perfectly healthy dog put to sleep and then she mailed him a copy of the ugly details. I was so disgusted I wanted to cry myself. But, before I joined his “tear party,” a lighting bolt of creative thought struck me and I suddenly came up with a TV show idea called “Pet Divorce Court” a California legal forum where divorcing couples fight over the custody of their pets. I wrote “Pet Divorce Court” on my remaining time “up in the air,” and then I had my idea copyrighted within hours of landing home in Los Angeles.
Download“Pet Divorce Court”
Years later I produced and directed a pilot for “Pet Divorce Court.” My experience introduced me to James Evans, the actor who played the courtroom bailiff. After his convincing role in my pilot, James went on to co-star as a prison guard in the “YouTube” sensation called “Paris Hilton Goes To Jail,” a video that at most recent count had 29,029,922 hits:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/k66epna2Sss" width="425" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]
Having had more than fifty-eight million eyes see him in “Paris Hilton Goes To Jail,” James instantaneously enjoyed a rush of national publicity as well as getting more opportunities to act. But ultimately, being a “You Tube” sensation proved to be more of a conversation piece than a cornerstone piece to James’ career.
This brings us to this week’s topic: Online Distribution. Now, before you think I’m painting a picture with all black paint that’s void of any light, please consider the following example of how online distribution can be a game-changer for you.
I wanted to meet Brian Dalton the moment he won the best feature film award at the 2003 Temecula Valley International Film Festival for his hilarious comedy “Killing the Dream.” I thought Brian was really damn funny, and I was sure he’d tattoo his comedic style onto our society’s willing arm. Brian then “inked” his way into popular culture when he created the ingenious webisode series called “Mr. Deity.”
“Mr. Deity,” which chronicles the everyday life of being God, (played by Brian) was fledgling with a small yet smitten fan base, until “You Tube” showcased it on their front page. Suddenly, Brian’s witty and clever concept launched to seemingly limitless heights. Brian’s first episode, “Mr. Deity and the Evil,” had 469,903 hits, while the sophomore effort, “Mr. Deity and the Really Big Favor” followed with 291,188 hits. Not to be outshined, Brian’s third installment, “Mr. Deity and the Light,” slammed home 460,469 hits of its own. Proving to have a consistent fan base totaling 1,221,560 hits over the first three webisodes, (as opposed to having a one-time slam dunk that may garner several million hits on its own), “Mr. Deity” quickly grabbed the attention of a major Hollywood studio and struck a deal to produce one season for the studio.
After the agreement with the studio ran its course (as all agreements with studios eventually do), Brian got the rights to “Mr. Deity” back and then strategically built a very successful online sales model. With the support and sponsorship from Bob Parsons of Godaddy.com, Brian utilized “YouTube,” embeds, an RSS feed, “iTunes,” and over 20,000 subscribers, to build “Mr. Deity” into a tour de force that today commands between 400,000-600,000 views per episode. Thus, “Mr. Deity,” (which is about to launch its fourth season titled “Prequel”) has gone from being a hip side-project into being a very hip main project that also happens to be Brian Dalton’s full-time career.
While these case studies are examples of wildly successful online treats, please be advised that just like your favorite infomercial, these are “extraordinary cases, and actual results may vary.”
Furthermore, there are three key points that every filmmaker should know about the world of online distribution outside of your home country.
1) Always Have Internet Rights Clearly Defined.
When a filmmaker sells a distributor the retail distribution rights to their project, the filmmaker usually wants to hold back their Internet rights, or get an additional fee from the distributor for those rights. But, the filmmakers rarely read their contract close enough to realize that most distributors seize control of the Internet rights without having to pay for them, or even listing them under their rights held. Here’s how: If a distributor sells a film to Wal-Mart, Target, Blockbuster, etc., under a “retail deal,” all of those retailers will put the product up on their own website. Since they are considered retail companies with physical store locations, sales from their websites are considered to be a division of their retail stores and not Internet sales. So, if several major retailers are already selling the film on their websites, then the actual “internet rights” are primarily worthless because nobody is going to pay for something when everyone else is already selling it. This practice is especially ridiculous in the case of Amazon.com, because they too are widely accepted in the distribution world as being a retail store and not an Internet based sales. Amazon isn’t classified as an Internet based sale? It’s crazy, I know. Much like the time when my fifth grade teacher hit me over the head with a book for not comprehending a story problem that asked what a field gopher stood on (answer: his hind legs), I clearly cannot fathom how Amazon.com is considered to be a retail store and not a source of online sales.
2) Define Exact Territorial Boundaries On Sales.
Once your distributor buys your Internet rights, you MUST make sure they limit your sales to only the addresses within the country they bought your film for. Think about it, if a distributor buys your Internet rights for France, what’s stopping them from selling it to an address outside of France? Absolutely nothing if you don’t specify they can’t sell it to any household without a physical address in France. This can prove to be an important contractual distinction in your favor. Because if your distributor is selling you film to everyone on the planet who wants to download it, they are effectively killing its value. Not only will your internet rights in most countries be worth about as much as a used VHS cassette of some film student’s ten year-old short film, but such careless and unethical distribution practices will lead to the death, or near death of your TV, cable, and DVD values. Remember, if your Internet distributor doesn’t hold the other rights (TV, Cable, DVD), then they clearly won’t care if they destroy the value of those rights.
3) Send “Cease and Desist” Letters To Violators.
If you find that other Internet companies are selling your film illegally, notify your distributor immediately so they can have their lawyers send out letters demanding the violators to refrain from selling your product immediately. Most unethical companies are like criminals in the sense that they never think they’re going to get caught. Subsequently, they never think filmmakers have the wherewithal to do something about it, if and when they get caught. Even though the practice of sending out cease and desist letters may seem daunting, don’t stress too much over these pesky pirating issues, because a forceful letter from your distributor’s legal department should solve most infringement situations. Of course, your distributor will also monitor such violations, especially if they attend the major film sales markets worldwide. I’ve always believed that nobody protects his or her creation more than the creator. In other words, it’s your job help your distributor keep your baby safe.
Online distribution has always fascinated me because it truly embraces the essence “Going Bionic” by giving each and every filmmaker the opportunity to become an independent distributor. Filmmakers are no longer required to beg the major studios or agencies to approve or endorse their creativity, as all filmmakers need these days to get discovered by millions is a good idea, an Internet connection and a You Tube account.
Thank you once more for lending me your eyes, and I hope to borrow them again next Tuesday.