Since the beginning of the cinematic arts, independent filmmakers have been in love with the silver screen. They have also been in “loath” with the television, ever since the “boob tube” was introduced to the public by RCA the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Throughout the decades, filmmakers have viewed the television medium as being a third-rate consolation prize that they would only consider if their film failed to go theatrical. “I’ll sell it to TV” has become industry code for “my film isn’t good enough to convince people to pay $10 plus to see it.” Actors haven’t helped the situation either, because all television actors want to be film stars. What’s worse, fading film stars are treated like royalty on television, even though the only reason they leave the big screen for the small screen is because their worth on the big screen has been depleted. (Ashton Kutcher is the most recent culprit).
However, television doesn’t deserve its redheaded-stepchild treatment from the film world, because TV is a lucrative medium that is often times more fruitful than theatrical film. For example, Oprah Winfrey earns $315 million per year and has a net worth of $2.7 billion, and I doubt much of it came from acting in The Color Purple (1985).
Secondly, Ashton Kutcher is cashing in to the tune of $1 million per episode for his newly created role on Two and a Half Men, which, outrageous as it is, remains less than the $1.25 million per episode Charlie Sheen was getting for his former role on the same show. Even TV commercials can cost millions, and they only shoot for a few days.
Thus, today we’re going to focus on some key points that will help independent filmmakers strategize on how to best utilize the television medium for their feature films.
Know Who Is Buying What Before You Approach Them
I’ll tell you a not so well kept secret: HBO and Showtime no longer acquire very much product. Gone are the days when indie filmmakers could make their film’s entire budget back from landing a major TV or cable sale. These days HBO and Showtime are far more interested in producing their own product, as opposed to acquiring work created outside of their machine. Therefore, filmmakers must first do research on which companies even acquire independent films, and then learn the kinds of films those companies are buying.
Let Your Eyes Do The Research
The easiest way to learn the tastes of a potential TV/Cable distribution entity is to watch what they’re programming. Networks and cable stations will only program what makes them money, so learning their tastes will help tremendously in finding the right home for your film.
Make Sure Your Aspect Ratio is Broadcast Quality
The standardized aspect ratio for TV throughout the world has been 4.3. However, the HD era has ushered in an aspect ratio of 16.9. While various countries have differing TV formats (i.e. NTSC vs. PAL), the aspect ratios remain standardized. Thus, if your film is shot in a non-standardized aspect ratio, you’ll have a very slim chance to sell it.
More Broadcast Outlets Equals A Lower Price Of Sale
Back in the day when ABC, NBC, and CBS were the only major players on TV, HBO was too new to be significant, and FOX was merely an idea that hadn’t broadcast a minute of programming yet; movies of the weeks would secure licensing fees in the millions of dollars. Soon thereafter, HBO became relevant, grew powerful and started paying several hundred thousand dollars for independent films (decisively less than what movies of the weeks were getting from the networks, but still quite a healthy amount). But, ever since the number of viable broadcast outlets swelled from five to 500, the amounts those outlets are willing to pay for indie films has fallen drastically. In fact, these days it’s not uncommon for an independent film to be offered $10,000 or less for their broadcast rights. That’s a far cry from the millions of dollars movies of the weeks used to get, so it’s probably a good idea to keep your budgets as tight as possible in order to give your film a shot to break even financially.
Have Errors and Omissions (E&O) Insurance In Place
Technically speaking, E&O insurance is only needed at the point of broadcast, but most television and cable entities will require proof of such insurance before you submit your film to them. Since this insurance costs between $3,000-$7,000, make sure you set the funds aside needed to pay for the insurance, or your film will be unable to broadcast until you raise the money.
Remember that E&O insurance may be more costly for an individual producer than it would be for a network or cable station, because larger entities get volume discount prices while indie producers have to pay full price, since they are only buying one insurance policy at a time. One way to combat paying too much for insurance is to ask the network or cable station if you can pay them to put an E&O policy on your film. While they may add a “service fee” to their price, the total may still be less than getting the insurance on your own.
Ask What The License Term Is Early In Negotiations
If you’ve ever wondered why cable stations will sometimes air the same film three days in a row over a Friday to Sunday weekend, or play the same film back–to-back on a given night (these tactics are usually reserved for successful studio films), it’s because they negotiated the rights to do so in their license agreement. While it’s often times beneficial to be screened multiple times within a license term, since a greater number of viewers will be exposed to your film, screening too many times can negatively affect DVD sales. Therefore, ask how long they want your film for and how many times they want to screen it. Generally speaking, license terms are usually less than eight and not more than 15 years.
*Side Note: If the network/cable station wants your film for more than 10 years, they’d better be paying you a nice chunk of cash to give up your rights for that long.
Focus On Selling Your North American Rights First
Since North America is the world’s most significant television sales territory, the value of films sold to television networks internationally will be largely based on how valuable the film is in North America. Thus, getting a healthy North American sale will quickly trigger sales to multiple broadcasters worldwide.
While the ultimate goal for most independent filmmakers is to release their films theatrically, obtaining television distribution is, and will remain to be, a healthy and viable option. In closing, just remember one thing about the TV vs. Film:
If 5 million people go see your indie film in theaters, you have a hit on your hands. But, if only 5 million people watch your TV show on a weekly basis, you’ll likely get cancelled….
Like always, I thank you for lending me your eyes and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday.