JOIN THE DVD REVOLUTION: FINDING AN AUDIENCE Image

Last week, Brian advised us on artwork and packaging. Now, he reveals some tips on finding an audience.

Widespread adoption of DVD-Video opens up entirely new areas of distribution for filmmakers. Developing titles for these channels often involves investigating the different approaches used by these industries and modifying your marketing approach to reach your primary audience. Reading trade publications and placing industry-specific ads can often help reach specialized niche markets. DVD titles can sometimes best be promoted through the use of the Internet. The Internet lets you reach an international audience, target your title to select groups of individuals, and focus your marketing efforts towards specific vertical markets. Other traditional methods of marketing and distribution are explored in the following sections as well.

YOUR DVD’S INTERNET PRESENCE

What Are You Waiting For?

As a 21st-century filmmaker or producer, there’s simply no excuse for you to not have a functional Web site. They’re easy to get, easy to set up, easy to promote, and the potential revenue and exposure you can get from having a site is unlimited. Having a Web site alone will not propel your film into the hearts and minds of millions, but combined with other marketing and promotional efforts, a Web site is one of the basic tools you need to compete in today’s crowded market. Like other promotional items such as posters, postcards, and screeners, the mere fact that you have a Web site makes your DVD release more available, and makes it look more serious than a film without one. Having a Web site gives you the opportunity to sell to people who have never heard of you, 24 hours a day, worldwide. Journalists can easily download your press photo and press release to publish in newspapers and magazines. It can act as an up-to-the-minute newsletter to publicize your upcoming screenings and latest releases. And it can help you build your mailing lists (both electronic and paper) to further promote screenings. Perhaps most importantly, the Internet is a medium that puts everyone on the same playing field. You don’t have to have major distribution to have an impressive and lucrative Web site. You won’t sell thousands of DVDs just because you have a Web site, but it can provide you with relatively easy sales. Best of all, it has the potential to tap an audience that hasn’t heard of you yet, and it can do this in a very affordable manner.

Planning your web site

When planning your homepage, keep in mind its primary function is as a promotional tool. An effective promotional tool does one thing: it gets people actively thinking about you and your film. You will be using your site to get your name to as many people as you can, as many times as possible. To get “mind share,” your site needs to encourage people to spend the necessary time to get to know your film.

When designing your site and/or deciding what material to include, you need to identify who your visitors will be. As with any marketing effort, you must identify your niche and cater your efforts towards it. Check out sites by films you know are successfully reaching the same audience to see how they are laid out. Are they consistent with other sites in the same genre? Identifying your audience will not only help you with design, but it will help you know where to start marketing your site as well.

Your domain name

These days, once you’ve decided on the name for your film or your production company, you should immediately buy the domain name (if it’s available). It’s common sense: if someone is looking for you or your film, one of the first things they’ll do is to type in itsname.com. It’s also pretty cheap: it’s about $75 to buy your domain name for three years. There are now a number of companies such as Network Solutions and Register.com who will sell you domain names; check Google for a good list.

Building your site

The World Wide Web is a potential gold mine for independent filmmakers. With a high-quality site, any small production company can look like a major player, and the possibility for making money is very real. Web site authoring can be surprisingly easy, and doing it yourself is a possibility if you have the time to learn the software. You can also outsource the development; there are thousands of Web site designers out there, ranging from individuals banging away on home computers to full-fledged content development companies. Your process in choosing the right one should be similar to that used for choosing an authoring consultant or DVD manufacturer. Make sure the company or person is legitimate and can deliver what is promised. The more knowledgeable you are about the Internet, the better your chances are of getting what you pay for. It is important to produce a distinctive, inviting, and professional site that encourages repeat traffic. In addition, it is crucial to update your site often so the information doesn’t get stale. If a fan visits your site in July and sees screening information dating back from last Christmas, he or she isn’t likely to come back soon.

-These are things which you should definitely consider including when creating your Web site:

-Contact and biographical information. Be sure to include a filmography of the filmmakers, actors, and crew. Include your resume and contact information so the industry and distributors can reach you.

-Sign-in page. Knowing who is coming to your site can help you assess the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. If any visitors are willing to give you their email address, you will be able to keep them up to date with your latest news. You might as well ask them for more information like how they heard of you, where they’re from, and what other films they like. You should also ask them for general comments. Check Google for some sites offering free tips to help you design sign-in pages easily.

-Graphics and video. You can also offer photos, stills from the movie, and promotional materials on your site. Video is another important element to add to a Web site; you can put a trailer up on the web and stream video at low resolution or allow people to download it for free. Accessing a short segment of your film online can be a great attraction for surfers and will make your site stand out from the pack. However, you should be aware that putting a video clip on your site can take up a great deal of space on your server, and download time can be considerable for people using dial-up modems.

To avoid making the user wait, you can stream your video using software from RealNetworks or Windows Media. The video quality may suffer (depending on the compression ratio and speed of the user’s connection) but the film starts to play almost at the click of a button, so it’s a sacrifice many Web site owners are willing to make. Users with slow modems may experience cut-out where the playback is interrupted while the computer waits for more information to be sent. However, this problem will probably not be a problem for long, as faster modems and high-speed access (cable modem and DSL) are becoming more readily available. The downside is you may need, in some cases, to upgrade your server’s hosting plan to stream your video depending on the codec you use, which may cost money. There are some schemes on the web such as ifilm.com which stream video; read the fine print before submitting your film to them.

Newsletter

One of the biggest advantages to having a Web site is it allows you to keep your fans informed of current events. It can be updated instantaneously – making it the fastest (and cheapest) newsletter available. The ability to instantaneously update can be a double-edged sword, since surfers have come to expect all online information to be current. If you properly maintain your site, surfers will notice that it’s constantly fresh and will want to come back to see what’s new. State when your site was last updated and when it will be updated next, so people will know when to return for the latest news.

Forums

By building the capability for forums and discussion into your site, you can get people involved with spreading the word and with future developments, screenings, and releases. It also gives you the opportunity to get their email information to stay in touch, but respect their email preferences if they decline to receive further information. Many Web sites offer site design tutorials on building forums into your Web site.

A secure transaction page for purchases

It is now easy to set up direct sales for your DVD title on the Web. Transactions can be handled through online order forms or any of the other recently developed payment methods for Internet transactions. Be sure your buyers are protected through the use of a secure socket layer and encryption for all online transactions involving private information.

If you’re planning to sell product directly via the Internet, you will want to obtain merchant credit-card processing services. You can go through your bank to do this, but start-up fees can be steep and deposits are often required. You also may need to incorporate or create a limited-liability company, depending on state and local laws, in order to conduct business in this manner.If a sale is disputed between a merchant and customer, the credit card company will side with the customer more often than the merchant. Plan on the application process to take two to four weeks, depending on your bank or credit card provider. Credit card associations (such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express) take a percentage of every sale (3% to 5% is common for small businesses).

Another, far easier solution is to use an Internet company that provides a turnkey solution to web store setup, such as PayPal or CCNow. Their credit-card process services in many cases can virtually eliminate set-up charges and can get you started immediately rather than going through the trouble of doing it through a bank. However, the discount rate that you are charged for every sale can be higher, and some may charge you monthly fees. With an automated system of this type in place, you can verify credit cards online automatically and accept orders securely, with far less effort than if you tried to set up a transaction system for your own Web store from scratch.

Internet marketing

Your main goal should be to get your Web site visited by as many people as possible so you have a better chance of having someone discover and buy your film. For an independent filmmaker with a title, the Internet can be one of the best ways to tap into specialized markets and reach your target audience. Some of the options to do this include:

• -Optimize your site for search engine positioning. When people are interested in a subject, they turn to search engines like Google, Yahoo, MSN, and AOL to find web pages relevant to them. It is to the filmmaker’s benefit to do everything possible to be listed near the top of those engines on certain keywords. It is important to focus on the most important keywords and make sure they’re in your metatags and content. Work to establish links to your commerce site from other sites that deal with topics related to the subject matter or genre of your film. Spend some time registering with the different search engines or use one of the automated services, such as Submit-It.com, to automatically register with hundreds of search engines. There are many Web sites explaining how to get your Web site listed near the top of the listings of major search engines, and they are well worth reading.

• -Get your name and film on as many other Web sites as possible. Communicate with other webmasters to trade links, and try to make your commerce site a focal point with links leading to it from a variety of directions. Another great benefit of reciprocal link trades is that some search engines place a very heavy rating of importance on how many other sites in their index have links to your Web site.

• -Take advantage of Internet forums and mailing lists. Subscribe to various Usenet newsgroups to announce your film’s availability and provide a simple way for people to order it. If you do this, make sure that your posting is tailored to look more like a news item than an advertisement, and be careful that it is relevant to the topic of the newsgroup, or you’ll be considered a “spammer.”

• -Start a webring about your film. At www.webring.com, you can create or join an online community to share ideas with peers and participate in topical communities to share information in a subject related to your film. Sign-up is currently free.

• -List your film in the Internet Movie Database. It’s easy, it’s free, and it’s at www.imdb.com.

• -Many independent film critics review films online, and it is worth promoting your film to these film review Web sites as well.

The important thing is to focus your efforts. Any effort you put into marketing your site will drive traffic, increase your film’s presence, and increase sales. Your goal is to figure out where to spend your time and money so as to drive the most people to the best site to move as much product as you can.

Distribution

Finding a distributor can be an effective way of getting your title out into the marketplace. Most large chain-store outlets have ongoing relationships with their distributors and don’t want to spend time with individual filmmakers. Getting one of these organizations to work with you on an independent basis can be difficult. Some distributors specialize in working with new or growing title producers; many of these distributors have managed to find success for alternative or small-scale producers and know the techniques and approaches that work best to get titles into either mainstream channels or other niche market areas. If your title is unique or distinctive or designed to appeal to a narrower audience range, you might do better finding genre-specific distributor as well as alternative sales channels for it rather than a mass-market distributor. Approach only those companies that carry titles in your genre. You won’t win any points by trying to sell your fiction film to a documentary distributor. Industry directories of publishers provide category listings and contact information for both major and minor players in this field. dvd.discmakers.com has a a list of the addresses and phone numbers of some DVD distributors.

Contact distributors individually; most have their own review process and can provide a set of guidelines on request. A screener in a nice jacket demonstrates not only your product but your target market as well. Disc Makers can manufacture small runs of DVD-Rs for just these purposes. Visit dvd.discmakers.com for details.

Distributors are helpful because they share your risk and save you the time you would spend checking up on every retail outlet. Pitfalls include the cost paid to the middleman, delays in getting paid, dealing with unsold returns, and the danger of fraudulent business practices by the distributor. Do some serious research and check with artists who have used a certain distributor before.

See how long the company has been in business, and check with your local Better Business Bureau before deciding.

Distribution deals vary. Being distributed in Blockbuster may net you around $3 per disc; although you get no proceeds from rentals, their sheer size makes distribution very attractive. Other, smaller outlets may pay you up to a few dollars per disc and then pennies per rental over a certain period, minus a significant commission (sometimes 25%). In contrast, were you to do it yourself, you would be at the mercy of each individual store’s policy: some may accept a DVD on consignment; others may buy a few copies from you outright. In every case, you should read the fine print. Even if it sounds like it will be hard to make a profit with a distribution deal, it can be even harder to “break in” without one. Large distributors have the financial clout to arrange with national wholesalers and retail chains to make the products in their catalog available for order by buyers for retail stores across the country. They can also place ads for the products it carries in wholesalers’ catalogs and the trade magazines of video rental and retail businesses, and they may promote their catalog at national trade shows.

DIY (DO-IT-YOURSELF) DISTRIBUTION

Independent filmmakers often find distribution very frustrating. It is a fairly common practice for distributors to pay months after the sale is made, and for them to withhold return fees, and to take such a cut of the proceeds that it isdifficult to make a profit. It is important, and surprisingly easy and effective, to supplement distribution with your own efforts.

Do-it-yourself distribution opportunities include:

-Your Web site. It is a serious mistake to not sell your film via the Web. After all, only through the Web can you reach a global audience, 24 hours a day.

-Online retailers. There are many online retailers that sell DVDs by independent filmmakers. These include Netflix, NumberSlate, and BargainFlix. Because the Internet is always changing, you should often check for new online retailers that have the potential for carrying your film.

-Amazon.com. Amazon is so big that it’s worthy of its own mention. Their Shops program enables your disc to be listed on their site; they process the orders, and you are responsible for producing, packaging, and shipping the DVDs. Their Advantage program (www.amazon.com/advantage) also lets you sell DVDs on their site, but in this case they handle the order fulfillment and you instead ship your batches of DVDs to them on request.

-Auction sites. You can list your film on sites such as eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo under categories specific to your title’s genre. This is an easy and affordable way to sell individual copies. eBay has a scheme where you can open an “eBay store,” which allows you to sell items at a fixed price. There is a start up fee for opening a store and other minor listing fees, but the final per-sale fee is a little over 5% of final sale price.

-Trade shows. Another surprisingly effective technique for moving a lot of product is at a conference or trade show related to your film’s genre. Check your local media, the Internet, film publications, and other sourcesfor dates and locations.

-Calling home video rental stores. Many small stores that sell and rent DVD titles will be happy to carry your product and buy it directly if you have a bar code on the package for stocking purposes.

-Schools, libraries, museums, and cultural venues. Often libraries stock films by independent artists, especially those by local filmmakers. In addition, academic departments at universities often purchase documentary and socially-relevant fiction film works. Museums also purchase historical and art films for screenings and their collections. All are well worth calling or emailing to purchase your product.

-Catalog sales. If you have made a religious, instructional, educational, or other specialty video, it may fit into a market where distributors publish a catalog advertising products to buyers. You or the film’s distributor could sell the title to the catalog company, which would then handle the direct-mail catalog distribution and service orders. Some catalog companies, however, require that the title producer pay a fee to be included in the catalog. In this type of arrangement, orders are often forwarded to the title producer for servicing, and the catalog company may collect a transaction fee or a percentage of the sales.

SUPPORTING YOUR DISTRIBUTION EFFORTS WITH PROMOTION

Even if your project is picked up for distribution, you will still want to take an active role in promotion. Your efforts at promoting your project can make the difference between mediocre acceptance and highly successful sales. Keep your distributor up-to-date with the latest information about the title. For example, if your DVD title was favorably reviewed in a magazine, send your distributor a copy of the review. He or she may use it to get more stores to carry your title or to display it in a more prominent location.

If you are distributing your title yourself, you will want to promote the film as hard as possible both to drive sales and to impress the retailers who are carrying your product that you are giving your full efforts to support it. It is worthwhile to give flyers and postcards to video stores, and posters are an especially good way to promote your film at retail outlets. Because Disc Makers designs and prints posters in-house, they are able to offer 300 full-color, 11”x17” posters for just $99 if you do your replication with them. Be sure to include your film’s URL on all promotional materials.

Sending press releases to appropriate publications can often produce better results than placing direct-response ads, since an article about your product seems more unbiased (and you don’t have to pay for advertising space). Try to weave a story around your film. Why is it innovative or interesting? Why must the public know about it? Avoid the temptation to over-hype; if it looks like an ad, the magazine, newspaper, or newsletter won’t run it. Make sure you include all necessary contact information at the end of the release.

ADDITIONAL SCREENING OPPORTUNITIES

Although DVD is the ultimate in home entertainment, having your film released on DVD can also get your film noticed outside of people’s homes. There are at least three ways where a DVD can help your film get exhibited in public forums:

-1. -Your DVD can be used as a “screener” to get your film noticed by the industry. Combined with a well-crafted press kit, you can use your DVD to shop your film (and your talents as a filmmaker) to the film industry in Hollywood and beyond. If you don’t want to incur the full expense of an Amaray-style case for your promotional discs, you can get a custom-printed cardboard jacket that still looks beautiful and professional. These cost $1,390 for 1,000 – including printing, replication, and packaging – at Disc Makers. Visit dvd.discmakers.com for details.

2. -Some independent theaters, local film societies, art galleries, schools, and even nightclubs have showings where they screen films on DVD. Check your local newspaper (or Google) for listings of venues that screen DVDs in your town and nationwide.

3. -Your DVD can be the ticket which gets your film into one of the hundreds of film festivals worldwide. Check dvd.discmakers.com for a listing of several of the more important film festivals. Since there are so many of them, and since many charge significant admissions fees, here are some tips when submitting a film to a festival:

• —Never send the only copy of your master to a festival (or to anyone, for that matter).

• -Be sure that your film’s genre, format and length is appropriate to the festival; some festivals are highly specialized or have rigid requirements.

• -Include a press kit that is beautiful but simple, as most programmers don’t have the time to read through an extensive press kit. Include a few press clippings and a few still photos. Be sure also to include a filmmaker biography and a short synopsis of your film so they can promote it if you are accepted. Most importantly, make sure your contact information is prominently displayed on all materials.

• -Not all of the festival’s attempts to sell you on follow-up promotional materials may be cost-effective for you. Just because you get accepted doesn’t mean you have to buy an advertisement to support the screening. Your marketing dollars may be better spent promoting the film yourself through posters, flyers, postcards, press releases, and promotional copies.

• -Sometimes a festival may be too small to be worth the expense of going there to support your film. Check to see if the industry and press are really coming; check the festival’s track record; and check to see if they have local support so that there will be an audience at your film’s screening.

• -On the other hand, bigger doesn’t always mean better. Even though larger festivals may have more industry credibility, if they program too many concurrent or big-budget films, yours may get lost in the crowd. (However, if you get accepted by Cannes or Sundance, go!)

Got all that? Now, some closing thoughts>>>

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