Happy 2015! 2014 got busy for me towards the end. I moved house and took on some more work and responsibility – I’m now Development Manager at Angel & Bear Productions. I met some lovely filmmakers, thanks to this blog and Twitter and headed to LA for the American Film Market.

I fell off the posting wagon, but I’m back and ready to talk all things film and distribution again. Here are my predictions, trend spotting and advice for 2015.

Cast and quality are king

At AFM in November, the song was still the same. Cast, cast, cast. There were over 2000 new films at AFM. We’re oversaturated with content. Your movie doesn’t just have to stand out against all the other movies out there, it has to hold up against all movies period.

That means high concept movies, with strong production values, great storytelling and names.

Take a look at the top titles from AFM – Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, Shane Black’s thriller Nice Guys starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, thriller Unlocked with Noomi Rapace and Orlando Bloom. These are the films that were in demand.

Check out Indiewire’s 50 highest grossing indies of 2014. How does your film fit into that landscape? Who’s your audience?

If you’re not going for the mainstream mass market audience and want to go the direct distribution route, the questions are the same. Who’s your audience? How are you going to build and engage with your tribe for your niche movie?

Again high concept, strong production values and great storytelling will serve you here. You may need a different kind of name who has pull with your audience, whether that’s a YouTube star, a feminist icon, a cult musician with an inbuilt audience. What’s your hook? Your call to action to get people to watch your film?

Theatrical is getting tougher

Manage your expectations. Getting a theatrical release for your film is close to impossible. Cinemas are dominated by the studio films, followed by the cast and director driven super indies,  then the smaller releases, festival darlings and strong cinematic documentaries which often have a thriller element.

With the P&A costs involved in theatrical, distributors are only going to take chances on films with a strong marketing angle and clear audience.

There are always a couple of indies that break through. They tend to be high concept strongly executed genre movies like The Babadook and It Follows or the undeniable like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. 

But do you really need a theatrical release? The Interviews controversy and release woes showed the power of VOD. Between December 24th and January 4th, 3.4 million people rented or bought the film online, with a total gross of $31 million, with only $5 million coming from theatrical. This goes with the wider context – US box office was down by 15% in 2014.

Distributors like VOD because they get a bigger piece of the pie. Audiences like VOD for the convenience, comfort and ease. Unless your movie is an event movie that demands to be seen on the big screen like Gravity, the theatrical experience might just start falling out of favour.

Schlock Horror Is Dead

Horror used to be a golden ticket for indie filmmakers in the heyday of the video rental and sales when a low budget movie could make bank. Right now, it’s struggling.

The business model for horror was high volume short cycle DVD sales which was hit hard by the changes in the market. Minimum guarantees have plummeted. Unlike other genres, there’s limited demand for TV outside niche channels like The Horror Channel and VOD isn’t making up the shortfall.

It’s also a genre that can suffer from cultural crossover issues. For example, horror doesn’t work in Africa. Ghost films don’t really fly in Thailand, where the cultural tradition for ghosts is more Patrick Swayze in Ghost than Paranormal Activity.

There’s still demand in the horror heartland like North America, UK, Australia, Germany and Japan, but just because you see distribution deals, that doesn’t mean profit for filmmakers.

There are some crossover theatrical titles like Blumhouse’s cast driven slate, high concept movies like The Babadook and riffs on existing IP like The Woman in Black. But distributors can’t shift schlock horror, with revenue share often being the best offer on the table.

Getting a distribution deal for horror is getting harder and harder and the bar for storytelling, production value and even cast for a traditionally non cast driven genre is higher and higher.

Sci-fi is picking up the genre slack. It has stronger appeal for TV and international sales. Think more Edge of Tomorrow rather than Primer, with creature, action or disaster stories in demand. Back in my sales agent days, when filmmakers would ask for commercial concept, my boss would tell them to go make Con Air with aliens.

Both The Black List and The Brit List were packed with sharp sci-fi scripts, so expect to see more in the market in the next two years.

Be ruthless with your budget

Tap up those tax incentives, apply to film funds and get your soft money in place. The filmmakers who’ll survive and thrive are the ones who can translate low budgets into high production values. When you’re drawing up a budget, don’t think about it as how much you’d like to make it for. Think more about how much you need to actually make it. Director Josh Caldwell wrote a great article about how he maximised production value in his feature Layover.

I met some savvy filmmakers in LA who partnered with a university on their production, gaining access to their equipment and drawing on their students for crew. The students and the university gets hands on experience with a film, the filmmakers cut costs and could make their film for less while adding production value.

The year of the consultant?

Over the past year, there’s been a flood of people popping up offering their services to filmmakers. There are festival consultants, marketing consultants, distribution consultants, crowd funding specialists, finance finders and aspiring producers of marketing and distribution.

Do your research. There are some gems and there are some shysters. Check references and testimonials, look at their experience, and put out some feelers in the industry before you hand over any money. Apply common sense.

I’ve heard of festival consultants who offer to create a tailored festival strategy at an eye-watering hourly rate plus submission costs. A reputable sales agent can get your film into the right festivals for free and even secure screening fees, without undermining your potential for distribution deals. I’ve also heard tales of faked testimonials. Trust but verify.

Advertiser funded content?

Product placement is nothing new but it reached stratospheric heights with the LEGO Movie, the ultimate in branded content.

Advertising has always supported content, but the advertisers aren’t getting the same bang for the buck they used to. Cinema attendance and live broadcast TV numbers are dropping, no longer offering advertisers a prize audience facing slot.

The solution? Fund content directly.

Marriott International, the hotel company, launched Marriott Content Studios in Septemeber last year and have signed up YouTube and Snapchat stars to produce content, targeting younger audiences with travel and lifestyle content.

Red Bull Media House is a burgeoning media giant, with a strong sports and action slant. From space jumps, to feature films, documentaries, TV and reality series and music, they’ve building an audience through association.

GoPro is on track to become a user generated media company, with fans and users uploading endlessly inventive videos feeding and growing a self sustaining community. They’re become a hub for a community and conversation based on sharing videos, seamlessly tied to the GoPro brand and often going viral.

Check out this stunning footage of a heron learning to fly.

It’s part of a cultural shift for companies to stop selling and start communicating and entertaining. Scott Donaton predicted it in his book Madison & Vine: Why the Entertainment and Advertising Industries Must Converge to Survive. 

They’ve getting their return on investment too. In Christopher Ratcliffe’s Ecommerce article Red Bull vs GoPro: taking content marketing to the extreme he’s got the stats to prove it:

“In the six months immediately following the jump, sales of Red Bull rose 7% to $1.6bn in the US, and newer target markets were acquired in Brazil, Japan, India and South Korea.”

My prediction, we’re going to see more advertiser funded content, but it’s likely to be short form and episodic, rather than feature films. Why? Because serialized content builds a returning audience in a way that a one off feature film can’t. This is why Netflix, Amazon Prime, Yahoo and Vimeo are primarily funding episodic content. That’s the hook for the audience. We renew our subscription to see the next series and find out what next.

* Thanks to Xavier Rashid at Film Republic for bouncing around ideas with me on this article. If you’re looking for an arthouse sales agent, Xav is your man.

Reading Recs

Uber producer and indie film champion Ted Hope talks the good, bad and ugly about the film biz last year with:

10 Really Good Things in The Film Biz in 2014

7 Really Bad Things About The Film Business in 2014

10 More Really Bad Things About The Film Business in 2014

10 [More] Really Good Things About The Film Biz 2014

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Photo Credit: The Lego Movie

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