Wed 10.2.2013

5 TAKE-AWAYS: How To Produce, Market and Distribute Your Film Without Breaking the Bank

Documentarian Jeff Broadway defies the age-old stereotype of the starving artist. With three films under his belt, Broadway offers proof that you don’t have to have a trust fund to create documentaries without going hungry. His first, Cure for Pain, followed the trials and tribulations of Morphine front man Mark Sandman;  Godspeed Taiwan explored the lasting impact of Chinese oppression; and his latest project, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (an Official Selection of the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival), which documented the formation of independent label Stones Throw Records, marked Broadway’s return to his musical roots. The Gatling Pictures co-founder stopped by Film Independent to share his strategies for launching crowdfunding campaigns, negotiating with domestic and international buyers, and going for broke without actually going broke.

1. Don’t be afraid to make small-scale, self-contained documentaries.
Broadway admits that his Cure for Pain production team was able to limit their budget and keep their production expenses down to $120,000, “largely in part because [they] weren’t documenting a process or something that was active or ongoing. It was a retrospective film about a deceased musician with a clear-cut timeframe.” Throughout the process, he faced the challenge of ripping music off of everything from warped VHS cassettes to old super 8 footage. However, necessity can also be the mother of invention. As Broadway reveals, “something that I’ve been specific about is choosing subjects that are inherently low-fi, subjects whose aesthetics sort of mirror that which the film will take on sometimes out of necessity, but it can also be passed off as a creative choice. And sometimes it legitimately is a creative choice, but in other instances, you have to work with what you’ve got.”

2. Harness the power of social media.
Although it took only $15,000 of seed money to produce Cure for Pain, Broadway and his collaborators soon discovered that they still had hefty music licensing fees to pay. Filmmakers should keep this in mind since music prices unfortunately are not fixed, and they fluctuate based on the licensor’s going rate. To pay for the Master and Publishing music rights, Broadway decided to start a Kickstarter campaign to generate funds. In anticipation of the launch, they tapped into Mark Sandman and Morphine fan bases on Facebook and cultivated those relationships very early on. Because of passionate followers all around the world, “we were able to raise $20,000 for finishing funds, which we allocated to music clearances and also sound and color correction,” says Broadway. His team used the same strategy when they decided to use the crowdsourcing platform again for Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, only this time to raise the entire $35,000 production budget. With a larger-scale campaign came greater donations as well as incentives for film backers. Broadway emphasized the importance of pragmatism when it comes to doling out rewards; Be sure to factor in packaging and shipping costs, or better yet, bypass bulk mailings in favor of digital incentives to cut costs.

3. Be proactive in contacting sales agents and using others’ business models.
For Cure for Pain, Broadway handled all of the international sales distribution, creating an IMDbPro account and reaching out to acquisition companies that had picked up films similar to his documentary. After the film screened at the International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam—one of the leading documentary festivals and marketplaces in the world—it gained significantly more traction and drew the attention of a Dutch buyer. In terms of domestic distribution, while they were introduced to potential distributor Factory Twenty Five through TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers, the independent label still had a $50,000 P&A budget, which he felt was incredibly high for the type of film that they had. Taking a cue from the Factory Twenty Five model and the home entertainment model, Broadway’s team decided to make the DVDs themselves, he says “and sell them from our living room.” They spent roughly $2,000, printing 1,000 DVDs for $2.10 a unit. To entice fans to buy the DVDs, they featured ten never-before-released Mark Sandman songs. They sold the DVDs to their online followers for $25 each, an approach that was so successful that the first thousand units sold out in four to six weeks, netting a $20 profit on each DVD.

4. Prioritize spending to avoid unnecessary expenditures
When it comes to the film festival circuit, Broadway cautions against wracking up excessive travel costs. Don’t hesitate to ask festivals for screening fees or honorariums to lessen the burden of traveling expenses, making exceptions only for those festivals that will likely provide future prospects. “If you’re going to actually pay to travel, you should choose them wisely and make sure that they’re actually viable marketplaces where you have an opportunity to convert your presence there into sales.” For example, he adds, “We felt like it was really important to go to IDFA…because it has such a reputable market, and we were under the impression that it would probably be our best opportunity to forge relationships with international buyers, which proved to be the case.”

5. Be open to collaboration but stay self-sufficient as well.
During his time as a filmmaker, Broadway cultivated many strong working relationships. He partnered with Cinetic Film Buff to handle the digital platform release of Cure for Pain and collaborated with Light in the Attic Records to distribute Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, due to their mutual interests. For his second film, the nonprofit Formosa Foundation granted Gatling Pictures $10,000 to make a documentary about the Taiwanese struggle for democracy. And for Vinyl, Broadway used appropriated footage from a French production crew’s stalled film and teamed up with Stones Throw, which provided free publicity and all of the in-kind incentives he needed for their Kickstarter production fundraising campaign. At the same time, Broadway and his team have remained autonomous and self-sustaining. In the day-to-day operations, “two of us are literally doing everything from the point of conception to these films actually getting out.”

By Laura Swanbeck / guest blogger