Last Sunday morning at the Film Independent Forum, Tim League lived up to his renegade reputation—(See: Fantastic Debates.)—by beginning his keynote with the declaration that “distributors are bloodsucking freaks,” shortly after cracking open a can of beer. (League said he was inspired to hit the mini bar just to dash a Twitch Film writer’s desire to see League address an audience, just once, without a beer in his hand.)
The CEO/Founder of Alamo Drafthouse also warned the audience he’d created his presentation en route the day prior. “It might be awful,” he said, “but at least you’ll know I spent no more than 24 hours on it.”
“The very first thing you really need to know is that we are all just bloodsucking freaks, we are just awful and almost nearly criminal in our relationship with filmmakers,” League said, right out of the gate, noting that the business is currently such a “wild, wild west” that if any distributor claims they can predict what’s coming five years down the line, “they are absolutely lying to you. Nobody knows anything about what’s going on. We’re sort of holding on by the reins as hard as we can. It’s a really, really tough business and there are some real assholes out there.”
Inspired by the boil-it-down style of self-help best sellers like Steven “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Covey, League outlined his “alleged wisdom:” a mix of tough-love truths and suggestions he called “mega-awesome distribution strategies.” Here’s a distillation of League’s distillation:
Begin with the end in mind.
League translated Covey’s Habit #2 into filmmaker speak: “Before you make your movie, figure out who the hell your audience is.”
Just say N-O to DIY.
“The worst news for you guys, the sad clowns making films, is that you need us,” said League. “There are anecdotal situations of people who have successfully self-distributed, he noted, “but the harsh reality is that you need the bloodsucking freaks.”
Or, if you do try it DIY, be prepared to work your butt off.
League cited Indie Game: The Movie as the rare example of the DIY distribution success story. He broke down the five keys to its success: 1) niche subject material; 2) worldwide, digital savvy/friendly audience; 3) early, active and constant audience engagement and community building; 4) the will to work thousands of hours over years to engage your audience. He encouraged DIY-ers to read the case study on indiegamethemovie.com.
Get stars or go genre.
“You can make whatever you want to make, but if a part of your strategy is to make money off of what you’re making, then there are a couple strategies that might get you a little closer,” he said. “Star power will get you there—if you happen to know Luke Wilson or Robert DeNiro.” Otherwise, League noted that three genres have a much higher rate of financial success without star power: horror, science fiction and documentary.
Remember, stars rise, stars fall.
If you do want to go the star route, League suggested trying to catch “the next Ben Affleck” on the rise—someone like Taron Egerton, who almost scored the lead in the new Star Wars film and is now starring opposite Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service, is a good example, he said, of the rising star type who might be persuaded to sign on, given an engaging project. Or you can go the other end of the spectrum, he said, noting the poster he saw at American Film Market in which Danny Glover is “looking really just tired and sad that he is in a movie called Age of the Dragons with Vinnie Jones. This to me is an indicator of a lot of things: maybe he needs new management, and maybe he’s ripe for a career-resurgence project. I doubt that he was paid a huge amount of money for this movie.”
Be a brand.
“Exploit any opportunity to gain social media followers,” said League, tossing out @timalamo and @drafthousefilms to prove he walks the talk. He described Drafthouse’s strategy of creating social media activations to ignite buzz about its small film releases. (A “share to dare” Twitter campaign to promote Cheap Thrills: “Make the Cheap Thrills cast and crew do horrible horrible things.” Because Facebook throttles back how many friends and followers see your posts, especially if you’re a company—you have to pay to get access to the fans you built up, League said. Twitter is a better engine to get something “nice and sticky.” In another example, to promote a documentary called A Band Called Death, Alamo launched a Tumblr campaign that invited kids with stories about learning that their fathers had been in rock bands in high school or college to send photos and mp3s and tell their stories.)
Get a sales agent.
“If the bloodsucking freaks sense blood in the water, if they sense weakness, if they sense unpreparedness, if they sense ignorance, they will exploit that. You run a very, very serious risk of getting into something you don’t understand. That 10% is worth it in terms of access to credibility and sheer safety. The problem is, if no sales agent wants to sell your film, you’re probably not going to sell your film. When I go to a market, first order of business, ‘Do I love this film’,” League said. “The second order of business: Is there any conceivable way we can find an audience for this film?” That’s what sales agents are doing, he said, and that’s what you should be doing from the beginning.
Pamela Miller / Website & Grants Manager