Case Study: Transcending The Status Quo with Transcendent Man Barry and Felicia Ptolemy
Centralized institutions of power are being decentralized, with more people having access to more powerful tools.
Transcendent Man is a documentary film (directed by Barry Ptolemy) that chronicles the life and ideas of Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist known for his bold vision of the Singularity, a point in the near future when technology will be changing so rapidly that we will have to enhance ourselves with artificial intelligence to keep up. In Transcendent Man, Kurzweil predicts an astonishing future in which we will be billions of times more intelligent, merge with our machines, and even overcome death... all within the next thirty years.
The genesis of the project began in 2006, when we read Ray’s seminal work, the New York Times best-selling book, The Singularity Is Near. Ray’s hopeful vision of the radically expanded future of our species was the most profound and inspiring work we had ever come across. As filmmakers, we set out to make a documentary on these ideas, so we contacted Ray and he was good enough to meet with us and hear our pitch. Fortunately, he quickly agreed to allow us to make the movie about his life and allowed us to license the rights to his book.
We filmed Ray for two years, accompanying him on his worldwide speaking tour, and following him to over 25 cities in five countries, observing him at work in his office with his team, meeting and talking with his closest friends and family members, and interviewing over 70 other thought leaders and colleagues. Ray had no creative input, trusting us to create a thoughtful interpretation of his life and ideas. It was quite a courageous move. In fact, Ray did not see the film until two weeks before its world premiere in 2009 at Tribeca. At that point, it would have been too late to make any changes and we really credit Ray for allowing us to make the kind of film we wanted.
As independent filmmakers, our first objective was to try and create a work of art, something cinematic and hopefully profound. We knew the ideas were powerful enough to warrant a filmic experience so we challenged ourselves to create something artistic, but still keep the ideas accessible and straightforward. Of course, we also had a fiduciary responsibility to our investors and ourselves to also make a film that people would actually want to watch. So our ultimate objective was a combination of these two things: use the power of cinema to share this transformative vision with the widest possible audience.
Nothing ever unfolds quite the way you think it will.
We embarked on this lofty quest of creating an amazing film about amazing ideas and perhaps naively thought everything would fall in to place after that. After being accepted to the Tribeca Film Festival, we were feeling optimistic about our chances. There was a great deal of interest in Transcendent Man immediately, with much buzz around the film, rumors that we would attract some excellent offers, and every major distributor attending a screening. Advanced copies were being requested all over town from powerful producers like Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Sam Raimi and many more. But, the film came to market at the beginning of 2009, just as the global economy was melting down and billions of dollars evaporating from Hollywood. The distributors all said the same thing: “amazing, but we can’t do this right now,” or “love it, but we don’t know how to market this.” Suddenly we found ourselves in a catatonic market and we had to completely rethink the future of Transcendent Man.
A central theme of Transcendent Man is the democratization of technology. Basically, exponentially growing information technologies are allowing for an explosion of new applications in many facets of life that are disrupting entire industries and offering powerful tools to people everywhere. We had made a film about the decentralization of power, yet we were looking to traditional methods of centralized distribution that rely on a wealthy and powerful distributor to bring our film to the people. When this irony became clear to us, we completely revamped our strategy and got to work creating a new paradigm of self-distribution, a hybrid model utilizing a special event tour, collapsed windows across all mediums, and innovative new portals through which to share the film. We partnered with WME who truly believed in the power and value of the film and also saw that the content could drive the new model.
We started by creating a special event tour, whereby we traveled around the country arranging screenings of the film. We four-walled venues and often partnered with appropriate organizations like Time/LIFE, science museums, and IMAX theaters. The tour launched from New York and traveled to San Jose, Los Angeles, DC, Boston, San Francisco, and London and always featured a live special presentation by Ray Kurzweil, a screening of the film and then a live Q&A discussion after the film with Ray and Barry. Throughout the tour, we continued to use the latest technology tools whenever we could, such as Eventbrite for ticketing or Square for credit card purchases of merchandise, including t-shirts, posters, books, and the pre-retail DVDs.
This event tour was integral in creating national and local press around the film. Together with our publicist Celia Black, who achieved amazing results, Barry and Ray did print interviews, radio interviews, online interviews, local cable interviews, newspaper interviews, magazine interviews, blog interviews, and national TV interviews, such as Charlie Rose, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Bill Maher. We were a press machine and the film started to gain traction! In fact, the week the film premiered at the Time/LIFE building in New York, TIME featured a cover story on Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity, including a mention of Transcendent Man. Things were starting to look up again. And we started to think that this whole self-distribution thing might actually work.
In tandem with the tour on March 1st, 2011, Transcendent Man became available on Movies-On-Demand (cable VOD), iTunes, and direct-to-consumer (from our website) DVD and digital sales. On iTunes we were able to garner significant home page, movie main page, doc page and trailer page promotions including being mentioned in their newsletter. In addition, the relevance of the subject and success of the initial launch prompted iTunes to feature us on their Facebook fan page and Twitter sites with millions of followers. The ideas in Transcendent Man just seemed to resonate well with iTunes’ users.
In the first week we immediately climbed to the top 20 movies on iTunes against ALL films and jumped to the top in the documentary category achieving the second highest Number 2 position among all docs. We enjoyed the distinction of being in the top 30 against all films and the Number 2 doc on iTunes for 13 weeks. DVD and merchandise sales on our website were fantastic for many months. And with the right VOD distribution partner, Brainstorm Media, we were available on the top 3 cable companies in the country, allowing most of the U.S. population the opportunity to access the film right in their living room. Across all of these portals, Transcendent Man views were boosted by the great press and ongoing publicity from the tour. We even sold thousands of bundled DVD packages with a digital download, T-shirt, book and poster from our own website.
So the various streams of distribution were working in tandem quite successfully. Soon after, we rounded out the model with a retail DVD, with distribution partner New Video, that launched on May 24th, 2011. This was a wider distribution footprint than we had had to date with the film being made available on Amazon.com, Wal-Mart.com, Netflix, Barnes and Noble, Target, and Best Buy. With appearances by Ray and Barry on major late night shows still stoking the nation’s attention, retail DVDs began to sell briskly and have exceeded New Video’s and our expectations.
The film jumped to the top 10 on Amazon in documentaries and Barnes & Noble included the film in special documentary “end cap” displays and a “best seller” designation, which only helped it to sell more copies. At the same time, we began to release the film on various digital streaming portals, like Amazon, Netflix, Wal-Mart, YouTube and Hulu, which only helped the retail DVD sales as people who really enjoy the film want to own it on DVD, as well. By far the greatest reach Transcendent Man has had on any portal has been on Netflix, illustrated by the fact that over 100,000 people have rated the film in the first 90 days, not to mention how many more have actually watched it.
Additionally, along the way, we have been tapping in to some new distribution innovations like Dynamo, a digital movie-rental service that can be embedded on any website, including your own movie website, Facebook page or that of any other organization that may have resonance with your subject. This allows a viewer to rent the movie and watch it in a window without ever leaving the site they are on. Again, Dynamo is a tool of innovation that gives the filmmaker the opportunity to offer their audience immediate access to their film, as well as ease of payment, which together create an instantaneous and seamless viewing experience. We also created our own Transcendent Man app for iPhone and iPad with a company called MoPix. It allows users to get the full-length movie plus special features exclusive to that app. It’s a fun way to buy the film (as an app) and also the least expensive way to own the film at $9.99 (including the special features).
Finally, all these platforms allowed us to monitor our success on a monthly, weekly and even daily basis. Google analytics is a window into how much your film (and, in our case, Ray’s ideas) were entering the zeitgeist. We could actually see the spike in sales every time a national press event would occur. The press had a ravenous appetite for Transcendent Man and we did everything we could to feed it and leverage it. With social networks like Twitter and Facebook we were able to interact directly with our fans, and see what they liked and didn’t like. And we could offer them updates or news on the film’s tour and distribution. We created a Facebook fan page that has been very successful and now has a life of it’s own with about 10,000 fans and growing, many of whom are active on a daily basis and continually add to its content.
New opportunities for Transcendent Man continue to emerge. For example, we partnered with Fathom Events (which is owned by the three biggest theater chains in the country) in August to produce a live event from Lincoln Center in New York about the ideas in the movie. Transcendent Man LIVE was broadcast to over 500 theaters in 49 states and has been another successful way of getting the film to a new audience. We received over 40 million impressions from a :30 second trailer that ran on over 15,000 movie screens in the 4 weeks leading up to the event. This time Ray and Barry were joined by Steve Wozniak, Deepak Chopra, Dean Kamen, Michio Kaku, Tan Le, with special appearances from Al Gore, Bill Maher, Suzanne Sommers, Quincy Jones and Elon Musk. This again helped us secure a great deal of publicity. The day that Transcendent Man LIVE aired, our retail DVD sales spiked 800% on Amazon and have been selling at higher levels ever since.
The results have far exceeded what we originally thought we could do on our own and have allowed us to remain in control of our film at every turn. Each film is going to have a unique life, but for Transcendent Man, we found a strong combination of distribution channels and timed them pretty well. Launching simultaneously via the special theatrical tour AND iTunes worked extremely well. As we went around the country drumming up excitement and press with the theatrical showings, we could continually point people in the direction of a well-known and easily accessible distribution stream via iTunes. Soon iTunes was featuring us for an extended amount of time on their “new and notable page,” etc. After our initial success on iTunes they also featured us as a “Movie Of The Week,” where you could rent the film for just .99 cents for two weeks. We saw our downloads more than quadruple with thousands of .99 cent sales and a substantial spike in our retail DVD sales with just that promotion alone.
Centralized institutions of power are being decentralized, with more people having access to more powerful tools. Ten years ago we could not have even made Transcendent Man. Several disruptive technologies changed that and we were able to create our film and fulfill our original vision. Film and television distribution is undergoing disruptive change as well. You only have to look at the music industry or the newspaper industry to see what is in store. Whatever that change brings there is one certainty – more people will have access to the tools to make and distribute their own films. That is the most exciting thing for filmmakers today. As Ray says in our movie, “The tools of creativity will be in everyone’s hands.” The only question you will need to ask yourself is: What idea moves me enough to turn it into a film?