It’s been nearly a year since First Girl I Loved hit theaters and we embarked on our journey into self-distribution. We’ve worked hard and learned a great deal — but having gone through it all now, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The biggest takeaway is this: know what your rights are worth and do your best to maximize your return. Platforming the film — meaning that we released it in different formats during different release windows, rather than all platforms at one time — became our best way to exploit each set of rights, make a return, and reach our audience. We began this process with our transactional VOD premiere (TVOD), October 18th, 2016.
The premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival provided us a venue for some reviews and press, but we had to restart that entire machine for the release in October — that meant hiring a publicist, a social media manager, and a digital marketing strategist to ensure that we were reaching our audience and telling them about the film. We had played festivals across the U.S. and internationally the preceding year, and had both used them as a valuable source of revenue (in the form of festival fees) but also as a way to build more press and good will for the film. We even spoke to specific festivals about helping with local theatrical bookings — which was particularly helpful in Toronto (where we had some great reviews and played a week in theaters).
But ultimately, our distribution and marketing costs were all about our TVOD window — which was 60 days before it would go live on Fullscreen, our SVOD (subscription VOD) partner. That had been negotiated in our deal with them, so that allowed two months of revenue-earning potential on iTunes, Amazon, and other on-demand and transactional services. Thus, we put the majority of our P & A spend — which ultimately approached six figures including digital ads, premiere, party, a contest to raise awareness, and the four employees we brought on — into promoting the film for sale on iTunes. Our direct spend on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter ads was roughly $35,000 by the time we were finished promoting the film, with the vast majority being spent on Facebook. We made that decision by seeing how our clicks were doing: essentially, how well people were engaging with our ads, clicking through and seeing the purchase page. Facebook performed best in our case, but regardless, this is real-time information that all business accounts can access. We began to shift more and more resources there for our best ROI (Return on Investment, aka the money coming back to the project and returning to investors).
To kick off that process, we first answered the question “who is our audience” — which we determined was 15-30 year-old young women who likely identified as lesbian or enjoyed films with LGBT content. We targeted this group with heavy Facebook marketing in an attempt to drive the “likes” on our page — which means building an audience that’s receptive to sales down the line. The best way to do this was to feature content we knew our audience would like and share — in this case, a poster featuring our two leads in a seemingly romantic pose, and a trailer that emphasized that relationship. By boosting those materials with a Facebook ad spend, we were able to ensure that we had strong organic and inorganic (paid) engagement — knowing your audience and giving them what they want is the key to getting those inorganic paid ads to turn into organic shared ads on the timelines of our most likely customers.
Our next step was trying to encourage presales, which then informs iTunes that there’s a good deal of interest in your film. This then, in turn, leads to a strong “placement” on the iTunes pages when the film goes live. After building up our fan base on Facebook to over 40,000 “likes,” we did over 800 pre-sales on the film, which really helped us register when the film went fully live. To clarify: iTunes, which is where we focused most of our energies, notices when your film does well with presales. It notices when it attracts attention, because, well, iTunes wants to make money. People pre-ordering your film suggests demand. Demand means sales. And sales mean more money for them. If you over-index in presales, iTunes is far more likely to give the film strong placement on its pages. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s a great way to work toward the way iTunes works rather than against it.
This digital marketing approach was led by two people in particular: our social media manager and our digital marketing strategist — they worked together to create ads and then target our audience with those ads. We also worked with the It Gets Better Project, a nonprofit, to reach their audience and promote the film as a way to help donate to the organization (we gave $1 of every presale to It Gets Better).
We drove likes on the page, and then heavily promoted our trailer, which helped it get millions of views (both organic and inorganic), both on Facebook but also on YouTube (where our biggest link now has 5.5 million views).
iTunes and other TVOD platforms have proven to be our biggest single revenue stream — well into the six figures now and continuing to generate revenue in perpetuity. To date, we’ve netted about $140,000 in revenue (that’s net revenue, which means after iTunes and other services take their cut). SVOD was the second biggest revenue stream, with our short-term deal with Fullscreen running $65,000 before our sales agency took their 10% cut — but that stream could overtake TVOD in the long run as we execute new deals with emerging platforms or renew existing deals. Our third most valuable stream was foreign sales, where we did individual deals for Taiwan, Scandinavia, Australia/New Zealand, and some local SVOD deals in Latin America and South Africa totally close to $40,000 to date. We also did a worldwide deal with Arcadia, a new company that came on board to be our foreign sales agent and local distributor in various territories. Festival fees were smaller but not insignificant, in the five figures and approaching $25,000. We are just now exploring and monetizing educational fees, which can be in the thousands for a license as we reach out to universities with the help of a booking partner. The film made less in theatrical revenue (in Toronto, where we played) than it cost to get the film rated in Ontario. Needless to say, theatrical simply made no sense for our film, and would have cost us too much to execute properly: our audience was watching digitally.
In terms of financial performance, we are approaching 3x our best offer that came out of the Sundance Film Festival, and we have retained our entire ownership of the film. I call that a win, however you look at it. The film continues to earn money, and that money goes directly back to our investors.
The process was tough, the job was hard, and we had to work long hours for no pay to make it happen. That said, the film was treated right and reeased into the world with love; it wasn’t thrown away or forgotten. It was released by people that cared about it: us. Not only did we get the release we wanted, but we learned about how to value the rights to our own work; for so many filmmakers, they simply make the film and hand it off without understanding the distribution process. The insight I gained by teaming with Sundance Institute to release our film has not only proven useful with understanding the value of my future projects, but it allows me to be a more informed and intelligent party in my own distribution deals.
At times, it can be overwhelming, but we made this movie from a place of love. And treating it well, releasing it right, and seeing the positive way that it’s impacted people’s lives is really meaningful. Beyond the money, with the other offers we had on the table, it doesn’t seem like we could have possibly had the same presence in people’s lives.
First Girl I Loved greatly influenced what is now the Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship. As we continue working with our two current fellowship films, Unrest and Columbus, we’re excited to announce that we’re now accepting applications for our 2018 Creative Distribution Fellowship. For more information, visit http://applications5.sundance.org/