Distribution Case Study: Unrest
Written by Jess Fuselier
We’re interested in innovation and independence during distribution… We envision Unrest as a film that will resonate with broad and diverse public audiences.”
Jennifer Brea, Unrest director/producer
As a filmmaker, but also an ME patient and activist telling the story of a community from the inside, Jennifer Brea knew there was an important place in the world for her film. Early in her illness (myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as CFS or chronic fatigue syndrome), Jen joined an online community of fellow patients in order to build the deep connections that she needed to survive. While documenting her journey, and in dialogue with other people with ME, Jen began working to elevate public awareness of this profoundly complex disease. By capturing her raw personal experience, Jen created a film with artistry, intimacy, and an emotional arc that transcended the medical subject matter, while its themes – love, family, adapting to unexpected circumstances, the power of care and empathy – were universal.
From day one, a continuum of support breathes life into the project. In 2013, Jen runs a Kickstarter campaign to fund its production, then named Canary in a Coal Mine, and shortly after receives her first grant, from the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Later she is brought to the 2016 Sundance Film Festival as a Documentary Film Program Fellow along with Unrest producers Lindsey Dryden and Patricia E. Gillespie. Jen also takes part in the editing lab with editor Kim Roberts. Throughout production, the team receives grant and fellowship support from numerous film organizations. During late post-production, the film receives substantial support from Impact Partners in the form of equity investment. Once the film is on the brink of wrapping, Jen and producer Alysa Nahmias are invited to Sundance Institute’s Catalyst Forum, which connects culturally-engaged film investors and funders with highly-anticipated film projects. With Catalyst’s goal being to create a culture where investors and filmmakers build fertile partnerships for the long-term, the Unrest team is matched with donors and investors who could assist with production, finishing, and impactfunds. Equity financing amounts to 20% of their total production budget.
Unrest’s four-year production budget ends up in the high six-figures, which is average for documentaries in the U.S. Documentary Competition section at the Sundance Film Festival, where Unrest premieres in 2017. The budget is financed through grants and crowdfunding (70%) and equity (20%), with a 10% shortfall at the film’s completion. This is a typical financing structure for documentary films, with a modest amount of recoupable financing and the remainder non-recoupable.
In contrast to most films that premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the Unrest team goes into the festival with hybrid distribution in mind — wanting to work with curated distribution partners for each avenue of their release, rather than having one distributor handle all of the film’s rights. The Unrest team knows their deep knowledge and experience with the ME community are integral to the release strategy. They want to combine the deals made with a theatrical, semi-theatrical , and impact campaign that reaches their community and inspires action. The team spends December 2016 through March 2017 having conversations with their sales agents, lawyer, and producers with deep contracts/negotiation experience to ensure they gain a nuanced understanding of how the windowing and timeline associated with their deals could potentially affect other areas of their release. As Alysa says, “These were a series of discussions that involved brainstorming, scenario planning, words of wisdom, and cautionary tales shared.”
During the Festival, the Unrest sales team, Submarine and Preferred Content, secures a deal with Netflix for global SVOD rights, and with Independent Lens for U.S. broadcast rights, giving the filmakers the ability to exploit other rights like theatrical, semi-theatrical, and TVOD prior to the SVOD and broadcast start dates. In the current distribution landscape, documentaries often find more benefit in splitting up their rights because it gives filmmakers more control over the release of their film and the potential to reach a larger audience. It’s not uncommon for multiple distributors in a given territory to handle different sets of rights, rather than one company controlling all of them.
The film’s broadcast and SVOD licensing fees cover the equity investment (including 15% premiums ), the outstanding budget gap, and sales agent fees. Documentary film financing often includes the combination of grants and equity. Even though investors put money into documentaries for different reasons, being able to show them as much return as possible contributes to the sustainability of the field.
Considering Creative Distribution
These were a series of discussions that involved brainstorming, scenario planning, words of wisdom, and cautionary tales shared.”
Alysa Nahmias, Unrest Producer
The Distribution Plan
Setting Distribution Goals
Creating an Initial Release Pattern
Identifying the Audience
Assembling a Team
Kogonada was crucial in working with the Intermission team and offering ideas on how to structure [assets]. … It was part of the process to figure out how to work together creatively within the tight budget [and] schedule constraints.”
Giulia Caruso, Columbus producer
The Distribution Strategy
Setting a Release Pattern
Balancing Theatrical, Semi-theatrical, and Digital Windows
Breakdown of P&A Budget Allocation
We wanted the film to appeal to audiences beyond those who are already documentary fans or activists in the ME patient community. We aimed to create branding and messaging that conveyed the medical mystery plotline, featured Jen as the protagonist, and highlighted the love story between Jen and Omar [her husband].”
Alysa Nahmias on the film’s marketing strategy
Semi-theatrical and Impact Campaign
Traditional Press and Marketing
We were working at the level of language; every time we went out to press we were trying to shift public perception.”
Special Promotion and In-Kind Services
What It's Really Like To Live With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Cory Stieg – Refinery29
Director Jennifer Brea exposes the personal pain of an immune disorder in the documentary 'Unrest'
Amy Kaufman – LA Times
Could this documentary change the way we perceive chronic fatigue syndrome?
Guy Kelly – The Telegraph
‘Unrest’ Director Jennifer Brea Reveals How Making a Documentary About Her Illness Helped Treat It
Jean Bentley – Indiewire
Four specific instances of Jen’s attendance affecting US opening weekend box office totals:
Unrest was released in the United Kingdom on October 20, 2017. Following a two-week UK-wide tour with special Q&As, the film played at over 100 one-off screenings in independent UK cinemas across 50 locations. The UK reported gross to date is £33,308 ($45,151) at the box office, with Q&A events accounting for 60% of the revenue. Bookings are scheduled up to May 2018, and UK distribution partners Together Films are predicting a minimum £35,000 ($49,500) total gross, which would surpass the U.S. total. This is significant when considering that the UK’s population is one fifth that of the U.S. The team achieved greater market saturation in the UK, which led to broader awareness and more opportunities for public conversation.
Currently, theatrical distribution is a challenge for most documentary films. Unrest’s domestic theatrical outcome is on par with other recent Sundance Film Festival documentaries. It’s rare for theatrical distribution to be a documentary film’s biggest revenue stream. In the case of Unrest, the team went into the theatrical release knowing it would likely be a financial loss. Press and audience engagement—not revenue—were always the central motivators and the keys to achieving the ultimate goal of raising awareness for the issue. As Jen states, “A key part of the film’s impact was creating opportunities for a social experience of Unrest, where audiences could bring their friends and family to share a reflection of their journey, engage in conversations and connect with other audience members. The social experience of cinema is a good unto itself, especially for documentaries that seek to lift stigma and shame or build community.”
As shown, the U.S. and UK theatrical campaigns were handled differently: the U.S. focused on longer runs in select cities while the UK focused on one-off theatrical screenings with extensive grassroots outreach as well as traditional press/PR. In hindsight, the Unrest team felt that in addition to designated weeklong runs in a select few markets, targeting more one-off screening engagements or weekend runs in the U.S. would have allowed for greater impact and reach, as indicated with the success of the UK campaign. In contrast to the U.S., the UK had the benefit of Together Films presenting Unrest at the Distributor Slate Day in London (an event designed to encourage collaboration between exhibitors and distributors) a month before release to engage the vibrant independent exhibition sector. This allowed the campaign to expand quickly into additional markets. Also, the ease of digital delivery, as opposed to physical DCP delivery for most U.S. theaters, increased the efficiency of the UK theatrical campaign.
Total Theatrical Revenue
Semi-Theatrical and Impact Campaign
The impact campaign was one of the most expansive elements of the Unrest release, with 230 community screenings in over 30 countries that reached more than 20,000 people. Through license fees from these events, the Unrest team made $38,170 in revenue.
Beyond the monetary value, which has gone straight back into supporting the film’s outreach, the impact campaign directly influenced audiences and helped members of the ME community feel understood and heard. As Amy Mooney, an event organizer, says, “This was an emotional experience. Sharing my daughter’s pain of living with ME is so difficult, but I am so proud we shared Unrest with our community. They came out to support our family, and I hope to combine forces [with them] to make a greater impact.”
Because ME has a background of stigma and insufficient research funding, the Unrest team felt it was crucial to deploy an impact strategy that could help mobilize ME communities and spur meaningful change. With events that encouraged legislatures to revisit their current ME policies, a CDC event that gave practitioners educational credits, and community screenings across the globe that helped communities understand what it’s like to live with ME, they felt the campaign achieved these goals. However, it’s important to note that impact campaigns often outlast the core distribution arc. The Unrest team will continue to encourage engagement through community screenings, educational efforts, and their partnerships with #MEAction and other ME charities around the world.
The Unrest house party program took place January 5–14, overlapping with their January 8 Independent Lens broadcast date. During that time, 123 house parties took place all over the world, in the U.S., UK, Canada, India, and Australia. Each house party host was given a packet created by the Unrest team that clearly laid out steps to host and ways to take action. From surveying those who took part, the Unrest team found that the audience carried out the following actions:
- Signed the Unrest NIH or global petition
- Contacted NIH leadership (Francis Collins) by phone or mail, requesting for him to screen Unrest at the NIH. (The team has received responses from various connections within the NIH but are waiting on an official response from Collins directly. They are continuing this effort through the #MillionsMissing campaign.)
- Donated or fundraised for an ME nonprofit
- Talked with their general practitioner/doctor
- Joined an ME support/ally group
- Shared the film with a friend/family member
- Shared the film on social media
Through their Independent Lens broadcast deal, the film has had 1,502 broadcasts and has reached over 1.3 million viewers.
Impact Campaign Reach
Digital and other Ancillary Releases
Out of all of the TVOD platforms, iTunes saw the highest gross to date, which could be attributed to the prime promotional placement Unrest received through the platform and the team’s prioritizing of iTunes in their digital marketing strategy. They received three promotional spots and hit the documentary feature top 10 chart each time.
As noted earlier, Unrest’s global SVOD deal placed restrictions on their TVOD release strategy. In line with contractual obligations and industry standards, the team first launched pre-orders at premium pricing of $14.99 from September 5 through October 10 during their theatrical campaign. They then launched sales at the same premium pricing in the U.S. and Canada on October 10 and worldwide October 31, followed by worldwide rentals December 15 at the non-premium price of $4.99 (i.e., one month before their SVOD live date). Rather than waiting to start TVOD sales when they could list the film at regular pricing, the team felt it was important to offer this option as soon as they could to give members of their community who couldn’t physically attend a screening a chance to watch the film. Once rental was available, they were able to drop the purchase price to $9.99. Listing the film at the initial premium price likely affected the number of sales the film received during the TVOD release, as the overall gross TVOD sales as of May 2018 hover around $140,000, much lower than expected compared to the number of invested fans. However, some of these devoted fans received a digital copy of the film as a reward through the Unrest Kickstarter campaign. The Unrest team’s net share from these gross sales is currently around $86,000, with over 50% coming from iTunes, which also offers a more favorable split to the rights holder—roughly 70%, compared to Amazon Video Direct, which is a 50/50 split. Even though the team didn’t promote the pre-sales heavily, the film received 874 pre-sales on iTunes, a majority of which came from Jen’s initial following.
Additionally, the delay between releasing domestically and worldwide caused a piracy spike in regions where the film wasn’t available yet, which also likely contributed to lower-than-expected TVOD sales. The Unrest team initially wanted to aim for the same TVOD release date worldwide, but because their UK theatrical premiere needed to be timed for dates that Jen could attend and was thus later than the U.S. release, they had to hold back releasing on TVOD outside the U.S. and Canada. Fifty percent of their TVOD sales came from the U.S. and 17 percent came from the UK, which is significant to note since their fan base is approximately the same in the UK and the U.S. The team feels the lower TVOD sales in the UK directly relate to the delayed UK TVOD release.
Monthly TVOD Sales
Like most independent releases, the majority of Unrest’s TVOD sales happened within the first month of the digital release.
DVD & Blu-ray
The Unrest team used Allied Vaughan for DVD/Blu-ray distribution in the U.S. on Amazon.com and other outlets. They also sell DVDs on their website through two stores, US/Global and UK/Europe. They recently started selling on the Amazon.co.uk storefront and will expand those sales to Spain, France, Germany, and Japan once the multilingual DVD is available. The Blu-ray and DVD were released via the Unrest website on December 16, 2017, and total gross as of May 2018 is:
+ £18,870 ($22,863) UK and Europe
+ $37,402 U.S. and Global
Total revenue: $60,265
Unrest maximized multiple revenue streams, reached audiences worldwide, and continues to inspire communities around the globe to take action. But this hybrid release was no easy task. It was made possible by a committed team and took a lot of time and resources. Though ultimately deemed successful in meeting their distribution and impact goals, there may have been different strategies they could have deployed that would have made a bigger impact, such as applying grassroots strategy and outreach to a longer window of one-off engagements during the height of their press and national attention for their U.S. theatrical campaign, and a worldwide TVOD release date would have potentially maximized revenue and minimized piracy. For their digital marketing campaign, it may have been more impactful to deploy their trailer closer to their theatrical release date, rather than two months prior, when there was a clear call to action to go see the film in theaters.
The Unrest team’s commitment to creative distribution and willingness to experiment along the way armed them with an in-depth understanding of independent documentary film distribution. Below are some key learnings and takeaways.
- Test your marketing assets (stills, trailer, videos) and messaging to see what resonates with your audience.
Appendix: About the Film and Film Team
Jennifer Brea is an active Harvard PhD student about to marry the love of her life when suddenly her body starts failing her. Hoping to shed light on her strange symptoms, Jennifer grabs a camera and films the darkest moments unfolding before her eyes as she is derailed by ME (commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome), a mysterious illness some still believe is “all in your head.”
In this story of love and loss, newlyweds Jennifer and Omar search for answers as they face unexpected obstacles with great heart. Often confined by her illness to the private space of her bed, Jen is moved to connect with others around the globe. Utilizing Skype and social media, she unlocks a forgotten community with intimate portraits of four other families suffering similarly. Jennifer Brea’s wonderfully honest portrayal asks us to rethink the stigma around an illness that affects millions of people. Unrest is a vulnerable and eloquent personal documentary that is sure to hit closer to home than many could imagine.
Patricia E. Gillespie
Executive Producer, Creative Advisor
Ruth Ann Harnisch
Donna Fairman Wilson
Regina K. Scully
Leslie Berriman & Nion McEvoy
Reid Hoffmann & Michelle Yee
Mitch and Debbie Menaged
Yvonne Huff Lee & Jason Delane Lee
Alex Usborne & Justin Edgar for 104 films
Unrest Distribution Team
U.S. Theatrical Booker:
Global Impact Director—Laurie Jones
U.S. Campaign Manager—Erica Ales
UK Impact Producer—Lucy Wilson
Impact Strategist (U.S. and UK)—Jessica Edwards
Community Screenings Campaign Consultant—Film Sprout
Chief of Staff—Regina Clemente
Associate Producer—Laura Hess
Office Manager/Assistant to Jennifer Brea—Krista Abela
Marketing & PR:
Digital Marketing Consultant— 3rd Impression (3i)
LA Press—Amy Grey and Ashley Mariner, Dish Communications
NY Press—Julia Pacetti, JMP Verdant communications
UK Press— Sarah Harvey PR (Sarah Harvey and Hayley Willis) and Senso Communications (Penny Lukats and Steve Harman)
SF Press—Karen Larsen, Larsen Associates
Festival Press— David Magdael & Associates
Creative House— Wheelhouse
Marketing & PR:
Aggregator— Premiere Digital’s Quiver
CEO, Together Films—Sarah Mosses
Campaign Manager—Rebecca Ashdown
Campaign Coordinator & Digital Manager—Espe Moreno
Team Assistant—Isy Barrs
Campaign Team—Ian Darling and Mary Macrae, Shark Island Productions Pty Ltd
Supporters of Unrest
Chicken and Egg Pictures
The Harnisch Foundation
Tribeca Film Institute
Women In Film
The Fledgling Fund
Influence Film Foundation
Open Society Foundations
Just Films Ford Foundation
The Paley Center for Media
Women Make Movies
Utah Film Center
Artemis Rising Foundation