Last year, Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly worked with a team from Harvard Business School to develop an innovative strategy for independent filmmakers and studios to work together successfully.
Aron and Gita have now begun implementing this road map that they developed that will allow both the filmmaker and distribution partner to limit their risk, increase audience reach, and maximize potential profitability.
With Beneath The Harvest Sky currently in post-production and gearing up for a release in 2013, we had a chance to sit with them and learn more about their strategy…..
Note: In February, we will be speaking with the Harvard Business School students (David Brightman, Kathryn Ogletree, Michael David Son, and Travis Webb) who worked on this project. They will share their in-depth findings and strategies related to this unique study.
Q: How did you connect with Harvard Business School?
GITA: It’s a really unique relationship between Beneath The Harvest Sky and Harvard Business School. We actually first worked with HBS and their marketing program with The Way We Get By. And that was just a successful experience for the group that worked with us, and the professor, and for us as filmmakers.
ARON: Yeah, our marketing and distribution plan for the release of The Way We Get By was very successful, and a lot of independent filmmakers are using that model to self-distribute their films now. For Beneath The Harvest Sky, we wanted to take it to another level, so collaborating with HBS once again was the best way to do that.
Q: What was the goal of joining forces with HBS? What information were you looking for?
GITA: Going into this project, the most important concept we wanted to know more about is how independent filmmakers can play within the studio system. We wanted to better understand what opportunities there were for independents, what studios are looking for in films, what we had to do to make ourselves marketable for a studio.
ARON: And we should explain what we mean exactly by “studios.” Because when we say studios, we aren’t talking about Warner Brothers, we are talking more about the niche/independent boutique studios – Focus Features, Weinstein, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Lionsgate, Those are distribution companies, the offshoots of studios in many cases.
GITA: And they also are open to independent film.
ARON: But usually their relationship with independent film is, they go to a festival or something and acquire an independent film, and then that’s sort of where the relationship ends a lot of the time with the independent filmmaker. But we wanted to be able to have the creative control in production, and hold onto that creative control as we got through post-production and when releasing the film.
GITA: Exactly. But we also wanted Beneath The Harvest Sky to reach as many people as possible. And if you’re going to release your film to the widest possible audience, working with a studio is the best way, because they simply have the best distribution methods. So the end goal in collaborating with HBS on a marketing plan for Beneath The Harvest Sky was to find out how we could make a win-win so that a studio can support an indie film and yet the independent can still contain and maintain its creativity and control over the project.
Q: What did the team of HBS students do exactly?
GITA: First of all, the students that came on board to work with us had some experience already within the studio system, so it wasn’t as if we just chose any four HBS students. The professor that we worked with at HBS handpicked these students and they all had specific skill sets, and specific access to key people in the industry that we knew would be important. Once the team was assembled, these HBS students started looking at the environment for independent films, and the environment for studio films. How are studio films doing in the marketplace? How are independent films doing in the marketplace? Then they started looking at how much did it cost to make some of these films, and how much did it cost to release some of these films, and how much money was made on these films. Then they looked at the marketing strategies. How did a certain studio release an independent film? What kind of strategies did they have in place for it? What worked and what didn’t? Similarly, they looked at Beneath The Harvest Sky, and the story behind Beneath The Harvest Sky and started strategizing on what we needed to do to set up our film for success. And they looked at other films that were similar in genre to Beneath The Harvest Sky and had a similar budget, specifically seeing how these other comparable films did in the marketplace and who acquired them and for how much so to compare to Beneath The Harvest Sky’s possibilities.
ARON: Yeah, so the team at HBS looked at what studios were looking for in a comparable film that they were acquiring, or if a studio went to a festival and acquired a film, why the studio acquired the film, how much they acquired it for, what the film did when they released it, how it did on VOD or DVD compared to theatrical – a lot of important numbers that just aren’t readily available. You can look at box office theatrical numbers for movies, but you don’t know how they do with a lot of the other distribution methods. So to be able to have the team of HBS students go out and get those kinds of numbers and understand those numbers for movies that are similar to Beneath The Harvest Sky, made it easier for us to understand how well Beneath The Harvest Sky could go out there and do within these various distribution scenarios.
GITA: The HBS students broke down different scenarios for us – worst-case scenario, if after taking the film to a festival and not finding a buyer, and we have to self-distribute, what kind of plan should we have in place to self-distribute? What other opportunities existed in the marketplace? So that’s the first scenario. The second scenario was some kind of hybrid opportunity of being able to work with a studio and also being able to keep some of our self-distribution in play. And the third scenario was taking it to a studio and trying to figure out how to collaborate with them. They then went out and interviewed key people within the film industry – people from the Sundance Institute, Lionsgate, William Morris Endeavor, some really successful independent film producers, Toronto International Film Festival programmers. And these people provided tremendous insight into what we needed to focus on and watch out for.
Q: What did you learn from the research?
GITA: A lot of times, what the HBS students found out, is that when a studio acquired a film, the studio would ultimately end up losing money. The answer as to why was that the studio was spending so much money on marketing that it automatically set the film up for failure. So if they bought it for a certain price, with the amount they were spending on their marketing, were they actually getting the most bang for their buck? Well obviously not, because then they would spend too much money on marketing and end up losing money. Or at what point should they have put a cap on their marketing budget and found more creative avenues to release their film? So the HBS students did research like that to help us more fully understand the marketplace for indie films.
ARON: We learned that the financial failure of some these films lies in the fact that the filmmaker doesn’t stay involved with the project after it’s acquired, and until it’s released. And ultimately the filmmakers’ movie gets marketed, released, put out a certain way, unsuccessfully because of that.
GITA: And also, in analyzing the marketplace for us, the HBS students would keep showing us how it all ties back to your budget. If you spend a certain amount on your budget, well you should expect a certain amount in return if you market it correctly, and they did all of the analysis of what that would be for Beneath The Harvest Sky. They kept coming back to us about our budget.
ARON: To not set your film up for automatic financial failure, you have to find out what your movie is capable of going out there and making, and then make your film for less than that, set your budget there. The HBS team really helped us identify the value of the film and the importance of knowing that value. And if you know the real value of your film, you can know what to make your movie for, and what your movie will be able to go out there and make for it to succeed. Then the film becomes a more attractive investment to a studio.
Q: How did the research coming from HBS confirm to you how important it is to an independent film’s success for the filmmakers to still be involved after the film is acquired?
ARON: Well, so say a studio acquired a movie for four million dollars and then they spend another four million releasing it – on marketing and distribution of the movie – and then the movie has to go out and make a lot of money in order to be a success. If it goes out and makes eight million or ten million dollars, it’s deemed a failure because the studio put so much into acquiring the movie and distributing it. But a lot of times, a movie could be acquired and if the filmmaker was still involved and had a relationship with the acquirer throughout distribution, the distributor might be able to distribute for much less money.
GITA: You don’t want to just hand your film off entirely once its been acquired. That’s when you and your studio partner should be coming up together with a really strategic and creative plan to market and distribute your film. It can be a really positive collaboration, and there’s also a stake in it for both of you. And it’s a better opportunity for the studio, because it’s not just throwing the four million dollars into marketing – buying the traditional ads and placement, but with less guidance. It’s coming up with a plan, that maybe you spend half that – but it’s much more strategic and creative – and then you’re not forced to make as much money back in order for the film to be a financial success.
ARON: And it’s because nobody knows the audience better than the filmmaker. You know your audience and know how to get to them. So even if you’re not self-distributing, if you’re being acquired by a studio, well you still know your audience, and you still know how to get to them, better than that studio might. So the filmmakers really should stay involved throughout that process.
Q: How important is it for independent filmmakers to think about the business side of filmmaking?
GITA: Here’s the thing – no matter how great your film is, and how much critical acclaim it gets, people still care about how much the film actually makes at the end of the day. And that will impact you as a filmmaker, whether you’ll be able to make your next film. Whether the studio takes a chance on a similar kind of film that’s out there the following year. It all has a stake. So you really need to put your best foot forward not only from a creative perspective, but also from a business perspective – and a lot of filmmakers forget it takes both of those to make it work. Other businesses in other industries always have a business plan. And for some reason, in filmmaking, that’s so often not the case.
ARON: A lot of other filmmakers just want to make their movie and then whatever happens to it, fine, and then move onto their next project. They just like the creative process, which we love too. Being in it for the artistic side is great, but they’re also really struggling to even just do filmmaking full time. It’s not like your movie getting shown is critical, or that a lot of people have to see it, but you want it to be successful enough that you can make your next movie, or that you can survive and be a filmmaker.
GITA: And nothing we are doing business wise is stopping the creative process or needs to. In fact, if we hadn’t thought business with Beneath The Harvest Sky, we wouldn’t ever have had the creative control to go out there and make the movie we wanted to make, the way we wanted to make it, on the budget we wanted to make it for. And I think people confuse the idea of talking about smart business practices in filmmaking, with business influencing creative decisions. And it doesn’t. Actually, it sustains and supports your creative process. And it’s just like the LaJoies, the farm family we worked with in Van Buren – they love farming, but they also have to think business in order to continue farming.
ARON: They wouldn’t just harvest all of their potatoes and then just stick them in a shed. They want to figure out a way to actually sell them and get them out to a distributor.
GITA: Like in the script: “If you’re not farming to make money, then just go grow a garden.” We love filmmaking, and thinking about business doesn’t corrupt the art, it gives us the ability to continue making it.
ARON: And there are other filmmakers out there doing similar things, thinking about the business end, or finding successful ways to distribute their films using alternative methods. But I just think it’s not the norm; it’s a minority of filmmakers doing that. I think a lot of filmmakers just feel lucky enough that they can get their movie out there at all. But they don’t realize that they can keep more control and have a lot of success if they’re just more proactive on the business side.
Q: How will thinking business and collaborating with Harvard Business School on marketing so early on in the development of Beneath The Harvest Sky help the film’s success in the end?
ARON: Well, think about how much more appealing Beneath The Harvest Sky will be if when we go to festivals, we have a plan in place for how we would distribute the movie, and if we have partners in place. It will be so much more appealing because we’ve thought about the business aspect, and we have a game plan. Because I think a lot of filmmakers just show up at the festival and they hope the movie gets picked up and they sort of walk away from it there.
GITA: But what are your chances that your film is actually going to get picked up at the film festival? It’s maybe a point zero zero one percent chance that you’re going to get the lottery ticket that a studio is actually going to buy your film for a huge payoff. And maybe it’s one percent that you get a distribution deal. So if you’re not that one percent, where do you go and what’s your plan? After your world premiere, if you don’t get a distribution deal, you better have a plan, because it is then that you’ll have all of this interest and buzz for your film. Without a deal or an alternative plan at that point, you’ll lose your chance to capitalize on the excitement around your film.
ARON: And we wanted to go into this project with a game plan for every possible scenario. In the worst-case scenario, we wanted to know how we would distribute this ourselves, and take Beneath The Harvest Sky to the next level from how we distributed The Way We Get By. But best-case scenario would be being picked up and acquired at a film festival, but like we’ve been saying, while also still having creative control when the film is released. Working with Harvard Business School – before production even – helped us figure out how to end up in that best case scenario, but also how we would proceed if we didn’t.
GITA: I think if what we do with Beneath The Harvest Sky is a success, there won’t really be a question about the importance of understanding your market and your film’s audience, and thinking business, while you are in the story, script, and pre-production phase of the project. We’re going to be so much better off because we had the business and marketing side of this film in mind, and because we started working with Harvard Business School in those early stages of Beneath The Harvest Sky.
Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, we will be interviewing the team from Harvard Business School on key topics from their research. Make sure to come back to read more in-depth about their process and findings.