Judas Kiss has been taking the film festival circuit by storm. It's an audacious film in many ways, and it sprang forth from the imaginations of Carlos Pedraza and JT Tepnapa. The success of the movie comes as no surprise to me; I've marveled at Carlos's ability to get things done since the late '90s, when we were both humorless Washington bureaucrats.
It's been 2 1/2 years since our last interview, so I asked Carlos if I could get his thoughts on bringing any indie film to market and the larger movie industry. Calling him a road warrior is like saying Lance Armstrong is a cyclist. I caught up with Carlos as he and JT zoomed up I-5 en route to a Judas Kiss screening in Salem, Oregon:
The last time I interviewed you it was May of 2009. At the time I asked, "In 2012, Carlos Pedraza is doing what? And this nascent industry of independent video producers is where in relation to that?" Here's the money part of your answer:
"I would like by 2012 to have figured out at least one avenue for that talent to be harnessed, and to have done that successfully one or two times, so that people say, 'Here's a system. Let's buy into it. Let's refine it.' Let's have some examples of how that's being done effectively, and share that knowledge, because it shouldn't be secret."
Well, I feel like I'm still on schedule, even with so much of the economic landscape having changed since then. Not just in terms of the recession but in how business models around independent film distribution are changing even as we speak. That conversation you and I had 2 1/2 years ago informed the way we negotiated all our distribution contracts for Judas Kiss.
What is changing?
Revenue streams, ancillary products, and how to structure new media venues for distribution. For example, YouTube now offers downloads and rental for films, majors and indies. Hulu is doing the same thing. Netflix's shift from DVD distribution to instant streaming and its attempt to divest itself of its DVD distribution business then retrenching.
So not only did you have to be forward thinking about distribution, you had to be agile enough to adapt to changes.
Yes. Things are changing so fast, even within the time frames in which we've been negotiating our contracts with various distributors here in North America and overseas. For example, we see iTunes as a big potential revenue source for us, and we are fully capable of making the film available in that venue without having to rely on a distributor as a middleman. So we've retained iTunes rights for ourselves.
But we also planned on piggybacking the marketing and promotion of our iTunes version of Judas Kiss on top of the DVD marketing and promotion that's being paid for by our distributors. Because, of course, the challenge for an indie filmmaker isn't merely making your film available online, it's getting people to know it's there, and whether it's good enough to spend their money to download it. iTunes also gives us the opportunity to offer the film for sale in parts of the world where there isn't a reliable distributor to really take the film under its wing.
This requires, of course, our having to take on a lot of the work a distributor would normally take care of, like translating and subtitling. All our marketing and promotion is designed to dovetail between what our distributors — especially in the US and UK, as well as Germany and France — are doing with the social marketing we've been doing for years now via our own website, judaskissmovie.com, and Facebook.
That's one thing I've been really impressed with — your engagement with your audience up front has been targeted and seemingly very effective, even well before production started.
The secret to independent film success is branding and relationship-building with existing and new fans.
Problem is, most indie filmmakers just wanna make movies. We don't live in an economy anymore where you can simply do that, and hope that distributors take care of the rest. We're lucky in that we've been able to merge the old-school distribution models with new-school social media.
It seems that a huge amount of your work is what a traditional filmmaker would consider as ancillary, stuff that is handled by someone else.
We were able to raise the critical development funding for the film, early in conception, thanks to the fans we had built relationships with during our days with our Star Trek web series. They followed us to this new project and have stuck with us right up to purchasing their Judas Kiss DVDs.
Major studios know that there are plenty of other revenue streams for a film beyond the film itself: merchandising, adaptation into novel or comic formats, and so on. The Internet offers marketplaces for all these kinds of products to independent films, too, now. For example, we are planning on publishing the shooting script for Judas Kiss as an ebook, along with annotations, embedded video files, and so on. We've also talked to a traditional publisher about adapting the script into a novel.
None of these things by itself, including even the film, turns the project into a huge moneymaker. But taken together, the long tail can in fact offer revenue that eventually positions us to make our next film, to further build on our brand, to offer new products to the people who believe in our work, to encourage them to recommend the work to others.
It's definitely like running a marathon, whereas I think most filmmakers think of their work as wind sprints.
It seems that the start point doesn't really matter any more. Whether it's a book or a comic or a movie initially, the story is the thing. You're telling the story in film, and there is potential for others to help you tell the story in other forms. The trick is to think of it as a much larger fabric than the movie itself.
That's so true! And isn't it ironic that story seems to be the thing that Hollywood films are given short shrift to these days? I think I remember reading a recent interview with a Disney executive who said story wasn't important, branding is. I thought, "Bullshit! Story is how you build and extend your brand. It's at the heart of what your brand means!" I mean, look at the difference between Pixar's original Cars and the pathetic sequel. Clearly, Disney took a turn there toward the cynical — "Think of all the merchandise we can sell the kiddy-poos!"
I get that big films make the most money, and minimizing risk is prudent, and going with "known quantities" is prudent. But that's ultimately a losing proposition. It's a stopgap measure from a creative standpoint. All the studios are doing is creating a niche for more nimble, more innovative and more creative people to tell new and more engaging stories. The key thing is keeping costs down. Which of course is the thing that has painted studio pictures into a corner.
Hollywood studios, who are in the business of storytelling, are abandoning it in favor of gimmicks like 3-D and incessant remakes of old properties. Frankly, the studios are totally at sea when it comes to the delivery vehicle. They've bungled every new delivery technology, from TV to VHS, to DVDs, Blu-Ray only a little, and now digital delivery. They have to learn to stop relying on gimmicks.
The studios' dirty little secret is that most adults rarely go to the movies any more. Rather than thinking, "Hmmm, our audience is consuming our products in other venues, maybe we should make it easier for them to find us there," studio instead say, "The only people at movie theaters now are teenage boys. So let's make all our tentpole movies for them!"
Now that I've made my first feature film, I'm confident that there are ways to make films that people will buy that don't cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. There will always be a place for big tentpole movies, for sure. I'm not against them, but that shouldn't be the only economic model for filmmakers to follow, or even to aspire to. Smaller projects, more creative ones, well-targeted to narrow demographics offered in multiple venues with a focus on user-friendliness: That's actually the formula to independent filmmaking success in the digital world.
Smaller films entail less risk. Keeping costs down minimizes that risk, but it maximizes creativity. There are things need to change. The actors' unions, for example, offer breaks to indie filmmakers who want access to their talent but at lower cost than studios and TV pay. Lower pay has to become the new reality for a lot of film professionals. But more projects mean more work, and isn't that what we really want to be doing — making more movies?
Would you say that the funding approach you used for Judas Kiss could be considered a patronage model?
To some extent. But like most everything we've done so far, it's a mix of traditional and new. We raised development money from fans and friends we made through a Web series. But our financing for production and post-production has largely followed a traditional model, with an LLC as the legal entity behind the film. The structure of the investment model is pretty textbook for indie films. The difference is that many of the investors are people with whom we built relationships over time.
Even though the old ways may be changing or dying, they may still be with us in some form for quite some time. In the meantime, new technology and social media offer new venues to find support for a film and to make it available for sale.
We're also seeing some potential legislative changes that may make crowd funding for indie films a more tenable financial proposition. The SEC has rules designed to keep small investors from being fleeced by unscrupulous "film producers" seeking to deprive them of their life savings. Things like Kickstarter prove that by spreading financial risk around to a much larger number of people, producers don't have to rely on a small number of investors for a large amount of money. Small investors can pitch in on financing a film without having to take on a big financial risk. The talk in Congress from both Republicans and Democrats is that a change like this is necessary in order to free up capital that would otherwise stagnate. And we need capital moving toward innovative projects to jumpstart our economy.
Over the course of the last five years or so, as you've worked on Judas Kiss, what portion of your time would you estimate has been working on licensing, legal matters, and all those things that in the old era would have been handled by someone else?
Just in dealing with licensing and promotion has been a full time job for me since we wrapped the film in September 2010. Most filmmakers turn over that kind of work to a distributor, but distributors don't do it for free. Believe me, they take their cut. The reality is that most independent films don't make their money back. So the traditional model, where a filmmaker hands everything over to a distributor is not tenable.
In that scenario, the distributor makes money guaranteed. Filmmakers don't. But filmmakers mostly aren't business people. They want to be artists, so they don't always make the best business decisions.
So your advice to filmmakers is…?
Learn to be strategic about what aspects of the business you need to remain involved in. Learn enough of the business so you know what to negotiate away and what you should retain. Think of the brand you're trying to build – your brand, not your distributor's.
That brings me to the marketing of Judas Kiss. Obviously there's a core audience you're going after, but it's also clear that the film is not confined to that audience.
We knew what we were selling was a story with broad appeal, but we also knew that targeting a market is the best way to make money. At this stage in our careers, we need a track record that says: 1) We can tell a story, 2) we can sell that story, 3) people want to see more stories from us. That's what attracts new and more diverse investors.
I think of it as a form of inkblot strategy. Hit that well-defined target, and you'll likely also have the impact grow beyond the initial audience as people spread the word to friends who might not otherwise be exposed to the film.
Yes. An inkblot strategy. I like that metaphor. May I use it?
A good story is a good story. The challenge is not to tell it in a way that says to potential customers, "This isn't for you," but still allows you to tell specific markets, "This is your story, too." That is a big challenge, but good films should be big challenges.
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