(Many of the ideas expressed in this article have been gleaned from conversations I have had via e-mail and face to face with a number of other LDS film professionals - so many that I will probably miss some of them, but off the top of my head, those who have contributed to the formation of these ideas - and in some cases have actually had these ideas first themselves - include Kieth Merrill, Richard Dutcher, Jongiorgi Enos, Blair Treu, Mike Schaertl, Lance Williams, John Moyer, Mark Potter, John Lyde, Christian Vuissa, Jeremy Elliott, and yes, even my good friend, co-webmaster and the founder of LDSfilm.com - although he, himself, is not a film professional - Preston Hunter. At the very least, each of these people has been very supportive and helpful to listen to me as I bounce some of my crazy ideas off of them - and I've had some pretty crazy ones, most of which I won't talk about here, but some of which may be forthcoming later - if I decide they're really going to work. I'm really only smart enough to know that I need to go to and learn from people with a better perspective, more experience, more knowledge and more intelligence than I have. However, it should not be inferred that all of these people agree with all of the ideas expressed here. In the end, these opinions are mine and I am responsible for them. In general, if there is something here you like, I probably borrowed it from one or more of these people, but if there's something you hate, I probably came up with that part on my own. However, I do need to acknowledge their help and the help of many others as I've been exploring these and other ideas. Thanks guys!)
Hollywood is filled with people with "interesting" or "strong" personalities - or so we've been led to believe. The fact is that yes, there are some powerful people in Hollywood that are hard to get along with, and yes to succeed in this business often does require that you have a certain self-confidence, because there is a lot of rejection. But, in fact, the majority of people working in film have to learn really quickly how to "play well with others" - regardless of how "strong" their nature is - or they soon find themselves without work. Hollywood is a relatively small town - at least as far as the film industry is concerned - and pretty soon word gets around about those who are difficult to get along with, so unless you are someone of considerable influence, there are enough people who want to do your job and can do it well that pretty soon you either learn to get along with everyone or you just don't get hired.
That is not to say that there is not a level of competitiveness or that personality conflicts don't happen. Once I was in a recording studio with a very influential film composer the day that the Oscar nominations were announced, and he found a great deal of personal pleasure that another very influential composer had not been nominated. But, in general, people tend to get along, if only because they realize it is in their own best interests to do so.
The big seven studios also learned years ago that it was in their best interests to cooperate with each other. The fact is that, contrary to what you might think, Sony, Universal, Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount and Warner Bros. are NOT in competition with each other. Oh sure, at some level they are, and I believe that the top-level executives at Fox must take some degree of pleasure during those years when their bottom-line is better than the bottom-line at Universal, but on another level, they realize that their real competition is all the other forms of entertainment people can choose instead of going to a movie and paying the price of admission.
To illustrate my point, when was the last time you said to yourself, "Wow. Fox is releasing another film this week. I've got to see it." Audiences don't go see films because of which studio released it. (The only possible exception has been Disney with animation - but even that is changing and it happened because for the longest time Disney was the ONLY studio releasing quality animated features on a consistent basis.) The fact is audiences think of Hollywood in one big lump, not as seven unique and individual studios. That's why we call it "Hollywood" (even though most of the studios are not located in Hollywood proper). In the minds of the audience, a film released by any one studio represents Hollywood in general, not just that particular studio.
The number one draw for Hollywood films has always been the actors. Regardless of how these mega-companies divide themselves up nowadays, the stars have always been the "brands" that people buy. Other filmmakers may occasionally get in on the act. There have been a few Alfred Hitchcocks and Steven Spielbergs whose mere name as director or producer of a film have been able to attract audiences, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Why? Because it's harder and takes longer to sell a director or producer as a brand name. If you see a film and like an actor in it, you often want to see that actor in other films - after just one film. But with directors, for example, it takes making consistently good films over a period time to develop a following - if the audiences even notice that the director worked on all those films. Okay, this is probably backward thinking, since whoever directed a film probably has more influence on if that film turns out to be good or not than the actor, but it is easier for audiences to identify a film with the face they see on the screen, not the one who is in the director's chair off-camera. To make a brand out of a production or distribution company is even harder, and basically less effective. In general, audiences just don't associate films they like or dislike with particular companies.
There was a time when the studios "owned" these "brands." Fred Astaire might be under contract to MGM while Jimmy Stewart would be under contract to Universal. As a result, at that time there may have been more of a correlation between audience choices and the studio releasing the film. However, even in those days, the studios recognized the importance of cooperating with each other and many of the greatest films were made using stars that were "on loan" from another studio.
That cooperation continues today - at a higher level even. In some respects, the studios have really gotten this business down to a science, and they work together to maximize the profits of all the studios. Release schedules are coordinated so that (to the extent possible) films that are competing for a similar niche of the audience are not released the same weekend - maximizing the size of the audience for each film. A great deal of market research also takes place - coordinated by a company that feeds information to all seven studios, NRG (National Research Group - website http://www.nrg.com). Additional industry information is compiled and released by the MPA (the Motion Picture Association) and the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America) which most people associate simply with the parental-guidance ratings system. But in fact, these organizations do a lot to promote and represent the motion picture industry both globally and domestically. Who makes up the MPAA? Well, quoted directly from the MPAA web site (http://www.mpaa.org), "On its board of directors are the Chairmen and Presidents of the seven major producers and distributors of motion picture and television programs in the United States." In other words, the big seven studios. On a side note, anyone interested in the business of filmmaking ought to visit the MPAA web site. They have some good information, especially in their U.S. Economic Reviews section. They practically write your business plan for your film for you - at least as far as general film statistics go. Note that they only let the general public see a portion of the U.S. Economic Review. Obviously, all seven members of major studios have access to much more information than is present there.
The fact is that on almost every single film released, NRG can predict within 20% how much that film will gross in theaters - before opening night. The studios have compiled over the years that much research and experience. There are VERY few times when NRG has missed. The studios also know what is going to be the best way to market particular films - films aimed at a certain niche. Why? Because they have done the market research. They know how to maximize their profits. They can predict how well a film is going to do on video and DVD. And they've consolidated their efforts by having all that information compiled by companies or organizations that serve their collective interests. Think of how useful this ability must be to each of them! Think if you were able to predict to some degree of accuracy how much your film would gross in theaters and how many copies of the video/DVD would sell. It would make it that much easier to figure out how much to spend on production and P & A. It would be that much easier to attract investors. The risk involved would be reduced, because that is what information does - it reduces risk.
Why do I bring all of this up? Because I believe that there ought to be a higher degree of cooperation, on many different levels, between LDS filmmakers. I am not just talking about LDS Cinema, but I'm going to use it here to illustrate some of my points, because it does provide some crystal-clear examples. It has become apparent at least to some who work in the industry that LDS Cinema - I won't say "Holywood" (yuck!) but I do mean it in a kind of Hollywood-like way, because I believe that audiences see all of those involved in the genre as a collective group, regardless of the differences between the different production and distribution companies - has become divided into various camps. Some have observed an unhealthy level of competition between filmmakers. Some filmmakers are very critical (in a non-constructive way) of other filmmakers' work. Others get their feelings hurt when someone says something intended to be constructive criticism of their film. There is a tendency to hope that [fill-in-the-blank] film does not do as well financially as [fill-in-the-blank], or maybe filmmaker X wants just one thing - and that is to make more money than filmmaker Y.
Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! Those involved in LDS Cinema had BETTER hope that [fill-in-the-blank] does as well as it can in theaters. The fact is, we are all on the same team here. We are not competing with each other for a limited entertainment dollar. The fact is, and I'm going to shock some people here with this statement, but there actually IS enough of an audience out there for everyone. I guarantee it. I, myself, have been guilty of questioning whether the LDS market can support X number of films. But that's not how it works. LDS Cinema films do not compete with each other for that audience. The Singles Ward did not steal any audience from Charly or Brigham City and vice versa. Most filmgoers - even LDS ones - are not going to sit at home saying, "Oh, I can't go see Day of Defense, I already used up my one trip to the theater to see an LDS-themed film on The Work and the Story last month." Or "I think I'll pass on Suddenly Unexpected, because it's about missionaries, and there's already been a movie about missionaries - God's Army." Or "I'm not going to see A Voice from the Dust, because I already saw The Book of Mormon Movie, and it's just the same story over again." Goodness, if that were the case, why would Hollywood put out so many remakes? In fact, there have been (in the past) actual remakes of films one year after the first one was released! Why so many films in the same genre that so often end up essentially being clones of each other? Because the cop films are not in competition with the cop films, and the romantic comedies are not in competition with each other. People who love romantic comedies will go and see whatever romantic comedy they've heard is good - even though they've already seen a romantic comedy before - even recently. It works the same in LDS Cinema. It's not a choice between going to see The Home Teachers and Eat, Drink and Get Married - unless both are released in the same weekend - rather it's a choice (made each night) of going to see the latest LDS Cinema film or doing something else - especially since in most communities, except very occasionally maybe those in Utah, there is only one LDS Cinema film playing at a given time anyway.
It is true that many LDS families (and incidentally many other families) do not see many films in the theater, but this is because they do not feel that the films which Hollywood puts out (not specifically the ones put out by a particular studio) are worth their time and money. A potential audience's perceptions of LDS Cinema, just like their perceptions of Hollywood, are not going to be separated out by saying "I like the stuff Halestorm puts out, but I'm not going to see anything distributed by Excel." It just doesn't work that way. The challenge facing the LDS Cinema community as a whole is to convince this potential audience that going to see the latest LDS Cinema film IS worth their time and money.
There is also a need for greater unity and a stronger sense of community among LDS film professionals working outside the LDS Cinema genre. As anyone who has tried to establish a career in this industry can attest, trying to break into the industry can be a frustrating and a lonely thing. There is a lot of LDS talent in nearly every area of filmmaking, but even those with excellent skills need help from others in the industry to get opportunities to show that ability. It seems natural (even essential!) to band together as members of the church and help each other out in this challenge. Various kinds of organizations have been tried in the past, yet to my knowledge there is nothing currently in place to successfully promote career growth and networking among LDS film professionals. Such a network, to be successful, would require the active participation and cooperation of LDS film professionals in every discipline of filmmaking and at every career level - from Academy Award winners to first-year film school students.
Even those who have already "made it" in the industry would benefit from a stronger sense of community among LDS film professionals and a corresponding influx of LDS talent into the more influential and successful parts of the industry. Many have observed how difficult it can be to maintain Latter-day Saint standards in the culture of the film industry. Yet a culture is defined by the individuals who comprise it, and a strong influx of LDS talent into the industry can have a powerful and positive influence on that culture while lending strength and support to the individual members of the church who work in that industry.
We've all heard the analogy before: A rope (or a bundle of sticks is another way I've heard it) is made of many individual strands which are easily cut or torn, but when bound together they are strong and difficult to break - able to withstand incredible forces. I believe that it is both plausible and important that an organized network of LDS film professionals be established and I am willing to do what I can to help that happen.
We need to have a stronger sense of community as LDS filmmakers. We need to be aware of each others' work. We need to communicate better and help each other to make better choices from preproduction through post. An example (if you'll pardon the personal touch here): Pretend you are considering hiring Thomas C. Baggaley as the composer for your film. Does it really make sense to listen to his demo and try to make your entire decision based on if the music he happened to put on the demo fits the sound you had imagined for your film? He wrote that music with something entirely different in mind, not your film!
Doesn't it make sense to listen to the demo to see if Thomas is a quality composer, and then investigate further - talk to some of the people you know who have worked with Thomas before and see what they say about him? Why shouldn't you call Gary Rogers and say, "Hey, Gary, I understand Thomas Baggaley did some orchestration work for you on The Book of Mormon Movie. How is he to work with? Does he know what he's doing? Is he sensitive to things like dialogue and sound effects? I'm thinking of having a [fill-in-the-blank] kind of score. How do you think he would be doing that kind of music?" And then call Steve Olpin. "Hey, Steve, how are things going? I hear Thomas Baggaley did a song for you on Nasty's World. What can you tell me about him?" And then Christian Vuissa to ask similar questions about his experience with Thomas working on Unfolding. You could and should do something like that with every key hire unless you are already familiar with the person in question, having worked with them before. To not do so may not be as disastrous as having a sheriff hire a deputy without doing a background check (ref. Brigham City), but with so much money at stake, you're best-off making the most informed decision you can.
Likewise, we ought to be doing everything we can to lift each others' careers within the industry. Don't recommend people for jobs they aren't prepared to do - that hurts them more than helps them - but if we have a sense of community as LDS filmmakers, we will want to help each other support our families and improve our careers. Whoever gets to that "next level" career-wise first, bring some of the others (those that are ready to do so) along as well. That's the way it works in the industry, and if we as a community want to have influence in this industry, that's the way we're going to need to do it too.
We should help each other grow in our skills as filmmakers too. That brings up the difficult subject of constructive criticism. What is constructive? What is hurtful? How in the world do you give constructive criticism? How do you receive it? Unfortunately, there are a lot of film critics who feel it is their job to trash films that they don't like. Call them "turkeys". Say they are awful. You've read those reviews. They make entertaining reading sometimes and help sell newspapers probably, but they don't help improve films. I'm not saying you shouldn't call a spade a spade, but there are ways to say it that are constructive and helpful and there are ways that just get personal. As a film reviewer for Meridian Magazine, I've tried to take a different approach, and to do this, I've drawn on my experience as a teacher.
I teach a songwriting class at Salt Lake Community College. My students present their hard work in front of the class - songs that are sometimes taken from parts of their lives that are very close to their heart. I encourage them to share their work, even before the songs are finished - and some of them are very rough. After a student presents a song, the other students and I comment on it. This could be a very threatening situation for some students, so I tell my students right up front what I expect. First of all, I tell them that I expect all of them to participate in the class discussion. 10% of their final grade is based on this class participation, but I also tell them, if they do not share that insightful comment with their classmate, they have just cheated them of something that could have helped them become a better songwriter. I expect their comments to insightful, to be positive in tone, to be specific, and to be geared toward helping the song achieve what the student who wrote the song wants it to do. If there are SPECIFIC things they liked and thought worked well, the student needs that positive feedback because it helps them learn what works. If there are SPECIFIC things that in their opinion fell short of doing what the songwriter is trying to accomplish in this song, those are helpful comments too, especially if they can suggest a different way of trying things. But simply saying, "I liked it" or "I thought it was awful" doesn't help anyone. In fact, any comment that does not help the student better accomplish what he or she wanted to do with that song, thereby improving that student's songwriting skills, is simply unproductive and has no place in my class.
I also ask my students to also be sensitive to other students' feelings. Some moments are better than others to present feedback, and sometimes it's best to wait. Sometimes it's best to give that feedback in private. I try to make my own comments about their songs follow these same guidelines - and apply this same standard to my film reviews for Meridian. I'm not perfect at this - either as a teacher or as a reviewer - but that's the ideal I set for myself.
The fact is that in our film community, we all should be teachers and students - and we should never stop in this constant learning process. We can help each other get better at what we do, but we need to engender a situation where we can instruct and help each other. That means being willing - in fact EAGER - to accept criticism as something that will help you improve. There had to be SOME legitimate reason that person had the response they did. Ask yourself why and see what you can learn from it. That also means we need to be willing to give constructive, specific comments to each other, and make an effort to do so in a way that builds up a person rather than tearing them down.
Okay, enough preaching. Sorry about that. I must not have given enough lectures to my kids today. At LDSfilm.com, we have, in the past, put together some informal gatherings of filmmakers, and they have turned out to be very interesting and very instructional. I've very much enjoyed being a part of the conversation as we've just gotten together in a friendly environment, perhaps eaten a lunch, and talked shop. We hope to do some more of that in the future. There are also other events, such as the occasional Utah Film Commission luncheons and we are aware of some other upcoming opportunities for such gatherings that we are not at liberty to say anything about at this time. But when these events happen, take advantage of them and participate in the discussion. As such events take place, we at LDSfilm.com will definitely be aware of them, and we will be certain to spread the word about them, both through the site and through our mailing list. As you participate, both as teacher and student (and EVERYONE should be BOTH at different times), your skills and knowledge will improve, your career will benefit, you will help others to improve their skills and the community as a whole will be better off because we will be producing better films and there will be a greater sense of support and community among us.
It's time to cooperate better on a business-to-business level as well (just like the big seven studios have done). Let me just start out by saying that I, personally, am willing to do all I can to contribute to this. I have some ideas (or I've gleaned them from other people) which I think can help. Admittedly, some of these are a bit ambitious or just plain crazy, but to that I simply respond with an adaptation of an over-used phrase: "Perhaps, but they might be so crazy they just might work."
There are three financial hurdles that all films face. These challenges, until solved, inhibit the potential income of any film:
From a scarcity viewpoint, it is easy to see how each of these issues can promote a sense of competition and drive a wedge between factions of the LDS film community. Note that Hollywood has essentially "solved" each of these three hurdles - that is why the seven major studios are so powerful. Although independent LDS filmmakers do not have the financial resources that Hollywood has, there are still some things that can be learned from the way that Hollywood does things that, if applied, can help independent filmmakers so that they are not flying so blind. In other words, I feel that if we take a look at how Hollywood has solved these three hurdles and find ways to apply similar principles, we'll find that through cooperation rather than competition, overcoming these hurdles will be easier for everyone. I deal with each of these issues separately below:
A myth that I would like to dispel is that there is only so much money out there to be invested in LDS film, and you have to be careful or someone else's film will get funded and yours won't. This leads filmmakers to be jealous with information and resources, when in fact, if these things are shared freely among the community, more films can be successfully and intelligently funded, which will lead to more financially successful films - and financially successful films will mean more people will be interested in investing more money in these films and EVERYONE will benefit.
Investors can be a nervous bunch, especially when dealing with independent film, which is admittedly a risky business. How do you calm a nervous investor? By giving him good, substantiated information. Again, think of all of that information which the MPAA and NRG compile for the studios. How useful can that be in approaching an investor? "Mr. Moneybags, historical trends show that when this kind of film is marketed and distributed in this way, it will gross approximately $X in the theaters and will sell X videos/DVDs." This potential investor can then see that: a) you've done your homework - you're not just some guy who wants to make a movie and hasn't thought out the business side, b) the budget that you've made for the film is a responsible one, relative to the amount of return that can be expected on the film, and c) he is likely to actually get a return on his investment. Sure, there are no guarantees, but he is likely to feel much more confident investing in your film (assuming the script is really good and you've got some quality professionals interested in working on it, etc. - don't just stop with the financial data) if you can provide this kind of information.
So how do you get this information together? Doesn't it on some level make sense to have our own LDS versions of the MPAA and NRG gathering information and representing the interests of the community? But in order for anything along these lines to work, it will take cooperation from those in the LDS film community.
LDSfilm.com has found itself in an interesting position within the LDS filmmaking community. Because of the information compiled on our website and distributed through our mailing list, it has become an extremely useful and valuable resource to LDS filmmakers, more so in fact, than its webmasters ever imagined. We believe and hope that the site has also served as a sort of gathering place to help promote more of a feeling of community among LDS filmmakers by keeping visitors to the site and subscribers to the mailing list abreast of the various filmmaking activities of members of the church. It is my hope that we can continue to expand on that role in the future.
I am not suggesting that we try to turn LDSfilm.com into an MPAA or NRG. That would completely alter its purpose and mission. But I do think there are some things which we are in a unique position to accomplish that can be helpful to LDS filmmakers. But it will still require the cooperation and help of filmmakers and production and distribution companies throughout the community.
We have endeavored to collect the best box office data available and publish it on the site. I am certain this kind of information and analysis can be very helpful to filmmakers. We also realize that being able to provide data on video and DVD sales - even if it's just a number of units sold or other similar information - can be extremely important in preparing a business plan for presentation to potential investors. We have, on several occasions, asked those we thought might be able to provide us with this information to share it with us, but to no avail. We understand the need for keeping some of this information confidential. As mentioned before, the MPAA does not release all of its data and analysis to the general public.
However, we also feel that availability of some kind of reliable information in this area can be invaluable to filmmakers. And if companies are unwilling to share this information because they do not want their perceived "competitors" - other production and distribution companies in the same genre - to get a hold of it, these companies are actually depriving themselves and all filmmakers of a valuable resource and opportunity. Hurting themselves? What do I mean? First, each production and distribution company can - over a period of time - eventually develop a history of their own experience through trial and error and come to a point where that company has figured out what works and what doesn't. Or, members of the LDS film community can work together, consolidate resources and information, and strengthen each others' efforts and everyone will arrive at that point where there are some reliable indicators to work with much sooner. And remember, these films do not compete with each other for an audience or investment money or an entertainment dollar. Rather, when one film is successful, this improves the public's perception of the genre in general and opportunities become more plentiful for everyone.
In withholding valuable and helpful information from these perceived competitors, these companies make it more difficult for others in the genre to come up with a successful and financially viable film, and when that film turns around and fails to make back the investment, perhaps because they overspent or underspent (also a possibility that no one talks about) because they didn't have some valuable information that would have been immensely helpful in the budgeting process, it makes it harder for everyone in the community to attract investors for their films, including the companies that withheld the information in the first place.
Finding the right balance is crucial. In deciding what data you can share, consider what data it would be helpful to you to receive from another company. Think of what you can share without damaging your own company. And please don't withhold this information from the rest of the community. It can be very helpful to everyone.
To make things a little bit easier for everyone, I would like to propose a different way of handling the contribution of this information to LDSfilm.com. I am willing to do the coordination and compiling work as we have done in the past on LDSfilm.com. However, data shared with us can be shared at three different levels of confidentiality, which we will be as careful with as we have been with your contact information in the past. First is the basic level where it's okay to release the information publicly to anyone. This is what can be posted directly to the web. The second level is information that is okay to share with other certified professional LDS filmmakers - members who we are certain will only use this information for research in preparing a business plan to present to potential investors on their films. The third level is information that is only to be used to compile statistical information - which we will make available without including or specifying any information about individual films or companies. In other words, we won't pass your data on to anyone, we will just use it to generate statistics, the results of which can be shared and used by filmmakers, but not your data as you gave it to us. This is the level of confidentiality that we generally hold your contact information at - only giving it out after you have given us your okay to do so.
Simply indicate the level of confidentiality that you would like the information you give to us to be held at - or specify parts of the data for different levels of confidentiality - and we will honor those requests. This way, a level of confidentiality of this information can be maintained, yet its value to the entire film community is not lost. It can only help everyone to come up with some reliable numbers for video and DVD distribution. By the way, this also applies to direct-to-video and made-for-TV (then to video) releases as well.
Information gathering should not stop at video/DVD sales and theatrical release numbers. LDS filmmakers would be wise to cooperate on collecting market research information as well. Doing exit surveys for newly released films, tracking surveys to measure shifts in the market and taking surveys of audiences at pre-release screenings will be vital for understanding the market and helping independent film releases be more successful in the future. Production and distribution companies could do this on their own with their own films, if they are willing to put in the time and the money, remembering that it will take the experience and results from a number of films for this data to become really useful. But if this data collection can be done in a consistent way by an organization which is independent of all the film producers, with much of the knowledge gained from this to be shared by all cooperating companies, the benefits will be seen much faster, cost less and will be more effective for all who participate. This is exactly what NRG does for the seven big studios.
Nowhere is the contrast between independently distributed films and studio releases more apparent than in the night-and-day difference in distribution. The studios make one phone call and an entire chain of theaters is making room in their schedules for a particular film - one that may very well turn out to be not very good. Independent distributors must work a lot harder, selling a film to each and every theater that they hope to show the film in. Then, when it comes time for the theater to pay the appropriate portion of the receipts back to the distributor, it's another battle. The studio releases get paid first. Independent films often have to wait 90 days or more to get their portion, although on the surface, there really seems to be no logical reason why the theater shouldn't have been able to pay them immediately too.
What's the difference? The studios control the blockbusters, the big hits that are the bread and butter of any theater's hopes of survival. In order to get a piece of that big pie, theaters have to cooperate with the studios. So all we need is one or two blockbusters a year. Most likely, that's not going to happen. Although films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding offer the faintest of hope that something like that is possible, unless they are producing and distributing blockbusters on a predictably consistent basis, independent filmmakers are not going to get clout with the theaters that way. But cooperation between LDS filmmakers can still help to give a bit of needed clout that will help to improve distribution, even for the independent releases.
Again, it's a matter of communication - sharing information that typically a company might want to hold close to the vest to maintain its competitive edge. When approached, theater owners typically will base their decisions on three factors: 1) How did the last independent film of this type do in my theater? 2) How has this particular film done in other theaters where it has played (per screen average)? 3) What will the distribution company and/or production company do to bring people into the theater to watch this film (marketing strategy)?
#1 may seem to be out of a particular distributor's control, since the previous film may have been just an awful film and that's why it didn't do well. On the other hand, I believe that this merely highlights the importance of cooperating on the third part - Audience Building - because helping the film before you to build an audience makes it that much easier for your film to get into the theater next. #3 also actually fits under the Audience Building section, because what can come out of cooperation on Audience Building is a solid marketing strategy that can be presented to theater owners. More on this later.
#2 seems to be an important key in terms of building clout with theater owners. Independent filmmakers and distributors can, over time, establish a reputation with theater owners of consistently turning out films that do well on a per screen basis - specifically on their screen. The ability to do this is what will build clout for independent distributors with theater owners, and theater owners will want that next solid independent feature, because they know it will bring in a good income. Banding together and sharing information will add to the clout of everyone. Suddenly a theater owner realizes that if he doesn't pay Distributor X in a timely manner, he knows that Distributor X cooperates closely with Distributor Y, and Distributor Y will be coming around soon with a film that has been doing extremely well in Utah. Which theater will Distributor Y approach first to show this successful film? The one that has the history of being easiest to work with, that other distributors have indicated is more likely to accept an independent film and pays in a timely manner.
Good market research and a solid marketing plan will help to establish more financial consistency among films by LDS filmmakers. This consistency, cooperation and communication will be a key in opening up opportunities for distribution. But without cooperation on Audience Building, all that will happen is theaters will see up-and-down performance, based mostly on a particular distribution company's ability to get the word out about their film to that potential audience.
One final note on distribution: I also feel it is a good idea for independent distributors to announce their plans about when they will be opening in certain cities or states as far in advance as possible of the actual date. Just as Hollywood tries to be careful not to release films that would compete for the same audience on the same date - their releases are usually nationwide - an independent film really goes through a new release in each territory penetrated, and it is in the best interests of all independent films to not release two similar films in a particular territory on the same date. It reduces the potential number of venues as well as the size of the audience for both films.
Marketing - turning that potential audience into an actual audience - is a key challenge for LDS filmmakers. It would be nice if, as each film came into town, the bishop in every ward would make an announcement to his congregation so that at least most of the active members in the area would be aware of the film, but the church generally does not endorse films, nor should they. So often, especially outside of Utah, filmmakers are left to try and harness the relief society word of mouth factory. I know that living in Los Angeles, I only vaguely heard that there was an LDS-themed film called God's Army that would be playing at some theater way into Beverly Hills or someplace like that. It was not at all convenient to go, and the fact is, when that week turned out to be a semi-busy week for me, I didn't go. This highlights a couple of problems. I only heard about it once and I heard about it for the first time the week it arrived in Los Angeles, so there was no motivation to make the extra effort that it would take to go see this film. And God's Army is still the most financially successful LDS Cinema film to date and was particularly effective in getting the word out and building an audience, so what does that say about promotion for the other films? How many people aren't going to see these films simply because they don't know where and when they will be playing?
I don't know how many times I have received correspondence at LDSfilm.com asking when film X would be arriving in Anycity, U.S.A. This brings up one suggestion that I have. As mentioned before, it seems advisable to release at least a tentative distribution schedule as far in advance as possible. I know that a lot depends on how things go in the theaters the film is currently playing in and if you can get into theaters, etc., but even a tentative schedule listing cities but not theaters and when you intend to open in those cities along with a notice that these plans can change would give audiences a chance to plan ahead and look forward to the arrival of a film in their area. Remember, for independent films, each penetration into new territory is like a new release. Potential first release dates for films are announced and then changed all the time. Prepare your audience for your arrival well in advance of that date.
Secondly, it seems to me a no-brainer that different production companies and distributors should cooperate in reaching potential audiences, especially when their films are targeted for a similar audience. I've been happy to see occasional trailers for upcoming LDS Cinema films playing before the feature presentation of another LDS Cinema film, both in the theaters and on video/DVD releases. I think there should be more of this kind of thing. If one film has been able to capture an audience from that potential audience, it has to make sense to market the next film of that genre to that audience, because they are the most likely ones to come see the next show.
Different distribution companies have also gathered mailing lists of people who want to hear when a film from that company will be arriving in a certain area. It only makes sense to announce similar films from other companies to your mailing list when they are going to be coming to town. If your mailing list is an e-mail list, it especially makes sense, because it costs you practically nothing to do so, but you help in the financial success of that film, which will only pave the way and make it easier for your next film coming through that territory. Again, jealously guarding this resource so it can only be used to market your own films ends up shooting yourself in the foot, because if the film before yours didn't do well, you've got to convince the theaters all over again to take your film, you've got to calm the nervous investors who worry about if your film will tank like the last one did, and you've got to mobilize that audience all over again that hasn't been out to see a film in your genre since your last film (whenever that was) because they didn't hear about the other one when it was there.
Reaching a limited audience from among the masses requires some creativity, and there have been some creative ways of trying to go about it. It makes sense for LDS filmmakers to get together and compare ideas, find out what works and what doesn't. Share resources. By strengthening someone else's financial fortunes, you are also making the way easier for your next attempt.
At LDSfilm.com, we are also beginning to maintain a page on the site that will keep track of the theaters and show times of all of the films that feature LDS filmmakers in an above-the-line role. Our hope is that potential audience members, when they feel like going to see a film, will be able to look at the listings, find out what LDS-related films are playing near them and go. It's our latest effort to try and help get the word out. We welcome other ideas about how we can help to get the word out.
I also feel that by doing market research as mentioned before, we can find out more about this audience and how to reach them. My gut feeling from my experiences as co-webmaster of LDSfilm.com is that the audience for LDS Cinema is larger than has been tapped so far. I can't tell you how many times I've received correspondence from someone who lives outside of Utah who didn't hear about a film they wanted to see when it was in town or lamenting the fact that another film never came to town when other films that have passed through that area had done very well. In my correspondence with different filmmakers, I've heard a lot of generalities about what the market will or won't go see, but I've never seen any good data - market research - to back up these generalities. How much does the PG-13 rating on your film affect the size of your potential audience? What kind of film does an audience taken from a particular background want to see - a comedy? a drama? a mystery? How much do different choices affect your bottom line? What is a reasonable budget for the kind of film you are making if you expect to turn a profit? So far, there has been a haphazardness about learning these things - through trial and error, which gets very expensive. I believe it's time to get organized, figure these things out and make responsible, informed business decisions so that the opportunities to work on our art can continue.
I welcome your comments and thoughts. My ideas are constantly evolving as I glean more from those who are far more experienced and knowledgeable than I. Please feel free to write me at