For over a year now, I’ve been struggling to follow up an earlier story I submitted to the Filmmaker’s Process. That post was written shortly after production when we were kicking off our crowdfunding campaign. The response from all of you in the filmmaking community was great, but in many ways things trailed off downhill after that.
I only want to send positivity out into the world. That is basically my core mantra. So… when all I could report on was perceived failures, I wasn’t able to frame it in a way that was honest and also positive.
In complete honesty, I dove into a pretty deep depression after making our movie. Blood on the Leaves was incredibly satisfying to make and we were really proud of the end product… but our distribution plan just stalled out and it felt like nobody was ever going to see the movie.
Our distribution plan just stalled out and it felt like nobody was ever going to see the movie.
This article is going to go through everything that happened since post-production without getting to granular. Up front, I want you to know there is a happy ending; that’s why I’m finally writing this, because I can end on a positive note.
If you haven’t already, please go read our first article about Blood on the Leaves for some context.
Post Production Nightmare
As a producer, organization is everything to me.
One of the biggest rushes I’ve ever experienced was managing the schedule on set of our two week mad-dash to film Blood on the Leaves.
Just like planning for production, you should really have an extremely tediously planned post production if you want things to run efficiently.
We had made enough short films before to know how crucial pre-production is and production was unbelievably smooth. Everyone was on point and our shooting days rarely extended past eight hours. The whole thing was a dream.
Soon, however, we discovered what it’s like to not have a detailed plan for post-production.
Just like planning for production, you should really have an extremely tediously planned post production if you want things to run efficiently. It’s important to be flexible, but Murphy’s Law should be prepared for, not just reacted to.
We paid for a composer, but hadn’t worked with a composer before and the process took longer than expected. Vincent Barnard, the director, cut the film himself while holding down his day job. He was exhausted and when it came time for notes on the rough cut, it was hard to ask too much of him.
Then I took on the sound design. Audio was part of my day job at the time and I had done extensive sound design for short films and some web series. This feature was a whole new feat.
We had set our release date to June. Every day after work I spent about four to six hours syncing up audio. It was much harder than it could have been because we hadn’t used an efficient workflow to map out the process.
Ryan Haggerty, the director of photography, was on color correction and grading duty. He killed it, but again it took him an incredibly amount of unpaid time and effort to complete the grade on time.
To sum things up on post-production: it felt like a nightmare.
We barely were finished in time for the premiere and still had to go make some big tweaks afterwards. Despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to accomplish effective surround sound or DCP.
All of this would have been easier if we would have reached our crowdfunding goals and had money to pay proper professionals.
Our original goal for crowdfunding was around $4,000, but with unanticipated expenses racking up and paying for rewards, the goal quickly ballooned to almost $10,000.
We were trying to use IndieGoGo to raise the same amount we raised from local investors to film the movie.
“We have a nearly finished movie, people will be more likely to donate!” We told ourselves over and over.
Here’s the thing with crowdfunding: it’s a lot of work.
We’ve crowdfunded successfully twice before (albeit for much smaller amounts). We knew all the traditional knowledge about how to prepare and launch a campaign. The problem was that we didn’t have the time.
Crowdfunding campaigns take A LOT of effort before they ever launch. We probably only executed on 1/10 of what we had planned to do.
Guess what? We only raised about 1/10 of our goal.
It was our fault. The people that did contribute were awesome and we made some new fans/friends through the campaign. BUT, now we were on the hook for these rewards and hadn’t really gained much financially from the campaign.
Oh… and the premiere was only a few weeks away.
To say we were stressed when the premieres were approaching would be an understatement.
We had two theaters lined up for premieres and were still locking down a long list of theaters to screen afterwards. One theater was in DuBois, where we had screened before to a nearly sold-out house. The other was in Pittsburgh where we had to pay a discounted four wall fee, but knew we could draw a crowd.
I flew back from Austin, TX to attend the premieres and finally something felt like it was going our way. The local buzz around these screenings was inspiring.
We weren’t unable to get into any major Pittsburgh publications despite our best effort, but we did land on a few local podcasts and blogs. In DuBois, we had a radio promotion running to give away tickets and get people excited.
The two days of premieres finally felt like that high that we had when shooting.
Pittsburgh sold well over the four wall cost and attendees were raving about the movie afterwards. This was it. We had finally made it.
The DuBois screening was nearly sold-out again. A huge portion of the audience had come from the radio promotion. Vincent’s entire fire department showed up in uniform to support him. Our friends, family, and curious locals all packed in.
The reaction afterwards was a lot different.
In the small rural area, people were majorly turned off by the amount of swearing. The negative reaction was very jarring and it was the beginning of all the self-doubt that was creeping in.
Overall the mood was soaring and we couldn’t wait to get this movie into more theaters. This was going to be big!
From day one of conceiving this movie, we wanted to play in as many theaters as possible.
We figured out that a lot of local theaters would play our movie for a split ticket fee. So we made a huge database of about 300 local theaters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and surrounding states. If we could draw even a tiny crowd to each of these theaters, we would make the cost of the money back and be able to profit through online distribution.
During post production we started reaching out to these theaters, sometimes as a follow up to previous conversations. Quickly things started to go south, but we were running high on our recent successes.
After the premieres, we KNEW there were more theaters out there that we could land in. If we could just show off our numbers from our premieres we would be in good shape.
None of it happened as we planned.
More of the local theaters had ties to distributors than we expected. Every single one required something we didn’t have: a buyer, production house exclusive DCP, name actors, film festival awards.
We pushed and pushed and pushed. Nothing was working and the few theatrical releases we were able to make happen did not draw crowds large enough to be even moderately sustainable.
Our dreams of an independent theatrical release collapsed quickly as we figured out options like Tugg wouldn’t even work for our situation.
Finally, we were out of money. Even our personal bank accounts were strained. We had to do something fast; our digital release couldn’t wait.
VOD Release Stall Out
With our plan for a theatrical release falling apart, we rushed forward with digital distribution.
We knew from experience that VHX had a great platform and were confident (for some reason) that we could execute a solid marketing campaign to support direct sales.
We were wrong.
We did get a small spike initially, but again we were getting stuffed every way we turned. No major blogs would cover the movie because it didn’t have festival accolades.
A few smaller bloggers did review the film and we’re incredibly grateful for them. Even when we offered up discounts to their readers… the sales just weren’t happening.
Quickly we realized how much harder it is to get people off of their familiar sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon than it used to be.
This remains true a year later, the attention online is becoming more and more centralized.
Just when we had become completely discouraged, something amazing happened: Amazon opened the video on demand flood gates.
Amazon Prime Release
In 2015, Amazon Video Direct (Now Prime Video Direct) opened up to allow anyone to submit videos that show up alongside other Amazon Prime movies. This was a big opportunity (and still is) for a movie with options dwindling.
We quickly started the process of getting our movie prepared to appear on Amazon. Meanwhile, Ryan organized a few more screenings and a short run of DVDs & BluRays. I spent about a month tediously doing the closed captions through Adobe Premiere.
When it came time to upload, the process was smooth.
Except for one thing.
As it turns out, the captions exported from Adobe won’t work with Amazon. Regardless of the format you export, there are still not recognized. Naturally, I began to panic… All was good when we found rev.com and paid the eighty-some dollars it cost to get captions done through them.
We were off to the races and in a few days Blood on the Leaves appeared on Amazon Prime. Our social media, interviews, and other marketing started pushing people there.
You can find out about our experience with Amazon Video Direct in our year one update video.
Think you’ve planned enough? Plan more.
Proudly we can now say we made a profitable film.
We set out to make a film that would not only make us artistically proud, but to prove ourselves as financially viable producers. While we’re still a long way off from the budgets we were dreaming of when we made Blood on the Leaves, we have learned a lot of DOs and DON’Ts for our next films.
The biggest takeaways:
1. Have Plan B, C, & D for distribution. Think you’ve planned enough? Plan more.
2. Pay for post-production crew. Make sure to budget for this and not expect it to come from crowdfunding later.
3. Crowdfunding has changed. A LOT. Look into alternative platforms like Seed & Spark that have much higher success rates for film projects.
4. Have fun in every stage of the process. We had a blast in pre-production and production, we started losing sight of that later on.
At the end of the day, I could write a book about the right way to make a film… but it really only matters that you made it.
Turning a profit or breaking even is important if you’re taking money from other people.
If you leave investors empty handed you’re not only burning that bridge for yourself, but also other filmmakers that might come along.
Finish the big projects you start and do so as soon as possible.
The biggest success of Blood on the Leaves was that from start (development) to finish (Amazon Prime) it took about one year.
Projects that keep extending much longer than that risk losing focus and attention; they also start to send a signal about your ability to finish what you set out to do.
Don’t get it perfect.
Get it finished.
Then make the next one better.