What's your starting salary?

Four months ago, Scott Harris released his first feature documentary, Being Ginger. He skipped the film festival circuit and premiered it at the two largest redhead festivals in the world while simultaneously making it available for download through his web site. He wrote a blog post for us about why he decided to take that route. Four months later we’ve asked him back to fill us in on how things have gone. Below he gives the graphic details.

Before I decided to become a filmmaker I was actually an Engineering student at The University of Texas.  One of the great things about the Engineering program at UT was that they kept detailed records of the job offers graduating students received.  It meant that when I was a sophomore I could go down to the employment office and I could see that if I maintained my current GPA I could expect a starting annual salary of around $45,000.

Then I became a filmmaker.

Filmmakers don’t talk about how much money they make – ever

I’ve always found it disheartening when I’ve gone to festivals and heard filmmakers talk about how they had to invest $100,000 of their own money into their film. I’ve always wondered if they ever made it back, either when the film aired on BBC Storyville, or later when it showed up on iTunes and Netflix.

But no one ever talks about money (except to say that no one goes into documentary filmmaking to get rich.)

Well, in honour of my time at Texas, and in the hope that it will help someone else, I’m going to lay out exactly how things have gone for me thus far.

I last posted here four months ago when I launched Being Ginger on my website through the online distributor VHX. I talked about how it was premiering that weekend at the Irish Redhead Convention which expected 2,000 people. There were only 80 seats at the screening, and I wondered how many of the remaining 1,920 people would go home and download the film. Well, it turned out there were closer to 2,500 people in town for the convention, and while they were turning people away at the door because the screening was so full, less than five people went home and bought the film. I did three ten-minute radio interviews to help promote the convention, one was nationwide, the film was mentioned in every major Irish newspaper (but not reviewed), and I appeared on one of the top Irish Morning TV shows which broadcast the trailer to the entire country. Four months on, exactly nine people in Ireland have purchased the film.

Despite lots of red hair, numbers are also red

I feel strange giving such a harsh figure because traditionally we use box office numbers to indicate if a film was good or not. The Oldboy remake did poorly, so it must not have been very good. But I don’t believe that is the case with my film. The audience absolutely loved it, and I’ve honestly not had a single negative reaction from anyone who has seen it. It’s just hard to get people to actually buy a download.

The week after the Irish Redhead Convention I went to the Netherlands to attend the Redhead Days, which is the world’s largest gathering of redheads. Being Ginger had two theatrical screenings there. The festival was kind enough to say they didn’t want any of the box office money. The cinema offered me 40% of the ticket sales (after taking off €96 for something called a Virtual Print Fee, or VPF). I said I thought that was a little low, and got them to agree to split it with me 50/50 if I could sell out the two screenings. They both sold out, with about 180 people at each screening.

I made this short video to show what that experience was like. Every filmmaker will relate to it:

The money I made from the screening paid for my travel costs to both festivals, but there was no profit.  I made a mistake not taking DVDs with me, but technically speaking the film still wasn’t finished.  I had some sound problems to work out and didn’t finish it until a week after the festival. I did take t-shirts and sold 15 after the two screenings. (My profit margin on the shirts was about $10.)

In that first week, I sold 121 copies of the film online. On the day of my launch I had 2,300 likes on Facebook, and I believe that most of the sales came from long-time fans who had been waiting for me to release the film.

Kickstarter backers not claiming rewards?

The most perplexing thing happened with my Kickstarter backers. Being Ginger had 311 total backers, and I was shocked by how many of them didn’t download the film. 41 people donated $5 in order to be given access to a private Vimeo link. In all, that link has been watched 31 times. 187 people donated $10 in order to get the HD download. In four months, only 124 have actually downloaded it. You might laugh and say that’s $680 I made for free, but that isn’t how I look at it. I want those people to see the film, not only because they paid for it, and not only because I love the film, but that’s 73 people who should be sharing the link on Facebook with their friends saying, “Hey everyone, you have to checkout this film that I helped get made.” I’ve emailed all of them multiple times, but I get no response.

So the next step was trying to get the film on iTunes and Netflix.  I have a friend who released a feature doc last year; it played at festivals, picking up an award here and there. It had a modest theatrical release.  When it was released on iTunes, it was the number one documentary for about two weeks. That meant sales of between 500 and 1,000 per day. My film has been out on my website for four months, and I’ve sold less than 500 copies in total.  Part of that is the power of iTunes, and part of it is the power of having screened at festivals and being written up in blogs and reviewed in newspapers. That film then went to Netflix, with whom the distributor signed an 18-month contract for $45,000. (Of course with all of these figures it’s important to point out that the money must be split up between quite a few people. iTunes takes 30%, the aggregator takes their cut, and the distributor takes 50% of what’s left. In my case, VHX takes just $0.50 +15%, or $2, for each transaction, and I get the other $8.)

Aggregation and aggravation

I wanted to place Being Ginger with both iTunes and Netflix so I approached two aggregators. The first ignored me completely. The second asked to see the film. They got back to me quickly to tell me that they loved it, but that they didn’t think it was right for them. They didn’t give an explanation. No aggregator means no iTunes and no Netflix.

After my first blog post here, someone from Seed & Spark got in touch with me. They thought that my film was an SDI production because I had blogged here. (It wasn’t, they are just good friends of mine who’ve been very supportive but were too busy to add my film to their packed program.) For those who don’t know, Seed & Spark is a new crowdfunding platform that only caters to films. There are a few things that make them unique compared to Kickstarter and IndieGoGo which I quite like. That’s the Seed part of their name. The Spark part has to do with the fact that they are also an online distributor. They curate their selection and sell films as a 3-day rental for $2.99. They took a look at Being Ginger and asked to include it. I was very impressed with them and I plan to place my film with them eventually. I am also planning to crowdfund my next film, and I believe I will go with them over Kickstarter.

My other grand scheme has been to take Being Ginger on tour around the US. I’m working with Tugg and have plans to screen the film in 30 cities around the country. I’m starting with a 10 city tour starting next week. Then I will take a month off, partly to regroup, and partly because I want to go to South by Southwest (SXSW). I will pick up with the remaining 20 cities starting in mid-March, hoping to finish the tour in time to attend Hot Docs. (Tugg doesn’t work with Canadian cinemas, but I am going to try to rent out one on my own in Toronto for the Tuesday after Hot Docs.)  After that I plan to head back to the UK. I’m hoping Tugg will be working with British cinemas by then (and it will allow me catch up with friends at Sheffield Doc/Fest.)

On tour and on-line

Planning the tour has been an incredible learning experience.  I’ll come back in a few months and do a full write up on the process. So far I can tell you that it is already far more work than the crowdfunding campaign, and going into it, I don’t expect to make any money off of it; mainly because I have to travel with the film which means that I’ll be very lucky to just break even. I’m holding out hope that I can generate enough interest from the tour that I can get an aggregator who will find a way to get me on Netflix. But even if I can’t, the tour will still be worth it because this is the only way to get the word out.

And really that is the problem I’ve had. I need people on blogs to write about Being Ginger. I need reviews. In four months, I’ve managed to get one real review from a professional critic. I had met him once at a film festival over five years ago, but he remembered me when I got in touch (mostly because of my hair) and he agreed to look at it. He wrote back and said he was relieved that he loved it, and gave it a positive review.

Feeding the buzz

By late November my sales had started to dry up. I was averaging less than two a day. Then, as if a gift from heaven, my film was mentioned on BuzzFeed.  It was a small mention, the trailer was number 31 on a list of 34 reasons why this was a great year for redheads. That article was viewed over 200,000 times, had over 18,000 Facebook Likes, and led directly to 3,000 views of my trailer. In 48 hours 40 people downloaded the film. The numbers aren’t insane, but it was the best two days I’d had since the weekend I released the film. Only 1-1.5% of the people who watched the trailer paid the $10 for the film, and that has been consistent throughout my launch. I added the first four minutes of the film as a free taste, but it hasn’t made much of a difference. The thing is, my goal has only ever been to sell 10,000 downloads. If the math holds out that means I need to get around 1,000,000 people to watch the trailer. For that, I need to drive way more people to my site. Interestingly, one of the BuzzFeed co-founders is a funder behind VHX.  BuzzFeed is such a popular site that if it’s done right they have the ability to drive 1,000,000 eyeballs to my trailer, but so far I haven’t had any luck making that happen.

For the sake of context, I should reveal exactly how much money I spent making the film. Not counting any of the deferred labour, mine or of my friends who worked for free, but the actual real money spent, Being Ginger cost $37,500. (That figure does not include my student loan debt, part of which should probably be included because I was a student the first year I worked on the film. Also that figure continues to grow because of expenses related to the tour.) As of today, counting the Kickstarter, the sales from my VHX release, and ticket sales at the Redhead Days (plus T-shirts), I have made $17,500.

A few other things I’ve learned

civic_duty_403.jpgWith Internet memes, it is shocking to me how much better pictures do on Facebook than videos. I asked a friend to make 15 illustrations for me for 50 pounds. Those illustrations more than anything else got my Facebook page from 700 Likes to 2,500 (I’m at 3,300 now). The most popular ones would get 150 likes and 600 shares, and brought 100 new likes to the page. I hired another friend to create six short animations. In all they cost me 450 pounds. To me, the animations are significantly funnier than the e-cards. But when I post them to Facebook I’m lucky to get 25 likes and five shares. I assume it’s because most people check Facebook on their phones when they are on the move, and it’s easier to look at a picture than it is to watch even a 30-second video. Still, I love the animations, and I’m glad that I had them made. 

I suspect now that one of the biggest mistakes I made was not doing more to get a larger following on Facebook. I recently took part in an interesting Twitter chat that Seed & Spark did about social media. (They do them every other Tuesday at 2pm EST with the hastag #filmcurious.) The special guest was Kristin McCracken and she talked about the power of Facebook ads to drive up Likes. One filmmaker spoke up that he had used them to generate over 200,000 Facebook Likes for his new film, which hasn’t started shooting yet. The key seems to be having good extra content, which I think I have, but I never used Facebook ads. I should have taken a month or two and played around with it. Think what you will of Facebook, if I’d had 200,000 likes I believe I would have had a very different response from the aggregators. I’ll try to play with it now, and since I have been unable to find any kind of decent case study online, I’ll try to post about my results here in a few months.

I have a few other tricks up my sleeve. For one thing, I am now creating my own lists as a community member of BuzzFeed, and I’m hoping one of them might catch on.

I wanted to give a serious talk about bullying at a TEDx event, but I didn’t get a response from the organizers so I recorded the talk in my own bedroom and plan to share it on YouTube sometime in the next couple of months. It’s a pipe dream, but I’m going to try to get it on Upworthy.

My plan now is simply to reach enough people with the film that I can get people interested in my work. 16 months ago, I raised just shy of $13,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. When it launched I had 27 people on my mailing list. I now have over 1,000. I hope to have 5,000 by the time I launch my next crowdfunding campaign, for the (sort of) sequel to Being Ginger.

Check back again in about four months and I’ll try to post a detailed report on my Tugg tour, including a list of dos and don’ts.

You can follow Scott's adventures as he tours the US at his own blog.