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From Filmmaker to Entrepreneur

Independent filmmakers bypass distribution companies to maintain control of their projects.
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He arrived at the theatre just after 6 a.m. to direct the crews, rewrite and rehearse the day's events. He already toured the film festival circuit, speaking with distributors about the film's national and international reach. Tonight, he thought, as he changed into a button down shirt and sport coat, was going to be a great night for women and girls everywhere to witness stories about other women affecting change around the world--an issue he is extremely passionate about.

Scott Thigpen, president of Unify Films and producer of A Powerful Noise, a film that documents the journey of three women involved in social change around the world, was preparing for a one-night-only live event this past March, which included showing his film simultaneously on 460 screens, followed by a streaming panel discussion with the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, model and activist Christy Turlington Burns, CARE President and CEO Helene Gayle, and actress Natalie Portman. The evening, sponsored by the poverty-fighting organization CARE, was moderated by NBC news journalist Ann Curry.

The concept of a simulcast theatrical release was the brainchild of Thigpen and the outcome was a grassroots effort that allowed him to bypass the more traditional ways of marketing an independent documentary. "It was definitely an entrepreneurial effort," says Thigpen.

Like Thigpen, an increasing number of filmmakers have found themselves stepping into an entrepreneurial role as boutique distribution companies like Picturehouse and Newmarket Films have been shuttered by their parent companies. Now, not only do they have to write and produce, but distribute and negotiate rights to their film.

Traditionally, independent filmmakers that work with small budgets and shoot their own films will bypass working with a studio. Instead, they would make a movie and then find a distribution company to get the film on screens. The filmmaker would sign away all the distribution rights for 15 to 25 years in North America, hand over the film, and receive monthly revenue.

Today, a decreasing number of distribution houses are picking up independent filmmakers because budgets restrict them from handling only a few films at a time. In addition, a trend is emerging --filmmakers no longer want to sacrifice all the control of their film for two decades. Instead, the trend has shifted to a do-it-yourself methodology.

Long before Thigpen began shooting A Powerful Noise he was developing a business plan for the film, including how to market the film and what outlets he was going to target in hopes of creating partnerships and raising money.

"Because of the changing landscape it's necessary to have as many partners as possible in order to get the film seen by as many people as possible and get the message out there," explains Thigpen, who inked partnerships with billionaire philanthropist Sheila C. Johnson, who financed the film, CARE, where he remains the director of media productions, and other companies such as cinematic entertainment company NCM Fathom and Gap.

He chose not to pitch the film to major distributors because he wanted to keep some control of his rights and ensure that the movie was properly marketed to theaters, TV and online media.

So he made the film through his production company, Unify Films, which he founded in 2005, and he partnered with CARE and 70 different companies and organizations to market and promote the one-night event. In exchange for free advertising and promotions in stores and online marketing such as e-blast, Thigpen donated advertising space to the organizations during the premiere of the film and on apowerfulnoise.org, the film's website. 

"We sent e-blasts, created a widget for people to share, produced an educational version of the film along with a curriculum," says Thigpen, to keep the momentum and interest going concerning the issues that affect women worldwide. NCM Fathom created an online social networking space where fans could come together for discussions and make comments.

"The industry is getting redefined," says Peter Broderick, president of Paradigm Consulting, a company that specializes in independent filmmaking distribution and strategy. Thigpen hired Broderick to help with the distribution strategy for A Powerful Noise. Using a strategy akin to storeowners building customer loyalty, "filmmakers are getting more realistic about budgeting, and they are building a core personal audience and taking that audience from one film to another." 

Acting as CEO's of their own production and distribution companies, filmmakers have increasingly begun to call their own shots. Another filmmaker, Jay Craven, who founded Kingdom County Productions and Fledgling Films, drove from community centers to libraries to theatres throughout New England to screen his films when no outside distribution companies showed interest.   

"We didn't have strategies in the old world of film distribution, we just had reactions," says Broderick. Studios and production companies took the film out of the filmmaker's hands and negotiated all the rights. "Now the entire game has changed," says Broderick.

Proceeds from A Powerful Noise will go back into projects that trumpet women's issues, says Thigpen, who hopes to begin working on another documentary project under Unify Films about violence against women. He says that the movie has already generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause and will hopefully generate much more when it's release on DVD, pay-per-View and video-on-demand in February.

Last updated: Sep 21, 2009




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