My name is Jason Charnick and my first feature film, Getting Over, is a micro-budget documentary that had its world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Through the festival experience, I was able to meet Liz Manashil, manager of Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative. I wrote this case study because, for micro-budget filmmakers, it can feel impossible to compete in the marketplace — by sharing the trajectory of Getting Over, I hope to demystify the business side of film and show smaller productions that success is always possible!
Getting Over is a micro-budget feature-length documentary about my father, Ray, a lifelong heroin addict who died of AIDS in New York City back in 1997. I had a series of videotaped interviews that my uncle had given me at the time, so I guess you can say the project started then, but the film in its final form didn’t get fully underway until late 2011.
From our initial Kickstarter in 2012, to our world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, to premiering across the U.S. and Canada on almost every digital platform, Getting Over’s journey as my first feature has been an interesting one, filled with challenges most independent filmmakers face on a daily basis. There were definitely lessons learned along the way, and I wanted to share some of those experiences with those who could take something from them.
I love case studies. My heart has always been with indie narratives, and I’ve been around long enough now to have seen a ton of them. We rely on the experiences of those who came before to guide us in our own projects. These experiences are our new textbooks.
However, not all of us have the luxury of working with even a six-figure budget (which is already modest), and not all the DIY micro-budget filmmakers out there have the resources to delegate their creative distribution options to vendors, colleagues, or even friends. I was wearing so many hats by the end (and there is no “end,” by the way), that I felt they were going to fall off my head. Are you in the same boat? Because this one’s for you. I’m going to break down some of our costs of production over the last seven years — from our Kickstarter campaign to our premiere at SXSW to our acquisition by Gravitas Ventures — and some of the other ways we’re looking to exploit the rights we carved out for ourselves.
PRODUCTION DAZE AND POST-PRODUCTION NIGHTS
It had been percolating in the development hell of my brain for over a decade, but Getting Over started in earnest with a Kickstarter campaign in 2012. I was feeling guilty even then taking money from folks with no real guarantee that I would ever see the finish line. That can be a significant weight on someone who had previously only made self-funded shorts. And seeing the promised completion date of June 2013 is a real hoot now, let me tell you. I mitigated my angst a little by giving out prints of my uncle’s artwork as immediate perks.
We completed a 32-day campaign with an even 100 patrons, and just under $6,000 after Kickstarter took their kickback. That was enough to get to New York City, rent a Sony PMW-EX1 camera — complete with a nasty formatting bug — and a couple of lights, film two days of interviews with my uncle, and visit my father’s various haunts throughout the city, including his final resting place on Hart Island, New York’s potter’s field up in the Bronx.
Getting Over never had a real budget. At the time, I wouldn’t know a budget top sheet from a bedding top sheet. I had directed, produced, or edited a number of shorts over the years, and I’m a proud Stephen King Dollar Baby, but diving into a feature was serious business. Through a tip from my editor Sharon Rutter (incredibly plucked from a Mandy.com ad, and a gift from above), we teamed up with the extremely supportive Carole Dean and her team at From The Heart Productions as our fiscal sponsor, and they helped bring our colorist Sam Dlugach on board.
Now with non-profit status, we held a follow-up Indiegogo campaign in 2015. We helped promote it with a casino night in Long Beach, California, and through that and other private donations, we raised another $12,000. That kept the wheels turning. We applied to a few other labs and grants during that time, including through Sundance Institute and Film Independent, but nothing panned out. Production and post-production continued on and off until 2017, and after the Indiegogo funds ran out, the remainder of completion funding came from our own wallets.
Editorial was by far the largest expense. As a 20-year veteran editor and post-production supervisor, I could have chosen to edit the film myself — I already wasn’t drawing a salary from our incoming crowdfunds and could have saved much more. But because it was such a personal film, I knew this was one area I needed to step back, and it worked out better than I could have ever imagined with Sharon. That was all money more than well spent.
I also can’t stress the power of relationships enough. You’ll meet thousands of like-minded people in this business throughout the years, and you never know when you might need someone’s services, and you should always been prepared to help when others reach out to you. There’s a lot of talk lately about “finding your tribe” and going out to make a movie, but sometimes it’s more of a slow burn, and you develop your tribe slowly, organically, over the course of years working in the industry. This creates a genuine experience where you’re not looking at people in terms of what they can do for you, but with an open heart and open mind to helping friends and colleagues create, and see their projects become reality, just like yours. This came through in the help from my former employer, Framework Studio. Framework did all my graphics and animation, and they helped cover a great deal of my post-production sound services.
My biggest regret from our time in production, however, was our lack of outreach to communities who could stand to benefit from the film most. We had always intended to build relationships with rehab facilities, as well as other organizations dedicated to fighting addiction, and that plan is still in the works, but it hasn’t been implemented as of this writing. One of the major areas of growth in independent film over the past decade or so has been to leverage social media to build your audience early and often, so that when you have a project to release, you’ll hopefully already have a large group of folks hungry to dive in.
We wanted to pursue relationships with the addiction community with an eye toward screening the film in local centers and other appropriate venues across the country. During the last year or two, most of the team had moved on to other projects, so the outreach plan was paused as I was dedicated to finishing post-production on the film itself.
All told, Getting Over cost about $65,000, about half of which was self-funded. This includes all our finishing costs, a publicist for SXSW, clearance counsel, E&O insurance (which I probably could have foregone at my own risk had I self-distributed, since it’s my personal story after all), film festival submission fees, marketing materials such as posters and postcards, and social media ad promotions. I was able to keep costs down by doing most of the online editing and finishing/delivery myself, including all the graphic design, trailer editing, and DCP creation.
WORLD PREMIERE IN A BBQ ATMOSPHERE
What came next was our unexpected and unlikely world premiere in Austin, Texas, at SXSW in 2018. I received an email from director of film and indie film legend Janet Pierson in November 2017, basically telling me not to get my hopes up, but that we were being heavily considered for the upcoming festival. Two months of totally cool vibes — no nerves at all, no! — were followed by our final acceptance to the festival, selected to premiere in the Documentary Spotlight category. The SXSW experience was amazing, and much like Morissa Maltz’s experience on Ingrid, it was a force of nature being inundated from all sides by industry players after spending so long making something that no one knew about. We were contacted by sales agents, distributors, and other festivals offering us opportunities to submit. With a glowing recommendation from Jeff Malmberg, who was a client at SXSW with Marwencol and Spettacolo, we brought on the great Jim Dobson from Indie PR to handle publicity. We came out of Austin with packed houses, and a few great reviews and interviews under our belt.
This exposure, however, was a double-edged sword, and I — understandably enough — started aiming our sights upward with higher-profile festivals throughout the year, forgoing many of the more attainable venues. This led to Getting Over playing only two more festivals in 2018: SF DocFest and the Indigo Moon Film Festival in Fayetteville, NC, where we took home the Audience Award for best documentary. Over 40 rejections with only 2 acceptances for a film that premiered on the national stage. It happens.
Next came another tsunami of rejections. Sales agents Cinetic, Submarine, Film Sales Company, Dogwoof, Cargo, and CAA all passed. Then POV passed, as did almost a dozen other minor players. However, in the end, we had three distribution offers — without the help of any sales agency at all. I’ve been told by more than one person that distribution deals without representation just don’t happen at this level. I don’t know how accurate that statement is, especially when applied to the micro-budget community, but here we are. While it was an honor just to share the flick with some of the heavy hitters, we certainly didn’t need their permission to get a deal done.
The first distribution offer was a standing deal from Amazon Prime Direct in the form of the now-defunct Amazon Film Festival Stars program. Legendary in its time — just last year — the FFS program paid out a non-recoupable $100,000 to a film in narrative competition at SXSW, $75,000 in documentary competition, and $25,000 for the spotlight and other categories. We screened in the Documentary Spotlight category at SXSW, which meant we had a standing offer for $25,000 from Amazon.
This deal would include a US and Canada exclusive for SVOD for a period of no less than two years, with an enhanced royalty payout structure — so we couldn’t pitch to Netflix or Hulu, but we would retain all other rights (theatrical, education, TVOD) to pursue elsewhere. The bonus was also non-recoupable, and we could have taken a portion to bring on an aggregator to get the film on iTunes and other TVOD platforms.
Allow me to opine on the Film Festival Stars program for a second. Amazon caught a lot of flak in the independent community for offers that could be perceived as insulting, depending on your perspective and your budget. The producers of the fantastic Sadie, per their own case study, was hoping for a better MG from distributors, and even the $100,000 from Amazon for being in competition at SXSW wasn’t nearly enough for them to finally turn a profit on a relatively small $650,000 budget. That sucks, and it’s a damn shame that old school distributors still have trouble seeing the value in a well-grounded, realistic, and important film.
But what the FFS program did was give the Sadie team options.
Imagine being beholden to investors to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, only to walk from one of the largest, most vital festivals in the world with nothing to show for it. And in the case of Getting Over, it was our saving grace in terms of finding an outlet to share our story with the world. Without it, I’m certain we would never have gotten any offers at all, and with no additional funds to work with to pursue an aggregator, we would have been destined for YouTube, or we could have fought for pennies by putting it up on Prime Video with no additional cachet for being at SXSW. The FFS program was a godsend for us, and I hope it comes back in some form in the future.
The second offer was a digital-only release, coming from a small distribution company in Pennsylvania. The MG was far, far below that being offered by Amazon, so it was an easy pass. Whether they knew about the Film Festival Stars program or were just severely lowballing me, I can’t say.
We also considered service deals that were pitched to us, but I don’t believe in them, and considering every expense at this point was coming out-of-pocket, I certainly wasn’t going to pay up front for a load of empty promises and empty theaters. But hey, it might work for your film, so always do your due diligence. Your mileage may vary.
The third offer came from well-known independent distributor Gravitas Ventures. Gravitas Ventures came forward with a digital-only release, delivering all the TVOD platforms an aggregator would, with the addition of DVD & Bluray distribution (produced on-demand, so online sales only, no retail inventory), cable VOD, and educational exploitation. The addition of cable VOD was an important consideration, as aggregators don’t usually have access to those platforms. Their offer included an MG significantly higher than the Amazon offer, and they in turn would have taken advantage of the FFS program themselves. This meant they would be taking a cut of that enhanced royalty, plus we wouldn’t have access to any analytics, but in the end, with all the other channels Gravitas was offering, and a couple of deferred payments to vendors still to pay out, they were the lead horse coming down the stretch.
BABY, TAKE A RIDE IN MY RECOUP
We brought on the unparalleled Donaldson & Callif as our clearance counsel, and Dean Cheley and Kate Serfoss handled negotiations with Gravitas as well. We settled upon a 10-year, NA-rights-only deal, with a $32,500 MG and a 30 percent distribution fee. We also carved out theatrical rights, and we are now a proud member of the Tugg family, offering screenings through their Cinema-on-Demand service. Best part for micro-budget filmmakers: other than the cost of your DCP, which you probably have already, there are no up-front fees for Tugg’s services! A hearty thanks to Ben Wiessner, producer of SXSW 2018’s narrative winner Thunder Road, for recommending Tugg to us — they have been just fantastic to work with and can help you find the right theaters to play your film in.
We premiered online with Gravitas on November 24, 2018. Our experience before then was positive, but we haven’t been that ecstatic with them since. Delivery went smoothly, D&C helped draft a fair-use letter that we used to obtain the required E&O insurance with the Film Emporium, and most of the legal chain of title requirements were simple, as I had all the requisite rights to my family’s own story. Technical deliveries were flawless, and my coordinator told me it was one of the smoothest deliveries they ever had.
It was after delivery that our experience shifted. I personally have yet to see any advertising promoting the film, and it took me basically begging them just to shoot out a single tweet about it. We’re still not even listed on their website, even after it was brought to their attention. And when they say the MG is recoupable, they mean it. My first statements showed them recouping all their costs associated with delivery, disc duplication, and even the FedEx shipping for some inventory. If they can charge it, they will. And if they ever do decide to run any promotions for it, they’ll charge me for the privilege. There’s a marketing cap of $25,000 in our deal, but even over the course of 10 years, it doesn’t strike me that this number will ever be in play.
We also don’t get any analytics regarding viewership, just a line item from each platform indicating total revenue per quarter. The good news is they appear to be exploiting the revenue streams they said they would, including the educational market. And without them actively campaigning it, I still maintain a sense of complete control over all advertising and graphic design. They never changed our original trailer or poster design either, which I’m pleased with at the very least.
WAITING ON HOLD FOR CUSTOMER SERVICE
Since our deal was for North America only, we maintain the rest of our international rights, but we have yet to exploit them. Getting Over has been a very mentally exhausting experience, and I needed some additional decompression time since it often felt like I had to relive the worst parts of my childhood every time I discussed the film. This is a very unique experience, and I’m sure most folks won’t find themselves in that same situation. For my own mental health, I’ve slowed down my time advertising the film, instead focusing on family and pursuing new projects.
Our last move in the self-distribution process (at least until other avenues open up) is putting the film up on Amazon Prime Video’s UK site, separate from Gravitas’s offering in the U.S., and thereby also ineligible for the FFS enhanced royalties. As of this writing, Amazon has not allowed us to publish the film in the UK market, since the film is already online in the U.S. market. This could potentially be a major situation! There doesn’t seem to be a mechanism in place for multiple distributors to publish the same film to two or more separate territories. Since Amazon Prime Video Direct is a self-publishing platform, their first level of support is not human, and I’m currently awaiting clarification on this very important issue.
If an independent production sells to a distributor in one territory and is then completely unable to maneuver in other territories, and the production doesn’t find out about this limitation until AFTER they close their first deal, this will be a major problem for indie projects of all sizes and budgets. I can’t imagine we’re the first production to discover this, so if you’ve had a similar situation, please reach out and get in touch! I’m hopeful that the solution will be easy, even if I have to produce my deal with Gravitas to Amazon to establish our international rights with them. Stay tuned for updates on this developing story.
LOOKING BACK ON THE ENTIRE EXPERIENCE
From the day we launched that Kickstarter in 2012 to now, I’m still amazed at our journey and the expertise I’ve gained from just going out and getting it done. That kind of “street knowledge” is unrivaled by any book or classroom. That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes made along the way. Remember, it took four years longer than I thought when we started! And even though we gave up a fair amount of autonomy signing with Gravitas, it was the right decision for this project. I just wanted to give you an eyes-wide-open view of what to expect when a distributor comes knocking, so you can make the right decision for your project when the time comes.
Every few days, I’ll get a personal message from someone telling me their family stories of addiction and drug abuse, letting me know how influential the film has been on their own situations. That means people are starting to find Getting Over, and they are being moved enough to write. It’s an unbelievable feeling to know that your film has helped someone gain perspective on their own life, and it makes that long and winding road to completion all the more worth it. Hopefully our journey has helped give you, the micro-budget indie filmmaker, some perspective as well, and some inspiration to go out and bring your project to fruition.
Whether you’re making a six-year personal documentary journey, or a narrative feature that will wrap in six months, I also wholeheartedly recommend finding a hobby, or something that brings you joy to help mitigate the stress and angst of making a feature. Maybe it’s reading a book at the beach on the weekend, maybe it’s Netflix when the day is done, maybe it’s taking up collecting baseball cards again as an adult (ahem!). Making a feature will bend you to your breaking point many times during production, so it’s imperative to make sure that point is as far away from becoming reality as possible. You have to take care of yourself, first and foremost. These are just movies after all — and I can’t wait to see yours!
UPDATE, JUNE 10, 2019
After a lengthy back-and-forth with Amazon Prime Video Direct’s automated customer-service system, they finally sent me a brief affidavit to certify our UK/international rights:
“I declare under penalty of perjury that I hold the legal distribution rights for the following title in the listed marketplaces (US, Germany, etc.) and offer types (Rent/Buy, Free with Prime, etc.).”
The film was published soon after responding, and Getting Over is now live on the Amazon Prime Video UK site! Next steps include rolling out a targeted Facebook/Instagram ad campaign in the UK, getting subtitle translations for Japan and Germany, and eventually releasing the film in those additional territories.
Quick note: If you are self-distributing internationally after selling your U.S. and Canada rights to another distributor, just make sure when you submit your requests through their automated system that your PVD account email matches your linked Amazon.com retail account. If these differ in any way, you will break their system!