Liz Manashil is a filmmaker and the manager of Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative.
Shaun Colón is a filmmaker whose feature doc, A Fat Wreck, was released in 2016. We connected several months ago, and I was impressed by all Shaun had done with the international and physical (DVD and Blu-ray) distribution of his film. Shaun was kind enough to speak transparently with me about how he did it.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Why did you make this movie?
Back in early 2013, my producing partner and I had just completed our first big music video. Since most of the production was handled on the day of the shoot, we ended up making a behind-the-scenes making-of doc. It was one of the first doc things that we had shot and directed ourselves, and it screened before the music video debut. When it was so well received at the screening, it gave us the confidence to try our hand at subject matter we really cared about: the kind of punk rock we grew up with. Most of the docs out at the time were about the violence in the punk-rock scene during the mid to late 80s. The 90s skate punk we grew up with felt like a cooler, neo-hippie thing — about community, respect, ethics, social awareness, progressiveness, and inclusivity. And the idea was born.
How did you fund it?
In the beginning, it was self-funded. I just rented the best camera and lens that I could afford and went out to Punk Rock Bowling, a big punk-rock music fest in Las Vegas. I got some decent interviews and put together a teaser. When we reached a point where the personal funds were depleted, I figured we would be able to raise a bit of money based on the niche punk-rock press we got from the teaser.
Why did you choose crowdfunding?
A few reasons. One was that we had very little film experience — no real network to tap into for financing. Another reason was that I felt a successful crowdfunding campaign would bring some attention to the project and unlock some doors. Which ended up being true!
Another big reason was the doc Indie Game. It was the first doc that made me want to make one myself. After immediately watching the doc three times in a row (it’s so beautifully shot and told in such a personal way), I found on the filmmakers’ website a full case study detailing how they made their film. Their big claim to fame was that Indie Game was the first feature film financed on Kickstarter. I remember going over the case study again and again under the covers in my bed late at night.
You ended up choosing IndieGogo over Kickstarter. What helped you make that decision?
I decided to go with IndieGogo because they let you keep whatever you raised, where Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform. I think with some projects the all-or-nothing method makes sense, but I knew that if I got any money at all I would be able to move the project forward.
I was pretty confident we could hit our original goal of $7,500 (we were originally planning on making a short, not a feature), and I was hoping we would hit $10,000! What I wasn’t expecting was for us to hit our goal in 24 hours. That got us on the “featured projects” page, and with that came a lot of press, both local and national. IndieGogo also connected us with their “crowdfunding guru” John T. Trigonis, who guided us on how to do flex goals and keep up the momentum. We ended up raising $36,000–404 percent of our original goal!
How did you book screenings? Did you hire a booker? And how did you approach exhibitors? What was the pitch?
I basically booked the screenings myself. We had a huge help from the team who made an amazing doc on the punk band the Descendents called Filmage (really, go check it out!). Those guys were very generous and shared their “holy grail” contact list with us, which included a lot of small rock venues and indie theaters.
I emailed exhibitors based on that list. Because of the strong worldwide fanbase for Fat Wreck Chords, many of the exhibitors were extremely stoked to show the doc. I offered a 50/50 split of the door (I should have said of the gross, but live and learn). A few places gave me a cut of the bar too, which was rad. We ended up booking over 70 screenings worldwide (in the US, the UK, Peru, France, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Australia, and South Africa).
What markets did you make the most money, theatrically?
The US and Canada. We were the number-one music doc on iTunes and broke the top 10 films in Canada at our release. Germany has been a very strong market for us as well.
How did you connect with the Orchard? Why did you decide to go with them?
One of our contributors was buddies with someone who makes decisions at the Orchard. We talked with him for a bit just after the success of the IndieGogo campaign. Our contact there was a huge Fat Wreck Chords fan and knew how passionate the fanbase is.
When we did our first test screening in San Francisco, Geoff Clark, a sales agent (now a very good friend), drove up from LA to see it. Geoff was also a longtime Fat Wreck Chords fan. We ended up signing with his sales agency, Something Kreative. When they shopped the film around, we got a few offers.
We chose the Orchard because they were willing to put up advances and also dedicate some money to a modest marketing budget.The advance was really great (and helped pay for distribution costs), and it really spoke to their confidence in the film. In addition to that, the Orchard had put out many of the indie films and docs that I love (super cool to be distro mates with you and Taika Watiti!). They were also willing to let me create a marketing plan for the ad spend as well as willing to carve out the ability for us to work with a separate distributor in Japan. They also gave me the leeway to sell physical copies (Blu-ray/DVD) direct from my website.
How did you split up the rights and exploit your film?
For A Fat Wreck, we gave worldwide streaming rights to the Orchard. We had also gotten an offer from King Records in Japan (a very big deal in Japan) to do the distribution there. Japan is such a different market from the rest of the world. They wanted to do a full theatrical run in Japan as well as physical and digital. Our sales agents (well, my friends, I should say) had a great relationship with the Orchard and were able to get them to carve out the digital rights. For the physical rights, our sales agent had a great relationship with Passion River.
Talk about the decision to sell the Blu-ray yourself on your own website. Was that more lucrative than your physical distributor?
Fat Wreck Chord fans and DIY punk fans tend to like to buy physical stuff, so I knew we would have a lot of people in the scene that would want to buy an actual DVD/Blu-ray and that they would prefer to buy direct from the creators. I sold over 1,200 copies myself from my house, physically packing and shipping them. That was pretty lucrative, as I did not have to split the revenue with the distributor or my sales agents, so it could all go back into recouping my personal investment (i.e., paying down the business credit card that we used to finance a large chunk of the film).
Passion River offered to purchase a few thousand copies at a bulk discount and get them into some physical stores and onto BestBuy.com and Walmart.com. Apparently we sold the most physical copies of any film that Something Kreative put out.
What aspect of distribution was the most lucrative?
Digital and streaming have by far been the most lucrative. The Orchard was able to recoup their advances and the marketing budget spend after the first month the film came out.
Tell us how things evolved for your film with Amazon Prime.
Back in April of last year, I went on Amazon and was very surprised to see that A Fat Wreck was listed as part of Prime Video. At that point the film had been out for over two years, and we thought we hadn’t made it to a streaming service. Turns out, although we would not be getting a big check up front, Amazon was experimenting with a pay-per-stream model bolstered by their recommendation algorithm. I also learned that they would be launching Prime Video in most countries worldwide later that year.
It then made a lot of sense to translate the film into additional languages. We could see the traffic in our analytics via our social media and IndieGogo contributors, so late last year we had it translated into German and I ran a couple hundred bucks worth of Facebook and Instagram ads. My next quarterly royalty check was the most it had been in years — more than 10 times what my ad spend was.
We are now moving into Latin America with a translation for that region’s Spanish, and it seems to have the same traction as Germany. It’s a bit difficult to tell, but there are definitely engagement indicators that can give you a good idea if it’s working or not.
Do you consider your film a success story?
I very much consider it a success story. First off, anyone who completes a feature-length film is a success. So many things have to go right just to finish one. As far as our film goes, we had a few successes. The first big one was the IndieGogo’s success. We were also able to screen the film worldwide in indie theaters and at over 15 film festivals. We were one of the very lucky few to get a distribution deal with advances from a prominent indie distributor. We are now essentially streaming worldwide on Amazon. I would say for the first time at bat, we did a pretty successful job.
What has the film done for your career? Could you do it all again today?
It has opened up doors. I don’t think I would have my current projects if I had not done A Fat Wreck. Having distribution and a film on Amazon Prime has a small bit of cache with certain people. Also having actually completed a film has given people confidence in working with me on other long-term projects.
I don’t know if I could do it all again the same way. I think it was “of the moment.” It was all a blur for me. I just remember solving lots and lots of problems. At the end of the whole thing, it was like, “Holy moly, what just happened?”
Why do you think people neglect foreign sales?
It could be that they just don’t think about it. It has been huge for us. Being on Amazon Prime now means that we basically have worldwide distribution, so at this point all I have to do to move into another market is to invest in the translation. Our distributor has worked with me to put that money up and recoup it out of royalties. Although Amazon stats are a black box, I can use my social media and IndieGogo analytics to target countries that have been strong for us. I can then use Facebook and Instagram ads to target specific countries and demographics. Because most American filmmakers tend to only make English versions available, the amount of content that some of these viewers have available to them may be limited, especially if they are into a niche thing like mid-90s punk-rock bands. I see a pretty amazing return on investment on Facebook ads. I also reach out to smaller blogs and podcasts to extend the reach of the marketing.
Can you tell us the numbers? Cost of film to what you’ve made? Are you in the black?
The film ended up costing just under $100,000. Although if we estimated based on all the in-kind work that was done, the film would have cost over $250,000. It took over 2 years, but thanks to the recent streaming money, we should now be in the black, or just under.
The film still feels like it has a lot of life in it. I have heard from several fans that they watch it on a regular basis now that it’s on Amazon Prime. Hearing that makes me very happy because the film was really built to be rewatchable. There are tons of punk-rock easter eggs in there.
I am currently in post on a feature doc called Lifer: A Wilhelm Scream, about people that do creative work at the working-class level and the support systems (friends, family, community) that allow that creative work to happen.
Back in February of this year, we started shooting for another feature-length doc, this one about the podcast industry. It’s called Age of Audio and will heavily focus on highly produced narrative podcasts, like This American Life, Radiolab, Criminal, and 99 Percent Invisible. We’re making it under my small production company, called [open-ended] films, with Futurism Studios.