Case study: Harnessing star power to boost sales

Documentaries are a powerful and popular tool for effecting change. With so many films trying to raise awareness for a myriad of important issues, how do you make your film stand out and move beyond “preaching to the converted”?

We spoke with Adam Scorgie, producer of The Union: The Business Behind Getting High and The Culture High, to find out how he works with star talent to make a bigger impact and boost revenue for his films.

Building the team

Back in 2007, Adam and director Brett Harvey made The Union, an investigative documentary about the marijuana business and how it’s illegality may do more harm than good. They filmed a slew of experts, including celebrities like Tommy Chong and Joe Rogan.

The Union became the cannabis film that everyone talked about,” says Adam. It was released in the early days of Facebook, and Adam leveraged the social media platform to create a hub for news and information about cannabis culture and legalization. The page now has 677K fans, so Adam and Brett had a huge head start when they decided to make the sequel The Culture High in 2012.

By focusing efforts on his first window with Vimeo On Demand, it meant that he earned the biggest percentage of revenue during the period of most excitement for the film.

Among these fans was Jason Reed, a man who had been suffering from a pain-processing disorder called fibromyalgia. The Union and the information it shared on medicinal marijuana changed Jason’s life, and he reached out to Adam about producing The Culture High. He helped Adam secure an interview with Virgin Group’s founder Richard Branson, who later proved to be an indispensable participant.

The Culture High also features musicians like Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, and Wiz Khalifa, thanks to producer Bianca Barnhill, who worked for High Times magazine and brought in a lot of her contacts.

The talent chosen for Adam’s documentary were among the most influential people within his target audience community. Their connection with the core cannabis audience not only motivated them to spread the word, but ensured that their fans were likely to be excited by the movie.

When you know your audience and become part of their community, you can set yourself up for an incredibly successful direct-distribution release.

“You have to know where your audience is and cater to them,” Adam advises. “I knew the cannabis audience and which angles to push. If you’re doing a sci-fi film, you need to connect with the sci-fi and gaming community and get them your film.”

Adam signed The Culture High to Entertainment One in North America and held onto international rights so he could sell directly on Vimeo On Demand at the same time as EOne. This distribution strategy helped Adam capitalize on a global audience and his roster of international talent.

Growing some online buzz

Jason Reed invited Richard Branson’s son to the film’s UK premiere at Raindance and he loved it. Virgin then asked to use clips from the film in a series on drugs, and as part of their coverage, Virgin launched The Culture High trailer with Vimeo On Demand pre-orders from their blog and Branson’s popular Twitter account. This launch helped the trailer get a viral headstart in the two weeks leading to launch.

For launch day, online video talk show “London Real” invited Adam and Brett to do an interview. Adam also gave “London Real” viewers a discount code and Vimeo set up “London Real” on the VOD Publisher Network. This, combined with the Virgin momentum, made The Culture High’s first few days a booming success.

A few days after the VOD launch, Vimeo helped Adam secure sponsorship on Joe Rogan’s podcast, which offered discount codes for listeners and kept The Culture High in mind for mentions in subsequent episodes.

Bianca reached out to her friends and B-Real (from Cypress Hill) and Wiz Khalifa gave the movie shoutouts on their social media, spreading the word even wider.

Simultaneously, Vimeo secured a small amount of advertising on Vice, which regularly covers cannabis legalization issues. The highly targeted placement ensured that the movie was featured on articles about the same subject. Advertising can be expensive, but when it’s laser-targeted, it can work, and since Vimeo gives creators a 90% margin after transaction costs, you have the flexibility you need to get a high return on investment.

Optimize your windowing strategy

By focusing efforts on his first window with Vimeo On Demand, it meant that he earned the biggest percentage of revenue during the period of most excitement for the film. After the majority of sales came in via Vimeo, Adam extended promotion to other platforms like iTunes, where their broad, casual audience may discover the film. While he earns a lot less per sale on other platforms, there was an opportunity to reach additional audiences outside the core community.

Adam saved his subscription video release for last. Once a film is available as part of a monthly all-you-can-watch service, direct sales on Vimeo and other platforms will fall off quickly, and subscription services pay much less to filmmakers.

“You don’t want to go to Netflix until you have been on Vimeo On Demand for at least three months, since you make real money selling direct and earning 90%,” Adam says. “Besides, on Netflix you only know how well the film is doing by the rating or if they renew your deal.”

Immerse yourself in the community

When you know your audience and become part of their community, you can set yourself up for an incredibly successful direct-distribution release. It’s all the better if you can encourage influential people to help you share your work more broadly. Combine that with Vimeo On Demand’s global reach and unbeatable revenue share, and you’re off to the races! For more nuggets of wisdom from creators successfully selling on Vimeo On Demand, we have tons more case studies and best practices to share. Now go forth and connect with Internet-famous friends to bring in even more green.


Originally published on the Vimeo Blog. Follow Vimeo on Twitter or Facebook to stay informed about future case studies. You can also follow me on Twitter or Tumblr.

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