It takes an international village to get a film to prospective audiences worldwide and Salero, a Cinereach original production about a traditional salt gatherer on Bolivia’s modernizing Salar de Uyuni, is no exception.
Salero premiered at IDFA in November 2015 and is nearing the end of a long and wide-ranging festival run. It landed on iTunes and Netflix in the US through the Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative, and Cinema Guild handles North American educational/non-theatrical distribution. For worldwide sales, we were lucky to partner with ro*co Films International, which represents hundreds of excellent documentaries (including The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival), and ro*co secured Salero’s broadcast on Al Jazeera English.
Although proactive outreach for Salero is winding down, ripples of awareness will continue to spread, and we want new audiences to keep finding and seeing it. Enter ro*co’s Simple Cinema™, a unique platform whereby anyone who wants a license to screen Salero in a territory where we don’t have distribution can do so.
While the Simple Cinema™ platform is only available to films represented by ro*co, any filmmaker who wants to maximize the international reach of their work needs to know the challenges Simple Cinema™ was launched to address, and the concepts behind how it works. That’s why we asked ro*co Project Manager Nicole Askeland and Managing Director Cristine Platt Dewey for the following interview.
Look for our key takeaways at the end of the post, to connect some dots for you.
Cinereach: Why did the ro*co team start Simple Cinema™ and how does it work?
ro*co: We started Simple Cinema™ as a response to an increase in the number of international requests we were receiving from non-profits, small festivals, individuals and educational institutions to host a screening of a ro*co film in their town. They are wonderful opportunities—people are recognizing that they can use documentary storytelling to promote shared values, community connections and social goals—and they don’t have to wait for their local theater to show the film.
Until we started Simple Cinema™, we didn’t have an efficient way of managing these requests that didn’t take significant time away from our core mission as an international distributor—our primary focus is to license films to broadcasters, theatrical companies, and digital platforms.
So Simple Cinema™ was created to easily service these requests. It’s simple. People can go to simplecinemafilms.com and license the public performance rights to host a screening in their community by choosing a license that fits the scope of their screening and their preferred format for receiving the film.
C: Were there challenges to setting up Simple Cinema™? If so, how were they overcome?
R: By far the biggest challenge that Simple Cinema™ has faced has been in getting to know and being able to fully service our global audiences. The US market for semi-theatrical is pretty standard, and universities and nonprofits are accustomed to paying premium prices for acquiring the public performance licenses for content. Overseas, however, the financial ability of communities and organizations to pay the same license fees varies greatly. We came up with a solution: to provide a one-time screening fee at $150, which is a price point most groups can find the budget for, and it has been a great success.
When working in the global market, technology standards are different from territory to territory. Providing enough material options when delivering the film has also been a challenge. While the market is moving very quickly into digital delivery, we are finding that many of our international customers still need physical DVDs and BluRays. We had to develop in-house expertise to be able to produce these different formats at a cost that makes sense for our filmmakers.
Subtitles are also needed in many regions where films simply cannot be screened in English. Subtitle files are expensive to create, the cost ranges from $800 USD to $2,500 (depends on the language) per language for a feature-length film. When we’re lucky, we can get access to subtitle files that have been created for another distribution purpose. And in a few cases a filmmaker has been able to successfully secure funding to have subtitle files created. We’ve worked with them to identify which languages make the most sense to produce subtitle files for, and manage the process of having them made. Occasionally, an organization looking to screen the film will volunteer to translate the film into their own language and create a subtitle file, either on a volunteer basis or in exchange for a reduction on the screening fee. More often than not, the filmmakers we work with are happy to agree to a reduced fee for a subtitle file when asked.
Technically, we were challenged to build in a system for making sure our films are geo-restricted to the territories where rights are available. You’ll notice the first question a visitor to our website has to answer is what country they live in—when they select their country, only the films available in that territory appear. We also list the countries where rights are not available on each page and we audit each purchase to make sure we have the rights in place. Effective rights management is a core value for Simple Cinema™ and we take it very seriously.
C: At what point in a film’s release strategy, under what conditions, is Simple Cinema™ an option to consider? How have films integrated Simple this tool into release plans?
R: Our first strategy for the semi-theatrical screening rights and the digital rights is to work with a local, reputable distributor who has in-territory contacts and a P&A budget to market the film. We look for those opportunities first. When they’re not available, and on a date mutually agreed upon with the filmmaker, we make a film available on Simple Cinema™. We geo-restrict those territories where we have been successful in getting a distributor on board.
Recently, we took on Ben Nabor’s The Happy Film. It’s been a fun film to work on because it turns out that design communities are very well organized. The main character, Stefan Sagmeister, did a series of talks called “The Happy Talk” around the world to raise production funds for the film. We were able to use that interest and those relationships to get distributors on board in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, who all agreed to collaborate on a simultaneous theatrical release of the film on January 1. The release was successful and generated spillover interest in neighboring countries that didn’t have distributors on board. We had the Simple Cinema™ page set up and ready to go in those neighboring countries so we could capture that interest.
C: How do non-theatrical venues from across the globe discover titles on Simple Cinema™, and what can filmmakers do to help their films be found on it?
R: We’ve been very clear with filmmakers that Simple Cinema™ in its current state is a reactionary tool intended to serve requests that are generated through other sources. We are systematically building a database of non-theatrical venues that discover Simple Cinema™ because they’re tracking a film they’ve heard about. So by far, the best promotional tool a film has is it’s own website. We ask filmmakers to include a link to Simple Cinema™ and find that many of our clients reach us that way.
We have just begun to do marketing campaigns out of our database, so you’ll have to check back with us on progress, we’re still in the experimentation phase.
C: For filmmakers not working with ro*co (and unable to access Simple Cinema™) what approaches might help them reach untapped non-theatrical audiences independently?
R: Sometimes people wrongly assume that the more specific a film is, the harder it will be to find an audience, when in fact the opposite is true when looking to exploit semi-theatrical rights. The more niche the film, the easier it is to connect to a core audience that has the potential to be willing to organize screenings. We advise filmmakers that social media is the best way to connect to this audience. Most filmmakers are already savvy about the value of cultivating their core audience in North America from the moment they start production on their film. They come to us knowing who that core audience is and they’re already connected. Often, networking with the organizations and community groups that make up their North American core audience can generate opportunities internationally.
We recommend targeting territories based on language—if your film is only available in English, then focusing on the English-speaking territories and the Scandinavian territories where almost everyone speaks English.
We’ve also seen success with targeted international Facebook campaigns, they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to do in English-speaking territories. And if the resources are there, a good internationally-focused social media marketing campaign can obviously have a big impact.
Here are some key takeaways from our conversation with Cristine and Nicole.
- Niche audiences: If you’ve met receptive organizations and communities in North America and/or other territories where your film has screened, demand can spill over to international networks with similar interests. Word-of-mouth (literal and digital) can create draw to your film’s site or social networks, and you can ask existing contacts to refer you to international colleagues. Investing in social media ads that let you target specific territories and interest groups can be fruitful as well.
- Timing: If you have an international sales agent, they will attempt to secure distribution in appropriate foreign territories, where a local distributor will have the expertise and resources to market your film. After that runs its course, it can make sense to get set up to respond to screening inquiries from territories where your film is not otherwise available, (making sure you respect any deal terms and windows with existing stakeholders).
- Pricing: Offering a low one-time screening fee (like Simple Cinema’s $150) can help keep licensing accessible and appealing to a range of audiences and territories.
- Format: DVDs and BluRays are still commonly used outside of North America. Be prepared to accommodate this.
- Subtitles: It is best to promote your film in territories where the language of your film is spoken, or where you can make appropriate subtitles available. Otherwise, additional work and cost may come into play.
- Geo-location: Make sure your web site clearly communicates which countries can access your film, in which formats, and who to contact to license the film. For Salero, we have a “See Salero” item in the main menu on our site to point visitors to where to rent, buy, or stream the film in the US. This “License Salero” page outlines how to request the film in North America, Bolivia, and elsewhere.
Our sincere thanks to Cristine and Nicole for the interview! More on both our interviewees below.
Nicole Askeland (left) joined ro*co films in 2012 as Project Coordinator. She lends her creative talents to marketing, sales and distribution projects for all divisions, and heads up the sales arm of ro*co’s international semi-theatrical initiative Simple Cinema. Nicole also manages art and video assets for both filmmakers and media buyers and works seamlessly on the timely execution of deliverables. Nicole holds a BA in Political Science from Boston College and works in film production when not at ro*co.
Cristine Dewey (right) is Managing Director of ro*co films International. She builds and maintains relationships with media buyers and acquisition executives around the world to ensure that ro*co’s documentaries get the attention they deserve. She manages the international contracts and works collaboratively with filmmakers to maintain a long-term international distribution presence for each film. Cristine joined ro*co in 2005 after several years of experience as a community activist. She has a B. A. in English from Carleton College and a professional back-ground in development and grants administration.