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January 5, 2016

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of distribution platforms, windows, rights splits and audience building tools out there, you are not alone. When it comes to quality data about independent film, we are together in the dark.

At Cinereach, a big part of our mission is to reduce the barriers that hinder filmmakers from reaching their creative potential. One of those barriers is a lack of information about potential avenues and outcomes for distribution and revenue streams. Filmmakers, distributors, sales agents, donors and investors alike could benefit from greater data access and transparency.

To address this, Cinereach has been working with Sundance Institute to develop the Transparency Project, a web-based tool to analyze the expense and revenue data of recent independent films. This nonprofit project collects and shares real numbers from across the spectrum of distribution platforms, but keeps film titles anonymous.

Seeing how other projects have spent and earned money will reveal hidden patterns and opportunities that empower filmmakers to be more creative and strategic with their own funding, marketing and release decisions. The project is also intended to benefit the independent film community at large, and ultimately the public, by removing a big obstacle to the sustainable production and distribution of independent films.

Here’s how:

1. Transparency allows filmmakers to understand their films’ real potential on various platforms.

Paul Mezey, veteran independent producer, and Producer-in-Residence at Cinereach, has been deeply involved with the project. He’s stated that one of its key goals is for users to model out different scenarios, comparing what has happened over a certain time period with films that have similar qualities to theirs:

“Where are the revenue streams coming from? What costs does it take to get those revenues? How valuable is a theatrical release, and what is the tipping point in terms of overspending on theatrical? How does box office correlate to VOD or other online digital distribution? You’ll be able to unpack a number of variables around different budget levels and P&A spends.”

2.  Transparency means filmmakers won’t be misguided by assumptions, misconceptions and anecdotes.

In an article he wrote last year about the Transparency Project for Filmmaker Magazine, Scott Macaulay, wrote:

“While studios base their greenlight decisions on finely-honed models derived from the financial performance of numerous other pictures, many independent filmmakers perilously base investor pitches and distribution decisions on anecdotes and hearsay. What used to be simple extrapolation (“If that film grossed X, it probably did Y on home video”) has become a near impossible exercise in the age of digital distribution, in which paltry box-office returns hide “the real numbers” — a dizzying matrix of VOD stats, download figures, Netflix license fees and more and more obscure sub-categories of revenue.”

Interviewed about the project by Darianna Cardilli for Documentary Magazine, Chris Horton, Director of Sundance Artist Services, and a major force behind the project, said:

“You hear a lot of people say, “Well, you’ll make your money on digital.” That may be true, but we don’t know. There are a lot of assumptions that may be mistaken. What we want to do is get enough films that have been released recently that can give us a good sense of what is actually happening out there.”

Keri Putnam, Executive Director of the Sundance Film Festival adds (via Filmmaker Magazine):

“Broader access to data is only going to make better ideas emerge. Some of them will be business ideas, and that’s fantastic, and some of them will lead to profits for individual filmmakers.  […] If we’re successful […] we will be creating a living tool for distribution plans, something that’s broadly useful for all sectors of the industry.”

3) Transparency can foster a healthier creative space for producers and distributors, too.

Producer Jan Van Hoy of Parts and Labor adds (also via Filmmaker Magazine):

“It is important that producers and filmmakers understand how films are working in the marketplace and not have exaggerated notions. Oftentimes films are unstable in production and that instability comes from people projecting their fantasies or having outsized expectations. It’s the same thing when dealing with distributors. The last thing distributors want to do is talk to financiers or producers who have crazy fantasies about how their film is going to perform.”

The Transparency Project will hinge on the participation of filmmakers, distributors, and many throughout our field who agree that sharing data will create a thriving, creative industry for all. If you are interested in getting involved, please stay tuned for future updates.

You can read the full articles referenced above at Filmmaker Magazine and the International Documentary Association blog.

Sara Kiener

Sara is Head of Distribution Strategies at Cinereach, where she handles outreach initiatives and provides distribution guidance for Cinereach supported films and productions. She has been championing outside-the-box distribution strategies since 2010 when she co-founded Film Presence with Merrill Sterritt. Prior to working at Film Presence, Sara was Exhibitor Relations Manager at Magnolia Pictures. Sara sits on the Advisory Board of IFP.