Friday, May 07, 2010

Some things I'd like to know

To my mind, the biggest problem facing the indie film field is the lack of transparency around the numbers. Which numbers? All of them. Until we know a few basic things, it's really hard to say what's wrong, what might work, what has worked and whether anything really is wrong at all. Everyone talks about box office, but we all (should) know that those are really the least important numbers. If we had better data available, publicly, on VOD, deal points, DVD sales, etc., then we could build a more robust indie film sector. We don't know these numbers for a lot of reasons - many people make their living off keeping these things confidential, but some of them we just don't know because no one who should be asking them has bothered - ahem, that would be you, lackadaisical film industry trades (all of you). So here's twenty things I'd like to know, in no particular order.

  1. Breakdowns of DVD sales, VOD, PPV, rentals and other ancillary numbers. It's really a shame that we haven't collectively forced these stats into the open, like box office;
  2. An analysis of the last 20 years of films picked up at Sundance - their production budgets, reported sale price, box office performance, ancillary performance, etc., as well as trends like volume of sales, industry attendees, territories sold - all that good stuff. It would be interesting to see if there's been any real great change here. Everyone intuits that there has been, but group wisdom is usually wrong, and even if the group is correct, this is good info to know;
  3. Is there any correlation between playing a regional film festival (for word of mouth) and eventual box office (or ancillary) performance in that market? ;
  4. Analyses of - correlation between box office performance and other ancillary sales; average critical rating for indie films and box office/ancillary sales; number of festivals played versus sales; whether piracy has actually lessened sales for popular indie films or if it has just mirrored popularity (i.e., do good indies just get watched a lot, legally and not);
  5. What has been the total investment by foundations and donors (even approximate) annually into documentary films, and what has been the return on this investment, purely in dollars? While I know that foundations donate to these films for other reasons, like social return, it would be interesting to know whether it would be easier for them to just fund them more robustly and demand they be given away for free, for example, or whether their investment has helped the success of these docs trend upwards in any fashion?;
  6. What has been the total viewership (butts in seats, watching on HBO, buying DVDs, etc) for the Sundance Grand Jury prize winners each year? For each film that sold each year?;
  7. Educational distributors argue that you must window a documentary film's release to ensure better educational sales. It would be great to analyze the performance in both sales and viewership for those who follow this strategy vs those who don't. Is the correlation true?;
  8. While we're on educational sales, it would be great to track several film's lives from first acquisition to final years of contract to see how they perform over time versus other distribution models;
  9. An analysis of the top five DIY "success stories" over the last ten years. For example, if you assigned the federal minimum wage to everyone involved, totaled their hours worked on self-distribution for the entire distribution cycle of each film and subtracted this (plus marketing and other hard costs) from their returns, did any make more money back than their best minimum guarantee from a distributor? How many are still making films 5 and 10 years later? What have been common denominators to those that did well?;
  10. What have been the top performing towns for truly indie releases? Has this changed over time? Has this changed as more critics have been laid off?;
  11. Which festival's premieres have performed best at the box office? Which award winners? What is the ratio for further festival play per premiere festival (i.e., does playing Sundance predict you'll play more regional festivals than Toronto? Than SXSW?)?;
  12. What is each festival's annual breakdown for expenses spent on filmmaker related activity (showing films, travel, awards, hotel, etc) vs other expenses, like staffing, sponsorship acquisition, etc. (Mind you, I've run a festival, so I know how important all of these things are, but I think transparency would help us determine what's working and for whom);
  13. Is there any correlation between mentions on Twitter of a given film title and its box office performance?;
  14. What are the correlations between various marketing venues/places and spends and box office and other sales?;
  15. Audience demographics - not just diversity, etc. but also things like - is there an indie film audience that mainly watches indie films? Or do people who watch a lot of movies generally also watch more indie films? Where do they hear about these films and how has that changed? What is their overall satisfaction level with what they see? How has that changed? Does the geographic dispersion of indie title-renters on Netflix (or on any other platform) correlate with box office (is there a large audience outside of towns with indie-playing-theaters that are renting on Netflix)?;
  16. What has been the total investment in non-YouTube video portals and what has been the return on that investment - i.e., have any made money?;
  17. How many indie films are made annually? How many play at some festival, somewhere? How many unique indies are submitted annually to each of the video portals? Just how big a glut are we facing?;
  18. What percentage of distributors send acquisitions reps to festivals that represent diverse filmmakers (specifically, such as American Black Film Festival)? How many films which premiere at such festivals go on to play those festivals that don't expressly have diversity as their mission? Of the award winners? How many festival programmers attend such festivals? What are the diversity ratios of festival programmers? Does this correlate with diversity ratios of films shown (in depiction, production personnel, etc.)?;
  19. Which genres perform best, on average, at each of New York City's arthouse theaters? What is the average age of their attendees? Does the average age change with certain genres? Does playing at one theater predict greater ancillary sales versus another?;
  20. What percentage of successful indie films (pick a measure of success, any measure - box office, awards, festivals played, etc.) are made by film school graduates? From which schools? How many graduates are working in film, in any capacity, five and ten years after graduation?

Ok, I'm fibbing a bit - I know some of these answers and have guesses on others, but I'd really like this stuff to be shared more readily. I'm also sure that I could come up with a completely different list of 20 important questions, so these aren't probably even the best questions to ask. What ones would you like to know the answers to? What ones do you have answers to, which you'd be willing to share (here or privately)?

I don't think the film trades will ever cover these - it could really cut down on the party invites should they expose this stuff. But here's a challenge to them - as someone smarter than me once said - nothing is news unless someone is trying hard to cover it up. Everything else is just a press release, so do some digging for us, please. Knowing this won't likely happen anytime soon, I do suggest that all of these would be perfect research projects for some unaffiliated university to undertake on our behalf. Or perhaps this should be an open-sourced, wiki-like project?


David W. Valentin said...

You bring up some VERY good points. New tech bring a new paradigm by which the def of success is evaluated. Too many indie film makers are so consumed by the production of their projects that they fail to conceive of the industry they are working in. The idea once a film is finished you just "throw it over the fence" at festivals in the hope that someone will pick it up is profoundly unsound. Through I doubt that your call for information to be shared will be heeded, the mere act saying the idea out loud is a start and is to be applauded.

Ryan Koo said...

Great questions Bryan, I blogged this. With my own forthcoming film projects I plan on sharing all manner of analytics; right now I only have blog traffic and revenue to share, but I will be posting analytics for films soon enough as well.


MTeplitsky said...

Well said, I agree. I always thought it was kinda ironic that in the documentary film world, the numbers/business side is rarely authentic or transparent.