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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

For Indie Filmmakers: How to Sell DVDs Online

I had drinks in San Francisco this evening with Jamie Chvotkin, who is the founder of, a site that helps indie filmmakers market their DVDs. (Here are the details of how the site works; basically, you send them DVDs and they take a $4 cut from every unit sold.)

I had lots of questions for Jamie, who I'd bumped into once or twice at South by Southwest and other events, but my main focus was this: what are filmmakers doing to move discs on FilmBaby? Later, we talked about some of the new sales channels FilmBaby is developing with partners like Netflix, Google, CinemaNow, iTunes, and Urban Outfitters.

I asked Jamie about some of the site's best-sellers. His answer: documentaries perform best.

The site's best-seller is 'Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a 16-minute documentary (with two hours of bonus material) shot in 1986 at a Judas Priest show. That movie, Jamie says, was already "an underground cult classic" before it came to FilmBaby. He estimated they've sold more than 8000 DVDs through the site. (By my math, at a $19.95 per unit price, that's more than $125,000 in the filmmaker's pocket.)

'The Star of Bethlehem', a Christian-themed astronomy doc, has also done well, selling about 2000 units on the site. 'Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories' also sells steadily. Filmmaker Mike Shilely "tours colleges constantly showing the film, and he's really great at working the local press to get coverage," Jamie said.

His theory is that docs sell better than features on the site because if someone is interested in a topic, they're willing to give the movie a try even if they've never heard of the filmmaker. 'Dark Water Rising' appeals to both animal lovers and people interested in the Katrina disaster: it deals with animal rescues in the wake of the killer hurricane. 'Art of the Bow', a three-hour instructional film for upright bass players, is priced at $79.95 -- and about 400 copies have been sold on FilmBaby.

Features are a tougher sell. 'Fishing with Gandhi / Cow Monkey' is one of the site's better sellers, about two brothers who set off to hunt Big Foot. Every copy is autographed by the filmmakers, Jamie said. "They also have a funny trailer, and it's clear that the production values are good," he added. That title has sold a few hundred copies.

That got us talking about trailers. "You need a great trailer, and most indie filmmakers have no idea how to make a trailer," he said. (I pointed out that most Hollywood directors don't make their own trailers; they hire movie marketing shops that specialize in trailer production.) Jamie said filmmakers should at least resist making a six-minute long trailer. He said 'Star of Bethlehem' has a good one.

Jamie emphasized that it's a filmmaker's responsibility to think creatively about how to generate interest in her project. "You need a promotional strategy, a game plan to get your film out there." Posts on message boards and blogs are helpful, but so is mainstream media coverage; when Gilbert Gottfried does a guest spot on Howard Stern's show, his DVD sales on FilmBaby skyrocket. Think of online distribution as a grocery store, Jamie suggested. "The reason Pringles sell is because that company advertises them," he said.

Jamie said FilmBaby is trying to create lots of other opportunities for filmmakers. He has just started to send a list of all the new DVDs added to his site to Netflix, and Netflix has bought a few for its members. (Jamie made it sound like Netflix has bought fewer than 10 titles so far, but the program just began.) Netflix seems to like DVDs that have a wholesale price of about $12, he said, and they buy a minimum of about 40 copies. Filmmakers don't see any kind of rental royalties after the sale.

A deal with Super D helps make FilmBaby's library of 2000 titles available in 2400 retail stores, as retailers choose to order them.

FilmBaby is just beginning to sell content on Google Video, starting with a video from impressionist Frank Caliendo. Jamie says the volume isn't all that high -- at $8.00 for download-to-own, and $2.10 for a day-pass, Caliendo is making about $250 a month. "He's probably making thousands a month from his audio content on iTunes," Jamie said. He's planning to digitize the entire FilmBaby library and put it on iTunes. This summer, FilmBaby may start offering a "digital only" plan, for filmmakers who aren't interested in selling DVDs.

FilmBaby will also have a first batch of titles up on CinemaNow this July, according to Jamie; that service is planning to add about 15 new FilmBaby movies a month. Later in June, the 'Ask a Ninja' compilation will start showing up in Urban Outfitters stores, thanks to a deal FilmBaby arranged.

Jamie agreed when I suggested that it'd be helpful if we had a break-out hit -- an indie movie that sold a million copies as a digital download, or a DVD sold online. "That'd be great for the indie film community," he said, "whether they sell them through us or CinemaNow or iTunes [which still isn't open to indie content, though Jamie has been in discussions with them.] It'd be a shot in the arm, especially for filmmakers who are skeptical of the do-it-yourself distribution routine."

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