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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Today's Big Question: What Do You Give Away for Free?

Any sentient being would agree that you need to make free a part of your strategy these days: a free collection of behind-the-scenes footage, a free song from your soundtrack, a free look at the first 10 minutes of your film, a free game for mobile phones to get people interested in your fantasy world.

The question I've been hearing at the last few conferences and film festivals I've been to is this: "Yes, free is important. But how much should I give away for free?" What people would like to know is, at what point do all those freebies help someone decide that, no, they're actually not all that interested in your film...or, are you giving away too few free samples, thereby under-marketing your project? If you gave away less for free, would you make more money? If you gave away more for free, would you reach more people?

I think these questions are all fundamentally unanswerable. But I'm interested in your take. How can you determine, in a scientifically-provable way, whether you would've earned more (or less) from a given film if you gave more stuff away for free (or less)?

I'm suggesting that the amount of free you do needs to be a gut decision -- though it probably makes sense to dial it up and dial it down a bit over time and see what the impact is.

And here's an example just so we have a case study to discuss: Cory McAbee's space Western serial "Stingray Sam" was released this week, in theaters, on DVD, and as a digital download.

My sense is that the first episode (10 mins long), along with some songs, a trailer, some behind the scenes video, and a mess of still photos and storyboards, is a pretty good mix of stuff to offer for free. And I also like the mix of various packages at different price points that they've set up when you're ready to buy.

But would "Stingray" do better if the first five episodes were given away free, and the rest were paid downloads? What about if everything was free, supported by ads? Hard to know unless you try it -- and trying it entails taking a risk on revenues.

I think filmmakers will help one another, serving as guideposts, if they share actual revenue figures on their experiments with free vs. paid. And not enough do that. (Three counter-examples are Hunter Weeks, Morgan Spurlock, and Gary Hustwit.)

What do you think?

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  • I don't think it's all that hard to parse out a model for free leading to paid content and merchandising. It's been done for decades via television:

    Episodes "free" on broadcast TV, er... internet and paid for by advertising.

    Also have episodes available for paid download minus the advertising. (a variant on the HBO model)

    Release the show's theme song via ITunes for free - make it an event. Get people hooked and ready for the show to premiere.

    (And that's a problem I have with many web series and movies - they don't make their show an "event.")

    While in production, tease audiences with storyboards, script excerpts, set photos, etc...

    Leverage the power of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube TOGETHER to build your audience for the free stuff leading to...

    Paid downloads with commentaries and behind the scenes features...

    A comprehensive DVD set with all sorts of material you would have to spend hours pulling from all sorts of areas from the net. Plus some extra stuff.

    Then you sell them the script book (for those How-to types) or an original novel, comic so forth based on the show.

    You are giving them just enough free to hook them - just like TV does...or radio.

    By Blogger Cunningham, at 12:46 PM  

  • I think we forget about how this biz operates in the traditional model. The vast majority of filmmakers or content creators have never earn much from industry financed models anyway.

    But if you do your own thing, give a certain level of quality content away, whether thats a film, advice, tips, etc, in the long term, I do believe that filmmakers will earn from other spin off stuff.

    Books, physcial merchandise, advice, consultant capacities. And if you build a loyal following, and they know you get films made they like, I do believe like Robert Greenwald they will pre-buy content to help finance films.

    I think we have to worry less about free, and focus more on creating great content, becoming great filmmakers, and the revenue sources will follow.

    We know there are some things people will pay for, and other content they will not. Filmmakers have to be a lot more entreprenerial than they have ever been, but it is possible to have a career.

    Free is never really free. And I dont think consumers expect to get everything for free. It's all about give and take. We know lots of people just take, but thats why it is important to build a loyal following.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 5:54 PM  

  • I came across a film that is actually giving away frames from the film print. Can you believe that? what a cool way to get people interested and have a piece of movie memorabilia. the film is Red Roses and Petrol. Its at

    By Blogger Luan Evans, at 5:51 PM  

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