Films That Sell/Films That Don’t

When I began as a DIY consultant, I thought, naively, that most good films would have an equal chance of selling if given the right academic platform and marketing push.  After all, a decent saleswoman can sell the Brooklyn Bridge, right?  Empowered by my know-how, I believed that with the right positioning and academic  platform, nearly all filmmakers would be able to reach their “academic sales potential”, whatever that was.  At the very least, they would sell more than a catalogue distributor, since they would be making an individual effort.

The latter still holds true–what catalogue distributor will launch individual marketing campaigns for you?–but I now realize that the academic sales potential of equally good films can vary.   What I’m about to say is just my opinion and of course full of exceptions at every turn, but I hope it sheds some light in our on-going journey to understand how to self-distribute.   Please add your own comments and experiences.

What can hurt a film’s sales potential:

-  Science buyers can be harder sells than art and humanities buyers, and hard science the most difficult.  I know, I know, a huge over-generealization, but when the field is quantitative as opposed to qualitative, the buyer can be more suspect.  They also tend to use films less often in their classes.  (Not that they never do).

- It seems counter-intuitive, but well-made, “festival-like” documentaries can sometimes work against themselves in an academic setting. Granted there are numerous exceptions, but a film as concerned with its dramatic appeal as its documentary subject, runs the risk of appearing too theatrical.  Teachers want to teach, not entertain.  Don’t give up before you start, though.  An inexpensive library campaign will show your film’s potential.

    What will help:

    - If the film is on a subject already being taught, and particularly if it has not been explored before, you are several steps ahead.  There’s nothing harder than convincing a buyer she needs something when she knows she doesn’t, but buyers can be equally motivated to find films in their field, especially when none yet exist.  This point alone may negate everything said above.

    - Length, length, length.  In real estate it’s location, in academic film sales, it’s length.    A film that’s under 60 minutes, or chapterized if over, will show the buyer you’re aware of the importance of length, and want to fit into their classroom hour.  This is another reason why more theatrical documentaries, expanded to 90 minutes, are less appealing in an academic setting.

      That said, disregard everything you’ve just read.  The only sure thing in the film business is that no one really knows what will sell and what won’t.  Believe in your film, do test campaigns, and get feedback from professors.  Also be aware that trends change.  When I first did my film on Judy Chicago, I couldn’t give it away.  Now institutions can’t get enough.  The moral: if not now, maybe later.  You may just be ahead of your time.

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