Case Study: Hunter Weeks and Josh Caldwell: 10 MPH
The last digital distribution strategy they tried for 10 MPH was making the entire film available for free on YouTube... The film was preceded by a short message from Weeks, who explained that if viewers signed up to be members of an entertainment website called OurStage.com, the filmmakers would receive $1. (Viewers who signed up would also get a free iPod download of the film.) That brought in a bit more than $10,000.
When Hunter Weeks and Josh Caldwell set out to ride a Segway electric scooter across America, they were first-time filmmakers with almost no sense of the tough realities of the documentary film business.
“We’d seen Super Size Me. It was kind of like, ‘Let’s go out and make a movie,’” says Caldwell. “It’ll be cool: we’ll submit it to Sundance, go to Sundance, and get a distribution deal.”
Things didn’t exactly play out that way. The documentary they made, 10 MPH, got rejected by Sundance and most other major film festivals. That forced the Denver-based duo to devise a pioneering (and time-consuming) do-it-yourself distribution strategy that involved DVDs, a theatrical road show and digital downloads. Following the lead of the band Radiohead, they even dabbled with letting viewers pick the price they were willing to pay for a download of the movie.
New Distribution Opportunities
10 MPH was eventually accepted by the Vail Film Festival and it played at about a dozen other festivals. Weeks and Caldwell were encouraged by the audience response, but sales agents didn’t seem interested in picking up the movie.
Through his day job, though, Weeks made contact with a buyer at Blockbuster. While the buyer didn’t directly pick up the movie, he made an introduction to a sub-distributor called RepNet LLC. That company made the DVD, released in May 2007, available to rental outlets and retailers like Amazon, Blockbuster, Netflix and Hollywood Video. The deal allowed RepNet to buy DVDs at 60 percent off the suggested retail price of $19.98. But Weeks and Caldwell could also sell DVDs from their own website, where the profit margin was much higher. After paying about $1 to produce a DVD, Weeks says they made $16 or $17 in profit when they sold it through their site. They hired a publicist using the community website Craigslist, and did about 40 radio interviews to promote the DVD release, Weeks says. He says they sold about 3000 DVDs on their own and another 3000 through RepNet.
After the DVD release, they booked a 23-city theatrical tour. They sold t-shirts, hats and copies of the DVD. They look back at the theatrical tour as a way of marketing the movie and building awareness—even if they only broke even. They did discover, though, that deals where ticket sales were split 50/50—between them and the theater owner—worked out much better than four-walling or renting out the theater and keeping all the receipts.
Caldwell used the editing software Final Cut Pro to produce a digital version of the movie that could play on iPods. Using a service called E-junkie, they created a storefront on their website where would-be viewers could buy a download of the movie. (They also sold downloads through Amazon’s Unbox service, but felt the movie wasn’t positioned well there, among higher-profile studio content.) “Amazon was more geared to PC users and our iTunes-compatible version was more geared to Macs and iPods,” Weeks says. At $7.99 a download, the profit through their site was about $7, he says. (Amazon kept 50 percent of the price of a download.) Between the two sites, they sold about 2000 downloads.
But that included hundreds of downloads where users were allowed to pick their own price; an experiment they started in the fall of 2007, inspired by the band Radiohead, who tried a similar initiative. “A lot of people paid a penny, but we had a few people who paid $100,” Weeks says. “I think they wanted to support the arts. On average, people paid between $3 and $4.”
The last digital distribution strategy they tried for 10 MPH was making the entire film available for free on YouTube, where it debuted in January 2008. The film was preceded by a short message from Weeks, who explained that if viewers signed up to be members of an entertainment website called OurStage.com, the filmmakers would receive $1. (Viewers who signed up would also get a free iPod download of the film.) That brought in a bit more than $10,000.
The film’s budget, Weeks and Caldwell say, was about $75,000. The costs of making the movie eventually got covered, though without leaving them much in the way of salary.
“What we did was a lot of ‘guess and check,’” Caldwell says. “You go out and try something, and just make it happen. We pretty much tried everything with 10 MPH, and we learned what works.”
“My hope,” says Weeks, “is that this was part of a foundation-building process, where we come out with a couple cool films, and that creates more opportunities and exposure.”
Their second documentary, 10 Yards, about the world of fantasy football, was released in August 2008. Its debut was not at a film festival, but on a website called OurStage.com, which helped them raise $10,000 of the film’s financing.