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in Filmmaking
on Sep 29, 2007

Over at his Long Tail blog, Chris Anderson posts an email he received from Jeff Bach, an independent filmmaker at Quietwater Films regarding the viability of the “long tail” model for an independent producer. (In this case, it’s a sports non-fiction producer — Quietwater produces films on canoeing for boating enthusiasts).

Anderson posts the whole email, but here’s an excerpt:

But the reality at this time for me and my company is that I need to find multiple large national distributors if I hope to even come close to making a living at this game. And I need to produce fresh content on a reasonably frequent basis. In short, I am a much smaller and more struggling version of the giants that have preceded me. I have the same issues and problems my predecessors did. The only thing that has changed is that I am trying to do it with an awareness of Web 2.0 and Long Tail and several other “New Media” phrases that you can insert here.

Your Long Tail theory is a basic and profound truth that I happily embrace AS A CONSUMER. But as a producer and creator of Long Tail content it is basically spelling out my doom. Other than your book examples which are still basically about VERY LARGE entities and aggregators, I am finding very few self supporting examples of independent Long Tail producers.

This quote resonated with me a week after the IFP Market and Conference. Departing filmmakers there seem to be split between those excited by the marketing and distribution possiblities Web 2.0 has to offer and those whose eyes are glazed over with anxiety at the thought of becoming niche-distributors and navigating this terrain on their own.

In the comments thread (included after the post on the link above), Bach elaborates on his email, and I hope he won’t mind if I quote him at length because I think his discussion of indie wholesale versus retail marketing is relevant to a broader audience of independent filmmakers:

I think paying attention to the demographics of your retail buyer is important as well. For example, I could posit that my typical retail buyer is 40+, affluent, outdoorsy or married to someone outdoorsy. So far so good. But things get interesting when I consider that as my demographic ages, fewer and fewer of them are routinely on the internet in a buying mood, looking to discover a product like I have. They are out there though – but where? For the most part they are in a retail store discovering and then holding the product in their hand before they buy it. Which brings me back to the importance, for Quietwater anyway, of having national distributors and a shelf presence in retail stores. That part of the business then becomes wholesale, with a margin that is half or less of retail, so it makes the volume aspect of the business even more important.

Quietwater is working with two distributors and hopefully that will flesh out over time. I do need to put more effort into the retail (mainly online) side of things, but right now developing the wholesale segment is a bit more active. On the retail side, I built an e-store at Createspace.com. They have a “just-in-time” model that is very efficient and takes care of the credit card and shipping issues as well, which is very significant. Their cost is reasonable as well. On the frustrating side, their online store has Quietwater content buried in a very awkward browsing tree which results in non-existent discovery. Their browsing tree has no entry for “outdoor recreation”, which is a real bummer. Quietwater products (a solo canoe DVD and a rec kayak DVD) are available via Amazon, which does a great deal on the discovery side, but they take a huge chunk of the total sale price. It is depressing to write but…a retail sale on Amazon yields less than a DVD sold wholesale. Is the benefit of discovery on Amazon worth the cost? This is partly why I’m doing more with the wholesale side of the business, it actually makes more $$/DVD than Amazon retail does!

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