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The recently concluded IFP Narrative Lab was a dense week of study and mentorship as our participating filmmakers, all with films somewhere between rough and fine cut, were given guidance about picture lock, sound design, scoring and music licensing, festival strategy, distribution deals, and DIY, self and hybrid distribution efforts. Amy Dotson and Rose Vincelli from the IFP did a fantastic job of putting the program together. Susan Stover, Jon Reiss and I were the lab leaders. In addition, an inspiring group of editors, filmmakers, producers and industry vets came in to lend their expertise.

At the end of the Lab I emailed Susan and Jon and asked them to tell me a few things they’d want to stress. Along with a couple of my own, below is that list. It’s not a summary of the week by any means. Rather, these are 13 points, some obvious and some not, that we wanted to emphasize one more time.
Understand Your Goals. Why did you make this film? To tell a personal story? To experiment artistically? To score a commercial success? To break into the industry? Some combination of the above? Understand your own reasons for making the film, and try to make sure that you are aligned with collaborators in the post, sales, distribution and marketing spheres who understand that vision and are working towards it with you.

Or… Make Sure Your Film Knows What It Is. Another way of saying the above — make sure your film knows what it is and is comfortable in its own skin. Is it a flashy commercial proposition or an intriguingly reticent festival flick? Make sure to have an understanding of the current film ecosystem and know where your film sits on the food chain, who its natural audience is, and who its potential supporters will be.

Make the Best Film You Can. A seemingly obvious point, but one that can be hard to achieve. Have you cut short your creative options because you’ve rushed to meet a festival deadline? Or, even worse, is your festival premiere your first test screening? Have you sought out the opinions of both people you trust as well as everyday viewers before locking picture? In short, it’s tough out there, and all the self-promotion in the world will be for naught if the film doesn’t impress.

Make Your Title Compelling to an Audience. Participants in the IFP Narrative Lab heard from mentors and speakers various tales of title trauma. Bland titles, confusing titles, inscrutable titles — all can hurt a film as much as a sensational title can help. And, yes, the thing about films starting with the letter A and VOD sales? It’s true.

Bring on Board a Producer of Marketing and Distribution. Preparing for self or hybrid distribution is an overwhelming prospect while you’re finishing a film. But if you don’t do it then, you’re wasting time and the resources of your crew, post house, production office, etc. Consider creating another producer position for someone whose job it is to oversee the publicity, marketing and distribution chores.

Know How Your Audience Receives Information. Will you have to reach them through the major media? Will you need a healthy paid advertising budget? Or do they congregate online? Or in Second Life? Or at live events? Do they organize themselves around meet-ups or clubs? Know where you’ll target the people you want to see your film.

Delivery is a Nightmare — Start Early. Delivering a film to a distributor is one of the toughest parts of making a movie. You’re tired, stressed, and often out of money, and the legal and technical demands can be overwhelming. Don’t wait until the last minute. Start during post-production and make sure your vendors know that they’ll need to be creating materials like an M&E mix and video masters. Also, and this is very important: make sure your contracts with talent and crew are in order. If you don’t have signed agreements with people, go back and get them before your festival premiere, not after. If you had an artistic collaborator, make sure you’ve executed a written collaboration agreement between the two of you. Ideally, this should be before production. But if you haven’t done this, iron out whatever disagreements may exist between you before festival acclaim makes it more complicated to do so.

Make Sure You Have the Time and Funds to Deliver Your Film. One speaker told a story about how he chose a distributor based on a promised release date, but then wasn’t able to deliver the film in time. Before you agree to a distribution deal, know how much delivery will cost and how long it will take. Negotiate for the longest delivery period possible; complications can easily ensue.

Know Thy Distribution Deal. When considering a distribution deal, make sure you understand all the terms on the table as well as what might be missing from your contract. Is there a minimum P&A commitment? Is there a maximum P&A spend, beyond which approvals are needed? Is your film guaranteed a certain number of markets? What sort of approvals do you have on marketing materials? Is there a VOD date? Box-office bumps? Know what’s on the page and what’s not so you aren’t surprised down the line.

Scrutinize a Distributor’s Marketing and Release Strategy. When choosing among distributors, the strength of a particular distributor’s marketing and release strategy should be strongly considered. Who has the best plan for reaching the highest number of eyeballs? Prioritize a distributor’s well-considered strategy over vague promises.

If You Have Your Own Strategy, Make Sure a Distributor Understands It. If you have been building your own marketing plan, aggregating your audience, seeding materials, then make sure your distributor will not only bless but comprehend and participate in these strategies going forward. If it’s important to you to reach a specific niche audience through grassroots marketing or targeted outreach, make sure the distributor is on board and, if necessary, is willing to bring on the appropriate additional personnel needed.

Play the Long Game. Yes, point number one is still valid — obsess over your film until it is the best it can be. But, once it’s done, understand that you have a potential career going forward no matter what the reaction is to it is. Build on your successes, learn from your mistakes, and move forward.

Don’t Become Bitter. A related point. The film business is a tough one. No matter how well you do, there’s always something more you could have gotten — better reviews, more festivals, a bigger box office gross, a cooler agent, a Guggenheim, that hot spec script for your next film. It’s easy to lose yourself in competition and bitterness. Be happy with all that you achieved, look forward to achieving even more next time around, and don’t look for comfort in negativity.

To read what some of the participants thought about the lab, here are posts by Lucy Mulloy, Victoria Mahoney, Darren Dean, Arlick Brown, and the entire Kinyaranda Crew,

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