Topspin & Indie Film: The Sundance Direct-To-Fan Reality

I’m humbled and excited to be writing this post on the opening night of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Right now, nearly two hundred hopeful and talented filmmakers are lacing up their boots, aspirations and dreams and heading out into Park City in search of creative and commercial acceptance for their films.

Last year, Stacy Peralta was one of those filmmakers, headed to Utah with his film Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, perhaps to realize the Sundance Dream for the fourth time. You know the Sundance Dream, right? Make a film, get into the festival, then do an all-rights acquisition deal in your cabin after a standing ovation premiere? 

Well, here’s the twist. Stacy said “No thanks” to the dream. Instead, he embraced the new direct-to-fan reality and earned nearly four times as much money by retaining his rights and distributing the film himself

Yes, you read that correctly. I’m here to tell you a little bit about how he did it. If you’re new to Topspin, or direct-to-fan for filmmakers, may I suggest you start with this post HERE. If you’ll be at Sundance this weekend, come see us on Saturday as we present this data (and much more) in person during this awesome panel at Filmmaker’s Lodge.

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First, a little background on Stacy. He was the world’s most famous skateboarder when he and George Powell formed Powell-Peralta Skateboards in the late 70s. Together they invented modern skateboarding as we know it, first by creating the Bones Brigade, the greatest team of skaters ever assembled (Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill, Tommy Guerrero) and then by inventing the skate film (or action sports video) which they used to disseminate positive ideas about personal expression to kids all over the world. My young life, like many many others, was permanently improved.

In the late 90s, Stacy emerged as a formidable documentary filmmaker. His films Dogtown and Z-Boys, Riding Giants and Made In America: Crips & Bloods dominated the Sundance Film Festival and turned him into one of the best journalists on the planet when it comes to telling stories about the influence of skate, surf, and Southern California culture. Stacy’s films earned accolades and attention, and yes, some decent financial advances from traditional distributors. But the films have not been nearly as financially rewarding as they have been creatively. Stacy has never received a single royalty check from any of them.

So, Stacy decided to do it himself with Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. Here are his words, from October:

“As skateboarders, as people that have always lived on the outside, have always had to sneak over fences or through the back door, have always had to create our own terrain, we’ve decided to put that ethic towards how we release Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. We turned down all of the conventional offers for distribution when we came out of Sundance in favor of doing it ourselves. The only place to fully experience the film will be through our Bones Brigade web site; where myself, Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen and Tommy Guerrero will interact directly with fans. Your involvement on the Bones Brigade site is part of the process of making our campaign work — there’s no middle-man here — it’s us and you. Everything we have to offer in regards to our film will be from our website.” - Stacy Peralta

And now, a year after the Sundance premiere and six months from the start of the direct-to-fan release powered by Topspin, Film Sales Company and our partners awe.sm and The Uprising Creative Stacy has earned more from direct sales than he would have from the combined total of the domestic and foreign sales offers. And, because a Topspin direct release does not require licensing rights, Stacy and Andrew Herwitz from Film Sales Company were then able to do their own Transactional VOD and Third-party license deals. Stacy and his financing partners quickly recouped the budget of the film, and the copyright remains in their hands for the future.

That really is the key. “I self financed, got the investment back, am now in profit and I own the copyright and will continue to earn all other sales for the next ten years,” says Stacy. “And it is all because I was empowered for the very first time to really do it myself from start to finish. Topspin has done for distribution what the Handycam did for shooting or the Avid did for editing. Topspin put it all in my hands and suddenly everything I needed was within my reach: pure and simple filmmakers democracy.”

Here’s a pie chart comparison. It shows the old Sundance Dream as Option A, and its small scale represents the all-rights offers Stacy had on the table for Bones Brigade. Option B shows the Direct-To-Fan reality in which prioritizing direct sales of tickets, merch, downloads and super personal items from BonesBrigade.com earned the film nearly four times as much money, and enabled a $100,000 fundraiser for the Tony Hawk Foundation to build skateparks for at-risk youth.

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Wow, you’re probably saying. That’s a big difference in both the size of the pie and the size of the slices. Is this something other filmmakers can copy? Does a well-executed direct-to-fan campaign help all distribution channels? Yes, definitely. Want to hire Topspin Creative Services for your upcoming film? Contact us. Keep reading to learn more!

HOW IT WORKS

  1. Free downloads build a marketing database for the film.
  2. Database and social sharing then drive to the sale of theatrical tickets and exclusive pre-order of ultra-premium, high-margin products sold directly on the film’s website. This direct pre-order window overlaps with the traditional theatrical window.
  3. The pre-order ends the same day the film is available on Transactional VOD. Database and social sharing from the film’s direct purchasers then drive more fans to iTunes/VOD and DVD on release date.
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FREE DOWNLOADS BUILD EMAIL LISTS

It all started on a sleepy Monday morning, when the Bones Brigade members took to Twitter and Instagram and asked fans to dig up their classic Bones Brigade photos and post them to Instagram with the hashtag #bonesbrigade. The Uprising Creative built out AnimalChin.com to showcase the photos, and Topspin and awe.sm installed a seamless download flow with deep social tracking. Out came some incredible ‘80s pics featuring seriously questionable skate fashion, tons of our favorite Bones Brigade graphics, and even some classic school photos of kids with Tony Hawk’s infamous McSqueeb haircut. Oh, and there were tattoos, too. Wow.

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The goal was for fans to post 2,000 photos to “unlock” the premiere of the film’s trailer (seen below) and an incredibly generous Topspin-powered email-for-media download: a complete digital copy of Stacy’s classic skate film, The Search For Animal Chin. Yes, for free. For every skater on Earth. We thought it would take three days. It was unlocked in 22 hours.

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What exactly did all this accomplish? The goals were twofold: Grow the film’s email database and get fans to be invested in the creation of the DVD product. Stacy, Tony Hawk, Tommy Guerrero, Mike McGill and Lance Mountain all actively commented, liked and shared the posted photos — driving killer social sharing numbers and yes, even a little bragging from fans lucky enough to earn their attention.

This initial free download campaign — combined with an experimental Topspin integration inside the BitTorrent peer-to-peer software client — eventually produced more than 11,000 photos on Instagram, more than 46,000 emails for the film, and an incredible collage of fan-submitted photos inside the DVD packaging.

BitTORRENT? HUH? REALLY?

Over the last year, BitTorrent has been running some very interesting “awareness marketing” experiments with forward-thinking artists. Their goal is to show content-creators that the power of their truly massive user base can be used to benefit artists. We (Topspin) liked the approach instantly — anytime you have a chance to connect millions of fans to an artist directly, we say go for it — and so we devised a way to put the Topspin offer of a free download of Animal Chin in exchange for an email address inside the BitTorrent peer-to-peer application. Think of it in an analogous sort of way to getting a high-visibility placement inside the iTunes store. 

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This placement created millions of impressions of the offer, just like a very expensive ad buy might. And it had conversion like an ad campaign, too. Three percent of the BitTorrent users who saw the Bones Brigade offer engaged with it and experienced Bones Brigade content. And six-tenths of a percent (.6%) of fans who saw the offer ended up joining the film’s mailing list. 

If those numbers sound low to you, think again: there is an awful lot of traffic inside of BitTorrent. For more than a month, this integration put nearly 500 new emails per day into the film’s Topspin account. That added up to 36% of the film’s mailing list, the entirety of which has been collected since August 6th.

Of course, your next question is probably “Are those emails any good?” On October 8th, when Stacy emailed fans to announce the first day of pre-orders, he sent two separate emails with identical content: one to the fans acquired inside of BitTorrent and one to the fans acquired via BonesBrigade.com and AnimalChin.com

The BitTorrent group delivered a very solid 5.7% total click-through rate (total clicks / total emails delivered) — a rate that would make a lot of direct marketers very happy. As we’ve come to expect from emails acquired via artist-site Topspin campaigns, however, the response from BonesBrigade.com/AnimalChin.com emails was more than 8x better, with a 47.6% total click-through rate.

What do these two rates tell us? 

The BonesBrigade.com/AnimalChin.com group is the CORE. Look at the Instagram pics on AnimalChin.com. These fans have Bones Brigade tattoos. They are the superfans who drive social shares and buy the $750 Host-Your-Own-Screening package in the pre-order. 

The BitTorrent group is the PUBLIC — they’re casual fans who love music and film and might be a little interested in skateboarding… interested enough to pay attention to the film and graze on its free content. It’s absolutely expected they’ll be less engaged — and that they will spend considerably less money. 

The data bears this out. Total purchases from BitTorrent fans is $4,483.29. Lesson? Marketing to the modern media public is hard. ;) Major props to BitTorrent on their willingness to experiment and share this data publicly. Looking forward to our next test, pals.

THE EXCLUSIVE PRE-ORDER… and TICKETS!

Once we’d built the database of fans, it was time to start planning the film’s release windows and products. The approach here was simple: create products and order the windows in order of decreasing margin. Put simply, start with the most expensive and scarce products first, sell them directly from the film’s website via an exclusive pre-order, and then open the film up on the consumer services later in the campaign.

Of all the successful elements of this campaign, this arrangement of windows is the most significant and replicable piece of strategy for the indie community: 

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If you’ve invested in growing your audience, you can sell stuff. If you sell the coolest, most exclusive stuff first (in this case the film sold skate decks, posters, DVDs and memorabilia from the skater’s collections, all bundled with an instant download of the film and music) the core audience will transact with you directly instead of spending far less money on a commodity version of the film at iTunes or Amazon. 

Since you’re the retailer, you win twice; you get a better sales margin from the bundled product and you get the sales and marketing data. You capture the customer, rather than sending them elsewhere.

For Bones Brigade, the average transaction during the pre-order was $115 (equivalent revenue to 23 rentals on iTunes). And the more than 35 four-walled theatrical screenings turned a 10% profit from online ticket sales.

Watch Stacy’s video above, where he explains his genuine shock and delight at the rabid demand that came on the other side of more than 46,000 free downloads by happy fans. And lest you think all this premium product frenzy hurt the film on other platforms, consider this: The pre-order ended on the same day the film became available in iTunes, where it immediately became the No. 1 documentary on the service.

Will that always be the case? Probably not. As Andrew Herwitz from Film Sales will be quick to point out this weekend, there are films for which the Topspin-centric direct-to-fan release may not be appropriate. But Bones Brigade is not alone in its success. Did you see Indie Game: The Movie? Aside from being one of my favorite films of the year, it also had an incredibly successful direct-to-fan release. Read their blog posts, too. If your film has fan affinity from the cast, the genre, the subject matter or your standing as an auteur, you can do this. 

MEASURING $ FROM FAN & CELEBRITY SHARING … wanna get nerdy?

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Thanks to the powerful social commerce tracking prototype in use by Topspin Creative Services (co-powered by our friends at awe.sm), the Bones Brigade campaign is also awash in a lot of incredible social commerce conversion data, the likes of which we as marketers and software developers are seeing for literally the first time. Like this data for a single tweet by Tony Hawk. This tweet generated: 109 reshares; 1,530 clicks; 397 email addresses; 43 purchases; and $6,168.77. It is now possible to measure the effectiveness of fan and celebrity tweets, and we’ve managed to capture this data for every single share during the Bones Brigade campaign.

We’ll be analyzing and interpreting what this data means for artists and marketers for weeks and months to come, but in the interest of transparency, I’m posting some of the more fascinating bullet-point stats we’ve unearthed so far. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts about what this data means, as well as suggestions for how we might use it to help artists grow their audience and make more money. Hit me up. My email is bob at topspinmedia dot com. 

Sales created by Sharing:

  • Total Sales created by Sharing: $98,482
  • Sales created by Celebrity Sharing: $41,722 (82.0% from Twitter; 18.0% from Facebook) 
  • Sales created by Fan Sharing: $32,251 (5.7% from Twitter; 94.3% from Facebook) 
  • Sales created by Official Account Sharing: $24,508

Value of Fan Sharing:

  • New Site Visits per Share from Fan Sharing: 1.75 per Tweet; 1.89 per Facebook Post 
  • Sales ($) per Visit from Fan Sharing: $0.60 from Twitter; $1.29 from Facebook 
  • Average transaction ($) from Fan Sharing: $61.19 for Twitter; $93.01 for Facebook

Value of Celebrity Sharing:

  • (Tony Hawk’s current audience: 3,301,490 Twitter followers; 4,165,237 Facebook fans) 
  • New Site Visits per Share from Tony Hawk: 930.87 per Tweet; 458.67 per Facebook Post 
  • eCTR (Visits/Share/Reach) for Tony Hawk: 2.82% for Tweets; 1.10% for Facebook Posts 
  • Sales ($) per Visit from Tony Hawk: $1.99 from Twitter; $2.01 from Facebook 
  • Average transaction ($) from Celebrity Sharing: $112.68 for Twitter; $90.49 for Facebook

Animal Chin Free Downloads and Emails Signups:

  • Signups/Downloads from Celebrity Sharing: 3,417 (8%; 1,230 from Facebook; 2,187 from Twitter) 
  • Signups/Downloads from Fan Sharing: 3,213 (7%; 2,851 from Facebook; 362 from Twitter) 
  • Signups/Downloads from Animal Chin BitTorrent promotion: 16,962 (36%) 
  • Signups/Downloads from Organic/Search/Unknown: 23,083 (49%) 
  • Signups/Downloads total: 46,675

Ok, that’s more than enough for now. Thanks a million for reading this far. Let’s all bundle up for the Park City snow and the most amazing week of film, music, art and conversation anywhere in the world. See you at Sundance!

Thumbs Up for Rock ‘n’ Roll,
Bob Moczydlowsky, SVP, Product & Marketing
@bobmoz

PS - Have a film you think Topspin Creative Services would be the right partner for? Contact us and we’ll get back to you right away.

PPS - For a super-nerdy Bones Brigade bonus read, head on over to the awe.sm blog, where they’ll be doing a deep dive on the sharing data in the coming days to try and explain things like the big difference in Facebook vs. Twitter sharing efficacy when comparing fan shares and celebrity shares. Fascinating stuff.

PPPS - If pretty pictures are more your thing, go check out The Uprising Creative blog, where they’ve also got a great Bones Brigade post up about the importance of nailing the iconography and key creative in order to drive meaningful engagement from your core audience. Beautiful. 

sundance sundance film festival bones brigade stacy peralta Tony Hawk topspin