Filmmaker David Allen Talks Modern Moviemaking and VOD Distribution

As we get closer to an independent filmmaking business driven by video on demand distribution, I am on the hunt for various case studies that can help filmmakers navigate the changing world.

I caught wind of an indie production company based in Australia called Rapidfire Productions. This is a production company that operates as a self sustaining modern moviemaking business. They develop, produce and distribute their genre specific titles through their own distribution arm. David W. Allen is one of the producers. Earlier this week he stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to share some ideas on how to make, market and sell movies through new forms of internet distribution.

Jason Brubaker
What is your name?

David W. Allen
David W. Allen

Jason Brubaker
How did you get started making movies?

David W. Allen
I have always been into making movies with my long time best friend and director of our most recent feature, “The Gates of Hell,” Kelly Dolen. As kids in our early teens we would always be running around with a video camera making home movies and writing our own horror and action screenplays.

Jason Brubaker
And then when you felt ready, you made the shift to features?

David W. Allen
Yes. Our first feature length film was a low low budget vampire flick called ‘Reign in Darkness’ which we both wrote and directed. We only had $49k to make this with and considering the budget it came out okay.

Jason Brubaker
Sounds like an exciting first feature.

David W. Allen
We jumped on a plane to LA wide eyed and innocent to sell our film and make it big in Hollywood.

Jason Brubaker
I felt the same way after our first feature. It’s like you work so hard to make the impossible, possible. Hollywood sure seems like the logical next step.

David W. Allen
Ahhhh how naive we were all those years ago. [Laughter]

Jason Brubaker
So what happened? Were you able to sell the movie for an amazing cash advance and get a 3 picture deal?

David W. Allen
We ended up getting a distribution deal with a sales agent who we were introduced to by an entertainment lawyer.

Jason Brubaker
Was it a good deal?

David W. Allen
No. We got ripped off and didn’t see a great deal of money for the film. That was 10 years ago. Today the title is still selling out there, online. The movie is making money for other people but not us.

Jason Brubaker
How did that change your perspective about traditional distribution?

David W. Allen
I learned a very valuable lesson with ‘Reign’ and vowed if we ever made another feature film we would distribute ourselves.

Jason Brubaker
I agree with you. Especially when it comes to video on demand distribution.

David W. Allen
I could see where the Internet was heading and knew it was going to be the way to reach our future audiences with our Independent films.

Jason Brubaker
What is Rapidfire Productions?

David W. Allen
Rapidifire Productions was established by Kelly Dolen and myself in 1999 with the sole purposed to produce a diverse, wide range of Independent high concept genre films, ranging from action, drama, horror and sci-fi.

Jason Brubaker
So you are staying very genre specific?

David W. Allen
Our long-term goal was to make commercially successful projects that satisfy a marketplace craving for intelligent genre films and build a distribution arm for low budget Indy films.

Jason Brubaker
And it sounds like your title called “The Gates Of Hell” fits your model. Tell us about the project.

David W. Allen
The Gates of Hell is a dark psychological thriller and horror flick which is inspired by a combination of “old school” films like The Exorcist and The Thing and the adrenalin of cutting edge video games like Gears of War and Manhunt.

Jason Brubaker
Could you tell our readers where to find out more about your movie?

David W. Allen
Here is the website: www.TheGatesOfHellMovie.com

Jason Brubaker
How did you come up with the idea?

David W. Allen
It was back when Kelly and I were sharing a place together and we were talking about what we can make next for a low cost and high commercial value. We were talking about a filmmaking seminar we attended in Melbourne, Australia conducted by Dov Simmens, a Hollywood indy filmmaking guru.

Jason Brubaker
I am familiar with Dov and his work. What was the most inspiring advice he gave you?

David W. Allen
He said the best thing to do with your first film is to get a bunch of young people and take them to a single location and chop them up.

Jason Brubaker
Ha! I think that is sound filmmaking business advice.

David W. Allen
That was the thought process that ignited the idea for The Gates of Hell.

Jason Brubaker
So once you had your idea, what came next?

David W. Allen
Kelly and I started brainstorming ideas and we come up with an old condemned orphanage that used to house discarded deformed children that upper class people didn’t want.

Jason Brubaker
That sounds like a true horror movie.

David W. Allen
We researched this online to see if in fact a place like this did exist and they did back in the early 1940’s. And then we added some Hollywood to the idea and the first treatment was written.

Jason Brubaker
So once you had the treatment, what came next in your process?

David W. Allen
From there Kelly ran with the idea and developed it into a screenplay which was constantly developed over some years to get it to a stage where it was ready to make. We had a local artist drawing characters for the film and story boards you name it was all happening.

Jason Brubaker
What was your role during this time?

David W. Allen
I focused on the producing and marketing. I was responsible for developing an internet marketing strategy, building the website and creating the entire online distribution business model. I planned an online release from the very beginning.

Jason Brubaker
Building your movie business plan based on an internet marketing strategy is a very new concept. Was there any pushback from other producers or investors?

David W. Allen
The Investors had no intention of going down this path. They wanted the big blue sky and Hollywood. But I knew in the end they would end up going with my plan to self-distribute.

Jason Brubaker
What was Kelly’s role?

David W. Allen
Kelly went out and raised the large majority of the money from investors of our previous film and the new investors came from people he knew from his years selling home audio equipment at the large retailer JB HI-FI. The main investors were customers of Kelly’s from this store and over the years they come to value him as a friend more than just a shop assistant.

Jason Brubaker
So would you say that filmmakers must first understand the value of relationships?

David W. Allen
There is such a valuable lesson to be learned here especially with the social networking explosion on the Internet… Success is all about the relationships both online and offline.

Jason Brubaker
That makes me remember a quote I learned while selling overpriced hot tubs in college. “People buy from people they trust and like.”

David W. Allen
In my opinion this is the key to being successful in offline and online business and film distribution. Over time your followers will come to trust you and believe you, so when you have something to sell they will be far more likely to buy because they feel like they know and trust you.

Jason Brubaker
So let’s talk more about your movie sales strategy. How did you handle the sales, marketing and distribution?

David W. Allen
After the film was completed we took the film to a number of film festivals such as Screamfest, Amberg, Sacramento, and NYC. We also attended some film markets such as AFM and Cannes.

Jason Brubaker
Were you able to gain any traction?

David W. Allen
The film had great reviews but with all the positive hype around the the film the distribution deals were not very favorable and we didn’t want to go down the same path as we did with our first film ‘Reign in Darkness’ where were got a raw distribution deal.

Jason Brubaker
That is a tough choice. Many first time feature filmmakers will consider deals that do not pay a dime, just for the validation that comes from someone else saying “Great work! You’re a REAL filmmaker!”

David W. Allen
Yeah. But being passionate about everything Internet, I was pushing the proposal of just self-distributing online. But it was a hard sell to our investors who wanted to see the film in cinemas and up in lights.

Jason Brubaker
That is interesting. I guess some of those folks need traditional validation too?

David W. Allen
Well, all I wanted was to see a positive net return for sales of the film and focus on introducing the film to its market online and letting its popularity spread over time.

Jason Brubaker
Sounds like a pragmatic approach to your modern movie business. Were you able to get your way?

David W. Allen
I managed to get my way in the end with a little compromise. The investors wanted to see the movie in the cinemas so we did a distribution deal with an Australian distributor for Australian and New Zealand rights.

Jason Brubaker
Sounds like a hybrid deal. You retain some rights, while licensing other rights through other channels. Was this a profitable strategy for your movie?

David W. Allen
As I am writing this, the distributor is still yet to do anything with ‘The Gates of Hell’, which is no surprise to me, but a big lesson for the investors who wanted a quick return and blue sky.

Jason Brubaker
At least you can move forward with your own internet movie marketing strategy. Can you tell us a little more about your marketing plan?

David W. Allen
My marketing plan is simple. With very little money, I am taking the advice of a brilliant marketer Seth Godin and build a tribe and sell the movie to that tribe who over time will spread the word.

Jason Brubaker
What are the mechanics involved in building a tribe?

David W. Allen
I will be collecting emails from prospective customers so we can sell them backend products that they actually want.

Jason Brubaker
What about marketplaces? Where will you actually sell your movie?

David W. Allen
My distribution plan is to start off with selling the DVD then when I get some traction in the market I will approach a VOD distributor and then an iTunes aggregator and Amazon. I will also look at Netflix but I will wait until it gets more popularity so to get a better upfront fee.

Jason Brubaker
You mentioned DVD. Who is going to handle your DVD fulfillment?

David W. Allen
For the DVD distribution I use a company called Disk.com. They were highly recommended to me by some of my Internet marketing peers who use them to create and distribute their information products. They are based in the USA and is a great place for the shipping of the DVDs within the US and throughout Europe and the UK. There are some great companies here in Australia but the shipping costs would be way too high given our main market is in the USA and UK.

Jason Brubaker
Outside of distribution and your website, how are you spreading word of mouth?

David W. Allen
Facebook Pages and Twitter play a bit part in my strategy. I use these platforms to build what is called Market Leadership. I also hit the forums and get involved in the top ones and this is a great way to get people to check out the film.

Jason Brubaker
What about getting prominent website owners to review the movie?

David W. Allen
I am sending out copies to influences in the market place, people who already have a large following in the horror market and if they like the film they will tell their tribe about it.

Jason Brubaker
When I first saw your movie website, I was impressed. I think it has all the components necessary to create a movie sales funnel. But you also have something called an opt-in box to build your mailing list. How important is a mailing list for modern moviemakers?

David W. Allen
Very important! It is such a valuable asset for filmmaker if they don’t abuse it. It takes so long to build traffic to your website so you want to be capturing as many leads as possible so you can stay in touch with them, send them cool free stuff and then sell them backend products related to their film.

Jason Brubaker
Yes. I think filmmakers need to take charge of sourcing their own core audience. But what about in-between projects? How do you leverage your list?

David W. Allen
Between projects, the other thing filmmakers can do is introduce other people’s related products to their list for a fee or on an affiliate basis. Over time your mailing list will become very valuable. The bigger and more responsive the list, the more other industry players will want to pay filmmakers money to get related products or films in front of their subscribers.

Jason Brubaker
What suggestions do you have for other filmmakers who want to create their own movie business?

David W. Allen
Look at the market you’re making the film for first. This is a business and if you are going to spend money on making a film you better be sure there is a big enough and hungry enough market out there to buy your film and other backend products.

Jason Brubaker
You keep mentioning marketing related products. Could you explain this a little more?

David W. Allen
I look at the film itself as a lead generation product for the purpose of building a big list. I am not all that concerned about making the money back on the DVD itself but on other monetizing avenues over time including advertising.

Jason Brubaker
That is an interesting concept. Most filmmakers do not think like marketers. Yet if we want to make money making movies, it makes sense that we would need to diversify our product offerings.

David W. Allen
The modern filmmaker needs to think beyond the film itself as the only means of generating income. The money online is where the eyeballs are. Think about it.

– – –

Find out more about how to sell your movie.

How To Break Down and Schedule Your No-Budget Movie

If you’re a first time feature filmmaker, you do not need a gazillion dollars to join the feature club. But you will need to learn how to replace money with ginormous creatively. And once your screenplay is complete, then the next step in the filmmaking process is your initial breakdown and schedule.

Breaking down the script means you go through your screenplay, number each scene and highlight each element, including locations, characters, props, make up, wardrobe, picture vehicles and special FX…

All of these things cost money. And once the script is locked, any modification you make to the story or schedule, no matter how minor or major, will subsequently impact the budget.

My producer friend Forrest Murray always says the script, schedule and budget are the same document. You’ll need all three to make a movie… But in the process, if you change one document, you’re actually changing all three.

I’ll chat about this some more later. For today, let’s focus on your initial schedule so you can eventually get to your budget.

Schedule Your Movie And Save

1.After you highlight each element, you’ll want to figure out when you want to shoot your movie and how long you plan to shoot.

2.You can determine this by choosing how many pages you want to shoot per day. Then you can decide if you want to shoot 5 days on and 2 days off, or 6 days on and 1 day off. Or maybe you want to shoot your movie over a few weekends.

3.Everything in the script will impact your budget. There is software for this. Final Draft offers an add-on called Tagger. Tagger allows you to go through the script and pick out elements and highlight them in various colors. Once all elements are selected, you can eventually import this list into your budget and schedule software program.

4.After giving this your best effort, if you still feel stuck, seek expert advice.

5.Eventually, these elements will have a price in your initial budget. What is the price of each element? How much does your movie cost?

Many motion picture professionals make a living just breaking down, scheduling and budgeting movies. So it’s a pretty complicated and creative area. As a first time feature filmmaker, it save you many headaches if you partner with an seasoned 1st AD or Line Producer who could guide you through the process.

If this is not possible for you, I suggest reading every article on the subject as well as watching every YouTube video. This will teach you how to think like a cost conscious, responsible producer.

Regardless of your decision to complete your own breakdown or hire someone else for the job, the reason you’ll need an initial schedule is because this will give you a good starting point… You’ll utilize this information to figure out your budget. You’ll also be able to figure out if you need to cut an element or two, or not.

Cut Your Budget

Once you have your initial schedule, (and assuming this is your first feature), I suggest you create a budget for your movie in the neighborhood of $500K. Before you go crazy thinking this is a lot of money (or a little money), I want you to know you don’t actually have to spend $500K in hard cash to meet the needs of your budget.

In fact, once you determine you’ll make your movie at $500K, you are going to spend the next few weeks working backwards to see how much hard cash you can replace with sweat equity, discounts and favors from friends and family. Why $500K? Because if you actually have the elements budgeted, there is a good chance your movie will look better than if you budgeted for a mere $50K.

The reason for this is mostly psychological. By setting your budget at 500K, you’re going to start out with goal that forces you to get a higher production value than if you simply settled for pocket cash.

Later, with the application of tremendous creativity, it will be possible to reduce a $500K budget after discounts, free food, locations and salary adjustments quite significantly.

Do you have friends who own locations you can utilize for free? Do you have access to discounted equipment? Can you finish your movie faster than scheduled?

Do you have a friend with an edit suite?

Can you shoot some scenes outside during the day to reduce the need for extra lights? Can you find free food for your cast and crew? These are just some of the ways you can reduce that $500K budget.

One of my buddies was able to do this on the cheap. He had a location budgeted for $5K. However, after my buddy spoke with the owner of the location, the fee was reduced to zero. How? My buddy (a creative producer) agreed to shoot a promo for the owner’s business. Another filmmaker friend got free food for his entire shoot simply by asking.

The food supplier was thanked in the credits.

Deals like this happen. But it takes creativity to find opportunity. Here are some questions to ask:

How much money do I have?
How can I reduce expenses?
Can I get free food?
Who do I know who has the location I’m looking for?
How much money will I need?

The other reason you want to keep your first feature budget low is to allow greater opportunity for return. In the event you get a standard distribution deal (which is becoming more and more rare), your movie should look expensive.

If your budget is $500K and the movie looks like $500K, but you only spent $50K or $30K $15K in ultra-low-budget hard cash, and someone pays you back your budget, then you just made a crazy profit!

Nice work.

And in the event you do not get a standard distribution deal, then you’re not quite as deep in the financial hole as you otherwise would be.