If you’re looking for examples of successful indie films, Range 15 is a great case study. When it was released, the self-distributed zombie-comedy climbed the charts past big budget Hollywood blockbusters, landing in the top-10 on iTunes. Shortly after the release, the Range 15 producer, Nick Palmisciano as well as Distribber CEO Nick Soares (where I also worked) stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to discuss promotional tactics and film distribution.
Jason Brubaker: Okay before we get into the release of Range 15, I want to give our community a little background. How did you guys get started in this crazy industry?
Nick Soares: I got into filmmaking right out of high school with an internship at Universal Studios. Nothing special, I was the lowest of the low, helping with lights here and there. But I loved it. I loved the idea of filmmaking. I then completed that internship after a year and raised money from my family and friends to produce my first movie, “Ghost Game.” This was back when the dvx100 came out, so it was the first time you could shoot twenty-four frames a second in video. Over the next seven years, I produced five more feature films.
Jason Brubaker: That’s a lot of producing. How did those films get to the public?
Nick Soares: I got [distribution] in the marketplace. But the problem was the set-up back then. You had to use all the gatekeepers that would screw you with your royalties. I just couldn’t believe that my films were in Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, and no matter how much the films made, the money would never come back to me because the [distribution] expenses would always exceed the amount of revenue. If one film generated fifty grand, it had fifty grand in expenses. If a film generated two hundred grand, it had two hundred grand in expenses.
Jason Brubaker: From that experience, how did you start thinking about how you could make indie filmmaking work?
Nick Soares: Being an entrepreneur myself, I was really frustrated and kind of upset with myself that I went on for that long, producing movies and not being smart enough to realize that I need to start generating some money.
Jason Brubaker: Yeah, I would be frustrated too.
Nick Soares: I decided at that point to try and become the hero for independent films, and I started my own distribution company. I completely failed at it just because I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned from my mistakes and didn’t give up. I kept going, and eventually created a break-even business.
Jason Brubaker: How did you get involved in Distribber?
Nick Soares: I heard about the Distribber from IndieGoGo and I just straight up called up the CEO and said, hey I want to buy your business. Long story short, nine months later, I was able to acquire it. I wish I had Distribber [back when I was taking deals] to access the marketplace and keep all my revenue. It just makes logical sense.
Jason Brubaker: Nick Palmisciano with your film “Range 15” wasn’t just the top ten in one category on iTunes… It was all of iTunes, competing against major studio hits and was a phenomenal success. How did you manage that?
Nick Palmisciano: I’ve been in business for a while. I start with the assumption that there is an inefficiency in the system. I’ve never been in any business where I’ve looked at it and said, wow this is just so good that it can’t be improved. I own a company called Ranger Up, which is the largest apparel company in the military space. Some of my best friends own a competitive company called Article 15, which is in the same space, and both of us are very good at social media and most of our videos go viral. If we launch a video on Facebook, and it does less than three hundred thousand views in a day, we consider that a failure. A success is three to five million in the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours
Jason Brubaker: Amazing. I’m sure every indie filmmaker would love to know your technique.
Nick Palmisciano: We’ve built this formula of creating great content for our fans and offering them products that they want. Those products allow us to continue making content and we have this really cool symbiotic relationship. We’ve built up a lot of trust. All of the guys involved in “Range 15” are ex-military and we have this camaraderie and a very passionate audience in the military, police, fire fighter, EMS community. We make content for them. We were sitting around at some point and we said, we should make a movie.
Jason Brubaker: That’s awesome and ambitious. But with all the short video experience, I’m sure you already had some good ideas on how to produce something longer form.
Nick Palmisciano: None of us had ever made a movie before, but we had made tons of skits for YouTube and Facebook. Everybody basically says, this is impossible, you can’t break into Hollywood. But that’s not the way that I ever look at things. And so I said, okay let’s figure this system out and let’s see if the system likes us, or if we have to find a more efficient way through. We went the traditional Hollywood route at first. We put together a script, approached a bunch of people, there was criticism like this script is inappropriate, no one will like this…
Jason Brubaker: Right. And how did that work out?
Nick Palmisciano: No one understood the vision, no one understood where we’re trying to come from, no one understood our community. We just got frustrated and said, all right, we’re going to raise the money ourselves. We hunted down Ross Patterson, who’s a real wacky director. He’s very creative, very original. We asked him if he would direct if we had the money. And he said something like: “I’m just going to be honest with you, like, it’s impossible to get the money.” We’re like, we’re going to crowdsource it. He actually started to laugh.
Jason Brubaker: That probably motivated you even more. How much money were you trying to raise?
Nick Palmisciano: We had a goal to raise three hundred fifty thousand dollars. As a collective, we were throwing in five hundred thousand dollars. And we hoped for three-fifty. But we thought we could get to five hundred and have a budget of about a million dollars.
Jason Brubaker: Did you have a moment where your projections didn’t seem reasonable?
Nick Palmisciano: In about forty-five days, we ended up raising one-point-two-million-dollars. That’s because we have a community that is passionate about what we do.
Jason Brubaker: And how did you build your community?
Nick Palmisciano: We built it up over time. I think filmmakers who want to make their own movies think of it as a zero-sum game. Like you have to start with a big hit. But the reality is, if you’re shooting every day and creating content and posting it for free on YouTube, on Facebook, then you’re building an audience. At first, you’re going to post something that you love and it’s going to get one hundred views and you’re going to be depressed.
Jason Brubaker: Sounds like a familiar feeling for many filmmakers.
Nick Palmisciano: I guarantee if you create content for a year, at the end of that year maybe it’s a thousand views. Maybe it’s ten thousand. Maybe something that you make hits, and does two million views and all of a sudden people are looking at all your old stuff and saying… “Oh this guy or this girl is pretty creative and interesting.” You build an audience and as soon as you have an audience, you really don’t need anyone else. That’s something that we’ve known for a long time.
Jason Brubaker: So you have this amazing amount of support and community. Your crowdfunding campaign was an incredible success. Was there any backlash?
Nick Palmisciano: You know, we hit our three hundred and fifty-thousand-dollar goal forty hours into it and the president of IndieGoGo called our director and asked, who the F are these guys?
Jason Brubaker: Ha! Right.
Nick Palmisciano: Are they really a studio and is this just a ploy to get attention? And Ross is like: “No man these, they’re military guys. They told me they were going to do it but I didn’t believe them because who raises this much money?” Then the number kept going and going and going and then that’s the way we approached everything.
Jason Brubaker: Like casting? You were able to get some pretty big names in this film.
Nick Palmisciano: People ask us: “How did you get William Shatner to agree to your movie? It’s a zombie movie with five dudes that have never acted in a single film. How do you do that?” And the truth is, I wrote him a really nice letter. I explained to him how I really respect the guy for the work he did on “Boston Legal,” in particular. I thanked him for some of the work he quietly does with Veterans and asked him if he’d do it. And he said yes.
Jason Brubaker: No middleman. That can be a scary route for a lot of people to take.
Nick Palmisciano: That’s not an approach anybody ever takes and so, once he said yes, all of a sudden other people were interested. Sean Aston came on. He called us, like: “Man this project looks really cool, can I help? “And we’re like, I don’t know Sean… We’re kind of packed-no… Ha! We didn’t say that! We’re like, you can be on board for sure! So we ended up with this ridiculous cast and everybody’s like, how did you do it? And honestly, we just kept trying.
Jason Brubaker: And you learned more about navigating the Hollywood system?
Nick Palmisciano: Some agents literally read the script and saw who we were, and they were like: “I’m insulted that you came to me and asked my client.” Well, guess what, next time around we’re not going to ask your client!
Jason Brubaker: That is totally annoying! Not a good way to treat people.
Nick Palmisciano: You treat people like that, then you’re a jerk. We’re not going to work with you again. That’s our approach. But that isn’t the way Hollywood works, which we learned. People [in Hollywood] feel like they can treat you terribly and nothing happens to them. I really don’t care who you are, whether you’re Bruce Willis or you’re an extra. We treat everybody well and we expect the same in return. Actually, for the record, Bruce Willis was interested but was doing his first play on the same date we needed him to film. He actually returned the call personally, which I thought was super cool.
Jason Brubaker: Wow. That’s really cool.
Nick Palmisciano: Super cool, I mean it’s Bruce Willis, he doesn’t have to even look at us. We put together this really cool cast, just by being nice to people. And we found other people that were nice and good human beings. That is how we put together a cast. Then we raised the money. And all of a sudden we’re getting two hundred messages a day from distributors.
Jason Brubaker: Another learning experience. Working in distribution, I was amazed to discover the films that get the best distribution deals, don’t necessarily need a distributor to be successful. So how did you personally handle all the attention from distributors?
Nick Palmisciano: I talked to a bunch of people that have done their own projects. I’ve got a friend who was the director and producer of a documentary called “Murph the Protector,” which was in Wal-Mart. It was number eight on iTunes for a while. It was a very successful documentary and I think it did six, seven million dollars in sales. He’s still in debt from that movie because he signed with a [traditional] distributor [promising]: “Oh yeah, you’ll get this percentage but no upfront money.” And they always find a way that you don’t make money, no matter what. It’s a ridiculous racket, it should be illegal, but somehow it is not!
Jason Brubaker: Did you get any helpful advice in the process?
Nick Palmisciano: The best that we heard from anybody was, you have to negotiate big, upfront money because that’s the only money you’re ever going to see, no matter how much it sells. I was like, well this is ridiculous.
Jason Brubaker: I agree. And what makes this story interesting is you guys didn’t settle for anything.
Nick Palmisciano: Yeah, not at any point.
Jason Brubaker: And before you decided on Distribber – How many meetings did you guys take with traditional distributors and how often? How frequently did you hear the same story over and over again?
Nick Palmisciano: Every story is the same. We get about two hundred and twenty emails, we took about twenty-five phone calls, we had six or seven in-person and the thing is, the only way I can describe it-and for those of you that have gone through it understand-but, you can tell them, you can give them data.
Nick Soares: Yeah. Everything I’ve been doing the last ten years with Distribber was for that exact reason. To democratize film distribution and get access to the marketplace for filmmakers like yourself… There’s no better feeling.
Nick Palmisciano: I’m a data driven guy, I run a multi-million-dollar apparel business, I’m not a moron and I’m sitting here with data, like my customer list. It’s a huge customer list! This is how we advertise. We were number one in social media by Internet Retailer Magazine three years in a row. Like we’re good at this! This is what we think we can do. And they look at you and there’s just a blank expression in their eyes because it doesn’t fit into the paradigm they’re used to.
Jason Brubaker: You can tell most traditional distributors just don’t get it.
Nick Palmisciano: They just immediately switch to: “Look here’s where we can do. I can get you a half a million dollars upfront and we’ll get you five percent and then you’ll make a fortune. Wnd then we’ll immediately go and we’ll do another movie but instead of Matt (the lead in “Range 15″) being the lead, it’ll be John-Claude Van Damme…” And it’s like, are you kidding? Like did you just not hear anything I said about how this movie is for the military community? They’re the ones who funded it, they’re the ones that want it. This is why we’re not backing off on the script at all. This is why we’re shooting it our way. You just pitched everything we hate about this industry, after we explained to you specifically why we were doing this. So no one listens. They want your audience. They want to get the film super cheap. They want to make a bunch of money, milk it for all it’s worth and get access to your audience. And then throw you away and wait for the next hot thing.
Jason Brubaker: Yeah, I think the irony with this distribution in general, and Nick Soares, feel free to chime in, is with those traditional deals, the only people that get traditional deals are the filmmakers that, frankly, don’t need a deal to begin with.
Nick Soares: Nick said it right. If you have your audience, there’s nothing else you need. All you need is access to the marketplace and the content creator can do the rest. Now [with Distribber] we have access to the marketplace. And if you have your audience, you can create, hopefully, a snowball effect. Once that snowball effect occurs, then it’s all about the content. If the content is good, it will rise in the rankings. It has been really fun to watch Nick and his team release this movie the right way.
Nick Palmisciano: It’s really neat to see a lot of people that have no idea who we are buying it and writing to us and saying that, like: “I’m not in the military, I never even heard about this movie before, but it was really funny. I had a good time. Good luck to you.” We’re getting messages like that, and that’s cool. We consider ourselves to be creatives. We consider ourselves to be artists and I hope that we just gave a blueprint for any filmmaker.
Jason Brubaker: It’s amazon how all those early viral videos you started with, led to this.
Nick Palmisciano: Obviously we have this huge audience. People sometimes say, you’re lucky. But we built this audience up over many years. We created content and built an audience. That’s something anybody can do. And sometimes I think filmmakers need to remember that. Most filmmakers that I’ve spoken to have been toiling away for five, eight, or ten years and they get a little taste of success here and there. B ut for the most part, they’re hoping for that big break. Well, in that same time you could be producing content while simultaneously looking for that big break… Building and building your audience until one day you wake up and say, you know what, my audience is big enough that I can do whatever I want.
Jason Brubaker: Which absolutely makes it worth the time and commitment.
Nick Palmisciano: If you play the long game, anybody can do this. If you’re up for the long game. If you’re willing to create content, be self-critical, make sure you’re actually delivering the content that your audience wants, then any filmmaker can do what we just did and I think that’s really interesting.
Jason Brubaker: It is. I hope people are encouraged by your approach.
Nick Palmisciano: If I was twenty-something right now, just getting into film, I’d be looking at us and saying that not only am I going to do what those guys just did, but I’m going to be better and I want to smoke them. And I don’t need Hollywood. That would be the chip I would have on my shoulder right now.
Jason Brubaker: To your point, one thing that filmmakers always fantasize about is a theatrical release. And I know before you guys went live in iTunes, you also did a theatrical release. But if I understand correctly, you also self-distributed theatrically?
Nick Palmisciano: We used a platform called Tugg to get into theaters and they basically rent out theaters wherever there’s demand. So in two Wednesdays, we did about eight hundred thousand dollars theatrical. This was the second largest independent film run in the last two years. That was amazing to have so many people see it in theaters.
Jason Brubaker: And then after your theatrical run with Tugg, you started working with Distribber for iTunes. How was that experience?
Nick Palmisciano: I’ll tell you right now, it’s not because Nick’s here… But Distribber’s the best experience I’ve have. Everybody’s professional. Everything they said they were going to do, they actually did. When moving up the iTunes charts, Distribber did a bunch of things to improve the way that iTunes looked at us, and they kept helping us. It’s been awesome. I think this is the future. I think you’re going to see, that with the amount of content that people need… You’ve got your Netflix. You’ve got Verizon spending more on content than anybody right now. You’ve got Amazon Prime. Everybody needs content. If you look at the big content creators on Facebook and on YouTube, if we put out a video that three to five million people see a day, that’s better than most cable shows.
Jason Brubaker: Right. It’s an amazing time to be a filmmaker.
Nick Palmisciano: Start putting those numbers together. If you’re really honest with yourself, and you take yourself out of the old paradigm of going to Hollywood. Or you’ve got to convince somebody to give you a shot. Or I’m going to get screwed for five to six years while I work my way up… And finally somebody actually pays me for my work… That business model sucks. With the Internet, there’s just really no reason. There’s no reason to do [Hollywood].
Jason Brubaker: You come from an outside perspective. Do you even think of yourself as a filmmaker? What’s your world view in terms of how you look at the film you made? Is it more of a product? How do you think about yourself?
Nick Palmisciano: I think of myself as an entrepreneur, but I’ve always loved film. And I’ve always wanted to make film. The first video I ever made was when I was thirteen years old. It was a wrestling team compilation video. After that, I started making skit ideas and I’ve just been messing around with stuff forever. I’m coming up on forty so when I say first video at thirteen, I was doing that with two VCRs and tape deck tracks for the music… Tying it all together with RCA cable. So I’ve always enjoyed film. I like showing people the final product. I never had iTunes, so this has been incredible. I’m an iTunes guy. Some people are Amazon people. But every night when I actually have time, I just flick through the top of iTunes and see what’s new. So to turn on iTunes and see our movie was surreal. I’m a guy that has two thousand DVD’s. So it’d be dishonest for me to say I don’t love film. But I think I’m an entrepreneur first and a filmmaker second. Maybe someday that will change.
Jason Brubaker: It sounds you might have that opportunity in your future, what do you think Nick Soares?
Nick Soares: What Nick just said is exactly how I refer to myself. I’m an entrepreneur first, filmmaker second. A big pivot in my life was first understanding the business side. There’s three categories of filmmakers. There are artists. These people don’t care who buys their films or rents them. They make it just for the art. Then there are the investors. Theses people are just doing it for the money and don’t understand audiences. And then there is what I call an artist-investor. And that’s what we need more of. I feel like filmmakers need to understand the business side of it. All too often distribution is not thought of until it’s too late, right?
Nick Palmisciano: Yep.
Nick Soares: It’s totally fine to be entrepreneur first and filmmaker second. That’s how I am now, working to advance in industry, hopefully with Distribber.
Jason Brubaker: Even though we have the CEO of Distribber here – And I personally work at Distribber, I’m trying not to make this a big Distribber commercial. But when you decided to go the self-distribution route with Distribber, I can only imagine some of the interested [traditional] distributors weren’t happy about your decision.
Nick Palmisciano: No. We had a lot of small comments from people. Kind of like: “Good luck with that. This is the biggest mistake of your life…” Just nonsense. We responded that we’re going to be fine. Thanks for thank sharing.
Nick Soares: And you know what Nick… Had you gone the traditional route, you would not know your numbers right now. That’s exactly what I went through. To date, it is still the same. Our distributors offered the sales data and typically it was a big zero due to producer. Speaking of data, what are your thoughts on the day-to-day [Distribber] iTunes sales?
Nick Palmisciano: It’s awesome. It’s great to know the next day, exactly what I did the day before. I look at the movie just like I look at anything that we sell. Day one there’s a huge spike. Day two it’s still spiking. Then there’s probably four or five days of just high volume and then you go to kind of a plateau. At that plateau, I mess around with how I’m advertising. Which populations? How much am I’m spending? And from that info, I will change one variable a day significantly and see what happens to the numbers. Anywhere I see a big move, I can invest more money. In this fashion, I control my own destiny. If you don’t have data, you can’t do anything. You don’t know what’s working or if you’re wasting money.
Jason Brubaker: Not only you’ve bucked the system throughout this whole process, but even when you were releasing on iTunes, you chose to go at a premium price. You guys chose $19.99 when the entire world around you was saying, NO! That’s too high. And on top of this, you also chose not to release a rental component. What informed those decisions?
Nick Palmisciano: I looked at what all the big movies do and I just collected that data over time. If you look at all the Marvel movies… If you look at all the movies where people are anticipating it… They start with the top price point and they don’t allow rentals because they want purchases. Then after a certain period of time, they’ll turn on rentals. Then around a month, month and a half they drop the price to $14.99. Then usually around two months, they drop it to $9.99. So, that’s the that’s the model that we think makes sense. Why would we change that? I understand why iTunes recommend it differently. They don’t know who we are. I don’t mean that as an insult. They shouldn’t know who we are. We don’t cross over into Hollywood at all. We are the military, police, fire, EMS community. Why would they know anything about us, when that’s not their world?
Jason Brubaker: You knew you had a good product with a raving audience.
Nick Palmisciano: Here’s this independent film releasing at a premium price point. It’s an interesting film. It looks like there are some people interested in it. I bet they would do very well if they drop this thing to $9.99 because that’s what indie films should cost. Our movie, for our audience, is more anticipated than “Captain America.” It’s more anticipated than “Star Wars.” It was the most anticipated movie for our community and we wanted to treat it like a premium product, because it is.
Jason Brubaker: Right, yeah.
Nick Palmisciano: We wanted to follow the exact same business model in terms of sales, that the big dogs. I am certain there isn’t a lot that Hollywood does perfectly. But I guarantee the financing piece of it is about as good as it can be in terms of maximum revenue generation. And if we don’t generate revenue we don’t get to play again. We can’t make a half a million dollars and be like, look we did it. We’re heroes-because we’re not-this… It has to be a significant multi-million-dollar success so that we get to play again. We get to make the sequel. We get to continue in the filmmaking business. That’s what we’re after. We have to do it right. To do less than what we know is the right answer is a foolish mistake.
Nick Soares: And to jump in really quick, being able to retain a hundred percent of your revenue could be the difference between continuing or not. It could be the difference between those two numbers you mentioned. That’s just exciting.
Jason Brubaker: Yeah and I think it’s interesting too that you decided to go with a very popular platform like iTunes. There’s a lot of filmmakers in your position that say: I’m just going to put it on my website and drive all of my sales there. Why did you chose not to put it on your own website or your own property?
Nick Palmisciano: The goal for us was to get on iTunes… To get on Amazon… To get on Google Play. And we wanted to be a top movie in the same places where Hollywood sells their movies. If you’re at the top of iTunes, you win. That is the Hollywood yardstick, right? We did this whole process our own way, without the help of Hollywood. We wanted to go up against them head-to-head on the platform. We wanted to beat them.
Jason Brubaker: Yeah, I love it. With the success you guys have had with “Range 15,” where do you see the future of filmmaking from a semi-outside Hollywood perspective?
Nick Palmisciano: I think you will see Hollywood try to find other niche people, buy them out and try to replicate this. I think that you’ll also see more filmmakers that have been watching what we’re doing… Filmmakers that have audiences, immediately jumping into a project like this. And I think you’re also going to see a lot of filmmakers start to build audiences because they see the value of it. Two of the biggest paychecks in Hollywood are Vin Diesel and the Rock. It is not because they are the best actors on the planet. I think they would both agree with that. But they both realized early on how important a social media audience is. They realized how important that direct connection to your fans is. That’s why they can demand the money. You know, Vin Diesel can make “The Last Witch Hunter” and still make a bunch of money on it because his fans will go and see it. They like him. So, why not do what the most successful actors in Hollywood are doing for yourself? Why not control your own destiny? It’s always better to control your own destiny and you do that by creating a genuine relationship with the fans.
Nick Soares: Right now is a special time. Distribution has never been easier. And with all the tools out there, you can have access to the marketplace… To any platform that you want. These opportunities were not available a few years ago. I think the future is going to be focused on data technology. The modernization has already occurred with companies like Distribber.
Jason Brubaker: The fact that “Range 15” made it on the top ten on iTunes… The fact that you were able to use a company like Distribber. These things have disrupted some of the other more traditional models of distribution. And I think there’s quite a few things converging here…
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Since this conversation, Nick Palmisciano has released his second film with Distribber called “Not a War Story.” It is a documentary by award-winning filmmaker Tim O’Donnell that tells the behind the scenes story of Range 15. And if you’re interested in distributing your film, sign up for Distribber here.