Selling Online: It's the Distributor, Stupid

For self-publishers everywhere–whether they’re activists, advocates, renegade film critics, or opinionated cranks–you can’t beat the web for access and reach. All you need is an idea and an ISP, and your work is available, globally. Meanwhile, the recent emergence of online bazaars like eBay have made it possible for anyone to sell anything (while making some fascinating comment on the mutable nature of worth).

But just as anyone with a modem can put their macramé up for sale on an auction site, or post a web site from which to promote and espouse, the open access of the web also results in a certain saturation of the individual, an un-navigable glut of one-offs and dross. For self-publishers, promoting work on the web can be like putting up a billboard on highway 50 in Nevada (‘The Loneliest Road in America’). The real estate may be cheap, but traffic is typically scarce.

Hence the rise on-line of The Big Brand. Eerily reminiscent of the rest of consumer culture is the notion that a familiar name can draw crowds a mom-and-pop operation won’t. And chief among the Big Brands to emerge on the web is Amazon.com. So when the book/music/video/bric-a-brac vendor announced that they would carry titles on consignment from micro-distributors and individuals, the initiative, called the Advantage program, was greeted with enthusiasm by self-publishers of every stripe.

The Advantage program was originally set up for Amazon’s book trade in February of 1998. ‘The whole program was started because of the request of publishers who were listed on our site as special order titles,’ says Diane Zoi, who runs the Advantage program. Special orders typically take four to six weeks to reach customers, but by stocking a few copies of a specialty title on consignment, Amazon could list it as available within 2-3 days. ‘It was originally thought to be a program that would be for quirkier titles. But now we have a lot of titles from publishers who just say, ‘Hey, I can do this on my own now. I don’t need to go through a big publishing house.’ ‘

This ability to circumvent the entrenched distribution system has an appeal that goes beyond the realm of book publishing. So with the initial success of Advantage Books, Amazon rolled out the program to music in November of ’98 and, earlier this year, to video.

Independent filmmakers can now leverage Amazon’s brand-awareness, not to mention its considerable customer base, to draw potential consumers to their product. But, as a number of filmmakers selling tapes through the program point out, a listing in the Amazon database doesn’t translate into sales on its own. Presence is not promotion. Success is a matter of relative scale. Niche marketing remains the key.

Video France is a small video distributor based in Bethesda, Maryland, where they have a retail store that caters to the local French community and Americans who have lived abroad and developed a taste for French film. The company has been in business for 20 years, distributing American films (mostly made-for-TV fare like Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Merlin or Noah’s Ark) to the French video market. In 1993 they began bringing French product out on video in the United States, mostly films that never received theatrical distribution here. Video France is the sole distributor of La Grande Vadrouille, which stars France’s leading comic actor Louis De Funes, and held the box office record in France for 30 years (until it was overturned by Titanic). ‘Video distributors didn’t think French comedies had an audience in this country,’ says Danna Sayada one of the company’s founders. ‘And no one ever bought the video rights.’

‘We’re a very specialized, niche entity. We specialize in the things that everybody else has overlooked.’ Video France has deals in place with boutique distributors like Chicago’s Facets and Tapeworm. It’s been more difficult forge relationships with mainstream video wholesalers like Ingram or Baker & Taylor. ‘Baker & Taylor would never take us–and I’ve tried–because the company is too small.’ So small, in fact, that Sayada subtitles the films they distribute herself.

Video France promotes its product through a creative grab-bag of techniques that have included a TV show called ‘France Vision’ that has aired on various cable and satellite [www.france vision.com] channels, as well as an 800 number. They’ve operated a web site for over six years–a glacial age in the fast-track world of the web. ‘We knew that this was coming. It’s slowly gotten to the point where on-line sales are getting to be about half’ of the company’s revenue.

For Video France, the Advantage program represents a new avenue of distribution. ‘It’s allowed me to circumvent these companies who were so short sighted,’ she says. Amazon’s profile as a search mechanism is an additional plus. ‘It’s been wonderful to have Amazon.com, because I can get out there to a large base of people who have been looking for these films but have never been able to find them.’

But the Advantage program doesn’t represent a distribution solution. ‘I don’t expect anything from them, to be honest,’ she says, with a certain Gallic stoicism. ‘And it’s not a big part of our business. But each month is getting better than the month before.’ Is she satisfied with the terms of the deal? In a word: oui, ‘considering that they’re giving me a market I wouldn’t otherwise have. I’m just happy to be able to get out there.’

It doesn’t get more niche than Raising Your Dog with the Monks of New Skete, one of the top-selling titles available through the Advantage program. One Leg Up Productions is based in Boulder, Colorado, and they’re a video distributor with this single title in their catalog. The company is actually a sub-division of What Are Records, an independent record label specializing in college-oriented music and funk (Maceo Parker is on the label).

One Leg Up was set up by Rob Gordon, a former AR executive at EMI records, especially to handle distribution for Raising Your Dog. The tape was produced by a former EMI colleague, Matt Murray and his company Atmosphere Entertainment. Before the Advantage program, One Leg Up had been selling to Amazon a unit or two at a time. It was the tape’s consistent sales that prompted Amazon to contact the distributor, and when Advantage launched this year, Raising Your Dog with the Monks of New Skete was one of the initial offerings, at $59.95 a tape.

Atmosphere Entertainment has its own Web site [www. dogsbestfriend.com] which generates sales for the tape equal to those from Amazon.com. One Leg Up Productions promotes the tape through print advertising in specialty dog publications and new age magazines. They take their wares to trade shows and produce infomercials that run on cable stations. Raising Your Dog can be found in retail outlets, big ones like Borders Books and Music and Barnes & Noble. They distribute to independent books stores and dog boutiques. They work it.

And it works. One Leg Up sells an average of twenty thousand units a year through a combination of retail, catalog and direct response, 800 numbers and online commerce. Online sales represent ‘probably around 10 or 15 percent right now,’ according to Halperin. The company is pursuing partnerships with other specialty web sites like Petopia and pets.com. and he’s optimistic about the potential. ‘As a natural progression, I think the on-line sales are going to increase year to year.’

Amazon is an excellent springboard,’ says filmmaker Lance Weiler. The Last Broadcast, a film Weiler directed and starred in with partner Stefan Avalos, was another title available in the initial launch of the Advantage program. The filmmakers actively pursued a variety of alternative distribution tactics, included a trial on the Independent Film Channel’s broadband site and a limited release via satellite that garnered press for the film. ‘Amazon was aware of our title. They actually contacted us.’

The Last Broadcast would be typical for independent film titles looking for video distribution through the Advantage program, but for one thing: The Blair Witch Project. Similarities between the two films resulted in a media controversy that, frankly, was good for business. ‘The latest controversy with Blair Witch obviously helped us,’ admits Weiler. The filmmakers made The Last Broadcast available for sale exclusively on Amazon.com and sold an impressive 1,000 tapes at $19.95 apiece in 20 days. According to Weiler, it was Amazon’s third best-selling title at the time.

‘The volume that we did is misleading,’ counsels Weiler. ‘A large number of those users came from our mailing list. Maybe two-fifty or three hundred. The other seven hundred came out of the controversy.’ Nonetheless, on the basis of their media profile and sales, the filmmakers brokered an exclusive deal–for a better percentage–with Hollywood Video. Hollywood will ship 16,000 copies of The Last Broadcast to stores for rental only. The exclusive deal runs out in late November. Then the filmmakers plan to return to selling DVDs and VHS tapes with unseen footage, potentially through Amazon.com.

‘We had a great response on Amazon. People were posting and talking about the movie.’ And not all the commentary was glowing. For every ‘So Much Better Than BWP. This Is The Most Frightening Movie I Have Ever Seen In My Life,’ there’s a ‘This film is just painfully BAD, BAD, BAD. Terrible acting, directing, and photography. JUST DONT WASTE YOUR TIME.’ Negative comments notwithstanding, the tape moved.

For the makers of The Last Broadcast, the Advantage program has been useful leverage in an ongoing campaign of alternative distribution. And it’s generated some actual income. ‘I’ve already gotten a check from them,’ says Weiler. ‘I’ve seen money back from them. I don’t know how many people can say that for distributors.’

For 55% of retail sales, Amazon will stock a handful of tapes on consignment, post a page of details, and list the title in the site’s database. As such, the Advantage program can certainly be an effective mechanism for self-distribution. But ‘self’ is the keyword here. ‘It’s still up to the filmmakers to make it happen for their careers,’ says Advantage’s Zoi. ‘You’ve got to more than show up.’ Indeed, the program puts the onus on the maker. ‘This is a fantastic way to get into instant distribution. But it doesn’t take the fact away that you’ve got to work really, really hard. When you’re trying to rise above the noise, and get your title to bubble up to the top, you’re still pounding the pavement, and doing interviews, and trying to make it happen. That’ll never go away.

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