Understanding the School Market: From Astronomy to STDs

Running a family business. Keeping children’s education first. Staying independent through increased corporate consolidation amidst a radical overhaul of the way film and video is distributed. Given all of that idealism, it may seem that educational film and video distributor Landmark Media has its work cut out for it. But it also has 25 years of experience and is driven by its singular focus to provide quality content for kids.

Joan Hartogs co-founded Landmark Media with her husband Michael in 1983. At the time they were both working on Wall Street. Michael was a distributor at Screenscope and when it closed, they decided to start their own distribution company. Her two sons have joined the business and together they have amassed more than 1,000 programs for pre-school through college-aged audiences.

To insure quality to the schools and libraries that purchase Landmark’s titles, Hartogs personally reviews then selects about five percent of the films she receives. But budgets are shrinking, and the commercial DVD market has been encroaching on what used to be a self-contained market. Like other distributors, Landmark has evolved with the times, now selling most products on DVD and offering video streaming on request.

The Independent recently caught up with Joan Hartogs and asked her to consider the future of Landmark Media and the educational distribution market at large.

What sets you apart from other educational distributors?

We’re very particular about what we sell — we look at it as public service. I spend most of my time looking at films, which could be hundreds and hundreds in a given year. We sign an average of about 70 or so per year, though one year we only signed 10, which is rare.

What are the last three films you have taken on, and how do you think they’re going to do?

The last one was called Animals A-Z which is a curriculum item, so I think it will do well. We don’t usually pick wildlife, but this was so special. There is also Heads Up – a 26-part series from Canada directed toward kids between elementary and high school and involves sciences dealing gravity and astronomy. The third one is called Shattered Dreams and it features inner city kids in Toronto, Canada and their life involving guns and violence.

We look at and acquire all types of films but lately we have been taking wildlife for young grades (a little departure for us) and really good films about global warming. However, the film I’m most proud of is titled “Truth Lies And Intelligence” done in Australia about the deception by [President George] Bush, [former British Prime Minister Tony] Blair and [former Australian Prime Minister John] Howard about Iraq.

One never knows how movies will do, but I’m always hopeful. We like cultural programs featuring people from other parts of the world. Children need to understand other counties and how they live. We have a lot of social studies and a lot of science films. We don’t produce films, so it’s very hard to pick what comes our way.

Have you ever been tempted into making your own films?

There was one film we made ourselves. It was called, Condoms: A Responsible Option. It was made in 1986 and as executive producers, we thought it was a very necessary film. There was a lot of publicity about AIDS and STDs at the time, and we did it for high school kids, which was kind of a risk. A lot of schools weren’t buying things like that, but the first one we sold was down in the Bible Belt, which was a big surprise.

Were you nervous about taking this risk? And did you make any money from it?

I really didn’t care about that — I felt that it was something that needed to be made. STDs were rampant, and I thought if someone wanted to buy it, they would. It was [made] in good taste. We made a little money because it was a very cheap production. If we had made a fortune off it, we would have made more films.

Would you consider making another film like this today?

The younger generation working here would like to, but right now we have our hands full with marketing, distributing, and selling. It’s a money issue – producing is very expensive but I think eventually they’d like to.

How has what sells changed?

There are no patterns I have noticed through the years. In the end it’s what schools pick and choose. I’m just offering, and I try to have a variety of different subjects. Ten years ago you had budgets with people spending a lot of money on films, and you didn’t have people going out [buying films] for $19.99, like a Wal-Mart.

How have shrinking budgets directly impacted your company?

Countrywide states have lost revenue… there’s been a lot of consolidation. One [school] district could’ve had 15 different buyers or budgets and those have been consolidated to maybe eight. I’ve noticed this since 9/11.

Of course it means that there’s less money to spend and less money comes our way. So, we just have to work harder — it’s way more challenging than it’s ever been. Also, technology has changed a lot… schools will say, “Oh I’ll just let my things get streamed,” which means it goes directly to producer from schools without us, so that’s a challenge to producers as well as us.

Have you tried streaming?

If [clients] want to stream, we can deliver it. We’re not involved in actually streaming; it’s very complicated and very expensive. The winners are the people who use it. But there are places out there that still do video. We sell mostly everything in DVD.

How would a filmmaker get a distribution deal with Landmark Media?

Call me up or send me an email and tell me what you have. If I like it, we’ll talk, and I’ll offer you a contract and you might accept it or not.

What is the contract you sign with filmmakers?

It’s pretty typical. We pay royalties against the first gala/sale. Our royalty is 25 percent.

What’s your basic approach to releasing a title? How do you market your films?

It’s mainly through the salespeople that work directly for us. We have film seminars, preview seminars, we attend film markets, and we have a marketing person to look for inroads everywhere depending on film. We also have a website and a catalog.

What are the roles of the members of your family?

My husband and I make the decisions — we’re the bosses. And my sons basically are employees. They are of course treated as such, with the work ethic here being like a regular company. The difference with having my sons work here is that I listen to them a little more, and they are a little freer, in the sense where sometimes employees won’t give you their honest opinion, and my sons are more at liberty to say what they think which is great. It’s important to me that no matter what happens, they remain close as brothers. So that’s always an issue.

When Richard joined us four years ago, and Peter a year ago they took and moved the company in different directions. They were willing to be more experimental, trying different things, and finding different ways to do it. Richard brings the technological talent, and Peter brings the marketing talent. Because they have the understanding of newer concepts, (i.e. switching DVD to streaming) they are able to do a lot of things and use more equipment to get it done.

What keeps you going?

I love film. I’m learning all the time. If I had a really good memory I’d be brilliant. Finding a well-made film that I think people can learn from and seeing the producer make some money from the sales is really rewarding.

Does anything disappoint you about the business?

Shrinking budgets are very disappointing. I don’t feel that America really values our children and education enough. We rank [as] one of the lowest or possibly the lowest in the western world in educating our children – and we are a wealthy country.

What is one piece of advice for beginning or established independent filmmakers?

My advice would be: use somebody else’s money. Talk to distributors. Talk to people. Ask people about your idea who are already in that market before you fund your film. Don’t make a film because you’re in love with the subject. To distribute in schools, you need to focus on what comes after the market. Keep that in mind all the time.

What is the future of independent film distribution in the U.S.?

I don’t know. I think about that. We’ve survived by being flexible, being careful. We’re careful with spending. We’re careful to try to put money into marketing. We operate pretty much how we operated when we first opened our business. For us, this past year has been a lot better, but I think we’ve all been through very difficult times. Being independent is very important to us, and hopefully we can stay that way.

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For more information, visit www.landmarkmedia.com

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