Jennifer Fischer is a producer, editor and publicist for Think Ten Media Group, a film production and distribution company based in California. They are currently producing and distributing Smuggled, a film about immigration for which they developed a very specific approach of outreach.
She talked to us about her experience in media production and Think Ten's film distribution strategy. She also shared her thoughts on the state of the film industry and how online film distribution and social media are changing the way filmmakers promote their films.
Film Annex: Can you tell us about your experience in media production?
Jennifer Fischer: My first filmmaking experience came while I was in graduate school writing a thesis on the role of music, dance and media for diaspora communities. I took a documentary film class so that I could also document my research and fell in love with film. Since then, my primary focus as a filmmaker has been as an editor and producer. Currently, I am also doing a lot of publicity and distribution work with my latest film project, Smuggled.
FA: You are currently working on the distribution of Smuggled, a film about immigration. What is your distribution strategy for this film?
JF: We knew we had a limited budget for marketing and distribution, so we took a smart and focused approach to film festival submissions focusing primarily on Latino film festivals. We did well on the festival circuit and received our first major media attention through festivals, specifically an NBCLatino article in conjunction with Smuggled screening at CineMas/San Francisco Latino Film Festival. We decided to self-distribute the film and focused on getting film reviews and additional media coverage for the film, which included ABC/Univision writing an article and some other key Latino online publications.
We ultimately decided to focus our distribution efforts on the academic market and have had success in reaching out to department chairs and professors interested in the issue of immigration, as well as some professors involved with Latino studies, border issues, Spanish language and other related academic subjects. Through this approach, we can reach more people with our film as we sell the film to university/collegiate libraries and we’ve been scheduling various university screenings of the film, often with the Writer/Director in attendance. We’re very happy with the way this has gone for us. It’s an approach that is more common for documentaries, but we’re receiving a very positive response to our narrative film. The film festival recognition and media attention definitely helps make our film attractive to academics, and we always receive positive feedback from the students in attendance at screenings.
FA: What kind of people and organizations do you usually approach when reaching out to distribute movies?
JF: Every film is different. With Think Ten, I am following my passion to create media focused on social change and to demonstrate that compelling and engaging narrative films that address key issues can successfully attract audiences and promote important dialogue around topics. With this type of media, the key audience (individual and organizational) is driven by the issue, so with any Think Ten project, it is critical that we connect to individuals and organizations that also care about the issue or issues the film addresses. As we develop future projects, we engage these communities even at the development phase, as it makes the creation of our film stronger and will make our distribution process easier downstream as relationships and partnerships will already be established.
For other filmmakers, it may not be the case that their film resonates with a specific group in a clear way because of an issue, but what I do think is relevant for all filmmakers is the ability to identify what types of individuals will be interested in your film and to find ways to reach those individuals and communities.
The media market is flooded. People have a lot of choice when it comes to what content they will watch -- to cut through you have to identify what makes your film unique and what individuals and communities will appreciate that uniqueness. (Of course, you also need a good story and quality production values). Even within genres, there are sub-genres. Being as specific as possible in selecting the audiences that will be interested in your film will help you narrow your focus and outreach efforts and, if you’ve identified the right audience, the audience will appreciate the project and share it and value it.
FA: Do movie directors usually approach your group or are you yourself scouting for interesting projects to help distribute?
JF: Think Ten Media Group is a production company and a distribution company. We’re only a few years old, so we’ve currently only distributed our own projects. However, we are open to distributing other projects in the future, if they fit our mission. We feel very strongly about filmmakers being treated with respect and being fairly compensated for their work -- having distribution partners that will not prey on them and take advantage of them. My company co-founder and I had a negative experience in the past with a distributor that we feel did not represent a film of ours properly and did not honor our agreement with them. In fact, we’ve known lots of independent filmmakers over the years who have also been taken advantage of by distributors -- well-known distributors and smaller, lesser known distributors. This is a big reason why we decided that Think Ten would not only produce, but would also distribute and that we are proud of the distribution strategy we’ve currently established for Smuggled. Through this approach, people are seeing the film (we had 5 screenings in 12 days recently), we’re meeting our financial goals for the film, and we’re building a database of individuals interested in the type of media our company is committed to creating and distributing.
FA: How do you see the state of the film industry today and its future?
JF: It is an exciting time for film in many ways given the accessibility of filmmaking. I’ve seen some talented storytellers take advantage of the technologies now available and the lower cost associated with these technologies. There are perhaps stories being told and filmmakers creating content that might not have been possible in the past.
On the flip side, the “industry” itself often feels more closed off to independent filmmakers/film as sequels and remakes seem to dominate studio film line-ups. That being said, I do think that if you tell a compelling story well, you can find your audience and reach them and share your work because of the technologies that are currently available not only for making projects, but for sharing projects. I think the value and power of quality storytelling is always a constant, and it is what will keep film alive and important. In many ways, though, being a successful independent filmmaker now requires a different and/or added skill set, rather than an older model in which indie filmmakers, in many ways, relied on the top tier festivals to launch their films and their careers.
There are more and more filmmakers submitting to the top-tier festivals and this makes those even more competitive and makes it less likely that a filmmaker who has no connections will be successful in those festivals. In short, independent filmmakers need to be very smart about their festival submission process. Researching festivals and carefully budgeting the funds spent on festivals is really worth the time. I’ve seen lots of filmmakers waste money in over submitting or not choosing wisely what festivals to submit to.
Not only do filmmakers need to be smarter about film festivals, but more media means filmmakers have to be much more strategic about marketing their projects in general. It’s an exciting time for independent filmmakers in many ways, but in lots of ways filmmakers now need have to expand their skill set to be successful. Social media engagement and marketing matters a lot. If filmmakers don’t want to do this work, then it’s important for them to put funds for that into their budget for a trustworthy publicist/marketing professional that can create a strategy for the film.
FA: What do you think of online distribution and social media as a new way to distribute and promote films?
JF: I think online distribution and social media allow independent filmmakers to introduce themselves to new audiences and to share their films with people around the world in a way that was not possible before. The flip side is that so much content online is available for free and that there is a lot of competition. Successful online distribution and social media promotion is a full time job -- actually it’s an “over-time” full time job. Filmmakers who want to distribute their projects themselves and take advantage of the audiences out there and the connections that can be made online have to be willing to put in a lot of time and have to really understand what works in terms of building an audience online -- and creating a community that will care about their work.
I appreciate the relationship and community building that is possible through social media, but I still believe in the value of personal interactions and in finding ways to bring people together in one room, in front of a screen to experience the film -- with the filmmaker, if possible. Through university/college screenings, we’ve been able to do this for Smuggled (without having a traditional theatrical release or paying to be in venues), and we’ve seen the value of that type of experience of the film. I think it’s important for filmmakers to still seek out ways to connect with their audiences personally, when possible, and not to solely rely on social media to reach their viewers.
Watch the trailer for Smuggled below and visit Jennifer's profile on Film Annex.
- Interview by Jennifer Bourne