Months before we began pre-production on Indie Game: The Movie, we went to go see Louis C.K. perform at the Walker Theater in our home town of Winnipeg. It was a great show. Naturally, he was hilarious and we walked away cemented in the idea that Louis C.K. is one of the funniest people of the planet.
Creatively, it’s hard not to be inspired by someone performing at the top of their field. However, little did we know, two years after that evening, Louis C.K. would be inspiring us again in a completely different way - having a landscape-altering effect on not only our industry but on the film that was, at the time, faintly dancing around in our heads.
The past two years have been pretty amazing for independent artists. You can actually feel that something is happening - real & significant change. But, beyond just a collective vibe, the past year(s) has given us amazing tools and solid examples of independent success: Kickstarter, Humble Bundle, VHX, Steam & Steam Greenlight, the Vimeo Tipjar, Tugg, Kevin Smith’s Red State Distribution, Gary Hustwit design trilogy, This American Life’s ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ & recent stage film, and of course, Louis C.K. and his digital release of ‘Live at the Beacon Theater’
With Indie Game: The Movie (IGTM), we always thought we were going to self-distribute. This thought was equal parts inspired by independent game developers & the amazing template of Gary Hustwit’s work, and by the fact that we assumed we wouldn’t have much of a choice in the matter (it’s good practice to aspire to things like a Sundance premiere; it’s never good practice to plan for it). Even though, we had a solid plan for self-distribution and were very open to the possibilities made available through premiering at Sundance, when Louis C.K. (LCK) happened we were more excited and more resolved than ever to do self distribution.
It was a tipping point.
Not just for us personally, but for a larger creative industry. It was this coalescence of tools evolving, audiences opening up and artists being empowered. Overnight, Louis C.K. became a gold standard for self distribution, audience mobilization and artist independence.
Needing to be a Name...
But here’s the weird thing: He also became a very popular reasoning against why others can’t do similar things. The argument is a basic one, and goes something like this...
“Sure. That works for Louis C.K. But I’m not Louis C.K.”
We’d like to say: You don’t have to be. You don’t have to be a name. Believe us - we’re two people from Winnipeg. It’s not our name or pre-existing fan base making our self distribution work :)
What you do have to do is put the work in - engage audience early & often, and build towards your ultimate release/distribution. Never before has the means of production, promotion and, now distribution, been so equalizing, available, cheap and powerful. If you have a good and unique product that resonates with an audience, you can leverage all of this, cultivating & working your way towards creating an audience. We spent the last 4 blog posts doing a case study that was basically a long winded version of saying just that. Leveraging technology, making something good and communicate with the motto: ‘Think like a fan’.
Even Louis C.K. Wasn’t ‘Louis C.K.’ Until He Was ‘Louis C.K.’
When looking at LCK and other examples of self-distribution, it’s important to reach far back, prior to the moment of launch day. LCK spent decades as a working comedian, perfecting craft, building audience. He built towards that fantastic moment last December through countless sets and club bookings. There was lead-up. A lot of it.
This may be a discouraging thought for first-time filmmakers, making the prospect seem much further away. But every good self-distribution example has a similar story of building audience and momentum.
Our version, in the broad sense, includes 10 years of doing corporate and commercial work - learning the craft & becoming better filmmakers. But in a more immediate sense, our IGTM fan base started at absolute zero at the beginning of 2010. It grew to a modest (but cherished) 297 through our first Kickstarter, and then over the course of the next two years built to 30,000+ prior to launch.
And we did this, by engaging audience, being very open and thinking like a fan. We responded to every email, tweet, facebook post - everything. Building audience one person at a time. Our version of working a small comedy club in Idaho was spending 5 minutes responding to an email about what type of camera we were using or a tweeted questions about the film. Little by little, it added up.
We don’t want to push the analogy too hard. We’re not trying to say we’re just like Louis C.K. Not even close. But we do want to make the point that you don’t need throngs of ready-made fans to make this type of distribution effective and worthwhile. You can build towards it.
Independence & Playing the Long Game.
When making the very challenging decision to not sign with a traditional distribution company, it was indeed that: A decision. It was never the result of independence for independence sake or a larger independent artist philosophy. We have nothing particularly against ‘The Man’. We are big fans of ‘The Man’ - it has created some of my favourite films, music and experiences. Heck, we even signed an option deal with Scott Rudin and HBO television - it doesn’t get much more Man-ish than that.
Rather, and what we think is quite encouraging, after we looked at all the options, we determined that not selling and embracing self-distribution was the best decision for this film. Not only financially (which is certainly important), but for our film, it’s worldwide & highly-digital audience and our careers as filmmakers.
We talk about our decision to self distribute in this post and this one. But, one thing we want to point out is that our decision to self-distribute has nearly as much to do with our current film, Indie Game: The Movie, as it does our next film. We’re playing the long game here.
The vast majority of first time filmmakers never go on to make a second, third or fourth film. Not too long ago, Cameron Bailey, the executive director of TIFF tweeted a stat that 66% of (Australian) first timers never make a second film. We imagine the stats are similar in North America. That thought terrifies us. We very much want to make a second film.
And while, there are many reasons as to why a person’s second film might not get made, we never want it to be because we are dependent on someone else making it happen. By self-distributing, not only are we controlling our own present-day destiny, but we are making connections and building audience for the next film in a way that likely wouldn’t happen with a strictly traditional rollout.
When it comes time to start the next film, we won’t be starting from scratch. In much-less abstract terms, the film has tens of thousands of facebook, twitter and email (opt-in) contacts that, if they dug our first movie, will hopefully dig our next one. Having a person put down actual, real money for something you made is a special thing. You want to cherish that relationship and the resulting audience. Keeping in contact with those people is powerful and well worth doing.
Of course, the audience does not need to be Louis C.K. sized and this concept is not really anything new. It’s Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans in practice really.
Things Continue to Change...
At the time when we were making our distribution decisions, self-distribution was the best fit for our film and our audience. This may very well be different for your project and things are certainly changing. Distribution companies are becoming more flexible and more innovative with every release. On the flip-side, self-distribution techniques are increasingly becoming more professional, effective and audience friendly/recognized. Leading to an exhilarating, somewhat chaotic murky middle, full of uncertainty and opportunity.
IGTM Case Study...
The murkiness of this middle ground is why we’ve been posting the Indie Game: The Movie case study. Of course, it’s not meant to be a template or guidebook, rather it’s the type of information we wish was out there when we started making IGTM. Even at five verbose posts, it’s still just scraping the surface of what went into the process. But, if you take anything away from it, please let it be this: This is all very possible, even for non Louis CK people. You can do this too.
OTHER CASE STUDY POSTS
PART 1: Overview
PART 2: Technology & Building Audience
PART 3: Distribution - Theatrical & Tour
PART 4: Distribution - Digital
NOTE: If you'd like to be included on future updates and a potential and expanded eBook version of the IGTM case study, please sign up for the mailing list in the top left column.
Top Louis CK Image Source: https://buy.louisck.net/