The lawn chairs come out soon after Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, co-directors of the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, inform the managers of the Galaxy Cinema in Cary, North Carolina that in fact they did sell 1,000 advance tickets for their March shows and that they will absolutely need seats where there are currently empty rows throughout the rundown auditorium. A little later, Pajot and Swirsky also learn that the house lights aren’t working so they join Galaxy staffers in lining up table lamps along the front of the old art-house cinema so audience members can see them and Meat Boy game programmer Tommy Refenes during the post-screening Q&As. "It looked kind of vaudeville and I was worried because I thought, Oh my god, people paid to be here," Pajot tells us. "But they loved it. They loved the camp style viewing. It was awesome."
Sometimes, low-fi solutions and readymade fixes are needed even in Indie Game’s world of innovative self-distribution.
It’s been close to a year since we last spoke to Pajot and Swirsky, thirtysomething, nerdist, cofounders of the Winnipeg-based production company BlinkWorks, and they have tales to tell about their successful, year-long tour with Indie Game: The Movie, an intimate look at the high-pressure world of independent game developers.
The film gained critical praise and the attention of potential distribution suitors at Sundance last year (and the doc was optioned by HBO for a TV series) but the pair decided to go it alone and self-distribute the Kickstarter-funded movie. Indie Game was shown in theaters across the country and was distributed online via iTunes and game platform Steam.
The filmmakers have gone on to speaking engagements at worldwide tech conferences discussing their gamer-influenced model of self-distribution and their success with online streaming and merchandising. Recently, they posted a detailed case study on the film, which provides a deep dive on growing an audience for Indie Game and getting it in front of fans, from their hands-on community-building campaign to offering the film DRM-free from their VHX-driven website to the ins and outs of distributing via Steam and iTunes.
Some numbers from the case study:
- 10,286 IGTM-related emails were written or replied to
- 13,783 tweets were sent off from @indiegamemovie
- 182 blog posts were made on IndieGameTheMovie.com
- 88 minutes of extra video web content was published prior to release, resulting in over 1.3 million views.
- 2,784 emails were support/fan emails personally responded to after the June 12th release.
- iTunes: IGTM reached #1 in documentary on the iTunes store.
- Reached #14 of ALL MOVIES on iTunes (sandwiched between Mark Walhberg & Katherine Heigl films)
- Steam: IGTM reached #7 of all games on Steam, and #2 in the Under 9.99 charts.
On a video conference call that connects Pajot, who’s visiting her parents in Phoenix, with Swirsky, who’s busy prepping for Indie Game Black Friday promotions at the Blinkworks home/office in Winnipeg, they grow excited at the chance to talk about building one’s creative brand digitally, finding and cultivating a film’s core audience and using accessible media tools like Steam, VHX, Twitter and Vimeo’s Tip Jar to create a sustainable release model.
Pajot and Swirsky went to Sundance last January as two self-declared "nobodies from Winnipeg" and now, the first-time filmmakers have re-invented themselves as in-demand, transmedia consultants who successfully integrated the indie gaming and indie film communities and transformed early fan support into over $94K in Kickstarter funding and an additional $56K in seed funding from their website, and then went on to capitalize on that ferocious fan support to generate sold-out shows for their yearlong screening tour.
"I think what’s happening with Indie Game is kind of representative of what’s happening with artists everywhere," Swirsky says. "Going forward, at least with independent artists, you can no longer just be a writer or a band or a filmmaker if you’re going to self-distribute and go independent or even if you get distribution, you have to be transmedia and promote yourself on other platforms. More and more the process of making the product is becoming a part of the product itself."
In exact unison, despite speaking from two far-flung cities, Pajot and Swirsky insist that they aren’t on the same level as Louis C.K., who generated more than $1M in online sales last year of his comedy special Live at the Beacon Theater, after only 10 days no less, which is the main point of their you-can-do-it argument. You do not need to start out as an entertainment celebrity like Louis C.K. You just need to work hard at building your brand identity one tweet, one Facebook like, and one fan email at a time. More importantly, you don’t need to earn $1M in 10 days if you function like a lean startup. Imagine earning $1M in a year or two years.
"The idea is that Louis C.K. wasn’t always Louis C.K.," Swirsky adds. "He spent years and years building up to that point. I think a lot of people when they look at self-distribution often look at the launch and then the success of the launch and they don’t look at all things that led up to that launch. I think our story is actually like Louis C.K. in some ways—yes, a very smaller version of it. He spent 20 years building up to his launch, that moment on the internet, Live at the Beacon Theater, and we spent two years building up to our VHX launch."
Like Louis C.K., Pajot and Swirsky are also building their share of showbiz savvy. Asked about the status of their HBO comedy series based on IGTM with Hollywood producer Scott Rudin—think Lena Dunham’s Girls, except with offbeat, male, twentysomething game developers instead of girls—and they laugh about nondisclosure agreements. The Winnipeg-based pair also pleads secrecy about their next documentary, hinting that they’re still in the early research phase due to ongoing work completing the Special Edition Indie Game Blu-ray scheduled for release Spring 2013.
Ironically, their success at self-distribution, reaching box office totals they estimate would put them in the Top 20 of all 2012 documentary releases and would have yielded them four times more in earnings than any of their Sundance deals, is leading to interest from traditional distributors regarding their next movie.
Like their case study says, Pajot and Swirsky are boldly, absolutely, successfully "Not Louis C.K." but that doesn’t mean they totally against partnering with a Hollywood-owned, specialty distributor like Sony Pictures Classics or Fox Searchlight. As they struggle to build awareness around Indie Game within the awards communities, it’s clear that traditional distributors come with valuable support.
Perhaps, Swirsky admits, their next step is a hybrid that brings together their indie gaming-influenced models with traditional Hollywood promotion. Still, what will never happen is a desperate grab at a bad distributor deal just in order to get their film in front of audiences.
They also have three key recommendations so no filmmaker will ever again fall into that trap.
"You have to find your audience and you have to engage them," Pajot says. "You can’t let them find you."
The second major point, Swirsky adds, focuses on a work ethic beyond imagination.
"There’s no way around it, you have to put in the time and put in the effort. You’re literally building your audience one member at a time and that can lead to something quite powerful."
Finally, their last "We’re Not Louis C.K." point is all about the "self" in self-distribution, meaning that nobody does it better than you.
"No one will work for your film as hard as you work for your film and no one is going to put in the same energy and the same effort and know your audience as intimately as you do," Swirsky adds. "If you do your homework and do your research, you know what’s best for your film and what’s best for your audience. It can definitely be augmented through other people but no one will work as hard as you’re going to work."
[Images: Film Sales Company, Louis Ck Image: Flickr user Rayan]