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THE DISTRIBUTION BULLETIN ISSUE #19
EXCLUSIVE REPORT: BUILDING A BRAND
FORKS OVER KNIVES has been a remarkable success. After grossing over $700,000 in theatres, the film has sold over 180,000 DVDs, become a New York Times bestselling book, and created a brand, something very few independent documentaries have achieved. Both fiction and documentary filmmakers can learn valuable lessons from the film’s distribution strategy.
The film was the brainchild of Brian Wendel. A committed vegan, he was inspired to create the film after reading THE CHINA STUDY, which makes the case that a plant-based diet can prevent and even reverse disease. Brian recruited John Corry to produce and Lee Fulkerson to write and direct. They raised money from private investors and began working on the film in January 2009. I consulted with Brian and John in 2009 and 2010, and they recently shared with me the inside story of their success.
Test Screenings – As soon as the filmmakers had a rough cut in March 2010, they began test screening it. They showed it to groups of 20 or more and discussed it with them afterwards, made changes, and then screened it for another group. Brian explained that the 20 plus test screenings were invaluable in refining their cut.
Advance Screenings – The filmmakers decided to skip festivals entirely. Instead of trying to connect with a broader festival audience, Brian and his team spent their time, energy, and money targeting their core audiences. When the film was finished, they embarked on an ambitious program of advance screenings. This started with a very successful event in Philadelphia attended by 500 people. Local Whole Foods stores co-sponsored most of the 30 advance screenings across the country, marketing them to their customers.
Theatrical Release – Instead of making either an all-rights or a service deal, the filmmakers hired an experienced booker to handle theatrical distribution. They first rented a theater in Portland, Oregon and showed FORKS OVER KNIVES for a week to demonstrate to exhibitors its theatrical potential. The film made $13,000 the first week; the theater then held it over as a regular booking (rather than a rental) for four more weeks.
The official theatrical release began in May 2011. They made 35 film prints and played in 90 theaters in the U.S. and Canada. The release generated lots of awareness with appearances on Dr. Oz and Bill Maher and strong reviews by such critics as Roger Ebert and John Anderson. Brian was glad they had released the film theatrically but acknowledged that they didn’t break even given the costs of advertising, marketing, and 35 mm prints. If he had it to do over again, he would do a smaller theatrical release, possibly opting for a one night national premiere in hundreds of theaters.
Since its theatrical run, FORKS AND KNIVES has screened semi-theatrically and nontheatrically around the country. Swank has booked nearly 500 screenings.
DVD – FORKS OVER KNIVES has utilized a hybrid strategy to maximize DVD sales and revenues. As theatrical distribution was winding down, DVDs became exclusively available from the film’s website. Fulfilling pre-orders, the filmmakers sold over 6,000 DVDs (including Blu-rays) during the first week. Selling single DVDs, 4 packs and 10 packs, the filmmakers have sold approximately 30,000 DVDs from the website so far.
Retail DVD sales through Virgil Films have also been exceptional. They began a few weeks after direct sales from the website. Amazon and other online and brick-and-mortar merchants have sold over 150,000 DVDs. FORKS OVER KNIVES has been the best-selling documentary on Amazon for most of the past year.
The Mailing List – While the film has been very active on Facebook with over 235,000 likes, the film’s 70,000 person mailing list is “the most important thing on the planet” according to Brian. He sends a substantive newsletter to every subscriber once a week. Every time a newsletter goes out, there is a spike in traffic on the website, increasing sales by 50-60%.
Individuals are encouraged to sign up on the website for the Weekly News, which includes both FORKS OVER KNIVES and third party content. Subscribers are asked for their names, email addresses, and zip codes. I always recommend requesting zip codes so you can reach out to subscribers when you’re coming to their area to put on a screening or a special event.
The Brand – In addition to DVD sales, the film has done well digitally. Over 400,000 people have rated the film on Netflix, which may reflect over 1 million views. It is also available digitally on iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, and elsewhere.
FARMS 2 FORKS is another successful extension of the brand. The filmmakers combined forces with THE ENGINE 2 DIET team (their book is featured in the film) to organize weekend immersions in healthy eating and cooking. The first four 2-day events were each attended by 250-450 people at a $550 ticket price. The plan is to do six weekend events in 2013, and also 1-night events in major cities.
Brian and his teammates did not set out to build a brand. They first thought about doing a book when they had almost finished production. They refined their distribution strategy step by step. The results of each stage informed what they did in the next stage. The success of their advance screenings made clear their theatrical potential. Their theatrical release built awareness that fueled book and DVD sales and semi-theatrical and nontheatrical screenings. All of these, combined with the success of the ENGINE 2 DIET, enabled them to launch FARMS 2 FORKS. The filmmakers have steadily penetrated more deeply into their core audiences, while broadening awareness among new audiences. The film, the books, and the weekend retreats have reinforced each other, achieving critical mass with the FORKS OVER KNIVES brand.