As part of Screen’s year-long series tracking the progress of Nesta and the UKFC’s Take 12 digital innovation programme, Sarah Cooper talks to Sara Frain (pictured) and Jezz Vernon of UK indepependent distributor Metrodome, about the challenges facing the distribution sector in the digital age.

Why did you want to take part in the Take 12 programme?

S: As an independent distributor, we could see the advantages of what digital could bring to our marketing and distribution. But we didn’t necessarily have the resources to explore all of those opportunities. So the Take 12 scheme was a great opportunity for us.

J: We wanted to explore opportunities across the industry as a whole as well as just us as a single company, and to take the opportunities to work with some really fantastic innovation partners [strategic media consultancy MTM London and multi platform production company Illumina Digital).

Did you come into the programme with any set goals?

S: We joined the scheme with a very specific idea in mind, (which was that) we wanted to explore digital possibilities online and to engage with audiences directly.

We wanted to see whether there was a new business model for delivering independent product to non traditional audiences. We needed to find out whether that was going to be viable commercially, and also to work out if there was actually a market potential.

Did you use the programme to help with any specific film campaigns?

We worked around Shifty [microbudget London set drama directed by Eran Creevy]. Illumina, gave us a lot of resource around the online aspect and about ways to reach out to the marketplace.

We learnt that it was about using multiple digital assets and strategies to bridge into existing markets and embracing existing online communities, be it bloggers or social networking sites. And one rule we will take forward to all our social media and online campaigns is to go where there is an audience already, go where there is a target market, rather than trying to track them to where you are.

Did you try any specific digital marketing techniques for the Shifty campaign?

J: Amongst a variety of other approaches we decided to produce a viral to advertise Shifty, which we designed in-house and Illumina supplied the functionality.  It was an email sent from one friend to another anonymously, which suggested that they might be threatened with criminal prosecution for being a drugs user.  It was an email that made you sit up and think there must be a mistake here unless you had a guilty conscience, which made people click through and realise it was a film promotion. But it sailed a bit too close to the wind.

S: What we were essentially doing was trying to engage with an audience and the viral was a very smart of doing that. In two weeks we had hit 30,000 people and we really had high hopes because we thought if we could get this much traffic before we had even begun an official paid for seeding process then imagine what we could get going forward.

But because of the subject matter of the viral, it got banned by the ASA [Advertising Standards Agency] within the first 2 weeks of the campaign.

What did you learn from the experience?

S: We found out how unpredictable the world of online is.  (But on the positive side), we ended up getting an unexpected amount of press and coverage from the fact that the viral had been taken down. We were front page of the Guardian news online, and made it into numerous other outlets like Revolution magazine and Time Out.

J: The good thing was, the publicity was completely on brand for the film. The film itself is edgy and Revolution called it a landmark ruling in terms of virals.

How else did you raise publicity for Shifty?

J: We worked with three british music artists – Riz Ahmed, who stars in the film, Plan B and Sway, to produce a song and music video which cuts in the film and is themed around the subject matter of the film. It got us a huge amount of radio airplay, online viewership, pirate radio stations, and was all over BBC channels, which commercially you can’t do, it has to be an editorial route.

How has digital changed the way you operate as a company?

S: It’s definitely changed the way we measure success. Traditionally, it has always been on how big the theatrical box office was. Whereas actually the awareness generated through the whole campaign of Shifty means pro rata to the theatrical result it has been very successful across all its other platforms.  More and more the awareness generated around theatrical is really the campaign that drives all platforms and ancillaries – over time the commercial importance of significant box office has lessened.

Do you think the existing windows structure is out of date, given the rise of multi platforms?

S: As an independent distributor, with independent films, I don’t think it is necessary to follow a traditional windows model. We have experimented effectively with day on date releases. It really depends on the size of the release.

What we do believe is that consumers today know what they want to watch, when they want to watch it and will consume it in a manner of their choosing The future is moving towards shrinking windows and potentially more people doing day and date models. 

J: Our research also shows that a consumer decides very early on in the theatrical marketing campaign, how he is going to watch that film. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware that they don’t have a six week window to see it in the cinema, that there will be plenty of other opportunities, an ever increasing long tail, in terms of when you decide to see the film.

We don’t expect films to fit neatly into pre-existing templates. We are always happy to look at a release as an individual proposition and to do what’s best for it.

Do you see digital as the future for distributors?

J: Without a doubt, digital will become the primary revenue stream for distributors in the future, but it seems to be a constant revision. Every 12 to 18 months, someone says it will be another 2 years until the market is ready. As a company we are very forward thinking and keen to embrace new platforms, but from the smallest distributors to the biggest studios, it is frustratingly hard to predict when digital is going to break through.

S: The joy of being independent is that you have the flexibility to play around with the release model. I think everyone knows that the traditional business model isn’t working, we are all exploring different ways of how we are going to monetise our films through digital means, but we also see it as a huge opportunity for direct engagement and dialogue with the consumer.

We do believe our main revenue will come through digital delivery, but we are not quite there yet. At the moment it is incremental revenue.

Is digital killing off the theatrical experience?

S: I really believe that people will still carry on going to the cinema. Cinema is an experience. But there are some people who don’t have access to the cinema, and you have to wait so long to get your film on DVD. I don’t think by collapsing windows it will stop people going to the cinema.

J: I think audiences are continuing to fragment too. A film can be very successful theatrically, especially in the independent sector, which can give small returns on other platforms, or we can see fantastically successful direct to video movies, which have very little theatrical expectancy. The theatrical experience isn’t just limited to features, either. Look at the Opera and National Theatre film strand. Digital will simply throw up new niche audiences.

Where do you see yourselves in two years time?

J: the market place is so transitional at the moment, if we were to work with Nesta in two or three years time, the lessons might be entirely different again. In the next two or three years we are going to see significant changes but its still difficult to model when and how they’ll come about – but we’re always keen to evolve and embrace future business models.

S: Something new pops up on a weekly basis, we try to embrace all the emerging technologies and see the new digital landscape as a huge opportunity, not a threat.