Thursday, February 17, 2011

How Indie Filmmakers Can Maximize Revenue Selling on Amazon

On Jon Reiss Blog: Today’s guest post comes from filmmaker Jed Riffe who I met this year at Slamdance. He told me that he was surprised at how little money filmmakers make selling their films through Amazon and that he had a system that maximized return from Amazon sales at 80%. I of course immediately asked him to write a post to tell other filmmakers how to do it – and he has generously obliged:

How independent filmmakers can maximize their profits selling and fulfilling DVDs on by Jed Riffe

There are two main options that I use to sell DVDs: 1) Self fulfillment for the orders from my websites. 2) Self fulfillment for the orders from my Amazon. I don’t use Fulfillment by Amazon and I will tell you why:

Self Fulfillment from sales on my websites:
I have three documentary film websites that sell DVDs directly to customers ( and a consumer can go online to my websites, read about each film, see one or more trailers or clips and if interested, purchase a DVD. On my websites I sell DVDs of my seven, nationally broadcast documentaries for $24.95 plus $10 Shipping and Handling and any applicable state sales tax. I use Paypal as my shopping cart and pay them a fee of $1.31 or approximately 3.75% for each sale. It is easy to fulfill these orders myself. I drop the DVD and a list of all the films in the Jed Riffe Films Collection in the mail and it is done. I spend .25 cents for the mailing envelope and $1.92 in postage and pocket the rest $31.47.

While the return on each sale is substantial I sell ten times more DVDs on than I do on all my websites combined. This is because video and film consumers look to Amazon as their first choice for purchasing DVDs online.

I am always surprised when I hear how little income some independent filmmakers are getting from selling their films online on However, there is even more than money at stake here. The names and mailing addresses of each purchaser are almost as valuable as the percentage we receive from each DVD sold on Amazon.

There is one major way to maximize the amount you can get from Amazon and that is DIY self fulfillment. Before you start saying how busy you are making films, raising the money for your next film and that you are a filmmaker and not a distributor, think again.

Self Fulfillment from sales on Amazon as an Individual Seller and or Amazon Professional Seller Merchant Account Vs. Fulfillment by Amazon:
There are three main options for selling products on Amazon. The first is as an Individual Seller. The second is as a Professional Seller in the Amazon Marketplace. The third is Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) where Amazon actually stores the product and sells it. While FBA allows people to buy direct from Amazon and not an alternate vendor (thereby taking advantage of Amazon Prime shipping and customer service), I prefer selling directly as an individual rather having my own professional merchant account on Amazon Marketplace or FBA and here is why:

Fulfillment by an Individual Seller on Amazon:
If you want to receive the most from each DVD sale on Amazon, and you want to capture the mailing address of each purchase then you have to set up the listings so that you fulfill it yourself. It takes me less than 3 minutes to go online, confirm shipment, copy the mailing address into my address book, then to an Avery label, put the DVD and sales sheet into the envelope and put on four “Forever” (.44 cents) USPS stamps.

For doing this, in addition to capturing the mailing address of the consumer, I receive $22.40 for each sale. The buyer pays $24.95 plus $2.98 as a “shipping credit” which is a little more than the actual price of postage that also covers the shipping envelope and label.

As an Individual Seller you can “manage inventory” modify your listing and do everything except set up a title that does not already exist on Amazon. The Individual Seller accounts costs .99 cents plus a referral fee for each sale. .

Selling and Fulfilling Yourself on Amazon Marketplace with a Professional Seller account:
The difference between selling and fulfilling as a Professional Seller on Amazon Marketplace and an Individual Seller is that the Professional Seller account costs $39.99 a month plus a small referral fee. The only reason I ever sign up for the Professional Seller (Merchant) account is that I am listing a new DVD that is not already for sale on Amazon. If this is the case you are forced to sign up as a Professional Seller for a month to list new titles but you can cancel it before the next billing cycle. A Professional Seller account works well if you sell a minimum of 40 DVDS a month. If you don’t sell at least 40 a month then the Individual Seller is more cost efficient.

Fulfillment By Amazon as an Individual Seller or as a Professional Seller:
If you do NOT want to maximize the amount you get from each sale and lose the ability to build a mailing list to sell other films and products to you can let Amazon fulfill it for you. You get less than 50% of each sale ($12.48) for each DVD Amazon fulfills instead of a net of 79% or $19.62 each. You can find out more about Fulfillment By Amazon

When I have a new DVD coming out or I am touring with a new film I mail the folks who purchased my films to let them know it is available. This always brings new sales.

By using this DIY strategy I am not only getting more for my work I am building a base of supporters that I can appeal to using social media AKA crowd sourcing. A good example is Kickstarter. The people who by my films are the first people I invited to make a donation.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sundance Film Festival 2010 Report

This year’s Sundance Film Festival offered a number of opportunities for independent filmmakers to grasp the quickly evolving world of distribution. The festival’s programming for documentary and narrative filmmakers by Cara Mertes, director of the Documentary Fund and her staff featured a unique distribution panel provocatively titled “The Doctors Are In.” The panel was organized and moderated by independent film consultant Peter Broderick (former president of Next Wave Pictures) and Eugene Hernandez, editor and co-founder of IndieWire, an online filmmaker business journal.

The feelings of frustration and confusion concerning the changing distribution avenues for independent films was summed up eloquently by Broderick, “Sundance 2010 is a turning point in independent distribution.” The collapse of DVD sales, the declining theatrical box office, and the economic meltdown have forced independent filmmakers look for new models for distribution. “The Doctors Are In” broke the old form of Sundance panels, symbolizing the adapting strategies of distribution. Instead of the usual 5 executives from Hollywood studio “classic” distributors, Peter and Eugene choose 15 panelists, separated into 3 teams of 5 people, each focusing on a different topic: Tradition, Digital and Event.

Panelists included producer and new marketing consultant Richard Abramowitz, filmmaker Sandi DuBowski (“Trembling Before God”), filmmaker Cora Olson (“Good Dick”), producer Ted Hope and filmmaker Lance Weiler of Workbook Project. On hand were broadcasters and distributors including Arianna Bocco of IFC Films’, Fluent Entertainment’s Andy Bohn, William Morris Endeavor’s Liesl Copland, Cinetic Rights Management’s Matt Dentler, Jon Fougner-Facebook, B-Side’s Chris Hyams, Zipline Entertainment’s Marian Koltai Levine, Tim League of Austin Based the Alamo Draft House, Tom Quinn of Magnolia Pictures, and one of the most sought after new distributors YouTube’s Sarah Pollock.

The first panel “Tradition” featured WME’s Liesl Copland , who opened the discussion with the film he represents, “Blue Valentine,” a “star driven” feature film that was made for under $5,000,000. To recoup this amount Copland said “We may need a number of partners to maximize the potential of the film.” While he is negotiating for a traditional theatrical opening he said they are considering the possibility of a simultaneous VOD release in order to maximize the film’s opening sales.

VOD or video on demand was the main topic of the first panel. Many of the panelists felt that VOD was evolving as a major source of revenue for filmmakers. Magnolia’s Tom Quinn used the example of “The House of the Devil” which only grossed $100,000 after spending $200,000 on the opening. However Tom said that by adding VOD the film has now grossed over $1.3 million to date. The box office may have lost money but it promoted the film which resulted in much larger VOD sales.

The second panel to take the main stage “Digital” focused almost entirely on YouTube’s Sara Pollock and Facebook’s Jon Fougner. YouTube just launched its new pay per view VOD service with three films premiering at this year’s festival. Each film was available on YouTube for $3.99. While each film had only been rented 200-300 times in the first few days over $10,000 in revenue was generated. Facebook’s Fougner talked about using their platform to build your audience through social media, and gain revenue through targeted ad sales.

“Event,” the third panel opened with Richard Abramovitz, whose company developed the successful marketing strategy for “Anvil: The Story of Anvil”. Abramovitz said, “The goal of the new company (Area23a), is to acquire social issue and music films and the idea is to combine event and screening and you can target those subjects’ fans,” He elaborated, “We create this army who proselytize to an audience and it spreads the word.” Anvil the band, and “Anvil” the movie are still touring successfully together generating more income together than they could separately.

”Sandi DuBowski, the filmmaker whose documentary “Trembling Before God” has been a major hit on the festival and college circuits generating over $1,000,000 used a similar strategy creating an event at each screening. “I think there’s an explosion of opportunity,” said DuBowski, “There’s a convergence of strategy in the last five years. We’ve had a decade of building to turn movies into movements.”

The consensus of the three sets of panelists seemed to be that filmmakers and their distributors have to be more resourceful than ever, employing new tactics and strategies to reach niche or micro audiences in this time of media fragmentation.

You may have thought that the 300 plus filmmakers who attended
“The Doctors Are In” symposium would have had enough of distribution talk. However two hours later Peter Broderick hosted a non-Sundance film distribution “Clinic” attended by over 100 filmmakers. Here the key word was “hybrid distribution.” The Clinic began with the case study of the successful low budget feature “Good Dick.” They decided not to go the traditional theatrical release route. Instead the filmmakers chose to go directly to their primary audience, college students. They attended the National Association of Campus Activities conference and pitched the programmers at virtually every college and university in the country. They offered the programmers the film for $1,000 to $2,000 per screening. For $5,000 the filmmakers toured with the film speaking before and after each event. Using this strategy “Good Dick” netted over $500,000 for the filmmakers. Not bad for a movie that cost only $200,000 to make.

Peter called on a number of other filmmakers to present their own successful strategies for hybrid distribution. Filmmaker Jon Reiss (“Bomb It”) has written frequently on the hybrid distribution strategy he used on “Bomb It.” He broke up all of the rights and signed separate deal for each one. Under the old model a filmmaker would be offered a take it or leave it deal in which a distributor acquired all rights, theatrical, home video/DVD, semi-theatrical, broadcast (domestic and international) and VOD. If theatrical lost money as it usually does the distributor was taken care of from home video/DVD sales. If not fully recouped the distributor would continue to capture income from the other income streams. This meant that the filmmaker would not receive a penny from his film. Called “cross collateralization” it is the bane of this new generation of filmmakers.

Filmmakers cannot rely on public television and private foundations to fund their films any more. Today, filmmakers must create viable income streams to make films and pay back their investors. The consensus of both panels was that filmmakers must start building their audiences before they even commence production and use social media to exploit this new form of hybrid filmmaking. And no one can do this better than the filmmakers themselves.

Jed Riffe, Independent filmmaker and interactive producer
“Ishi, the Last Yahi,” “Who Owns the Past?,” “Waiting to Inhale,” “California and the American Dream” series.
Sundance Documentary Fund Program Fellow

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas 2009

Christmas is a wonderful time of year. Many years ago my family in Dallas always celebrated it with friends and grand feasts prepared by my mother Mary. Mary loved Christmas and being with her family. This is first Christmas we will celebrate without her since she passed away in Dallas on February 5, 2009. I posted this picture of her when she was young because that is the way I will always remember her just a few (19) years older than me. I was about 24 when I took the photo you see.

Today Tina and I are blessed to be celebrating this special Christmas with our son Sean and grandson Parker who is now 15. We had a wonderful time in LA staying at the famous or at least notorious Sunset Marquee hotel and dining with our good friends Freddi and Trevor at Robert De Niro's AGO Restaurant. Back in Berkeley Tina is preparing a special Barbecue Christmas Eve dinner as requested by Parker...Ribs.

Last night I purchased a Magruder Prime Rib from Scott and the crew at the Cafe Rouge Meat Market for Tina and I to share Christmas evening after the boys leave for Dallas. After dinner we will watch John Huston's last great film The Dead. This wonderful little film always touches me deeply as I remember all of those who have passed away and that we miss so very, very much, especially at this time of the year.

We will also miss my Aunt Oleta who is still with us in Dallas being taken care of so well by my cousins. She is my late father Norman's older sister and the oldest remaining Riffe alive today.

We will drink a toast tonight to Oleta, Mary, my late sister's Candy and Cindy and all those who we love and cherish wherever they may be.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Waiting to Inhale" premiere in Cologne Germant at international science conference

The Dom Cathedral photo by Dan Dixon

I have come to Cologne Germany to present and discuss "Waiting to Inhale; Marijuana, Medicine and the Law" at the invitation of Franjo Grotenhermen,Executive Director of the International Association for Cannabis as Medicine. On Friday, October 2, I will be presenting and discussing the film and the latest research on medicinal cannabis with Dr. Donald Abrams, a renowned AIDS researcher and oncologist at the conference. Dr. Abrams' landmark clinical study "Cannabis in painful HIV-associated sensory neuropathy: A randomized placebo-controlled trial" was the first clinical study the United States government has allowed in over thirty years. The study was published in the prestigious Journal of Neurology in February 2007, and featured in "Waiting to Inhale".

While I have been to France four times to film the oldest cave paintings on earth and screened my films in Poland, this is the first time I have been to Germany since US financier George Gunn and festival programmer Ulla Rapp invited me to show my film "Ishi, the Last Yahi" at the 1993 Munich International Film Festival. It was a real honor that the film won the Audience Award for Best American Independent film

Cologne (Koln) and Munich (Munchen) are very different cities and both are very friendly to Americans. Inside the old city of Munich you are whisked to another time and place. There are many beautiful old buildings inside the fortress like walls of the ancient city. I have not seen as many historic buildings in Cologne but I have seen the most beautiful cathedral in the world. It is called The Dom. Next to the central train station it is a mecca for tourists from all over the world.

I arrived in Cologne by train from Frankfurt at 7AM. I was fortunate to have arrived in Cologne so early in the morning as the Dom was empty of al tourists, only a handful of local churchgoers were in one small corner of the massive structure.

While I do not attend church services in the US my great uncle Arthur Bianchi taught me to appreciate the way cathedrals and churches are designed. He was a highly regarded architect who designed and built many of the finest churches in Dallas, Texas. He taught me drafting after I finished my twice weekly piano lessons taught by my great aunt Ervie "Burr" Denman Bianchi. Burr was a concert pianist who toured Europe with my grandmother Irene Denman Cowart at the turn of the century performing in piano concerts across the continent. Irene, Arthur and Burr were educated and traveled extensively in Europe. They gave me an appreciation for art and the finer things in life. I think that is one of the reasons I have traveled so extensively in Europe and enjoy the people and different cultures so much.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Southern Circuit Film Tour 2008 Revisited

Last year (2008) at this time I was in the middle of a ten city, five state, eleven day film tour across the south with Emiko Omori and my film "Ripe for Change." As I left on September 16 for the first stop on the tour in Auburn Alabama the financial collapse of the US and world financial markets was gaining strength as stock markets around the world collapsed.

Jed Riffe Manship Theater Baton Rouge, LA
Photo: Sharon Sharpe

Now I am glad that I was on the tour at the time all of this was happening. The great audiences, the wonderful hosts and the beautiful early fall scenery buoyed my spirit and kept me from me depressed about the economy.

Shortly after my return to Berkeley the full force of the economic "tsunami" hit home when Tina, my wife, true love,and personal professional chef was laid off her selling high end professional cooking appliances for the home.

I was waiting to hear from the Sundance Documentary Fund on whether an Audience Engagement grant to continue and expand the successful outreach campaign for my film "Waiting to Inhale: Marijuana, Medicine and the Law" was funded or not.

I was just starting to collaborate with a major museum on a grant to plan and design seven interactive exhibits based on the success of Emrah Oral and my "Public Broadcasting in Public Places" interactive kiosks for the "California and the American Dream" series .

One year later Tina is still looking for work while she provides home-made, healthy free meals to two MS patients and my wonderful team of filmmakers including media fellow Jose Fernandes De Silva. Jose was awarded a fellowship from the Portuguese government to travel to America and work for me for six months. He and I have produced a number of great videos including a 28 minute tv commercial for taxing cannabis in California to alleviate the states budget deficit. The commercial was so successful that it was picked up on ABC's Sunday Evening News, Fox News, CBS Evening News and tons of affiliates .

I just received word that the Sundance Audience Engagement grant for "Waiting to Inhale" was partially funded, and that the museum and I were awarded the grant to design the interactive installations. In the meantime I have started a documentary film on food safety, bacteria and our immune systems, and begun development on the "Ishi" feature film.

I am still seeking funds for "Ripe for Change's" outreach campaign, and the balance need to implement the "Waiting to Inhale" campaign but I am blessed to have this bountiful plate of work to feast on.

Who knows where we will be at this time next year but the world looks a little brighter one year later.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Waiting to Inhale Banned at HIV AIDS Conference in Palm Springs

This is a first. After 135 screenings and discussions on four continents, and winning five important awards, Waiting to Inhale is NOT being screened and discussed at the Inland Empire HIV AIDS Conference.

I was on my way to screen Waiting to Inhale at the Inland Empire HIV AIDS Conference today in Riverside County. I got a call from Aaron Smith, California Organizer for the Marijuana Policy Project who was to be on a panel with me at 5PM today. He was just called by conference organizers and told that the event was canceled at the request of County officials.

Riverside County is one of a few counties in California that have been opposed to Proposition 215, and who have refused to implement California Senate Bill 420.

As Lanny Swerdlow, director of the THC Foundation Medical Clinic at 647 Main Street Riverside, CA 92501 explained on the phone there is a anti-drug foundation, The Inland Valley Drug Free Community Coalition , that works with a Dr. Paul Chabot , who have refused to accept the evidence of the NIDA DEA approved studies conducted by Dr. Donald Abrams at UCSF that cannabis provides relief to patients suffering from AIDS related neuropathy (see attached study from Journal of Neurology-exclusive footage from the study is featured in "Waiting to Inhale'), and other international studies of medical efficacy of cannabis for treating serious diseases such as MS, glaucoma and the effects of chemotherapy and radiation on cancer patients. I have been told by Lanny Swerdlow and Aaron Smith that this organization is associated with local law enforcement officials and the Riverside County supervisors. Their mission is to stop legitimate patients from legally obtaining cannabis under California Proposition 215 or Senate Bill 420.

This is the first time in 34 years of making and presenting social issue films that a screening and discussion has been canceled.

Swerdlow is setting up a free public screening tonight, Wed, March 11th at 7PM at the THC Foundation Medical Clinic at 647 Main Street Riverside, CA 92501. Aaron Smith and I will be there to present and discuss the film. However, this screening is 45 minutes away from the AIDS conference site, and many, if not all, of the conference attendees will find it hard to attend.

Ironically, this censorship by local public officials comes on the heels of U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder's statement on Wednesday, February 25, 2009 that ending federal medical marijuana raids "is now American policy."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Celebrating Mary Riffe's Life and Passing

My mother, Mary K. Cowart Riffe, passed away in Dallas on February 5, 2009. I got the news just as I was starting the Fall 2009 Film Tour. With a heavy heart I screened and discussed Waiting to Inhale to large crowds in San Diego, California and Salt Lake City, Utah. In a way these screenings and discussion forums about controversial and important public policy issues are partly due to her influence on me over my lifetime.

Mary was a journalist, but when she moved to East Dallas from Lake Highlands she moved back to the historic neighborhood where we were both born. I was still in San Francisco, California doing grass roots organizing followed by organic farming in Mendocino, California when Mary became an activist for community housing in East Dallas. I moved back to Dallas in 1975. This is when I produced my first PBS broadcast documentary Promise and Practice: Redlining in North America. I purchased a SONY AV 3400 Porta Pack, and she bought my first videocam tripod and the first box of reel to reel tapes. Mary was one of the three lead organizers focusing on fighting "redlining" and on housing and community development and preservation. Mary's work lead to her being one of the main characters featured in Promise and Practice.

As all my films are about social justice issues, over the years Mary enjoyed being at the premiere of each documentary, particularly the community screenings.

It's hard to let go of Mary. Her husband and my dad Norman Jerry Riffe, Jr. died in 1966 at the age of 42. I was already on my own, married to Susan Kreager, and working my way through college by managing the school newspapers and working for Bob Campbell & Associates. She became the matriarch and sole source of support for my brother Ken,sisters Candy and Cindy (deceased), and adopted brother Billy Jack Canada. Anyone that knows my family know the effect that my father's death and my mother's taking over the reins of the family had on all of us, both good and bad.

We are leaving for the memorial. We had cremated and are having a memorial today for her. I will write more later today.