Case Study: Tiffany Shlain: The Tribe

“Festivals are gigantic marketing vehicles, but if you’re going to self-distribute, you need to have whatever you need ready when you start playing them, whether that’s commerce on your website, or whatever. That is your big blast-off.” —Tiffany Shlain

By December 6, 2005, the first time that her short film The Tribe was shown to an audience, Director Tiffany Shlain had already made an important decision about its future. She intended to distribute it herself, and she’d already crafted a business plan that would begin playing out that night.

“I’d had films distributed before, and I didn’t really see a dime,” Shlain says. “When distributors hand a deal to you at a festival, it’s not even close to what you can do for yourself. As a businessperson, it doesn’t make any sense.” Shlain’s 18-minute film, a documentary about the origins of the Barbie doll and the changing nature of Jewish identity, premiered at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. The premiere was followed by a panel discussion that included Peter Coyote, the film’s narrator. At that very first showing, Shlain already had DVDs, posters and educational discussion kits available for sale.

Finding New Audiences

Shlain brought the short to nearly 100 festivals—from Sundance to Tribeca, to the Argentina International Jewish Film Festival. “Festivals are gigantic marketing vehicles, but if you’re going to self-distribute, you need to have whatever you need ready when you start playing them,” she says, “whether that’s commerce on your website, or whatever. That is your big blast-off.” She believes that for many independent filmmakers, festivals have become “the indie version of a theatrical release.”

Shlain launched The Tribe’s website in advance of the first screening in San Francisco, and also included the site’s URL in the film’s credits, to drive viewers there. One key feature was a discussion board where visitors could post messages about the film, alongside a blog that Shlain maintained. “Our goal was to spark a discussion about cultural identity,” Shlain says. (She also created a wiki, or collaborative area of the site, to allow teachers to share curricula they’d developed around the film. But that has yet to take off.)

She also used the site to add to her email list, which eventually grew to about 6000 names, collected online and at screenings. Every few weeks, she’d send out a newsletter covering the latest developments with the film—where it was playing, what awards it had won. “You can definitely overdo it,” she says. “I try to be really conscious of not inundating people with information.”

Shlain created the obligatory Facebook and MySpace profiles for the film. But she also hired some local software developers to create her own Facebook “app,” intended to spark more engagement with the film. Called “What’s Your Tribe?” it asks people to upload a video in which they list, in five words or less, all of the tribes they belong to. Then, the software matches up people whose tribes overlap.

New Distribution Opportunities

Shlain started distributing DVDs of the film in 2005. On the movie’s site, the DVD is available for $25; a DVD plus educational discussion kit is $299, intended for use in religious schools and with synagogue youth groups. Shlain used PayPal as the site’s commerce engine—it accepts all sorts of credit card payments—and enlisted a Bay Area fulfillment house, called VTMedia, to duplicate and ship the DVDs.

In 2006, Sundance began offering a streaming Internet version of the film, for free, on its shorts site. Interestingly, Shlain says, when Sundance briefly pulled the film during its run at Tribeca, “sales really dropped. Showing it for free actually helped sales.” They began trending up again once Sundance returned the film to its site; in all, it was available for free for six months.

She also experimented with offering the film as a digital rental and download on a relatively new site called Grapeflix. But the experience of purchasing the film wasn’t simple enough, Shlain says, and the site hadn’t accumulated much of an audience. She eventually took the film off Grapeflix.

In the fall of 2007, though, working with a content aggregator called Mediastile, Shlain made The Tribe available on iTunes, Apple’s media storefront. (A chance connection with an Apple executive at Sundance helped speed things along.) The film was priced at $1.99. Shlain used her email newsletter to let people know it was available on iTunes, and for a time it was the top-selling short film on the service, beating out the latest short from Pixar. In return, for giving Apple exclusive digital distribution rights, Shlain received 60 percent of all the sales. (The iTunes availability also helped Shlain sell more of her premium-priced discussion kits, since educators could pay $1.99 to sample it; previously, Shlain had mailed out a copy of the DVD.)

But Shlain said she’d found it difficult to collect the royalties she was due from Mediastile for those iTunes sales, and Sundance later severed its relationship with the company for that reason.

“iTunes revenue is still very small compared to DVD sales, but it’s going to grow,” Shlain says. “We’re just at the beginning of it all.” She cautions other filmmakers to consider the downside of making their own work available online: it disqualifies them from winning an Oscar, and can dissuade more traditional distributors from picking it up. “Putting it online needs to be an educated decision,” she says.

Opening Up Production to Participation

Shlain’s next film is a full-length documentary, tentatively titled, Connected: A Declaration of Interdependence, which will explore “the link between burkas, honeybees and Botox.”

Shlain has raised much of the funding to get started through face-to-face meetings with investors, but she’s also considering using the Web to allow individuals to contribute small amounts; they’ll likely be listed in the film’s credits or on its website. “We’re not expecting it to be a huge volume of funding, but we’re really excited about the democratization of funding—having people join it at low price points,” she says, mentioning the sites ArtistShare and IndieGoGo as possible tools she may use.

On her personal site, www.tiffanyshlain.com, she offers a synopsis and a status update, along with an audio podcast of a talk she gave about Connected at the Ideas Festival in 2007.

“I’ve had people read that page and email me with an article or an idea that I’m now planning to incorporate in the film,” she says. “The audience is helping me formulate the idea of the film.”

Supplemental Material

Tiffany Shlain’s website

Tiffany Shlain’s introduction to her next film, Connected

Audio from Shlain’s talk on Connected at the 2007 Ideas Festival

Video of Shlain’s 2006 Sundance experience

“Going It Alone” panel from Sundance 2008 (search for “Going It Alone”)