How did AGE OF CHAMPIONS succeed where countless other documentaries have failed? The film has been seen by more than 3 million viewers and has grossed over $1.2 million dollars.
Produced by Keith Ochwat and directed Christopher Rufo, AGE OF CHAMPIONS chronicles athletes who “sprint, leap, and swim for gold at the National Senior Olympics.” The film’s main characters range from 63 to 100 years old.
AGE OF CHAMPIONS premiered at Silver Docs to standing ovations in 2011. The filmmakers developed and began testing their distribution strategy in 2012 and did their major rollout in 2013. This featured a 20 state theatrical tour underwritten by AARP, which generated substantial press coverage, including appearances on NPR, CNN, and ABC.
The film was shown at many conferences and corporate events. The filmmakers also launched a national screening campaign during which over 3000 communities hosted screenings. The film was shown on PBS and is available digitally on iTunes, Hulu, and Amazon, as well as on DVD from Amazon and the film’s website.
Keith and Christopher designed a customized distribution strategy based on their content, their core audiences, the key avenues to reach them, and their potential partners. Unlike major distributors that develop distribution plans and follow them blindly no matter what happens, the AGE OF CHAMPIONS team refined their plan as they went. They continued to tweak their strategy as they encountered opportunities and challenges.
Rather than following conventional indie wisdom, they handcrafted their distribution strategy. They eagerly tried innovative approaches and new routes. They prioritized:
- Core over general audiences
- Conferences over film festivals
- Partnerships over distribution deals
- Direct over third party sales
Here are seven lessons from their success:
1) Focus On Core Audiences
Unlike filmmakers who take core audiences for granted, are afraid to be seen as too niche, or just try to reach the general public, the AGE OF CHAMPIONS team was intent on reaching their target audiences as effectively as possible. They tested potential core audiences and then focused on the ones who were the most responsive. They had assumed that senior athletes would be an eager audience but soon learned that many of them weren’t interested if they weren’t included in the film. Instead Keith and Christopher targeted professionals and volunteers dedicated to providing services to seniors. The film’s ultimate core audiences were seniors and their families.
2) Prioritize Partnerships
The filmmakers were determined to build relationships with the right national partners. They began by compiling a master list of over 250 senior-related associations, organizations, and companies. Keith and Christopher contacted them all and steadily winnowed the list down to 100, then 40, and ended up with 6 strong partners. As soon as they learned that senior living providers loved the film, they began to build win-win partnerships with them that were crucial to the film’s distribution.
Their partnerships with companies and NGOs ultimately generated over $400,000 in revenue, including speaking fees, underwriting, and sales of DVDs, screening kits, and customized materials.
They built their relationships with major partners step-by-step. AARP first gave them a $25,000 grant to support production. Then the organization screened the finished film in a few cities, where it received an enthusiastic response. After that, AARP financed a $100,000 national tour of the film. Then it became an underwriter for the PBS broadcast.
3) Design a Conference Strategy
Instead of just targeting film festivals, they explored the full range of conferences – academic, professional, and corporate. Keith and Christopher believe in “the power of the live event.” They did keynotes and presentations at 30 large conferences for free, and then spoke and screened the film at another 120 events, reaping $260,000 in screening and speaking fees. Before every conference, they analyzed who the attendees would be and what utility their film could have for them.
4) Explore Underwriting
The filmmakers made $200,000 from the companies and organizations that underwrote their broadcasts on public television across the country. While the filmmakers received no fee from PBS (PBS Plus made it available to stations for free), their costs were minimal ($350) and they made far more from underwriting than they would have received if they had been broadcast as part of a documentary strand (which would not have allowed underwriting). Numerous documentaries have tried to secure underwriting and many have failed. Rather than starting from scratch, AGE OF CHAMPIONS successfully sought underwriting from organizations that they were already partners with and ones they had previously approached for support.
5) Create Desirable Products
Keith and Christopher experimented with their offerings to determine which would be MVPs (minimum viable products), a term they learned from the book THE LEAN STARTUP by Eric Ries. Because they couldn’t anticipate which products would resonate with their intended audiences, they tested different possibilities with different groups before they finalized them. This process enabled them to refine their products and determine the best price points. The store on their website includes four types of screening licenses (that come with or without additional promotional materials) priced differently for universities, libraries, and nonprofits. They also sell products designed for consumers, including special edition dvds (with a PDF of a 120 page exercise guidebook for seniors), T-shirts, and headbands.
6) Use Email Marketing To Increase Sales
Keith and Christopher used MailChimp to execute a very effective “drip marketing” campaign. Whenever an individual bought anything from their website, she would automatically receive an email thanking her for her purchase and offering an enhanced product at a discount. For example, if the person bought a dvd she would be offered a screening kit at a reduced price. Then a month later she would receive a second email offering, which was hopefully an offer she couldn’t refuse. They were thus able to automate their upsell process with very good results.
7) Build a Distinctive Brand
Eight years ago the filmmakers set themselves up as a nonprofit and chose a distinctive name – the Documentary Foundation. Keith explained they liked it because it sounded official. The name gave two filmmakers working out of their homes the opportunity to seem more professional. They want potential partners to take them seriously and the name has been very valuable to them. They have turned down offers from people trying to buy the name from them.
Their attitude has been key to the film’s success. From the first time I consulted with them in 2011 until our recent conversations, I have been impressed by their desire to master distribution. Unlike many filmmakers who think of distribution as torture, Keith and Christopher have brought curiosity, enthusiasm, and creativity to it. They enjoy reading business strategy books, designing and testing innovative approaches, and analyzing the results so they can improve their methods. In addition to maximizing revenues, Keith and Christopher have gained invaluable experience and expertise that should enable them to make the films they are most passionate about for years to come. They are already shooting their new film, AMERICA LOST, which will reveal how three struggling cities are working to overcome the major challenges they face. I’m confident they will be able to maximize its distribution and I’m sure they will have fun doing it!