Future of Film: What Is a Movie's Sell-By Date?

What is a movie's sell-by date? Studios give tremendous care to the timing of a release date, taking into account competitive films, holidays, market analysis, and executive instincts above my paygrade.
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What matters in today’s film distribution models? The producer of Little League doc “Boys of Summer” considers the questions of shelf life, seasonality, and creating a long tail audience.

By Ariana Garfinkel

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

What is a movie’s sell-by date? Studios give tremendous care to the timing of a release date, taking into account competitive films, holidays, market analysis, and executive instincts above my paygrade. But in a world of low-budget, independent film, where an on-demand release is becoming the new norm and we all operate on a 24-hour social media cycle, does a film’s release date—or even its platform—have to limit its timeframe for finding an engaged audience?

In 2008, director Keith Aumont began shooting a documentary titled Boys of Summer, about Curaçao’s Little League Baseball team, which was on track to reach their eighth consecutive Little League World Series, an incredible winning streak. He wanted to catch the lightning in a bottle that might explain how this tiny island could slay Caribbean powerhouses like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

It took us three years to shoot and edit the film and run through the festival circuit. We were ecstatic seeing the reactions of festival audiences—including Little League kids who showed up in uniform—and the star treatment lavished on our young cast around the world, but we were focused on our potential release date and finding the niche that would allow us to release during the ideal period: baseball season.

Thankfully, we landed a slot in Tribeca and ESPN’s first joint On-Demand venture in July of 2011, which dovetailed nicely with our plans. After a successful cable VOD run, Boys of Summer made a broadcast run on the Mecca of sports entertainment, ESPN, that September.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

For that initial run, we hit all the marks to take advantage of our release dates, but when Boys of Summer came out on DVD and digital platforms last October, I couldn’t help but wonder again if the timing was right. Can you sell a Little League Baseball movie about a team that’s no longer in the national spotlight in the fall and winter? It was available on every possible outlet—Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, Walmart, Vudu, Netflix—and movie like ours should give you the same adrenaline rush, agony and uplift, whatever the weather or current events. But in a “Watch Instantly” media universe, you need constant fresh bait to locate the fans, to alert the press, to trend the Tweets.

We got lucky. This summer, Curaçao made it back to the Little League World Series for the 10 time, and they reached the International Semi-Finals. ESPN put Boys of Summer on a constant rotation on their family of channels, and our online presence skyrocketed. The week of the LLWS qualification, our Facebook fan page reach multiplied by 800%, with many enthusiastic and appreciative new shoutouts on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

We came to realize, of course, that seasonality can be an incredible tool, providing a built-in news hook year after year. And while producing content that coincides annually with an internationally televised event isn’t always possible, it’s important to consider your outreach possibilities with a longer view in this new age.

We’ve all been talking about the growth of crowdfunding and other means to build your audience prior to release. Today’s filmmakers, however, should also consider their approach early on for sustaining sales beyond an initial launch. From our experience, creating your own ongoing tie-ins—whether it’s an election issue, or a human interest story about your subjects or cast, or organizations or individuals that share your goals and themes—will give you a way to extend your network during the peaks and valleys of a long tail distribution. There will always be something new to consume, but culture is also cyclical. When people respond to your film emotionally, there is no expiration date.

Ball Signed for the 2012 Curaçao All-Stars by Andruw Jones / Credit: Keith Aumont

With its rich history of sending players to the MLB (including the Yankees’ Andruw Jones), Curaçao continues to make its mark on baseball: the top prospect in all of minor league baseball is Curaçao’s Jurickson Profar, older brother to our team’s captain, Juremi. So when Juremi and his peers start to hit, or the next Little League season rolls around, we’ll be knocking on your doors again with our story of bold hearts and small bodies conquering the odds to make one summer last a lifetime.

Learn more about how you can watch Boys of Summer.

Check out the trailer:

Ariana Garfinkel is an independent film producer, based now in the San Francisco Bay Area after ten years working in New York at Miramax, Tribeca, and Reno Productions. In addition to Boys of Summer, her credits include the documentaries Trumbo and Symphony of the Soil, as well as the SXSW narrative short Sea Meadow.

Tribeca’s Future of Film blog is a place where leading filmmakers and experts within the film industry share their thoughts on film, technology and the future of media.

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