If you ask filmmakers to describe the things that they're passionate about, two things will almost never be mentioned: legal concerns and marketing/distribution of their films. Instead, most filmmakers have a blind belief that these two things will magically resolve themselves if they just follow a utopian “Field of Dreams”- mentality which states that if “they make it, people will come” and it will be distributed, audiences will see it, and there will be no legal difficulties to ensnare them. (Hey, I know where they're coming from, because when I made my first film, Commissioned, I was riding that same cloud of euphoria-inducing optimism.)
However, the real world is a bit of a ball-breaker and it has a tendency to attack and torture filmmakers who didn't plan for the future. It often does this by sidetracking films due to lack of proper paperwork or drying up any possibility of compensatory distribution because necessary marketing decisions were simply not chosen early enough. While Think OUTSIDE the BOX Office isn't a comprehensive book on legal advice for filmmakers (for that you should read Kari Ann's review of The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide), it is the premiere book on film distribution in the modern digital era.
With that said, let's break down what makes it so.
Jon's writing style is quite easy to understand. (Especially if you follow his start-up reading plan for the book, which I discuss in more detail in the Interest Level.) Even complicated topics were pretty simple to get the gist of, although some of the less immediate and more detailed topics will make more sense when you're actually in a situation that necessitates you having the information.
The only thing that distracted from comprehension is the fact that the book has a decent number of typos, which can throw you in certain situations. Fortunately, 90% of these are quite minor. (And the reader is pretty inclined to overlook these issues because Jon is very up front in saying that this book is a work in progress with regular updates, not unlike software. For buyers who pick up a copy of the book from Jon's site, they get the next upgrade at a deep discount.)
This book is absolutely jam-packed with information. Everything from how to separate artistic and commercial tendencies, to understanding what Digital Rights are, to how to create merchandise that can engage your audience in the way that Trent Reznor has managed to engage NIN fans, to how to launch your film from a film festival in order to build maximum buzz is covered in this book. In addition to general concepts, he talks specifically about companies out there that will help you in your pursuits and what recent costs or percentages have been for their use. (And because this book is to be updated more regularly than normal books, information on these companies will change in a more timely manner than in most books.)
Jon Reiss is a bloody genius. He wisely realized that there was no way to present all the information he intended to share without causing people's eyes to glaze over. So, acknowledging this fact, he provides a streamlined “crib” sheet at the beginning of the book. Essentially, he gives you a map of seven essential chapters that he suggests you read entirely and then encourages you to skim the other chapter intros during the initial read. This causes you to be able to get a massive amount of this book's content in only about two to three hours of steady reading, which is amazing. Of course, because you're checking the intros of different chapters, you'll invariably stumble across ones that'll pique your interest enough to read through in their entirety before moving on.
Essentially, this methodology creates a trail of mental “candy” for you to munch through, returning to the heavier “foods” (like the specific negotiating points for Digital Rights) only when you're in a situation where you need to really understand them. And because Jon's writing style is both engaging and informative, even the “candy” chapters are packed with useful information that will get you motivated and even excited about putting these ideas into practice.
This book is extremely reusable, as it works to inspire you to get out there and start marketing your film way into preproduction, but then has lots of more in-depth chapters for sticky points that might arise as you proceed. (And, as I mentioned before, if you purchase the book from Jon's site, you get a free update when the new version of the book is released.)
For all that you get, $24.95 is an amazingly good price, especially if you purchase it from Jon’s site, especially since, as I found out recently, some completely new chapters that won’t be available anyplace else will be available for free if you do so. Plus, as a New Year special, Jon is offering MFM readers a 12% discount, making it an even better deal. (And, as we mentioned before, you get a big discount on future versions of the book, so it will make it much easier to have the most up-to-date copy of the book!)
I first found out about Jon Reiss and this book when our marketing and publicity writer, Sheri Candler, touched base with me after an overall underwhelming experience at AFM (American Film Market). The market was full of people who were fervently installed in the old mindset of distribution that absolutely required films with substantial budgets, stars, and a slew of other old Hollywood carryovers. However, like a ray of sunshine for low-budget filmmakers, Jon Reiss showed up at one of the panels Sheri attended, waging verbal war on the status quo. His argument essentially promoted the power of the low-budget filmmaker who makes films at a stripped down budget, while staying actively involved in the marketing and promotions of their film. In one of these, he actually suggested that, if you had to choose, it would be a better idea to fire your DP (or, at least, your AD) and get a marketing director, as marketing was literally THAT crucial.
I was impressed by what I heard, but I really wanted to read Jon's own words. After reading through his book, I was shocked. Even though I have always believed that marketing, promotion, and distribution are necessary, I had never thought of it with any sort of enthusiasm. However, as I finished the book, I found myself thinking to a future film that I've been toying with in an entirely new light. Rather than dreading the concepts of social media, market research, and even merchandising, I began to allow these sorts of questions to feed into my own creativity. I began to realize that figuring out your market (and thinking of how to get them excited about your film) actually can help channel the creativity necessary to write the script and carry it through to completion. (Most of us want a muse. A specific type of person that will really enjoy our film is far more compelling than the faceless masses we too often imagine.) Crazy as it may sound, with this sort of mindset, filmmaking is not as exhausting from a psychological perspective, because when you understand that the entire filmmaking process is literally only half of the overall “film” process, the human mind adjusts to compensate to this world view. (I know; the human mind is a strange thing.)
If you want to build an audience for your short films, then this book is a smart read. However, if you want to create a feature film and have something to show for it when you're done, then this book is a must read! And with the limited-time 12% off discount for MFM readers, the extra exclusive content, and discounted future editions, you might as well make the purchasing and reading of this book part of your New Year's resolution!