Q&A with Steven Dhoedt, director of State of Play

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BUILDING A BIGGER AUDIENCE THROUGH DIRECT DISTRIBUTION

Belgian filmmaker Steven Dhoedt made a documentary about the world’s newest species of professional athlete – young men in South Korea who play video games for a living – and released it in a similarly modern way: directly to his audience, on the web.

“It was obvious — why wait to offer this film to the online community? Why have them wait for a year, or two years, which is usually the case with traditional distribution?” says Dhoedt. “It just did not make sense, because they are the ones who have been asking for it in the first place.”

VHX talked to Dhoedt about his film  STATE OF PLAY: how he funded it, promoted it, and (best of all) how he took advantage of both traditional and direct distribution by making lucrative broadcast deals and giving the film to his fans DRM-free at the same time. The result? A more diverse audience and a lot of buzz. 

VHX: How did you put together the budget for the film?

Dhoedt: The Flanders Audiovisual Fund is one of our national Belgian filmfunds. We applied for script funding, which basically gets you about €7,500 to develop your idea, do research, all that. We made a trailer, and then we applied for some pitching forums in Europe. Basically, you pitch your idea in front of a panel of broadcasters and, depending on how they react to it, usually you do not go home with a bag of money. A lot of the broadcasters we met several times that year.

VHX: Did you know when you were making the film that you wanted to release it directly from your site?

Dhoedt: No, not really, because we started the film in 2009. The landscape has changed so fast in the last couple of years. The idea of VOD was kind of floating around in 2009, but there was nothing that we thought was interesting or could work on a global level. It was only around a year and a half ago when we started editing that we started thinking about distribution possibilities. Because of the topic of the film, the majority of our audience is online. When we launched the trailer it became very obvious that we needed to have a very different approach than the usual festival, cinema, and TV, DVD, VOD windows.

VHX: Did you know how you were going to release the film when you launched your trailer?

Dhoedt: Yes, pretty much. We already had figured out that we were going to promote it through Reddit, and we were going to play it through all of the usual gaming forums. It was just a matter of getting the right partner involved.

VHX: Were there any roadblocks that prevented you from a simultaneous worldwide release?

Dhoedt: It is something that we had to work very hard to get. Our plan was to release it before any TV broadcasts because we know that once it has been on any channel, someone is going to sit there with their digital recorder and put it online. That took a little bit of negotiation but it was not as difficult as we thought. People were quite flexible.

We released the film 24 hours before the TV broadcast in Sweden. At that time there was already quite a big buzz around the film, and the online audience from Sweden thought, “All right, no way – we are not going to buy this because we can watch it for free in our own country on TV.” That rumor spread, and by the time it was actually broadcast on Swedish TV, Twitter was full of it. Reddit was full of it. I do not think it hurt their broadcast. I think the opposite – they actually got more viewers out of it.

VHX: What kind of rights are you giving up in exchange for broadcaster participation?

Dhoedt: Most of the deals that we made were pre-sales that would basically give them broadcast TV rights for their territory. So, let us say, Norway, Sweden, they would get the exclusive broadcast license for their country. But we always negotiated to have DVD, VOD, or, at least, non-exclusive rights.  

VHX: Did you have to take less money because you were only giving them broadcast rights?

Dhoedt: No. I think in a lot of cases VOD and DVD is something that is added in the broadcast contracts. It is not like they are reducing the amount they are willing to pay for your program because you keep VOD or DVD rights. It is just that it is something you have to negotiate. From our experience, we never really had the idea that this is something broadcasters really want to keep, though this is very likely going to change as VOD becomes more popular in Europe.

VHX: Did you have to walk away from any deals because they wanted all rights?

Dhoedt: No. Everything was okay. There was never a real problem in terms of release or what we wanted to do.

VHX: Were you doing the deals on your own, or were you working with an agent?

Dhoedt: Now that the film is finished we have a sales agent responsible for TV sales, festivals, etc. Apart from that, we did everything ourselves. We are a pretty small team. In this case I directed the film, I did some development production, and then a colleague of mine took care of the general production — making the deals with the broadcasters, the applications for film funds, that kind of thing.

VHX: What role do festivals play in your plan?

Dhoedt: Primarily as a marketing platform for the film. For us the most important thing was to have a festival that was really keen on showing the film and that was also appropriate location-wise. That is why we ended up with the CNEX Int. Documentary Festival in Taipei. Progamming is huge in China, it is huge in Taiwan. They were willing to create a special panel for gamers around this film. It completely suited their program, and it is linked to a film market where a lot of other festival programmers and TV buyers were going to be. For us it was perfect.

VHX: So you see the festival as a way to market to an audience, not to buyers?

Dhoedt: Exactly. It is very likely that there is going to be more sales from the festivals, but it is not like we only calculated towards that release. I think that is a difference between the European and the American approach. I feel that in the States, especially with documentaries, you work with some kind of crowdfunding approach — a little money, maybe some sponsorship, and then you bring it to the festival and see what happens. In Europe, it is more possible to have a bit of a bigger budget in place made from a patchwork of broadcasters and film funds.

VHX: How important was having subtitles and international compatibility in time for the release?

Dhoedt: Luckily enough, we already had to make three versions for our broadcasters. We were dealing with Dutch and French, and English we had because it is an international production. Then, one week into the online distribution, we started Portuguese, Japanese, German, and Russian subtitles. The Chinese subtitles are almost ready.

VHX: Are you paying to have those made?

Dhoedt: Yes, we are paying for that. But it is crucial because when we look at the statistics, lots of people are trying to get the film from Brazil. The Russian gaming community is gigantic. Same thing with the Chinese gaming community. There is no point in not investing a little bit of money in that because the return is going to be big.

VHX: Is the DVD important to you?

Dhoedt: Not that much. We want to do a physical limited edition, which kind of makes sense, because it allows us to add some things that you cannot give digitally, like the poster, a t-shirt, a nice box, kind of like a collector’s edition. It would be maybe 500 to 1,000 copies.

VHX: How do you feel about State of Play going DRM-free, and what is your take on people who feel that DRM-free might encourage piracy?

Dhoedt: I do not think it encourages piracy. The only difference is that with DRM it might take two or three days longer before it ends up on The Pirate Bay. That is it. They are going to break it anyway; it is not a big deal. They are not missed sales. We did a post on The Pirate Bay and a lot of the people there were very supportive. They were encouraging people to buy the film because we worked on it for so long. There was some name-calling going on and all that stuff. It was pretty amazing to see. It is bound to be online somewhere. It ended up on YouTube, and that’s where we draw the line. It is just a little bit too easy for people to find and access via search engines, especially because people put it on there and try to make money with it.

VHX: The gaming community is an important component here. Did you already have a relationship with them?

Dhoedt: No. I have always been a Gamer. And my previous film was about virtual worlds — also very video game related — so I have always had pretty good knowledge of that world. But I learned a lot in the last couple of years working on this film about StarCraft and getting to know the StarCraft community. It has also developed in a huge way in the last three years. When I started out, there was very little in terms of an international audience. It was very much restricted to South Korea. In the last two or three years it became bigger and bigger. In that way we were riding a pretty good wave.

VHX: How have you branched beyond people already familiar with eSports or StarCraft?

Dhoedt: We are dealing with the gaming community, but then we are also dealing with the documentary community. Apart from working with all the game blogs, and writing them, and spreading the word this way, we are also talking to film magazines, documentary forums, documentary makers, and obviously festivals. Very often the festivals are not dealing with the gaming community. I think at the premier screenings that we have had in Belgium, only 10 percent were gamers in the audience. In the first place, I am a documentary maker; in the second place, I am a gamer. The goal was always to tell a story that everybody could relate to.

Wanna learn more about the crazy world of Progaming? Head to STATE OF PLAY and buy the film today. 

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