By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2007
Originally published in Event DV Magazine
As a videographer, you can expect to be approached by people with great ideas for a video. They are certain that Blockbuster will want to stock it and that their local PBS affiliates will want to air it. The video might take the form of a documentary, a travel video, or a how-to video. In a few cases, these folks have the capital to finance the venture, and they are ready to pay your fee for production and editing. But most of the time, these budding entrepreneurs want you to invest your time and your equipment purely on spec, with only the hope of sharing future profits.
What these people are suggesting isn’t necessarily as far-fetched as it sounds. With the right topic, a well-targeted audience, and an organized approach to marketing, your videos can sell very well, as you will see here in the stories of Fred Levine, Lee Mun Wah, and Leslie Kussmann. Each of these videographers developed a strategy to not only produce video titles that would sell, but to create a plan for promoting and selling them.
Secrets of SIV Success
In the May 2007 issue, Steve Yankee reviewed Secrets of Producing and Selling Successful Videos, a book by Hal Landen of VideoUniversity. This is not one of those get-rich-quick types of books. It methodically shows you the slow but steady way to produce and market special interest DVDs to the buying public. Special interest video topics include instructional, sports, travel, health, children’s videos, and other nonfiction DVDs.
Landen recommends that before you shoot a second of video, you thoroughly research the market for the film. Know who will buy it, and try to estimate how many copies you could sell. Study educational distributors; they tell you what they are looking for. Some even state it on their websites.
If you wish to distribute the videos yourself, Landen covers some basics of the mail order business. He explains the concept of mail order “split testing,” where you try different offers for the same DVD, such as low price plus shipping, high price plus another item for free, or a high price and free shipping. Code the mailings with different product numbers or mailing addresses.
The book explains the two levels of selling through Amazon. One is Amazon Advantage, where Amazon stocks your video, ships it to customers, and keeps 55% of the profits. Amazon Advantage has a recommendation function, and you can ask your customers to recommend your video. You will also benefit from the exposure of being listed on the Amazon database; libraries and store buyers use this site to search for titles. The Amazon Marketplace, on the other hand, charges you only 15% commission plus 99 cents per unit, but it does not include you in the database. You send the DVDs directly to the customer, and you are required to contact the customer to confirm receipt of the order and tell the customer when you will ship it.
Landen stresses that you need to develop a plan for distributing the film, either by yourself, through a wholesaler, or through a publisher. Publishers usually want exclusive rights to your video, and Landen recommends including a clause that stipulates if sales fall below a certain level per year, the rights revert back to you, the producer. He also suggests you avoid a work-for-hire clause because the publisher can claim ownership of all footage you shoot, and you would be prohibited from selling stock footage of outtakes.
From Landen’s book you’ll also learn how to use Google Adwords: You specify keywords and decide the maximum amount you are willing to pay per click. Your listing shows up in the “sponsored links” section of the Google results page. Landen suggests you try different keywords to see which work best and to keep your cost-per-click level low until you know better how many clicks it takes to make a sale.
Landen advises avoiding the temptation to produce DVDs on video techniques. The field is crowded with competitors, and you have to keep changing the video each time new software or cameras are released. Other fields he recommends avoiding include cooking shows (too crowded a market), dance (too hard to obtain music licenses), and travel (too many inexpensive videos already out).
In addition to Landen’s book, Studio 1 Productions offers a free 94-page downloadable PDF from its website. This company has experience producing and selling DVDs; it has produced about 35 instructional DVDs aimed at videographers. Studio 1 markets such titles as Learn How to Shoot Great Weddings, Sony FX 7 Instructional DVD, and Getting Started with Adobe Premiere Pro 2.
In the PDF, Studio 1 staffers share their experiences with selling DVDs about video production, software, and hardware. They recommend that you structure your video so you can make revisions as new product versions are released.
The Studio 1 crew recommends producing a series of videos on a subject rather than a single one. It costs little extra to market several programs, and some subjects can be divided into multiple DVD titles such as Getting Started With, Intermediate Training in, Advanced Techniques with, and the like. The PDF has a slew of production and postproduction tips, such as slating and logging shots and using music and animated backgrounds when editing.
In case you’re planning a magazine advertising campaign, Studio 1 shares its approach to researching which magazines to advertise in and the best time of the year to release your video (Studio 1 recommends an April issue). Studio 1 explains how to create a mail order business, how to set up an online ordering system, how to track your sales, and how to sell through dealers.
Fred Levine’s Road to Successful Videos
In the early ’90s, videographer Fred Levine noticed his two young sons’ interest in heavy equipment, so he decided to produce a video featuring bulldozers building a highway. Titled Road Construction Ahead, the video spawned a genre of videos geared to the interests of a highly defined market: boys 2-6 years old. He shot all his location video and then hired an actor to play the friendly host, George.
After a few mistakes, such as buying some expensive display advertising, Levine got his video reviewed by major newspapers and magazines. Then he crafted an editorial-style ad that quoted the reviews, which proved very successful. He received a host of free publicity, including appearances on such shows as Good Morning America and Eye to Eye with Connie Chung. Road Construction Ahead was ranked as one of the Top Ten Best All Time Videos for Children by Parents Magazine‘s Guide to the Best Family Videos, alongside Disney titles. Orders started streaming in, and within 2 years Levine’s company grew from one person—himself—to a staff of 47, answering telephones, packaging VHS tapes, and shipping out orders.
Other titles in Levine’s catalog include House Construction Ahead, Farm Country Ahead, Where the Garbage Goes, Fire and Rescue, Cleared for Takeoff, and Big Boats & Busy Harbors. He pioneered what he calls the “big-machine, kid-vid genre,” and countless knockoffs of his videos have since flooded the market.
Maybe imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Levine reports that he was not pleased when he found Time Warner using his road construction logo on a copycat video titled There Goes a Bulldozer. When he went to a conference of the Video Software Dealers Association, he says he found even more knockoff videos. He cautions videographers to act quickly to protect their intellectual property rights. Even though he prevailed in litigation, Time Warner was allowed to sell off its inventory of thousands of tapes.
Rather than sign an exclusive deal with a distributor, Levine distributes his DVDs through his website, plus he sells them to wholesalers. He inked a deal with Funrise Toys, a licenser of the Tonka Toy brand name, to package some of his programs with toys as a premium item offer. Rather than maintain a large staff of employees, Levine now contracts with a manufacturer to press his DVDs and to warehouse and ship those and several other related products. He has a Yahoo! Merchant Store and says that 99% of his orders now come through online ordering rather than from the toll-free number as in the early days.
Levine says that the combination of internet commerce and DVDs has made his job a lot easier than in the days of fielding phone calls and manufacturing VHS tapes. He has the printing of DVD covers done at the same facility that replicates the discs. He uses the same design template for the DVD insert sleeves, but he modifies the text and photographs for each new title.
When asked how service-oriented video producers can get their start producing special interest videos, Levine suggests finding a niche market and producing a quality video. He says if you take your time, have your heart in your work, and don’t do it just for the money, you will have a better chance of succeeding.
Levine’s annual sales range from 1,000 to 5,000 DVDs of each title, and his company now sells toy hard hats, clothing, and other products from his website, www.littlehardhats.com. This residual income is generated even when he is not working. His products, he says, “will sell forever. My kids will get money from these even after I’m dead.”
Color of Fear: All the Way to Oprah
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where documentary filmmakers abound. Most of them produce videos on topics of narrow interest, and they make no money in the process. When I heard stories of Lee Mun Wah and his company, StirFry Seminars and Consulting, making a million dollars from his educational film The Color of Fear, I thought it was an urban legend.
The Color of Fear depicts a group of men from different ethnic backgrounds discussing how racism has affected them. Shot with five cameras during a weekend retreat in Northern California, the 90-minute film shows emotional and thought-provoking confrontations between the men as they eventually develop a sense of understanding and trust among each other.
Lee doesn’t sell his films through distributors, nor does he allow them to be shown on public television. He prefers to attend the screenings and facilitate discussion as part of a training package.
When he started out, Lee still worked as a special education teacher. He would charge $100 for the film and another $100 per day as the trainer. “At that time I thought that was good money for a schoolteacher,” says Lee. The film became popular among companies and organizations that wanted to offer diversity training. Eventually he would earn $100,000 per month in sales and consulting fees. Prior to The Color of Fear, Lee made his first film, Stolen Ground, showing his Asian men’s group in action. With his background as a psychotherapist, Lee produced the video so therapists could use it to learn about group work. He would show clips from the video at small gatherings, where he got donations ranging from $5 to $25.
He used a similar fundraising technique for The Color of Fear. “I showed the first half of the film because I needed to raise money to edit the second half of the film,” said Lee. Someone at a federal social agency heard about the film and invited him to show it to a group of five people there. When he called to confirm, Lee was told the audience would be about 25. By the time he got there, the buzz of anticipation resulted in a standing-room-only crowd of 600. People at more than 50 federal agencies approached Lee to show the film at their agencies, and the word “spread like wildfire,” according to Lee.
He was soon charging $1,000 per hour to show the film and lead discussions to teach managers about diversity in the workplace. According to Lee, a top diversity training company in San Francisco soon went bankrupt because everyone wanted to use The Color of Fear for their training, and Lee was charging so little for his workshops.
To promote the film, Lee set up free showings at different venues around the country, and he brought with him the film’s participants. One misstep Lee made was when he paid $23,000 for a publicist and rental of the Danny Kaye Theater in New York City for a screening. Only 60 people showed up. Lee said that this expense left him in such a tight financial position that he feared he could not pay his rent. Lee recalls, “One day I heard my late mother’s voice [say] to just listen and watch for signs. Later, a stream of light from my window illuminated a yellow index card right over the name and phone number of a man I met at the New York screening.” Lee called the number on the card, and the man who answered said he wanted to speak with Lee but had lost his phone number.
That man would later become co-producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and he arranged for Lee to have a 1-hour special on his life and his work. Viewed by 15 million people, this show catapulted Lee to success.
Throughout his career, Lee says the point of his films was not to make money or win awards, but to create a sense of community around those who view his films and to encourage people to talk about such issues as racism and sexism. Lee believes in the ability of films to shape consciousness; he calls his films “community documentaries.”
Lee has now cut back on his training and screenings to spend more time with his family, but The Color of Fear still earns $15,000 per month. He prices it at four different levels, ranging from $250 for individuals to $1,200 for corporations. His latest film, Last Chance for Eden, is a documentary about eight men and women discussing racism and sexism in the workplace.
Marketing Instructional DVDs to the Professional Market
Aquarius Health Care Media produces and distributes educational DVDs to medical schools, hospitals, colleges, libraries, prisons, healthcare professionals, nonprofit organizations, youth agencies, and more. The DVD titles range in price from $125 to $1,000, depending on whether the program is a series or not. Aquarius offers streaming and downloadable videos on demand for many films in its collection.
Aquarius’ films provide educational and emotional support to customers. The programs help individuals and families cope with all kinds of life challenges, such as mental illness, disabilities, sickness, aging, and death. Aquarius produces and distributes more than 100 new films a year.
Leslie Kussmann, president and producer of Aquarius, says her company “started itself” 19 years ago when she made a film following the death of her mother. The 30-minute film, What Do I Tell My Children, is narrated by Joanne Woodward and features experts speaking on the subject of death and dying. Designed to help families deal with grief, it includes children and their parents sharing their stories and feelings about the loss of their loved ones.
Shot with a limited budget, the film was one of the first films about bereavement. In planning the film, Kussmann conducted research about hospices and held some informal focus groups. After completing the film, she started marketing the video, which included an initial mailing to 5,000 hospitals and medical schools, as well as attending and exhibiting at health-oriented trade shows.
Before she knew it, Kussmann was in the video production and distribution business full-time. She hired an assistant to duplicate and ship the videos and to assist with marketing (and since Kussmann’s baby was on-site, the assistant also changed some diapers). Over the years, Aquarius has kept its focus on the health market and continues to listen to the needs of people in that field. Kussmann says she always stresses high quality and integrity. What Do I Tell My Children has won 10 awards and has sold more than 6,000 copies.
Making Connections is another popular title. Funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, it deals with multiple sclerosis—a topic Kussmann is all too familiar with; she has MS herself. The film won a Telly Award, and it was a finalist at the International Health & Medical Media Awards.
Healthcare is a national issue, and Kussmann says that Aquarius is recognized as the leader in providing films and educational resources. She is frequently asked to provide her expertise in health media; NBC worked with Aquarius to broadcast some of its films on NBC’s health channel.
Kussmann works with producers in a variety of arrangements, from co-production to distribution. She cautions new producers to avoid taking on more than they can handle and to keep overhead low.
Partnering With Aquarius
Aquarius has partnered with many producers. It welcomes inquiries and invites producers to visit its website, www.aquariusproductions.com. The following statement is on the website:
As a producer and distributor, we love to help other producers get their messages out and to assist producers in making their dreams become a reality. I invite you to contact Aquarius and tell us about your program so that we may be able to work together too. If you have produced something recently or know of a program that you think may be of interest to us, please call or e-mail us.
Major Topics of Interest to Us:
Particular areas of interest include the following: aging & gerontology, disabilities, children & teen health, alternative medicine, bereavement, caregiver concerns, women’s health, nursing concerns, humor & healing, mental health and of course – relaxation!! If you have a topic you’re unsure of, just give us a call and we’ll let you know if it might fit.
Stu Sweetow (sweetow at avconsultants.com) runs video production company Audio Visual Consultants in Oakland, Calif. He taught video production at UC Berkeley Extension, was associate editor of Wedding and Event Video, and is a contributing editor to Camcorder & Computer Video.