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Case Study #1: Fanlight Productions

By Debra Franco

A black-and-white photo of a man posed with a picture of himself, from 'When Billy Broke His Head... and Other Tales of Wonder'

Fanlight Productions has produced and distributed independent film and video since 1980, specializing in health, mental health, disability and family issues, which it traditionally sold to universities and health and medical institutions.

The Home Video Experiment—Introduction

Case Study #1: Fanlight Productions

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Case Study #5: Northeast Historic Film

In 1995, Fanlight acquired When Billy Broke His Head... and Other Tales of Wonder, a 56-min. ITVS-funded docu­mentary produced by Billy Golfus and David E. Simpson. Ben Achtenberg, president of Fanlight, describes Billy as a breakthrough title—"not because it was the first film on disabilities, but because it was the first that took a hard-nosed, activist stance on disability rights." The film, which views the politics of disability rights through Billy Golfus's wry and mordant sense of humor, would go on to win Sundance's Freedom of Expression Award, the duPont-Columbia Journalism Award, first prize at the 1st Paralympics Festival and many others.

Achtenberg and his staff immediately recognized the film's educational potential. But they had watched other independent producers and distributors enter the home video market, and were cautious both about consumer interest and the potential risk to institutional sales. Fanlight had experimented with selling some titles to individuals off-air after public television broadcasts; the most successful of these had required serious effort to make 50 sales.

The film's producers were committed to making the video available to individuals in the disability community. Because of the producers' commitment and willingness to take the risk of reduced royalties if institutional sales were adversely affected, Achtenberg agreed to take on limited home video distribution  Fanlight launched the film to the educational market at a price of $245 (later dropped to $195) and began to investigate consumer venues that would not seriously conflict with the educational market.

The film received a PBS airdate of May 1995; its ITVS contract prohibited home video sales until then. Thus it made sense to use the airdate to launch the home video by offering the tape on-air to viewers, as well as to capitalize on the publicity the broadcast would generate.

The first step was to find a way to make the on-air offer. Achtenberg felt hesitant about working through a PBS station; he would have preferred Fanlight or ITVS to provide the offer directly, to maintain control of customer lists as well as retain more revenue. But PBS guidelines made it difficult for non-PBS organizations to do this. Also, logistics are cumbersome for a one-time or one-film offer. After researching numerous possibilities, Achtenberg worked out an agreement with KCET-TV to make the offer through VideoFinders, an established station-owned service that sells videos. Fanlight negotiated a 40% discount deal; YideoFinders agreed to this low percentage because of the prestige of the film and the chance to discover a new market. Together, they determined a home video price of $29.95.

Once the on-air agreement was in the works, Fanlight and the producers focused on two other consumer areas: video retail and magazine advertisements. After studying the attempts of other companies to sell independent documentaries through video stores, Fanlight's marketing director, Karen McMillen, did not expect a huge retail market for Billy. Unless a video appeals strongly to a special-interest niche, most independent films in retail have been offered for rental rather than self-through. Also, most video stores are not set up to promote these kinds of videos: big-title Hollywood features sell themselves; documentaries often end up in the public service section, where they get little consumer attention.

Fanlight first attempted to sell Billy directly to the large video retail chains like Blockbuster and Tower, but met with no response. [Since the writing of this article, Tower Video no longer takes independent submissions.] Blockbuster suggested that Fanlight go through Tapeworm, a sub-distributor that often serves as middle-man for small companies wanting to sell their titles to video retail outlets.

Fanlight decided to sign with Tapeworm specifically to get Billy into the video chains. But subdistributors like Tapeworm also serve the large catalog companies (such as Baker & Taylor and Ingram), selling to libraries and universities. To minimize any cannibalization of the educational marketplace, McMillen required Tapeworm to agree to sell only to retailers.

While the retail channels were being set up, two magazines serving the disability community contacted the producers: Mouth, an activist, down-to-earth news-print bimonthly, and New Mobility, a glossier publication with lots of advertising. Both magazines have marketplace sections to sell products to readers, and both were anxious to offer videos of Billy there. Achtenberg decided to structure the deal like that of a cataloger so that Fanlight would not have to fulfill a lot of low priced consumer orders. The magazines agreed to pay for the listings and buy inventory from Fanlight at 40 percent off the retail price , with a minimum order of 20 units . The magazines would then handle the sales and keep the customer lists.

As the air date approached, ITVS also began to generate publicity for the broadcast. With assistance from Fanlight, it developed a list of grassroots organizations that serve the disabled and mailed them an announcement of the broadcast with a special video offer of $99. This effort did not generate many sales but it did alert organizations to the broadcast and established a mid-range price for community organizations that Fanlight has continued to honor.

When Billy Broke His Head aired on public television stations across the U.S. during the week of May 23, 1995. Playboy magazine ran an article on the program in its June issue; feature stories about it appeared subsequently in Disability Rag, New Mobility and other publications that serve the disabled; and it was glowingly reviewed in Variety, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Sun Times and The New York Times.

As expected, individual video sales were greatest in the two to three months directly preceding and following the broadcast. During this peak time, individuals bought 766 units through KCET, more than 100 through the magazines and 80 were sold to video stores through Tapeworm. Institutional sales also increased during the broadcast period, perhaps because of the additional publicity.

Since the 1995 broadcast, the video has continued to sell to individuals in small numbers through these sources, as well as generating sales through Billy Golfus's speaking engagements and radio appearances. However, the retail venue proved disappointing. After an initial order of 60 tapes to Tower Video and a smattering of sales to Videomith and other stores, Fanlight discovered that Tapeworm was about to fulfill a bulk order to Baker & Taylor, which sells to educational institutions. When questioned, Tapeworm replied that they could not keep retail orders separate from orders initiated by jobbers like Baker and Taylor. To safeguard their institutional sales, Fanlight decided to sever the relation ship with Tapeworm.

Since then, Fanlight has continued to attempt selling directly to the small number of independent video stores that often buy non-mainstream videos; but this large effort has had minimal success. McMillen recalls, for example, one midwestern store owner who, after five phone calls, finally told her to send a copy of Billy to him C.O.D. When the tape arrived, he refused delivery.

Was Fanlight's strategy successful? It 's been two years since the broadcast, and Billy continues to sell successfully to institutions at $195, mostly to university student-services departments, hospitals, psychiatric institutions and organizations for the disabled. In addition, individual orders continue to come in through the magazine ads and KCET, and from Billy Golfus's appearances around the country. To date, the film has made hundreds of institutional sales, and sold more than 1,250 units in home video. It is Fanlight's fifth-biggest seller of all time.

Achtenberg believes that home video sales will increase with the film's re broadcast on PBS. If he can determine the airdate far enough in advance, he will again promote the film to video stores, quoting figures from reviews and sales. McMillen has offered the same magazine deal to other publications aimed at the disability community, but most are not set up to sell videos so have not been interested.

Fanlight considers Billy a success. Its off-air sales, compared with those of the average POV-like broadcast documentary, are high. Sales should continue to grow with subsequent broadcasts. The film is reaching the disability community through sales to institutions, and to interested individuals through home video. When asked about the reasons for the film's success, Achtenberg points to the commitment of its producers, its timeliness and the need for such a film. "But," he says, "it's also got to be a good film. A lot of titles that may do well in educational just don't make it in home video. Mere relevance doesn't do it. Humor and real-life drama help a lot."


Fanlight Productions
47 Halifax St. Boston MA 02130
tel: 617-524-0980
fax: 617-524-8838
Contact: Ben Achtenberg/Karen McMillan