He's only been toiling in the horror filmmaking trenches for a few years, but director Adam Ahlbrandt has already seized the indie film scene by the throat and shaken it up.
His recent films Cross Bearer (2012) and The Cemetery (2013) were released to enthusiastic horror-film-fan praise. My quick look at these two movies can be dug into right here.
Ahlbrandt will soon release his next film, Hunters, the blood-soaked tale of a group of film students who end up fighting for their lives when they embark to scout locations. But what's really striking is what Ahlbrandt has cookin' as his follow-up to Hunters...
The Sadist, currently in production, is the story of a sex addict who has plummeted deep into high society's perverse bondage underworld, and become trapped by a dominatrix in a prison of prostitution and humiliation. Adam Ahlbrandt is the writer and director. The film stars Kacie Marie (Cross Bearer), J.D. Brown (Wicked Lake), Haley Madison (Kill That Bitch), Mel Heflin (The Profane Exhibit), Tiffany Carroll (Hunters), Draven Star (The Cemetery), Rob Dimension (A Dark Place Inside) and Mr. Ahlbrandt himself.
While this twisted tale of psychological torture might seem shocking, the way Ahlbrandt is financing this edgy indie flick is more so.
Only 666 physical copies of The Sadist will be created... ever. The DVDs will be numbered and signed. To get the budget rolling in, Ahlbrandt put 664 of these extremely limited discs (numbers 2 through 665) up for pre-sale. They cost $45 plus $5 for shipping... not really that expensive, given how rare each DVD will be. Ahlbrandt's VOD and other revenue streams will remain perpetually at his fingertips - but when the DVDs are gone, they're gone forever. Apparently, they're selling quickly, so if you want to pre-order yours before they vanish, click the PayPal link found here.
In addition to the pre-sales, the budget is being raised by auctioning off the first and last units - the DVDs numbered 1 and 666 - to the highest bidders. Number 1 already hit eBay. Check out this listing for Ahlbrandt's pricy, but one-of-a-kind collector's item.
Note that this is not an inflated asking price, like what you might see for out-of-print DVDs on Amazon... this dollar amount is the result of a bidding war fought by people eager to fork over their hard-earned bucks - making a DVD that does not even exist yet the highest-dollar-valued DVD I have ever seen.
There are negatives to go with the positives of these groundbreaking film funding methods. Most notably, physical copy distribution permanently terminates as a revenue stream upon the 666th sale of the DVD units. How much of a risk is Ahlbrandt taking?
In today's market, a niche film like The Sadist, whether self-distributed or distributed by a small or medium sized distributor, may only sell 600 or 700 DVD / Blu-ray units anyway. And would a bigger distributor, capable of selling more, even pick up such a non-mainstream film? Even if one did, their sales of physical copies would likely not be much greater. By capping the number of units at 666, the value is driven up. With this plan, a movie that may have only sold the same number of units anyway brings in five, maybe six times what the title would have made selling 666 units at typical wholesale prices. Even selling 'em all at retail prices, the DVDs would have generated only about half of the money conjured up by Ahlbrandt's method.
More impressive elements of Ahlbrandt's attack: All the money is made up front. Nothing is split with a distributor (furthermore, two thirds of the distributors out there willing to pick up The Sadist will cook the books and steal some or all of Ahlbrandt's profits). Not a dime goes to investors (and at this budget level, the demands made by most investors tend to be enormous compared to the small dollar amounts they contribute).
The Sadist represents financial resources flowing directly from the target audience to the creatives making the product. It is crowdfunding evolved. It is art and commerce blending together efficiently, with minimal disruption.
If Ahlbrandt sells all 666 units before he finishes making the movie, he'll have made a movie for somewhere in the vicinity of $30,000. A tiny, challenging budget for sure... but it's a dollar amount many other DIY filmmakers agonizingly struggle to raise via crowdfunding, donations, investors, bake sales, selling their blood, etc. Ahlbrandt's method is quick, and requires a fraction of the usual effort.
After The Sadist is complete, and all 666 DVDs have shipped, Ahlbrandt still has those VOD rights to keep some additional profits coming in... perhaps for decades.
Sure, if The Sadist gains a huge cult following, an "anniversary edition" re-release disc in ten or twenty years is not an option. But the way things are going, the demand for physical media will be much lower than it is today. Therefore, Ahlbrandt is maximizing his physical media income by burning up that release option now, making more money in the present, and turning his back on the future of physical media profits - knowing said revenue stream is already slowly drying up. Yes, VHS made a big comeback in certain circles, so DVD and Blu-ray may be big again in 10 or 20 years... but with every plan there is risk... and I'd say Ahlbrandt has very wisely minimized his.
Releasing The Sadist on DVD or Blu-ray in overseas territories is also off the table. But let's compare that eBay sale of DVD unit #1 to a typical distribution fee from a foreign distributor. Generally, an overseas distribution company pays an up-front flat licensing fee to release a U.S. indie film, within a specific territory, unlimited copies for a specific number of years. In the good ol' days (like, nine or ten years ago) half of a low budget horror film's profits would come from these foreign territory distribution fees. In today's economy, the fees are much lower than they used to be, and there are fewer foreign companies licensing films, adding more sludge to the congealing indie film market. However... With the sale of a single DVD on eBay, Ahlbrandt has generated more than double what a typical overseas territory distribution deal would have paid him.
I'm not sure exactly what they are yet, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from Adam Ahlbrandt and The Sadist. Certainly, the more people attempt these tactics, the less power these ventures will have. I'm not saying Ahlbrandt's funding / distribution model is the wave of the future. I'm not saying he has single-handedly made traditional indie film distribution obsolete, eliminated the need for film investors, or abolished crowdfunding as we know it. However, instead of standing around scratching their heads and shrugging about why nothing is making any money, low budget film producers and indie film distributors should look closely at Adam Ahlbrandt's success... and try to evolve.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze