The POV Interview: Robin Smith, Doc Distribution Veteran

16 mins read

Robin Smith has worked in the Canadian distribution for over 20 years. He is the founder of the innovative Kinosmith distribution company, CEO of the non-fiction distribution company Blue Ice Docs, and head programmer at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Along his journey, Smith has worked for such Canadian institutions as the NFB and TIFF. He prides himself on taking different positions at various distribution companies-–from Alliance Atlantis to Lionsgate to Seville to Capri Releasing—where he was able to gather an understanding of the different aspects of distribution: sales, acquisitions, and marketing among others.—Jonas Jacobs


POV: Jonas Jacobs
RS: Robin Smith

POV: How did you get started in film distribution?

RS: I went to film school at York University. After four years of film school, I realised that I knew, technically, how to make a film but had no understanding of the business aspect of it. So I purposely put myself more on the business side of film. After spending years with distribution and production companies, and working with great filmmakers and great films, I came to the conclusion that my aspiration of being a filmmaker was foolhardy. Living more on the side of distribution—the business side–was a better place for me, because I’d like to think of myself as being more artist-friendly than the majority of distributers, who are lawyers or have finance degrees, etc.

POV: Do you find that having that artist-friendly attitude is helpful in teaming with doc filmmakers?

RS: What I was hearing from a lot of filmmakers when I first started was, it was just very difficult to connect with a distributor. Especially the bigger distributors, like the Alliances, eOnes of the world….Documentaries are a small genre for them, and therefore not a priority. So, if you’re a doc filmmaker and you’re knocking on the door of one of the larger distributors of this country, chances are you are not a high priority. For me, because I was starting a new company I love the art form, I try to make docs and independent filmmakers a priority.

POV: What attracted you to documentary, specifically?


RS: At the time when I left Capri, there was a big gap in the marketplace. Smaller, boutique companies like Mongrel Media had grown exponentially and there were a lot of films, specifically documentaries, that weren’t getting acquired or distributed. One of my first projects I got involved in, through the EyeSteel Film gang, was Up The Yangtze. We literally did a deal where I would act as their service agent in getting the film out theatrically, and with their help, we were able to make it the third highest grossing Canadian doc of all time, with a take in excess of $800,000 theatrical. So that helped get my name on the map, while acquiring a great sense of where the market was….And [I realized] that there was a growing market for documentaries, domestic or otherwise.

POV: Can you explain a bit about the process of marketing documentaries and how that’s different from marketing a feature fiction film?

RS: Documentary is so much simpler in some ways to determine and discern its target audience. Once you determine the audience, you can market the film appropriately. With fiction films, it’s often a wider net and a bigger demographic that the American studios are often going after and that’s an expensive game to play.

I’m a small independent. I started Kinosmith on my own money. For me, it was about working on films that you didn’t necessarily have to spend a bucket load of cash to try and build the necessary awareness that you needed to attract your core audience. I’m a big proponent of ‘it’s not how much you spend on releasing and distributing a movie, it’s how you spend that money.’

POV: Do you find that your marketing strategies have changed now that the digital landscape has grown so quickly as a means of accessing and watching documentaries, as opposed to DVD or theatrical?

RS: I think you have to be very strategic in how you spend money, because the tastes and likes of every demographic in this country, and how they consume movies, is evolving and changing almost daily. I still believe in theatrical and I still think theatrical is the beast that drives the wheel. Theatrical is still where the majority of awareness, press and marketability for a film is going to transpire. Filmmakers and myself and the [more mature] public have a love affair with going to the cinema. There’s something almost religious about that experience. But I also know for a fact that trying to get a youthful audience to come out and see a movie in the cinemas is very difficult.

POV: So do you think there is an ageist element to the idea that theatrical is dying and digital is the only thing that matters?

RS: I know for a fact that the core audience in The ByTowne in Ottawa, the Bloor in Toronto, the Bookshelf in Guelph, the VanCity in Vancouver is not made up of the younger demographic. When I talk to Apple or Netflix or the VOD providers in general, documentaries are one of the hottest genres on iTunes and Netflix, but it’s not an older demographic who’s watching films digitally, it’s a younger demographic. So, how you release a Bones Brigade (youth skateboarding film) versus a film like Advanced Style (senior fashionistas in Manhattan), is obviously affected by that understanding.

POV: It’s so important to know your audience.

RS: If you know who your audience is, the very first thing you need to figure out is their consuming habits. How do they watch movies? Where do they watch movies? When do they watch movies? And how much will they pay to watch movies? So, these are things that go through my head whenever I get approached to distribute a movie, or get a treatment for a movie. I always try to discern not only who the audience is, but also what are the best avenues to get that film to its audience.

POV: Now with DVD rental stores like Queen Video and Bay St. Video in decline or virtually non-existent, how does digital fill that void?

RS: Well, with the digital world, you need to market and push the film when it goes out there. Otherwise, people are never going to find it. On iTunes or even Netflix, it’s not like going into the DVD stores in the old days where you could look at the shelves and different genres and view each title. It’s impossible to find anything through a lot of the interfaces. It becomes more like, “I’m going to look for this film on this site.” If you’re just surfing and looking for something to watch, chances are you are not going to find what you’re looking for. And chances are if, as a distributor, you’ve done nothing to help promote or position your film on that platform in a way that people will find it, then it’s kind of a non-equation. You’re not going to make any money.

POV: So what about strategies that combine both theatrical and digital–day and date releasing–when a film becomes available in the theatres and digitally at the same time?

RS: Day and date is becoming so prolific in the US. If you’re pushing or promoting a theatrical and VOD release at the same time, the awareness built up with your theatrical premieres helps push people to your VODs right off the bat. So, it’s brilliant. But, guess what, we are in a country where we have an exhibitor (Cineplex) who has a majority of our screens and has the ability to dictate terms to smaller distributors. And they do not allow day and date releases for the most part. If you go the independent route, you have the ability to play around with that a lot more. Not to say every independent accepts a day and date release–they don’t. But they can still buy into the concept.

POV: We haven’t really talked about television at all.

RS: Exactly. Documentary production, historically and still currently, is a broadcast-driven market, meaning the reason why eOne, Mongrel, Elevation and the rest of the “big” gang haven’t focused on docs is because most Canadian documentaries get financed and come with a pre-buy for broadcast attached… For me to get involved with Canadian documentaries has become very problematic because the only way doc-makers can make films is by financing them through a pre-buy, which will trigger the CMF (Canadian Media Fund). And if the doc-makers have an equity situation with CMF, more complications are created. Essentially, ‘how I can recoup my expenses as a distributor, and what sort of fees I can ask for?’ So, as much as I love our indigenous industry, the last three or four years, I’ve been shying away from Canadian films more than I’ve ever done before, which is really f**d up.

POV: So it seems like a pretty bleak landscape out there.

RS: Listen, I’m going to be frank about it…I think traditional distribution, specifically for non-fiction films, is going the way of the dodo. Which is why the BlueIce people and myself are looking to expand our portfolio of what we are doing. I think acquiring and distributing film within this really small territory called Canada is a no-win situation. Doesn’t matter if you have a high budget fiction film or a low-budget non-fiction film. It’s an incredibly tough way to try to make some revenue. You’re seeing pre-buys in the nonfiction world through broadcasters. And the broadcasters are taking a lot of rights. The new power brokers are the cable networks: Rogers, Bell, Shaw. They now have the ability to help trigger and take rights and do everything for the film. They are not going to help you theatrically release the film, but they are going to push you in the right direction through their channel.

POV: What about Netflix, and new online streaming services like Shomi and CraveTv?

RS: People trust brands. Netflix became a brand because they spent millions of dollars branding themselves. Apple was a brand even before they started. To me, it is a branding exercise. That’s why you see Crave and Shomi spending money. They are advertising their services pretty heavily, and it’s a really smart move on their part. Let’s face it, getting back to broadcasters, they know that a traditional scheduled programme is going the way of the dodo as well. At some point in time, everything will be online, and people will pick and choose how they want to watch films online. There’s always going to be live events, whether it be sports or otherwise. But, where broadcasters need to re-invent themselves is online.

POV: It’s all complicated, but it does seem like a ripe time for innovation and disrupting the status quo of distribution.

RS: All of this is massively tricky, wacky, weird, web-like, and I don’t tend to have the answers to any of this. I’m still trying to figure out the landscape myself. If I knew where our industry was going, I’d be on an island in the Caribbean next to Johnny Depp right now. But what I also embrace is that I’m not the only person who’s slightly ignorant about where things are going. I think everyone is in the same boat. We don’t know how the current technologies are going to be integrated; we don’t know what new technologies are coming around the corner. It’s all going to change.

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