TOTBO Review by Adam Chapnick on Documentary Magazine

by | March 18, 2010 | Distribution, DIY, Marketing, Strategy

This was published on the Spring 2010 issue of the Documentary Magazine.

Distribution Ammunition: An Indispensable Manual for the DIY Forces
Reality Ink by ADAM CHAPNICK

For those of us who follow independent film distribution, Jon Reiss burst into prominence only recently, with his 2009 series of unflinchingly honest articles for Filmmaker magazine detailing the highs and lows of his adventures in DIY releasing. In that three-part series, Reiss shared his frustrations (many), successes (fewer) and lessons learned in bringing to market his graffiti-culture documentary, Bomb It.

The articles revealed Reiss as a delicious combination of born teacher, compulsive anti-authoritarian and thorough scholar, whose nature is to measure, analyze and, most importantly, share his discoveries. That’s proved to be lucky for everyone who has ever even thought about stepping onto the hazy battlefields of independent film distribution, because with the release of his new book, Reiss has become their most valuable ally. His new book, Think Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Era, arms readers with a powerful weapon in their fight for their rights and revenue streams.

Reiss has amassed an incredible wealth of pure information, analysis and, true to form, blunt warnings and mini-manifestos that simply have never been available all in one place. A natural extension of his work on the Filmmaker columns, the book is dizzying in its broad-scope ambition, but Reiss delivers, with a talent for filtering out the irrelevant while including enough actionable details to make the book a real manual for doers. I’ve been in indie film distribution for almost 10 years, and my copy of the book is dog-eared and highlighted, with to-do notes scrawled all over it. (Full disclosure: I was pleasantly surprised to read Reiss’ positive words about my company,, in the book.)

Reiss also dons a journalist’s cap to include opinions, strategies and tactics of fellow indie distribution and marketing thought-leaders like über-consultant Peter Broderick, B-Side’s Chris Hyams, Cinetic Rights Management’s Matt Dentler, publicist Cynthia Swartz and filmmakers like Todd Sklar, Joe Swanberg and Cora Olson.

Some of the book’s useful guidance covers the expected, like “Deal Points to Consider with a Foreign Sales Agent,” but the book goes beyond the useful and enters the realm of the exciting when Reiss discusses his take on new-model distribution. With chapters like “Rethinking Marketing,” “An Introduction to Transmedia” and “Creating a Live Event Experience,” Reiss demonstrates his ability to creatively relate to the audience and their preferences—before, during and after production.

Today, the world “outside the box office” obviously is largely located on the Web. Understanding this, Reiss correctly decided to include in the book careful and detailed roadmaps for success with popular, free online tools like Facebook and WordPress. These how-to’s leverage the latest platforms specifically for films—for many, his “10 Tips for Making the Most of Facebook” alone will be worth many times the price of the book.

Reiss also takes great pains to redefine what we call the theatrical experience, and while his new classifications are interesting, philosophically they are of little practical use for DIY filmmakers trying to navigate the landscape of traditional players who don’t share Reiss’ new vision.

Will all of Reiss’ insights and strategies work for everyone who reads this book? No. Could the book have benefited from a simple run-through of a garden-variety spell check program? Yes. But beyond those facts, Think Outside the Box Office is absolutely required reading for everyone making any kind of media with hopes to meaningfully connect with an audience.

Since the book’s release in December 2009, it’s been almost as instructive to watch Reiss’ moves as he works to promote it. He walks his talk. First, I noticed he re-branded himself on Twitter from “jfilm” to the more easily recognizable “jon_reiss,” and launched an intensive question-and-answer mini-campaign for Tweeters who wanted DIY distribution questions answered by the author himself. For several days, he could be seen posting dozens of personal responses per hour, into the wee hours.

He has done countless book signings and lectures. I’ve seen him everywhere, from the American Film Market to DIY Days to Peter Broderick’s and Scott Kirsner’s Distribution U (see article on page__), to the annual LA Slamdance dinner. He’s appeared on Internet radio talk shows, written guest blogs for The Huffington Post and released new columns for Filmmaker magazine. In addition to his already prolific blog, he built a new website to house all his knowledge and opened it to contributors ( He did a week-long Q&A for the popular doc website the D-Word ( And these are just the things I observed as an industry watcher. (Filmmakers: how would your release be different if you were hustling this way?)

The jury is still out on what exactly will develop into the next, workable model for independent film distribution. Will digital delivery platforms be embraced by paying consumers enough to sustain an all-digital model? Will we see more blockbusters or fewer? Will theaters proliferate or go the way of the nickelodeon? Whatever the answer, by starting with this book (and perhaps its future editions) and by following Reiss’ blogging and his own marketing moves as an author and content creator, filmmakers will have a fighting chance to stay ahead of the curve and benefit from, each new development––rather than suffer because of it.

Adam Chapnick is CEO of, a flat-fee service that places independent films on digital delivery platforms like iTunes, while taking no revenue from the filmmaker. He’s also Vice President of the IDA’s board of directors.