Oli Harbottle • Distributor, Dogwoof
by Naman Ramachandran
From his beginnings at the Raindance Film Festival where he rose from intern to festival producer, to eventually his prominent role at Dogwoof, Oli Harbottle’s rise has been a meteoric one. In the UK film industry, Oli is considered the resident guru of online film marketing as 80% of Dogwoof marketing is online based, and the company is immensely successful on the back of that.
Cineuropa: Dogwoof is known to be a company that releases films that espouse social change. How did this company ethos evolve?
Oli Harbottle: Dogwoof had originally been founded as independent arthouse distributor and found itself in a crowded marketplace fighting over the small percentage of the market given to such companies. But then in June 2007, we released Black Gold, the documentary about fair-trade coffee in Ethiopia, and saw the various opportunities such a film offered. We worked closely with several NGOs, charities and brands all willing to align their message with that conveyed by the film, and this gave us access to a huge audience, all ready-made for the film – no longer did we have to find an audience, we were bringing a film to an audience ready and waiting for it. The film was a huge success both theatrically and on DVD, and we soon realised the huge potential, the next landmark release being The Age Of Stupid in March 2009, after which we had really consolidated our niche of the market.
Can you give us a background about yourself and how and why you got into the business?
I did not have a film educational background, but I grew up passionate about films – as soon as I left university in 2002, I did an internship at the Raindance Film Festival, the largest indie film festival in the UK, and by the time the festival came round again in 2003, I had quickly been promoted to Festival Producer, looking after all aspects of the festival management and programming. I ended up looking after three festivals, and saw it grow in size and reputation a great deal in those three years – the time came though when I was keen to be more central to the industry, and distribution seemed the obvious route. I had known Andy Whittaker and Anna Godas, the founders of Dogwoof, from when they set it up, and I was fortunate enough to approach them as they were first growing the business – I joined in July 2006, and I’ve never looked back!
Dogwoof Indie bucks the traditional models of distribution. Can you walk us through how Dogwoof does things differently?
Dogwoof Indie is just one of the different models of distribution that Dogwoof offers, and is essentially a hybrid distribution model, where filmmakers can retain rights to their film and (and with it some creative control on how it is marketed), but work alongside us to have the film distributed through our contacts and channels – the model was employed successfully on two particular occasions, for The Age of Stupid and The End Of The Line, two of the biggest documentaries in the UK in 2009, where the filmmakers’ input was essential to the success of the film.
The majority of Dogwoof’s releases follow a more conventional distribution model though, whereby we acquire all rights – our reputation is largely due to the innovative marketing campaigns we use, which rely heavily on working closely with organisations and brands aligned with the film, but also strong online campaigns. We are firm believers that print advertising is a poor return on investment, especially at an independent level, and increasingly so with the decline in print readership. The world communicates online now, and particularly through social media, so we always focus much of our time and resource on our online marketing campaigns, building a community early on and continually engaging them – this is through both dedicated film websites and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. We recently partnered with leading US software company Cisco to develop socially integrated community websites for all of our films, which in turn all feed into each other.
What are the challenges facing the UK distribution scene in your opinion? And what ways are you looking at to face these challenges?
The industry needs to embrace online, simple as that – for a long time, the industry has comfortably relied on the profit margins afforded by DVD sales, but this market will soon shrink – it is not rocket science to see the film industry has to follow the route of the music industry, so we need to learn and move quickly. It is pointless trying to prevent piracy as well, we need to work for the consumer and meet consumer demands, not make them the enemy from the outset. There is still too much resistance from the top, and it will be interesting to see who can work out the best business models for online distribution.
What are Dogwoof's future plans?
We want to continue building the Dogwoof brand, which has come an incredibly long way in a very short space of time, and become THE company for social issue films, not just documentaries. We also want to keep pushing the boundaries in innovative business models and distribution strategies, challenging the traditional windows and finding alternative revenue streams through third parties and online opportunities.