Game on, Distribution

“That’s a wrap!!!”

This phrase should signify the end of a fabulous shoot and be the precursor to a raging wrap party. However, if you’re the Writer/Director/Producer of an independent film, it just means you’re moving on to your third act: Post-Production.

Cue several more months of watching your damn film over and over again in an editing room while you and your team furiously assemble your precious masterpiece. You submit to festivals and win a few awards, and your friends congratulate you with comments ranging from “That was amazing! I never knew you were so bloody disgusting.” to “That was actually a real movie, and not the YouTube sketch I thought you were shooting.”

So now you have an award winning real movie on your hands. How do you get people outside your Facebook circle to see it? You get distribution.  And while you’re at it, you might as well find a unicorn.

Unless you have a studio backing you, getting a distributor may never happen. That’s a hard reality I encourage all filmmakers to face. Be ready for self-distribution, which is totally possible today and may actually allow you to keep more of the revenue if your film makes money.

They say you need to have a budget for post-production. But beyond what you need for your editing team, you also need to budget for distribution. To give you an idea of how expensive it can get, the independent film The Discoverers ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise $100,000 JUST to cover their distribution costs. And this is an INDEPENDENT FILM. Imagine what the budget would be for a blockbuster.

After The Purgation finished post, I didn’t have 1K, let alone 100K. So I had to improvise. My producer Jeremy Cordy and I hit up American Film Market in Santa Monica. AFM is a film industry event where the focus is on film distribution. Participants from around the world set up booths and network with the aim of either buying or selling film. Examples of people who attend AFM include acquisition and development executives, agents, attorneys, festival directors, and financiers.

Using our shared industry badge, Jeremy and I roamed the halls and passed out our one sheet. [Purgation_OneSheet]
We didn’t have a trailer yet, but he brought his iPad along so we could at least show interested buyers a few choice scenes. I stood for an hour at a busy hallway intersection passing out one sheets and calling out “Do you like scary movies?” Sometimes it worked and I got a sit down meeting with an exec. Sometimes it didn’t, and I’d end up with a date.

At the end of AFM, we had amassed a pile of business cards. I promptly emailed a letter of interest to every contact we had made. Out of 50 emails, I got 10 responses and sent out ten screeners.  And then, radio silence.

I began setting up coffee meetings and phone chats with fellow filmmakers so I could ask for advice on how to get my film past the festival circuit. Here are some ways other filmmakers acquired distribution:

  • Already have an offer of distribution before you start filming because you are an established filmmaker and/or work for a distribution film company. This is the ideal situation.
  • Hold a fancy red carpet premiere for your film and use the photos to make it seem like your movie is a HUGE deal. This can totally work if you have a name actor helping to promote your project.
  • Rent a theater and invite distributors to watch your film. Distributors will usually send their interns or dog-walkers, but it’s a good opportunity to invite other industry names who will pass your project down the pipeline. This can totally work if you have the money to rent a nice theater and important people actually show up.
  • Hire a producers rep. A producer’s rep is basically someone with major industry connections. It’s a chance to sit at the adults’ table and get your screener seen by networks and studios. I was seriously considering this, although the $3000 fee to hire a rep was melting my brain. This route can totally work if you’re willing to take the gamble and really believe that your film won’t get passed over (because if it does, you just lost $3000.)
  • Win an award at a big festival, like Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes.

While the above methods worked for some filmmakers, they all required money that I needed to buy ramen. Luckily, as I was about to give up and study for the LSATs, I started getting offers from the emails I had sent out.  Turns out it takes time for people to watch your entire movie and decide if they want to take a chance on you.

Some of the offers were great, some not so great.  I ended up signing an agreement with Osiris Entertainment, and they’ve been taking excellent care of The Purgation ever since. Our movie got a nice, limited run on Redbox, and then was released on VOD + digital. In between signing the distribution deal and then actually getting the movie released there was a huge period of time devoted to creating the deliverables … but that’s a story for another night.

In short, here are some essential steps to take on your distribution quest.

  1. Do the work. Research everything you can about film distribution so you can confidently talk about split rights deals and E&O insurance.
  2. Network. What worked a few years ago may not work today, so keep current with people who are still playing the game and can give valuable advice. Go to film markets, industry mixers, and screenings of other indie films.
  3. Be patient. Distribution doesn’t happen overnight. You will constantly be asked by people when they can see your film. Politely tell them to check your director’s blog for updates.

And finally, don’t quit the day job. Resign yourself to the knowledge that you won’t be making any serious money from your first feature. If you do, congratulations – you found the unicorn. The majority of us freshmen filmmakers will just be happy our movie got out there and can be used as a calling card for our next project.   Now go forth and create, young grasshopper!

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