I’ve talked to a number of filmmaker friends who feel that the distribution phase of a film – even more so than fundraising – is the most challenging part of the process. Yes, it’s extremely competitive to get the attention of sales agents and, in turn, distributors. But even passing that hurdle leaves hard questions: is my distributor telling the truth about these numbers? Are they paying on time? Are they using their leverage on my film or for a different film on their roster? Are they being smart about how they are marketing my film?
So I thought I would swing for the fences and suggest ideas – some quite radical and others common sense – for the future of film distribution with the hope that one or two of these ideas might empower you in the distribution phase of your film. I’ve based my suggestions on the business plan of my first feature film Guys Reading Poems, brainstorming sessions for the new feature Inside-Out, Outside-In as well as conversations with lots of my filmmaker friends about films they’ve sold or distributed.
So if you’re an indie filmmaker looking for distribution options, consider this:
- Start a film group, with the intent to buy or build a movie theatre as an extension of your work. I see so many working theatre groups, many of whom own or operate their own small theatre very successfully. I think it’s largely just cultural heritage that actors and content creators feel comfortable with theatre groups, but so much less so with film groups. But I think that in 20 years, every actor will be thinking about which film group they want to join the way we used to think about trying to find a theatre group. And if there’s not a great film group in your area, start one yourself. Bonus: if you can find a way – as a film group – to own and operate a small cinema, it will provide a lot of leverage for you in talks with distributors and sales agents. This is true not only because you can provide a theatrical run for the film you’ve made, but also because you’ll be able to more cheaply provide them a rental space for their other titles. Now, all of a sudden, you look like someone they want to know….
- Make three movies instead of one. Making one feature film and finishing it is an incredible accomplishment, but having only one film leaves you vulnerable at the negotiating table with sales agents and distributors. Once you sign the paperwork, what leverage do you have? None, really. So it’s only their integrity and sense of professionalism that will get you paid at that point (and some distributors have more integrity than others….). But by making more than one movie – even holding one or two in the pipeline – you have leverage because assuming you deliver three quality films, they will want the second one…and the third one. So you can use that as a negotiating tactic. And they might be more forthcoming with statements and payments because you now can contest problems with three titles they own, not just one.
- Sell a product. Major studios greenlight films, in part, because of the merchandising opportunities that a film might provide. They think of each film as a profit center, not a work of art. Independent filmmakers (myself included) tend to make a film because it’s a story they want to tell and it feels a bit like whoring out your own child to think about the movie as a profit center. And yet, it’s possible to brainstorm products that could go with your film and why shouldn’t you? You’re spending three to four years making this film so why not have something organic that goes with your film to sell? You might end up making more money off this related product than the film itself. That product also might affect how you distribute the film. Perhaps the consumer gets a copy of your film when they buy your product or purchasing the product provides a coupon for the product, etc.
- Identify your audience early, then join that community. This isn’t rocket science, but if your film appeals to specific groups, go be part of that group to lay the groundwork for your film’s eventual release. If your target market includes married women with kids in their 40s and you’re a single gay guy in your 20s, then you better go out there and meet some married moms! Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” A similar sentiment applies to building an audience for your film. The Hollywood glamour machine does a good job of building the illusion that films become hits because of magic. But if you’re an indie filmmaker, you can’t afford to be fooled by the magical thinking that your film will somehow win over audiences because….destiny. The reality on the ground is that you are forced into becoming a politician to sell your film to the groups that are willing to buy it (and, yes, your inner purist artist will rebel from that ‘politician’ label, but try to convince your inner artist to get over it). If you’re not on the ground mixing and mingling with your target audience, why should they trust you enough to watch your work? How do they know you accurately reflected their lives? If you don’t intimately know people in your target audience, who will your brand ambassadors be? If you can show sales agents and distributors that you have credibility with one of the big target audiences of your film, that will be helpful and just plain smart.
- Cross platforms. Be thinking about how your film can be reinvented across many platforms – and select three or four that are powerful to drive folks to you. You can’t just keep sharing the trailer all day long and hope for the best. So think about how you can reinvent your film’s content in a way that would appeal to the users of Twitter. If that platform doesn’t work for you, fine. Then, how can it be reinvented and repackaged for Instagram or YouTube or Snapchat or on and on. It goes back to the concept of making three movies instead of one. You are really never making one singular movie. You’re making an experience that goes across platforms, with the feature film the most intense part of that experience.
- Roll the dice and plan for your film to get a major pick-up deal at Sundance or Cannes. Of course, there is a school of thought that says to only focus on the quality of your film, then go sell your film at Sundance and let a distributor deal with all this “political and networking bullshit” that you don’t want to do. Fair enough. Go for it. Just know your odds going in. This year, Sundance had upwards of 15,000 films submitted for around 250 slots. And I think that the interpersonal politics at film festivals is even more pronounced now than 15 years ago because of changes to the distribution model. Even powerhouse distributors are feeling the pinch of fewer dvd sales and an uncertain market and are highly motivated to buttress their films with credentials like Sundance. So, some pretty heavy hitters are out there calling festival programmers to lobby for their film to get one of those slots. That’s not to say that these festivals don’t consider new work from less established filmmakers, they do. But politics is a factor – and I would argue a bigger factor now than ten years ago because the uncertainty in the market motivates the power players to exercise as much power as they can while they still have it.
- Forever Theatrical/Films as Precious Art Objects. With piracy of films online so problematic, I could imagine a day when major filmmakers rebel and refuse to allow their films to be released online at all. It’s so very annoying to see your film ripped off and some low grade version of it circulating the internet that I’ve heard at least one indie filmmaker say that he wants to turn his films into sculptures, more or less. He makes a film. It has a festival, then a theatrical run, then he sells 100 encrypted copies of the film to high-end art collectors. Every now and then, he reintroduces the film in a new theatrical run, but it never goes online and never becomes available as a dvd or bluray. This filmmaker felt this was the only approach that held a future for indie artists because it actually allows us to value our work in the same category as others working in the fine arts. Now admittedly, I heard this idea at a late-night party when everybody had been drinking, but you know what? Who knows what the future may bring?
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink, an open source production company. Our filmmaking blog charts the progress of each of our projects. If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).