I originally published this article with The Independent, a great resource for filmmakers.
Picture this! By some miracle to end all miracles, born of equal parts luck and blind determination, you’ve managed to rise above the never-ending barrage of questions from “concerned” friends and family who’ve always thought your talk about making movies was reckless. You’ve put together a cast and crew, refined your script, found some financing and in the process, you’ve even figured out how to ignore all your significant other’s not-so-subtle hints that a career selling life insurance really wouldn’t be that bad. To be honest, looking back, even you aren’t really sure how you pulled it off. Yet, despite all of the concerns and self doubt, you’ve somehow managed to make the impossible possible. You’ve made your first feature film! And, by definition, you’re finally a real filmmaker.
So, as your significant other drinks celebratory champagne with your family, friends and whatever members of your cast and crew are still speaking to you at the wrap party, you and I both know there is one nagging thought still rattling around in the back of your mind. It’s the same thought shared by every independent feature filmmaker. You’re asking yourself, how am I going to distribute this thing?
As a feature filmmaker, your distribution strategy will fall into one of two categories. Either your movie will be picked up, marketed and sold through various outlets by one of those distribution companies you read about in the trades, or you will sell it yourself. This is the major difference between traditional distribution and self-distribution. Regardless of which path you take, there are certain fundamental steps you must complete to ensure the film makes a smooth transition from the edit suite to the marketplace.
Preparing to Find a Distributor
When finding a distributor, many filmmakers partner with sales representatives, agents, lawyers or consultants to help get their movies seen and, hopefully, sold. It is during this time that the representative will often furnish the filmmaker with an extensive checklist of deliverables that include (with some variation): the movie master, talent agreements, high resolution digital photos for use in promotion, a credit lock, talent bios and press kits, a copyright registration form, chain of title and just about every other legal clearance the distributor can think of to minimize liability. One area where first-time filmmakers often stumble is in properly securing the rights to each and every bit of music included in their flick.
According to Richard Abramowitz of Abramorama, a marketing and distribution consulting firm that specializes in independent films, “Sometimes filmmakers include a song in the background that can’t be removed from the dialogue track, or a character sings along to the song in scene. If the music isn’t fully cleared, then the filmmaker either has to pay [for the rights] or cut the scene entirely.” As you can imagine, finding one of these errors can significantly delay, or even derail, your potential distribution deal.
Because of these surprises and to further mitigate risk exposure, most distributors will require Errors and Omissions insurance. According to Mark Litwak, of the Beverly Hill’s based law firm Mark Litwak & Associates, “E&O insurance is malpractice coverage for filmmakers. It protects the insured from liability arising from negligence in not securing the rights, permissions and clearances needed to exploit the film.”
Assuming the movie reaches a deal and all the elements are delivered, the filmmaker’s involvement in the project is minimized as the distributor assumes control of the marketing, public relations, packaging, duplication and quality control. From there, the distributor will get the movie into their marketplace pipeline, which may involve anything from movie theatres to any number of straight-to-DVD outlets.
Preparing for Self-distribution
Distribution as we know it is changing. With models like video-on-demand and fulfillment services becoming more and more integrated with not-so-independent conglomerates like Amazon.com, the options for reaching a global marketplace is wide open. Sooner than you think, all content may very well be available with the push of a button. While the prospect of cutting out the middleman is exciting to the independent filmmaker, as your own distributor, you now bear sole responsibility for both the success of your movie and the safeguarding of your personal liability should any legal issues arise. To many, this means purchasing E&O insurance, converting the movie website into a sales funnel, capturing leads, creating the DVD cover art and finding ways to efficiently reach your target audience at a minimal cost.
Stacy Schoolfield, whose film Jumping Off Bridges (view the trailer here) was successfully self-distributed in 2007 after a great festival run, says, “Self distribution provides more control over the film. Where you might only end up with 3 percent of traditional distribution profits, you could end up with much more through self-distribution.”
Stacy, who produced and managed distribution of the film, said her strategy involved showing Jumping Off Bridges, ultimately about a group of friends struggling through adolescence, to carefully selected niche audiences, building a mailing list and making the movie readily available on her website. “At our first screening at SXSW [the South by Southwest Film Festival], there were people from the local Teen Suicide Prevention/Mental Health awareness group. They came up to us and said they could use the film in their outreach and education. It was a new idea for us, and after more research, we found out that there were lots of groups like that across the country and we started reaching out to them. You have to know who your audience is and then pull out all the stops to reach them.”
Thanks to the Internet, finding the appropriate audience is becoming increasingly more efficient. According to Dana LoPiccolo-Giles, managing director of CreateSpace, which provides filmmakers with direct access to the Amazon marketplace, “Films with a specific focus may see higher sales due to niche audiences and less market competition. Some keys to online sales success are having an attractive, effective cover design that will look professional/interesting as a small thumbnail on web searches. Filmmakers should choose online keywords carefully, and make sure the name of the title will help the film be found in searches. Often a subtitle as part of the name can make it more specific and easily searchable.”
Regardless of whether you plan on selling directly to your marketplace or chose to take the time-honored distribution route, getting the appropriate releases, licenses, and clearances during pre-production will only help your movie make a smooth transition from screening room to marketplace. Once everything is in check, then you too can enjoy a little champagne… before getting ready to start the whole process all over again on your next project. Picture that!