Digital Self Distribution: How To Sell Your Movie Online

Having spent the last few years working in film distribution, I can tell you the landscape is changing. Instead of crossing fingers for an awesome distribution deal, entrepreneurial filmmakers now have options for taking ownership over their products and reaching audiences directly.

In response, smart distributors are keen to work with filmmakers who, aside from having a great movie, can also demonstrate an ironclad digital self distribution plan. In other-words, film distributors seek projects that don’t actually need a distributor. Many distributors pay for this privilege.

Distributors have always worked to acquire projects that offered the lowest risk with the highest potential for reward. In the past, a low risk project was one that had a name actor with a ton of international value. And these days, because film distribution is increasingly online, a low risk project is one with a famed YouTuber.

A distributor naturally assumes the YouTuber will promote the movie to his or her audience. And by having a famed YouTuber, a distributor does not have to pay marketing money to build word of mouth. Less money spent for marketing, equals a lower risk for the distributor. And this means a lot more reward for you.


Photo © olly / Dollar Photo Club

Digital Self Distribution: How To Sell Your Movie Online

But what if your movie doesn’t have a famed YouTuber or a movie star? After months and months of hustle, the reality of how you’ll garner ROI (return on investment) might be slightly different than the idealized imaginings of the three-picture studio deal you once had.

The reason for this is simple. Your project is too risky.

So your first order of business is to lower the risk and increase the potential for reward. And that starts by creating your digital self distribution plan. Here are five tips to help:

1. Find your USP: In the world of marketing, USP is short for Unique Selling Proposition. And if you can’t market your move based on celebrity, the next step is to leverage whatever makes your movie unique, interesting and memorable. Do you have a cutting edge horror movie? Ninja movie? Girl with a horse movie? Or a food documentary on why you should quit meat for a plant based diet? Great!

2. Focus on Controversy: What aspect of your story provokes an emotional response? Think of how politicians market during a political campaign. Most folks either hate the message or they love it. Does your movie make a polarizing statement? Is there anything about your movie that makes some people totally dislike it, while other people LOVE it? Great. Use controversy to spark word of mouth.

3. Create a Marketing Plan: Creating a marketing plan is less complex than you think. Just answer these questions: Who is your target audience? How will you reach your target audience? Based on your budget, how many unit sales will it take you to break even? How will you make this happen without losing money?

4. Update Your Marketing: When I evaluate movies for distribution, the ones that grab my attention look professional. I instantly know what the movie is about and where it fits in terms of genre. Branding is the marketing equivalent of matching your belt with your shoes. Look at other movies in a similar genre. Make sure you present your movie like a “real” movie. Hire a graphic designer.

5. Digital Self Distribution Platforms: Even if you are seeking a traditional deal, you should simultaneously plan your release strategy as if you do not have a deal. This means getting to know some DIY platforms. You might do film festivals or use Tugg for your theatrical release. You might then consider some transactional video on demand platforms. This way, if you don’t actually land a favorable distribution deal, you’ll still enter the market.

No longer can you make a movie on spec, cross your fingers and hope a deal finds you. You have to find your own deal. But unlike years past, you are no longer limited. You can leverage technology to market your movie directly to a global audience. And that’s what digital self distribution is all about.

Want to plan your distribution strategy? Check out my digital self distribution system.

Film Distribution: New Rules For Selling Your Movie

If you know a filmmaker seeking film distribution, you’re in luck. We are going to share new rules for selling your movie. Before we talk about modern film distribution, a little context…

Do you remember the old days of film distribution?

I mean do you remember how it was just a few short years ago?

Back then film distribution was controlled by a bunch of companies that safeguarded access the marketplace.  As an independent filmmaker, if you were lucky enough to garner a distribution deal, odds were good the deal was less than satisfying.

This was my experience on my first feature. After receiving phone calls from would-be distributors full of empty promises, I started to dislike the predatory nature of traditional film distribution.

But what could you do?

Back then, the only alternative to this old film distribution model was self-distribution. And if you remember, the term itself was synonymous with loser.

If you couldn’t land a REAL distribution deal, then you weren’t a real filmmaker.

film distribution

For this reason alone, many filmmakers signed away their rights for the mere validation of seeing their movie in the video stores. And every few months these same filmmakers would receive financial statements in the mail. The statement would show movie revenue minus marketing expenses.

And the bottom line? Zero monies paid to the filmmaker. And this was the indie film distribution paradigm accepted as a rite of passage.

At least my movie got on a shelf in the video store…

Thankfully, times have changed. As a result of internet film distribution (and the inevitable demise of DVD retail distribution) you can now reach a global marketplace!

New Rules For Film Distribution

When we released our first feature on Amazon and started making sales, it was hard to believe we could do so without a traditional film distribution deal. At first we did not understand the power of modern self-distribution.

But then our phone started ringing.

As it turned out, a few of the distributors who previously rejected us started calling with better offers. It was at this point, I realized the paradigm was shifting in favor of the filmmaker.

Indie filmmakers now had access to the marketplace. That changed everything for me.

Since then, developments in inexpensive production technology coupled with access to the marketplace means that you can now make, market and sell your movie without permission.

But the problem is, you are not the only filmmaker that knows this. Each year thousands of movies enter the market, making it increasingly challenging to get your movie seen.

You now have the ability to release your movie globally without signing away your rights to an unscrupulous distributor. And even though many distributors would like to pretend otherwise, with a little ingenuity and a strong marketing plan, you can control your own independent movie business.

New rules for film distribution:

  1. My audience is my business.
  2. Without an audience I have no business.
  3. I am responsible for sourcing my own audience.

Let’s be honest…

Sourcing your own audience and executing your own marketing, sales and distribution plan is far less sexy than making a movie or filling your closet with filmmaking equipment.

Gear is tangible.

It’s something you can show your nerdy filmmaker friends.

But having gear is useless if you don’t use it.

Most filmmakers spend at least two years or longer working to get a movie made. But very few filmmakers focus on what to do once the movie is in the can. Making movies is pointless if you don’t create a plan for reaching your audience.

Whenever I give talks, I always ask the audience, what is your plan for marketing and distribution?

This is followed by:

Confused looks. Silence. Someone mutters: “I’ll get into Sundance and sell it.”

Why wouldn’t you dream BIG? Every filmmaker wants recognition – even if you refuse to admit it. But with over 5,000 backyard indies being made each year, I have to ask a tough question:

Why Should Someone Watch Your Movie?

Most people decide which movies to watch based on recommendations from trusted friends. Movie studios spend millions to spark word of mouth. But for some reason, most indie filmmakers pretend marketing is not applicable to us.

I mean, we know that marketing is important.

But between procuring an awesome script, raising money and actually making the movie, we often cross our fingers and hope for a miracle.

And the problem is, marketing miracles rarely happen.

Aside from your mom and kid-sister, nobody knows about your movie. And while I am sure you went to many film festivals and traded post cards with other filmmakers (who in return, provided you their post cards), you probably quickly realized two facts:

  1. Film festivals are full of filmmakers.
  2. And other filmmakers are not your target audience.

The people who make up your movie’s target audience are trying to manage a busy life. These people have kids, jobs, worries, sleepless nights, gym memberships and car payments. So when they sit down to watch a movie, time is limited.

So the question you have to answer is why. . .

Why should someone watch YOUR movie?

Only you can answer that question. But my suggestion is to do your homework before you take the next steps. If you want more info on how to sell your movie, check out my film distribution system.

Future Of Filmmaking: Will You Be Replaced By A Robot?

In case you haven’t noticed, filmmaking is changing. And the future of filmmaking is now.

In years past, if you wanted to make a movie, you had to raise enough money to not only cover the film and equipment, but you paid for your DP, your camera operator, someone to pull focus, someone to load the film, someone to lay dolly track and someone else to push your dolly.

If you wanted to create an awesome movie on a budget, you shot Super 16mm. Once the film was in the can, you paid to get the film processed, color corrected, transferred to video, edited “off line” and later blown up to 35mm. And all these steps were considered an affordable option!

Then you crossed your fingers, hoping to land an awesome distribution deal. Can you imagine trying to make movies like that? It’s easy to understand why most would-be filmmakers never took action.

Future Of Filmmaking

Photo © Dmytro Tolokonov / Dollar Photo Club

Future Of Filmmaking: Will You Be Replaced By A Robot?

With the emergence of awesomely inexpensive production technology, making a movie is getting easier. And everything has changed.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve heard anybody in the filmmaking community seriously consider shooting their first feature on film. And why would they? These days, if you want to make a great looking movie, you grab your $2,000 DSLR camera and you start shooting.

That’s it. No film stock. No silly processing costs. And no transfers to video.

You simply take your camera out of the bag, point and shoot. Then you edit on your computer and upload to several of the video on demand websites. And you can start selling your work to the world.

This is an AMAZING time to make movies, right?

Or is it?

For the first time in history, filmmakers are experiencing what happens in other industries when robots start producing comparable goods for less and less money. You get an overwhelming supply of inexpensive product in the marketplace, which devalues the market as a whole. Couple this with the demise of traditional DVD distribution, and you can understand why it’s difficult land a killer payday.

Considering these unfavorable odds, why would any filmmaker risk millions on a budget when there are less opportunities to make the money back? This is our new paradox as filmmakers.

Producing product is not the problem. It is easy to make a backyard indie.

The real challenge is keeping budgets low enough to increase the odds of recouping, while at the same time creating movies that people actually want to see.

This seems obvious.

While there are no guarantees in this or any business, aside from making an awesome movie, here are three things you can do to increase your odds of success:

  1. Know your target audience.
  2. Have a plan for reaching your target audience.
  3. Cast actors who have a large social media following.

Having spent the last half-decade working in marketing and distribution, I can tell you that most filmmakers completely ignore these steps. Most never take time to sketch out a marketing, sales and distribution strategy for their movies. And as a result, most movies end up dying in digital obscurity.

Don’t do that.

Filmmaking As Your Small Business

When deciding on a business, some people choose filmmaking.

Other people open frozen yogurt shops.

I should know. Thanks to the frozen yogurt shop (near my house), I’ve eaten a TON of frozen yogurt over the last year. And without mentioning the business, it sure seems like the owner of the shop is passionate about Yogurt, just like you and I are passionate about filmmaking.

Since moving to LA and producing several indie movies (and more recently working with hundreds of filmmakers in my various distribution roles), I realize the major ineptitude most filmmakers suffer from is a lack of general business acumen.

Filmmaking As Your Small Business

Photo © Haider Y. Abdulla / Dollar Photo Club

Filmmaking As Your Small Business

Here’s the deal. Most filmmakers know about the movie business. And these filmmakers usually fall into one of two categories. Either they understand the studio business or they understand traditional independent filmmaking.

In my humble opinion, I think both arenas are based on an old paradigm. In the studio system, the business revolves around asking a lot of folks for permission.

  1. “I finished this great screenplay. It’s high concept and awesome!”
  2. “Would you please read my screenplay?”
  3. “Can we have a meeting?”
  4. “Did you read my screenplay?”

All of which results in a lot of this: “We have decided to pass at this time.”

As an independent filmmaker, many of us also suffer from a similar permission based way of doing business.

  1. “Mr. Investor, if we are lucky this movie will get into Sundance.”
  2. “If we are really lucky, we will get a great distribution deal.”
  3. “And if we are really lucky, we might get a distribution deal.”
  4. “And if we are really, really lucky we will get a 3 picture studio deal, and we will live happily ever after.”

And that got me thinking about this talk about modern moviemaking. Can we now consider movie making a small business?

I mean, if you think about it, all you need to start a small business is an idea, some start up cash, raw material, production and a customer base – and a way to sell whatever it is you’re selling.  And unlike years past, non-discriminatory video on demand marketplaces provide that… So what would modern moviemaking as a small business look like:

  1. We have a screenplay with a strong, well defined concept.
  2. We know our target audience and how to reach them.
  3. We will need to sell 5,000 video on demand downloads to recoup our investment.

Why should we over-complicate our filmmaking?

What do you think? Can Modern Moviemaking be your next small business?

Your comments are welcome below…

How To Navigate The Toronto Film Festival

A few years ago I served as the director of operations at a popular video on demand aggregator called Distribber. At the time, Distribber was owned by Indiegogo. But a few months ago, the company was acquired by new owners.

Since the transition, I have seen a dramatic improvement in both the filmmaker friendly offering and the service. This is why I continually promote the company.

So when the new owners and I discussed the Toronto Film Festival, it just made sense to attend.

. . . And that brings me back to here.

I just arrived in in Canada and I’m in the airport taxi line, waiting for a car back to my hotel. I strike up a conversation with the guy in front of me.

Wearing a trucker hat, this is Elliot Kotek, the current Editor-in-Chief of both Beyond Cinema magazine and, as well as an Entertainment Correspondent for ABC Radio. He recently produced a film called Queen Mimi – A documentary detailing how Zach Galifianakis saved a woman from homelessness.

We start chatting. We realize we know people in common. So we decide to share a cab. During our ride, Elliot gives me some tips on how to navigate the Toronto Film Festival.

Being my first time in Toronto, I’m grateful for any advice. I have no idea where I am, or where to go. All the buildings look familiar, like a city. But nothing makes sense until the cab whips past King Street.

King Street is the hub of the festival. You know you’ve arrived because the entrance is marked by a giant, inflatable tunnel with the words TIFF written at the entrance.

Outside the window of my cab, I see scantly clad women in designer dresses, arm in arm with men wearing sports jackets. It’s the hyper idealized version of Hollywood. Or somewhere awesome.

Back at my Hotel, I quickly exchange texts with my buddy Peter Gerard. You might know Peter from his days at Dystrify. Now he’s the Director of Audience Development and Content Operations at Vimeo. Vimeo is a HUGE sponsor of the Toronto Film Festival.

Anyway, he’s at the opening night party at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Festival Tower. The Bell Tower is the primary Hub of the Toronto Film Festival. And by the time I walk over, King street is jammed with the people I described earlier. I am filled with with a vibrant energy similar to Times Square.

I notice onlookers with cameras, trying to spot somebody. A local drunk yells: “If I don’t see Bill Murray tonight, I’m going to go home!”

It’s that kind of festival…

Toronoto Film Festival | King Street by Doug Taylor

Toronto Film Festival | King Street by Doug Taylor

By this time, it’s late. And the office that presently holds my festival credentials is closed. As a result, I am met at the velvet ropes of the Bell Tower by several TIFF volunteers, marked by hunter orange t-shirts, incredulously questioning my legitimacy.

Them: You don’t have a pass.

Me: I just got here. Where do I get my pass?

Them: The office is closed. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.

My lesson? Arrive early. If you arrive late, you can’t get your pass. And if you don’t get your pass, you can’t pass.

It’s around this time I meet up with Peter. He’s with this guy Paul Sturtz. Paul runs the True/False Film Festival which takes place every year in Columbia, Missouri. Paul’s festival focuses on documentaries.

We sit down at a local pub. And for the next hour or so, the three of us talk festivals, filmmaking and distribution. By this time, it’s pretty late. So we shake hands, say our goodbyes and I take the quiet side streets of Toronto back to my Hotel.

At this point, I’m hungry. The only place open is this Chinese restaurant. So I order something with veggies, and end up with this.


Eating Late at the Toronto Film Festival

DAY 2 – The Toronto Film Festival

The next day, I wake up early and make my way back to the festival. The sky is overcast, which is a welcomed relief to the Los Angeles drought I’ve tolerated for years.

Today the volunteers at the Bell Tower are much more friendly. A quick conversation, and I’m finally pointed towards my pass. All industry passes are at the Hyatt.

When you attend the Toronto Film Festival, you immediately realize the festival is huge. Movies are shown all around town. As a result, I suggest you plan your screening schedule in advance – Or grab an industry pass.

Having an industry pass will garner you access to the large Scotiabank Theatre cinemas. Once there, you’ll go up a ginormous escalator, where you’ll be able to conveniently screen most films without leaving the multiplex.

Toronto Film Festival

Scotiabank Theatre | Toronto Film Festival

The Scotiabank Theatre is also a great place to network and meet people like me. The upstairs is  swarming with distributors and industry types. I take a seat in the food court and spend the rest of the day chatting with filmmakers and other industry professionals.

Talking makes my day fly by. As I exit the theater, my pockets are full of business cards. And I immediately focus on nightlife.

Toronto Film Festival Nightlife

It is no secret that the top film festivals also have the best parties. And in my experience, most business is conducted at night. The challenge is – I am new to TIFF and I don’t really know where the parties are.

Luckily many people post this info online. A quick visit to both Twitter and this website provides most everything I need to keep busy. So I quickly RSVP to a secret email address and hop in a cab.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m in the lobby of some random hotel. I notice two dudes in sports jackets (with industry passes) entering the elevator. So I follow.

Off the elevator, there is a whole row of party workers with computers, asking questions. I approach the most friendly looking of the bunch.

Him: “What’s your name?”

Me: “Jason Brubaker.”

 There is a long pause as the guy types my name.

Him: “What company are you with?”

Me: “I’m with Distribber.”

Another long pause. He types a few more things. And suddenly I’m feeling like that scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke thinks he’s compromised the mission. Then this guy is like:

“No worries. You’re on the list.”

Inside the party is packed. And the acoustics echo so loud you have to yell to be heard – which just adds to the noise. Among the many people wearing sports jackets, I notice quite a few trucker hats.

Toronto Film Festival

OMDC Party | Toronto Film Festival

About this time, a woman shakes my hand. I move in close to hear her. She hands me a postcard, promoting her documentary. She’s produced a few movies. She is looking for distribution.

After her, I bounce from person to person. Chatting. Talking film. Exchanging business cards. There is lots of questions about the current state of film distribution.

For example, you might say something like this: “I’m seeking distribution.”

But what does that does that even mean? Does it mean you’re looking for someone else to put your movie on iTunes? Or are you willing to do it yourself?

As I leave the party, a guy approaches and introduces himself. He’s a subscriber of my filmmaking newsletter. We chat for a bit.

Indie film is a small world.

Outside, the rain is torrential. People stand around asking each other where to go next. Some sports jacket guy in the lobby is talking loud enough so we all hear. He’s too-cool-for-school, bragging about something movie related. I feel annoyed.

One guy introduces himself and offers to help me crash the next party. But I opt instead for a cab ride back to King street.

It’s still pouring. So I run into a pub. This time, I’m seated next to Bill Proctor. He’s the publicity manager for the San Francisco Film Society. And he is in town, helping out with publicity for the Toronto Film Festival.

We chat movies, the festival and people we know in common.

I head back to my hotel, invigorated for tomorrow.

DAY 3 – The Toronto Film Festival

I forgot to eat. That’s the thought running through my mind as I put on my sports jacket.

This is my last day in town, and I want to make sure I meet as many filmmakers as possible.

I decide to start my morning at the Hyatt. For the past two days, I’ve been handing out Distribber schwag as well as my business cards to friendly looking people. Turns out our Distribber “ear bud wraps” are a success.

I can hardly keep up with the demand.


Distribber Ear Bud Wrap | Toronto Film Festival

While offering schwag is one tactic, in my opinion the Hyatt is not the most inviting place to meet people. The upstairs is full of tables and booths. And most people look preoccupied with their new TIFF gift bags.

Explaining this to volunteer, it’s suggested that my best bet is to hang around the filmmaker lounge.

In addition to screening movies, the Toronto Film Festival offers educational filmmaking workshops throughout the week. These take place at the Glenn Gould Studio at CBC.

So that’s where I go.

I spend the next six hours talking to most every person who walks through the lounge. I meet filmmakers, writers, producers and other distributors. Some are newbies. Most are seasoned professionals.

Grabbing a drink of water, I run into the guy who produced the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. He shares a quick story about Jackie’s stolen home base.

After that, some film finance guy asks me what I do. I tell him I’m a distributor.

“Not with those shoes.”

He’s presently pointing to my Converse.

Him: “Sports jacket and Converse. You’re a director.”

Me: “I specialize in video on demand and internet distribution.”

Him: “Oh. That case, I guess you’re dressed okay for VOD.”

A filmmaker breaks up this conversation. He’s raving about the Oculus Rift demo in the next room. Originally designed for gaming, Oculus Rift is virtual reality technology. And as I quickly learn, the system is far beyond anything I have imagined.

I put on the headset, and for five minutes, I am transported to another world.

Toronto Film Festival

Oculus Rift | Toronto Film Festival

While my experience with Oculus Rift is not directly related to the Toronto Film Festival – Mark my words: Virtual reality will change every aspect of the world as we know it.

As I take off the headset, dozens of TIFF volunteers and caterers set up drinks for a happy hour. And over the next hour, I am shoulder to shoulder, jammed with people.

Once again, I bump into Peter from Vimeo and then I meet this dude Jason from Imax. Then later, a Filmmaking Stuff subscriber shakes my hand. Then an actor, and then a writer, and then a director join us.

Here is our group picture:

Toronto Film Festival

After the happy hour, I join Peter for an evening screening of “Don’t Breathe (La Faille),” directed by Nino Kirtadze.

It’s nice to watch a film. And what makes “Don’t Breathe” interesting is the fact I can’t tell if it’s a documentary or a narrative. I later learn, it’s both.

After the screening, I spend the rest of the evening bouncing from restaurants, to nightclubs to private parties. Each venue is packed with people wearing trucker hats or sports jackets.

By this point, it’s midnight. And I’m once again walking back to my hotel in preparation for my early AM flight. The truth is, I should have stayed longer.

You should stay longer.

The Toronto Film Festival is more than an event. You can’t possibly take it all in, in two days.

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If you’re a filmmaker and you’d like information on how to build an audience, so you can get your movie seen and selling: Join me for my next “sell your movie” webinar. And if you’d like distribution for your movie, check out Distribber.