Prepping Your Film For Distribution

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 wouldn’t be that bad.

Looking back, even you aren’t sure how you pulled it off. Yet, despite all 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 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 significant difference between traditional distribution and self-distribution.

Regardless of which path you take, you must complete specific fundamental steps to ensure the film makes a smooth transition from the edit suite to the marketplace.

Preparing to Find a Distributor

Many filmmakers partner with sales representatives, agents, lawyers, or consultants when finding a distributor to help get their movies seen and 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 appropriately securing the rights to every bit of music included in their flick.

According to Richard Abramowitz of Abramorama, a marketing and distribution consulting firm specializing 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 the scene. If the music isn’t fully cleared, 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 further mitigating risk exposure, most distributors will require Errors and Omissions insurance. According to Mark Litwak of Beverly Hill’s 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 takes 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. Video-on-demand aggregators allow filmmakers to get their films into not-so-independent conglomerates like Google Play, iTunes, Amazon, and FandangoNOW (and more). The options for reaching a global marketplace are wide open.

While the prospect of cutting out the middleman is exciting to the independent filmmaker, as your distributor, you now bear sole responsibility for both the success of your movie and safeguarding your 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 movie cover art, and finding ways to reach your target audience at a minimal cost-efficiently.

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 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 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 must know your audience and then put 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. An attractive, effective cover design that looks professional/interesting as a small thumbnail on web searches is key to online sales success. Filmmakers should choose online keywords carefully and ensure the title’s name will help the film be found in searches. Often a subtitle as part of the name can make it more specific and easily searchable.”

Whether you plan on selling directly to your marketplace or choose the time-honored distribution route, getting the appropriate releases, licenses, and clearances during pre-production will help your movie transition smoothly from the screening room to the marketplace. Once everything is in check, you can enjoy a little champagne… before getting ready to start the whole process on your next project all over again. Picture that!

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ARTICLE BY Jason Brubaker

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