Updated: Nov 24, 2019
Independent film distribution can sometimes feel like a mystery. Successes almost never come for the most deserving films, and the failures of ‘can’t miss’ titles often hinge on a series of unfortunate events.
There will always be the flukes, the oddities, the special projects primed to become overnight brands, despite the convoluted path taken, and the promising projects that are destined to fail, purely due to poor timing, a lack of proper funding, a misstep in execution, or simple buyer fatigue.
Don’t forget the Celebrity endorsed indies too! “Nobody knows nothing” is still the finest, grammatically incorrect truism there is, but it is the job of the producer to work countless hours in the attempt to uncover a teeny bit more than ‘nothing,’ to predict the market and the audience‘s tastes as thoroughly as is possible.
Should I repeat that? “but it is the job of the producer to work countless hours in the attempt to uncover a teeny bit more than ‘nothing,’ to predict the market and the audience’s tastes as thoroughly as is possible.”
Whether you’ve got the next critically-acclaimed masterpiece or the latest zombie slasher sensation, there are five steps you can take to maximize your chances of success in distribution.
All five require hard work, preparation, and a bit of luck… actually a whole lot to be honest, but knowing these steps will save you time, energy, and the potential heartbreak of seeing your passion project disappear on a dusty shelf somewhere. And here’s the caveat and something I can never say enough to my clients: employ all of these steps BEFORE your film is complete.
The earlier you can prepare for distribution the better, and the wise indie producer will begin this process in pre-production. Yup… PRE-PRODUCTION, ya know… the time when you have the script in at least a working draft and are scheduling reads and holding casting auditions and assembling those crazy individuals who would be your crew and and and…
1. Know Your Audience
FACT: Several thousand films are produced every year, and the simple fact is, most of them are futile exercises. Wastes of film as I like to put it, or now in this day and age wastes of hard drive space.
It is the film business after all, and if your first concern is not the audience, just go paint something…
Distributors certainly want quality films in their catalog, but a quality film with no discernible audience is incredibly difficult to sell, actually… while I’m being so honest… IMPOSSIBLE to sell. I made a good living from agenting films, making the quality call long before taking anyone’s “work” to the distribution companies or television networks. It’s really how I made my mark.
Acquisition agents for the big boys LOVED me because I would weed out the crap and became known for bringing a level of product deserving of their screening, time and attention. Simple.
Now distributors have marketing departments, and they are usually small, understaffed and overworked contrary to popular opinion. The films with a clear audience will be given high priority, and will perform a lot better overall in the marketplace. Understanding the audience and working to quantify it with the product is the first step, and if you can pitch a potential distributor armed with several recognizable interest groups and an understanding of those numbers, you will find a very receptive ear.
2. Fill Your Toolkit
So, fill your toolkit with the things that put your film in the best possible light… ALWAYS. A stellar logline and plot synopsis, strong key art, several professional stills, a good trailer (if at all possible), bios for all the cast a crew, and whatever else you can think of that would convince a viewer to watch your film instead of doing any of the countless other things possible in the modern information age.
Sure, once you sign with that rock star indie distributor, many of these materials may be thrown out and replaced. But you’ve got to get that signature first and ultimately the MONEY. You’ll be glad you did and so will your investors.
One last thing on this rule… remember, the distributor is an audience member. They probably have at least sixty other DVDs on their desk at any given point in time. The ones with compelling press kits and trailers will always get first dibs at their attention. It’s just the way it goes. How do you decide what to go see in the multiplex? Do you watch the trailer? Read the synopsis? Learn about the filmmaker’s previous work? All or some of the above for sure. A low budget production is not an excuse, not if you want people to see your film. Shooting a documentary for $6,000? Fine. Pay your wedding photographer buddy $50 to come to set one day and grab a dozen usable images, it will increase your chances incredibly. Quality production stills, without your unshaven high school shop teacher in a bandana holding a duct-taped clapboard. Your distributor will thank you for it and your investor will thank you for the positive return by backing your follow-up film.
3. Do Your Research
Somewhere out there, your future distributor is watching yet another terrible film, wishing they had the next “Supersize Me” on their desk instead. But not every distributor is looking for the same thing. Take the time get a great representative like those at VineHill (who already know them) or research distribution companies and come up with a short list of the best possible fits for your film. The same can be said for other sales agents, broadcasters, festivals, competitions and anyone else that programs content for an audience.
A distributor has an audience that is not based on the strength of any one given film. They have built their brand around a certain type of entertainment, and they are looking for projects that strengthen and reinforce that brand. SnagFilms for example is servicing a very different audience than Oscilloscope, who serves a different audience than The Criterion Collection, who serves a different audience than New Line.
The same is true for film festivals, independent theaters, and broadcast networks. If you do not fit with their general brand, it could very well be a waste of your time and effort, and why do that? You are better served with a shorter, focused list of potential partners than wasting your precious distribution time and funds sending materials to companies that aren’t even looking for your movie.
4. Chart Your Course
Understand the pros and cons of premiering at certain festivals. IT MATTERS… Talk to other producers who have brought similar projects into those markets. Discuss release dates with your distribution partners, and analyze the risks inherent in dates and times.
The studios claim their weekend premieres years in advance; most indies get four to six months at best. Do everything you can to line up your distribution windows (festival, theatrical, broadcast, educational, VOD, DVD, paid/free streaming, international, etc.) for the maximum return. And don’t be afraid to ask questions and get involved. Be proactive with your screening and distribution partners. And when your plan is laid out, sing it from every rooftop you have, physical or digital. It’s a loud world out there, and one must be both loud and smart to compete with bigger budgets, stars and events.
5. Prepare for Success
If you don’t know the answer to this question, you won’t see the result you are looking for. Research similar films and track their returns. Study their numbers whenever possible, at each step of their rollout. Manage expectation, of the director and the investors, and communicate these expectations clearly to your distributor. If you are not on the same page, you will end the journey very dissatisfied.
There are no real hard and fast rules for distribution. Pick ten successful independent films, and they probably got there in ten different and amazingly unique ways. But if you can impartially analyze your project, do your due diligence and prepare your materials, you will certainly maximize the chance for your film to break through in the marketplace. Whatever your picture of success in this industry looks like, it inevitably includes a desire to keep working. If you can crack the puzzle of distribution, you will continue to find directors that want to work with you, investors that happily open their pockets, and an industry that treats you as a peer.
Don’t get discouraged. You can always lament your failures in an epic poem, penned in iambic pentameter. And not a soul has to read it for it to be a success. But dust yourself off, fire up the Internet, and start over. There are thousands of ways to get your movie out there. You can’t fail if you don’t stop.
Oh… and I guess on a final note and to that last line, ignore the lazy, fat “do nothings” in this world who will say or do ANYTHING to put you and anything you ever do down. They are, after all just jealous wastes of skin and ultimately unimportant. AND you didn’t cast them in your grand picture anyways. 😀
Christopher John Taylor - VineHill Entertainment
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