May 3, 2013

3 Must-Haves to Get Your Film Distributed

Even though we wax poetic about how rewarding the art of filmmaking can be, at the end of the day, we need audiences to see the finished product. They don't have to rabidly declare it their favorite film (though that would be nice), but there's really no point spending all this time and money on a feature if the only person who owns the DVD is your mom. In a series of videos posted by IFP from Mark Litwak, the entertaining Entertainment Lawyer explains how to prepare yourself for the do-or-die of distribution.

First, the good news: the biz is democratic. Says Litwak:

The great thing about the movie business is that it's inherently democratic.  The established players have never been able to corner the market on the essential commodity that you're selling: a good story.

Now, the bad news: filmmaking is a high risk business. In a different industry -- like real estate -- if you buy a house and it burns down, well, you're not at a total loss because you still have the land. But with filmmaking, Litwak points out, if nobody distributes your film or wants to see it, you're at 100% loss. So what can you do to give yourself the best odds in this crapshoot?

1. E&O Insurance

Litwak says to get everything in writing so you can get E&O insurance. Without it, you will not get distribution.  We've talked about this for doc filmmakers with Brian Frye of Our Nixon, but Litwak points out it's an essential "malpractice insurance" for all filmmakers.

2. Film Festivals

Understand the main point of festivals: publicity. Got a publicist? Litwak explains how festivals are essential dealmakers for distributors even though, as he points out in my favorite quote, festival audiences are generally not representative of "the average beerguzzling filmgoer who wants to buy a box of bullets with that DVD."

3. Film Markets

Be prepared to find out that essential film markets are not like art galleries (how we think our work should be presented), but more like the distribution version of that TV show Supermarket Sweep:

If you are making a movie and want to make sure your chances of getting distribution are as high as they can be, check out the rest of the playlist below (thanks to IFP for putting it on their channel):

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLfiqgxzPdNX5Jji9UI7-lKOO3GI5bmkU2

What do you think about the good news/bad news of a film's success being dependent on distribution? Do you think alternative forms of distribution changing the risk equation at all?

Links:

Your Comment

19 Comments

I'm so glad you published this article. It is exactly why we are creating the free resource 'CHAIN OF TITLE' for filmmakers. Why limit your film's potential market and audience? Thanks so much! No Film School hits it out of the park again!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pyvSlVMQ22s

May 3, 2013 at 4:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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To say that the business is 'inherently democratic' is irresponsible. A micro/low budget indie is not on a level playing field with studio pictures or distributor financed films no matter how good it may be, because no one inside the industry has a vested interest in it. Not to say that it's impossible to succeed somehow, but the odds are stacked against you if you have produced a truly independent feature.

May 3, 2013 at 4:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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It depends what you take "democratic" to mean.

Ok, so you're basically talking about level playing field, equal opportunity (rather than something like "rule of the people"). Even so... In one sense (the sense of rights and in-principle possibility), the political system of a country like America is democratic. In another sense (the sense of in-practice resources), it's basically a two-party system -- for an independent, the odds are stacked against you if you don't have the money, support, recognition, etc. The same could be said of many areas of life -- in principle, entrance to university is "democratic"; in practice, it might favour the rich, or people from particular cultural backgrounds, etc. In principle, everyone has the same freedom of speech; in practice, my freedom of speech isn't the same as Rupert Murdoch's, if freedom of speech also implies ability to be heard.

May 5, 2013 at 2:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Whenever money enters the picture, 'democracy' goes out the window.

May 5, 2013 at 8:37AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Excellent article! Very helpful. Thank you.

May 3, 2013 at 5:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Nick

"the average beerguzzling filmgoer who wants to buy a box of bullets with that DVD" -- Hahahaha...

May 3, 2013 at 6:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
director, producer, dp

I'll pipe in quickly -

I sold my film and we had no E&O insurance going to festival. Yes, you DEFINITELY will be required to have it, but we did it after we negotiated a sale with our distributor. Is it assbackwards to make a film and hit the fests without E&O? Not exactly... after all, you wanna shell out 3K and up on something you don't even know will sell?

If someone wants your film they'll let you get your ducks in a row and manage E&O (as well as an amazing amount of items requested on deliverables).

Yay!

May 3, 2013 at 10:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Brock

I've always thought it would work that way if you made a good enough product that people really wanted to buy. However I think the point was that have all your ducks in a row (get everything in writing) before you go to a festival which makes getting the insurance easier when it comes time to distribute. So you don't need the insurance to play the festivals, necessarily, but when that distribution deal comes walking your way, if you can't get the insurance because either you don't have the proper releases, or can't get them from the appropriate people then you are screwed. Sounds like you were able to do that after the fact which is great. But as I understand it, if you don't have the releases, the insurance companies won't insure you, which means the distribution deal is gone.

May 4, 2013 at 7:45AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Essentially, yes. You're 100% correct. Believe me when I say I did it the hard way (the backwards way), but if you get all of your t's crossed and I's dotted you shouldn't have to worry about E&O causing problems.

Having great producers with experience in these matters also helps to the N'th degree.

May 6, 2013 at 2:12AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Brock

Any resource on this for those of us in the EU? Book or website?

May 4, 2013 at 4:53AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Taylor

Hi Taylor,

Google Phil Alberstat. He has a few books out there with contract templates under UK law, which I guess applies to the EU as well but not totally sure about that.

May 9, 2013 at 2:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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jps

Another possibility is to self-distribute, as Shane Carruth has done with Upstream Color. It's hit about $340,000 in box office as of May 5, VOD and cable distribution is being handled by a company called Cinedigm, and the DVD/Blueray went on sale on May 7, so he's going to see a very nice profit, given the micro budget, as the film's only been out about a month.

May 9, 2013 at 4:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dan

Here is my 2 cents. A lot of what he says is true although I never got E&O but I had every release imaginable so there would be no issues with anything. I made a feature a couple years ago (on film) called "Lunatics, Lovers & Poets". It's a gritty heartfelt drama. Total festival film. Great Actors! We won an award at Method Fest. Had agents that took it to Cannes & AFM. Won 5 festivals (none of the majors) I was sure it would sell. It didn't. Lost our house making this film, no regrets. Got a distribution deal with Seminal Films, which they had some problems so I got the rights back. Also had a theater release in 15 states through Carmike Cinemas. Pretty good all in all for a first time out. However, aside from personal and peer appreciation we did not recoup our investment. I have two scripts ready to go. I have studied and rethought my approach. He is right though selling your film is a flea market, and it might as well be a pair of shoes as it is an art piece. I'm trying to come up with a way to make a better film for less money. Our approach will be V.O.D. only. No theater, no DVD. Also I will not make another narrative feature unless I keep 40% of the budget for P&A. Even if it's $100k film, in essence I will be making a $60k film. My advice having been through this. If you are financially set go out and do your thing, throw caution to the wind and see what happens. If you're like me and now how 5 mouths to feed. Listen to him, do your research. The Hollywood model is tried and true. Though you may hate it, it's still works. Good luck!

May 9, 2013 at 5:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Hey John - Thanks so much for sharing your experience distributing "Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets." Sounds like it was a crazy ride (fest awards, 15 state theatrical release, the whole shebang). I'm bummed it didn't recoup your costs but since you've got no regrets, right on. It sounds like you're happy with it and learning from it for your next films - anecdotes of this kind of first-hand experience are priceless! (Well, not for you. ;P) Keep us filled in on how the next two go!

May 10, 2013 at 5:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Shooter/Editor

Couldn't you simply go back and change everything in the film to avoid needing this stuff? lol. I highly doubt there is more copyright than the things people normally would attain anyway as a diligent filmmaker. I'm pretty sure Blair Witch..........

May 9, 2013 at 8:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Cal

Depends on what you're changing and how that will compromise what you want to say as a filmmaker. If you need to take a line out that references somebody living and it doesn't play into the overall story, then yes you can do that. You could also take out or find a way to digitally mask products that got into frame without your notice.

However, I don't think there's much else you can do that wouldn't deep-six your picture in some way. And it could been avoided by just having your releases and agreements. If your lead actor didn't sign a release, how are you going to cut a film that's 95 to 100% him? Same with location agreements. If there wasn't an agreement signed, and you can't use your key scenes involving that location. If you couldn't get them to sign your only choice is to re-shoot.

April 8, 2014 at 8:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Remmy

I know this is may sound obvious but how about a well produced movie with a known actor that they can sell and a story people care about?

May 19, 2014 at 1:10AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Dan

Just as itunes made a lot of music-marketing obselete, it is about time, that internet makes a huge dent in the conventional film-distribution.

August 16, 2014 at 12:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Gul Ramani

Never had to provide E&O on the three films we have in distribution. Too much cost, and aggregators and distributors are not requiring it like they used to, especially for indie films.

August 16, 2014 at 1:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ri