October 14, 2014

5 Things You Should Think About After You Pass on Your Distribution Deal

Layover
Making a film is no longer the problem, it's distributing one.

You've got the script. You've raised the money. You've shot the film. You've got the final cut in your hand. Now what? Get it in front of eyeballs. Distributing and marketing a film can be complicated, frustrating, and expensive, but indie filmmakers must know that the traditional ways of getting your film out to its audience aren't the only ways -- nor are they necessarily the best ways. Here's how the filmmakers of the $6,000 indie film Layover decided to forgo the coveted distribution deal in favor of taking control of their own project.

This is a guest post by Joshua Caldwell.

Here’s the thing about making a film for $6,000 -- we only have to pay back $6,000. It’s something, but it’s certainly not a $100,000 or $500,000 bill hanging over our head. That’s a debt you need to repay if you want to keep your investors around. With only $6,000 to pay back though, my producer Travis Oberlander and I could afford to experiment. So we decided to try out alternative distribution aka self-distribution aka direct-distribution.

(Quick Note: We don’t like the term “self-distribution.” It still carries a negative connotation, and it doesn’t fully explain what it is. We prefer the term “direct distribution,” from the filmmaker to the customer, cutting out the middleman.)

Thankfully, this is not a new idea. There are many who have come before and distributed their films directly with amazing success. They’ve left amazing, insightful, in-depth accounts of their experiences that we learned a lot from. Here’s what we learned:

Forget About Tradition

Traditional distribution is not the only option. You have many options that put the power, the data and the money in your hands and not someone else’s. Traditional distribution has its place, but unless you can guarantee that your release will be supported and not just dumped, you probably should consider another way.

Back in May, following the World Premiere of my feature film debut LAYOVER, I wrote about how we made the film for $6,000. Following the festival, we had some interest from a couple of different VOD distributors which felt like a decent response considering it’s a French language film shot in a shoestring budget with no “stars” in it. Honestly, we were excited that anyone was interested in distributing our little film.

We were trading money and data for “exposure” and the “distributed” tag. It’s so baked in and a part of the traditional model, that even my manager wondered if taking the less than great deal was worth it to say “we got distribution” on what is a very small film.

However, as we started exploring the deals and getting advice from other people who had taken them -- it didn’t seem so great. Essentially they would own our film for years, spend zero dollars to promote it, dump it onto all the platforms and pray for a sale. This all might be par for the course as far as distribution goes, and that’s fine, but it made Travis and myself ask, “Why would we ever take this deal?”

We'd be the ones responsible for marketing and promoting the film, so what were we paying 20% for? And what was this mysterious “up to $9,000” fee paying for? And even it were to pay for “marketing,” as it claimed, why such a long term? PLUS if we secured DVD distribution, the company would get a cut of that even if they did nothing to secure it.

Suddenly, the idea of a distribution deal just so we could say, “We got distribution,” didn’t seem worth it. As Emily Best, CEO of Seed&Spark likes to say, “Filmmakers need to move beyond the exposure economy.” And that’s exactly what this felt like. We were trading money and data for “exposure” and the “distributed” tag. It’s so baked in and a part of the traditional model, that even my manager wondered if taking the less than great deal was worth it to say “we got distribution” on what is a very small film.

First, Choose Your Initial Platform

Travis took on all things distribution. After considering several direct distribution platforms for our initial release, he chose Gumroad for downloads and Vimeo On Demand for our streaming-rental. We chose Gumroad because it offered us all of the features we were looking for, provided a seamless customer experience from our website, and had the smallest fees.

While many of you might be more familiar with VHX, for example, we’ve found that the brand of your platform is still somewhat irrelevant. They are simply back end systems. They provide the means of hosting your film, e-commerce transactions, data, but they don’t promote your film or host a library. They exist for you to sell in the way that best suits you: on your own website, designed however you like.

Vimeo On Demand is a little different. They do host a library of films on their platform and they do promote via their homepage through Staff Picks and Recommendations. We felt they would be an ideal streaming/rental platform for precisely that reason. You can also download the film at Vimeo On Demand because, well, why limit ourselves?

Then, Expand to Others

To get your film on iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Roku, Netflix and other more common distribution platforms, you need to either go through a distributor or pay an aggregator service to do the same thing. Effectively, you’re paying for it either way. With version one you trade future revenue for the hope that it will come back to you. With version two you can start selling directly on your own site, wait to see how well the film is doing and then re-invest the profits from your first window sales into expanding onto another platforms via a one-time fee.

The Big D: Data

The other massive benefit you get from direct distribution is the Holy Grail of today’s business: data. You know what your conversion rate is (people who look vs. people who buy), you know what part of the world they live in, and you know which site sent them to your film and more.

Not only do you know that, you own that data and as a filmmaker, you can use it to discover whom your audience is. This is very powerful because if you know and understand your audience, you begin to create a relationship with them and it makes you accountable.

Emily Best speaks often about the importance of the “filmmaker entrepreneur” in today’s industry. But how can you be an entrepreneur and build a business without an understanding of the people you’re creating products for? One way is through data. It’s not the only way, but even when we foray into traditional distribution for our films, we will do so knowing our audience and what they expect from us as filmmakers.

If you find yourself staring down at a bad deal and wondering whether this is your only option, it isn’t.

Promote, Promote, Promote

However, none of the above really matters without promotion. Ideally, that’s what you get out of a distributor with the traditional approach -- they’ll spend money to get the audience. But with smaller films on a VOD platform, that’s not always a guarantee. However, you can just dump the film on your own site and tweet out about it constantly. It’s always the thing we never budget for -- never think about; we’re just trying to get the movie made! However, if you can be thinking about promotion and marketing before you’ve shot anything, you stand a better chance of success.

And if you’re able to carve out a budget for it, marketing is where it’s worth spending some money to secure press, reviews or articles about your film. Or you spend it on targeted Facebook campaigns. Either way, it may cost you a little something up front, but it can be well worth it in terms of the return. We found an awesome partner in Chandler Poling at White Bear PR to handle our PR needs and got access to promotional opportunities we never would have gotten otherwise.

Direct distribution certainly isn’t the easiest road. It’s far less work to just hand your film off to someone else and let them take care of it. However, in doing so, you’re also handing off your audience. Sometimes, that makes sense and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it's not the only way. If you find yourself staring down at a bad deal and wondering whether this is your only option, it isn’t. The landscape of film distribution is changing every day and there are plenty of innovative and unique opportunities to make you and your film a success.


Joshua’s debut feature film LAYOVER is now available on VOD. Click this link (or coupon code NOFILMSCHOOL) to receive $1 off the DIY Filmmaker Bundle, which includes commentary, interviews, Anatomy of a Scene Clips and the production draft of the film.

Joshua Caldwell is an MTV Movie Award-winning director, writer, and producer. He has worked with a number of high-profile producers, including CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker. His award-winning short film Dig, starring Mark Margolis of Breaking Bad, was featured in numerous film festivals and his Superman fan fiction short film Resignation screened at Comic-Con 2014. LAYOVER had its World Premiere at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival where it was nominated for the prestigious FIPRESCI New American Cinema Award. Follow Joshua on Twitter.     

Your Comment

21 Comments

Hope you enjoyed the article. If you have any questions for Joshua or myself let us know here in the comments or on Twitter @Joshua_Caldwell or @Tobewan

October 14, 2014 at 3:19PM

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Hey how's it going?
Awesome article. I believe direct distribution is one of the biggest tools we have around right now (I´m a Uruguayan filmmaker, so all the more down here down in the South).
I had a doubt: so, you WP in a festival and then you jumped directly to VOD and downloads? Did you think about getting some eyeballs on it by screening it on theaters by some alternative means like Tugg (http://www.tugg.com/) for example? Would getting it to the big screen, getting to have the full "theatre" experience, pay off? What are your thoughts...

Thanks, and congrats on the film, looks great.

October 14, 2014 at 5:07PM

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Santi Gonz
Screenwriter/Director
74

I'm just curious to know more about Netflix, iTunes & co. Is there a review process beyond the fee? And what's the timeline? Is it a month-long process? A 6 month process?

Thanks so much!

October 14, 2014 at 5:11PM

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Elizabeth Giorgi
Director
74

Netflix, iTunes, etc. requires an aggregator + quality control fees.

October 14, 2014 at 5:56PM

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Ri Stewart
Filmmaker
154

Elizabeth, Ri is correct. In terms of the process, it varies. Some say 6 months, some say one month. Depends on the platform and the film.

October 15, 2014 at 1:49AM

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Hi Santi! We didn't jump into VOD right away. Honestly, we weren't sure what to do after our WP. Thankfully, after SIFF we garnered some interest from distributors and aggregators who wanted to help distribute Layover on VOD. Nobody even offered theatrical. That's how things are these days with distributors. Unless your film is in a genre or has celebrities in it, your chances of getting a theatrical run in the US are slim to none. We could have four-walled the film or organized a tour, but we're approaching production for our next movie so we're reserving that kind of strategy for later. There's no rule that we can't have a tour at a later date or Tugg campaign after being up on VOD. If anything, I'm hoping that the buzz from our VOD release makes that a more viable opportunity. Indiegame the Movie had something like this happen where they got theatrical engagements AFTER their VOD release. The concept of windows is shutting fast and really only exists for films that are marketed and distributed in the traditional manner. Hope that helps!

October 15, 2014 at 1:47AM

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I'm wondering what your thought process was regarding DVD vs Blu Ray? Currently, you can go one or the other, or a combo pack. DVD only packages are the least expensive obviously, however as a filmmaker I feel I want to prepare my audience for when they actually do get a blu ray player, and the swiftly arriving 4k lol. There's also an option to sell a DVD + Blu ray set, but of course thats more expensive and definitely requires more sales in order to get to the break even point. I'm just now going through these questions with my debut feature so this whole article is like perfect timing for me.

October 16, 2014 at 1:12AM

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Jonesy Jones
Storymaker
641

Just to be a bit of a devil's advocate - If you are saying you should budget time and money to promote and self distribute your film, then really isn't that just the same as giving a distributor a fee and a cut of profits, except you are trading the risk of getting screwed with by an unscrupulous distributor for the risk of yourself failing to successfully self distribute?

Now, in your case the fact that the film was made for $6000 (an impossible figure for you to scale into a commercial endeavor - although I see from your other article that it was enough to pay your actors something, although, I'm guessing about $100 a day?) then self distribution is probably the best way to pay back people who have lent you money, because the costs involved better reflect the market potential of the product.

But you are opting out of the entire commercial end of film making (distribution) for the sake of $6,000 - when the connections you could make through having a successful relationship with a good distributor could be worth far more to your career than $6,000.

And I guess the answer to what way is right comes down to where you see your career development coming from, is it from the people who entrusted you with $6,000 to make a piece of art, or is it from the commercial side of the industry that is looking to try and sell content in an increasingly cluttered market place.

For my money, I do have to wonder if all the time and effort you put into self distribution had instead been spent courting distributors and sales agents to find the RIGHT distributor or sales agent for your film, whether you would not have been better off.

Of course, finding sales agents and distributors can be a more opaque process seemingly than self distributing online, also, if your film's audience isn't likely to be big enough to support their cut, then it is also a waste of time - so that just comes down to how many people you really think will watch your film (which is a separate thing again to how many people will think your film is good).

For my money - time spent finding an international sales agent, who could have sold your film into France and French speaking territories, maybe get a studio like Orange to take a look at it, would be a much more productive use of your time in terms of both career and finances.

Airline sales to french speaking territories in particular (given the film takes place in LA and is in fact about traveling, and so would likely appeal to traveling audiences) is something you should really be looking into.

Now, the good thing about self distribution to the point you have done it, it doesn't preclude getting a sales agent at this point - but it might water down their interest because the bigger sales they might have been able to get may be hampered by the fact that it's available on these other platforms (that's changing, but it's a case by case basis - by going self distributed first, you'll never know what would work better - you seem to have made the choice that you are most comfortable with.)

So basically, one thing I would suggest from an outside point of view, is that there are two parts to distribution, domestic and international - and even though you have your films on 'international' platforms, being a French language film you have a massive audience that will have no idea that it exists, that an international sales agent with expertise in those markets could realize for you.

Go out and find one, strike a good deal, but most importantly build relationships - because you are going to need a real expert at selling films sooner or later if you are going to be a professional film maker - if you find the right partner now it could make finding the money for your next films (and enough to actually pay people properly) a lot more achievable.

October 14, 2014 at 5:45PM

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Interesting thoughts, and a great way to push this discussion further. Thanks for taking the time to write all that down.

October 15, 2014 at 1:41AM

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Ben Howling
Writer / Director
641

Very solid points here. Ultimately, I think this comes down to whether or not distributing a film directly 1st is really shooting oneself in the foot.

As for finding sales agents, we asked around and met with a few, all of them had the exact same answer - they didn't know how to sell our film internationally without any name talent or genre appeal. Now, we could have spent more weeks getting the same answer until we found someone willing to risk it with our film, but the deals probably wouldn't have favored us very well. We'll never know.

Thing is, I know people like the film (we've tested it in front of a variety of audiences) and I know how to market it (I have a background in online marketing), so spending the time and money to promote and release Layover ourselves wasn't really a risk at all - especially given the budget. You're right on the money, it is the safest way to pay everyone back but also the fastest way to actually cut people in on the profits. As for finding people who'll give us money for our next film, Layover has been all that we needed.

I like the saying the devil always shits on the biggest pile. I'm banking on proving there is a demand and a paying audience for Layover and then leveraging that into a sales agent and/or distributor. We'll see if it works that way but, then again, that's all part of the experiment. It's all part of the expansion model we're trying out with Layover's release.

October 15, 2014 at 2:48AM, Edited October 15, 2:48AM

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Is the aggregation system different for movies than music on iTunes. I use TuneCore for iTunes distribution and it's dirt cheap.

October 14, 2014 at 6:03PM

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Hey Aaron! I don't have as deep an understanding of the music distribution side of iTunes but from what I've seen on TuneCore it's an almost identical service.

October 15, 2014 at 2:24AM

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Great stuff, thanks Josh and Travis!

October 14, 2014 at 6:08PM

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John Morse
Producer + Director
2295

Very good article.

When we looked as distribution for our feature 2 years ago we ran into the same problem, companies wanting us to fork over all this money up front and then signing a contract that not only gave them rights, but the ability to incur costs that we were to cover every month! Yeah, didn't happen.

We went through Chill at first, then when that shut down we put it on Vimeo. Unfortunately it has not made money at all, lost in the digital distribution shuffle.

October 14, 2014 at 9:20PM, Edited October 14, 9:20PM

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Anthony Vescio
Director/Editor
365

I was really hoping that Chill would take off. I actually know the co-founder from my past in startups. They had a good idea but I think the execution was lacking. VimeoOD seems to be a blind spot for a lot of film lovers. There's some great films on there!!!

October 15, 2014 at 2:27AM, Edited October 15, 2:27AM

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Just as in the music industry, the Film Industry is realizing that independent is the new majors. There are way to many tools and outlets out there for us not to take matters into our own hands. Of course like anything else in this world, it takes tons of HARD WORK. The self distribution route doesn't work for everybody though, and also not all distribution deals are bad. You have to really think hard and decide what works best for your film and will it help further your career.

October 15, 2014 at 12:24PM, Edited October 15, 12:24PM

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Luis Garcia
Director/Editor
333

With all due respect to these filmmakers, they made a low budget drama with no name actor's... in a foreign language. That's fine for a festival run but It doesn't take years of industry experience to see how that might be difficult to market. I see a lot of films on these direct distribution platforms that skip the most important step: make an entertaining film that you would pay to see.

October 15, 2014 at 4:54PM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1328

You're presuming that our film isn't entertaining because it doesn't have name actors and it's in a foreign language and was made inexpensively. If that's the case then all microbudget filmmakers should just give up, right? Of course this is a difficult film to market and we knew that going in. But people are paying for it, they do like it after they see it and they are entertained. So, we didn't skip that step, it just doesn't fit into the traditional paradigm that you think makes an entertaining film. And that's okay. But plenty of films are getting made and they aren't getting distribution. The above article was designed to tell filmmakers what we've learned as we begin our direct distribution. The films don't have to die on the shelf. It's possible to find an audience, even if it's small (which is why it was important we made it so inexpensively.

If it's the choice between telling a unique story and going this route or making the same thing we've all seen before but maybe it gets bigger distribution, I'll take the unique story every time.

October 17, 2014 at 4:54PM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
88

Fantastic article Joshua! I'm in development for a micro-budget feature right now and have been doing extensive research on direct distrib, so this piece comes at the perfect time. Thank you for sharing your experience!

October 16, 2014 at 5:27PM, Edited October 16, 5:27PM

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Helenna Santos
Producer/Actor/Founder of Ms. In The Biz
81

It's an important step but you must to be well informed for the case.

October 17, 2014 at 4:40AM, Edited October 17, 4:40AM

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Ragüel Cremades
Film producer and director
7238

Great article and advice, like you guys and others on here I have a similar budgeted, but very niche (sci-fi) feature completed and I'm considering options. I was wondering how you sell through Gumroad (and in general)? What's your marketing/sales 'pipeline' (if that's right term)? Also with Vimeo do you direct people via twitter/facebook/etc and/or do you have a film specific website and good SEO to attract traffic. Thanks in advance.

October 18, 2014 at 1:32PM, Edited October 18, 1:32PM

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Studio LAX
Editor/Producer/Director
410