September 9, 2016

How We Made $1.5 Million Self-Distributing: The 6-Step Playbook

These filmmakers threw traditional distribution out the window—and made millions. 

For years, filmmakers sent themselves on a unicorn hunt to “get distribution.” The idea was to sell all of your film’s rights to a major distributor in exchange for an oversized check. There’s only one hitch: it doesn’t work that way anymore. 

We learned this lesson with our documentary Age of Champions, which tells the story of five competitors up to 100 years old who chase gold at the Senior Olympics. We had done all the right things—premiered at AFI Docs, secured a national PBS broadcast, and pitched the film to distributors. But when the offers rolled in, they were so small that we had to pass.

We had enough money to fund our next project and made the jump from part-time filmmakers to having a sustainable career.

So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work building our own distribution from the ground up. We spent more than two years distributing the film and generated more than $1.5 million in revenues. More importantly, we had enough money in the bank to fund our next project and made the jump from part-time filmmakers to having a sustainable creative career.

We’ve put together an online course called Filmmaker.MBA outlining exactly how we did it. Below is a sneak peek at our 6-step playbook.

Credit: 'The Age of Champions'

1. Conduct experiments to find your real audience

Finding your audience is the first step on the long road of your film’s distribution campaign. As early as possible, you need to start conducting experiments to find a concrete group of people who will pay for and spread the word about your film. 

For Age of Champions, our first hypothesis was that seniors would be the audience for the film. Unfortunately, after a couple test screenings, we learned that most seniors could care less about documentaries, fitness, or the Senior Olympics. Our next experiment was equally negative—our audience of “senior athletes” was confused as to why we weren’t showing them exercise videos. 

The vast majority of our revenue came from direct distribution on our website.

But for our third experiment, we hit the bullseye. We shared the film with nonprofits and businesses in the senior health community—senior centers, retirement homes, senior health companies—and they loved it. They wanted to know how they could purchase it and share it with their local communities. 

We had identified our niche. Now, it was time to start selling our film.

2. Double-down on direct distribution 

Although we eventually landed a national PBS broadcast, Netflix deal, and iTunes/Amazon distribution, the vast majority of our revenue came from direct distribution on our website.

Our first step was to create a range of products—consumer DVDs, community screening kits, educational licenses, and merchandise—and set up a simple online store using ShopifyWe focused all of our marketing efforts toward driving traffic to our website. Any time someone purchased the film, we sent a series of automatic emails that encouraged them to tell their friends or buy additional products. 

In the end, we sold more than $300,000 in DVDs, kits, and merchandise directly through our website—10 times more than all our traditional distribution revenue combined.

A screening of 'Age of Champions'Credit: Keith Ochwat

3. Make your community screenings profitable

Community screenings are a fantastic way to create a human-to-human connection with your film. The trick is to make them profitable. 

For Age of Champions, we created a screening kit that included a DVD, discussion guide, posters, postcards, and cheap giveaways—everything an event host needed to organize a successful screening at their senior center, retirement home, or senior health company. We priced it at $149, which delivered a 90% profit margin after production and shipping costs. We partnered with senior health organizations and attended conferences to spread the word about our community screening campaign. 

Over the course of two years, we sold 3,000 screening kits and generated more than $250,000 in sales.  

4. Pitch yourself as a public speaker—for $3,000 an hour

Every time we had an organization purchase a screening kit, we sent three automated emails letting them know we were available as speakers. For larger groups, having the director on stage to talk about the film adds a tremendous amount of value to their live event. 

We priced our speaking fee at $3,000 plus travel expenses and made this clear up front to our potential hosts. Our presentations were very simple—we introduced the film, delivered a 30-minute speech after the screening, and took questions from the audience. 

In total, we booked more than 125 speaking events and generated over $450,000 in speaking fees and follow-up sales. 

'Age of Champions' screening kitCredit: Keith Ochwat

5. Sell your DVD to universities for $250 apiece

You can sell your DVD to consumers for $25—or sell the exact same DVD and an “academic license” to universities for $250. 

For Age of Champions, we created a “university kit” that included a 60- and 75-minute version of the film and a 10-page educators’ guide written specifically for an academic audience, which we priced on our website at $250. To drive sales, we bought an email list for university libraries, attended an annual conference for gerontologists, and directed all of our marketing and outreach efforts to the website.

Our biggest single source of income for Age of Champions was corporate sponsorships.

By the end of our campaign, we sold $88,000 in academic licenses (and another $26,000 through a non-exclusive deal with an educational distributor). 

6. Hunt down corporate sponsors for the big checks 

Our biggest single source of income for Age of Champions was corporate sponsorships.

When we secured a national broadcast on PBS, they gave us the opportunity to sell 60 seconds of “underwriting” (which most filmmakers never take). First, we put together a long list of companies that had a customer base aligned with our film’s core audience. Next, we pitched corporate brand teams and used the success of our community screening campaign as proof that there was a good fit. We ended up selling 15-second spots to Procter & Gamble, Rite Aid, and Healthways for $75,000 apiece. 

We also reached out to the largest senior living companies and sold screening kits and DVDs at a bulk rate, which they could share with their customers and use for promotions. All told, we made over $500,000 through corporate sponsorships and sales. They were never easy to negotiate, but they paid out big in the end.       

Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat have produced three documentaries for PBS and teach an online course about direct distribution at Filmmaker.MBA. To get their free 7-day email course, sign up now.

Your Comment

10 Comments

6-Step Playbook for Self-Distributing a NARRATIVE Feature:

1. You're screwed.
2. You're screwed.
3. Try four-walling. Oh, what's that? Still screwed.
4. Who's your audience? No one. Everyone's off watching Captain America.
5. You made money through Vimeo On Demand! $200. Yay.
6. Next time make a feature with a message. You'll be a little less screwed.

BONUS STEPS:

7. Approach corporate sponsors. Hear them say, "So...it's basically just a story?" Be like, "It's a good story though." Get laughed at.
8. Beg to your friends. Get unfriended.
9. Start your next script. Make a horror movie. You're a bit less screwed.

September 9, 2016 at 11:47AM, Edited September 9, 11:52AM

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1-Step Playbook for Success in Life:

1. Don't be bitter.

September 9, 2016 at 12:30PM, Edited September 9, 12:30PM

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Benjamin Lebeau
Cinematographer, Colorist, Editor
269

I think John has a pretty good point. This old folks are okay commercial is far from being a narrative piece. That Dinesh D'Souza probably makes lots of money with his bitter political smears, but I don't think anyone on a film website would ever call him successful.

September 10, 2016 at 11:05PM

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Jake
144

I took your advice, but got screwed.

September 10, 2016 at 4:51AM

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Saied M.
1033

Haha... made me laugh John.. thanks for having a sense of humour..

September 10, 2016 at 10:42AM

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Matty Hannon
Documentary filmmaker
167

this is excellent and encouraging - thank you for this

September 9, 2016 at 10:36PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1253

This is very encouraging. Thank you.

September 10, 2016 at 12:16AM

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JohnJay
63

LINK IS NO GOOD.

September 10, 2016 at 12:18AM

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JohnJay
63

I'll definitely be checking out more... thanks for the insight Keith. Good timing for our project.

September 10, 2016 at 10:44AM

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Matty Hannon
Documentary filmmaker
167

"most seniors could care less about documentaries"

They COULD care less? So... they care then.

September 18, 2016 at 6:53AM

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David Gurney
DP
1329

Hi ! Great article, thank you !

I would like to offer my opinion, just a 2 cent (although it's a bit long but it's worth, 2 cent, at least).

After reading the process (both on NOFS) and reading many filmmaker's results (I am a filmmaker (upcoming in the making or not, it if fails) too trying my first indie movie) and
what were steps towards those results, I realize some things :

There are 2 major steps :

- Making the movie (Producing and Creating it)

- Distributing the movie (Putting the movie on as many screens (theather, TV, computer/youtube/, etc) for as many people to see it)

The first one is all we (as filmmakers) put our energies on and many (including me before) think once done, the money will flow in the bank and
the movie 'will sell by itself' while you sit back and watch see the dough and the screening views rack up. All of this should and will happen by itself, of course.

The (more) reality :

- It will not happen by itself (almost 100% sure). That 2nd final step is the most difficult one, getting your movie 'out there' in the public space out of your computer back up and into the world. I was just struck/shocked/saddened when I heard
the extreme paucity of films that end up 'being on Big Screen (as Theatrical Release in Cinemas (the holy grail (I think), movies should always be watched on BIG screen in a Cinema Theater, not some computer or TV!) by having had a distribution deal) but rather are, for not having theater deal, straight-to-DVD lowfare (or should we say 'straight-to-BluRay' (since DVD will slowly disappear in 20 years or less) now it's more like 'straight-to-VOD(Video On Demand)/Youtube/Netflix/Other TV-Video or net video service' or 'straight-to-video' altogether (in the old days 'StraiGhT-tO-VHS', that was the ultimate slap like your work was worthless, for all your hard work, you were just 'worth' on straight to 'vhs tape'). I then understood that money is everything is this business, especially
when you hit to the crucial distribution last step (you need some for producing, now you need some for PR marketing and distributing 'Wideworld').

I say crucial because it Truly is.

I check at movies on Imdb and realize this : Movies that were Popular - had Immense reaching power. The whole PR, marketing, etc.
Some I kid you not had upwards to 30 distribution deal (for almost every coutry around the world (since we, almost, all wish our movies to be seen worldwide) - That - is why they were succesful in terms 'total theatrical big screen number of views on many theaters around the world/countries' (being put on as many screen as possible) - not - because
the movies 'was incredibly good'. Nope, sure, the quality of the movie impacted to - some degree (its (unique/original) story, its image quality (filmick look), its sound design, its actors, its 'budget' production value (low budget indie or big budget blockbuster), all these elements came together as a whole and are important of course - But - they were not the Main decider of the Output Reach (theatrical distribution).
In fact some movies that many people - hated - and thought s*cked with no production value (crap looking, crap story, is a 'made for TV no-budget movie'...) had high - strong - reaching and were seen by Many People aroudn the world (thus everybody around the world - knew - about that film (saw it in their theaters), when it should have 'slept' with the other fishes and never had a deal (supposedly because it s*cked so much)). That meant that the filmmaker had done its homework : make sure to 'seal the deal' at the distribution phase (wethere movie is good or s*cks).

Distribution - is - the key to making your movie reach many people. It's incredible(ly sad) that there is over some 10,000 movies per year who 'go to sleep quick - R.I.P. in Video-Grave' and
go straight to DVD or Netflix online - that's it, to be 'forgotten' like they never happened, except on lowfare video. Out of those thousand ones, only about a 100s or so get a theatrical distribution deal(s).
It truly is a utter comptettive market for distribution, everybody is fighting with 'their movie' to try to 'The' theatrical deal, but of course, theatrical distributors (such as Lionsgate, Universal, Sony Pictures...) will only give you
a distribution if they feel your movie is worth it. By that I mean, it makes them profit. That they can invest in you and your movie, and will make money from your film - for that your movie needs to be decent at least, but that's just the tip of the iceberg :

Going to festivals is a good thing (like TIFF (I am from/live in Canada) and that Toronto festival is immense (only being surpassed by France Cannes, your US Sundance and Venice Italy or Berlin one) still I hold the Fantasia Festival better in my hometown, TIFF is huge, Fantasia is smaller but more 'genre/niche' that's why I love it so much and right at home),
but I learned that you should not put your hopes too high. Many festivals may refuse you - then what ?....go to 'self-distribution' online route..that is very hard..and making millions of dollars (off online traffic net screening) like that success story is Rare (count them on your finger)) You need a Very Good Original movie for that and of course, an Audience (you have to target which audience you think your film is for, that is also what the theatrical distributor will try to do with you to cash in on that 're$ponsive' audience. For a distributor, it's all about money, put itself on the line and making sure to recoup losses (R.O.I. (Return on Investment)
(by going straight to DVD if it fails to profit in theaters)). I read filmmakers who did upwards to 30 film festivals (the whole run...they payed over 3000$ of festival fees for submission...), that was great they had some exposure. Their movies never had any Mass Theatrical deal, they slept like the rest and they stayed a 'festival affair'.
These distributors - go - to the film festivals, but how many filmmaker's film - at film festivals, get a theatrical deal (not a video deal or VOD/DVD..but a Theatrical one) - from these theatrical distributors attending the festiaval : count them on your one hand.

Some other tips :
- Make sure to have a great poster - The Poster Sells. It sells the deal 'as serious' to a theatrical distributor. (in this movie, the posters are of high quality like those in cinema boots - it helps, a lot)
- A press electronic kit with information about your movie...etc.
- You can try to 'raise' your movie's reach by going on youtube 'early view' with trailers teasers...etc build 'interest' in your movie, build buzz is what distributor coaches use, to 'make the distributor 'have' a reason to 'want' to see your movie and by 'unveiling' your movie once the anticipation (buzz) is built (you reached traffic/people who now want to see your movie, thus, you already 'have a ''willing-to-pay' crowd'' to see your movie, that takes some load off of the distributor and increases theatrical deal chances with him).
- One study showed (a scientific one) that 'mouth to ear' and 'Twitter/online 'PR' buzz' are powerful predictors of a movie's success (distribution wise). Meaning building buzz (online on youtube, facebook, kickstart campaingm, tumbler...'promoting your movie'...etc..) correlated to the success of it. For example, they measured Twitter number of posts on a movie before it's world premiere, the amount of times the movies was mentionned and spoke of, correlated to the amount of viewing on screen. That means, the movie was 'penetrating/reaching' to people and people (told to their friends/family members about that movie) would then go watch it.
No matter it that movie was boring and sucked - people would realize it - while watching the movie - but they would have Already payed it and 'seen it'. Again, that is why you see low or no budget movies with awlful story/awful acting/crap look... that - DO - get a theatrical release (while the more pro-movies - Don't and 'go to sleep forever').
The distributor, does not care wether your movie is 'good' or 'bad' depending on people's opinion. It only cares that is Makes Dough (from the people who - pay to see it and buy merchandise related to it - to repay their investment (distributing on theatrical screens all over the world is very Costly) and make Profit from your movie - even if 'looks' like a cheap bad TV movie (that is now - the lucky one - 'on Big Screen').
It truly is a capitalistic business but that's how it works. Their is Risk involved in making movies and distributing them, since it's many parties involved - one can screw the other. That is why distributors are not very keen on distributing 'indie' movies - who are not Safe Bets in tems of Financial Profit/Return at the 'box office'. They know these movies target 'indie/small niche audience' thus makes less cash, everyday people are the 'Brunt' of the cash machine, thus they will not invest in them unless they are sure the indie movie will reach to the mass population audience too and make money.
By putting indie movies straight to dvd they avoid risk (losing money). For an indie no budget filmmaker (like myself) that is very hurtful and almost as if 'Ok then...I won't make any movie then..if it's that bad...why care ? why should make all this effort to not even have my movie on Big Screen Theater...just go on straight to youtube or dvd...that is utter failure'. For me at least, I can't fathom not playing in cinema theater (I grew up going to cinema, it is like every indie's dream to be in big screen, the VOD/DVD and others seems like a last resort thing).

As some said :

You can avoid festivals and go the 4-walling way and make sure to 'target' your movie - straight to the distributor with a special 4-wall screening tailored for them (it costs more but all in all it is more powerful, because you force the acquisition distribution people to fight one another to get your movie and give you 'a deal')..
How many time I read filmmakers who went to a festival (like CAnnes, though Cannes costs a very lot for submission of Blu-Ray and DCPversion ), had accolades and...that's it, dead end. Nothing else happened. No distribution deal. Don't go to festivals, just for going and 'showing it', you wish to have a deal (don't you ?) with a great distributor who will put your movie 'on the map - the world map' by making show every country's theaters screens..then, it may even go on Bluray, VOD, Netflix or DVD. Much better strategy in the long run. Final words : Go after the distributor like you're on a mission, put your best 'business hat' remove your 'filmmaker hat', don't waste time with festivals ($$ submissions and you get refused), do it 'in reverse' with private 4-wall, you'll surprise the distributors (in a good way and possibly get a deal. Should this fail, you can self-distribute online like here with this movie of old people being sports champions, or try going to festival - not to make cash but get some reconnaissance and audience (not from distributors obviously)). Also, a Great website, No Film School !

Thanks for reading.

Just a 2 cent.

PS: TIFF only plays DVDs in their film festival, to me that is for convenience, and that's a good thing - in the reverse..a DVD of your movie, simply put, s*cks. At least, it should be HD Blu-Ray, or a theatrical DCP (the current standard) festival like Cannes accepts it (still it shows that certain festivals still use old ways, the fact they don't even take Blu-Ray is a bit disheartening to make people see your movie in all its full glory/how you want people to see your movie (obviously not from a low-res DVD) and 'sell' it to the TIFF-attending distributor).

September 18, 2016 at 4:17PM

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