How I Learned to Stop Counting on Miracles and Love Self-Distribution
"No businessperson would willingly create a product with which they had no way to go to market—yet indie film, day in and day out, continues to do this."
“Did you get distribution?”
It’s a question any indie film producer who's spent valuable years of their lives raising money, executing, and then debuting a film at a film festival has heard. Even indie film neophytes seem to somehow know: you’re not somebody who’s somebody until you’ve sold your movie to a distributor. I mean, if Kevin Smith could sell a $25,000 credit-card-financed feature film to Harvey Weinstein, what’s stopping you?
Clerks premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. It was released in nearly 100 venues and grossed over $3,151,130 in theaters alone. Given that in 1994 film tickets cost, on average, less than half of what they cost now, the film grossed the equivalent of $6.3 million in theaters, and then did untold business on VHS and other ancillary routes. A smashing success for Kevin, Harvey, and their teams! Huzzah!
We make films hoping for a miracle: we want to make an artistically fulfilling film, go to Sundance, and watch the money come rolling in. A miracle is not a business plan.
So, did you get distribution like Kevin Smith got distribution? No? You mean no one is putting your film, with no recognizable stars or high concept, in 100 theaters with a significant P&A spend?
Don’t worry about it—very few people ever experience that kind of release for their low-budget indie. And yet, we still judge the success of an independent film in 2016 on the metrics established in the heyday of Sundance and Toronto acquisition madness from the 1990s.
Times have changed, and it's time to adapt
Here are some things that didn’t exist in 1994: iTunes. Netflix. Hulu. Amazon. Digital cinema. Social media. Hell, even DVD. Movies were shown on film on projectors. Today, the majority of films that premiere at Sundance or Toronto will be given, at best, a courtesy/vanity theatrical in New York and LA to satisfy critics that (inconceivably) will only review films that play “in theaters.” Attempts to get around this through the process of paying to fully book a film in a single theater (known as Four-Walling) to require the New York Times to review a given film have been circumvented by, you know, the New York Times figuring out what people were doing and deciding they didn’t want to be a part of it any longer.
We chose to self-distribute our film. And it was the best decision we ever made.
The problem is not A.O. Scott and the New York Times. The problem is that we still judge success on an archaic model that only serves to hurt filmmakers and perpetuate a cycle of economic and emotional frustration. Given that more and more films are going from film festival to digital-centric distribution, what is the difference between a distributor and you, the filmmaker, in a room with a computer? Distributors themselves know that theatrical is a dying model for smaller movies—so why do we think that we need it to be a “success?”
Why you still haven’t considered self-distribution
“Self-distribution” is a term that still sounds, to many filmmakers, as though you failed. Well, if you choose to self-distribute, here’s what you “failed” to do: you failed to convince some person, in a room somewhere, watching your film on a Vimeo link, that they should pay you for your hard work. Does that mean your work is any less valuable? If an audience sees your film and it makes them laugh, cry, gasp, smile, and feel something, does it not have value? That value might not seem monetary to that person in a room somewhere with your Vimeo link, but you’re there, in the theater at your film festival debut, and you can feel the value.
So the question is this: how do you get people to watch something you know they’re going to like, if only they knew it existed?
No businessperson would willingly create a product with which they literally had no way to go to market. Yet indie film, day in and day out, continues to do this. We make films hoping for a miracle: we want to make an artistically fulfilling film, go to Sundance, win an award, and watch the money come rolling in. Well, as someone that has made an artistically fulfilling film, gone to Sundance with it, and won an award, I have to tell you: a miracle is not a business plan. We chose to self-distribute our film. And it was the best decision we ever made.
Now, we were luckier than most; I have some incredible partners on the film in question, First Girl I Loved, which won the “Best of NEXT” audience award after its premiere at Sundance 2016. The It Gets Better Foundation, dedicated to supporting at-risk LGBTQ youth, partnered with us before the festival to help promote to our core audience and remains a potent advocate on social media and in the LGBTQ community. We have the support of the Sundance Institute, which helped connect us with a partner and investor that absolutely loved the film and saw its potential to reach an audience. As a result, we have been able to mount a robust and effective marketing campaign for our own film.
For $2,000, you can be on every meaningful VOD platform that a distributor can access.
But there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same thing—if you plan properly from the early stages of making your film.
Not all distributors are created equal
At and after our premiere at Sundance, we had offers from "distributors" —that is, reputable companies with movies that they’ve released, largely on the internet and on VOD platforms. They have contracts with those platforms, they say, which is why we should go with them and give them an all-rights license for 15 years, for a fraction of our budget up front, with no promise of ever seeing another dollar. Every right that exists for the film—including the increasingly lucrative SVOD (Subscription VOD) rights—Netflix, Hulu and the ilk—would be theirs to exploit until I was in my mid-50s.
“But, how are people going to see it otherwise?” you might ask. “What other choice do I have?”
For $2,000, you can be on every meaningful VOD platform that a distributor can access. So unless your “distributor” is promising an advertising spend for your film, they’re not a distributor. They’re an “aggregator.” They’re taking your content, putting it on the internet, and capturing whatever revenue is there from “low-hanging fruit”—the people that will buy it simply because it is what it is. If they’re not promoting and pushing your film, they are literally doing nothing that you can’t do for yourself.
To be fair, they pay what they think they can justify—but those rates sometimes value a film so cheaply that it seems impossible to even continue making movies. If an aggregator is willing to pay $50K for your film, are you supposed to make it for $40K? Unfortunately for most people, that’s an impossible number to hit. Yet, filmmakers sell their films to these aggregators because they feel powerless to reach their audience otherwise.
We’ve been trending in the top 15-20 of iTunes presales for the past three weeks—right there alongside Woody Allen and Johnny Depp.
The Orchard, a prominent indie distributor (not an aggregator), just released the financial details on one of their films to the public for the first time, explaining how and where they earn money. And if there’s a big takeaway, it’s this: digital is where you should focus your resources. So if you can get on the same platforms, for very little cost, there is no material difference between you and an aggregator.
Here's how we did it
That’s not to say it’s easy; as someone that’s in the middle of doing it, it’s a great deal of work. For First Girl, we raised advertising money from an investor, with a P&A spend that’s equal to about 20% of our production budget. We made our own poster, our own trailer. We spent time uploading our film and files to the internet. We hired a publicist, a digital media strategist, and a social media manager. We booked a theater for our premiere and a bar for our after party.
And I’m proud to say that we’ve been trending in the top 15-20 of iTunes presales for the past three weeks—right there alongside Woody Allen and Johnny Depp. Our trailer has hit over a million views across all YouTube links. We have press in dozens of publications. We sold our SVOD rights to a new channel (a deal that hasn’t been announced quite yet) and retained all of our other rights (Transactional VOD, like iTunes, is a separate set of rights we can exploit). The SVOD deal was worth nearly 15% of our production budget for a relatively short license and we can continue licensing our SVOD rights into the future, further recouping money for our investors.
Here’s the twist: we’re happy. And we’re getting the release we felt our film deserved.
The big question then becomes this: is this business model sustainable? Will we be better off self-releasing? Our pre-sales, as mentioned, are fantastic. Our SVOD deal is lucrative. But there are a lot of unknowns. What I do know is that we’ve held on to our rights; we haven’t given away the creative life of our movie (at least as it applies to how it’s presented to the world), and we’ve left open our ability to control its destiny and monetize it as we see fit for many years into the future. Depending on how this TVOD release goes, we could be in the black by 2017. We might not be, but controlling the business model and knowing that we will know the answer feels good—and it seems like we will quickly exceed the “low-hanging fruit” that various distributors thought they saw for our film.
If we had built the cost of distribution into our movie from day one, we’d have a realistic plan for going forward and would have committed to self-distribution far earlier.
For the consumer, there is no difference between our movie and one that’s released by a distributor. All they know is that they can pay to watch it. And if the movie looks good, and they’re interested in the material, they will pay. The archaic distribution model is one where filmmakers hope that some omnipotent distributor that “knows” what people want will buy your movie for so much money you’ll retire in Cancun. The reality is that no level of indie producing is easy—and distribution is no exception. The best move isn’t to hope. It’s to plan.
If we had built the cost of distribution into our movie from day one, we’d have a realistic plan for going forward and would have committed to self-distribution far earlier. And the next time I raise financing for a film, I’m going to raise an additional 20% on top of the film’s expenses to support a self-release. Hey, if we get a miracle offer, we’ll never spend that money and can just give it back to our investors.
But when that miracle offer never comes, I won’t have to worry about the question, “Did you get distribution?” I'll know I’m going to be able to reach my audience either way.