How Our Search for a Distributor Led Us Back to Ourselves
Here's how we built a distribution team that started at home—and landed our film on all major VOD platforms.
After we decided not to wait for a festival premiere to screen our feature film CENTS, and we completed our successful Tugg roadshow in New Mexico and the Northeast, we spent an enormous amount of time on outreach. Our primary outreach efforts were made to Girl Scout Councils around the country, because we knew our story of a savvy, young female entrepreneur would resonate with them. This entailed day after day of "dials and smiles", cold-calling more than 100 Girl Scout Councils to pitch them on community screenings through Tugg, using our partnership with Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails as a model.
Although we found this outreach very worthwhile to access one of our target audiences, the massive amount of time required highlighted our need for help, especially from people with more experience in this area. Here are some of the steps we took to get our distribution efforts to the next level:
1. We built the team we should have put in place before production
I'm frequently asked about what mistakes I made when making my first feature film, and I'm not shy about sharing when I made mistakes on CENTS and what I've learned from them. But I don't think "mistake" is the right word for how we discovered we needed help with distribution late in the process. Instead, I think the right word is "ignorance". Despite all of my research and preparation on marketing and distribution, I remained ignorant about the time and resources this phase would take until I finally went through the process myself.
I learned that, before even finishing the film, we should have put together an outreach and marketing team to help us with our distribution strategy so that when we didn’t get into the major film festivals, we could have built a more robust community of partners to help distribute our film. Once we understood that we needed help, we reached out to Jon Reiss of Hybrid Cinema who specializes in marketing and distribution for independent films. We were fortunate enough to still have a limited amount of money earmarked for distribution, marketing and outreach — primarily because we didn’t burn through these funds on festivals and related travel.
Despite all of my research and preparation on marketing and distribution, I remained ignorant about the time and resources this phase would take until I finally went through the process myself.
After a series of planning sessions, Jon found our Outreach Manager, Jessica Fuselier, who had recently moved into outreach and marketing for independent films with a background in coding and tech. Jessica's past experience meant connections to businesses and groups focused on bringing more girls into the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Jon also introduced us to Big Time PR, a public relations firm with specific experience working on VOD film releases. Most importantly, Jon helped us put together a budget based on our remaining funds, and negotiated terms that let us work with Hybrid Cinema and Big Time PR while preserving money for social media advertising.
2. When we got the offer that we expected, we did something unexpected
Shortly after engaging with Hybrid Cinema, Jon introduced us to a distributor that has specialized in VOD for years, including both digital and cable/satellite platforms. This distributor pitched itself as very filmmaker-friendly, and our independent research with filmmakers that worked with this distributor supported this assertion. The distributor was also candid with us about our film's prospects. Because we have no name actors and our film is not a genre movie, the distributor admitted that cable/satellite providers would likely pass on the film. We appreciated their honesty because we believed the same to be true about our chances with cable/satellite VOD based on our own research.
Soon after our initial call with the distributor, we received their distribution offer. We felt fortunate that a distributor was interested in our film and was willing to extend us an offer. Their offer was also exactly what we expected. This company would distribute our film to digital outlets as well as pitch it to cable/satellite VOD in exchange for a distribution fee to be collected from revenues received from the VOD platforms. We would be responsible for our own encoding costs, plus marketing and publicity. The distributor offered us access to platforms and their expertise based on several years distributing hundreds of films to VOD. We honestly believed would be in good hands with this distributor based on their work and their reputation.
We considered the offer, thanked the distributor, and ultimately turned them down.
Had we received the offer from the VOD distributor a year earlier, we would have taken it, because we didn't see any other avenue to getting our film out on digital platforms like iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
3. A new player in indie film distribution gave us a different option
Had we received the offer from the VOD distributor a year earlier, we would have taken it, because we didn't see any other avenue to getting our film out on digital platforms like iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. Then, in January 2016, our perspectives changed when Quiver emerged from beta. Quiver originally started as a partnership with Sundance to help their festival films find a path to direct distribution in both digital and cable/satellite VOD. Quiver's parent company, Premiere Digital, is one of the top encoders for these platforms for the major studios, and Premiere Digital has direct connections to several digital and cable/satellite VOD platforms.
Now, Quiver offers its services to all indie films. At the time we engaged with Quiver, the company offered to encode a feature film and place it on one of the major digital VOD platforms such as iTunes, Amazon or Google Play for $950. Quiver has recently raised this initial fee to $1,395. Also, when we placed our order with Quiver, the company would place a film on additional digital VOD platforms for $175 per platform. That price has now increased to $225 per additional outlet. Once the film is encoded and the initial fee is paid for the first outlet, a filmmaker can add more outlets including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Vimeo On Demand and Steam for $225 each. All revenues generated from the platforms goes directly back to the film's producers. For example, iTunes, Amazon and Google Play provide a 70/30 revenue split, so filmmakers would receive 70% from every sale and rental on these platforms.
Encoding our film through the distributor's services would have cost us $2,600, and we would have given up 25% of gross revenue to the distributor for the duration of our agreement.
Additionally, Quiver will pitch a film to several additional VOD outlets including Microsoft (Xbox, Surface), Sony Entertainment Network (Playstation), Fandor, Hoopla, and cable/satellite VOD platforms including Comcast Xfinity, DirecTV, Dish, InDemand, Vubiquity, Netflix and Hulu. When we created our order, Quiver charged $100 per pitch, but capped its pitch fees at a maximum of $200 if all pitches were ordered together. Now, Quiver charges $150 per pitch with no cap on pitch fees.
We ran the numbers based on Quiver's original pricing model, and decided to bet on ourselves. We realized that the distributor who originally offered to put our film on VOD handles hundreds of films a year. While we believed we would be in good hands, we weren’t certain our film would receive the full attention that we would dedicate to it ourselves. Encoding our film through the distributor’s services would have cost us $2,600, and we would have given up 25% of gross revenue to the distributor for the duration of our agreement. For almost the exact same amount of money, we could use Quiver to place our film on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play, plus have the funds to put CENTS on several additional pitch platforms should they accept our film. Under Quiver's previous pricing model, we were able to pitch to nine additional platforms for the capped cost of $200, or approximately $22 per platform. We would also keep all of the revenue after the platforms take their split.
Interestingly, had we established our distribution and marketing team much sooner, I believe we would have found a distributor before Quiver came out of beta, but I think the financials and model of working with Quiver based on its original pricing are better for our particular film.
4. Our outreach manager focused on partnerships and social media engagement
With Jessica dedicated to our outreach efforts, she collaborated with Jon to create partnership and sponsorship presentation decks to support both theatrical and community screenings of CENTS prior to our VOD release. Jessica also oversaw extensive research into potential partners, identifying contact information and crafting targeted messages to introduce them to our film and how it connected with their missions. Jon supervised Jessica's work and offered his expertise to guide the process, while Jessica and I stayed in constant communication via email and weekly update calls.
Jessica's work led to strategic partnerships with she++ and National Girls Collaborative Project to spread the word about our film. Jessica also identified organizations in key cities to host theatrical and community screenings of our film, then managed the process to create these screenings through Tugg. In addition to this outreach work, Jessica boosted our social media outreach with daily posts sharing articles that tied into the themes of our film interspersed with photo quotes and short clips from the movie to build awareness across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Big Time created a five-week PR campaign for our film: three weeks prior to release, release week, and one week post-release.
5. Our PR firm promoted our film to press outlets we never could have reached on our own
With a limited marketing budget, we recognized that working with a PR firm would be crucial to our film's success. Not only does Big Time PR have a wealth of experience working with films of a similar size as CENTS that premiere on VOD, they also have built relationships with hundreds of press outlets and blogs, both in the film and entertainment world, and within niche areas affiliated with the subject matter of the films they have represented. With the guidance of Hybrid Cinema, we put together a draft press kit plus key deliverables such as a downloadable trailer and multiple photo sets to provide to Big Time so they could hit the ground running. Big Time also requested exclusive clips that they could pitch to outlets to run on their websites to promote the film beyond the trailer.
Big Time created a five-week PR campaign for our film: three weeks prior to release, release week, and one week post-release. Throughout the campaign, Big Time has coordinated press coverage as well as interview requests. Every week, Big Time provides us with a status report and hosts a weekly conference call for updates and to get our feedback on the PR campaign. They have been tenacious in their efforts to make connections with press outlets that they believe reach our target audiences. Big Time has established connections to press and blogs that we never could have achieved on our own, proving how important a PR campaign with an experienced firm is for a small film like ours.
6. Cable and satellite providers expanded our reach to tens of millions of homes
We believed cable/satellite VOD would be a stretch for our film, but since Quiver's original pitch fees were capped at $200, adding cable and satellite providers to our initial order was essentially free once we exceeded two pitches. Quiver also crafts specific pitches for each film. To support Quiver's pitching efforts, we were able to demonstrate the success of our film and our efforts to build our audience through our $60,000 Kickstarter campaign with almost 650 backers, our growing social media followers, and our five-figure Tugg theatrical roadshow combined with additional revenues from community screenings. We also highlighted our collaboration with Hybrid Cinema on outreach and marketing and Big Time PR for publicity to support the film's release.
We always believed that we we had created a captivating film that focuses on the relationships of middle school girls and a Latina math whiz with strong, honest performances across the board. Still, it surprised is that it would be sold to the major players in cable/satellite VOD, and our outreach and marketing efforts certainly helped. In addition to digital VOD platforms, CENTS will premiere on VOD on Comcast Xfinity, Dish, InDemand (Time Warner, Cox, Bright House) and Vubiquity (Charter Spectrum, Verizon FiOS, Frontier Communications, SuddenLink, and over 130 more cable providers).
7. There's still a lot of work to do to support our film's release
It's a little crazy to think that the release of CENTS on VOD is the culmination of five years of work. We’re fortunate to have Big Time continuing to push our film to media outlets for coverage and reviews. We'll also continue to support the release through targeted social media advertising and outreach through our existing audience networks and partnerships.
Every ending is a new beginning. We look forward to seeing where this new beginning takes our film.
Be sure to check out Part I of this CENTS Distribution Case Study if you missed it. You can also read all twelve posts about the making of CENTS, including why we shot a teaser before making our movie, our arduous yet successful Kickstarter journey, lessons learned and mistakes made on set, the final rewrite in editing, working with a composer, and the art and craft of making a trailer.