You busted your butt to make a damned good film. Now what? If you’re hoping somebody like Magnolia Pictures will swoop in and give you a distribution deal after you send them a DVD, you might be sorely disappointed when they turn you down. If only you had gone to the SXSW Panel After the Wrap: Finding the Right Distribution Partner, maybe things would go differently! Luckily, No Film School attended for you, and below are the three most salient points that might maximize your chances of getting picked up.
This SXSW Panel featured big names in the independent distribution world: Dori Begley of Magnolia Pictures, Arianna Bocco of IFC FIlms, Elizabeth Sheldon of Kino Lorber, and Josh Braun of Submarine. They all know each other and have worked together on the distribution of many films with different strategies. The four noted that the landscape of film has changed: it's flooded with content, and it's harder for audiences to navigate available films. Today, that's a big part of a distributors job. Films they've taken on have had theatrical runs, Day and Date, exclusive pre-theatrical VOD windows, community screenings with TV broadcast, you name it. Depending on the film, the overall philosophy is to find the best way to get the most amount of people to see you film.
To get taken on by a distributor, however, is a competitive business. To increase your chances, take note of the following three distribution deal breakers:
You showed your film to a distributor too early.
Distributors will only watch a film once, so if you send in something that's rough, it will be hard to them to see the potential. Even if someone asks for an early look, and says they are used to seeing rough cuts and can use their imagination, don't do it! While there are exceptions (Blackfish being a "sensational, very commercially viable" film that came early) for the most part, you'll want to wait until you have everything done with the film, and often, after you've premiered so you can leave the best impression and have something to bargain with.
You already sold certain rights.
The panelists unanimously agreed that the more unencumbered a film is when it comes to rights, the more desirable. Dori Begley of Magnolia Pictures encouraged filmmakers to resist the urge to sell off rights to the film before it's done unless you really need the money to finish it. As she put it, "The people, organizations, and distributors will still be there when you are done with the film and ready to go." The panelists pointed out that it’s difficult enough to coordinate windows for TV, cable, iTunes, and so on without having pre-existing agreements for each rights. Seemingly unrelated things like digital and theatrical are inextricable linked, and you can’t decouple them as far as those distributors are concerned.
It seems worth pointing out, however, that if you’re planning on doing your own DIY hybrid distribution, your job will be all about splitting rights. (And it should be noted that many filmmakers have seen nary a penny from a deal where they gave all rights to one distributor.) However, if you want to be considered by a big distributor, or get the best possible deal, you'll want to negotiate all of these rights at the same time after the film is done.
You contacted a distributor unsolicited, without a sales rep or a producers rep.
"I always say, if you don't hire me, hire somebody," said Submarine panelist Josh Braun. The panelists all agreed that you need to hire someone who can navigate this world. The sad truth is that the acquisitions people at distribution companies like Magnolia and IFC Films don't have time to go through the thousands of film submissions that come in unsolicited. They will not look at them. In fact, they generally feel suspicious from the start if the film is at a festival like SXSW, for example, and has neither. Out of sheer necessity, they work almost exclusively with producer's reps and sales reps who they know and trust in order to acquire more content.
Do these ring true to your experience navigating the world of distribution? Are you planning on getting a sales rep or a producer's rep for your next film?