March 15, 2014

3 Reasons a Distributor Will Pass on Your Film

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?

Link: After the Wrap: Finding the Right Distribution Partner -- SXSW

Your Comment

24 Comments

I think all of this is true except the last point about Producer Reps and Sales Reps. They are not a necessity and a large section of them do not have the film-makers interests at heart. They will often shotgun the film to as many distributors without taking the time to approach each properly and "sell" the film well, as they have a long list of films that they have taken on to approach distributors with. They are essentially middle men so of course the panel will say you NEED them, they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they said otherwise. If you are lucky enough to know a GOOD producer rep or sales rep, that is great. But to generalise and say you need one isn't good advice and you may be wasting your money.

If you do it properly, you have just as much of a chance approaching distributors directly than through a Rep.

March 15, 2014 at 3:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Matt

How do you properly approach a distributor as an individual filmmaker?

March 15, 2014 at 3:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Mikey

The same way the sales rep would. Have a good professional press kit, with reviews and testimonials, good sellable cover art etc. Ring them up and/or get someone you know who knows them to name drop the film and recommend they check it out when it arrives. Write a good cover letter addressed to a named person in the acquisitions department, so when it appears in the post they link it to the phone call and are more likely to watch 5 mins of the film.

It's not rocket science, and it's no more than what a sales rep will do.
Acquisitions have no allegiance to sales reps, and you have no guarantee a sales rep has a good rapport with any company as this is all you would be paying for. The sales rep may say they have done business a company in the past, but what guarantee do you have of this, or that it was even successful?

You could argue, you don't know who to contact and a sales rep will, but there are plenty of lists of domestic and foreign distribution firms that are easily available if you pull your finger out.

March 16, 2014 at 5:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Matt

I have to say as a distributor that I'm in agreement with Matt! I love the reps we work with and they do curate some great stuff our way, but there are plenty of gems that bypassed that level of engagement and came straight to us when they heard about us. Yes, we have a huge pile of films to watch every week, but when you come to us directly, with a good package that's well prepared, a solid film that's tight on production and story, and a bit of solid preparation for the distribution phase of your movie, we're more than happy to hear from you. I like working directly with filmmakers and that kind of hire may not be a necessary expense/percentage cut, depending on your overall goal for your film.

If you have no idea what you are doing along those lines, either invest heavily in educating yourself, or yes, hire a sales agent or rep. Do it. And if you're not good at reading legal language and feel you want an advocate for you as you negotiate a deal, your rep will be a great person to have in your corner. But filmmakers can also educate themselves quickly and yes, find distribution without one. It's not #1 in this distributor's book.

July 9, 2014 at 12:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Producer and sales reps are valuable people in an arsenal. I understand "the can do everything mentality" but at some point we have to let our baby go and trust others with it. As far as "not have the film-makers interests at heart", we all work for a paycheck and you should take that into consideration. Structure the contract so that they make money by selling your film not by taking you on as a client. They may not see the genius in your film but if they think they can make money on it then that's their motivation.

March 15, 2014 at 4:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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David F

With sales reps, I agree about making then work for their money, but I don't think many sales reps would agree to a contract like that unless they really believed in your film, especially as they know there are plenty of other film makers who will pay them to rep their film without payment being based on success. It's true people work for a pay check, but equally people don't work for free.

As for producer reps, I would never pay them. If they want to take on the film based for payment, only if it did well, then go for it. As they are probably a good one.

March 16, 2014 at 6:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Matt

Producer's Reps, for the most part, are shysters, looking to line their pockets with a good chunk of a filmmaker's distribution deal. They promise to get films into fests but they don't. They promise meetings with distributors which never materialize. I've had 4 of Reps in a 10 year period for 3 of my films and two of them were considered the top of the food chain. They all did the same thing. They drool over your indie masterpiece and then end up lumping your film in a package deal with other filmmaker's they represent and then try to shove all these films down the throats of acquisition/distributors, instead of trying to sell each film as a unique piece of cinema. I ended up getting into more tests and, yes, even, finding two distributors for my films. on my own. It's a shame the people on the SWSX panel, as well as, most of the indie film industry, are still playing that pretentious "no unsolicited material accepted" crap. If a film is worth acquiring, then acquire it, Who care's who mailed it in? It's your frikkin' job to watch films and acquire them. Watch 5 minutes and if the film grabs you, acquire it. If it doesn't, toss the screener in the trash.

March 15, 2014 at 4:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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John Wong

I agree but it's a shame they have this ego in the industry and most distributors aren't as passionate about films as the maker. They are looking at it as a business and if there's no major actor, producer, director or co-sign then they probably won't even look at it due to just getting so many submissions. If I was in that position i'd dedicate my time to watching 5 minutes of a film or skipping around as that's my job...to find films that will be profitable and that will garner a large audience.

March 17, 2014 at 9:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Brad Watts

I agree with some of the above. Sales agents can be a pain and roll costs of finding distribs for their other films in with yours. Seperating out expenses from the other films on the sales agents slate is difficult which is why a lawyer who is en experienced media lawyer is a must when agreeing a deal with a sales agent. However sales agents can also be great at pre-selling territories (very hard these days) or just packaging the film. If they have a good rep with a bank then it can sometimes help your domino contracts to start to fall into place, especially if you are co-producing internationally. Otherwise if your a small indy you don't need them really. A lawyer is enough and gives very good value for money if you find the right one.

March 15, 2014 at 5:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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JPS

Are the sales reps really needed for VOD? Just asking,

March 15, 2014 at 5:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

1. It's not commercial
2. It will not make big money
3. It's not commercial and we can't earn big money.

March 15, 2014 at 5:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Hampus

Certainly some truth to this list, too!

March 21, 2014 at 2:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Shooter/Editor

I directed a feature film that we could not find a good distribution deal for. Then we hired a producer rep and they inked us a deal with Showtime TV in a matter of weeks. So in my experience this article/panel is right on.

March 15, 2014 at 7:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Increasingly, the "Right Distribution Partner" is no partner, or a series of partners each under the supervision of the film's producers. While there are certainly some standout exceptions, so many distributors underperform for the independent producers they work with that the producers would be better off financially doing much of this work themselves, even if it meant missing out on certain windows and possibilities.

It's time for independent producers to start thinking like producer-distributors. http://douglashorn.com/wordpress/filmmaking/the-age-of-the-independent-f...

March 15, 2014 at 8:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Hey Douglas,

I really enjoyed your article! A lot of really great points and a much needed shift away from the negative connotation/mentality of self-distribution.

I'd add that your plans/strategies for distribution should rely as much on your creativity and ingenuity as the film itself had to in order to get well-made in the first place.

March 16, 2014 at 7:35AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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George

Absolutely, George. By understanding that you'll likely take on the producer-distributor role from the start, you have more time to wrap your mind around how to creatively market your film and plan for that as you are in production and post. I think it's a fundamental shift from the idea of thinking that a distributor will just take that burden off your hands when you're done.

VOD is a big portion of this puzzle. I've updated my look at VOD platforms for 2014 including IndieReign, Vimeo On Demand, VHX, Reelhouse and more.

http://douglashorn.com/wordpress/distribution/vod-platforms-for-independ...

March 17, 2014 at 1:15AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I've self distributed 2 of my films, and I have to say, Reelhouse.org is a really great platform. I went throough 2 failed platforms both went out of business (chill, and dynamo player). I hope Reelhouse sticks around.

July 9, 2014 at 7:37AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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This Producers Rep question is always the hardest to answer, since there are so many variables and so many different experiences that people have had. Sure, if you can get Submarine to rep your film, then the decision is easy. Or if you're in Sundance, Toronto or perhaps SXSW, then you will likely have reps coming to you and having a rep at a major film festival is advisable. The question is much murkier when your film doesn't get into a major festival. When that happens, Submarine, Cinetic, the agencies, etc. are probably not going to rep your film and you're left choosing from a list of companies that likely will charge you for their repping services. I've heard one well-known company charging as much as $8500 to rep films. And these films by definition are tougher sells than a film that got into Sundance. Still, in that world, I've heard people who were happy with their rep and people who thought they were worthless. As for the idea that none of these distribution companies will even look at your film without a rep, well, that's bullshit. I sold my film directly to Kino Lorber myself, and they were one of the people on the panel claiming it wasn't possible.

Unfortunately, with all of this, all of the advice you get or hear about distribution, the only sure answer is, "it depends." Every film is different; every filmmaker and their access to gatekeepers is different; every company is different; and their situations change throughout the year. It's really hard to find correct one-size-fits-all advice regarding getting your film out to an audience.

March 17, 2014 at 8:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Really great insight, thanks for sharing. Like you said, if you're premiering at SXSW, a rep like Submarine is much more likely to approach you to begin with. If you can't get a good rep who isn't going to charge you and arm and a leg, then a different approach can still work out great for you. (And you getting through to Kino Lorber is a solid real life fact.) I feel like the one thing I should qualify with my article is that these panelists represent and address a very specific world of distribution -- where you premiere at a top tier fest and want a big name distributor to handle your rights. Not a reality for most of us, and doesn't mean you can be successful going a different route either!

March 21, 2014 at 2:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Shooter/Editor

Totally agree - Producer reps, agents and well-known distributors all sound great, but (in our experience so far) not attainable for most first-time directors / producers unless you premiere at a top tier festival. For the middle tier festivals and films we have not had good luck getting to agencies like Submarine on our own.

July 10, 2014 at 10:40AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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had to say a problem w sales agents is that they take ridiculous percentages for indie films. 20-25% commissions and then another 20-30k for "marketing"

The problem is that most low budget films (under 100k) will probably barely make that 100k back. Of the first 100k back, which is probably all you will make if lucky the sales rep will take 50-60k leaving you with 40k. It's pretty hard to make a film for 40k (break-even) so good chance you lose your money. if your film costs more than 100k to make (including post, travel, marketing, output) you are pretty screwed.

if you spend 100k to make a film you need to make aprrox 150k in sales to break even. this is pretty challenging to do. most indies will be sold to VOD with no money up front or some distributor will give you a 30-50k mg and then you never get another dime.

cost to make film 100k
film makes VOD sales 100k
sales takes 60k
Distib gets 25k
you get 150k
you lose 85k!

March 20, 2014 at 2:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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ml

You're suggesting yet another layer of margin takers?

Let me get this right... Exhibitor, Sales Agent, Distributor and now special reps to even go see distributors?
We're already down to less than 3 cents in the dollar on a hit for an independent. Show me how the margin can bleed any further.

March 21, 2014 at 6:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Make your own rules up, You can. at the moment.. #justdoit

July 11, 2014 at 3:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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For small independents the best new solution to accessing the least encumbered revenue stream is to deal direct with VOD platforms like FlixHouse, Screenzone etc. In essence Producers now get to split audience grosses (each viewers dollar) directly, without layers of middlemen. So your return on investment now has the capability to be at maximum efficiency. Now the imperative is to work with the VOD platform to maximize audience awareness and views. Get an audience to find your film. Then the audience will decide how many of them want to watch it, and how much money you will make. The quality of your film will determine your reward...Isn't that all a filmmaker can ask for?

August 7, 2014 at 1:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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