Making a film is no longer the problem, it's distributing one.
You've got the script. You've raised the money. You've shot the film. You've got the final cut in your hand. Now what? Get it in front of eyeballs. Distributing and marketing a film can be complicated, frustrating, and expensive, but indie filmmakers must know that the traditional ways of getting your film out to its audience aren't the only ways -- nor are they necessarily the best ways. Here's how the filmmakers of the $6,000 indie film Layover decided to forgo the coveted distribution deal in favor of taking control of their own project.
This is a guest post by Joshua Caldwell.
Here’s the thing about making a film for $6,000 -- we only have to pay back $6,000. It’s something, but it’s certainly not a $100,000 or $500,000 bill hanging over our head. That’s a debt you need to repay if you want to keep your investors around. With only $6,000 to pay back though, my producer Travis Oberlander and I could afford to experiment. So we decided to try out alternative distribution aka self-distribution aka direct-distribution.
(Quick Note: We don’t like the term “self-distribution.” It still carries a negative connotation, and it doesn’t fully explain what it is. We prefer the term “direct distribution,” from the filmmaker to the customer, cutting out the middleman.)
Thankfully, this is not a new idea. There are many who have come before and distributed their films directly with amazing success. They’ve left amazing, insightful, in-depth accounts of their experiences that we learned a lot from. Here’s what we learned:
Forget About Tradition
Traditional distribution is not the only option. You have many options that put the power, the data and the money in your hands and not someone else’s. Traditional distribution has its place, but unless you can guarantee that your release will be supported and not just dumped, you probably should consider another way.
Back in May, following the World Premiere of my feature film debut LAYOVER, I wrote about how we made the film for $6,000. Following the festival, we had some interest from a couple of different VOD distributors which felt like a decent response considering it’s a French language film shot in a shoestring budget with no “stars” in it. Honestly, we were excited that anyone was interested in distributing our little film.
We were trading money and data for “exposure” and the “distributed” tag. It’s so baked in and a part of the traditional model, that even my manager wondered if taking the less than great deal was worth it to say “we got distribution” on what is a very small film.
However, as we started exploring the deals and getting advice from other people who had taken them -- it didn’t seem so great. Essentially they would own our film for years, spend zero dollars to promote it, dump it onto all the platforms and pray for a sale. This all might be par for the course as far as distribution goes, and that’s fine, but it made Travis and myself ask, “Why would we ever take this deal?”
We'd be the ones responsible for marketing and promoting the film, so what were we paying 20% for? And what was this mysterious “up to $9,000” fee paying for? And even it were to pay for “marketing,” as it claimed, why such a long term? PLUS if we secured DVD distribution, the company would get a cut of that even if they did nothing to secure it.
Suddenly, the idea of a distribution deal just so we could say, “We got distribution,” didn’t seem worth it. As Emily Best, CEO of Seed&Spark likes to say, “Filmmakers need to move beyond the exposure economy.” And that’s exactly what this felt like. We were trading money and data for “exposure” and the “distributed” tag. It’s so baked in and a part of the traditional model, that even my manager wondered if taking the less than great deal was worth it to say “we got distribution” on what is a very small film.
First, Choose Your Initial Platform
Travis took on all things distribution. After considering several direct distribution platforms for our initial release, he chose Gumroad for downloads and Vimeo On Demand for our streaming-rental. We chose Gumroad because it offered us all of the features we were looking for, provided a seamless customer experience from our website, and had the smallest fees.
While many of you might be more familiar with VHX, for example, we’ve found that the brand of your platform is still somewhat irrelevant. They are simply back end systems. They provide the means of hosting your film, e-commerce transactions, data, but they don’t promote your film or host a library. They exist for you to sell in the way that best suits you: on your own website, designed however you like.
Vimeo On Demand is a little different. They do host a library of films on their platform and they do promote via their homepage through Staff Picks and Recommendations. We felt they would be an ideal streaming/rental platform for precisely that reason. You can also download the film at Vimeo On Demand because, well, why limit ourselves?
Then, Expand to Others
To get your film on iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Roku, Netflix and other more common distribution platforms, you need to either go through a distributor or pay an aggregator service to do the same thing. Effectively, you’re paying for it either way. With version one you trade future revenue for the hope that it will come back to you. With version two you can start selling directly on your own site, wait to see how well the film is doing and then re-invest the profits from your first window sales into expanding onto another platforms via a one-time fee.
The Big D: Data
The other massive benefit you get from direct distribution is the Holy Grail of today’s business: data. You know what your conversion rate is (people who look vs. people who buy), you know what part of the world they live in, and you know which site sent them to your film and more.
Not only do you know that, you own that data and as a filmmaker, you can use it to discover whom your audience is. This is very powerful because if you know and understand your audience, you begin to create a relationship with them and it makes you accountable.
Emily Best speaks often about the importance of the “filmmaker entrepreneur” in today’s industry. But how can you be an entrepreneur and build a business without an understanding of the people you’re creating products for? One way is through data. It’s not the only way, but even when we foray into traditional distribution for our films, we will do so knowing our audience and what they expect from us as filmmakers.
If you find yourself staring down at a bad deal and wondering whether this is your only option, it isn’t.
Promote, Promote, Promote
However, none of the above really matters without promotion. Ideally, that’s what you get out of a distributor with the traditional approach -- they’ll spend money to get the audience. But with smaller films on a VOD platform, that’s not always a guarantee. However, you can just dump the film on your own site and tweet out about it constantly. It’s always the thing we never budget for -- never think about; we’re just trying to get the movie made! However, if you can be thinking about promotion and marketing before you’ve shot anything, you stand a better chance of success.
And if you’re able to carve out a budget for it, marketing is where it’s worth spending some money to secure press, reviews or articles about your film. Or you spend it on targeted Facebook campaigns. Either way, it may cost you a little something up front, but it can be well worth it in terms of the return. We found an awesome partner in Chandler Poling at White Bear PR to handle our PR needs and got access to promotional opportunities we never would have gotten otherwise.
Direct distribution certainly isn’t the easiest road. It’s far less work to just hand your film off to someone else and let them take care of it. However, in doing so, you’re also handing off your audience. Sometimes, that makes sense and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it's not the only way. If you find yourself staring down at a bad deal and wondering whether this is your only option, it isn’t. The landscape of film distribution is changing every day and there are plenty of innovative and unique opportunities to make you and your film a success.
Joshua’s debut feature film LAYOVER is now available on VOD. Click this link (or coupon code NOFILMSCHOOL) to receive $1 off the DIY Filmmaker Bundle, which includes commentary, interviews, Anatomy of a Scene Clips and the production draft of the film.
Joshua Caldwell is an MTV Movie Award-winning director, writer, and producer. He has worked with a number of high-profile producers, including CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker. His award-winning short film Dig, starring Mark Margolis of Breaking Bad, was featured in numerous film festivals and his Superman fan fiction short film Resignation screened at Comic-Con 2014. LAYOVER had its World Premiere at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival where it was nominated for the prestigious FIPRESCI New American Cinema Award. Follow Joshua on Twitter.