February 27, 2015

3 Ways to Maximize Your Hybrid Distribution Plans & Attract a Distributor in the Process

Does your “Plan A” for distribution consist of having someone buy your film and distribute it, while “Plan B” is what you do if that doesn’t happen?

In today’s distribution landscape, it's possible that you can get your film further using your own plan, and in the process, attract a distributor with a strategy suited to your film to help you the rest of the way.

At the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival last week, industry professionals came to the largest documentary festival in the West to be a part of this year's 5-day DocShop centered on distribution. In the film distribution panel with Brian Newman (Sub-Genre), Alex Dobrenko (Tugg), and Paige Williams (The Audience Awards), moderated by Deny Staggs (Montana Film Commission), the consensus was that "Plan A" should always be what you know can do for your film. If a distributor approaches you, then you can see if their "Plan B" is as good as yours. Below are three avenues that filmmakers can explore on their own to maximize the reach of their hybrid distribution strategy.

'DamNation' Director Ben Knight

Consider Branded Content

You mean, having my main character sip from an extra-obvious bottle of refreshing YumYum Root Beer? Not necessarily! The world of brands is a big world, and today companies are looking for media that allows them to provide content to their consumer base. That might be a perfect match if your film is looking to reach that same audience.

According to Brian Newman of Sub-Genre, today nearly every brand under the sun wants to make movies. Newman works with numerous brands like Patagonia, which has both commissioned feature films and used their stores for grassroots distribution with dam-busting doc DamNationThey also look for short form content to release directly.

Another example is content that Red Bull releases to their base like South African surf-doc Bending Colours. Neither company are looking to use your film as a commercial. “For brands, it’s about getting invited to the party instead of crashing it,” says Alex Dobrenko of Tugg. If you’re interested in this approach, you can start by looking for brands that are interested in the space you and your film are in. Many brands accept submissions of content, and those that don’t have an obvious process can usually be reached through the agencies that rep them. The most important thing to keep in mind If you go this route? Choose a brand that has a product with actual value, and just make sure you have final cut. “You’re either working with a live capitalist or a dead capitalist,” says Newman. “If you get a grant from the Ford Foundation, that’s just a dead capitalist.”

Still from 'Touch the Wall'

Don’t Rule Out Non-Traditional Theatrical

Many filmmakers dream of seeing their film on the big screen, but because traditional theatrical releases for independent films lose money, they stay a pipe dream. However, that doesn’t have to be the case if you consider a non-traditional theatrical run using alternative venues and one-night screenings through platforms like Tugg. In fact, having that kind of theatrical tour might make all the difference for the success of your online release. “It’s really noisy out there,” says Tugg’s Dobrenko about the online world of content. “What’s valuable about theatrical is the ability to break through the noise.”

Screening in theaters can build your fanbase and get you press and reviews -- something people would much rather read than an advertizement about your film on an online platform. In the case of a Tugg tour, where you only screen when enough tickets have been bought ahead of time, you’re not set up to lose money the way traditional theatrical runs usually do. Take for example, Touch the Wall a film about superstar swimmers that tapped into swim teams across the country for their Tugg tour and ended up doing 300 sold out screenings. (And for short filmmakers, while platforms like Tugg don’t book shorts on their own, you can pair up with other shorts to have a 90-minute slot.)

On top of the audience building and revenue, crowdfunding audiences show that people want to see your film, which can often be a good bargaining chip with a distributor. If you want to get started on a non-traditional theatrical tour, make sure you do your social media homework first. Dobrenko suggests films that have had successful Kickstarter campaigns and an email list of around 1,000 people to start will make for a much stronger campaign. 

Tap In To the Educational Market

Not all films have an educational angle, but many do, whether it’s a humanities study or a more topical issue. The educational model consists of educational institutions (namely, a university librarian) paying a licensing fee of, say $350 to be able to show your film in classrooms. “You send out a certain amount of DVDs. I always find the more it gets out there, the more we sell,” says Paige Williams, filmmaker and founder of The Audience Awards. “Some films are evergreen. They continue to get booked over the years, and shouldn’t get stuck in some [distributors] back catalog.”

Keep in mind that films, or versions of films, shorter than 50 minutes are usually more successful as an educational title as they can fit it one class period. On top of a licensing fee, Universities are often looking to pay money to have filmmakers come with their film to an estimated tune of $3K. If you’re clever enough to put together a programming schedule around an important day for your film, like Earth Day or World AIDS Day, and with a lead time to prepare for it of 3-4 months, you could have the above and dozens upon dozens of screenings in one day via the educational route.

What do you think about these distribution avenues? Have you tried handling these for a hybrid distribution strategy?     

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