Just a few years ago, a premiere at the SXSW Film Festival might be followed with a release that dragged out for a year, following traditional windows — first theatrical, then broadcast, then DVD, and then everyone stopped paying attention. The new possibilities of digital distribution are as exciting as they are daunting; you have to figure out what release windows can work for your film. 

To help, top players in the digital distribution world at SXSW 2016 sat down to share what has worked for other films. The answers were, in a word, varied.

“FilmBuff releases 150 films a year, and pretty much each one has a different strategy,” said Scott Kaplan, SVP of Global Sales and Distribution at FilmBuff. He sat next to to Linzee Troubh (Cinetic), Jason Kwong (Fullscreen), and Flora Pereira (ITVS) on a 2016 SXSW Panel called Demystifying Digital Distribution.

Whether your have a sales agent negotiating on your behalf or are in the trenches of a DIY release, No Film School culled a list of considerations and three examples of successful distribution windows to help you figure it all out. 

CASE 1: New buyers and the "free VOD" release

Codegirl-gallery-4Credit: "Codegirl"

Film: Codegirl

Distributor: FilmBuff             

Release strategy:

  • Window 1: 85 event-based screenings
  • Window 2: Google paid for exclusive licensing window for 5 days of FVOD
  • Window 3: Worldwide Immediately did TVOD release on all platforms
  • Window 4: 21 days on Mashable
  • Window 5: Pivot (TV)
  • Window 6: 30-day blackout window for Pivot to have on TV
  • Window 7: Worldwide Netflix

Takeaway: Since Codegirl is a film about empowering girls in tech, it was able to work with new buyers like Mashable and Google to get the film to their target audience.

CASE 2: New types of TV negotiations

CdnCredit: "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead"

Film: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

Distributor: Cinetic

Release strategy: 

  • Window 1: Theatrical day and date
  • Window 2: One-time airing on History channel (showed edited version); unlimited airings on Showtime
  • Window 3: Magnolia home video, est. transactional (blackout for iTunes, etc. during this time)
  • Window 4: Netflix
  • Window 5: SVOD

Takeaway: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead director's cut was too edgy to show on A&E, where it was initially supposed to air. The windows were negotiated between A&E History Channel and Showtime, which is rare. The reason it worked? Showtime kept the uncut version, and History Channel aired something suitable for general audiences. 

CASE 3: The pre-existing fanbase

Lazer-team-2016-movie-wallpaper-36Credit: "Lazer Team"

Film: Lazer Team

Distributor: Fullscreen/Filmbuff

Release strategy:

  • Window 1: Pre-sales were $1 million
  • Window 2: TUGG release
  • Window 3: Google play, Youtube Red; all rights for a period of time                       
  • Window 4: DVD release
  • Window 5: All other TV VOD and TV sales

Takeaway: Lazer Team came from filmmakers who had huge Youtube followings, so the Google deal was integral in order to get those audiences involved. You need to know which platforms have your audience. 

If you're about to launch a film and you're not sure where to start, here's a list of considerations the panelists offered up to get you thinking about it the right way:

  • Audience

What platforms is your audience on? Can you prove you have an audience ahead of time?

  • Ideal working relationship

Do you want to hand it off or be incredibly involved? Different companies are more collaborative than others.

  • Theatrical distribution

Is that a priority? It’s a loss leader, so do you want money or the big screen?

  • Festival strategy

If you want to sell at a festival, you go to fest that has buyers. In North America, those fests are Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Tribeca, and HotDocs. If don’t get into one of those, what is your strategy?  

  • Platform compatibility

There are all kinds of places to sell your film now. But it's best to choose a partner whose interests align with your material. Well-aligned means it will get more love.

Have you released a film and had success with different windows? How has digital distribution changed your prospects?

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. Listen to our podcasts from SXSW (or subscribe in iTunes):


No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.