No Distributor? No Problem: How You Can Maximize Your Release via Self-Distribution
Having your film picked up for distribution is never easy. Why not do it yourself?
“Self-distribution is an important conversation to be having, because if no one sees your film, it kind of defeats the purpose of it,” Academy-Award nominated film producer Julie Anderson quipped on a panel at last month's DOC NYC Distribution Boot Camp discussion titled "Secrets of Self-Distribution.” As filmmakers, we hear a lot about the seemingly endless stream of distribution options in the changing marketplace, but perhaps one of the most intriguing options for those with a DIY spirit is that of self-distribution.
Featured on the panel were a diverse line-up of filmmakers sharing personal success stories of how they make this practice work, as well as the potential pitfalls they've encountered along the way. Filmmakers Jonathan Bogarin (306 Hollywood), Jessica Edwards (Design Canada), Gary Hustwit (Helvetica), and Rachel Falcone (Water Warriors) chimed in on the topic, and below are a few of the highlights.
Hustwit may best be known for his design trilogy of films, Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized—all three of which were self-distributed. While he has sold certain rights of his films to companies like Netflix, he has opted not to give away his film rights in exchange for “a tiny percentage of the revenue," as he has been doing "distribution for 30 years in books, music, etc., and I didn't think anyone could reach the audience better than me.”
What does it mean to self-distribute a film? Hustwit offered a case study of a film he has been working on for the last three years (also design-themed), about the designer Dieter Rams. Knowing that his subject had an established audience, he was able to execute a massively successful Kickstarter where he raised $300,000. This allowed Hustwit to continue production and he self-financed the rest of it.
It begs the question: is self-distribution for everyone? Does it pay to do all this extra work?
The film will premiere in September. “I've already had a dozen screening events and I'm doing another 40 events with a kind of one-night special screening: 1,000 people, $25 per head for one night.” Hustwit has spent a great deal of time calling dozens of theaters and juggling dates so that he could pull off this impressive schedule. It’s admirable to imagine a filmmaker, having just pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of making a film going on to market it and get it seen. It begs the question: is self-distribution for everyone? Does it pay to do all this extra work? Is there something to be said for farming it out to others?
“I have no idea how I do this,” shrugs Hustwit, "as on different days I'm thinking I'm doing this the best way [I can] and then I think I'm doing it the worst. Distribution and creation are part of the same thing for me. They're a conversation with the audience in both.” As for what motivates Hustwit to put in this extra labor, he says “some of this is a knee-jerk [reaction] harkening to my roots in punk rock, to not sell out. Don't give up your art to some corporation that is going to do who-knows-what to it.”
But then there’s the practical, business side of things. Hustwit has amassed an impressive catalog of commercially viable feature docs for which he has maintained all the rights. Now, whenever a new platform or technology emerges, he can sell his film there and keep the profits. “If you make a good film,” he says, “there will be an audience for that film. Getting compensated for the work you've done is the most important thing you can do. [Have] enough work out there that it cumulatively makes enough money to sustain you.”
“There are a lot of documentary filmmakers that we love who don't own the rights to their films. I could never consider that.” —Gary Hustwit, Helvetica
Hustwit argues that given the freedom of internet marketing—where filmmakers have all the tools they need at their disposal to sell and market their own films—why bring in a third party who will take a large cut? “There are a lot of documentary filmmakers that we love who don't own the rights to their films. I could never consider that.” It also helps that Hustwit has made several similarly-themed films, each time expanding his design fan-based audiences. Rather than having to start fresh and figure out who will come out to see his films, sticking to a tried-and-true theme helps him build on his previous successes.
Filmmaker Jessica Edwards, who was the producer on Workplace (which Hustwit directed), is also producing a design-themed doc, Design Canada, executive produced by Hustwit. “It's not hard to do self-distribution when you know that you have that audience. This has two things going for it: designers who want to see it, and a story that hasn't been told,” she shared.
They raised $100,000 on Kickstarter for their edit and then put up bookings and tickets for sale. Though they were declined from Hot Docs, they ended up screening it at Hot Docs' theater during (but separate from) the festival to an audience of 600, making $10,000 in the process.
The best part is, Edwards shared, is they didn't end up having to give up the money to the festival. She offered these tips on reaching your audience: “The internet allows you to target that audience really well. Use local chapters of [your subject's] groups.” Look for “whoever is as excited to see this movie as you are.” After the film tours, Edwards will broadcast it via Amazon and iTunes.
Siblings Jonathan and Elan Bogarin’s film, 306 Hollywood, has been described by some as “uncategorizable," while Bogarin describes the film as “a magical realist documentary. The basic idea is that our Grandmother dies and we turn her house into an archaeological site." They looked carefully at the themes the film touches on and potentially interested groups of people to crack the marketing and outreach code. “It was hard to define what the social issue was. It was about death, old age, grief," Bogarin said.
In a unique approach, the filmmakers decided it made sense to have a “call-to-conversation” rather than the more common approach of a social issue doc to prompt a call-to-action.
For their theatrical run, the filmmakers decided to make each screening an event. “In some cases, we'll be having partnerships with end-of-life [groups], Jewish issues, some Latino groups, visual arts and museums, and bring in the audiences related to the different dialogues," Bogarin revealed. In a unique approach, they decided it made sense to have a “call-to-conversation” rather than the more common approach of a social issue doc to prompt a call-to-action. The film will broadcast on POV in January 2019 and the two filmmakers will be major collaborators on the outreach. Following the POV broadcast, the film will stream on Amazon.
Although Water Warriors, a pre-Standing Rock short film by Michael Premo and executive produced by Rachel Falcone, has a more traditional social issue hook, what’s unusual about its rollout is that it's also an exhibition. “The project started as a photo project," Falcone recalled, "as we decided to do a series of exhibitions and a set of pop-up exhibitions that is touring with the project. We raised the money and got interest in it by doing a visual art exhibition first. That helped us test the story and then develop the film and release it in 2017."
The creative team saw the film as an opportunity to understand and show what direct action is. Falcone says they asked themselves, “what does it mean to take action in terms of fossil fuels?” Many docs strive to make a tangible difference in the world, and Water Warriors did just that because they were able to get an injunction from fracking. While going through distribution, they’ve been able to use the film to get in front of lots of different communities.
“If you just want to be out in the field shooting, self-distribution might not be the right choice [for you], and not all films are the same." —Jessica Edwards, Design Canada
A devil’s advocate might argue that if you self-distribute, you are spending so much precious time on getting your film out there that you wouldn’t have time to keep creating new work once the film is released. On the other hand, the time you invest in doing it yourself now, instead of giving away the film’s rights and paying someone else, may mean that down the line there could be a bigger payoff.
It’s all a bit of a gamble and depends on a filmmaker’s strengths and priorities. Not everyone has the pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit that these panelists do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s helpful to know yourself as an artist and businessperson to determine which approach works best for you. “If you just want to be out in the field shooting, self-distribution might not be the right choice [for you], and not all films are the same,” says Edwards.
"You make films because you're passionate about it. You know who the audience is. If you take a deal and sell your rights, it's like giving your newborn away.”—Jessica Edwards, Design Canada
One important consideration Hustwit raises is that it can be vital to have a variety of plans (and backup plans) in place for your film’s distribution since there are so many unknown factors that are out of a filmmaker's hands. He says, “it's not a Plan B to self-release the film; It's Plan A. If something comes up that's phenomenally better, then we'll think about it.” This approach ensures that no matter what, Hustwit succeeds on his own terms, and won’t be let down by other’s decisions about where it should screen and how much it's worth. According to Edwards, “you make films because you're passionate about it. You know who the audience is. If you take a deal and sell your rights, it's like giving your newborn away.”
Julie Anderson brought up an evergreen question that documentary filmmakers get asked, and which they frequently ask themselves: “We need to talk about sustainable careers. How do you keep a pipeline going while you're doing everything?”
Bogarin responded, “one thing is seeing the film now, but we want the goals to be about how we get more jobs from more clients to pay us money and also to get funders and investors to give us money into the future. We made a company to help with the funding for 306 Hollywood because no one would fund us. How do you be an artist, but also an entrepreneur?”
Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean having to do everything yourself. On the contrary, it can mean making smart business decisions about whom to hire when. The Bogarins are working with a theatrical booker and an impact producer, who they are paying through grants. They know they would rather be making creative decisions rather than spending all their time booking screenings, so this decision made sense to them. “I want to do the part that I can do that is unique,” Bogarin said.
“There's a symbiosis: you get an audience and they get a tool for education.” —Jonathan Bogarin, 306 Hollywood
Falcone’s team (of two) formed a non-profit from which about 60% of their work is commissioned. They also brought on a part-time impact producer to manage the film festival process and the community screenings. They are doing their own educational distribution with New Day Films in order to keep more of the proceeds. Now five months into selling the film, they are bringing in revenue and speaking engagements that are helping support their next project. With a long view, they’re asking, “What's the path of revenue over many years that will come in through the film?”
When seeking organizational partners with whom to screen your film, Bogarin says “the most basic ask of a partner is ‘would you like to co-sponsor or co-host a screening?' It's a cultural and conversational relationship rather than a financial one, he says. “There's a symbiosis: you get an audience and they get a tool for education.”
“If I can double our $500,000 budget in what I make, then I'm happy." —Gary Hustwit, Helvetica
As for festivals, Hustwit only will consider one if it fits the timing he needs for his project. “If it doesn't get into the festival, I'm still booking the screenings. I love festivals for networking and seeing other work and getting some industry awareness, but I'm not banking on getting a distributor there.”
Edwards points out that festivals could do a better job of paying filmmakers to attend. “Going to SXSW cost us $20,000.” So, depending on what you need in terms of your career, sometimes tapping into partnerships can be more fruitful. Like any opportunity, filmmakers should weigh the costs of time and money to what they stand to get from the experience of attending.
In closing, Hustwit offered an example of what’s he would consider a successful self-distributed film, at least in terms of revenue. “If I can double our $500,000 budget in what I make, then I'm happy," Hustwit admitted, "I want to pay for the movie I just made and have enough to start making the next one.”