July 2, 2018
DOC NYC

How to Find the Right Distribution Path for Your Documentary

Theatrical? TV? Digital? Each distribution outlet involves its own factors to consider.

At last month's DOCNYC’s Distribution Boot Camp’s featured panel at the IFC Center, “Making the Most of Theatrical, TV, and Digital,” we heard from panelists Richard Abramowitz (Abramorama), Justine Nagan (POV), and Jake Hanly (Gunpowder & Sky), each providing helpful tips on how to maximize the potential of your documentary’s distribution windows.

Before signing on with a distribution company, it makes sense to clarify your goals for your particular project. Below are a few questions to consider.

1. Financial

How important is it to make money from your project? Do you have investors to pay back or are you hoping to recoup your savings?

2. Audience

Do you want your film to be seen by the widest, broadest possible audience, or are there smaller, niche audiences you're hoping to reach?

3. Impact

What kind of difference in the world should your film make? Which communities do you want to impact or start conversations with?

4. Career

Do you feel you need to premiere at a prestigious festival, winning awards that will help launch your professional career and maintain a certain standard it will become known for?

5. Timing

Are you ready to quickly move on to other projects, wishing to "wash your hands clean" and get to work on something new?

Once you have determined the answers to these questions, you will be in a better position to choose partners who are aligned with your vision. Richard Abramowitz advises filmmakers to “look for a distributor that has done things similar to what you want to accomplish. And ask around: most filmmakers will talk to you about their experience with those distributors and see what they experienced. If [the distributor is] not doing the job you wanted, you didn't ask the right questions ahead of time.”

For example, Abramovitz says that his company, Abramorama, focuses mostly on docs that are about music, mind/body/spirit, or social issues. Essentially, they are seeking films that have an inherent, built-in audience, and these genres often do. “We describe our films as tribal," Abramovitz admits, "because there's an audience that you know you can get and where.”

Currently, Abramorama is releasing The Public Image Is Rotten a doc about John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) and the history of his band, Public Image Limited. They recently opened the film in London (timed to the band's tour) and had Lydon there for Q&As each night. When a band is nightly playing to 25,000 fans and you plug the film with a trailer or a mention, attests Abramovitz, it’s hard to beat that captive audience. With music-themed docs, maximizing the audience is a priority, whereas, with a “social issue film, the standard of success is the exposure, not the box office. If you can get people talking about the issue [with ] editorials and coverage, that's more important,” he says.

"We have boilerplate contracts, but we will try to be as flexible as we can so that the filmmaker can maximize their rights.”​ —Justine Nagan, POV

According to Nagan, POV typically acquires a film’s TV rights for four years and the streaming window is 120 days in the aggregate. “For public media, it's important for us to get streaming days, even though a lot of people still don't get high-speed internet.” They like to work closely with filmmakers and are flexible based on what’s important to them and what other offers are on the table.

“POV has been around for 31 years," Nagan revealed, "and it was one of the only options out there for a long time. [We] think about who are we serving and what is the role of documentary in public media and how do we make the films accessible for all…We have boilerplate contracts, but we will try to be as flexible as we can so that the filmmaker can maximize their rights.”

Ted Braun's 'Betting on Zero,' courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.

Jake Hanly offered a case study for Gunpowder & Sky's release, Betting on Zero, and shared what worked for with that particular documentary. First, they acquired the film at Tribeca. “We knew that financial intrigue documentaries tend to do fairly well in the documentary space and there's an ... audience for it," Hanly said. 

Then, to further build that audience, they screened the documentary in about 20 cities around the country, closely aligned with the VOD release. It was on iTunes, Amazon, and Googleplay, etc., and they did a fair amount of marketing leading up to the release. 

“John Oliver did a long segment on Herbalife and mentioned the film by name." —Jake Hanly, Gunpowder & Sky​

Their strategy was two-pronged. To focus on the film’s business themes, they set up screenings in locations where there would be interest in that topic, including the US Congress, Morgan Stanley, and Harvard Business School. On the social issue side, they aligned with the Latin American community in an awareness campaign, as the film shows how Herbalife aggressively marketed to those communities. Perhaps the greatest boost they got was just before the VOD release. “John Oliver did a long segment on Herbalife and mentioned the film by name,” shared Hanly. As a result, they got “hundreds of thousands of views right before the release.” 

“We were one of the top five docs in the year as far as revenue on iTunes." —Jake Hanly, Gunpowder & Sky

While the theatrical release grosses were modest, they used that segment as a component of the awareness-building and marketing for the VOD window, where it did well. “We were one of the top five docs in the year as far as revenue on iTunes. After that, it went to Netflix for two to three years and we did some small territories for theatrical beyond that. It was great to get the film out internationally because Herbalife is international,” said Hanly, "and we like to keep our hand in the international marketplace.”

With so many options available in the ever-changing documentary film marketplace, it’s important to note that each film’s path is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all advice to be given. Rather, filmmakers should take the time to carefully consider what is important to them (see the questions above) for their film’s release and research which partners are most aligned with their missions.     

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