So You Didn’t Get Into Sundance… 6 Things You Need to Know About Distributing Your Indie Film
You made a movie. Now what?
In advance of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Sundance Institute asked independent film distributors what they’re looking for in a film. Compiled by Liz Manashil, filmmaker and Manager Creative Distribution Initiative, Sundance Institute and producer Rebecca Green, it’s an essential resource intended to demystify film distribution for filmmakers. It's also a sobering look at the current indie film distribution marketplace and the obstacles it takes to break in.
Most indie distributors said they don't consider cold submissions and instead, rely primarily on A-list festivals and other established industry gatekeepers for curation...which means if your film didn’t get into a top festival like Sundance, it’s going to be that much more challenging to find distribution. So what’s a filmmaker who hasn’t broken into the top tier festivals and doesn't have an insider connection supposed to do?
No Film School reached out to filmmakers, distributors and distribution consultants to get their take on what filmmakers should know about film distribution. Below are the key takeaways:
1. Making a good film isn’t enough.
Congrats! You made a good film. Sorry to say, that isn’t enough. “Of course, we want good films, but we are looking for a combination of elements that make it really stand out and give it a clear path to market,” said Richard Lorber, president and CEO of Kino Lorber. "Having a film selected by a prestige festival gives a film an obvious path to market, said Lorber. “We are open to independent filmmakers, but we don’t have the resources or inclination to have a wide open door. We need some curatorial engagement before we can really pay attention. That’s part of the role of festivals, sales agents, marketing professionals and entertainment attorneys.” That said, sometimes films off the beaten track find their way to audiences.
For example, Kino Lorber picked up North American rights to the documentary The Last Resort, directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch following its world premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. After a New York theatrical run where it garnered favorable reviews, the film about Jewish retirees in 1970s-era Miami Beach is set to screen in Florida on February 15 and in Los Angeles on March 1.
Lorber’s advice to filmmakers: "Organize a value proposition that makes it meaningful to a distributor. Just to say ‘it’s a good film’ is almost a meaningless description at this point. It’s totally subjective. If it's an advocacy documentary, is there a core audience or organizational value that will bring people out who will, in effect, vote their politics by buying a movie ticket? With a narrative film, there should be some approach to genre that makes it stand out stylistically. How is it unique?"
2. Determine your goals.
Before you set out to make your film, decide what your distribution goals are. “It’s really important to think about who you’re making the movie for and familiarize yourself with the marketplace,” said Deutchman. “Do you care how your film is seen? On the big screen or at home? Socially or in isolation? Do you want a small, rabid group of people to see and love it or would you rather reach as many people as possible regardless of whether or not they appreciate it? Do you want to persuade a group of people to change their minds about an issue, or preach to your choir? Any and all of these are worthy goals in my view. It’s just important to decide upfront what’s important to you and then align your collaborators (and budget) accordingly.
Creative distribution strategist Mia Bruno said filmmakers should ask ‘what are the goals and what do we want to accomplish?” For most filmmakers, she said “the goals are to reach as wide an audience as possible, to pay back investors and to be in the position of making another film. When you're working with a distributor, said Bruno, the goal is going to be money for the most part, but some want prestige or an awards campaign or visibility. When it comes to making those decisions, it's important that filmmakers have a holistic view and what are the sacrifices you're willing to make. If you want visibility, that may stand in the way of making money."
3. It’s never too early to start thinking about your distribution strategy.
Of course, you want to make the best film you can make. But that doesn’t preclude your thinking about a distribution strategy during pre-production. “Filmmakers should be considering festival and distribution strategy before they shoot,” said filmmaker and distribution strategist Jon Reiss, author of several books on the topic of distribution and marketing. “What kind of film are you making? If you’re going and creating without any sense of the marketplace, be sure to keep your budget reasonable,” Reiss advised.
There are other steps filmmakers can take in pre-production that could benefit them when it’s time to seek distribution. “What can you do to enhance the marketability of your film? Maybe find someone with a social media following and put them in your film,” said Reiss. During production, in addition to hiring a photographer to take set photos, you might consider additional original content that will help with marketing.
Building a following on social media or garnering support on a crowdfunding site can help to generate buzz around a film before and/or during production. "We had a successful crowdfunding campaign through Seed&Spark. This helped to build an audience early and incited our social media presence, which we’ve kept up with through the entire life of our project,” said Lara Gallagher, director of Clementine, which is about to hit the festival circuit. By participating in a number of industry labs and workshops sponsored by respected independent organizations such as IFP and Film Independent, Clementine was able to elevate its profile, though it's too early to say whether the strategy has paid off.
Orly Ravid, founder and co-executive director of The Film Collaborative, the nonprofit distributor, advises filmmakers to research the market and develop a plan early in the process. “Know what movies like yours have been doing in the market for the last five years and have a plan that you put in place before you start shooting,” said Ravid. “Distribution is work and time and planning and some money and it’s not going to be done for you. You don’t have a God-given right to make a movie and have it distributed, so be prepared for that not to happen and have a game plan.”
The misconception is that it’s a success when a film ‘gets’ distribution.
4. Distribution is the easy part. Finding an audience is the hard part.
“I think that one of the biggest misconceptions filmmakers have about distribution is that just by putting a film out to the world, it will find an audience,” said Ravid. “The reasons that distributors are looking for a name – as talent or as an executive producer or a name festival is that the name is recognized and comes with marketing capital. Without that, you have a really hard time getting people to pay attention.”
Manashil said that she hears from a lot of filmmakers who are worried about getting distribution, but “distribution is easy, marketing is hard…The misconception is that it’s a success when a film ‘gets’ distribution. There are TONS of distributors out there that are interested in passive income. What we want is for filmmakers to get excited about getting great distribution, to know what questions to ask and to be involved in the marketing of their product.”
Veteran distribution executive Jeff Deutchman, who heads up acquisitions for NEON, said “the question is less about whether there will be distribution – there are distributors of all shapes and sizes – and more about whether there will be an audience. No guarantees there.”
Of course, it helps if you have a recognizable name actor in your film or if you already have a huge social media following. "The reasons that distributors are looking for a name is that a recognizable name comes with marketing capital and without that, you have a really hard time getting people to pay attention," said Ravid. But there are some exceptions. "There's real potential for films with niche appeal to find an audience and to make money. Just like there are blogs about every subject matter and stores for every kind of special interest you can imagine, there are opportunities for films that appeal to a specific population or cultural interest."
Manashil urged filmmakers to "build the audience yourself so you are not reliant on anyone to do so. Use your network, use your creativity, use social media, use e-mail lists. Do whatever you can to increase awareness of your work."
5. Self-distribution is sometimes the best option.
Though every filmmaker dreams of getting their film picked up by a distributor (ideally in a bidding war), the reality doesn’t always live up to the fantasy. More and more filmmakers, including festival regulars with established track records, are finding more value in DIY or creative distribution. Megan Griffiths, for instance, said she fielded offers from traditional distributors after her narrative feature SADIE premiered at SXSW, before deciding to go the creative distribution route.
“We did consider offers from traditional distributors post-SXSW. SADIE is my sixth feature and I've had a great deal of experience working within the conventional sales model,” said Griffiths. “Our decision to pursue this creative distribution path on SADIE was partially a product of the disempowerment I'd often experienced in the releases of my other films, but more importantly it was a decision made in order to deliver the film to audiences in a tailored, specific way.”
Griffiths and her producers wanted the film to spark a conversation about youth and violence. “In our meetings with traditional distributors, our instincts to lean into the social issues were quickly dismissed and we were prompted to sell the film as a ‘bad seed’ thriller so that wouldn't scare audiences away with the idea that the film might make them think. It just didn't jive with our reasons for making the film in the first place,” said Griffiths.
Griffiths has some advice for filmmakers who are contemplating DIY distribution. “I’d encourage them to do their research and consider every element that goes into the process – those not prepared to do all those things themselves should make sure they have the resources to build a good team. It’s a mountain of work (more than you think) and there’s no one to blame but yourself if things don’t go your way. But by the same token, it’s incredibly empowering and the lessons learned from connecting directly with audiences will serve you as a filmmaker for years to come.”
Griffiths has been incredibly transparent about her "adventures in creative distribution," as she calls the blog on which she's been chronically SADIE's distribution trajectory. Read more about her experience here.
You don’t have a God-given right to make a movie and have it distributed.
6. There is no “one size fits all” in distribution.
One film might benefit from a grassroots campaign with live events and another might do better going directly to VOD. “Distribution is a strategy, not a formula,” Mia Bruno, who worked with Griffiths on the release of SADIE, recently wrote on that film’s blog. “What works for a horror film is not necessarily going to work the same as a romantic comedy.”
Bruno collaborates with filmmakers and distributors to custom build distribution campaigns that are specific to the film. That can include everything from booking theaters, doing grassroots marketing and selling directly to various platforms. For Meow Wolf: Origin Story, it meant creating awareness to drive audiences to see the film on one particular night. Meow Wolf: Original Story filmmakers Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps recently told No Film School about for one evening only, the film about the rise of underdog art punks into a multi-million dollar enterprise, screened in over 600 theaters in 49 states through Fathom, the nation’s largest live cinema network and then went on to do a second-run theatrical booking.
Each film follows a unique path to distribution and it's up to the filmmaker to lead the way. "Filmmakers have to understand that every film is different. There will be a path for their film, but they need to be smart about it," said Reiss. "The new equation is 50/50. 50 percent of your time, money and resources should go into making the film and 50% should go to connecting your film to an audience. There are very few filmmakers who are prepared for this."
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.