The Indie Film Distribution Playbook That Got Our No-Budget Film in Theaters
This distribution strategy helped the no-budget indie sci-fi feature COSMOS achieve a profitable minimum guarantee, a Hollywood premiere, a worldwide release, and a limited US theatrical run in NYC, LA, Las Vegas, and more.
I’m Zander, I’m 29 and, with my brother Elliot, I’ve just spent 5 years directing and producing our debut feature film, COSMOS—a contemporary sci-fi film that explores first contact when 3 astronomers intercept a signal from space. Costing $7,000, COSMOS is a “no budget” feature film (by industry definition of “No Budget” costing $50K or less) and a true grassroots indie, crewed by just 3 people, paid for out of our own pockets, shot on the original 1080p BMPCC and edited on FCP7. No one on the film got paid, including ourselves, and any money spent was on unavoidable costs—gas, electricity, software, food etc.
Here’s the trailer:
Since my last article, we’ve received an outpouring of messages from filmmakers seeking clarity on our distribution strategy, so my goal is to share how we got COSMOS in front of paying audiences. Steal, adapt, or ignore as you please.
COSMOS is a cheaply made but polished sci-fi with a no-name cast, no-name directors, and no festival laurels. How did we secure a profitable distribution deal? How did we go from locking our final cut to signing a deal and delivering our masters to Hollywood in less than 6 months?
In a nutshell, we went the direct approach, emailing distributors and sales agents offering COSMOS for consideration. We had competing buyers giving us bargaining power to negotiate favorable terms. We legally can’t disclose the terms of our final agreement but we can give insight into what was on the table and how we leveraged COSMOS in our favor.
Success leaves clues, so we modeled our deal-making strategy on numerous success stories, in both film and other industries. And below is that strategy and the playbook we used including our email cover letter, our sell sheets, and what we learned at the negotiating table.
At this point, there comes a chicken and egg question:
Does a distributor/sales agent come first or the marketing materials?
In the case of COSMOS, we created our poster, trailer, "making of" featurette, and a strong social media following before pitching to buyers, then used all this material to leverage our film and show its potential in the marketplace.
This article isn’t a breakdown of how we created those materials to sell our film to a buyer. If there’s a demand for a breakdown on the COSMOS marketing strategy, covering the goals of posters to sell genre, trailers to establish core concept/tone, etc. then let me know in the comments. I’d be more than happy to write a follow-up NFS article.
Back to the chase: it’s September 2018—what did we have to work with?:
- A completed film
- A poster
- A trailer
- A "making of’ featurette
- Social media accounts for COSMOS with a few thousand followers
Submitting to Festivals...and Striking Out
Throughout 2018, we submitted COSMOS to a selection of high-tier festivals such as SXSW, Slamdance, and Raindance but were rejected by all of them. The merits of the festival circuit for securing distribution are widely known so I won’t get into it, but after talking to a few filmmakers, we learned of many successes of films selling directly to distributors and sales agents.
Not all films are festival fare but if they have broad audience appeal they’re still attractive to buyers with or without laurels or awards. Being a family-friendly sci-fi film reminiscent of Amblin classics, COSMOS was one of these films—a modern yet nostalgic adventure.
We found that most buyers were open to direct submissions with many of them offering contact info and forms on their websites. This would be our route.
Before We Reached Out to Distributors, We Did This Stuff
Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Before we sent any emails, we did the following, and regardless of which route you take for distribution, it won’t hurt to do something similar...
Planning to jump in the deep end and talk with people in the business of buying and selling movies, we knew they’d eat us alive if we didn’t know our waivers from our one sheets. So we did our homework. We researched and read about indie and major distribution as much as we could. What’s in it for a distributor? What’s in it for a sales agent? What’s in it for us? How is money made? How long does it take? We listened to podcasts, watched interviews, and read the trade papers. We went on an information feeding frenzy, following the old motto "If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail."
We Set a Target
We knew what we wanted for COSMOS and that was a worldwide deal with a prominent distributor or sales agent that could secure VOD, AVOD and SVOD deals (ideally Netflix or Hulu). We found other films achieving the same results and who represented them. We reached out to a lot of filmmakers via Twitter seeking counsel. Most of them viewed a COSMOS screener and gave us professional feedback and advice.
We Made a Sell Sheet
We wouldn’t be in the room to pitch COSMOS, so we needed a document to do that for us, enter "The Sell Sheet." On the front, our poster—bold, dramatic and eye-catching—and on the back, all the information needed to understand COSMOS—genre, runtime, synopsis, a few stills, festival laurels (if you have them!) and contact info.
We Made a "What People Are Saying" Poster
To accompany our sell sheet, we produced a “What people are saying” poster, compiling comments and opinions from our online trailers and screeners, providing social proof of COSMOS’ appeal. They may not be from established critics but they were from industry professionals and the real audience that would be buying our film.
We Created a Distributor/Sales Agent Hit List
Using IMDb Pro (the 30-day free trial), we made a list of buyers who represented indie sci-fi and used the company meter to order them by industry “buzz”. Then we dove deeply into each buyer looking at their back catalog—their successes and failures—and did due diligence with some of their clients. IMDb Pro also provides contact info for a lot of acquisition teams.
We Drafted a Cover Letter
Next, we crafted a strong, attention grabbing, introductory email. It sold COSMOS in words. It sold us as filmmakers. It sold who our audience was and why there was a demand for the film. We included a link to our trailer (which had loads of positive comments), sell sheets, and also offered them the chance to view a screener.
If you already have interest from distributors or sales agents, state this in your cover letter—this social proof and “show of confidence” from a competitor will make a buyer think twice about a quick pass.
Below is our cover letter. It has spoilers, so if you plan to watch the movie I would strongly recommend reading this later. Bear in mind, this is a selling document designed to excite a distributor not to sell directly to an audience. (And keep that in mind when writing your own.)
We Made Screeners Available
We uploaded our COSMOS screener to Indee.tv. Trusted by the largest studios in the industry, Indee.tv is an online secure screening service. The free forever “Trial” package allows you to upload one project and send out 20 passworded screeners a month. Streams are in 1080p with viewing analytics and customizable watermarks. You receive notifications when your recipient opens your screener and can watch, near real-time, their viewing habits: how much they watch, do they watch sections of your film again? Do they skip to the end?
This feature became especially useful for us as a "trust test" with the acquisitions teams we were negotiating with. We knew to the second exactly how much of the film they’d seen and could covertly quiz them already knowing the answer.
We Added Watermarks
Don’t be afraid to watermark. We were advised to watermark everything “as standard practice." It shows you know what you’re doing and no one is bothered anyway.
We Mail Merged
Finally, we used a “Mail Merge” add-on to create a personalized template cover letter email that we could batch send to a mailing list of buyers that we assembled from IMDb Pro. Mail Merge also tracks when emails are received and opened, databasing who we needed to chase or follow up.
So, now it’s December 1st 2018. We’ve done our research, put our marketing materials together, got our mailing list of buyers and our watermarked screener—we’re ready and primed.
Hit Send...and wait...
How long did we have to wait until we signed with a distributor? 6 months. The abridged timeline went like this:
- December 2018: Screeners requested by boutique distributors. Our assessment of lukewarm responses was they didn’t really know what COSMOS’ potential was and were waiting to see if other buyers would circle.
- January 2019: A few LA sales agencies request screeners and wish to rep COSMOS. We used this opportunity to further our understanding of the producer/sales agent relationship and its pros and cons.
- February 2019: A larger theatrical distributor “Buyer A” watches COSMOS screener and immediately makes an offer for worldwide rights. Terms are standard (based on our research) but there’s a firm “no financial offer” and no filmmaker protections (such as a Performance Clause) will be written into the contract.
- March 2019: Gravitas Ventures reply to our initial email sent in December requesting a screener. On viewing, they immediately present a financial offer for worldwide rights and more favorable terms than Buyer A, including a limited theatrical run in the US. Upon being informed of a competing offer, Buyer A immediately changes tactic and makes a financial offer to stay in play.
- March/April 2019: Through the months of March and April, we pit these two buyers against each other making them counter-offer to improve terms in our favor. We sought counsel from a few seasoned producers on the realities of deal-making and got some sage wisdom about how to push buyers to improve (shared below). We did this back and forth until Buyer A bowed out of the bidding war. By the end of this, we’d lowered the terms of our agreement by 5 years, lowered distribution fees by a few percentage points and increased our financial offer by 150%.
- May 2019: We sign with Gravitas Ventures
- November 2019: US theatrical and Worldwide VoD release.
We decided not to partner with a sales agent because we wanted COSMOS to be under one distribution banner with one team. There are arguments for the financial and creative benefits of sales agencies—we don’t deny them, we just didn’t communicate with one who really lit our fire.
We sold worldwide rights to Gravitas Ventures because we also liked the idea of COSMOS releasing on worldwide VOD on the same day so our social media audience didn’t have to wait months for it to be available in their territory.
Did we make the right choice in the end? Very hard to know at this stage as it’s still early days. There are pros and cons to every producer/distributor relationship, but on the whole we’re very satisfied with our success with Gravitas Ventures and in honesty, for a little UK indie made for $7K by a few friends, I think COSMOS has done very well for itself.
Unfortunately, as the negotiation process is as unique as each film, we can’t give a solid process tailored for you, but we did learn a lot that we can share with you.
Pick up the phone whenever possible to talk about the details. The information exchanged in one 20-minute call could take days of emailing.
Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity on the wording being used. But try your best to be forearmed with some foundation knowledge. Pitch your question like, “Are we correct in thinking...?” It shows you know your stuff or at least some stuff.
However, be wary
Acquisition agents talk a good game, that’s their job! They’re charismatic and will tell you everything you want to hear. They’ll love the same movies you do and they’ll love your movie. Don’t lose sight of the fact that if they’re spending precious time on the phone with you, they want your movie... the power is yours, not theirs. In our experience, you won’t have much interaction with the acquisition agent once your film is signed, so be wary of using them as a reference for their distributor’s client communication style.
They’ll always come in low
Doesn’t matter how nice they are, they’re looking to get your movie for as little as possible...even for nothing if you let them. Again, if they’re talking to you, they want what you’ve got. We had a deal offer with no financial incentive but once we presented competing offers, money suddenly appeared on the table.
Theatrical and “Day & Date”
Ask about it, it happens. It’s not right for every film as it’s pricey and you’ll end up paying for it out of your profits but it’s a great marketing strategy to boost VOD placements and sales. Also as a filmmaker, it’s a moment of great pride to know audiences are paying to see your movie on big screens
Get more negotiating power by having at least two buyers working to outbid each other. If Buyer A knows a competitor wants your film, it suggests that competitor sees financial potential in it and it will embolden Buyer A to bid harder for you.
Don’t show your hand
Keep them in the dark as much as possible. We didn’t even reveal the names of competing buyers to each other. BUT DON’T LIE.
Clarify terms with one buyer and then bring those same points up with competitors. Which buyer is offering the best terms? Use this insight to push offers up. Also, is what they’re saying coherent? CAUTION: They will know from the details of the counter-offer you present whether it's real or fabricated (so don’t bluff them!).
Also, they’ll pick up on your genuine confidence when you hold a real counter-offer. If they call you out on a bluff, you’ll lose professional credibility as well as showing yourself as a liar. The buyer may even walk away from the table and leave you with nothing. With genuine competing offers, one party can always drop out and you’ll still be left a solid deal on the table.
Use phrases like, “Can you present a more favorable deal,” or “a better deal.” Give them an idea of what they need to put forward to overtake the other offer—not necessarily an exact term or figure to beat, but the value/figure you’d consider.
When trying to push up offers and counter-offers, only disclose figures when you hit a wall.
The deal doesn’t go away
Have patience and confidence to take your time. If you’re negotiating the deal yourself (like we did), buyers know you’re inexperienced. They’ll pressure you and rush you into a commitment before a competitor comes along and tries to steal you. Producer’s reps and sales agents won’t fall for such tactics but a filmmaker/producer might get snared.
A very experienced producer told us, “The deal never goes away. If they make you an offer, they want it and they’ll wait.” We trusted his advice and then when Buyer A gave us the ultimatum (“This deal is on the table until 18:00 Friday.”), we said, “Sorry, we can’t make a decision by then.” They replied, “Okay, we’ll extend by one week.” In the end, we delayed for 5 weeks until making a final decision.
Be prepared to work long hours and reply to their emails whenever they come in. Work on their terms and time, reply while they’re still in the office. If they want a call now or at an inconvenient hour for you, TAKE IT. We live in the UK, so we were always 8 hours ahead of LA. Most of our calls happened at 22:00 our time.
Walk and talk
Get away from the computer and find answers to your own questions. Speak to fellow filmmakers and seek advice if you need it.
Think a lot, write a little
Work through your position and establish the best move at that moment. You might have pressing questions but don’t detract from the matter at hand. Deal with the bigger issues before getting into the nitty-gritty.
In the end, always do what feels right to you. If you don’t feel confident, don’t risk it. If you want advice, seek it. If you look back later on and think you’ve made the wrong decision, be kind to yourself. You thought you were doing the right thing.
So, what does that mean for you?
I guess it means whatever you want it to mean. If you want to chalk all this up to research, fantastic. If you want to try something similar, good luck. (Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you want to chat). If you think this is an unwise tactic, I respect that.
Like our previous article, we just want to share our experiences in hopes of inspiring and liberating our fellow filmmakers with knowledge and references that it can be done.
You need to know what you want. Do your research. Work hard. Measure your results; what’s working and what’s not. Change your approach until you get the result you want. And if possible, model your plan after someone who has achieved something similar. This isn't the be-all-end-all formula for success, but it's the formula that worked for us.
If two brothers from the UK with $7K and no industry help can do it then you can too. Get it done and good luck. I can’t wait to see your movie!