A First-Hand Account From the Front Lines of 21st Century DIY Distribution

We believe these seminal years will be looked back upon as the point when filmmakers and other artists discovered an alternative way to sustain themselves and their work, outside the system

We are the Nelms brothers, two California-based filmmakers who’ve been working independently for the past decade. Throughout the next few months, we’ll be self-releasing our feature film, “Lost on Purpose.” This blog will follow our journey through the apocalyptic landscape of post 2008, independent film distribution.

Hopefully, these entries will be a reference for other filmmakers as they head down the path of “Do It Yourself” distribution. We believe these seminal years will be looked back upon as the point when filmmakers and other artists discovered an alternative way to sustain themselves and their work, outside the system.

In all honesty, this is not how we intended or envisioned releasing our film. We do have very strong opinions on how we’d like our work presented, but it never occurred to us that we’d be crafting artwork, creating merchandise, executing marketing campaigns and dealing with the financial logistics all on our own. But after meeting with several distributors, it became apparent that self-distribution was going to be our path.

Let’s start by touching on a few key issues that turned us (and many others) away from traditional distributors. (This is not to say all distributors are like this, or that all filmmakers would find fault with the following methods.)

Our first problem came when a majority of the distributors wanted to use … let’s say, deceptive marketing tactics. One of our cast members recently received a coveted award. This actress came on board for a small part because she cares for us and the material. We didn’t think it wise or fair to falsely portray her as the lead.

Another issue was the title. We can see changing a poor title to something better, but for many distributors it’s simply about getting to the front of the alphabet. It didn’t feel like film marketing; it felt dishonest. Which brings us to the problem: Most distributors have a “push button” way of releasing a film, and if your film doesn’t fit easily into that template, then they jam it in and hope for the best.

Another problem is the finances. Now, we assure you, this has nothing to do with us wanting a big payday. We haven’t taken one dollar from the film. We put every cent on screen. Our salient, financial goal is to recoup the investment made by those people who believe in us and the film. That’s it. Plain and simple.

Unfortunately, the math most distributors give you is wishful thinking, and those who are honest lay out how quickly the revenue depletes as it makes its way down the chain. Several distributors said they could make three to four times our budget, but when it was all said and done, we wouldn’t recoup half of what we spent on the film. Not to mention, our rights would be tied up for ten to 20 years.

The current practices by distributors makes little sense for today’s independent cinema. The fees, deliverables, and traditional marketing schemes unnecessarily saddle films with debt that’s impossible to recoup. We’re not saying distributors are the bad guys (at least most of them aren’t). They’re a business, and businesses needs to be profitable in order to survive.

Unfortunately, independent films rarely make money. Even the cream of Sundance can’t hit the black. Why? Let’s say you spend $500,000 on your film. You show at a top tier festival and make a sale. You get a modest upfront of $20,000 to $50,000, with a deal that should put more your way once the film releases. But here’s the problem: That company you signed with has a lot of people on their payroll. And there’s a lot of media competing for attention, so your distributor has to blast the world with a marketing campaign.

Your $500,000 film is competing with $200 million films with $100 million advertising campaigns, so even if you launch a modest $5-$10 million campaign (10 to 20 times the budget of your film!) you’re still drastically outgunned and now, heavily in debt.

It’s time to rethink distribution.

With today’s digital outlets and online marketing tools, we don’t believe anyone should have to give away or bastardize their work. If you have a finished film and you’re contemplating a self-release, then hopefully our experiences will help you avoid any pitfalls we might encounter along the way. And if you have any questions, advice, or just want to chat and open up a discussion, then look for us on the “Lost on Purpose” website, Facebook, Twitter and Kickstarter page.

Until next time, we’ll see you in the trenches!