The Road to Distributing Your Film Is Not as Hard as You Think

Guest blog: If you view distribution keeping my three principles in mind, and you take the correct actions, there is no reason that you can't see real returns on your films

The one issue producers and directors avoid, until the last possible moment of their filmmaking journey, is distribution. The “dreaded” D word. They put it off because it seems so maddingly complicated. Or they secretly hope some distributor will swoop in and make some fantastic multi-million-dollar deal — and never have to think about it again.

Film distribution isn't a sexy subject. It's not as fun as making your movie or documentary, and it only becomes “sexy” upon getting a fat check from a major distributor for a lucky few. But the unqualified truth is this: If you don't shrink from it, or hand your valuable gem off to a bunch of middlemen (who don't personally care whether you have success or not), it's these filmmakers who build sustainable careers with their work. The producers and directors who learn this “game,” and embrace it, go on to second and third movies.

So how can you achieve successful distribution when you don't get offered that multi-million-dollar deal? How do you thrive with your film and not only break even, but become profitable? While the answer is layered and multi-faceted, the following is a current overview of the important markets for your film, along with some tips and strategies you should employ.

Up until the mid-late 1990s, independent films were frequently acquired by one company for all rights. You made one deal, or maybe two, and you were done. Distributors handled the rest of the work. We'll call this “Film Distribution 1.0.”

Then came the internet and social-media revolutions and the early digital platforms for film. Democracy in distribution was loudly heralded. Only, the money was missing for those utilizing these early digital platforms. We'll call this “Film Distribution 2.0.”

Today, we have arrived at what I refer to as “Film Distribution 3.0.” It is the next evolutionary step of independent film distribution, which contains three key principles: (1) Optimally leverage your film into each major market; (2) Split your rights up amongst multiple companies or situations (assuming you didn't get that fat check from Fox Searchlight or The Weinstein Company), and (3) Recognize what's occurred with the online film platforms over the past two years, and leverage this maturing market correctly.

Here's what each of the three principles mean:

>> 1. Optimally leveraging your film into each major market (theatrical, Blu-ray/DVD, VOD, internet, television, foreign), is simply going after and exploiting every single major market. Starting at theatrical (if appropriate) and working down in a somewhat hierarchical way.

Skipping markets — something many independent filmmakers are doing these days — and heading right to the internet is usually not a winning strategy. If you're Edward Burns or Joss Whedon, then yes, it can work. But without a marquee name yourself, or a star-powered cast, going right to the online market generally results in lower revenues than hoped for, resulting in a failed approach.

Online distribution is becoming increasingly important, but why leave money on the table on the way there?

>> 2. Splitting your rights up amongst multiple companies or situations has actually been a strategy many producers have been using since the mid-late '90s (including myself). It means making a deal with one company for Blu-ray/DVD rights, another company for VOD rights, another company for foreign rights, and so on.

When filmmakers make one deal for all rights (an “all-rights” deal) with one company, this is usually the mistake that kills them — unless they're getting a nice big check in advance. Why does it “kill” them? Frankly, there are many crooked distributors out there, who will not pay a producer their fair share of the profits, and/or will use accounting tricks such as cross-collateralization to always show a loss.

>> 3. Recognizing what's occurred with the online platforms over the past two years simply requires understanding a brief history of digital distribution. The early platforms for movies got a tremendous amount of buzz in the beginning. Filmmakers flocked there to upload and have their films available for online VOD, but the public didn't follow with their wallets.

For one, broadband capability (and speed) was not yet ubiquitous, and secondly, the public was resistant to watching full-length movies on their computers. So the revenues were just not there.

But here we are, just a few years later, and the market has been growing every year for revenues. The majority of the country has broadband now, more peoples’ televisions are connected to the internet (or they have connected devices) and of course tablets hit the market in 2010 — which made movie watching on-the-go more palatable than trying to use a cellphone.

Additionally, the “big boys” (Amazon, Vudu, Xbox, Hulu, etc.) have all matured and hold unquestionable market share now. The smaller indie players of the late '00s no longer have significant traffic and cannot generate serious revenues for most producers. They couldn't before for the reasons stated above, and don't now.

Some may take issue with my characterization of the small indie platforms. But let's be real here: Do you want to sell your film, or do you want to be on a bunch of platforms that don't have sustainable traffic and sales? If you'd like to try some independent platforms, great, go for it! But today you absolutely need to be on the big boys’ platforms as well. Unfortunately, nine out of 10 filmmakers simply do not understand this.

If you view distribution holding these three principles in mind, and you take the correct actions, there is virtually no reason that you cannot see real returns on your films. (The only reason you wouldn't is avoidance, or perhaps laziness over learning and understanding the marketplace.)

Those producers and directors that are utilizing the “Film Distribution 3.0” approach? They are seeing real success.

In my next blog, I'll cover the realities of getting into the theatrical, home video (Blu-ray/DVD) and VOD markets for your film.