Looking at theatrical distribution as some vast quandary is counter-productive — here's how to break it down
In my last blog, I laid out the strategy of approaching distribution today with what I refer to as “Film Distribution 3.0.” Now let’s look at the first three major markets you have for exploiting your film: theatrical, home video (Blu-ray/DVD) and VOD.
Looking at theatrical distribution as some vast quandary is counter-productive. If you don’t secure some major deal that’s going to put you onto 3,000 screens, this doesn’t mean you should bypass this market. Therefore, I break Theatrical down into three “sub-categories” that should be looked at, if this is a market you’d like to exploit.
1. Major Theatrical: This is reserved for studio movies, as well as those of the studios’ “specialty arms” and the “mini-majors” (like the Weinstein Company or Lionsgate/Summit.) Also, many of the independent films that get picked up at the Sundance, Toronto or Cannes film festivals go out this way. They may get a very limited release, or they may go wider.
But here’s a little known “secret” about the theatrical market: There are countless films every year that do not get a major deal at a major festival, but find their way into limited releases.
Why? Because of the 60-plus theatrical distributors, there’s a significant percentage that do not engage in any frenzied bidding wars at the festivals. Knowing who these companies are, and pitching them correctly, is important for accessing this market through them.
2. Service Deal Theatrical: This is essentially a “rent-a-distributor” method for releasing your film theatrically. There are quite a few theatrical distributors who will do this. You engage them for a fee (plus percentage of your box office revenues) and they put your film into theaters. They’ll also interface with the press and perform other distributor functions.
The major difference here is that you the producer are putting up the “P&A” (prints & advertising) money for the release — not the distributor. But the box office revenues flow to you, not to the distributor or studio. And you control the distribution game plan at all times.
3. DIY Theatrical: This is where you engage theaters yourself (or through a film booker), and make direct deals to put your film into those theaters. With DIY (this means “Do It Yourself”), you have two options: (a) “4-Wall” — This is where you buy the theater out for a week (or longer) for a fixed price, and all ticket sales are yours; and (b) “Percentage Deal” – This is where you pay no money for the theater, but you and the theater share in the ticket sales. I prefer this method if it can be negotiated. In order to make a Percentage Deal though, you must be able to show or convince the theater owner/manager that you can put butts in seats. If they don’t think you can, they won’t make this kind of deal.
These are the three predominant methods used for getting your film into theaters. There is also the strategy of one- or two-night screenings that you can do around the country, via Tugg or Fathom Events, or your own outreach to theaters and screening locations. An alternative to week-long or multi-week runs, it’s even more labor intensive than the above options; to be successful with this, you need to do serious outreach to your audience for each location.
So instead of a full marketing outreach in one city for a week-long run, this needs to be done for each single night in every city you play in. Of course, you don’t have to do marketing & outreach, but then why bother with multiple one-night events?
Bottom line: Depending upon your movie or documentary — and your specific goals — this may be an approach to explore.
HOME VIDEO (Blu-ray/DVD)
Despite premature pronouncements of its death, Blu-ray/DVD is still alive and profitable. It is still the single largest revenue generating market for movies. Last year alone, Blu-ray/DVD sales & rentals raked in $12.9 Billion in the U.S. — still considerably more than theatrical revenues.
There’s no question that the number of brik-and-mortar rental stores has declined, and the rental market is in transition as online delivery of films continue to grow. But the internet revenues today — internet VOD, streaming, electronic sell-thru—are only about 27 percent of the physical Blu-ray/DVD revenues. So contrary to what some naysayers are claiming, skipping this market cuts out a vital revenue source for your film.
In terms of sheer brick-and-mortar numbers, currently there are over 67,000 physical locations for Blu-ray & DVD (includes rental stores/kiosks and sell-through locations). Not to mention all the online stores for discs. It’s a valuable market, and there are over 100 home-video distributors in the U.S. always looking for movies and documentaries they feel they can make money on.
VOD/PPV (Video-On-Demand / Pay-Per-View)
This tends to be confusing for most people, but let’s simplify it. In my classes and in my “Secrets to Film Distribution” Program, I break VOD/PPV down into two categories: (1) VOD/PPV on the cable, satellite and telephone company (“telco”) systems; and (2) VOD/PPV on the internet.
The main reason I delineate between these two categories is because the strategies for exploiting your film on these separate platforms is different.
The cable/satellite/telco platforms (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, etc.) are not as hard to access as filmmakers think. Getting onto these systems for 30 to 90 days is entirely doable for independent films — and without spending the $5,000 that one particular company charges to put you on those systems.
The challenge is to get people to find your film and buy it. Next time you see Magnolia or IFC advertising a film they’re releasing on VOD, take a look at the chart they put together to inform consumers where to find that film on each system. It is literally a maze to find new offerings on some of these systems. It is not intuitive or easy.
Which is one reason why VOD revenues are not through the roof with most independent films on these systems. However, with strategic advertising/marketing buys on the systems you’re on, this can increase your VOD revenues exponentially. This is something most producers and directors don’t even consider, and it’s a mistake. If you could spend a few thousand dollars on advertising and increase your revenues tenfold, why wouldn’t you?
Next time, I will cover additional major markets for exploiting your film today: internet VOD, cable TV and foreign distribution.
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