Once you know the different players in the distribution space and the different possible channels of distribution, the next step is creating your distribution plan. To this end, consider the audience for your film, the size of this audience, and how to best reach them. Also, consider the realistic potential of your film and its likely appeal to a distributor or festival audience, so you don’t let your dreams of great success overwhelm a realistic assessment of what your film is likely to do in the marketplace.
Additionally, consider the cost of different types of distribution or entering certain festivals to seek distribution, such as the P&A (promotion and advertising) costs for a theatrical release or entry fees for festivals, along with travel expenses if you win and want to attend. Such expenses are in addition to the expenses for deliverables that every distributor and sales agent will want if they take your film, such as creating different digital and DVD formats for distribution, along with preparing DVD covers and cover art, posters, press releases, and more.
Some people may think, “Oh, I’m just going to crowdfund for the additional money I need,” and that approach can be fine for many films, most notably those that already have a fan base of friends, family, and supporters, so you can raise at least 25-30% of the needed funds from this inner circle. But if your circle is largely composed of other filmmakers, who are seeking to raise money for their own films, hoping for funds from them may be unrealistic, as may be gaining the funds from strangers contributing to your campaign. Moreover, the crowdfunding space has become very crowded these days, with so many people thinking they can gain the money they need this way. But the stats from crowdfunding sites tell a different story – only about 40% of Kickstarter projects get funded, and only about 13% of Indiegogo projects reach their goal, although they may get some funds along the way. Further, you have to factor in the cost of commissions and payment fees on whatever money you raise (about 8-15%), as well as the cost of the perks you are providing to funders. So often it may not be realistic to expect to fund your film through crowdfunding, though some projects do succeed or gain a major proportion of their film’s budget this way.
Secondly, be realistic about what film festivals you can get into, and whether it’s worth waiting to first build up your platform through festival showings and awards in order to seek a better distribution deal than you might get before entering the festivals. Often at my Film Exchange Programs and other film events, I have heard filmmakers who are completing or have just completed their first film say with perfect confidence that “We thought we’d start by showing the film at Sundance” or fill in the name of any of the top film festivals. However, the reality is that you have low odds of getting into these top festivals. For example, Sundance averages 5000 plus submissions for about 200 slots, and in most festivals, the festival staff and directors are apt to give priority consideration to filmmakers they know or to films with big names that bring prestige to the festival. So that leaves about 10-15% of the slots available for new filmmakers, and if you have a low-budget film with no names, you are unlikely to get in.
Even if you do get into one of the big festivals, where distributors go, such as Sundance, Toronto, and Cannes, to get a distributor to see your film, you need to build up excitement about your film in advance. And that usually requires hiring a publicist to promote your film, which costs several thousand dollars. Plus even getting into a top festival doesn’t guarantee you will get a distributor, since the distributors only pick up a handful of films at these festivals. It can help you get a distributor if you can build up enough excitement to get distributors to go to the first showing at a festival, since that’s where more of the deals get done, while a smaller number of distributors commonly show up at later showings. Yet, even if the distributors see your film, there are no guarantees that a festival launch will result in a distribution deal. Thus, with a low budget no name film it can be especially unrealistic to consider getting into the big festivals, and even if you do, you might still not get a distributor. Moreover, with these long odds, you have to wait before releasing your film anywhere else, so you can premiere it at the festival.
What might be more realistic is entering the second and third tier festivals, where you don’t have to premiere, either before or after you get a distributor or obtain multiple distributors for different channels and territories. Your odds of getting into these smaller festivals are greater, especially if the film’s director or top cast or crew personally know the festival director or staff members. Then, you can use that acceptance and any awards to help build your film and company’s platform, and you can incorporate those awards into your press releases or query letters to the media to increase your chances of getting a distributor or press coverage – or getting into more festivals.
As to whether to enter and publicize any festivals where you are accepted or win awards before or after you get a distributor, either is fine. If you don’t already have a distributor, inform the distributors considering your film about any festival acceptances and awards, which might help you get a distributor or sales agent. Attaining a number of festival showings and awards might also give you more leverage to get a better distributor with more clout or obtain an even better deal. Alternatively, if you already have a distributor or sales agent, any festival acceptances and awards can help them market and publicize your film.
One way to decide whether to line up distribution before or after the festival or start with some distributors and get more afterwards for different channels or territories is to approach distributors and agents before the festivals. Then, you can decide what to do, based on the number of offers you get before the festival and the quality of these distributors and agents. If you have an offer from one or more good distributors and agents, great! You can make some decisions in advance and use your festival participation and any awards to support your distributors and agents. Or you can delay your decision until after the festival if you aren’t sure and hope to find other distributors or get a better deal through your festival participation.
As an example, that’s what we have been doing with SUICIDE PARTY: SAVE DAVE. Once the trailer was available for viewing on YouTube, I did a mailing to invite about 1000 distributors, sales agents, and AFM exhibitors using the query service, Publishers Agents and Films (www.publishersagentsandfilms.com) to tell them about the film and invite them to view the trailer and let me know if they were still interested in distributing the film. About 20 distributors and agents expressed interest, though they wanted to see the screener first – which is typical, unless you have big names in your film. Then, the director and I researched the background of each prospective distributor and agent on IMDB and other sources to see how many films they had previously distributed and how these films had done. Probably, if we have a reasonably good deal from the best of these distributors, we will at least sign some distributors or agents for some territories and channels. But if we aren’t satisfied with these distributors’ or their offers, we will go to some festivals and decide among the interested distributors and sales agents after the festival.
Likewise, you can work on getting distribution before or after these festivals. Just be realistic about what kind of deal and distributor or sales agent you might expect for your film, so your dreams don’t outpace a likely distribution scenario.
Gini Graham Scott, PhD, is the author of over 50 books with major publishers, including two on films: HOW TO WRITE, PRODUCE, AND DIRECT A LOW-BUDGET SHORT FILM and FINDING FUNDS FOR YOUR FILM OR TV PROJECT. She has written and produced over 50 short films, has written 15 feature scripts, and has one feature she wrote and executive produced to be released in February 2015. She also writes scripts for clients, is Creative Director for Publishers Agents & Films (www.publishersagentsandfilms.com), and has several book and film industry Meetup groups which discuss members’ books and films and help them get published or produced.