I’ve recently started thinking about how to best distribute a film, since I have been looking for distribution for my first feature film: SUICIDE PARTY: SAVE DAVE. This is the first of a series of posts which describes what I have learned is the best strategy and what to expect in the offers you get, so you can get the best deal possible, based on what’s realistic for your film. I’ll discuss both DYI (do your own) distribution if you can’t find a distributor, as well as different tracks to consider in distributing your film through different channels. Eventually, these posts will be collected together to create a book on DISTRIBUTING YOUR FILM.
First, know the major players in the film distribution space. The ones to contact depend on what your goals are for your film, such as whether you feel you have a film that merits theatrical distribution, or you want to focus on distribution in other markets. These major players include studio distributors, independent distributors, producer’s reps, and sales reps.
The studio distributors are largely out of the picture for independent films, unless you have a big breakthrough at one of the top film festivals where the big distributors go (Sundance, Toronto, and Cannes, and secondarily Tribeca, and maybe Berlin and Venice, plus some distributors go to South by Southwest. Such a film breakthrough requires not only being shown, but also creating an exciting talk or buzz about your film with an advance media build-up. Moreover, if you are aiming for the big festivals, you have to premier there, which means waiting to find out if you are accepted before you can submit to other festivals. However, the likelihood of acceptance is very small unless you have personal connections, since not only do the big festivals select a small number of films from thousands of submissions, but generally the vast majority – perhaps 85-90% — of those accepted come from personal connections with the festival director or staff, leaving only about 10-15% to be accepted on their own merits. Then if you are accepted, you still have to create that exciting buzz for your film to actually get a deal besides simply showing at a big festival. In short, for most indie filmmakers, a studio distribution deal is unlikely, though possible, should you later develop a great deal of excitement, so the studio distributors want to take a look at your project.
Then, there are the independent distributors, who come in all flavors. There are some who handle theatrical distribution, ranging from those who handle one or two films – generally their own films — to those handling a half-dozen or more. Many of these distributors will also handle distribution in other channels, such as to home video, cable, and foreign sales. Then there are many distributors who eschew theatrical for distribution in other channels.
Often if you want to seek a theatrical release, you will need a budget for P&A, which means promotion and advertising, along with the costs of any files, DVDs, posters, and local advertising, which you need for each theater, which can add up to $5000-10,000 or more per city, though normally you don’t pay the distributor. Rather, you typically make a split of the income arrangement, which is commonly 35-50%, though more often a 50-50 split, and in some cases, a distributor who wants your film enough will advance the P&A.
Some distributors may additionally ask you to have E&O insurance, which refers to “Errors” and “Omissions.” Even though your film is already produced, some distributors may still ask for this, just in case, such as one distributor interested in SUICIDE PARTY: SAVE DAVE explained to me. “Maybe a scene in the film might show a store or company in the background, and they object to the way they are portrayed. So this could trigger a request for a recut of the film or a lawsuit, but your E&O insurance would cover this.” On the other hand, most distributors I spoke to didn’t require this.
While some distributors will ask for worldwide rights, others just want domestic (which includes Canada as well as the U.S.), and some specialize in foreign. So everything is negotiable including what markets a distributor will handle, the percentage split, and how much P&A budget you will need if any.
Another major player is the producer’s rep. This is essentially a middleman who contacts distributors and foreign sales agents on your behalf and negotiates a deal for you. Commonly these reps handle a slate of films for different producers, generally about 5 to 20 other films, depending on the size of the rep’s company. Commonly the rep get 5-10% of the deal, occasionally 15%, depending on what they do. However, the reps should not take any upfront money from you, though some may ask for this. But they should only get an upfront payment if they are doing extra work, such as writing releases and creating posters for you.
According to Ben Yennie, a producer’s rep in San Francisco and the author of The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget, a good producer’s rep can help filmmakers connect with distributors and foreign sales agents, since they have built relationships with them. They can help you get a faster response from them, as well as assess and select the best ones to work with, since they better know the market. They can also evaluate the different offers and handle the negotiations for you, which can result in a better deal for the film. Additionally, they can help you get into the bigger film festivals if they know the director or staff member. However, Yennie cautions that a lot of reps are ineffective and don’t deliver what they promise, so it is important to look at a rep’s track record and expect the rep to give you a realistic assessment of your film’s potential and what the rep can do for you before selecting a rep.
Finally, there is the sales agent, also called the “foreign sales agent,” who handles foreign sales. In this case, it can be very valuable to work with such an agent, since he or she will know the distributors, exhibitors, and other channels in the territory covered, and so will be in a better position to make the contact and negotiate any sales than you. While some sales agents may have a network of agents in different countries, others will specialize in selected areas, so you need to learn the areas covered, as well as the channels in which the sales agents wants to pitch your film. In this way, you can make sure you don’t have overlapping exclusive representation by sales agents who are covering the same territories.
So now that you know the major players, the next step is to assess how you want to position and promote your film in different channels, as well as prepare the materials you need to get a distributor or sales agent, and in some cases, a good producer’s rep.
Gini Graham Scott, PhD, is the author of over 50 books with major publishers, including two on writing and publishing books: FIND PUBLISHERS AND AGENTS AND GET PUBLISHED and SELL YOUR BOOK, SCRIPT, OR COLUMN. She has written and produced over 50 short films, has written 15 scripts for features, and has one feature film she wrote and executive produced scheduled for release 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 have meetings to discuss members’ books and films and help them get published or produced.