Once are ready to approach distributors, how do you know what to expect based on your type of film?
First, decide what is realistic for your film, aside from making the best presentation you can with your trailer, screener, synopsis, and press materials. In general, if you have a low-budget independent film with no names, you can expect many distributors not to be interested, or only interested in non-theatrical outlets, unless you have a very unique project with strong production values and have gotten a lot of interest through a PR campaign. This is where any showing at a top tier festival or a string of awards at other festivals can help you land a top distributor. There are a small number of films that have risen above the pack by standing out in some way, such as The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. But these are the one in a million breakthroughs.
As much as you may want a theatrical release because of the added attention and prestige it brings to distributing a film through other channels, it is often not the best approach for most low-budget films. That’s because of the high costs of such a release and the lack of financial return from most theatrical showings, unless there is a big box office success, since there is a low return for each ticket sold. The theater owner typically takes at least 50% and sometimes up to 75% when the film is first shown until it makes a certain amount. So you may not make back the expenses for the release. The main value of the theatrical release is that it’s like a promotional loss leader at a retail store to get customers into the store where they’ll buy more. As such, it helps to create more interest for viewers to buy or rent the video or look for it on Netflix or other outlets, including your website for DVD sales. But the release can be economically unfeasible. And some low-budget genre films, such as horror, suspense/thrillers, and action adventure films, don’t normally get a theatrical release – they go straight to DVD, streaming, downloads, foreign, or other types of sales.
Secondly, when you contact distributors about your film, whether in person, by phone, or email, don’t put information about the stars or budget up front, unless you have at least one name star and a budget of $1 million or more. One good approach is to initially tell distributors about the genre and logline to see if the subject is of interest. If so, briefly describe the highlights of the film, such as the major plot points and any press coverage, awards, or large following you have gotten. If you do have a big name attached, put that front and center, and if the budget is over a million, you might showcase that. Otherwise, it’s best not to state the budget until a potential distributor has expressed interest, and if it’s a very low budget, just say it’s under $200,000.
Typically, once the distributor has some initial interest after learning about the project and possibly seeing a trailer, one of the first things they will ask is “Are there any names?” and “What is the budget?” – the questions that most distributors asked me when I pitched them SUICIDE PARTY: SAVE DAVE. Besides asking for this information, distributors will want to see the screener to decide if they still want to distribute the film. Though they don’t ask for this, when you send the screener, it’s best to include it in a box with compelling art work and other information about the film in a press kit, which can often be online as an electronic press kit. When your screener and promotional materials are ready, either mail the kit or send the link, which is what we did for SUICIDE PARTY: SAVE DAVE. Having this professional looking box for your screener is very important. Don’t send your screener in a plain disk cover, which looks tacky and can be a big turnoff. As for what to include in your press kit, I’ll discuss that in a future article.
Do not reveal the actual budget if it’s a very low one, because that can turn off a distributor. Stories like El Mariachi, who has claimed having a $7000 budget for a film that became a multi-million dollar box office success story, are the exception to the rule. And even if you made your film for a very low amount, say $5000 to $25,000, there may be deferred or work for credits deals with the cast and crew that if paid up front would make your budget much more. There might even be specials on locations and equipment used in the film, so you got them for no money or a super low price, but they are worth much more. For example, if you factor in the real value of the work of the cast and crew, the house used as a shooting set, and the cameras and sound equipment used for filming, you might find your budget was actually around $250,000, whereas you paid only $25,000 up front. So in talking to prospective distributors, use that higher number. Later, after you have gotten your deal and gained success for your film, you can talk about the real budget, which can make a great story to get you more press for your film. But initially, a distributor is apt to feel a very low-budget film isn’t going to be very successful and not want to distribute your film.
In deciding on a realistic distribution approach for your film, consider whether you hope for a theatrical deal or not. While a traditional theatrical deal, such as a studio pickup, might not work given the type of film, lack of names, lack of a following, and lack of budget to cover P&A, you might consider a limited roll-out approach. That could lead to future theatrical distribution as well as helping you distribute in other channels, because of the prestige and press value of opening in a theater. This is what some independents do — a “platform” roll-out, where the film is first shown in one or a few theaters. If it does well and gathers press and distributor interest, it expands to additional theaters, or it could be picked up after the opening by a distributor or studio for additional theatrical distribution. Should you go this route, you often have to pay for the theater and local advertising and promotion, commonly about $5000-15,000 for a week’s run, with the cost depending on the theater, location, and any travel expenses for you and/or others from the film to be there for the screening and doing any advance marketing to build the audience. However, it’s best to only go this route if your film is unique in some way, and you have a budget to support a theatrical showing, so it stands out in a crowded marketplace. Otherwise it’s best to skip a theatrical release.
If you decide not to pursue theatrical screenings, let the distributor know you aren’t expecting this, unless the distributor can make a strong case of why to go theatrical. And even if you arrange for a showing in one or a handful of selected theaters, this still might not mean you are seeking a wider theatrical release. Another reason for having a small number of screenings in theaters is to get some press coverage you can use to support distribution in other channels. These showings could also be a way to build your following on the social media, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter, to see your film. Also, you might invite prospective distributors to see your film in a private or public screening, in lieu of or before getting a screener, such as one client who invited several hundred distributors to two showings she arranged for in New York. Should you decide not to go theatrical, look for distributors who are strong in other types of distribution.
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.