Indie Filmmaking and Self-Distribution: Lessons Learned


Film promotion and distribution is a mystery wrapped inside an enigma — one I struggled to figure out as a “newbie” with a horror/thriller several years ago, that was recognized by IFC, but ruined by our distributor, to becoming a more seasoned producer with “Smuggled,” a multi-award winning immigration film that our company opted to distribute ourselves. It hasn’t an easy ride, but it has been worth it, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. 11 tips for navigating distribution:

1. Know what you’ve got — Be honest about what your product is. Check your ego at the door. Step back and honestly assess your film – especially its potential audience and reach. Every choice you make about your film: to submit to film festivals (or not), which festivals to submit to, what distribution deal to take, if you should self-distribute, how you will self-distribute, begins with honest assessment.

1a. Make a Good Film — obvious, yes? But important. Write an engaging story. Hire professionals — in all areas (sound recordist, actors, etc.). Take the time to find the right team. Bring together a passionate (and professional) group who shares your vision.

2. Submit to festivals wisely — Don’t submit to everything. Don’t necessarily chase the biggies (Tribeca, Sundance, Cannes, etc.). Be realistic about your film, and spend your money wisely. With “Smuggled,” we only submitted to 40-45 festivals, and we got into a third, winning awards at five of them. This means our ROI (return on investment) for festival dollars was pretty high. We researched which festivals similar films were in so we could submit wisely. We prioritized festivals that were good fits for our film and were within driving distance for us, since we know that festival attendance can increase your chances of receiving an award.

3. Leverage film festival media coverage — At Cine Mas, the San Francisco Latino Film Festival “Smuggled” got covered by NBCLatino. This put us on the map for other media outlets. NBC’s coverage led to ABC News/Univision articles.

4. Get on Twitter and learn how to use it — Hopefully, you’re already on Twitter, AND using it to connect with your core audience. Almost every single media piece and film review for “Smuggled” came through Twitter. We’ve used Twitter to identify bloggers to review the film and to connect with our core audience through niche twitter chats. It’s quality, not quantity. If you’re connected with a lot of people, but they aren’t the right people, it won’t really matter.

5. Evaluate and Assess — It’s important to constantly evaluate and assess your outreach efforts, especially when doing it yourself. Our company is small. Our time is limited, so we have to spend it wisely. If we realize a strategy is not working well, we assess and make changes.

6. Find your niche and you’ll find your market — Through honest re-evaluation and assessment, we refocused our niche. We stopped focusing on VOD sales and focused on the academic marketplace instead — a market usually reserved for documentary films. We focused on specific professors we thought would be interested in our film, and it worked.

Writer/Director Ramon Hamilton and Lead Actress Denisse Bon with Riverside International Film Festival President Harki Dhillon

Writer/Director Ramon Hamilton and Lead Actress Denisse Bon with Riverside International Film Festival President Harki Dhillon.

7. Ask for help — Be clear about what you need. If you want reviews, reach out to bloggers/reviewers and ask them to review your film. (Make it easy – have a password protected link for reviewers). Know what you need help with. For example, after successful screening events at universities and colleges, we ask professors for quotes endorsing the film that we can add to our website and share on social media.

8. Stay engaged with indie filmmaking as a community and industry — I follow indie film thought leaders, marketers and producers that I admire on Twitter. Every other Tuesday, I join in with Seed and Spark’s #FilmCurious chats. I cultivate Pinterest Boards with the best articles/resources I can find about filmmaking, crowdfunding, social media, etc. I follow indie film publications and film festivals. This is how I ended up reading an article about selling documentaries to universities and colleges, and realized this approach could work for us. If hadn’t read that article, I might not have considered this strategy for us.

9. Put the pieces of the puzzle together — There’s not one magical thing that will make your film a success. It’s never that way for any film, not for that surprise film at Sundance or the indie film that wins an Oscar. Success comes when that “one thing” is just a piece of the puzzle and not really one thing at all. For us, it seems like the “one thing” was deciding to sell the film to the academic market. However, if we hadn’t had film festival acceptances and wins, major media coverage and endorsement quotes, our academic outreach might not have worked.

10. Build your email database along the way — At every screening, we build our email list, and talk about our company. We want to build a core audience interested in supporting the types of projects our company focuses on and not just this one film. We want to be able to reach them directly. The emails in our database are ours (and aren’t controlled and owned by a third party like Facebook and Twitter).

11. Don’t be afraid to give your film away, even if it’s only now and then — Even from the beginning, when the VOD became available, we had a secret Youtube link, which we could use for reviewers. We would also share that link through social media now and then to jump-start interest. We did a few initial academic and community screenings for free. These freebies provided us with credibility when reaching out to the academic marketplace on a grander scale for sales and honorarium support screening events.

Have you self-distributed a film successfully? Hit me up on Twitter (@IndieJenFischer) with what worked well for you. Want to know more about our film? Check out

Jennifer Fischer

About Jennifer Fischer

Jennifer Fischer is a film producer, editor, and the co-founder of Think Ten Media Group. Her latest multi-award winning film, "Smuggled,” saw her tackling distribution, successfully securing theatrical screening events at universities, colleges and community organizations throughout the United States and abroad. She fell in love with filmmaking while at Harvard getting her MA in Middle Eastern Studies as she discovered the power of media to explore difficult topics. Her first short film, "Songs of Palestine," was presented in conjunction with her Masters Thesis and premiered at a Quaker International Relations Conference. Jennifer also ran a film festival for 7 years when she first moved to California, and she curates various film-related boards on Pinterest; her Film Articles and Resources Pinboard was recognized by Indiewire as one of the Top 10 Pinboards for Independent Filmmakers to follow. She is currently producing, “The wHOLE,” a short film series about mass incarceration.