What do you want to do with your film? What are the goals? A writer’s calling card? A director’s festival baby? Exposure for your leading actress? Establishing a financially successful production company? There are 100 different goals for 100 different films (and sometimes those goals butt heads between the main producers, so establish goals before pre-production begins). Whatever your MAIN 3 goals are, that is how you decide to shop for a distributor OR do a festival run OR distribute the film yourself.
If you decide to distribute your film through a traditional domestic licensing deal with a mid-level company, make sure you communicate your goals to your distributor to help make sure you are both on the same team. Goal setting is my number one distribution focus. If you know your goals and communicate those goals, then everything is possible. If you go with a lower-barrier-to-entry non-exclusive licensing deal, be sure and communicate your goals and ask your distributor for ideas on how you can supplement your release to get closer to those goals. Ask what contractors you could bring on to facilitate the process, they can still work with you on brainstorming even if they don’t provide certain services. If you partner with a big distribution company, communicate your goals, but also prepare to sit back and let the machine do its thing. You’ll have much less say over the process, none really, but your film will have a fuller life with better placement.
No matter what the situation, you are responsible for keeping the team on track and requesting on-time reporting and answers to your questions. You are the real film representative, the licensor is just licensing your film, it is still YOUR film. You will have to fight for something at some point in the process, be prepared and ready.
Anonymous submission: Hired a Lawyer
“I didn’t get back residuals for [over 7 months], had to hire a lawyer” – Indie Female Filmaker, 2015 release ([bracketed]info altered/estimated in order to protect private identifying information)
Anonymous submission: Communication is Key
“My distributor hasn’t answered my emails/calls ([2 emails, 4 phone calls]) since our film was released 2 months ago. Their reception desk asks who is calling and then takes a message for me and no one ever responds.” – Filmmaker, 2018 release, ([bracketed]info estimated in order to protect private identifying information)
Are you interested in a sales agent? Whether or not you think you are, set up meetings with at least 2 companies to discuss what they would propose and how the process works. Look up their previous films (2 years past release) and contact those producers to ask about their experience. Take it all with a grain of salt, stick to similar genres and similar ‘star power’ to keep things realistic. Are you going to film festivals? Talk to a sales agent first, get some input on what to expect on the trail.
Our first sales agent sat down with me for in-person meetings 2 separate times. We weren’t sure if we were going to hire a sales agent at all (they take 10%), but for our first film we’re glad we did. We learned a lot.
Glen Reynolds, the CEO of Circus Road Films (founded in 2006) is at the forefront of new developments in what distributors are looking for in new features, “I have a staff that finds and sells the films that we represent for US distribution. I help negotiate the final agreements with the buyers. I also occasionally produce films.”
After all the changes in the marketplace, distributors still want great films on their roster, but Glen shared with us that, “the bar is higher for films without stars because there is so much content with stars.” Top grossing films on his roster have great talent, a hot genre, good storytelling, & marketable artwork. All of the above. His advice to help make your film stand-out are, “A great story, great characters, conflict, and work in a genre that you understand and enjoy. [And] Don’t make a horror film unless you love them.”
Finding A Distributor
No sales agent? Great. That’s ok, not all of us can pay up front fees and even more of us are wary of signing away 10% to a stranger. Let’s get you started on a SUPER indie process of finding a possibly successful distribution partner! It’s time to pull out your research software and get going. I’m a Microsoft Excel/Apple Numbers person. Also, you may need access to IMDb PRO or a friend with access to get some of the following info:
- Make a folder for pitching your film. Google all of these items to be put together as a full Electronic Press Kit (EPK) or just a dropbox download link containing these in a clearly labelled format of your choice. There are tons of sites to help you create what you need and descriptions of how to create an EPK or EPK download folder yourself. Don’t pay for any of these items UNLESS you know the company has a good reputation AND you are ok with a distribution company throwing away whatever you bring to the table for their marketing choice (I’m always ok with it. Getting a good distribution partner is important). Collect in your folder: a full metadata sheet, key art (poster), trailer link (private vimeo link ok), full feature link (password protected link required), up to 10 marketing stills from the film, headshots and short bios of main cast, headshots and bios of director/DP/writer/main producers/notable crew, production company logo and bios, any other unique marketing plans, any notable marketing focus See: value added elements below list (Music centered? add a music cue sheet. Notable Olympic athletes? add their bios and press support system), and your film goals (theatrical? DVD? Only digital? school licensing? church licensing? ….) because you want the team to have written intent of what you are looking to do with your film. You’ll be submitting this EPK or link or uploading individual files over and over in this process so keep it accessible.
- Here comes the research part: Write down the name of 10 film festivals (the types of fests that you may be entering and winning for the level of your film/genre/star power….). Write down more than 10 to be sure. Ask friends for help. Good fests with personal recommendations are best.
- Write down the names of the 3 award winning features per festival (3 years back, enough time to release after distribution)
- Look up which companies distributed those films, look up associated sales agents, look up associated publicists, look up the films to see what outlets you like that they may be on. Write down this info, never look something up without writing down the information on an organized spreadsheet, you’ll want to be very organized.
- Out of those 30 sources/films, you may have 10 solid distribution houses to look into more closely. Look them up, read their websites, and find 3+ films (2 years post release) from each company within your genre. Examine their poster, their trailer, their release outlets/platforms and get familiar with each film. You should now have roughly 30 films to look at again. What do you like or dislike? Write that down. What do you want to do that is similar? Write that down. Can you watch any of THESE films for free on streaming sites? Do so with a few, it’ll inform your choices.
- Contact THOSE filmmakers (always lead with having watched their film, filmmakers tend to answer emails that start from a place as an actual audience member) and ask about -their relationship with the distributor, -if they’d recommend them, -if they’d be willing to watch your trailer or look over your marketing materials for input, and -if they’d be willing to give you an email introduction to their ‘point’ person or acquisition contact at the distribution house. Proceed from there if any positive outcomes. Do this even if it seems futile, filmmaker community is IMPORTANT! Follow all of them on social media, you’ll learn a lot over the years of watching similar journeys diverge and grow.
- Go to your top 5 distribution companies from your list and go through their acquisitions process (usually listed on their website) and write them a cover letter explaining how you found them and the films you think are similar from their catalogue. If you have reference permission, site other filmmakers that recommended the distribution company to you. Open that door however you can.
- Wait 4-6 weeks (depending on their processing time) and check in with them to see if you can provide any other assets for them to consider your feature.
- No matter what the outcome, always write them a thank you email, you never burn a bridge. Also, talk to the next 5 distribution houses on your list from there. Keep going until a company will have a sit-down conversation with you about your film. No sales person accurately represents the film industry, take notes but don’t treat it as dogma, treat it as an informed opinion, that’s all it is.
- Be diligent, take notes, and save your progress for every step of the process, you’ll need to BUILD upon it for the next film, the industry changes quickly, but those companies are building upon how they work today and your relationship with them may span several decades even if they don’t partner with you today.
I spoke with my friend Dylan Reynolds, VP of Sales & Acquisitions for the domestic market at All Channel Films, Inc. Like many in distribution, Dylan’s work is ‘ever evolving,’ he says that, “At any given time I am either looking for content- putting submissions lists together for platforms/ channels- negotiating agreements/ contracts- and/ or overseeing delivery of assets.”
Dylan is also a talented writer and filmmaker. He shared some thorough insight with me: “Generally speaking, outlets are always looking for “names/ stars” or appear to be more prone to pick up a title that has some “value added elements”- which is usually an actor. But it can also be subject matter, title, and genre. Or it can even be “top tier festival” pedigree. The sad truth is that very little of it has to do with the actual movie these days- half of the outlets are picking movies based on trailers/ title/ and key art…Many have said before that film is more of a business than an art. And like I said before- very little of it has to do with the film itself. It’s very simple: can I sell this and can I make money off it?”