Congrats on submitting your film to an acquisitions department and getting interest back on your film. You’re ready to talk specifics, but this is your first time working with a traditional licensor and you may not know what to ask at first. That’s ok. Hopefully someone has given you some great advice, I’m gonna give you *supplementary* advice. Get your main advice elsewhere, here is just a short list of questions you can ask a distributor to get negotiations started:
- Does your licensing agreement cover domestic or worldwide territories?
- How long are the terms of your licensing agreements? What do you suggest filmmakers do at the end of the term limits?
- What is the structure of your company? As in: How many employees work there? How many roles do you contract out (marketing, artwork, theater booker…)?
- For each outlet, what is the route at which your company is connected? Do you work directly with an aggregator or sub agent or other middleman in between you and the outlet/platform we are seeking? Please outline the structure for each outlet/platform so I can better understand your business relationships.
- Please explain your TVOD, AVOD, and SVOD partners and the order in which your company aims to release to these partners. Is there any reason you would hold back from SVOD for any extended length of time?
- Can you supply me with 2-3 names of other filmmakers that I have permission to contact to ask questions about your working relationship?
- What are the general lab fees, insurance fees, or any other up front and out of pocket expenses you expect for me to be able to pay once we sign an agreement?
- May I see a redacted copy or get an overview of what your quarterly reporting will look like? How detailed are the gross/net proceeds from the individual outlets? Will you itemize the manufacturing, overhead, transportation, catalogue listing, … costs or will all the overhead/costs/fees be summarized to just one line item?
- How will your company communicate with me moving forward? Will I have a point person to send me release dates? Will I be made aware of all release dates for each platform before release? Do I discuss accounting/reporting concerns directly with your accounting department or with a point person?
- Will you add a clause that we can purchase 100 DVDs up front ‘at cost’ to be delivered to us prior to the DVD release so that we may get those copies signed (or whatever) for special promotions/photo shoots with DVD/marketing materials leading up to release?
- Does your company respect 3rd party obligation statements in regards to final approval of artwork before going to print? May I receive all artwork for final approval and quality control prior to print? Will I be able to ask for small adjustments at that time if necessary?
- May I request a DVD be sent to me for me to personally inspect it/watch it for errors (and see DVD menu, special features) prior to order for main release?
- When would you expect to release my title? What time of year works best with this genre and what are the benefits that I can focus on in my personal marketing efforts?
- Whose faces and names, if any, do you plan on putting on the cover/poster? What genre will the poster most look like? How are you planning on marketing this film? What is the audience that you see for the film?
- When it comes to theatrical, broadcast, DVD, digital/VOD, … in what order do you expect those releases and where do YOU suggest we push the most?
- If we end up being able to bring a publicist to this release, with whom does the publicist communicate? Is there a process already in place for writing a press release? What other publicity and marketing assets should we consider prior to each release platform? What has worked well with your titles in the past?
- Should we release an official trailer on our own channels or are you releasing a trailer on your channel or with your connections on a bigger platform? Is your team planning on re-cutting a trailer? Will we be charged for that edit? Is this an in-house editor or a contracted position?
- Would you outline what type of work our team should expect to be our responsibility vs your responsibility in regards to announcements? Do you have a following where you announce release info or marketing materials publicly for us to ‘share’ or are all audience interactions originating with our team? Including trailers, press releases, the announcement of this agreement, ….
- Does your accounting team send out tax paperwork through the mail only? Or do you have a digital option for quarterly reports and/or tax documents?
- How many films does your team release a year? How many in this genre? How many in the last 3 years in this genre? What type of ‘placement’ do you expect with this title/genre/film in light of those other releases?
Do your homework. They will not spend a dollar on consumer marketing, that’s not what a traditional licensing agreement covers. That’s not really what a modern indie film distributor does at all. You want to work alongside a company that is honest, that gives you written answers, and that honors your film. No, you won’t like their poster. No, you won’t like their DVD menu. No, you won’t like dealing with the lab or QC process. No, you won’t like that your release has NO marketing support and barely makes it to half the platforms you were hoping. BUT you should at least let them know that you are willing to partner with them if they do their best to make sure your film gets equal treatment with the rest of their catalogue for the year. You should make sure they know that you expect on time quarterly reporting with outlet details. You should let them know that you want all answers in writing for legal recourse.
Your distributor will not be your best friend. There may be fights. But you both have similar goals, which is to make your film as successful as you both would have discussed before signing. A distributor is usually a person that is easier to understand if you can get a sit-down conversation with them, so aim for that, too.
God speed. And take copious notes for yourself. You don’t want to waste your career potential relearning this process on more than 1-2 films. I keep learning more with each film, but I don’t relearn the same lessons.