Don’t Wait for a Deal to Float Your Way. Self-Distribution Can Be Plan A For Your Feature

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David Larkin, CEO and founder of GoWatchIt, once argued that all independent filmmakers need to approach distribution with a solid “plan A for their plan B.” He meant: It’s highly unlikely you’ll get a great distribution offer, so you better prepare for that reality.

Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative helps moviemakers build audiences and sustain careers through innovations in marketing, distribution and data transparency. We’ve helped more than 200 filmmakers execute successful self-distribution strategies in the nearly six years since Larkin’s post. Yet the vast majority of these filmmakers came to self-distribution not as a strategic choice, but in response to depressingly low, or nonexistent, distribution offers.

You’re asking: Do I really need to plan for self-distribution? The recent explosion of distribution options has created a competitive market at the major film festivals. Over the last five Sundance Film Festivals, more than 80 percent of films premiering without distribution have been acquired. That’s a staggering number, even if most of the acquisitions aren’t A-level deals. So despite some notable self-release success stories—films like Upstream Color, First Girl I Loved, BURN, and Detropia—there hasn’t been a groundswell of moviemakers adopting a creative release plan.

That’s a mistake. The benefits of a creative release—where the moviemaker owns and controls the rights and creative direction of the film’s distribution—can be enormous. Steven Soderbergh made such a play this summer by releasing his latest, Logan Lucky, via a service deal with indie label Bleecker Street instead of a more conventional major studio. (He also financed the film largely through foreign presales, and split the returns with cast and crew via profit participation.) While revenues were modest, the move may spark more moviemakers to take a more active part in this process. Individual results, as they say, may vary.

Right now, we’re in the inaugural year of our Creative Distribution Fellowship, which is supporting Columbus and Unrest, two acclaimed films from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, in their efforts to build and reach audiences directly. We’ll be issuing high-level case studies for both films early next year. In the meantime, these are creative distribution tips and tricks that you should consider regardless of what stage your film is in.

Cast and crew of Columbus, which received distribution support this summer through Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship , directed by Kogonada (second from left). Photograph by Kyle Flubacker / Courtesy of Superlative Films and Depth of Field

To Self-Distribute or Not to Self-Distribute

Chris Horton, director of Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative: When do you decide to self-release? That’s a difficult question to answer, and will of course depend on your film and situation. Say you’ve premiered at Sundance or another top North American film festival. Chances are, you have a sales agent. Not every film sparks a bidding war once the lights come up—many films close deals in the weeks following their festival premiere. Ask your sales agent at the outset to tell you what you need to hear, not what they think you want to hear. If offers during or immediately following a top festival premiere are softer than expected, they are highly unlikely to gain steam as more time passes.

Time and again, moviemakers who ultimately decide to self-release do so far too late to be effective. They can find themselves in a trap, waiting to make decisions based on when the last distributor on a sales agent’s list passes. That process can take months—sometimes years!

For films that don’t premiere at a top North American festival, distribution deals can be even more elusive. I recommend setting a date—say six weeks after the first festival you premiere at—where you and your whole team, including investors, sit down and make a decision on whether to self-release or take the best offer you’ve got. Sometimes, the best offer is a deal that offers no upfront money and no theatrical release, but if it’s a reputable distributor, and you don’t have the time, resources and belly fire to do the work, it may be the right call.

Jess Fuselier, CDI manager of research and education: We’re not going to sugarcoat self-distribution: It’s hard work! That’s why assembling a strong supportive team and knowing how to delegate tasks is vital to the release of your film. Pull in a small nuclear team first—producers and associate producers—that can help you envision goals for your film’s release. From this foundation, you can begin to bring in the additional teammates and consultants needed to help you bring a campaign to life: a theatrical booker if you’re doing a theatrical release, PR to manage press opportunities, a digital marketing consultant for all things social media and digital advertising, an impact producer if you’re running an impact campaign, an aggregator for all of your digital distribution needs, and possibly an educational consultant if your film lends itself to educational distribution.

Goals and Platforms

JF: How to release a film is something we talk about every day. What is the best fit for this film? With the constant evolution of independent film distribution, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some films might benefit from a theatrical release, others would do much better focusing purely on a digital release, or creating buzz through a well-curated impact campaign.

Realistically consider your goals. For instance, if your main goal is to make as much money as possible, doing a traditional theatrical run might not be the best option for you. It might be a better use of your time to focus on digital distribution, or, if you have a large fanbase, explore a crowdsourced semi-theatrical campaign.

CH: These goals will likely be very different from the wishful-thinking goals you had at picture-lock. Many businesses create “SMART” goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. You should do this for your distribution plans. “Get nominated for an Academy Award” isn’t a smart goal—it’s probably not attainable. But “quadruple my Facebook followers by November 15” is an excellent goal: It satisfies all of the SMART categories.

Jennifer Brea in her documentary, Unrest, another Creative Distribution Fellowship recipient in 2017. Photograph by Jason Frank

Understanding, and Getting To, Your Audience

Liz Manashil, CDI manager: Often, moviemakers, when asked who their audience is, will triumphantly exclaim, “Everyone!” Not quite. When self-releasing, you need to be economic—because it’s your money! A slim marketing budget will convince you of the importance of knowing exactly who your audience is.

You should be thinking about who your audience is and how to reach them from the second you conceive of your story idea. That doesn’t mean you need to know exactly how you’re going to connect with them during pre-production. Rather, just think about who you think would enjoy your film and where they watch content. Do they go to theaters? Do they watch on their phones? This should impact how you tell your story. At the very least, as you develop your project, think about how and when you watch content.

That audience (and how to reach them) may impact the film that you make: the color palette, the cast you go after, where you choose to shoot. All of these elements also impact marketing! We’re in a fast-changing world, but certain things seem to be evergreen: genre films, cause-based documentaries and anything with a core, passionate and motivated audience associated with it. You could always gather a bunch of people in the community in which your story takes place and ask them how they watch content with a simple Google form survey. It does not take much, and could inform a lot of your production and distribution or marketing process.

A great way to build your audience (whether you choose to self-distribute or not) is to bring people into your world as you make the film. Instagram from set (if talent and their reps allow) and tweet about the travails of making your art. People want to be brought into your experience. Contribute to a culture of transparency from every pore and pixel.

Self-distribution means lots of social media, as Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship film Columbus demonstrates. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

.JF: Look at our fellowship film Unrest, for instance. The director and subject, Jen Brea, started engaging with her audience at the beginning of her filmmaking journey, and now has more than 16,000 Facebook followers.

Build your website and lock in those social account names as soon as possible. A caveat: Your film title may change, so only push for that social audience if you’re positive your name will stay the same. You can always reroute a domain name to a new URL, but you can’t do the same for a Twitter account.

On your site, present information about your film and its release in a clean, simple way. Regardless of whether you’ll be handling the creation of your website or handing this work off to a digital marketer or agency, a great tip for speedy preparation is to collect all of the approved pictures from set and key art associated with the film as soon as possible. Our fellowship film Columbus did a wonderful job creating a clean, aesthetically pleasing website (columbusthemovie.com). It provides all of the essential information—trailer, press kit, screenings, team, contact—in a simple format.

LM: As you make your film, keep updating and growing that audience. I personally feel filmmakers should be transparent about as many things (that won’t get people pissed off at them) as possible, so start a blog! Talk about how hard it is to make your film. Get information out there for people to consume.

JF: These blogs don’t have to be long essays. They can be short snippets of news. All of these things will help you get comfortable talking about your movie. It’s an uphill climb learning what pitches work in the short form, but as you create social media accounts and talk to people openly about making your film, you’ll refine the story you want to tell.

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