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

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Using Festivals Wisely

LM: Festivals are a fantastic way for you to directly connect with your audience. It’s one of the few opportunities you’ll get to see who is attracted to and watching your film, face to face (if you attend the screenings)!

Firstly, have a few action items on hand during your Q&A. For example, ask people to like the Facebook page for your film—while you’re in the theater with them, after the screening! Do not overwhelm the audience with too many actions, though. Pick the one you want to focus on—if you want to grow your Twitter page, focus on that.

Collect email addresses. Whether it’s passing around a clipboard during the Q&A, or collecting business cards, make sure you get those email addresses. When self-releasing, an email address is gold. When you ultimately release your work, you can directly market to these individuals through a newsletter or personal messages. The more email addresses you’ve gathered means more potential customers to view your work and even pay for it! If you can set things up so that you can at least have virtual contact with your audience, you’ll be able to continue that relationship as people watch your film around the world.

JF: If you keep this audience invested and engaged, they’ll likely follow you through the trajectory of your career, not just through one single project.

Going it alone: Jennifer Brea and husband Omar in Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship film Unrest. Photograph by Jason Frank

Crunching the Numbers

JF: As you’re establishing your web presence and beginning to engage with your core audience, make sure you have tools in place that help you gather data on exactly who that is. Google Analytics and Facebook Insights are examples of useful tools that give you a window into your fan demographics. This rich data can help you assess the efficacy of your digital ad campaigns, give you an indication of where large communities of fans are located, and help you determine what type of content captivates your fans. Companies like Operam, 3rd Impression, and Sawyer Studios—data-centric digital marketing agencies—use ad sets to test their photos and videos (a.k.a. creative assets). They’ll run different ads to see which types of creative assets appeal to film audiences and will optimize their ads accordingly to reflect these preferences. Be open to all of the insights you gain from this data, as it will shed light on adjustments you can make in order to reach more fans. These adjustments could be as simple as changing the time of day that you post, to cater more to the behavior of your audience. Use this invested fan base as a sounding board and genuinely listen.

Kerem Kirun Sanga, the director of our beta fellowship film, First Girl I Loved, advises, “Once you find a segment that really engages with and shares your key art and trailer, direct your advertising revenue toward them. Don’t waste limited resources on advertisements directed toward segments that don’t engage.”

Formulating a Budget

CH: There’s no way around it: It costs money to self-release. Vendors, consultants, paid-advertisements, shipping and—most of all—your time are very real and significant costs that are hard to fathom when it feels like your film (and your investors’ investment) is underwater. This is why so many moviemakers resort to taking terrible deals. We get it. Yet a smart self-release can return much more money to a film than even a great distribution offer. So how much do you budget?

High-end marketing and distribution for a microbudget feature could easily match, or exceed, the film’s production budget. Total marketing and distribution costs for self-released narrative and documentary indies can often climb into the mid-five and low-six figures, with theatrical distribution being the biggest determinant. You can understand these costs roughly as:

  • Vendors and consultants: If you’re a well-reviewed narrative film, or an artistic documentary film seeking Academy-Award qualification, theatrical distribution is worth pursuing, and you’ll need at least a publicist and a theatrical booker. Depending on your expertise and resources, you can certainly cut your own trailer and design your own poster, but these services are often fulfilled by agencies. Those costs can really add to the budget. You also may want to consider bringing on a marketing consultant who can help build your audience profile and, when it’s time to release, deploy targeted ads on social media.
  • Deliverables: Again, theatrical will be the biggest driver of costs here. DCP creation, shipping costs, and VPFs (virtual print fees—basically, a tax certain theaters levy to account for digital-projection conversion) are some common expenses. If you’re doing digital-only distribution, costs can be much lower. Through a digital aggregator, like Distribber or CDI’s partner Quiver Digital, you can have your film on iTunes for less than $1,500.
  • Advertising and marketing: Simply putting your film up on iTunes or other outlets is meaningless without a concentrated effort to market, and these days, social media is the biggest driver. It’s TV, newspapers, magazines and every other mouthpiece all in one, and platforms allow targeted ads that are relevant to your intended audience. Even for a bare-bones film distribution budget, it’s essential to park at least a little bit of money into paid ads (mainly through Facebook) to build your audience and then deliver content to them in personal, relevant ways.

LM: Self-distribution is a long, involved process with tons of variables that could impact every individual strategy. Yet every effort you make during marketing and distribution will benefit you as a storyteller and get more eyeballs on your film. MM

Chris Horton is the director of Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative. Horton was previously the head of acquisitions for FilmBuff, and began his career with Miramax Films.

Jess Fuselier is a community outreach, marketing and data specialist and Creative Distribution Initiative’s manager of research and education. Jess works to cultivate meaningful insights rooted in data transparency.

Liz Manashil is a filmmaker and manager at Creative Distribution Initiative. Liz recently released her debut feature, Bread and Butter, and is in pre-production on her next two films. 

Featured image: Steven Soderbergh crafted an unorthodox release, forgoing studio distribution, for his 2017 feature Logan Lucky. Photograph by Claudette Barius, courtesy of Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2018 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on newsstands now.

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