A Sale Unto Oneself: About To Have Your First Market Experience? Here’s Why Self-Distribution Is the Way To Go

Every indie moviemaker has the fantasy of premiering a movie at Sundance, then selling it for millions after an all-night bidding war between leading distributors who are desperate for it.

Of course, if you know anything about the film market, you’ll know that the reality is usually very different. I’ve had a film play at Sundance and lived to tell the tale, and believe me, it was nothing like you’d imagine. So, what can you expect? What are the realistic goals and aims in get- ting your film distributed, whether it gets accepted to a big festival or not?

The first thing to know: The film distribution world changes every second. What’s true one year becomes redundant the next because of the ever-changing nature of film spectatorship. Much like 2018, the year I took my film to Sundance, 2010, was marked by an all-time low for film sales. In fact, only 10 percent of features at the festival that year scored a conventional distribution deal. (Compare that to 2015, when 80 percent sold!) What changed during that time? Two words: digital streaming. Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu swept in with big checkbooks and seemed to be the saviors of the indie film world. But now that those major league streaming companies are investing billions of dollars in producing their own content, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever again be snapping up films at Sundance in the same way.

The key is to think, and think early (i.e. before production), about your distribution goals. You can have your fantasy scenario: “We’re going to premiere this movie at Toronto International Film Festival and sell it to Sony Pictures Classics.” But the others should be grounded in pragmatism. The research you’ll conduct to identify the audience for your film and how you’ll get it to reach that audience needs to be completed before you even enter development.

I readily admit that neither my producers nor I did this with my first film, Obselidia. We were making a quirky indie for $140,000 with no stars, and like so many first-timers, we were beyond thrilled just to be making a movie at all. When it got picked out of the slush pile to premiere at Sundance, it was like lightning striking. We couldn’t believe our luck and started to imagine that perhaps our movie would sell for big bucks. (Couldn’t lightning strike twice?) I recall Googling, “What to do if your movie gets into Sundance?”—I really was that clueless—but I followed the advice I found: Hire a PR person, get a sales agent, buckle in for the ride. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’ll share with you what I should’ve done differently.

1. Plan the release of your movie yourself, and use the publicity of the festival where it’s playing to launch it. I now know that
a unique film like Obselidia’s chances of netting an all-rights distribution deal are almost always slim, so if you’re in a similar situation, immediately consult with a DIY distribution expert to create a realistic plan. Depending on whether a theatrical release is part of your vision, you might then bring on an experienced theater book- er, so you can aim to land your feature in theaters a month after its festival premiere. 2. Hire a PR person to craft a longterm strategy focused on audience awareness of your film—not just publicity during the festival.

3. Depending on your estimation of your film’s international appeal, consider an experienced foreign sales agent, along with a lawyer who can negotiate any deals for you. 4. Weigh up which service to use to launch the streaming of your film. (Quiver or Distribber would be the front-runners today).

Remember: When we talk about DIY or hybrid distribution, we’re talking about a way to release your film without signing a single deal to sell all rights to it. Rather, you’re going to divvy up the rights in smaller deals, which may include theatrical, non-theatrical/festival, TVOD (i.e.transactional platforms like iTunes, Amazon, and cable On Demand), SVOD (i.e. subscription platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime), package/DVD, and foreign rights (which are determined by territory). For most independents, although this can be a lot of work, splitting the rights like this is a far preferable and more profitable route to take.

At the time Obselidia got into Sundance, though, we thought a sale was possible and made that our Plan A. We didn’t consider what a DIY release would look like, and in 2010, streaming didn’t exist in a meaningful way. We interviewed a number of sales agents and opted to work with a lawyer who had experience in indie film sales. He was solid, but in retrospect, hiring him was a mistake. If your singular goal is to sell your film (i.e. you have zero desire to self-distribute), you need an agent who’s crazy passionate, who has all the contacts, and whose life revolves around sales—not someone who will take five percent of any deal but isn’t really committed. A lawyer can negotiate a contract if there’s an o er, but he isn’t dedicating every waking moment to getting you an offer. Having a lawyer on your team is a good choice if your Plan A is self-distribution, and your lawyer is a back-up in case you do receive a decent offer—but not the other way around.

Here’s the thing: For most small indies with no stars, Plan A should always be self- distribution. It’s the most likely outcome, and if you make it your plan from the start, you have a shot at succeeding with it. If you don’t plan for it and then find yourself with no decent offers, you’ll end up cobbling together a self-distribution plan three years after you made the movie. Don’t worry, if Fox Searchlight wants to buy all rights to your movie for millions, you can always change your path. But this way, success is guaranteed no matter what.

Moviemaker Diane Bell Directs Obselidia, the film that gave her a wake-up call on film sales at Sundance in 2010. Photograph courtesy of Diane Bell

A lot of moviemakers are scared of self-distribution, but the truth is that conventional all–rights distribution deals aren’t always wonderful. In my 10 years of making films and talking with other independents, I’ve rarely heard anyone say, “I freaking love the deal my movie got!” In fact, I’ve never heard it. (If you’re a moviemaker who loved your deal, I’d love to hear about it. Email me.)

The trades make distribution deals seem awesome for everyone involved, but they’re often not exactly true. (What? Lies?! In the film industry?! Let’s just say our industry invented fake news before fake news was a thing.) Everyone wants to make the biggest publicity splash, so it’s in everyone’s interest to make deals seem better than they are. Hence, you get reports of sales “made” at Sundance that were really struck weeks before, stories of multi-million dollar sales that were really six figures, and most dubious of all: articles about films that have “sold” to distributors when in fact the moviemakers have made a service deal with them (i.e. the moviemakers are paying the company a fee to distribute their film, not the other way around). All of these lies make it more difficult for a rookie to get a realistic picture of their possibilities.

Beyond that, unless your film is a knock-out box-office success, it’s highly unlikely you’ll see another dime for it beyond the money that’s paid to you upfront. Distributors are amazing at creative accounting and in a typical deal, all of their expenses need to be paid back before they share any profits with the moviemakers. So, if you’re being offered $20K for all U.S. rights, understand that that’s all you’ll ever see from it, unless the film is a phenomenal hit.

This is why the amount that distributors will invest in P&A (prints and advertising) is so important. If a distributor intends to invest a lot of money promoting your movie, there’s a greater chance that it’ll break through and become a hit. Sometimes moviemakers will choose a distributor offering a lower sales price because of the guarantee of a bigger P&A spend or commitment to an awards campaign. These things can mean more to you than money up front.

The larger the sales price, the less control you’ll have over what happens to your movie, and even at low prices you might find your movie being re-cut or marketed in a way that feels wrong to you. Distributors are, for the most part, keen to minimize risk. Calculating profit over almost everything else, they’ll likely want to package your movie in a way that’s netted them success before and doesn’t require them to reinvent the wheel. Hence, they might take your feminist drama and market it as a thriller (as happened to my movie Bleeding Heart) because they believe that will sell more tickets. They might give it a new title, change the music, and cut a trailer with shots that aren’t even in your movie to reach an audience they know how to tap. The problem with this: The people who would love your movie won’t watch it, and the people who do watch it don’t love it because they’re expecting something different. This happens all the time, and can be devastating for moviemakers.

So what’s an indie moviemaker to do? Here are three key strategies that I strongly recommend to guarantee a happy result:

1. Read everything you can about current indie DIY distribution. (The Sundance Creative Distribution Initiative is a great place to start, as they provide relevant case studies.) Build an audience before and during production; if you can show distributors that there’s a market for your film (for example, your trailer got 100K YouTube views), you’ll be in a stronger negotiating position. The more work you can do before and during production, the more empowered you’ll be when selling it.

2. Don’t be desperate and accept any deal. Your movie deserves better; if you’ve taken the time to make it, take the time to ensure it will connect with its audience and won’t just disappear. Informing yourself early about the possibilities of DIY distribution creates a situation in which you can approach negotiations from a place of power, and not of fear (i.e. “If we don’t accept this low-ball o er, we’re screwed!”). You always want to know that there is another option, because there is. It’s worth reaching out to others who have distributed a film with the company you’re talking to (whether it’s Netflix or an indie distribution outfit) and asking them for some confidential truths. How much was their deal worth? What was good about the deal? What wasn’t? What do they wish they’d have known? The more information you have, the more empowered and better able you’ll be to make the right choice.

3. The bottom line isn’t just the dollar amount you’re offered for the rights—it’s also how your film will reach its audience. Ask any potential distributors a ton of questions on exactly how they see your movie, and what they will do to connect it with its demo and psychographics. Will they invest in publicity? How much and what kind? Who do they think your film’s audience is? How have they reached this audience before? What are their goals (in numbers) for your film? What would they consider a successful distribution for your film? Always ask for specifics. Make sure that their vision matches yours, and if doesn’t, don’t be afraid to walk away.

Although film distribution is daunting, the great news is that with technological advances, you truly don’t need a traditional deal. This has never been true before in the history of moviemaking. Summon the courage to get your film out there. Never let conventional wisdom hold you back, as I let happen with my first film.

Ultimately, the goal is not only to repay your investors, but to build your follow- ing so you can continue to make movies. If you achieve both of these, then in time, maybe that fantasy deal isn’t too far out of reach. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018. Featured illustration courtesy of Shutterstock.

3 Comments

  1. Cindy Baer

    January 12, 2019 at 11:09 am

    Fantastic article! Here’s my experience I’d love to share so that other filmmakers can benefit. https://www.scriptmag.com/features/how-to-make-a-movie/film-directing/true-indie-feature-film-self-distribution-cindy-baer-odd-brodsky

  2. Dixon Steele

    December 20, 2018 at 10:00 am

    Great article. Every aspiring filmmaker/producer should read it FIRST.

  3. Liz Manashil

    December 14, 2018 at 4:59 am

    Thanks for writing about our fellowship!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.