Slate Up: Five Keys to Unlocking a Distribution Deal

In partnership with Film Slate Magazine, we’re publishing “Slate Up,” a fortnightly series with practical filmmaking advice and musings. New articles, written by the team at Film Slate, will be posted every other Monday.


Independent film distribution can sometimes feel like a mystery. Successes doesn’t always come for the most deserving films, and the failures of “can’t miss” titles often hinge on a series of unrelated mistakes. There will always be the flukes, the special projects primed to become overnight brands, despite the convoluted path taken, and the promising projects that are destined to fail, purely due to poor timing, a lack of proper funding, a misstep in execution, or simple buyer fatigue. “Nobody knows nothing” is still the finest grammatically incorrect truism there is, but it is the job of the producer to work countless hours in the attempt to uncover a teeny bit more than nothing, to predict the market and the audience‘s tastes as thoroughly as is possible.

Whether you’ve got the next critically-acclaimed masterpiece or the latest zombie slasher sensation, there are five steps you can take to maximize your chances of success in distribution. All five require hard work, preparation and a bit of luck, but knowing these steps will save you time, energy and the potential heartbreak of seeing your passion project disappear on a dusty shelf.

Here’s the caveat: employ all of these steps before your film is complete. The earlier you can prepare for distribution the better, and the wise indie producer will begin this process in pre-production.

1. Know Your Audience

Probably the most important thing a producer can do to maximize a film’s chances, and yet something that is often left unexplored. Millions of dollars are sometimes spent without someone taking the time to ask, “Who is the audience for this film?” “Where can I find them?” “How does this audience want their content delivered?” Ask this question before investing a dime in your project.

Several thousand films are produced every year, and the simple fact is, most of them are futile exercises. It’s the film business after all, and if your first concern is not the audience, just go paint something. Distributors certainly want quality films in their catalog, but a quality film with no discernible audience is incredibly difficult to sell. Distributors have marketing departments, and they are usually small, understaffed and overworked. The films with a clear audience will be given priority, and will perform better. Understanding the audience and working to quantify it is the first step, and if you can pitch a potential distributor armed with several recognizable interest groups and an understanding of those numbers, you will find a receptive ear.

2. Fill Your Toolkit

Marketing materials are the tools of the distribution trade: The more of them that you have available prior to distribution, the better off you will be. Many a filmmaker submits their project to a potential distributor without a trailer, no discernible artwork and a lackluster logline. Fill your toolkit with the things that put your film in the best possible light. A stellar logline and plot synopsis, strong key art, several professional stills, a good trailer (if at all possible), bios for all the cast a crew and whatever else you can think of that would convince a viewer to watch your film instead of doing any of the countless other things possible in the modern information age. Sure, once you sign with that rock-star indie distributor, many of these materials may be thrown out and replaced. But you’ve got to get that signature first.

Remember, the distributor is an audience member. They probably have 60 other DVDs on their desk. The ones with compelling press kits and trailers will get first dibs at their attention. It’s just the way it goes. How do you decide what to go see in the multiplex? Do you watch the trailer? Read the synopsis? Learn about the filmmaker’s previous work? All or some of the above, for sure. A low-budget production is not an excuse, not if you want people to see your film. Shooting a documentary for $6,000? Fine. Pay your wedding photographer buddy $50 to come to set one day and grab a dozen usable images. Your distributor will thank you for it and your investor will thank you for the positive return by backing your follow-up film.

3. Do Your Research

Somewhere out there, your future distributor is watching yet another terrible film, wishing they had the next Supersize Me on their desk instead. But, not every distributor is looking for the same thing. Take the time to research distribution companies and come up with a short list of the best possible fits for your film. The same can be said for sales agents, broadcasters, festivals, competitions and anyone else that programs content for an audience.

A distributor has an audience that is not based on the strength of any one given film. They have built their brand around a certain type of entertainment, and they are looking for projects that strengthen and reinforce that brand. SnagFilms is servicing a very different audience than Oscilloscope, who serve a different audience than The Criterion Collection, who serve a different audience than New Line. The same is true for film festivals, independent theaters and broadcast networks. If you do not fit with their general brand, it could very well be a waste of your time and effort. You are better served with a shorter, focused list of potential partners than wasting your precious distribution funds sending materials to companies that aren’t looking for your movie.

4. Chart Your Course

The path from development to distribution can be long and winding. The successful producer will create a road map for this journey long before they take their first step. Films don’t generally do well by mistake, and you should not lean on providence to complete your journey. Have a Plan A, B and C for distribution. And have it well before your film premieres. Premiere status is the only bargaining chip many producers have. Film festivals and theaters are in the business of selling tickets. Distributors aggregate views at the highest possible purchase price. And having it first is what fills those seats and moves those units.

Understand the pros and cons of premiering at certain festivals. Talk to other producers who have brought similar projects into those markets. Discuss release dates with your distribution partners, and analyze the risks inherent in dates and times. The studios claim their weekend premieres years in advance; most indies get four to six months at best. Do everything you can to line up your distribution windows (festival, theatrical, broadcast, educational, VOD, DVD, paid/free streaming, international, etc.) for the maximum return. And don’t be afraid to ask questions and get involved. Be proactive with your screening and distribution partners. And when your plan is laid out, sing it from every rooftop you have, physical or digital. It’s a loud world out there, and one must be both loud and smart to compete with bigger budgets, stars and events.

5. Prepare for Success

This last step is simple and elegant, yet can be enormously complicated. Have goals, outlined and understood by all involved. It starts with the simple question, “What result would make this project a success?” The answer will be as unique as the film. For some, it’s having the maximum amount of people see the project. For others, it’s helping to enact a change in policy or public thinking. For others it’s positioning the director to have his next film made, or nabbing a positive review in The New York Times. And then, of course, there’s money. Making as much of it as possible.

If you don’t know the answer to this question, you won’t see the result you are looking for. Research similar films and track their returns. Study their numbers whenever possible, at each step of their rollouts. Manage expectation, of the director and the investors, and communicate these expectations clearly to your distributor. If you are not on the same page, you will end the journey dissatisfied.

There are no hard and fast rules for distribution. Pick 10 successful independent films, and they probably got there in 10 different ways. But if you can impartially analyze your project, do your due diligence and prepare your materials, you will certainly maximize the chance for your film to break through in the marketplace. Whatever your picture of success in this industry looks like, it inevitably includes a desire to keep working. If you can crack the puzzle of distribution, you will continue to find directors that want to work with you, investors that happily open their pockets, and an industry that treats you as a peer. Don’t get discouraged. You can always lament your failures in an epic poem, penned in iambic pentameter. And not a soul has to read it for it to be a success. But dust yourself off, fire up the Internet, and start over. There are thousands of ways to get your movie out there. You can’t fail if you don’t stop. MM

Jason Chase Tyrrell is a writer, producer and distribution consultant from Venice, California, and the founder of Chunky Baby Productions. He has two feature screenplays in development. Previously, Jason was the director of acquisitions for boutique distributor IndiePix Films, and now develops “go to market” distribution strategies for independent producers as a founding partner of MILK & HONEY. 

This post originally appeared on Film Slate Magazine’website. Film Slate Magazine is a guide to the world of film and television. From craft articles to filmmaker interviews, first-person blogs to insightful opinion pieces, FSM tries to dig a little deeper to find the stories you don’t normally see from the filmmakers, producers, and actors who are making a difference. Follow Film Slate on Twitter and Facebook.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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