With a plethora of digital distribution platforms sprouting up like ragweed in a hay field, it can be easy to forget that some of those good, old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar distributors can do more than just steal a percentage of your film’s profits. With that in mind, MovieMaker sat down recently with Richard Castro of Cinema Libre Studio—a distributor of socially-conscious narrative and documentary features—to find out just what independent moviemakers can gain from a “traditional” distribution deal.

MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You get unsolicited films every day at Cinema Libre Studio. What are some things independent moviemakers can do in their queries to maximize their chances of avoiding the trash bin?

Richard Castro, Cinema Libre Studios (RC): Well, first of all, no film that is submitted to us ever goes in the trash bin. We review everything. That doesn’t mean that every film will get a distribution offer from us, but our philosophy is that if a filmmaker has taken the time and effort not only to make a film, but to submit it to us, then we should watch it.

But, what can filmmakers do to maximize their chances? Make it easy for us to immediately understand what the film is about and who to contact once we’ve watched it. That information should be on the packaging. If a film is sent to us in a white sleeve with the title illegibly scribbled on the disc and no email address or phone number (FYI, we prefer the email address), then its enigmatic nature is already working against it.

If there is nothing about the packaging to attract us, then the film may not get watched with any sense of urgency. I don’t mean spend money to make a perfectly-packaged DVD case, or send discs with gilt-edges and 3D holograms or something like that. White sleeves are perfectly acceptable. If you have artwork, affix it to the disc or sleeve. That image helps us remember the film.

But even more importantly, tape, glue, solder, or otherwise permanently affix the following information to the sleeve or case in which you send the disc: title; genre (doc or narrative); MPAA rating if there is one; director; total run time; cast (mainly if there are recognizable names); video standard (PAL or NTSC); website if one exists; country of origin; language (e.g., is it in French with English subtitles?); film festivals at which it’s been officially accepted and/or won a prize; and synopsis. Please, please include the synopsis. All of this can simply be typed on a piece of paper and taped to the sleeve or plastic case containing the DVD. If you send an online screener instead, just list this information in the email. Don’t make it fancy and don’t make it wordy; just make sure it’s coherent, and that it won’t get separated from the case in which it was sent. Trust me, the acquisitions team will love you for it.

MM: What are some things a movie-maker can do (besides recording and editing great sound) in pre-production, production, and post-production to increase her chances of success with a traditional distributor?

RC: Here are three:

1) Think marketing before you even start shooting. The more appeal your film will have to a wide audience, the better a distributor will be able to sell it into multiple mediums—and for higher prices. I’m not suggesting that your indie art film has to be a “popcorn” movie, but a couple of tasty kernels here and there can’t hurt (casting some recognizable names if at all possible is just one way of doing this). No matter how much we like your film, if we believe it will be too difficult to sell it, we may decide against acquiring it.

2) Shoot the entire film in true HD if you can. Whether we’re talking movie theatre projection or the most popular streaming and VOD platforms, it’s all ones and zeros now. Shoot your movie in the highest definition possible and it’ll be a lot easier for your distributor to prepare it for sale to exhibitors, television, and digital partners. Does this mean we won’t acquire a film if it isn’t in HD? Of course not. But hi-def tends to put a twinkle in the eyes of our sales team.

3) Rights clearances. This pertains mostly to the indie world, but please, clear those music and footage rights if you can before you send us the film. Look, I understand that you adamantly believe that Maroon 5 song you dropped into the end credits is the one crucial element that pulls your whole film together, but I need you to understand that I’m not going to pay half a million dollars or more to license it. Instead, I’m going to recommend that you swap it out with your own piano rendition of 1907’s “Sweet Pickles” by Theron C. Bennett for free and call it day. Now, we specialize in documentaries, so we receive quite a few films with footage that relies upon the fair use doctrine. This is not uncommon with docs, but I urge filmmakers not to fill an entire film with unlicensed footage and assume they can simply claim fair use to avoid a lawsuit. Do your homework and talk to lawyers who specialize in this area if you can. If you still have serious doubts, it may be smarter not to include the clip. If a distributor—especially an independent company—fears they may be sued for releasing a film, then they may decide it’s just not worth the trouble. If we acquire your film, we will want to release it as widely and successfully as we can. The more you can do to have it cleared and ready for launch, the sooner and better we can launch it.

MM: In the DIY filmmaking age, a lot of moviemakers are starting to consider forgoing traditional distribution altogether. With that in mind, what does a brick-and-mortar distributor like Cinema Libre offer that a DIY VOD platform can’t?

RC: VOD, plus everything else. Granted, not all indie distributors are full service like Cinema Libre, but one thing that definitely makes us unique as a brick-and-mortar outfit is that we handle all forms of distribution within one company. Whether it’s theatrical, DVD, digital, television, international, and/or educational, we do it. In addition to that, we have in-house marketing, PR, graphic design, web-design similar to the one on WebCitz, and post-production departments. In other words, we can cohesively foster every single detail of a film’s release process, which allows us to maximize its overall exposure and sales potential while also saving significant costs that would otherwise get passed on to the filmmaker.

MM: In the current economic climate, when production and distribution budgets are tight, can an independent film still hit a home run? If so, what is a home run these days? What can a DIY moviemaker expect to see financially if all the cards line up?

RC: Sure it can. What is a home run? I’d say in the most simplistic terms, it’s getting your film seen by as wide an audience as possible, recouping the production budget and the distributor’s marketing and distribution expenses, and making enough profit for the filmmaker to finance a new project and for the distributor to survive comfortably—even if the rest of the titles on its slate that year only hit singles and doubles.
Can I give you a specific dollar amount? I suppose so, but at the risk of sounding like a politician, I’m not going to because a) it truly depends on multiple factors and b) the concept of a home run is certainly subjective, based upon—shall we say—the level of reality on which all parties are operating.

MM: Successful distribution, more or less, is inseparable from good publicity. Besides making your movie as good as it can be, can a moviemakers’ persona help get press excited about a film? If a director stands out from the crowd, in other words, does that help you sell his or her film? And if so, do you have any pointers—or case studies—of marketable filmmakers whose personas helped sales?

RC: Marketing and publicity are absolutely crucial factors, and I would also point out that after all is said and done (and believe me, a lot is done to distribute a film), what it boils down to is the film itself. Either people like it or they don’t. The ol’ “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” truism applies here.

Yes, of course a filmmaker’s persona can help. There are directors like Kevin Smith or Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock who could all arguably still be considered indie filmmakers. But keep in mind that what these guys did first was make good films that audiences really enjoyed watching. They all happened to cast themselves, and because people loved their movies, their personas took on a life of their own outside of said films. Distributors would love to get the next Kevin Smith film (yes, Kevin, I really wanted Red State) because they don’t have to explain to buyers, audiences, or the press who Kevin Smith is—that and he also makes good movies. So yes, persona can definitely help sales. No doubt.

Now, would I advise filmmakers to start casting themselves in all of their future movies? No. Not everybody can pull it off. And the reality is—especially with regard to indie films, and even more so with indie docs—the moviemaker is probably not going to come in with a persona that stands out from the crowd. And that’s okay. If the movie is good, then we as the distributor will help it stand out so that one day, that moviemaker’s persona can stand on its own. MM

Cinema Libre Studio is a leader in distributing social-issue documentaries and narrative features by passionate filmmakers. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the Cinema Libre team has released over 100 films, including the Sundance Audience Award-winning Fuel, The End of Poverty?, and Oliver Stone’s South of the Border. For more information and updates, visit www.cinemalibrestudio.com.