No money upfront. Pay to play. High marketing fees. Package deals. A possibly fake office.
Those are just a few of the distribution-deal red flags an esteemed panel of Texas filmmakers advised their fellow creators to avoid at a panel Saturday called The Reality of Indie Distribution. It was presented by the El Paso Film & Creative Industries Commission at Visit El Paso and supported by the El Paso Film Festival.
The panelists shared the good, the bad and the ugly about getting a distribution deal, aka getting a company to release your film on streaming, DVD, and – if you’re lucky — in theaters. The good news, moderator Wally Lozano explained, is that everyone has the means to make a film — a phone — in their pocket, and can get a worldwide audience on social media. He also advised that the best way to draw a major distributor, like Sony, for example — is to make a project that generates incredible buzz, and wait for the majors to come to you.
There was a little more good news, too, but mixed with some bad and ugly.
Kerry Valderrama, a veteran airborne infantryman, recalled how he made his first film, Garrison, for just $3,000, and his second film, Sanitarium, for $300,000 — 100 times his first budget. Sanitarium attracted big names like Lou Diamond Phillips, Malcolm McDowell and Robert Englund, and both of his films scored distribution deals.
But Valderrama, a San Antonio-based filmmaker who heads Alamo City Studios, said he’d seen and heard of lots of shady distribution deals in his time — including ones that ask filmmakers to hand over their films for no upfront payment, or even to pay to have their films distributed. Some distributors also ask filmmakers to agree to high marketing costs, in the $75,000 range, before they see any payout for their films.
“First step, if they’re not offering you any money up front, I think that’s a really red flag,” Valderrama said. “Take your time. Really read that contract.”
Also: Get a lawyer.
Added El Paso-based director Lucky McKee, whose latest film, Old Man, scored an admirable deal with Hulu: “He’s exactly right. He took the words right out of my mouth.”
Andrew Jara, whose psychological horror film The Empty Space was earlier this year through BayView Entertainment, recalled no-money offers for past work, and advised filmmakers never to pay a distributor: “I mean, obviously, you don’t ever want to pay them, because then it takes away their incentive to sell the film for you because they’ve already gotten paid.”
He also recommended listening to your gut: He remembered a distributor who kept asking to meet at Starbucks because his office was always being worked on, or cleaned, or closed. He came to doubt there was an office.
Fort Worth filmmaker Tyler Russel, whose 1960s-style horror film Cyst was distributed by B-Spree Pictures, urged filmmakers to be careful, because contracts with distributors can be long: “Basically you’re getting married with them,” he said. “They’re gonna have the film for years, way longer than you can imagine. There are seven-year deals, 12-year deals, 15. … You’re gonna work the hardest, they’re not going to work as hard as you.”
Lozano, meanwhile, once turned down a distributor who wanted to sell his film in a package with several others.
“My big red flag where I was like, I don’t want to be in a bunch of films. I want you to be really pushing our film, as opposed to 50 other films where maybe three of those films are gonna make money,” he said.
But there was also reason for hope.
Dakota Thomas, an El Paso-based filmmaker whose work includes 2021’s Bedridden, has avoided bad distribution deals through a blunt self-assessment.
“When I was looking for distribution, I think you sometimes have to be realistic with yourself — what kind of film do you have? Do you have the next Titanic? Or do you have not that?” Thomas said.
“I felt like I knew we were somewhere in the middle, and we had such a shoestring budget, but we still were able to pull off something that I felt was more than just me maybe distributing myself, burning it myself, giving it out to people or putting it up somewhere for free. I thought were a little above that. So I started reaching out to distribution companies that I felt were within my genre.”
After a successful festival run that included El Paso, the film earned a distribution deal with SRS Cinema.
All the filmmakers agreed that no matter what happens, you are ultimately responsible for generating attention for your film. And they encouraged filmmakers to be creative.
McKee recalled that one audience member was deeply disturbed by his 2011 film The Woman — and began railing against it in the theater. So someone on his team recorded the person’s complaints — and shared them online to promote the film.
Main image: Filmmakers Kerry Valderrama, left, and Dakota Thomas. Photo by Drew Mayer-Oakes, courtesy of the El Paso Film & Creative Industries Commission.