Why You Need to Put the Film Distribution Cart Before the Horse

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Remember Cinema Paradiso? Wouldn’t it be great if film distribution was all about Alfredo getting on his bike to take delivery of whatever new release happened to be coming down the line? Unfortunately, things just aren’t that simple anymore, and probably never were.

The time to start planning your distribution strategy is before you even shoot your first frame. It may sound weird to think about selling something that doesn’t even exist yet, but your investors are going to want to see a plan, however speculative, and to produce one you need to have done your homework. Here are some of the things you’re going to have to come to grips with if your film is ever going to make it to any size of screen.

The “All-Rights” Deal

This used to be every budding filmmaker’s platinum dream. Your indie project opens to rave reviews at a film festival and a big distributor offers you a fat contract to take care of full distribution across all platforms. First of all, that’s unlikely to happen. Secondly, you may not want it to. By looking at each piece of the distribution puzzle separately, you are more likely to maximize the revenue possibilities inherent in each format. Additionally, distributors may insist on a cross-collateralization clause. This means that if they lose money in one stream, for instance on theatrical release, they can recoup somewhere else. You are seldom going to be on the winning end of that particular manoeuvre. Right from the start, plan to be signing several deals – not just one mega contract.

Theatrical Release

Screen time is bought and sold, just like any other commodity. And it’s really expensive. A filmmaker ends up with a very small piece of the price of admission because getting your movie to play on a big screen is such a costly undertaking. For instance, releasing a film on just 3,000 of America’s 37,000 screens costs over $6 million just to make the prints. The exhibitor is going to take a cut, the distributor is going to snag a huge piece of the pie, and all the costs associated with advertising and promotion are going to be deducted before you ever see a nickel. If your distribution plan begins and ends with Cineplex, you don’t actually have one.

Getting your movie into theatrical release isn’t about money, it’s about promotion. Nothing generates reviews, hype, publicity and name recognition as well as a new movie playing in town. From there, you can leverage its value when it comes to other distribution formats that may actually pay dividends. So, theatrical release can be a component of your plan, but never the plan.

Everything Else

In order for you and your investors to recoup on your film, you’re going to have to cut deals on at least two of the other distribution formats: DVD, VOD, Internet platforms, Television or Foreign rights. Both Americans and Europeans watch on average less than 4 movies in a theatre per year. That’s why you need to focus your attention on personal home viewing when creating your distribution strategy.

You’re going to have to make some hard decisions, and each comes with risks and benefits. Are you going to use an aggregator? That’s a middleman who will format your film for digital distribution and offer it to the big players like Netflix, Hulu or iTunes. Many will only deal with aggregators, so while you’ll pay a hefty fee, your movie stands a chance of getting out there. The hard decision comes if they insist on an exclusive contract. Play it smart, and get lots of professional advice before signing anything.

For some, the easiest way to deal with distribution is to hire a specialist. They’ll deal with the distributors, craft a marketing campaign, and allow you to stay involved in the process. Again, you’ll pay for the service but be spared much of the stress.

The bottom line is that investors want to see the end-game before the match has even started. The business plan you create must show that you at least understand the intricacies of distribution, and have given some thought to how you want to approach getting your film onto everything from theatre screens to iPads. In this case, putting the cart before the horse is the only way you’re going to get your goods to market.

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