When a major studio produces a movie, they’re footing the bill. They’ve got the financial resources to pay for everything from script development to the final edits, and are taking a very carefully calculated risk that the movie is going to make money. Directors are basically contract employees, being paid a fixed amount to do a job.
Even where directors and other executives have negotiated for a percentage of the net profits, there’s not much compensation to be had on the back-end once the bills are paid. The studio is assuming the risk, so the studio gets the profits. On the other hand, if the film bombs, they have to suck up the liabilities while the director gets to keep their pay.
Independent filmmakers are trying to recoup their investors’ money through distribution and unlike the studio-paid directors, they’re the ones left holding the bag if the film doesn’t sell. The distributor is a separate entity who is buying a product they get to see before acquiring. They’re not taking a blind risk. That means an independent filmmaker’s leverage is based on the quality of their film and the amount of positive hype that has been generated before its first screening.
Every independent filmmaker wants to land a distribution deal. After all, it’s not much fun to make a movie nobody is ever going to see. A distribution contract at all costs, however, can mean a deal at no profit. The distributor tends to have more bargaining power, and you need to take concrete measures to increase your own before sitting down at the table.
1. Never Send Anyone Anything
An essential step in your distribution strategy should include inserting your project in the trade listings so that potential distributors know it’s in production. That means, however, that they may call to see a rough cut to try and secure your project ahead of the competition. Don’t do it. If they’re already interested, that’s a good sign, but you could kill a great deal by showing something that isn’t polished and sounds crappy. Make them wait until you’re ready to unveil the best product you can deliver.
Same goes for the final cut. Don’t mail it to anyone. The only way to truly appreciate a cinematic work is in a theater with an audience, so don’t give any distributor a preview before you’ve had the chance to mount a real screening.
2. One Chance to Launch
You’re only going to get one chance to launch your film, so make it a good one. Start by submitting to the major film festivals, and work your way down if you can’t snag a spot at one of the more prominent ones. Don’t worry – if you don’t get accepted, the distributors will be none the wiser. If you do get accepted to a festival, start building your strategy. You’ll need an agent, a PR team and eventually a good lawyer.
The main advantage to launching at a film festival is that your movie will begin to build a profile. That means media coverage, quotes, and hopefully awards. If you’re not fully prepared to maximize your exposure, you’re wasting the best opportunity you’ll ever have to raise your leverage with the distributors.
If you don’t secure a spot at a festival, you’ll need to orchestrate a screening for distributors. Pack the theater with your friends and family and make sure you invite distributors who are interested in your genre. Again, do your homework because you don’t want people heading for the door halfway through your screening. Distributors of film noir aren’t going to sit through your parody of The Hangover.
3. Don’t Sell Yourself Short
As anxious as you are to nail down a distributor, don’t give away your product to the first interested buyer. The distribution field is large, complex and multi-faceted. You should be open to signing several different agreements for foreign distribution, DVD, VOD and the multitude of streaming platforms. Your chances of getting a comprehensive agreement with one distributor are very small, so be aware of the market potential and be patient.
Many independent filmmakers balk at the prospect of distribution. The “business” part of filmmaking seems somehow at odds with their creative nature. The truth is, however, that if you don’t get your first marketable film before some kind of audience, you’re going to have a very hard time making your second one.