Finding a reputable independent film distributor
The ideal situation was and still is to sign a distribution deal with a reputable film distributor who will then take care of all the possible distribution channels: theatrical distribution, television, DVDs, video on demand, etc. In the ideal situation, the distributor pays the filmmaker a decent advance and they then split the revenues after the distributor has recouped costs (this is known as Gross Adjusted Deal). What many filmmakers don’t realize is that the advantage of an advance payment from the distributor is not just about money — the real advantage of this sort of deal is that it really forces the distributor to do his best with the film, because they paid you an upfront fee for it and are therefore highly motivated to generate some serious revenues.
Conversely, with the First Dollar Split deal, in which the distributor and filmmaker do a 50-50 split with no advance payment, the distributor is not under as much pressure to do anything with the film and may completely waste your time and leave the film on the shelf until the contract expires and you manage to snatch it back. Many filmmakers have gone through this and it’s a real pain, so beware! Of course every filmmaker’s dream is to get a decent theatrical run for the independent film they worked so hard to make. This was extremely hard to obtain before the recession and is now all but impossible. Of course there are one or two exceptions every once in a while – “Paranormal Activity” is a good example of this — but if you consider the thousands of independent films that never see the light of day, I think we can all agree that the odds are spectacularly against you.
A producer’s rep is essentially a well-connected representative who can shop the film around to a variety of distributors and film buyers for the purposes of acquiring the best possible distribution deals. The amusing thing here is that finding a producer’s rep who is willing to represent you is almost as difficult as finding a distributor, but it is always worth a shot. Of course they will want to see the film and all the publicity material, to determine whether the film is marketable.
If your independent film is not marketable, nobody will distribute it, for the simple reason that there is no money to be made from it. If people do not think they can make money off your film, they will leave it on the shelf without mercy. This is probably something worth considering when preparing your feature film, but if you have completed your film and are seeking distribution, it is pretty much too late to do anything about that, although radical re-editing can sometimes make a film more marketable.
You have given blood to complete your independent feature film and have contacted every producer’s rep and independent film distributor on the planet — and they have all turned you down. Is this the end of your film? The answer is no. If you’re in this situation — a situation that many independent film makers find themselves in every year — it may feel like you are dead in the water, but actually independent film self distribution has been a viable alternative for years and is now better than ever. For example, with CreateSpace you can submit your film and all the artwork electronically — completely free — and your film will be available for sale as professionally-made DVDs on Amazon.com, where it can also be sold as video on demand. CreateSpace is part of Amazon.com and absolutely reputable. There are no start-up fees for filmmakers and it is guaranteed and instantaneous distribution. Sure, we all want to see our films on the big screen, but when all else fails, self-distribution will allow your film to be bought by as many people as are willing to watch it. Depending on how popular your film is, you may even make a good profit! Independent film self-distribution is now unquestionably the way forward for the overwhelming majority of small independent films.
Even before the massive economic recession, it was next to impossible to secure meaningful distribution for small independent films. You know the ones I’m referring to: ultra-cheap independent films shot with camcorders and of mediocre quality at best. The truth is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with cheap mediocre independent films: as long as they are marketed honestly and priced correctly, there is usually at least a small market for that sort of film. Many people enjoy scruffy independent feature films if they are quirky and enjoyable! However, the problem with these films is that they are impossible to distribute profitably via traditional means (cinemas, television).
For this reason, independent film self-distribution was the only option for niche independent feature films. Until a few years ago, this meant screening the film privately (a practice known as “four-walling”) or making your own DVD copies and selling them. When all was said and done, my guess is that very few of these feature films were seen by more than 1000 people, and did not make their money back, let alone make a profit. The filmmakers learned valuable lessons in filmmaking and the business of films, but it was not a viable business by any stretch of the imagination. The reason for the lack of economic viability of independent feature films was simply that, no matter how cheaply they were distributed, the costs always exceeded the revenues.
How can an independent feature film make a profit if it cannot even find 1000 people willing to spend three dollars for a copy or a screening? It just couldn’t be done, and independent feature filmmaking was essentially a cheaper and more effective option than attending film school and building a reel, but nothing more than that. The good news is that, thanks to CreateSpace, which is part of Amazon.com, it is now possible to make a profit on just about any feature film, because all the filmmaker has to do is upload the video file and the associated artwork to CreateSpace and within minutes the film is available for sale on DVD or as a video-on-demand download on Amazon.com. This solution is efficient and economical because it is fast and has no start-up costs for the filmmakers. You signup for a free account on CreateSpace, upload your materials and you’re ready to go.
The advantage of this independent film self-distribution approach is not just the enhanced likelihood of actually making a profit on your independent feature film: it also cuts out all those nasty, sleazy independent film distributors who have been taking advantage of independent filmmakers for so many years. There might have been a golden age for independent filmmaking, but filmmakers generally agree that there has never been a golden age for independent film distribution: the filmmakers almost invariably got screwed – every time, everywhere, with rare exceptions. Of course, when it comes to independent film self-distribution, one always had the option of ordering a batch of a few thousand professionally made DVDs and then selling those on Amazon.com. As an independent film self-distribution solution this is pretty good, but it made the filmmakers carry the cost of DVD replication or duplication. With CreateSpace, all of that is handled by them on a per-order basis. This reduces the costs and therefore also the risks for the filmmakers.
In short, despite the bad economy and a largely paralyzed independent film industry, it has never been so easy and risk-free for independent filmmakers to self-distribute their indie films, make their money back and perhaps even make a profit, depending on how many copies you manage to sell. Of course marketing and publicity will always be necessary, otherwise nobody will go to Amazon.com to buy a copy of your film, but Create Space has definitely made the process much more smooth. In spite of all of the above, many independent filmmakers understandably still dream of securing theatrical distribution for their independent film. That is what all filmmakers dream of, and understandably so! If you decide to attempt that route before going for self-distribution, I was given an extremely valuable tip by a film publicist at the Palm Springs Short Film Festival: when screening your feature film for potential film buyers and distributors, it is absolutely essential that you screen the film once only when all the interested parties are present.
Choose a screening date, give the film distributors and buyers plenty of notice and make it emphatically clear that there will be absolutely no sneak previews or DVD copies for anyone. This is because if you allow a buyer or distributor to take a look at your film on DVD before the main screening and they decide to reject it, the other film buyers and distributors are going to hear about it and it will kill your film’s chances instantly, regardless of its merits. All film distributors and buyers must watch your film at the same screening — absolutely no exceptions! In addition to making it impossible for an early rejection to kill your film, this will also garner your film a considerable amount of respect and might even generate some excitement about the film that no one is allowed to watch in advance! That’s a huge tip I was given with regard to theatrical distribution for independent feature films.
A few thoughts on independent film distributors
I have met a good number of small independent film distributors — the sort of distributors that nobody has ever heard of, but who nevertheless have distributed a number of independent feature films, with varying degrees of success. All I’m going to say about small independent film distributors is this: watch out. Be extremely reluctant to leave them copies of your film, and if you are in the early stages of searching through distribution, absolutely no film distributor or buyer should be allowed to watch the film ahead of the official screening of the distributors, because if somebody turns it down early, your film is instantly dead.
I was given this advice by an extremely reputable and successful producer’s rep at a film festival in the United States and, over and above the reliability of this particular source, this advice makes perfect intuitive sense, so we’d better take it seriously. I’ll say it again: when dealing with small independent film distributors, watch out. Be suspicious and reserved and try and get some references. Some of these characters are sleazy, so be prepared for that sort of experience.