Filmmaker to Filmmaker: We Need to Talk About Distribution
I’ll be honest. This article was born out of frustration. It sat in my Google drive for months. It has been through various iterations. It eats at me. I want it to be perfect.
A little bit about me: I recently came on board at Sundance Institute as the Artist Services Manager, meaning that I essentially get paid to talk about movie making and the thing no one has really figured out — finding your audience through distribution, marketing, and fundraising — all day, every day. However, at every meeting I have attended with an outside organization, conversation inevitably dips into a recognition that many filmmakers do not understand distribution.
I am a filmmaker. I am a filmmaker who works in distribution. It seems to me like there’s a need I can fill here by speaking transparently about the latter. But, there’s an impasse.
Filmmakers sometimes want to live in a world where an honest distributor sweeps up, buys their film, takes over the marketing and distribution, and just hands filmmakers checks. Filmmakers check out. In this scenario, there’s not a lot of desire on the filmmaker’s part to want to learn about distribution.
Possibly it’s because distribution seems intimidating, or like a lot of work (how many times can I use the word “distribution” in this blog?). So, in addition to breaking distribution into simple bite-sized strategies, I also want to encourage my colleagues to find the fun in distribution. Here’s my attempt. Also, please note I’m focusing this article on micro-budget filmmakers who cannot afford to outsource their distribution.
Let’s start at the beginning…
You spend years making your first (second or nth) feature and you are exhausted. You put the film together with spit and shoe polish and finally you are facing distribution. The first question you want to ask yourself is how involved do you want to be in your film’s release? By proxy, a few more questions arise: What do you want to do with your film rights? Do you sell all your rights to one distributor? Do you split them up? Do you self-distribute through a platform like Quiver? Do you sell directly from your own website?
Contrary to popular belief (based on informal polls of my filmmaker friends), these are all pretty exciting questions to think about! Things are constantly changing in the New World of Distribution. Unfortunately, the interest of exhausted filmmakers starts to wane once the film is completed. So, now you are fighting against time, receding passion, and the ever-changing forces of the market.
From one filmmaker to another, by taking control of your distribution you’ll be better acquainted with the reason you made the film in the first place: to connect with your audience. This, in turn, will push you to make the next film. Distribution will inspire you to produce more content.
What I want is to remind my friends who don’t have the resources to outsource distribution is that they have more resources than they may realize and that minor successes make a huge impact. Here are some ideas and anecdotes:
Minor Actions Have the Potential for Huge Reactions
In 2012, a friend of mine asked his (then) girlfriend to share my crowdfunding campaign for my feature film Bread and Butter on Twitter. This tweet was seen by one man who particularly responded to our Kickstarter video. Through our crowdfunding he — and agnostic god bless him — was inspired to hold a garage sale and donate all proceeds to us. Minor actions make a huge difference. One tweet can connect a patron and an artist.
As you travel with your film to festivals, as you network and meet people on the street — gather email addresses. Every email address you gather can be added to your newsletter. We did not play massive theaters, but we did manage to collect several hundred email addresses during our festival tour. One business card or sign-up sheet at a time. We reached out to these email addresses upon our release. Breaking it down, all it took was a clipboard we would pass around during Q&A’s, a mailchimp account, a calendar reminder to send out the newsletter and something to say to friends and family.
Each email, tweet or post helps you stay in the memories of your audience (patrons, friends and family, whoever your network is) and helps you connect and update them as you progress with your film.
In these updates, be an open book. If you share and/or offer transparency, you’ll help other filmmakers succeed and make your network stronger. A newsletter can be that resource and it is free. Make sure your newsletter is not self-serving — you can always provide information on what has worked for you in distribution, on what hasn’t. At Sundance, for example, we do case studies and we ask filmmakers to report back on their successes and failures. Information is powerful and… again, it is free!
As you network with friends, family and new colleagues remember that …
Distribution is an Emotional Process
Every person I met who reacted to my film Bread and Butter (whether positive or negative) helped push me to make a second film. It’s rewarding to hear the reactions of people who watch your work. Every Amazon review (and I look for them daily) I read and am inspired by. I’m not talking in the hundreds. There are about 30 reviews and most of them are from my family members, but every now and then a stranger sees the film. I want more strangers to see my work.
I screened the film in a city college near where I live and students chose to break my film down as a final essay for the class. These moments made me feel like my work has relevance. They’re a huge ego boost. It’s a wonderful emotional avalanche.
Whether you are self-distributing or working with an aggregator/distributor, find ways to connect with your audience. It’ll only help you and them. Offer to be a mentor — chat on the phone with someone about their projects. It’s always a two-way street. When more experienced filmmakers chat with less experienced filmmakers, there’s an opportunity to be plugged into the hunger that spurred you into filmmaking in the first place. Help yourself to not forget those feelings.
Stay Involved with Your Distributor
If you choose to work with a distributor, my best advice is to not hand the film to them and then disappear. You only get one release for every film and momentum is vital for the title’s success. Make sure you are talking with your distributor and try to find ways to supplement their outreach.
If you don’t understand something, make sure you ask! So often, in this world, people talk in acronyms — or talk too fast! However, you should be involved. If there’s a learning curve, climb it. Ask questions of your distributors while you are negotiating. Have them define exactly what they propose they will do so you understand it at a granular level.
As you prepare for your film’s release, remember…
Everything (And I Mean Everything) Should Be In Your Voice
Whether you are running social media for your film or you’ve connived some poor recent college grad to do it, everything related to your film should be in your voice. If you are a specifically perky person, exclamation points. If you use comedy as a defense mechanism, incorporate jokes!
Back to my first point: bite-sized actions have tremendous repercussions. In this fast-paced world, every tweet is a chance to connect with an audience member. Keep things personal by communicating in your voice. If you have a website, give an email address that somehow worms its way to you — don’t create walls between you and your audience. Use all the cool technology we have at our fingertips to allow you to connect directly.
By being the point of contact, you connecting with your audience only strengthens your bond and helps create a level of loyalty that could follow you from film to film.
Why should I listen to you, Liz Manashil, short pale jew-ish girl who is writing this article?
I am not a suit. I wear jeggings with crotch holes and Chucks to work every day. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so honest. I *ahem* dress casually. I work at a place that is known for being one of the last bastions to support “indie” film: Sundance. I’m not in this world for profit and I’m not directly benefitting from you being successful or involved in the distribution of your films.
The purpose of this article is to remind you that we’re lucky enough to make movies and to never forget that. Take ownership of your release. Think of it as your best friend that you get to hang out with every day.
Why listen to me? I am like you. I am a filmmaker! I also happen to have worked in jobs where we advised filmmakers on their distribution for the past four years. And what have I learned? Distribution is vital. By working at it, at whatever intensity you can spare, you’re only building and strengthening your career.
Now, get your films out there. Let’s go conquer the world.
About the Author
Liz Manashil earned her B.A. in Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and her M.F.A. from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Post graduation, Liz spent several years as an on air film critic for the PBS/Hulu series JUST SEEN IT (which she also helped produce and direct). Overlapping this, Liz worked with distribution guru Peter Broderick. Her debut feature, Bread and Butter, was released by The Orchard in September and can be seen on VOD nearly everywhere. Liz is currently in pre-production on her next two feature films and lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Laura Palmer. She recently joined the team at Sundance in Artist Services and is pitching a panel to SXSW’s Panel Picker all about inspiring women to make microbudget content.