The Costs and Benefits of Creative Theatrical Distribution

By Liz Manashil

Sundance Institute
Oct 24, 2017 · 9 min read

I can remember when I sat down with someone from The Orchard to talk about their interest in my first feature, Bread and Butter. They told me they wanted to do a strictly digital deal.

“You sure?” I asked. “Maybe you should just take theatrical and it’ll be there for you, within arm’s distance should you change your mind?”

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To speak plainly, I took it as an insult that they didn’t see theatrical potential in my film. Why didn’t they want the theatrical rights? Are they not proud of my film? Do they want to bury it? I took on my well-trodden high school ugly girl persona and applied it to how people received my film. Truth is, some films are “theatrical titles” and some are not. Resources related to the theatrical world are limited and will only be doled out to the films distributors are sure have a passionate niche audience who will travel to see the film. Usually it has to do with a need to see the film on the big screen (grandiose cinematography) or the box office appeal of cast.

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The common presumption is that if your film gets picked up for a theatrical release, the distributor firmly believes in it, moreseo than its digital titles. And if you do it all yourself, it’s not as a choice, but as a last resort.

That’s not true. Like we often detail in the written pieces coming from our department, self/creative distribution is not a last option. It can be the first — and sometimes the best — option when it comes to filmmakers directly connecting with their audience and eliminating the middlemen. It could also be the best option for maximizing revenue back to the filmmaker. A distributor with no idea how or intention to market your film well is the worst case scenario. Self-distribution is an avenue where you have the person who knows the film best marketing it, and you’ll also retain (around) a quarter of your film’s revenue that would have gone to said distributor.

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Let’s take a few steps backward. A few months ago, I asked a larger group of filmmaker colleagues what questions they have about distribution and marketing. Here are a few of my favorite answers:

“I know so little that I can’t even come up with the words I need to know.”

“Stuff, like distributing stuff. Is it distributting? I might know something about that…”

“I don’t man… I know so little about the subject, I don’t know many words.”

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I get it. Filmmakers are often not interested in participating or learning about distribution. However, do you know what filmmakers ARE interested in? Getting their movies into theaters!

With our newly minted Creative Distribution Fellowship, two filmmaking teams are overseeing their own distribution strategy in lieu of doing an all-rights deal. These films, Unrest and Columbus, are both working with a film booker to book theaters nationwide.

Both of our inaugural fellowship films are near the end of their theatrical runs, which is prompting me to learn more about how theatrical distribution is done.

In working with our teams on their theatrical releases, I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to it than a popularity contest. We’ll go more in depth on the theatrical releases of Columbus and Unrest in the coming months, but for now, let’s single out theatrical distribution on a creative release and give some general costs — both emotional and financial.

Theatrical Costs Bank

It’s not just the cost of a DCP (Digital Cinema Package); there are also DCP duplications, BluRays, the DVDs to send to press, or the posters to display in theater lobbies. Some theaters may still require print advertising (space in the LA Times/New York Times etc.). Additionally, if you’re trying to drive traffic on social media, you’ll want to budget money for digital marketing. You may also be contractually required to fly and house talent for theatrical premieres. Check those deal memos! If so, that’s another expense to account for. We reached out to our fancy film booker friend Michael Tuckman for a breakdown of some of the common costs you may need to take on in a theatrical run — this list reflects just some ideas for a film being released in 10 markets.

Poster Design $2,000-$5,000
Poster Printing (300) $1,000-$5,000
Ad Design $250 per ad size
Trailer Creative $2,500-$15,000
DCP Creation $1,000
DCP Duplicates $150 each
Trailer blow up — flat & scope $500
Trailer copies (9) $25 each
DVD Screeners for Press $200
Material Shipping $1,000
Press screenings (2) $1,500
Postcards and E-Cards $1,000
VPFs: 0- $7,500
Print advertising budget: $5,000-$15,000

We also reached out to Matt Delman of 3rd Impression, who is working with Unrest, for his input on digital marketing costs and a timeline:

“In terms of budget, I would say that you can do a lot with as little as $10,000. Every film is different in terms of how much $$ to spend where. I would break down the phases of a film’s digital marketing campaign into:

Phase 1: Awareness — Audience Building, Page Like ads, Poster, Trailer

Phase 2: Validation — Rave reviews, Features, Interviews, TV and Radio appearances

Phase 3: Theatrical — Geo-targeted ads with a Call to Action button that links to the ticketing website or your own landing page

Phase 4 : iTunes Pre-order — A sharable 30s spot with a Call-to-Action button that links to the U.S. iTunes store

Phase 5: TVOD — A (different) sharable 30s spot with a Call to Action button, usually pushing towards iTunes, Amazon and/or Vimeo On Demand

Phase 6: DVD — An image of the DVD that links to Amazon or your own website. Message bonus features in the ad copy.”

Timing Is Everything (Especially when it comes to Day-and-Date)

You’ll need to decide for yourself if you want to do a Day-and-Date release (VOD + theatrical on the same date) or window out a theatrical run with a 90-day window before any other platform release.

According to Tuckman, many NYC theaters have strict policies against day-and-date films which would require you to four-wall your film to play there.

Four-walling is simply renting out the theater individually, and Tuckman suggests you plan this 3-4 months in advance. This costs a lot of money and includes the costs for a Virtual Print Fee, but you do get to keep 100% of all the revenue (A VPF is a ‘tax’ some theaters levy to account digital conversion costs).

Lots of things will factor into this decision, but most will have to do with your resources. Do you have the team to promote both theatrical and digital releases at the same time? Do you want a longer theatrical run before focusing on a digital release?

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Some of the faces behind the “Unrest” team: Director Jennifer Brea, flanked by her producers, global impact team (UK, U.S., Australia), consultants, and LA-based production company, Shella Films.

You’ll Need A Team

You’ll want someone — or several someones — to help you with publicity. Someone (or many) to help cut that trailer… make that poster… ship posters and DCPs to theaters. Help arrange moderators and panelists should you choose to eventize the booking and turn it into a discussion post screening.

In addition to the costs of deliverables, you’ll have to account for the cost of labor and your time to delegate tasks.

We encourage you to test your marketing assets until you finalize them. Self-distribution is a horrible title for what you’re going through emotionally and labor wise: you need a team. You need a team so you can spread the workload around, but you also need a team so you can better make the creative decisions. Crowdsource opinions as you cut together trailers and finalize your poster; reach within and outside your network to see how people react to your marketing material finesse and refine the branding of your film until you feel you’re targeting the right audience and communicating an attractive and authentic representation of your film.

Now that we’ve terrified you with costs, how about some benefits?

1) Transparency!

Whether good or bad, one good aspect of doing a theatrical run is those numbers usually get reported publicly and contribute to a landscape where filmmakers can see what type of content performs well. VOD data is not widely available as of now and that shroud prevents us filmmakers from creating comps of successful titles to compare ours to for projections and discussions with potential financiers.

2) Bragging Rights

Theatrical runs have unfortunately become shorthand (for those who aren’t in the industry) for meaning your film is a success. Someday that will not be the case. Someday the audience you grow and the money you make back — as well as your emotional well-being — will be reflective of whether your film is a success or not. As you see from our above breakdown, this success story comes with a lot of sacrifices and expenses and may not always result in net revenue. However, it sure as hell benefits the filmmaker proving themselves at family dinners!

Is it worth it? Let me sum up…

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Reasons for a theatrical run:

  • Theatrical distribution still projects (GET IT?) a certain business currency and achievement. It looks and sounds impressive.
  • Usually people make content with the goal of it being seen on the big screen. Art direction, production design, cinematography, editorial, and camera choices are based off of an image being projected at a certain size. The big screen is a unique and immersive experience and the inciting factor for why most of us are in this business. I can support why anyone wants to be a part of that.
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Reasons for not doing theatrical distribution:

  • Financially it will be a burden for any filmmaker at any level.
  • Ultimately when you make films it’s about your emotional need to get that story out into the world and to connect people with your work. A lot of that translates into audience building. What’s so frustrating about theatrical is that it’s a path of distribution that, unless you’re at every screening (or have a call to action in your credits), it is hard to connect with audiences directly from filmmaker to individual audience member.

It’s up to you. If you have the resources and you feel your audience is passionate and motivated to get themselves to the theaters, then I would encourage you to distribute your work theatrically. Or, if having your film in the movie theater is worth the expense and work, then you should follow whatever your artist heart is screaming at you to do.

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Personally, through the work I’ve done at Sundance, I realize that my work is better in a digital format and that my resources can be better channeled through making more work, and through investigating the merits of digital marketing. Ultimately I do not take what the Orchard did in branding my film as a non-theatrical title as an insult. However, if I ever start to feel slighted, I know there’s always an option to take the film out myself (now just to find the financing!).

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet in creative distribution, with an emphasis on digital marketing, consider applying for our fellowship here. Contact us at

*P.S. I didn’t mention alternatives to working with bookers in creative self distribution but it’s certainly an avenue to travel down and could be an economic and emotionally satisfying one. Please check out Tugg and Gathr as options if your distributor is not interested in theatrical rights.

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