6 Practical Steps for Film Self-Distribution

I’ve created this channel to help filmmakers understand that it’s not practical to continue chasing down the distribution unicorn. Selling the rights to a major distributor in an exchange for a large check is not how things work anymore in the entertainment industry.

I’ll be using Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat as an example of a success story in film self-distribution that will hopefully help you understand this process. They are both documentary filmmakers who set out to figure out the film distribution game after producing a few films and getting ultra low offers to buy. One film in particular is their documentary Age of Champions, which tells the story of five competitors up to 100 years old who chase gold at the Senior Olympics. What did they do? They rolled up their sleeves and got to work!

Before giving you the 6 steps Rufo and Ochwat took on their way to self-distribution, I’ll give you a quick spoiler of their results. They spent more than two years distributing the film and generated more than $1.5 million in revenues. More importantly, they got enough money in the bank to fund their next project and made the jump from part-time filmmakers to having a sustainable creative career. Woah! Now we’re talking!

The 6 Steps to Film Self-Distribution

1. Experiment and Define Your Audience

Finding your audience is the first step on the long road of your film’s distribution campaign. As early as possible, you need to start conducting experiments to find a concrete group of people who will pay for and spread the word about your film.

A good tip for this is trying to find things that would interest your audience. Build a persona. In marketing, a persona is a composite sketch of a key segment of your audience. Try to build about three to five of these and experiment with each one. You want to know who the person is, what they value, and how best to speak to them.

Rufo and Ochwat shared the film with nonprofits and businesses in the senior health community. Places like senior centers, retirement homes, senior health companies — and they loved it. They wanted to know how they could purchase it and share it with their local communities.

2. Play Hard on Direct Distribution

Although Age of Champions eventually landed a national PBS broadcast, Netflix deal, and iTunes/Amazon distribution, the vast majority of the revenue came from direct distribution on the website.

Create a range of products, like DVDs, community screening kits, educational licenses, and merchandise. Then, set up a simple online store using Shopify. Focus your marketing efforts toward driving traffic to your website. For Age of Champions, any time someone purchased the film, a series of automatic emails was sent to encourage them to tell their friends or buy additional products. In the end, they sold more than $300,000 in DVDs, kits, and merchandise directly through their website. This number represents 10 times more than all traditional distribution revenue combined.

I understand that some of you might be thinking that this is a little too much for your project. I’m speaking to an audience who believes in what they do and want to do it as a lifelong career. To make money you will have to invest some of it. Thankfully, there are so many resources out there to help you take steps in the right direction. In this case, Shopify is an amazing platform (not sponsoring this content) that will help you setup an online store in just minutes without having to break the bank! Okay, moving on…

3. Create Profitable Screenings

Community screenings are a fantastic way to create a human-to-human connection with your film. The trick is to make them profitable. Create a screening kit that includes a DVD, discussion guide, posters, postcards, and cheap giveaways — everything an event host needs to organize a successful screening.

Age of Champions sold 3,000 screening kits and generated more than $250,000 in sales.

4. Pitch Yourself as a Public Speaker

When an organization purchases a screening kit, send three automated emails letting them know you are available as a speaker. You can price speaking fees from $2,000–5,000 plus travel expenses. Always be clear and upfront. Rufo and Ochwat booked more than 125 speaking events and generated over $450,000 in speaking fees and follow-up sales.

5. Sell Your DVD to Universities

Did you know that you can either sell your DVD to consumers for $25, or sell the exact same DVD and an “academic license” to universities for $250?

Create an educator’s’ guide written specifically for an academic audience, which Rufo and Ochwat priced on their website at $250. To drive sales, they bought an email list for university libraries, attended an annual conference for gerontologists, and direct all of your marketing and outreach efforts to the website.

Age of Champions sold $88,000 in academic licenses (and another $26,000 through a non-exclusive deal with an educational distributor).

6. Get Corporate for Big Check Sponsors

This last step is only for people who can muster the hard work of self-distribution. It’s the most difficult to negotiate, but pays out big in the end. Put together a long list of companies that have a customer base aligned with your film’s core audience. Next, pitch corporate brand teams and use the success of community screening campaign as proof that there was a good fit. Age of Champions ended up selling 15-second spots to Procter & Gamble, Rite Aid, and Healthways for $75,000 apiece and overall made over $500,000 through corporate sponsorships and sales.

That’s it! I hope this guide gave you a bit more clarity on what it means to self-distribute your film. The case study I pointed at is real and I hope inspires you to take action. It’s now realistic to tell your story and reach the masses in a way that could never be done before. What have you tried so far in film distribution? Let me know in the comments below!