Coward, you sold your movie rights too quickly!

by Andreas Jaritz , follow current film project:

Many indie filmmakers argue around the same common questions these days about managing their film’s rights and distribution strategies: Should I give my rights to a movie distributor or should I do self-promotion? What kind of rights should I give away and for how long? Will I be able to reach my audience by self-distributing my movie?

These questions have not bothered most filmmakers a couple of years ago. The math was easy: filmmaker makes movie, distributor sells movie. You stay on your side, I stay on mine. With the advent of social media, new digital film distribution technologies and film marketing tools filmmakers now have direct access to their audience worldwide and are capable of distributing movies by their own. This basically allows them to keep all of their movie’s rights. That’s amazing news for those indie filmmakers whose movies don’t get any distribution deal at all. This might probably apply to a vast majority of indie movies out there (and does not mean that these movies are bad at all).

It’s also great news for filmmakers who made bad experiences with lousy distributors in the past who promised a lot, acquired all their movie rights but ended up doing little to promote them probably. These movies end up literally and in a metaphorical sense as dusty items on physical and digital bookshelves.

Luckily there is a growing group of highly committed and bold filmmakers having the skills to leverage social media and digital movie distribution tools. They build communities around their movies, their company and niche and they know how to outperform the traditional distributor who is often not dedicated enough to push their movie and give them the deserved attention.

But even though you are a a smart-ass filmmaker who knows how to bring people to your websites and generate downloads or how to organize successful movie screening tours: You might not have the time to market the movie all alone, you are probably not interested in doing the promotion at all or you are just freaking out thinking about the uncountable hours of work you definitely have to spend when going the self-distribution path. So working with a distributor can still be a good option for you these days.

Be aware of the kind of rights you give away.
The very tiny lucky group of filmmakers getting offered a deal from a distributor are many times in a tempting situation: They get an offer from a distributor to acquire all of their rights. Being stunned to have the opportunity for a distribution deal at all — filmmakers tend to give away too many rights too early in this excitement.

Don’t be a coward, don’t give away (all) your movie rights too quickly!

If you are one of those darlings of fortune don’t make the mistake to belief that your movie is this very special princess your potential distributor was waiting for a lifetime to dance with! They might negotiate dozens or even hundreds of other deals at the same time. Distributors often just ‘collect’ movies and aggregate them to VOD platforms without doing any further marketing activities. They encourage filmmakers to market their movies like hell to drive sales which earns them some good money without moving a finger. They earn a decent commission (normally at least 25 %) for each movie download in exchange for a one time service: aggregating your baby to iTunes or similar direct to consumer platforms. For sure this doesn’t apply to all distributors. Fellow filmmakers told about good distributors who doing for them creating and executing a strong marketing plan to reach potential audiences.

What we have learned from past movie distribution deals
We were also stunned by finally getting the odd distributor offer. After being nervous for some time — no nice ‘We want to distribute your movie’ Email in the inbox for weeks — we finally saw some opportunities. In retrospect I guess we also succumbed the temptation giving away too much too early.

Here is what we have learned and want or don’t want to do next time:

Not being foolish giving away all your rights (theatrical, SVOD/VOD, TV, Ancillary Rights) in the first place. Unless you are 100 % sure that self-promotion is not your thing you should never give away all your movie’s rights quickly. Releasing a movie is a process not a single event. Sometimes great things happen along the way giving you surprising opportunities, which haven’t been there at the very launch of your movie. Try to see the release phase of your movie as the second 50 % of your work unless you don’t want to step into distribution at all but which courageous indie moviemaker won’t touch self-distribution at all?

Be very careful with the words exclusive and worldwide in all your contracts: These are the two words that are like pieces of coal in the oven: Touch them carefully and use them to burn the fire! Giving away exclusive (e.g for VOD distribution) rights to a distributor essentially means that you won’t be able to self-promote your movie on any VOD platform at all. And there are great tools like Reelhouse or VHX out there that make it insanely easy to setup, run and promote your own download platform for your movie. At The Old, the Young & the Sea we kept the right to host and market the movie on Reelhouse. It turned out to be a wise decision and the golden nugget in our distribution strategy.

Take a close look at your potential distributor’s records and movie catalog. What kind of movies did they distribute in the past? What kind of promotion did they do for those movies? Is there any proof of this? Try to find out how they promoted other titles in their catalogue.

Demand a marketing plan. Ask your potential distributor to show you their marketing plan. Does it look like a fully fledged multi-channel schedule or do they don’t have anything to show to you that looks like a solid marketing strategy? Uh, oh. Be suspicious!

Mix it, mesh it up baby! Try to find a solution with your potential distributor to combine yours and their skills: They are killer in setting up screening events? You are a Facebook promotion guru? Combine your powers, give them some theatrical rights (maybe they have a great record in the US?) and keep the digital distribution rights. It can also be very smart giving away a bundle of rights for a limited geographical area. Take the example of Japan: Those who can offer all rights e.g. a bundle of theatrical, digital, TV have bigger chances for a deal than filmmakers who can only offer single rights like theatrical.

I can’t proof this yet but I will go researching the next couple of weeks: It seems to me that a combination of keeping some rights for some geographical areas and giving away some rights to distributors seem to be the most promising strategy these days.