What I Learned From Self-Distribution
I successfully released my film into a movie theatre, and you can, too.
Distribution is hard. Self-distribution is really hard. Not to mention very expensive, especially as an independent filmmaker.
In August of 2016, I successfully self-distributed my documentary short, The Name with No Face, theatrically. The theatre run lasted for a full week, and my film ultimately qualified for consideration by The Academy for the Oscars®. The entire process was an incredible learning experience.
Get A Lawyer
The most significant thing I learned from this experience is the importance of having a lawyer. I’m very lucky in that I have a lawyer who is incredibly dedicated, and was genuinely looking out for me as an artist. She was on a business trip, yet somehow still took the time out between flights and meetings to get in touch with me and answer my inquiries.
Find a lawyer you can trust. Someone who knows which deals are toxic and which are worth your time and money. They will explain all the legal terms to you in plain English, point out clauses hidden in contracts that could potentially lead you to spend more money than you need to, and help you make better decisions.
Weigh Your Options
Another really important thing I learned from this is to never settle and have as many choices available as possible. Always weigh your options. Maybe you’ve already chosen a theatre or two to house your film, maybe you have several in mind. Whatever it may be, don’t pick one and stubbornly stick with it.
Reach out to as many people as you can. Call or email and follow up. Compare the prices and compare your options. Read over every contract very carefully. Pay attention to which ones will charge you extra fees and percentages down the road. You may find that sometimes, the first choice or top choice isn’t always the best choice.
Choose what works best for you and your budget.
Most movie houses now have digital projection, so you’ll need a DCP in order for your film to screen.
Everyone wants to do a good job when they set out to make a film. We all want to make the best film that we can. And that film deserves the best DCP quality. Do not use DIY programs. They may sound great initially because it would cost less and save you money, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll do it right.
Find post-production houses near you that offer services to create professional DCPs. Contact as many as possible, compare their prices, find out how long it will take, and see who gives you the better deal. Again, don’t settle. Weigh your options. You might even be able to establish a long-term working relationship with the right one.
This might go without saying, but communication is key. If emails aren’t quick enough for you, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and make a call. Often, things can be accomplished a lot faster that way. Be clear and exact about what you want, what you need, what your budget is, and any important detail that can help the other party. The more meticulous you are, the better and sooner things can be accomplished.
If someone doesn’t respond to a time sensitive email, always call. There was someone I tried getting in touch with at one point during this process who explained, after I called, that they don’t always check their emails. So pick up that phone and communicate.
Plan and Manage Your Time
Don’t do everything last minute. Always start with a plan, have a goal, and set deadlines. You won’t be able to strike a deal with any movie theatre if you don’t have a particular release date, or dates, in mind. And always plan for all the things that could (and do) go wrong.
Don’t wait right before your set release date to get the DCP created. Making a DCP takes time, and you never know if you’ll need more time to fix something. If you choose to put out a print ad, do not contact a publication right before they go to print. They need time to design the ad and make sure all the information is right. You don’t want to get the showtime(s) wrong. Don’t submit any important files hours before the deadline. Always do it as early as you possibly can.
And most importantly, do not contact movie theatres days before you want the film to open. Theatres have a constant flow of films opening or leaving the screens, so most are often booked up months in advance. They won’t have slots available for your film if you don’t contact them early enough.
Other small things to remember:
- Always utilize social media to promote your film, even if you have print ads in publications.
- When you deliver your DCP to the theatre, set up a time with them to make sure the DCP works (and the film looks how you want it to).
- Say thank you. You can never say it enough to everyone who helps you along the way.
While self-distributing a film theatrically can be hard work and feel draining at times, I feel that it’s helped me have a more precise release strategy for all of my projects — even those I choose to distribute digitally through video sharing platforms. Whether doing a surprise release, or building interest over a period of time, they all need a lot of planning to make it work.
If you do self-distribution right, the entire process can feel incredibly rewarding. Having your film play on a big screen in a real movie theatre is one of the best feelings in the world. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even make some revenue in return.