We did that thing that a lot of filmmakers grit their teeth, turn white as a sheet and pass out at the mention of: we self-distributed the film. Not only that. Self-distribution was Plan A.
For many filmmakers, myself included, we have a fantasy of getting accepted to one of the big name festivals where our film will be discovered by a distributor. The distributor will fall in love with the film and it will lead to a whirlwind distribution romance. That’s not happening for the majority of us, though.
If you’re not in at a certain tier yet, you’re not going to get there out of nowhere. So, there’s those films and then there’s the rest of us. We made good films. People connect with them. They just don’t fit what some in the business are looking for, so we might as well just give up and try something else, right? Of course not. We can bring our films to the people ourselves.
We did get offers. If you haven’t already experienced this, one thing you’ll find is that when you have a feature and you start playing festivals you’ll start getting some unsolicited emails from distribution companies you’ve never heard of. Boutique outfits with a catalog of films you’ve never heard of will show up in your email expressing interest in the film, which they very likely have not seen. We reviewed each of these requests and the companies behind them and politely turned them all down.
Still having to do much of the work while someone else makes money off the film just didn’t appeal to me.
Why turn down these offers from people who could have done all the work of distributing for us? Because that’s not what would have happened. In many private conversations I had with fellow filmmakers they shared that that just isn’t what their experience was. Many shared stories from their own networks that described similar experiences. This won’t be true across the board but the story I got from several filmmakers was that the common experience is that they signed over the rights to their film for a period of time and then they still had to take point on marketing and other distribution-related activities one would assume the distributor would take more responsibility for and they didn’t see much return as the distributor was still taking their costs from what money was coming through.
Still having to do much of the work while someone else makes money off the film just didn’t appeal to me. So, self-distribution was our first best option for our no-budget film.
Set Your Expectations
Before we get into the details of self-distributing we should talk about expectations. You need to take a seat, take a long slow deep breath, and set your expectations appropriately for self-distributing your film. Consider the work you’ve done to build an audience not just for this film but for everything you’ve done before. Consider how past work has done. Consider the popularity of work similar to yours. Are you in a tiny niche? Meme is in a tiny niche.
So, when I set out on the path of self-distribution I took the niche nature of the film into consideration. We’re not making millions off this film. We’re not going to become the breakout most popular indie feature on Apple TV. We’re going to find an audience who is interested in what we have and it may not be huge to start, but it will grow.
One thing I knew was that I couldn’t set my expectations high for a monetary return. I needed to focus my energy instead on getting eyes on the movie and finding how I could get the most eyes on it.
How Your Festival Run Can Help
Methods of Self-Distribution
Getting your film out there takes a few forms from four-walling to streaming platforms. There are a lot of options available to you if you want to put in the time and the work.
Four-Walling your Film
You may think that self-distributing your film means you’ll never see your film on the big screen outside of your festival run. That’s not true. Four-walling your film, also known as renting out a theater and selling tickets, is a very viable option for many filmmakers.
Once I had a full list of venues, I chose to start by contacting venues in the North East United States, the ones most accessible to me. I emailed and called dozens of venues with dates in mind and got a sense of pricing and when we could possibly screen. My target was to do late night screenings on Fridays or Saturdays. We have an odd movie and late night is traditionally the time for those films. That may have discouraged some people from coming, but late night was also one of the few times some theaters could allow a weekend screening.
Here’s something important to keep in mind when pursuing your four-walling: if a theater plays first run studio feature, they have contractual obligations as far as when it plays and playing anything else during the time slot for a studio feature, especially on weekends. The theater needs to maintain that relationship to continue to exist. You’re going to have to keep it in mind and work around it depending on the venue.
Pricing varied quite a bit. Some rental prices in major cities were several thousand, many were just a few hundred. It varied considerably but on average I went with theaters that were between $150 and $350 for the two hour rental. I knew we probably wouldn’t be selling out the theaters, so I had to choose theaters where I was probably not going to be breaking even but the loss wouldn’t be too bad.
Bear in mind, you’re going to have to put effort into local marketing for your screening. We did social media ads and YouTube ads for the film. We hired some locals for flyer distribution. I also reached out to film programs at local universities and did as much as I could to contact local press. We had the most measurable success with YouTube ads.
Four-walling our film was fun and a great excuse for me to take some weekend road trips, but it was costly and didn’t have much of a monetary return. We cut ours a little short in favor of moving efforts to digital distribution.
Video on Demand
Once you’re ready to make the film available across platforms for people to rent or buy and watch in the comfort of their own homes, or wherever else they feel like watching it, you have quite a few options available to you. Apple TV (formerly iTunes) is a popular option, but you’ve also got Google Play, Amazon, Vudu, Sony Entertainment Network, and a lot more you could make your film available on.
Then there’s the other digital distribution option: subscription platforms, where people don’t have to pay to see your film because they’re paying to see lots of films and yours just happens to be a part of it.
Video on Demand is great. People actually buying or renting your film is a great feeling, but the thing you have to seriously consider is how many people are really going to do that. How often do you buy or rent a film you’ve never heard of created by a filmmaker you’re unfamiliar with that has no recognizable actors in it? If that’s your film, like it is mine, then you’re not likely to see that much as far as purchases and rentals immediately. It all depends on how much of an audience you’ve built for the film.
Subscription platforms–like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and so on–are less commitment for the potential audience and can bring your more people just by virtue of them not having to pay directly to see it. The other side of that is that you’re not going to be getting paid much for your film being seen on a subscription service.
The subscription platforms aren’t likely going to be making your money back for you. So, approach them with the idea that it’s about the eyeballs. Amazon’s payouts are definitely low. That’s frustrating. You may have seen other filmmakers lamenting this. It’s a topic that comes up regularly. Maybe there’s a way to change it in the long-term, but for now, just go in with realistic expectations on your return.
Some Additional Considerations for Self-Distribution
Getting your film on platforms for sale or just as part of an existing subscription platform is great. That’s not enough, though. You’ve got to get the people to your film on those platforms.
Avengers: Endgame didn’t make all that money because they hoped people would notice it. They plastered ads all over the place.
Social media connections and shares and word of mouth can help a lot, but in the end you’re probably going to have to do some paid ads. Avengers: Endgame didn’t make all that money because they hoped people would notice it. They plastered ads all over the place. You need to do something similar with your film. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube all offer easy to use ad platforms that you can access as long as you have an account and a credit card.
Make a budget, buy ads on platforms people interested in your film may use, utilize the targeting available through those platforms. Get the eyes on your film. Your festival run and any response you’ve gotten by sharing progress during production and post should help you see what people connect with and what you should emphasize in your film’s marketing.
One thing we did with the launch of Meme on Amazon Prime in November was to have a virtual watch party. We invited people all over to join is watching the film the first Saturday the film was available to stream with a Prime subscription. I gathered a small group of cast and crew at my apartment and we had a little party. We shared on social media as we watched together, including getting goofy on some live streams. This brought more attention to our Prime launch and brought in more viewers both as we were watching and throughout the weekend.
In some cases, like Vimeo OTT, your film will just be available worldwide to anyone who wants to pay. For Apple TV and other platforms, though, you’ll need to get your film translated to reach certain territories.
I’ve focused mostly on platforms and services I used for Meme for our initial release. There are a lot more out there you can explore. Some have better payouts than others, some just exist to get your film seen.
What About … ?
As you’ve been reading through this you may have had some questions. Let’s dig into a couple of those.
What About Physical Media?
What About Distribber?
The services are great and open up possibilities and opportunities for more filmmakers than ever. Services like KitSplit, Seed&Spark, Quiver, Amazon Video Direct, and everything else I’ve mentioned are amazing for filmmakers. We also just need to keep an eye on how much we lean on any one. One of the reasons I chose to use Amazon Video Direct separate from Quiver even though Quiver has Amazon options is that if one of them shuts down tomorrow my film is still available on the other.
What happened with Distribber should be a reminder that when it comes to our distribution we should be wary of putting all of our eggs in one basket. Otherwise bad management at one company could kill your film’s distribution on every platform.
What About Making My Money Back?
We’re in a transitional period for filmmaking and distribution. It’s not what it was five years ago. It’s going to be different in another five years. Maybe we’ll settle into a new paradigm then or it will once again shift.
You can’t really control how much you’re going to get back on your self-distribution. You can control how much work you put in to building an audience not just for this film but for your next one and the one after that. Find a path that works for you.
Learn More About Self-Distribution
There’s a lot more to be said about self-distribution. This is my experience. The work that I’ve done to get my film out into the world. There’s a lot who’ve been putting a lot more years into this than I have and you should do some research and ask anyone else you know who has pursued any avenue of distribution.
Regardless of how you approach distributing your film, it’s going to take work, and it’s probably going to be emotionally taxing. That said, people discovering your film and telling you what it meant to them is very rewarding and hopefully you can even make back the money you spent on the film.