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DOCUMENTARY TIP #8: Distribution Strategies for a Changing World

The current state of Independent Film Distribution is complex and ever-shifting. Below is a run-down of a recent talk given at IDFA by indie film distribution guru and strategist Peter Broderick, as reported by our staff member, Carol Ann Short.

Seize the Future: The Cutting Edge of Distribution

There are currently unprecedented opportunities and challenges in what Peter Broderick calls the “New World of Distribution.” As traditional distribution has continued to decline, a growing number of filmmakers are using state-of-the-art models to maximize both audience and revenues. Peter consults with filmmakers and media companies to develop strategies to maximize distribution, audiences, and revenues.

First of all, Peter believes that the cornerstone of every distribution plan must include a Web site and a meaningful Distribution List. Many strategy steps will stem from these two items.

Here are some things to think about when crafting the distribution and marketing plan for your film.

1. Design a Customized Distribution Strategy: Every film needs a customized distribution strategy. This strategy should be designed as early as possible, increasing funding options. To create this strategy, you must understand your goals & priorities, identify your core audience, identify / plan different versions of your film (theatrical, TV, DVD, foreign, educational), determine your distribution avenues and release sequence, identify potential partners, and determine on- and off-line positioning. Your strategy should be flexible and assessed and redefined.

2. Split Distribution Rights: Rather than hand over all distribution rights, Broderick suggests splitting and giving responsibility of distribution rights to agents who are specialists in that area – their job is to work for you, don’t sell your film short. What rights can be split? Film festival, theatrical, semi-theatrical (museums, schools, art centers, etc), video on demand, educational sales, DVD sales, web sales, iTunes …For example, the filmmakers of King Corn started their film with grant funding from Kellogg. They hired numerous publicists, did many PR events, had semi-theatrical releases and appearances, signed on with an educational distributor and PBS. All of these entities worked to promote the film and the film did very well, much better than if one person had been doing the PR work.

3. Choose effective distribution partners: While distribution rights were often lumped together before, it is important for filmmakers to think about what distribution efforts they can handle themselves and what should be outsourced and to what distribution partners. Talk to other filmmakers to see how beneficial these partners are and if they will be good for your film. Also look at the films that have been really successful lately, check out their web sites and see how they've marketed their film.

4. Circumscribe rights: Only give distribution rights to partners that they can handle well. If a DVD distribution company has no experience in VOD distribution, don’t assign the VOD rights. Carefully limit the scope, term, and exclusivity rights granted to each partner. Make sure rights given to the different partners complement and do not conflict with each other.

5. Craft Win-Win Deals: Design deals that will work for both your distribution partner and yourself. Divide revenues fairly and define responsibilities clearly. Build in guarantees (eg. minimum number of cities and marketing spend, performance guarantee), approvals (deals, marketing, editing), and safeguards (escape clauses, expense cap, bankruptcy protection, limits on assignment, dispute resolution).

6. Retain Direct Sales Rights: Retain domestic and international rights to sell DVDs (from your website and at screenings) and downloads and streams (from your website). Also retain the rights to screen the film theatrically and semi-theatrically. THIS IS CRUCIAL!!

7. Identify Your Film’s Potential Ecosystem: "Note by Note" is about the making of the Steinway piano. The film did well in NY playing theatrically. It showed across the country at one-night-only special screenings and did very well. The filmmaker would appear at the semi-theatrical releases and sell dvds to half of the audience. How was this film marketed? By breaking down the potential audience ecosystem: Steinway dealers, Steinway owners, piano students and teachers, piano technicians, musicians … by identifying the audience, you can brainstorm ways in which to market your film to them.

8. Assemble a Distribution Team: A distribution team is as important as a production team. The team includes some or all of the following: strategist, producer’s rep, foreign sales agent, webmaster, outreach coordinator, theatrical and semi-theatrical bookers, print and online publicists, and fulfillment company.

9. Partner with Non-Profits and Online Communities: Non-profits can be indispensible distribution partners. They can build awareness among key core audiences by hosting screenings or promoting on their websites or in publications. Online communities can also increase buzz, audience, and sales.

10. Maximize direct revenues: In addition to selling dvds directly from websites, filmmakers can also sell other products they produce (soundtrack albums, companion books, posters, hats, and t-shirts).

11. Grow and Nurture Audiences: Independents can expand their films’ audiences by building mailing lists, communicating effectively and developing ongoing relationships with subscribers. They should provide them with valuable and engaging content, while keeping sales pitches to a minimum. They should also create a content rich, dynamic, and interactive website that encourages participation.

You might wonder when to approach a Distribution Strategist. People come to Peter Broderick at various stages of production to start developing a distribution strategy. Ideally, you should start thinking of distribution in the beginning. The distribution strategy is never set in stone; one should always be able to change the strategy.

For more information on distribution and marketing, check out our Documentary How To Producing 101 module: "Film Festivals and Distribution"