The truth about distribution and sales
What happens after your films gets made
The world of independent film distribution and sales is a mystery to many filmmakers, a fact that is unfortunately being used by predatory distributors and sales agents profiting off the hard work of disadvantaged filmmakers. A deeper understanding of how it works may change the way many independent filmmakers approach their projects on the business side as early as pre-production or development.
The involvement of distributors or sales companies can happen either in the financing stage by the offering of pre-sales (the company would fund part of the movie in exchange for certain rights. They will later first recoup their initial investment before any revenue flows to the filmmakers) or later on when the film is already made. While pre-sales is coveted by many independent filmmakers, it is out of reach unless a significant actor is involved. How significant? The key word is ‘house-hold name’.
If that still requires clarification, we usually ask young filmmakers to ask their parents if they know if that actor, as well as young siblings or nephews. It’s a rough test, but it’s effective! For most small independent films, pre-sales will be out of reach.
And still, many filmmakers make their films without a-list actors or funding from distributors. Private equity, tax credits and loans are just some of the ways filmmakers are able to finance their films. So how does an independent film get distributed?
Film Festivals: a promise and a lie
We have all heard fairytales of filmmakers who attended Sundance only to be recognized by a big studio or distributor and get bought outright. Can it happen? Of course, anything can happen! Is it a valid business plan?
Not if you don’t have a previous relationship with said buyer or a significant name talent attached to your film. In fact, most announcements at festivals occur after the deal is already made, well before a festival even begins. Lately, film festivals have proved to be a very bad indicator for a financial success of a film. Many films purchased at Sundance tanked at the box office, making buyers wary of trusting the reviewers of the festivals themselves. With the amount of feature films submitted to Sundance being in the tens of thousands, the curators are simply unable to give every film the same kind of attention. The bottom line is the for a small independent film, festivals are a gamble. While worth submitting to the top tier festivals, it is not worth putting all your eggs in one basket.
The irony is that even the small distributors use festivals as an indication whether a film is worth their attention. The reason is somewhere between laziness and fear of making the wrong call. The truth is that no one really knows what ‘the next big thing’ is, so relying on a-list actors and popular genres is safe. Distributors will either be selective and take films they think can be popular, or collect many films cheaply in the hopes that one will make it to the top. In both cases, the filmmaker is disadvantaged.