Back in June of this year, my feature film SHADOWS ON THE ROAD premiered here in Los Angeles as a part of Dances With Films. As a result, we received nearly 40 inquiries from distributors and sales agents that were interested in the film. In the end though, after speaking to each of them in detail, it became abundantly clear that self distribution would be the way to go.
Not every distributor we spoke to made an offer on the film, but quite a few did. Certainly far more than I would have imagined, given that the feature has no known actors in it and is primarily a drama.
A couple of the offers we received included a small payout upfront, but the vast majority had no minimum guarantee (MG). Considering that we shot the film for only $12K, some of the offers that did come in were enticing, at least financially. Even a small MG would cover a big chunk (if not all) of our budget, and any additional revenue from future sales would be the icing on the cake. It was something to consider…
In a sense, I felt like we were in a good position. Especially after speaking to friends/colleagues of mine, who received similar offers for their films – most of which had larger budgets and more recognizable talent. I felt fortunate this film was having offers made on it, and thoroughly considered all of them before making any final decisions.
In the back of my mind though, I couldn’t help but also consider the groundswell of indie filmmakers favoring self distribution (listen to my interview with Jim Cummings for more on this). With each passing year, the case for self distribution just gets better and better.
There are more platforms available than ever before. It’s become easier and cheaper to market indie films, largely thanks to social media. And most importantly, it’s become possible to retain complete control over your work in a way that never really existed before.
That last point – retaining control – is what mattered most to me when making my decision.
I’ve heard many of the same horror stories from filmmakers as you probably have – A distribution company offers nothing for a film up front, takes forever to market it, eventually makes a couple of small deals (possibly bundled with other projects of theirs), but despite making some sales no money ever goes back to the filmmaker. This often is a result of the distributor needing to “recoup” all their marketing costs before paying the filmmaker, often resulting in no net profit.
Now, please keep in mind I am not suggesting all indie-level distributors work like this. I spoke to quite a few at length over the past few months, and truly believe that most of them operate with integrity and transparency. I didn’t doubt their honesty at all… My larger concern was how much attention and focus my film would actually get within their ecosystem.
In the end, I just didn’t feel that any distributor I spoke with would champion the film in the same way that I would. This production was a micro-budget labor of love from the get-go, and only got to this point through blood, sweat, and tears. I couldn’t imagine any distributor at this level dedicating themselves to this project with the same intensity that myself and my team have.
As my projects continue to grow in size and scope, I would of course welcome the opportunity to work with a traditional distributor, provided it was the right fit. But for this particular film at this specific time in the history of film, self distribution was clearly the way to go.
In terms of our specific strategy, it is going to be relatively simple and highly focused –
For starters, we are going to first release the film through iTunes (using Distribber as our aggregator), on a 90 day window. This means the film will not be available on any other platform for the first 90 days.
You might wonder – Why not just release on all platforms at once?
Some people do. In our case though, our resources are limited and we will be best served by going “all in” on one platform. And that platform of course is iTunes, because it’s by far the largest TVOD marketplace for indie films.
By focusing heavily on iTunes, we can maximize all of our marketing efforts by narrowing our focus. For instance, if we use social media ads to market the movie, everyone that is interested in purchasing the film will need to do so on the iTunes Store. This in turn could drive our numbers up on iTunes (since we won’t be spreading purchases over other platforms), and that could lead to a higher ranking on the store.
If we can achieve a high ranking (lets say by breaking the top 100 in one specific category), that will lead to more sales. It will take a lot of work to get there, but it’s certainly been done before.
After the 90 day window, we will release the film to other TVOD (transactional VOD) platforms, like Amazon and Google Play. There will be no limit to how many stores we sell our film on at this point, as any marketing that we do from here on will not be tied to one specific platform.
During this same period, we will likely work with Distribber to pitch the film to SVOD (subscription VOD) platforms like Netflix and Hulu. It’s anyones guess as to whether or not the film will get picked up, but this is the time to try. Once the film is available on SVOD platforms it will become more difficult to sell it on TVOD, so it’s very standard practice to only move to streaming platforms after doing a transactional run.
One or two years from now, we will also consider releasing the film on AVOD (ad-based VOD) platforms, like Tubi TV. Apparently you can’t expect to see much revenue from AVOD right now (just a little bit, each time an ad is played), but these types of platforms still may help expand the film’s lifespan nonetheless.
Of course, I also have to mention that a major part of our strategy involves advertising for the film, largely using social media. Our advertising efforts will likely run on and off over the course of the next year, but the vast majority will take place in the very early months.
By far our biggest push (and biggest spend) will be on the initial iTunes release. The bigger that release is, the greater the ripple effect it will have across all platforms as we eventually branch out. We will run other campaigns in the future too, but the first will be the most substantial.
We plan to to experiment with several different ad campaigns, primarily on Facebook, each targeting different demographics. Based on the results we get, we will refine our advertising efforts (by narrowing the demographics we focus on, and the content we push to them), until we find the right combination. The goal of course, is to reach the most amount of people that truly want to see the movie, for the least amount of money. This takes a lot of trial and error.
At some point in the future, I may write a whole article detailing our advertising strategy. So if you’re interested in hearing more about that topic, please let me know in the comments.
I am currently in pre-production for my next feature set to shoot this fall (more info on that soon!), and going through this distribution process right now is extremely motivating. It’s hard to say with certainty whether I’ll self-distribute my next film (I’ll see how this one goes first), but it’s certainly the frontrunner in my mind as of now.
There is an incredible opportunity for filmmakers right now to create incredible DIY projects for very little money, and make a profit by selling them directly to an audience. It’s not an easy path to take, and there is no magic bullet for success. But it can be done, and will only become a more viable option for indie filmmakers as the years go on… And I for one, am looking forward to jumping on this train and seeing where it takes me.