It wasn’t long ago that self-distribution was an extremely difficult avenue to pursue, and was simply a last resort for filmmakers who couldn’t secure traditional distribution… But in the last few years, that’s all changed.
For many filmmakers, self-distribution has not only become a viable option, but the single best option out there. As I outlined in this blog post last year, many traditional distributors simply don’t offer enough value to independent filmmakers, especially those working in the micro-budget realm. So more filmmakers every year are making the choice to self-distribute to retain control over the sales, marketing, and exposure of their work.
For a small fee (or in some cases for nothing at all), you can upload your movie to your choice of TVOD, SVOD, or AVOD platforms and make it immediately available to millions of people. Add to the mix a creative PR campaign and some social media ads, and an ultra-low budget movie can compete with a multi-million dollar blockbuster.
I don’t mean to oversimplify the process – just like the craft of filmmaking itself, distributing and marketing your movie is complex and requires a lot of specialized knowledge. But if you can learn the skills to make a movie, you can learn the skills to market one. You just have to be willing to take that path.
When I decided to self-distribute my feature film Shadows On The Road, I knew there would be a steep learning curve… I had never distributed a movie before, but I was willing to learn and willing to fail, and that mentality gave me the freedom to take some risks.
Throughout the process I worked with two different aggregators, ran multiple paid and organic campaigns, and released the film on half a dozen platforms – my favorite of which has been Amazon (more on that later).
For a bit of context, Shadows On The Road was released exclusively on iTunes upon launch. This was intentional, as I wanted to create an “iTunes window”, where it would not be available on any other platform for at least 2 months. This way, all initial sales would be directed to iTunes, helping the movie climb the charts faster than it would if it were also available on other VOD services.
I promoted the iTunes release through my blog, social media, newsletter and podcast, but didn’t spend any more on paid ads during this time.
This strategy worked fairly well – within 2 days of launching on iTunes we broke way into the top 100 pre-orders for all of iTunes, and stayed there for weeks. To my surprise, we were beating out some major films (at least in terms of pre-orders), and that was pretty exciting.
By the time the film was available to stream, I had already started shooting my next feature (White Crow), so I put my organic marketing efforts on hold. I thought I would sit back and see what happened over the next couple of months, and then re-assess once I was wrapped on production.
As the months passed, sales began to plateau as I was no longer actively promoting the film… So the next logical step was to experiment with paid ads.
I started by running multiple Facebook ad campaigns targeted at several different demographics. Some of these ads were purely text and image based, and other ads used videos, such as our theatrical trailer or this 15 second social media teaser.
Around this same time, I also released the film on Vimeo On Demand so it would be available for international audiences too (currently the feature is only on the US and Canadian iTunes stores).
The ads I ran promoted both the iTunes and Vimeo On Demand links, and were most effective when directing users to this very basic landing page.
As more people bought the movie, I would re-invest that revenue into more advertising on social media. So in a way, the ads were really paying for themselves. I wasn’t making gigantic profits (my margins were pretty slim), but it was working. People who didn’t know me in any way (personally or through my website) were being exposed to the movie and choosing to buy it. That was pretty cool.
Because the film was made for such a low budget, it didn’t take long before I was able to recoup costs. And at that point, my primary goal shifted. It was no longer about profit, but rather exposure.
With that in mind, I decided to release the film on several more platforms.
I had previously used Distribber to release the film on iTunes, but this time around I used FilmHub to release it on several other platforms. FilmHub is interesting in that they don’t charge you anything to distribute your film to any platform, but they take 20% of your profits. In comparison, Distribber (like most aggregators) takes none of your profits, but charges a fee (about $1500) to list your movie.
Filmhub was the natural choice to distribute to platforms where I was unlikely to make a ton of revenue, but could still get some added exposure (like TubiTV, for instance). That said, I specifically requested that they did not provide any services for delivering the film to Amazon.
Amazon is unlike most other VOD platforms in that they allow you to upload your movie directly to Prime without using an aggregator. This is something that is just not possible on iTunes, and for micro-budget filmmakers who are squeezing every last dollar, saving that $1500 is pretty amazing. Anyone can upload their movie through Prime Video Direct. And that’s exactly what I did.
It cost me exactly $0 to make the film instantly available to millions of their subscribers, who can now buy the film outright or stream it for free with their Prime membership. This means I can generate revenue from Amazon as both a TVOD and SVOD provider with the same upload.
The reality is, there is not much money in SVOD, at least not for a micro-budget indie. You get paid per minute of viewing, and the rate is quite low… But the real value for filmmakers is in the added viewership.
When I first uploaded Shadows On The Road to Prime, I assumed it would get little to no traffic until I started promoting it with paid ads. To my shock though, after checking the Amazon stats on a whim, I found an incredibly high volume of streams. It was clear that Amazon was able to do something no other platform could – Get massive amounts of people to watch the movie without requiring that I run organic or paid campaigns.
Over the past few weeks, the film has been streamed thousands of times, and has been viewed more on Amazon Prime than any other platform. Part of this is due to the fact that it is available on SVOD (and it’s easier to get someone to watch when they aren’t paying per view). But the other huge variable – or so I think – is how Amazon promotes movies to its users, which is seemingly more effective than what any of their competitors are capable of.
Take iTunes for instance – When I browse the iTunes Store looking for something to watch, I genuinely find it hard to discover anything relevant to my tastes. I’m always bombarded by the same “Top Movies”, which seem to just be shuffled around and placed into different sub categories throughout the store. Yes, you can dig really deep and find the titles you are looking for, but it takes work…
I watch a ton of foreign films, but they virtually never show up on my iTunes homepage. It just promotes the same movies to me as it does to everyone else. It’s not customized for my taste, and therefore makes it harder for me to discover movies I would really want to see.
Amazon on the other hand, seems to tailor it’s recommendations far more effectively. For better or worse, they know their users behavior; What they watch, when they watch, and how they use their platform for things outside of movies (like shopping or purchasing books). They have a tremendous amount of data on their users, and can (in theory) suggest titles to them that are actually relevant.
I can’t pretend to know the ins and outs of Amazon’s system/algorithm, or how it decides which films to promote to which subscribers. But I can say that whatever they are doing seems to be extremely effective. They are able to suggest titles that are far more relevant to users, and make them visible in multiple ways on their interface.
Not everyone is going to want to watch a $12,000 micro-budget road movie like Shadows On The Road. That goes without saying… But there are people out there that watch this type of content, and Amazon seems to know exactly where to find them. They of course will still highlight their flagship movies on their homepage just like any other VOD provider, but it doesn’t end there…
Above all else, Amazon seems hell bent on serving their customers. And if those customers happen to like micro-budget indies, that’s exactly what they will offer them.
A lot of thought and strategy needs to go into the release of any film – big or small. So I am by no means suggesting Amazon (and Amazon alone) is the only option for DIY filmmakers. What I am saying however, is they are definitely worth considering as a major part of your release strategy.
Turning a profit with your film is a matter of how you effectively know how to market. Amazon can’t do that for you, but they can make it easier for your movie to be found by people who would actually want to see it. And for many independent filmmakers, the #1 goal above all else is not to simply turn a profit, but also to find an audience.