Distributing your film: Your documentary is completed (congratulations!), you're exhausted (of course) and now what? Time for job #2... distributing your film!
If you're like most documentary filmmakers, you will be self-distributing. What does that mean? How are you going to find your audience? How are you going to generate revenue?
After I completed my first documentary, Briars in the Cotton Patch, I was in shock that the distribution and marketing of my film turned out to be just as much work as my documentary, if not more!
First on the list after completing my documentary was to submit it to documentary film festivals. Film Festivals are a great way to get exposure for your film, build buzz, potentially find a buyer for your film and it's a fantastic networking opportunity to meet other filmmakers and people in the biz.
Submission fees can add up quick, so you want to be selective in which festivals you apply to. In addition, if you get accepted, of course you'll want to attend and those travel costs aren't cheap. I was fortunate to get accepted to four film festivals and they were each worth the effort in their own way. Film festivals are definitely at the top of the list for jump-starting the process of distributing your film.
Another way to build buzz and credibility for your film is to submit it for awards.
I was very fortunate to have my documentary win some awards including a regional Emmy and a CINE award.
Of course, the OSCAR is the ultimate award for a film and will catapult you into stardom.
Next item on the to-do list for distributing your film is to find the best outlet to show your newly created masterpiece.
If you are self-distributing, you will do these deals yourself. Or if your documentary is good enough, you may choose to work with a distributor but they will only work with you if they feel your film has strong potential to make them a profit.
One obvious choice for distributing your film on television (at least in the U.S.) is PBS. That's who I ended up going with.
I had heard that the best way to reach the national PBS folks was through a local PBS affiliate. Since I lived in Georgia and the documentary subject was based in Georgia, it was a natural decision to approach the Georgia PBS station (GPB). They agreed to be my sponsoring station and pitched it it to PBS-Plus, the distribution arm of PBS. My documentary was approved for national distribution, which means it would be sent out on satellite to all PBS stations in the United States who would then air the documentary at their discretion.
Here's the catch with PBS, at least when your documentary is sent out via PBS-Plus. They did not pay for my documentary. In fact, I had to pay a production company in Washington D.C. about $3,000 to “calibrate” my film to the exact technical specifications required for broadcast on PBS. So that was a shock to get that bit of news. But the opportunity for exposure was too good to pass up and gave my film great credibility. I am still selling DVD's today (five years later) as a direct result of my documentary showing on PBS.
Of course, the holy grail of filmmaking is to get your film picked up for a theater release. Usually, this option is reserved for top notch films that are fortunate enough to get a distribution deal. But for those willing to hustle and take their film city to city and theater to theater, it's possible – although extremely time consuming and expensive to rent the theaters. A great option B for many independent filmmakers is to go grassroots and showcase their films in small art theaters or have community and house party screenings.
In recent years, the internet has become a boon for independent filmmakers and transformed the landscape for distributing your film. There are now lots of great options to help you distribute and sell your film online without having to rely on a distributor.
Of course, the simplest option for distributing your film is to upload your movie or trailer to a video sharing site such as Vimeo or YouTube. Send the link to your friends and family through e-mail and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. And post the link on blogs and forums in your documentary's niche to get the word out to a wider audience.
If you're hoping to make money distributing your film online, Video On Demand (VOD) is a very exciting option although requires a lot of marketing on your part to lead people to your video and get them to buy.
Some VOD/Pay-Per-View options online include: Amazon, filmbinder.com, distrify.com and chill.com.
I am currently using Dynamo Player as my online VOD option for my documentary Briars in the Cotton Patch and it works great. Do your homework and figure out which option is best for you. In fact, include a comment at the bottom of this page if you have any experience with VOD services or distributing your film online that you'd like to share.
[UPDATE: May 2013, just learned that Dynamo Player is shutting down in June 2013. Time to look for a new VOD provider!]
Once you decide how and where your film will be shown, it's time to start strategizing how you're going to get the word out about your movie. Actually, hopefully you've been building your audience all along through your personal network, e-newsletters, your website, blog and other social media sites such as Facebook.
For me, once my documentary was accepted by PBS-Plus, I enlisted a freelancer who knew the ins and outs of PBS and agreed to help promote my documentary to the individual PBS stations to encourage them to broadcast my documentary. We put together a press packet and literally mailed out a packet to each station.
You'd think it was enough that PBS was sending the documentary out on their satellite network, but it's not. In order to get each PBS station to air your program, you've got to get their attention. And we also asked our supporters to contact their local PBS stations to request the film to be broadcast in their area.
I also enlisted the help of a co-worker of mine who was an expert in public relations. He helped line me up with media interviews all across the U.S. I did a lot of phone interviews and traveled some when the opportunity was big enough to justify the travel costs.
Again, social media sites are key to getting the word out and even some paid advertising on Google and Facebook can help if you've got some extra cash you're willing to spend.
But the best kind of advertising is news coverage which is FREE and has much higher credibility. You could even submit a DVD to film critics if you feel confident you'll get a good review.
A must-have! Build it before you even begin shooting. Think of it as your online business card for distributing your film. Add articles and content that will be noticed by Google search engines so that if people happen to be searching for keywords involving your documentary subject, they will find your website. A blog is another good way to attract attention across the web. And make sure to get “links in” to your website and/or blog to build an even bigger audience. Upload video clips and podcasts to keep people interested throughout the filmmaking process.
At the very least start a Facebook page about your film the moment you start planning your project. This is a fantastic way to build anticipation for your film and get audience participation.
These come in handy at film festivals and other events as ways to promote your documentary.
You can either do an exclusive deal with one distributor or self-distribute and use multiple avenues to distribute your film. The second option is what I chose.
In total, I ended up utilizing six groups to sell my DVD including several non-profit organizations tied to the subject of my film, a Christian film distributor called Vision Video and PBS.
I admit it was a bit of a pain to keep up with orders and invoicing, but in the end it was worth it to keep more of the profits and control over the process.
See bottom of page for tips from film producer Sharon Reed on how to find a distributor.
I also was able to sell an educational license to numerous universities who wanted to offer my documentary as part of their curriculum or in their library system. When a school contacted me, I simply wrote up a contract outlining the terms of the license, sent them the license and an invoice. Depending how popular your documentary is, if it includes a study guide or is a series, the cost for an education license averages $75 to $350. A solid broadcast quality documentary might be able to garner $175 - $225, but you'll need to test your pricing and see what people are willing to pay.
You can view pricing examples for educational licenses for documentaries at distribution companies such as The Cinema Guild.
Here's a great resource where you can learn specific steps for distributing your film and getting your movie sold.
Jason Brubaker is an Independent Motion Picture Producer based in Los Angeles and an expert in internet movie distribution. Read my interview with Jason. He does a fantastic job laying out all the options for creating multiple streams of movie-making income.
It's a super easy read, packed with tons of great ideas and strategies that you'll be able to start implementing right away.
Share your advice or experiences with distribution here or ask a question.
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One of the most important things you can do regarding distribution for your documentary is to build up your e-mail list and base of support. Aweber is considered one of the best e-mail marketing services out there, but it's a bit pricey for most independent filmmakers. MailChimp is another great option and has a free option to get you started. Do your research to figure out which one is best for you.
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