What is exactly independent film distribution? A question that is on the mind of any prospective filmmaker. You don’t just simply make a film and then place it in front of the viewers, in theatres, or in their homes. Scott Mansfield, Founder and Managing Partner at Monterey Media, an independent distribution company speaking after one of the film festivals in 2015 says most of the filmmakers he works with know very little about distribution. “It’s a foreign world to them,” Mansfield says. “They’re riding high because festival audiences have loved their film, but the reality is now they’re facing the red pencils of the critics and serious competition for consumers’ time.”
A mystery? But, first of all, what is considered an independent film? An independent film, independent movie, indie film, or indie movie is a feature film or short film that is produced outside the major film studio system, in addition to being produced and distributed by independent entertainment companies. Independent films are sometimes distinguishable by their content and style and the way in which the filmmakers’ personal artistic vision is realized. Usually, but not always, independent films are made with considerably lower budgets than major studio films.
”Generally, the marketing of independent films is characterized by limited release, often at independent movie theaters, but they can also have major marketing campaigns and a wide release. Independent films are often screened at local, national, or international film festivals before distribution (theatrical or retail release). Independent film production can rival a mainstream film production if it has the necessary funding and distribution.)”(Above)
But what does it actually take to ‘rival a mainstream film production,” or even more importantly, what does it take to distribute an independent film at all?
Independent film distribution – what does it take?
First of all, any prospective independent filmmaker needs to be aware what is a film distribution. According to experts at Studio Binder, “film distribution is the commercial process that makes a feature film available to the general public. It usually also includes determining a marketing strategy.”
They list the following elements as part of any film distribution process:
- Producer acquires rights to film a story or treatment;
- The screenplay is developed by one or more writers;
- Production finance and cast and crew are confirmed;
- Principle photography starts followed by post-production;
- Distributor develops release strategy and delivers the master print;
- Film run extends based on demand and marketing;
- After its film run, the film is released (online networks).
Now, this is a general process of film distribution and is something ‘regular’ film studios go through. It is also a process that involves detailed finances, with filming and distribution finances reaching really large sums of money.
Independent filmmakers in most cases don’t have such luxury. If their production involves more than an aesthetic video that they can simply post through their YouTube account, they mostly have to do the filming and production jobs by themselves. This would include finding their own props master or music supervisor. In most cases, they would need to hire freelancers for such jobs through agencies like BunnyStudio.
According to experts like Scott Mansfield (above) and Julie Candelaria, VP of Marketing at Gravitas Ventures, a leading VOD (video on demand) distributor, there are four key elements potential independent filmmakers have to have in mind before they venture into independent film distribution:
- Can they engage a cast with a recognizable profile?
- Is their film’s subject matter going to appeal to viewers?
- What kind of marketing can they afford?
- Can they find a distributor that is right for them?
Breakdown of the four key points
If the independent filmmaker is making a feature film, attracting cast members that the audience is familiar with is always going to attract distributors too. “Cast has become much more important than it was a few years ago,” says Mansfield. “It’s almost like we’ve reverted back to when I was a kid 50 years ago and they would say, ‘Okay, well what’s the little copy line we can put in the TV Guide?’ And that copy line is short and it needs to say: ‘A thriller starring Tom Cruise.’” (Above)
These days, this is particularly important for marketing a film through social media. Actors with a name have fans, and fans will spread the word. On the other hand, Candelaria (above) says that an important factor is to involve the writers, directors, and stars of the film to help with the social media.
When the subject of the potential film is concerned, distributors note that a large part of the independent film production consists of documentaries. “Sometimes that means working with award-winning directors like Being Evel’s Daniel Junge or The Nightmare’s Rodney Ascher. Other times, it means acquiring films whose subjects have millions of fans”
For Candelaria and her distribution company Gravitas, a “marketing process begins as soon as the film is acquired. First, they decide on a release date, and then, together with the filmmakers, work backward from that date, creating assets (the poster, the trailer) and determining how they can be best used to promote the film.” According to her, “that process can be six months. It can be four weeks, depending on when the acquisition occurs.”
Finding the right distributor is easier said than done. Very often the distributors are as varied as the independent films themselves. Finding the right fit is the tricky part.
What is the right independent film distribution strategy?
Specialists note that there are two so-called dream scenarios for independent film distribution:
- Raise distribution interest at a film festival – Getting a film to a film festival is a huge hurdle in itself. But if you pass that hurdle and raise interest, the best result would be a full buy-out of the film.
- Sell the movie directly to a streaming platform – With over 150 million subscribers, scoring a film distribution deal with Netflix is a dream come true for indie filmmakers. Of course, securing a distribution deal with the handful of other top dog distributors, such as Lionsgate, Universal, Paramount, or Warner would be equally exciting.
But as they rightly point out, “selling film rights to a distributor is a long shot. The process involves research, intimate understanding of your film’s audience and its potential position in the marketplace, comp films, and the bane of every indie filmmakers’ existence – connections.“
That is why they list six possible steps on how to distribute a prospective indie film. They all focus on self-distributing the film in some form or other.
- Funding the indie film distribution campaign. Most filmmakers turn to crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo during pre-production. “Having already proven your salt as a filmmaker that gets stuff done, asking for funds to bring your product to larger audiences is an admirable goal. When writing your personal story and film synopsis, be sure to highlight that you’ve already proven your metal – you have completed an independent film. Unlike other crowdfunding campaigns that promise advanced screenings when their indie film is completed in 2-5 years, you can provide an instant download via a private link on Vimeo or YouTube. This gives potential investors incentive to get behind you and back your indie film distribution efforts.”
More on self-distribution strategy
- Properly prepare the film for distribution. This includes having the film in the formats that film theatres use. “Since 2002, the industry has standardized the way films are screened at movie theaters. To the chagrin of hardcore film lovers, most theaters no longer project 35mm film. These days, digital screenings are standard. Most cinemas accept deliverables as digital files in .mp4 and .mov files.
- Have the formats ready for online distribution. “As with cinema, online streaming and download-for-purchase platforms accept Pro-Res 422 .mov format. In addition, files may be submitted in some other formats. You would need to check beforehand.
- Take care of subtitles and close-captioning. Many international film festivals prefer submissions to have English closed-captions or translated subtitles. If accepted, English-language films may need to have subtitles in the host’s native language. In addition, video-on-demand platforms also require closed-captions. If you’re wondering what the difference is between closed captions and subtitles, it’s this: closed captions include atmospherics. Sound effects and on-screen music are often crucial to the narrative.
- Make a decision on the online streaming release strategy. This can be done through a third-part-aggregator or do-it-yourself (DIY) process.
Third-Party Aggregators are vendors who specialize in movie distribution. In addition to submitting your independent film and brokering deals with the various VOD platforms, aggregators also take care of everything else, including encoding, packaging, and delivering your film to digital platforms. Aggregators have relationships with the VOD platforms, including those that have low acceptance rates from individuals representing their films.
This rarely goes without a cost, unless it is an online VOD platform like FilmHub. If you do end up securing VOD distribution, you will retain ownership over your film.
Further steps in independent film distribution
-Target VOD distribution platforms. Different VOD platforms operate under different systems, which include:
- Ad-Supported Video-on-Demand (AVOD). Viewers must watch ads before, during, and/or after the film. Platforms include Hulu, YouTube, and Crackle.
- Subscription Video-on-Demand (SVOD). Based on the system best-developed by Netflix, users pay a subscription fee per month for access to view the platform’s library of content.
- Transactional Video-on-Demand (TVOD). In this pay-per-view model, audiences pay for each film they want to watch. There are two options: Electronic Sell Through (EST), where, the consumer downloads the film and has unlimited viewing access. Download to Rent (DTR), where this is the digital equivalent of renting a movie for a very short period of time (iTunes).
- Cable Video-on-Demand. In the Cable VOD model, premium channels buy the rights to stream your film to their subscribers. Popular networks include HBO, STARZ, and Showtime.
- Free Video-on-Demand. The most familiar are Free VOD platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo.
- Theatrical release. Booking a theatre these days could be a problem and the usual solution is a theatrical booker. There are theatrical servicing companies that specialize in booking, advertising, promoting, and collecting tickets. While costly, the trade-off may be worth it for their expertise, contacts, and professionalism in this arena (above).
- Focusing on film promotion. This process itself includes a number of steps. First is making a film trailer. Second is preparing a press kit, which should include “ a one-pager (synopsis of your film on one page), images, and a personal story.” Also, create a website for the specific film production and cultivate an email list of potential fans.
It is obvious that making a successful independent film distribution is a complex process. But, if successful, it can be an extremely rewarding one. Let BunnyStudio help you in that process.