Luckily, these days there are plenty of distribution options available for filmmakers. However, for independent filmmakers securing a distribution deal can be a confusing and complicated task.
This detailed article will go through all of the methods you can use to find film distributors. Let’s start with the basics.
1. What Does A Film Distributor Do?
Film distribution is the process of making a movie available for viewing by an audience. And this includes theatrical exhibition, TV broadcast, VOD streaming, and DVD sales.
An expert film distributor can help you get your film shown in cinemas and streamed on major VOD platforms. They understand how to market your film and how to help you get your film shown to an international audience. You can sell your film independently, but working with a distributor allows you to access more opportunities and make a higher profit.
When you find a film distributor, you will sign a contract with them. This film distribution contract will include a term length, which outlines how long the distributor will have the rights to your film. Keep in mind that these term lengths tend to be high (10-15 years).
There are many methods to find film distributors, and you can secure a deal even before pre-production. So, it’s best to begin creating a distribution strategy before you make your film. But if you already have a film complete, don’t worry: better late than never.
2. Contacting Film Distributors
There are different types of film distributors. Some only release major budget, feature films while others focus on specific genres or cater to niche audiences. When making a film, you should have an idea of who your target audience is. When finding a distributor, your goal is to work with someone who has sold similar projects (for example: the same genre, budget, target audience, and language).
You can find a film distributor with a Google search or by using IMBD Pro. It may also be helpful to research into the distribution deals of contemporary films that are similar to yours. It’s crucial to remember that film distribution has changed over the past decade due to the rise of the internet, so this should be taken into account.
Some film distributors even accept unsolicited/blind submissions. And this is especially true for smaller companies that specialize in niche genres such as: LGBTQ+, Horror, Comedy, and Faith. If you have a commercial genre film, you might be able to contact a distribution company directly. Details on how to submit to each distributor are on their company websites.
However, the majority of film distributors will only accept submissions if you go through a sales agent. A sales agent works on behalf of the producer to sell the rights of the film for distribution. They also promote and represent the film at festivals and markets.
To sum up, you want to find a distributor who has worked with films similar to yours. You can contact distributors independently, but many film distributors prefer you to use a sales agent.
3. Sales Agents and Aggregators
A sales agent helps you find distributors and sell your film. They might work independently or for a company. If you have spent a considerable amount of money making a film, it makes sense to invest in a sales agent. If you don’t have a budget, some sales agents will work on commission.
Finding a sales agent is difficult if you don’t already have industry connections. One way is to research and contact them directly. You can find a sales agent in pre-production, but unknown filmmakers will likely have to wait until project completion. Additionally, you can find sales agents by networking at film festivals and film markets.
If you are looking for a worldwide VOD release, then you need an aggregator. You don’t need a distributor or sales agent to get an aggregator. There are many companies out there that can approach streaming platforms on your behalf. Some of them charge an upfront fee and others take a percentage of your sales. Aggregators worth checking out are Film Hub, Bit Max, Seed & Spark, and Quiver.
If your only distribution goal is VOD streaming, then you can go straight to an aggregator. But for anything else, you need to take distribution more seriously. And this means hiring a sales agent to represent you and sell your film at festivals and markets.
4. Pre-sale Distribution
You don’t need to make a film to secure a distribution deal. Pre-sale distribution is a guarantee from a distribution company that they will represent your film once the project is complete. A film distributor might be interested in your film early on if your film already has a built-in audience. For example, it might be a sequel to a successful movie or have a star actor attached. Occasionally, distribution companies will approve of the film if they like the script, genre, or filmmaker’s previous work.
It’s not unusual for films to get funded with pre-sale distribution agreements (also known as “pre-sale financing”). And this involves signing a distribution agreement and gaining a cash advance to help cover some, if not all, of the film production budget.
Distributors might pay this out in full, through installments, or guarantee to pay a set amount as soon as the film is complete. But keep in mind that pre-sale financing is a risky strategy. If you fail to complete your production, you will need to pay back the distributor in full.
Even if you can’t secure a distribution deal during pre-production, you still need to be thinking about your audience. Your target audience will determine your ideal distribution strategy. Most importantly, independent filmmakers should build up their audience through social media. Film distributors do give preference to projects that come with a foundation audience. Having a strong social media following can help you gain a film distributor.
5. Film Festivals
There are many pros to attending film festivals. A festival allows you to showcase your film to a primary audience, win awards, and potentially secure distribution. There are thousands of film festivals taking place worldwide every year. These include local, niche, and major film festivals.
However, not all festivals are equal, and most film distributors will only attend major festivals. In particular the big five – Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Sundance and Toronto. Distributors do attend smaller festivals if they are on the lookout for specific genres. For example, some festivals specialize in documentary and animation.
Your film festival premiere is also crucial as many major film festivals require you to premiere at their festival. As such you may only be able to attend one major festival with your film. What film festival you submit to depends upon your film’s quality, genre, and target audience.
A typical film festival strategy is to submit to a mix of major, niche, and local festivals. By getting into one major and several other festivals, you increase your chance of getting noticed. Furthermore, winning awards at festivals can also help you secure a distribution deal.
A useful tool for finding and submitting to film festivals is Film Freeway.
Pro Tip! It’s important to understand that some festivals, such as Sundance, require you to hire a sales agent. A good sales agent will have excellent relationships with festivals, markets, and distributors. And this will increase your chances of getting noticed and being taken seriously by film distributors.
6. Film Markets
There are markets where you can showcase your film directly to distributors. Some film festivals will have film markets happening during the festival week. The most famous film market is Canne’s Marche Du Film. Other examples of markets are American Film Market, European Film Market, Asian Film Market, Independent Filmmaker Project, and Hot Docs.
Film markets are trade shows for producers, distributors, and sales agents. Unlike film festivals, you don’t need to compete for a place at a film market. It’s also worth keeping in mind that half of the films sold at markets are in the development stage (Research by American Film Market 2016). So, if you are looking for pre-sale financing, markets are a great place to secure a deal.
You can attend film markets as an independent producer. It’s important to know how you can get the most out of attending a film market. If you are new to selling, you would benefit from hiring a sales agent with marketing expertise. At the market, you will need to organize appointments with potential distributors and pitch your project to them. The employees of distributors at markets and festivals go by the title Acquisition Executives.
Typically to pitch a project at a film market, you need to memorize a one-minute verbal pitch. You will need to be clear in this pitch on why your film is a good buy. To help sell your film, create an online media kit: complete with a trailer, photographs, and password-protected scene clips. A film distributor won’t have time to watch the whole film. Along with your online media kit you should also bring business cards and a one-sheet breakdown. Film markets provide recommendations for producers selling projects on their company websites.
7. Self Distribution
There is no guarantee that your film will sell with the traditional method of film distributors, festivals, and markets. And as such, self-distribution may be your only option. The main difference is that you don’t already have the exhibition’s trust and contact details. There are a couple of methods for going about self distribution:
Theater Release – You don’t need to have a distributor (or be part of a large production company) to have a theatrical release. However, an independent theater release is often costly. You will need to pay for all advertisements, posters, certification, and legal fees yourself. An independent theater release is rarely profitable, but it does increase awareness of the film. There are some platforms out there that help with Theatrical on Demand releases, such as Gathr Films or Tugg.
TV Broadcast – Television companies prefer you to contact them through a sales agent. TV channel deals can be highly profitable but often include lengthy-term clauses. For example, you may not be able to show your film on another channel or VOD platform for 3-5 years. One way to simultaneously profit from both TV and VOD is to take advantage of territorial deals.
Video On Demand – VOD includes popular streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu. To grab their attention, you should go through a sales agent, aggregator, or both. These VOD deals are often territorial specific. For example, a 2-4 years on a North American Netflix deal. Keep in mind that you can independently apply for Amazon Prime and iTunes.
DVD – The sales of DVD’s are plummeting, but you can sometimes still profit from international sales. Additionally, some genres, such as Children’s Films, do better on DVD than others. To sell on a large scale, such as within a significant supermarket chain, you will still need to secure a distributor. But you can sell DVD’s independently to small retail shops, as well as online.
How filmmakers find an audience and profit from their films is constantly changing. You can be uniquely creative with your distribution strategy. Some filmmakers sell directly to their audience through crowdfunding or with subscription services such as Patreon. And even if your film does not distribute widely, you can still use it as a calling card for future projects.
There are several methods that you can use to find a film distributor. Ideally, you should be planning your film distribution strategy before you make your film. But if your movie is already complete, you can still enter film festivals, hire sales agents, and even self-distribute.
We hope this article has helped you understand the process of film distribution so that your next film is a raging success (both for the audience and for your bank account!)
How do you plan to distribute your next film production? Any tips to share? Let us know in the comments section below.