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DISTRIBUTION 101: What you need to know before you make your feature film..

by Martin Gomez

 

Martin is a long time screenwriter, winner of the 2015 FCSD Screenwriting Competition and a graduate of Cal State Northridge's Screenwriting program. He shares his knowledge from time spent in the trenches as a Hollywood production and distribution company intern.

 

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Whether aspiring professional or weekend warrior, most filmmakers hope to produce a feature film some day. Many of these artistic visionaries move to Los Angeles in search of that illusive investor, who may or may not be waiting for them with an oversized check, some self-fund via crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, while others max out all their credit cards and pray to the film Gods for some sort of return on their investment. All three routes come with their own substantial hurdles, but let's discuss some steps that can stack the odds in your favor, or at the very least, keep you from having to mortgage your condo to pay for post production.

 

LET'S PAY THE RENT

 

For any producer, the goal of a feature film should always be a return on your investment. That doesn't mean you won Sundance, got rich, or are now on a rocketship towards superstardom, it just means that your investors got their money back, your cast and crew made a couple of bucks, or at the very least were fed something other than cold pizza. You might be able to feed your family of four on "exposure," but your cast and crew probably can't.

 

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YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL 

 

The movie universe is incredibly oversaturated with content, and standing out is more difficult than ever. Filmmaking techniques have evolved to a point where legitimate feature films (okay, semi-legitimate) can be shot and edited on an iPhone. So basically your competition is everyone. So the first question I'm going to ask you is, what makes your film special? Why is somebody going to plop down their hard earned cash to check out your flick? What revolutionary filmmaking techniques were used in the creation of your masterpiece? What amazing story, that we've never seen before, did you tell? How did you stand out?

 

These are hard questions to answer. Chances are, you didn't reinvent the wheel during the production of your film, your story feels somewhat familiar, but may or may not have some unique twist to it, and you don't have the money in your budget for the biggest billboard in town. So are you screwed? Maybe... Or maybe not! That's exactly what this article is all about, giving you a shot even if your film didn't break the mold.

 

IN THE TRENCHES

During my time interning at a Los Angeles-based distribution company, I screened independent films until my eyes bleed. Most were simply doomed from take one, but others were competently executed, even entertaining to some degree. I remember the first film I deemed worthy of a "recommend." It was a quirky little comedy that had premiered at Slamdance. It was well written, the characters had great chemistry, and the cinematography was rather impressive given its low budget. A few days later, I had a run-in with the head of distribution and asked them what they thought of my recommended flick. He simply asked me, "what was it that you liked about it?" I gave him my spiel, similar to what I wrote earlier in this article, and then he asked a follow-up question, "how would you market it to an audience?" I stumbled to answer the question, and eventually realized that all of my answers did not appeal to a broad audience, but instead to a niche audience, who would even then likely pass on the film because of its lack of star power.

 

Now don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with creating a niche film. They exist for a reason and do well (occasionally) within their communities. But there was a bigger lesson to be learned here. Actually, a variety of lessons. First, the Slamdance brand practically meant nothing when it came time for business. If they had won Sundance, then we would be having a different conversation, but that just wasn't the case. Only the top tier festivals really hold any weight, and even then there are other factors at work. Remember, we are talking about getting distribution for your film here, which is equivalent to selling your film. If you think you can recoup your money selling your film online at an individual pay-per-view price, you are sadly mistaken. That is the last ditch effort of an unsuccessful film.

 

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THERE'S HOPE AFTER ALL

 

Let's say your film didn't place in any festival at all, so what now? There is actually still hope, but it's going to depend greatly on the decisions you made prior to day one of production. The first question I would be asked after screening a movie is, "so who's in it?" That right there is the magic question, and if you possess the magic answer, then we are in business. The average consumer of a movie, whether direct purchase or some type of video on-demand service, makes that purchase based off of two things - who's in it and what is it about? Think of a Redbox machine. You see this tiny little poster image, which may or may not have a recognizable actor on it, you see the film's title, which should hopefully give you some idea of the genre, and then you see a short description, a log line, if you will. Do you ever wonder how Jean-Claude Van Damme keeps making films, even though they never see the dim lights of a theater? It's because his audience knows exactly what they are getting when they see his newest release online, at a rental shop, or in a Redbox machine. By simply looking at that tiny poster, reading the title, and the short description, a person knows exactly what this film is about and are more than willing to invest a couple of bucks in that butt-kicking good time.

 

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Now imagine that your film isn't a genre movie. It can't be clearly defined in one short sentence, and your cover art is ambiguous at best. So how are you selling me? We go back to your first question, who's in it? You don't need some major Hollywood heartthrob to sell an audience on your film, you just need an aura of familiarity. "I remember this guy from my favorite TV show growing up. I always wondered what he had been up to following that rehab stint. $2.99? Sure! Why the hell not." Now you have your first customer! Only 25,000 more and you'll actually see your first dime. Although three quarters of that dime will probably belong to someone else.

 

THAT AURA OF FAMILIARITY 
So you might be asking yourself, how did that movie get into that Redbox machine in the first place? Or on Netflix? Or Video on Demand (VOD)? That's distribution! And why did a distribution company purchase your not-so-great artsy film? Because of that familiar actor gracing the cover of your tiny little poster. See where this is going? Think of name actors as insurance for your bet. Whether your film turns out to be the masterpiece you envisioned, or a glorified dumpster fire, you at least have a good shot of getting distribution (a.k.a. maybe making your money back) because there is some name value attached to your project. Distribution companies like that, because they know they can sell it, because famous actors have a built-in fan following that tend to be loyal, even after that actor puts out one stinker after another. Loyalty is a blind mistress.

 

Now you're probably asking yourself, "okay, who has money for that type of thing? I'm bringing a boxed lunch to set just to save money on catering." True, coming up with funding is no easy trick, but this isn't a film funding article, so I'm going to assume you can get that information from somewhere else. Maybe the Internet, they seem to have the answers to everything. BUT, let's assume you have some resources and cash on hand to make your dumpster fire...err...masterpiece.

You'd be surprised how far your money will take you. Are you going to get some a-list mega-star to be the lead in your low-budget slasher flick, probably not (no, is actually the answer), but there are plenty of actors, with significant name value, sitting on their couch at home, who will gladly come out for one day, play a bartender or taxi driver, and let you pay them five thousand dollars for the privilege. You can find these actors through their agencies, and you can find that information on IMDb Pro. If you've never heard of IMDb Pro and are making a feature film, i'm going to assume it's not going to be very good, in which case you DEFINITELY need a whole boatload of $5000/day b-listers. So now, when distribution companies are researching your finished project, they will see your new expensive actor friends in the cast and will be more willing to take a chance on you, because, at the very least, they can sell your movie to the actor's Twitter followers.

To recap, there are several decisions you can make early in the process that will give your film a better shot at acquiring distribution and maybe even making you a profit. From a script and story perspective, try to come up with a marketable concept that can be easily explained and falls within a specific genre. Think like a distribution executive, "how am I going to sell this to strangers that live in Kentucky?" I know we didn't talk about it much, but great key art (poster) is critical to a film's success. Think of that tiny little picture in the Redbox machine. Also, make sure you have a great (a.k.a. professional level) trailer. Even the crappiest studio movies have awesome trailers. Do you remember The Village by M. Night Shyamalan? Probably not, because it was horrible. But the trailer kicked ass. Film festivals and awards serve as a great after party and photo op for your cast and crew, but unless you are creating buzz at the biggest of them all, they really don't help you get distribution. They might get you a "look," but the ultimate decision will have nothing to do with your festival placements. Finally, get some stars in your movie. Preferably people ranked under 5000 on IMDb. You are better off spending $10,000 on one actor ranked in the top 1000 than on two or three ranked in the top 7500.

Good luck with your future endeavors.

1 Comment

  1. Profile photo of Lisa Bruhn

    Lisa Bruhn

    Great article Martin on the realities of traditional distribution relating to first features! Most filmmakers making a first feature (unless they get that bankable A-lister actor or musician on board) should look at this first film as a learning experience and portfolio film. If they do well at festivals great, they have a shot at making the investors money back. If not they have self distribute options where they keep 100 percent of profits (after deferred and residual pay) thru VOD aggregators like disstribr and on demand theatrical distribution companys. Hopefully the filmmaker has the drive and passion to push the project across the finish line so that it's seen by it's intended audience no matter how small or niche, including investors for their next film. Just finishing the first feature and showing it in your local church or media center is an incredible feat.

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