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Top 5 Misunderstandings about Self Distribution

February 24, 2015

• Jon Reiss


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1. “I don’t need to worry about distribution—a company will buy my film and do that for me.”

Unfortunately the world has changed. There are 35,000-50,000 new feature films made every year. Only 600 get on the international festival circuit. 200 get into Sundance. Of those, last year only 20 made deals starting in the low six figures. Multiply that by 5 sales markets worldwide and, in a great year, 100 films out of 50,000 are making deals starting in the low 6 figures. All rights distribution deals don’t exist anymore except for the very lucky few. Even Sundance films aren’t guaranteed distribution—part of the reason the Sundance Institute started Sundance Artist Services was to help all of the films that had premiered at the fest but never received distribution. Around the world broadcast licenses are decreasing and film fund revenues are shrinking. 

2. “Distribution and Marketing is something I can worry about later—right now I need to focus on making my film.”

Once upon a time, filmmaking used to be only about making films. Now filmmaking has two parts: making a film and connecting that film to an audience. It is what I call the new 50/50. This is not a sequential process. The earlier you start engaging your audience, the more successful you will be in achieving your goals. The process will also be more organic— since you will involve your audience in the process of making the film, they will be invested in you and your project. 

3. “If I think about my audience, I am selling out.”

A better way to think of this is: You are not changing your film for the market (that doesn’t work, anyway), but instead connecting with the audience that already exists for your film. 

By thinking of the audience in advance, you begin to understand the elements you might include that will aid in financing or marketing. For instance the documentary Ride the Divide received sponsorship from some of the manufacturers that supplied clothing to the endurance bikers featured in the film. This way, the film benefited from considering the larger audience with no sacrifice to the creative spirit.

It is also better to know in advance that your film might have a small, niche audience. You know, then, to keep your expenses low. Better to make a film for less than be saddled with a mound of debt later. If you have $100,000 to make a film, better to spend $50,000 on making the film and $50,000 on connecting that film to an audience. You will be far ahead of 95% of other filmmakers.

4. “I can’t imagine doing all that work by myself.”

Self distribution is not distribution by yourself. It is not DIY. I am known as the “DIY guy” because I wrote a manual to help filmmakers distribute their films, but in that book I stress that distribution and marketing are about collaboration and partnerships. I prefer the term “Hybrid Distribution.” You as the filmmaker manage the process, but you engage various entities to do much of the actual distribution: digital aggregators, DVD companies, shopping carts, fulfillment companies, television broadcasters, bookers, publicists. It still involves work, but not as much as doing everything yourself, which I only recommend as a fallback. Partnering with companies extends your reach tremendously and there are more and more companies forming every month to help you. American: The Bill Hicks Story is a wonderful UK example of this.

5. “I am not a salesperson, I am an artist.”

Well that may or may not be true, but many great filmmakers are also salespeople. It takes sales skills to sell your film to actors, financiers, or anyone else so that they believe in your film enough to get involved. Most successful directors are “good in a room.”

In the new model of artistic entrepreneurship (which musicians have been engaging with for a number of years now), artists need to think more and more creatively about making a living. Look at the products on OK Go’s website.

In the spirit of collaboration (see #4 above) I recommend that films have what I have termed a Producer of Marketing and Distribution (or PMD) on their team to spearhead audience engagement (which is what I call distribution and marketing). Since nearly half of the work of filmmaking (if not more) is distribution and marketing and since distribution companies cannot in any way handle the glut of films that are made every year, filmmakers need a PMD as much as they need a DP, Editor, AD, Line Producer etc. The earlier filmmakers recognize this, the more they will achieve their goals and the happier they will be. This concept has already been embraced in the UK: Sally Hodgson is the PMD for Sound It Out, Ben Kempas is the PMD for The Scottish Documentary Institute and Dogwoof has started being a PMD for select films.

Don’t be one of those filmmakers that I constantly encounter who say “I made a film, I’m in a mound of debt, I’ve been in a ton of film festivals, yet no one has bought my film. I don’t have any money or energy to do it myself and I don’t have anyone to help me.”

Start early, plan for it, engage, and embrace the new world.


Jon Reiss

Jon Reiss is an author and media strategist who helps filmmakers and companies navigate the new distribution and marketing landscape. His experience releasing his feature BOMB IT with a hybrid strategy was the inspiration for writing Think Outside the Bo



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