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by Thom Powers
January 10, 2014 1:06 PM
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Attention, Filmmakers: Here's the Distribution Advice You Need to Read

Thom Powers is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival; and artistic director for the Montclair Film Festival, DOC NYC festival, and Stranger Than Fiction screening series at IFC Center. He also programs for the Miami International Film Festival and teaches at the School of Visual Arts.

Over at the Stranger Than Fiction web site, Powers writes about how filmmakers can make better deals for themselves in all distribution channels:  theatrical, television, digital and international. He also gets input from filmmakers, publicists and sales agents on topics such as digital rights, educational rights and deal terms. Though his focus on documentary film, his advice works for all independent filmmakers. Read his full article here.

Over the years, I’ve seen too many filmmakers become embittered by their distribution deals. Sometimes they had unrealistic expectations, sometimes they got caught in bad deals. The filmmakers who feel disgruntled range from those with niche titles all the way to the most successful directors. I remember seeing an esteemed director at the Toronto International Film Festival being greeted warmly by the head of a distribution company. “That’s funny,” the director later told me, “I’m currently suing his company for unpaid royalties.” Behind the diplomatic smiles lie many untold stories.

As we start off 2014 and head into Sundance, I want to explore how filmmakers can make better deals for themselves in all distribution channels:  theatrical, television, digital and international. Most filmmakers go into distribution negotiations for the first time, or with a gap of several years since their previous film–which might as well be their first time in this changing landscape. That puts them at a disadvantage negotiating with distributors who are regularly making deals and confident about stipulating what’s “normal.”

”Behind the diplomatic smiles lie many untold stories."

What filmmakers frequently lack are points of comparison. To change that I reached out to several filmmakers and other industry insiders for feedback. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their experiences. I’ve edited and condensed contributions to reduce repetition (though some points are worth repeating).

Despite the pointed criticism of distribution contracts in many of the following comments, I don’t want to disparage all distributors. Among their ranks are people who care passionately about documentary films and make a great difference in their success. But often those people are in the middle ranks. Even when a filmmaker’s main contact at a distributor is conscientious, a year later that person might be gone, or the library sold to a different company. Among active distributors in recent years who have transformed or ceased operating are THINKFilm, Palm Pictures, Wellspring, Artisan, Indomina and more.

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