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Life After Sundance: Distribution and Marketing for the 99 Percent

Life After Sundance: Distribution and Marketing for the 99 Percent

Sundance selected 110 features from 4,042 submissions for its 2012 U.S. and World Dramatic and Documentary Competition lineups. Based on the festival’s history, it’s fair to say that less than 40 of those films will be acquired by established, full-service film distributors. At best, this translates to a 1% success rate for aspiring Sundance filmmakers.

Given this sobering reality, producers — members of the 99% — are embracing a post-distributor marketplace. But understanding how to navigate this alternate landscape is essential.  

This means recognizing the sound of a reshuffling deck. In the old game, producers relied on key factors beyond their control: top-tier film festival invites, prestigious jury prizes, audience awards and, all too frequently, the particular tastes and needs of distribution executives.  

From this new shuffle, producers will deal their own cards, managing risk and seeking out rewards that include some combination of maximum exposure, return on investment and recognition.

Of course, traditional distributors will continue to service independent films. However, I believe most producers will market and distribute their projects on their own by incorporating old and new media, within and outside the traditional marketplace. Benefits include greater control, reduced costs, increased financial rewards and transparent accounting. However, this also means assuming full responsibility from the onset and taking all measures required to achieve their objectives.

With that in mind, here’s seven key practices producers must embrace to succeed in the post-distributor marketplace.

Embrace the Role of Entrepreneur.
Understand the odds: Whether by design or default, you probably won’t have a conventional distributor. Research best practices; collaborate with other successful producers and industry professionals. Create and adhere to success plans grounded in hard numbers.
Mix Old and New Distribution.
Assume responsibility for building an integrated media platform; successful marketing and distribution plans are a mix of old and new media. While you may sidestep turnkey arrangements, you’ll still leverage traditional platforms where appropriate. Specialty theatrical releases, DVD, VOD, television broadcasts, digital streaming and downloads, whether for sale or subscription, all figure in. Like recording artists who release content through their own labels, producers can establish their own branded distribution companies. Thanks to an emerging class of service providers and content aggregators, there’s a number of distribution options that act as facilitators rather than gatekeepers and render essential delivery services (digital encoding, quality control) for relatively modest fees.

Create Key Marketing Elements, and Then Create Some More.
Constantly create content. Take an abundance of photographs and videos that capture each step of production, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes; they will be vital for marketing. Images are the connective tissue between the production and its fanbase.  

Integrate Social Media.
Your project’s success depends on your ability to incorporate social media as an essential marketing platform. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are indispensable for developing an audience and generating a robust and substantive dialogue with their fans.

Forge Partnerships with Friends, Family and Fans.
Musicians have understood this for years: Success depends on establishing a personal relationship with fans. Create a network of digital hubs (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, your own websites) to share project-related content; partner with support groups that will mobilize for both fundraising and distribution. Over the past year, we’ve witnessed a slew of producers who cultivated and partnered with rabid fanbases to achieve their goals.

David Dinerstein, now president of LD Entertainment, helped manage Kevin Smith’s “Red State” marketing strategy. “Every project comes with its own brand of drama,” he says. “With entertaining and informative posts, empowered producers can create positive value even from production setbacks.” While following the production’s own dramatic narrative, audiences vest in the film’s outcome and can become a service for financial and marketing support.
Collaborate with Experts.
You will need a team of specialists to replace the people who manage publicity, marketing and distribution in the traditional model. Key is a digital marketer to design and manage unique strategies; author and industry consultant Jonathan Reiss says these individuals are important enough to deserve producer status — Producers of Marketing and Distribution, aka PMDs.

Incorporate Crowdfunding.
It’s not just production money; crowdfunding is an invaluable tool for financing marketing and distribution. It also increases audience awareness and can motivate an army of loyal supporters.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a powerful blueprint: Members of the 99 percent hold the power to change the course of independent film.


Steven C. Beer is a shareholder in the international entertainment practice of Greenberg Traurig’s New York office. Steven has served as counsel to numerous award-winning writers, directors and producers, as well as industry-leading film production, film finance and film distribution companies. Follow him @StevenBeer.

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