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Attention, Filmmakers: Here’s the Distribution Advice You Need to Read

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.”

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.

When push comes to shove, a filmmaker’s rights come down to what’s guaranteed in the contract, and whether a filmmaker has the power to hold the distributor accountable. On the flip side, filmmakers have their own obligations to fulfill for the distributor to be effective. One key obligation is to be the chief public advocate for their film. When filmmakers can’t give the time to do press or public appearances or social media, they’re putting a great handicap on the distributor.

Happy collaborations do exist. They are usually the result of filmmakers understanding what they’re getting into. Some of the biggest debacles I’ve witnessed have occurred with upstart distribution companies with no track record (as Marshall Curry candidly describes his own experience below). If a company has never distributed a documentary before, think twice about being the first. A notable exception in 2013 is THE ACT OF KILLING released with great passion by Drafthouse Films, a company with a solid track record for exhibition.

The final section of this discussion is devoted to variations of self-releasing. Documentary film has a distinguished history of filmmakers taking charge of their theatrical release, tracing back to NANOOK OF THE NORTH in the 1920s and continuing through MONTEREY POP in the ‘60s and BROTHER’S KEEPER in the ‘90s.

In recent years, technology and independent bookers have made forms of self-releasing a more viable option. This first sunk in for me six years ago during conversations with distribution strategist Peter Broderick and WME’s Liesl Copland. I asked them to deliver speeches at the inaugural TIFF Doc Conference in 2009–when was Broderick popularized the term “hybrid distribution” in his Declaration of Independence, and Copland emphasized the rising digital potential in her address Dear Theater Owners, Fear Not… Since then, their theories gained more credence with hybrid releases such as EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP and SENNA, which earned $3.3 million and $1.6 million, respectively, at theaters, according to Box Office Mojo, not counting digital or other revenue. In 2013, only six theatrical documentaries surpassed more than $1 million at the theatrical box office. One was GIRL RISING, which operated outside traditional distribution and partnered with Gathr.

Another rising trend is filmmakers touring with their films. The most prominent example I know is Gary Hustwit as I wrote about in a case study of his film OBJECTIFIED. Below Andrew Cohn describes his recent experience with the film MEDORA.

One recurring theme in the advice is the need for advance preparation (see Ana Vicente under the section International Sales; and the makers of INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE under Hybrid Distribution). As I compiled these comments, I was corresponding with several filmmakers headed to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and still completing their edits and sound mixes only two weeks before opening night. If filmmakers want to take full advantage of the strategies below, they need to build in more time to plan. Once your festival premiere happens, the clock starts ticking on the marketplace asset of being new.

Many comments herein reference Sundance. However, the advice can certainly be applied to TIFF or other festivals. Indeed, the biggest beneficiaries of this input may be filmmakers who are still in development or production.

Read more here.

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