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10 Things I Learned From Self-Distributing My First Documentary Film

10 Things I Learned From Self-Distributing My First Documentary Film

I recently wrote a two-part article featuring four
documentary filmmakers who not only pursued a hybrid release approach with their most recent films, but also were generous enough to share the real data from their films’ releases for the article (Read 
Part 1 and Part 2). Upon reading these stories, filmmaker Leah Warshawski expressed interest in writing a similar piece on her experience self-releasing her film, “Finding
. The following post chronicles the story of her release and concludes with a list of 10 tips for filmmakers. 

When all of the data is in – about a year
from now – Warshawski will write a follow up piece and include the actual data from the
release. I encourage more filmmakers to
tell their stories – not just the how, but also the results. A great way to do
this is to participate in the
Sundance Transparency Project. This
information helps all of us learn from each other’s triumphs and
disappointments so that our knowledge base continues to expand. I am already speaking with a number of other
filmmakers willing to share their stories. If you wish to contact me, my
information is at the bottom of this post. – 
Jon Reiss

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: Here’s Why a Grassroots Screening Tour Might Be Right for Your Documentary

“Finding Hillywood” profiles the very beginning of Rwanda’s film industry and a few of the industry’s pioneers who screen films in their own language on a giant inflatable movie screen. It’s a real-life example of the power of cinema to heal a man and his nation. 

The film took seven years to complete and
premiered at Seattle International Film Festival in 2013. Since then, “Finding Hillywood” has screened at more
than 60 festivals around the world and won six awards including the Critic’s Award at Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival and the Audience Award at the
Napa Valley Film Festival. In an effort to maintain some control over our film (and after many emails to other filmmakers, asking for advice) we decided to come up with our own hybrid
distribution strategy, which we are still revising to this day, nearly two years later. My hope is
that by sharing our wins and pitfalls along the way, I can contribute to the
collective knowledge that is so important for filmmakers to share.

This information is often
the most difficult to share, because producers are over-achievers by nature
and admitting to shortcomings can feel like failure. However, it can also be
quite therapeutic, so here we go!

From Day 1, we knew that “Finding Hillywood” would be
challenging to distribute across traditional outlets, and all of our
mentors felt the same way. There were a few reasons the odds were stacked against us. Namely, an hour-long subtitled film helmed by two first-time feature film directors did not inspire confidence in potential broadcast partners in
the US.

READ MORE: 10 New Ways to Think About Audiences for Social-Issue Documentaries

Festivals and International Broadcast

We initially set out to make a 75–90 minute feature, but
during test screenings the audience resonated with our hour-long cut and had difficulty watching more. Ultimately, we settled at 58 minutes, which meant that we had
to come to terms with the fact that we would neither receive a traditional theatrical run, nor would we be in competition for
an Oscar nomination. Our team was concerned that festivals would not be able to
find a place for an hour-long film but thankfully, it turned out not to be an issue. Although we
applied to all of the top tier festivals, we weren’t accepted to any of them. Nevertheless, by the end of our run on the festival circuit, we ended up
screening at more than 60 domestic and international middle-tier festivals — even nabbing a few awards along the away. In hindsight we learned that sometimes it’s better to be a big fish in
a small pond. There are some great small-town festivals where the
programmers pick you up at the airport and treat the filmmakers well – which feels good after you’ve spent so
long making your film.

At the same time, we reached out to all of our top
choices for international distributors and agents. We ended up signing with
Mercury Media in the UK, who had promised to work hard for us. Mercury sold broadcast rights
for two international territories and then suddenly, without warning, shut
their doors. We later learned that the owner of the company was apparently diagnosed with terminal cancer around the same time we were talking to them about our film. Although it seemed promising at first, signing with Mercury Media turned out to be a huge mistake as we are
now embroiled with the liquidators and have not seen a penny from any money
we’re owed. We now have a stellar agent based in Australia who I wish we had met

Domestic Broadcast and Educational

Everyone told us to apply for Independent Lens and POV, but we did not get accepted and never received any feedback as to why. We did apply for ITVS funding six times over seven years and eventually, we decided to spend our energy elsewhere. Since presumably none of
the major US broadcasters wants another film about Rwanda, we are currently
trying to raise $25,000 for our own PBS campaign with a West Coast presenting
partner who can help us bring the film to nationwide PBS audiences. We also signed a deal to work with The Cinema Guild, a boutique educational distributor that has a good track record
with African content.

Digital and In-Flight

Once we got our film rights back from Mercury Media, we signed
with The Orchard for digital sales (iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay) and reached out
to Terry Steiner who we knew had a good reputation for selling in-flight
content. We fly a lot for work and kept seeing their name at the end of airline
movies so we sent them an email. Thankfully they agreed to rep our film even
though it’s not something they would traditionally take on.


Since our film is about
the experience of watching films with an audience — whether it’s in the context of a festival or a standalone screening — we felt the theatrical-on-demand model would be a natural fit. We were approached by Gathr
Films and they pushed for us to sign before we had a lot of time to
investigate Tugg or think through the entire process. We have only had a
handful of Gathr screenings to date but we learned a lot from each and we still
feel the best way to watch our film is in a theater. Of course we maintained
the right to sell home-use DVDs from our website and we sell these at all
screenings we show up to as well.

READ MORE: Congrats to “Big Sonia,” the January Project of the Month

“Finding Hillywood” turned out to be one massive distribution
case study for me and I’m excited to use this knowledge for my next film in
production, “Big Sonia.” The only way I would
have figured any of this out is by DOING it. The tears, and sweat, and living
out of a duffle bag are all part of my education and I am grateful for this “unorthodox” way of going to my own version of film school on the road. In summary (and in hindsight), I share some of what I learned along the way with you:

The top 10 things I learned from distributing my first documentary film:

1. Be ready to take a year (or more) off work if you plan
to travel with your film to festivals.

2. Talk with other producers who have worked with the
distribution companies you’re signing with. They will likely be honest about
their experience and if they’re not happy they will tell you.

3. Hire an entertainment lawyer to look over every single
contract you sign. It’s a relatively small cost up-front to prevent disaster down the road.

4. Don’t sign all of your rights away to one company unless
they have a track record for selling all of those rights. Divide your rights up
and find the best people / companies to sell each.

5. Watch other documentaries. Lots of them.

6. Create merchandise and DVD’s early, and sell them at
every screening and event you attend.

7. Start raising money for festival travel and distribution
while you’re producing your film. It’s tough to raise this money once the film
is already done.

8. Ask for a screening fee. Always.

9. Be ready to generate your own press and marketing
materials. Distributing a film is like running a small business.

10. Not everyone wants to see your film, and that’s okay. Go
find the people that DO and give them a million ways to see it and support you.
Make it easy for people to buy your film as many ways as possible!

Leah Warshawski produced and co-directed “Finding Hillywood” with Christopher Towey. You can watch “Finding Hillywood” on Hulu now or find at more here. Follow “Finding Hillywood” on Facebook and Twitter. You can reach Jon Reiss at his web site and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: Don’t Submit to Festivals Yet

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