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How We Made $1.5 Million Self-Distributing Our Doc: The Six-Step Playbook

Once you find your niche audience, follow these concrete steps to unlocking your documentary's earning potential.

"Age of Champions"

“Age of Champions”

Filmmaker MBA

Editor’s Note: Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat, like many documentary filmmakers, found a great story they hoped would find an audience and a distributor at a major festival. What they quickly discovered is that sans Oscar potential, a celebrity subject or a slam-dunk marketing hook, nonfiction filmmakers are responsible for finding their film’s unique audience themselves.

But what do you do once you’ve identified that niche audience? How do you make money? 

Through trial and error — and a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit — the filmmaking duo behind “Age of Champions” made $1.5 million self-distributing their film. IndieWire recently asked Rufo and Ochwat how they did it, and we were pleasantly surprised that they wrote this clear-eyed essay, which includes real dollar amounts and some cold, hard business advice.

Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat

Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat

Filmmaker MBA

For years, filmmakers sent themselves on a unicorn hunt to “get distribution.” The idea was to sell all of your film’s rights to a major distributor in exchange for an oversized check. There’s only one hitch — it doesn’t work that way anymore.

We learned this lesson with our documentary “Age of Champions,” which tells the story of five competitors up to 100 years old who chase gold at the Senior Olympics. We had done all the right things: premiered at AFI Docs, secured a national PBS broadcast, pitched the film to distributors. But when the offers rolled in, they were so small we had to pass.

READ MORE: How ‘Gleason’ Director Clay Tweel Turned 1,300 Hours of Footage Into an Oscar Contender

So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work building our own distribution from the ground up. We spent more than two years distributing the film and generated more than $1.5 million in revenue. More importantly, we had enough money in the bank to fund our next project and make the jump from part-time filmmakers to having a sustainable creative career.

We’ve put together an online course called Filmmaker MBA outlining exactly how we did it. Here’s a sneak peek at our six-step playbook:

"Age of Champions" Community Screening

“Age of Champions” Community Screening

Filmmaker MBA

1. Conduct experiments to find your real audience

Finding your audience is the first step on the long road of your film’s distribution campaign. As early as possible, you need to start conducting experiments to find a concrete group of people who will pay for and spread the word about your film.

For “Age of Champions,” our first hypothesis was that “seniors” would be the audience for the film. Unfortunately, after a couple test screenings, we learned that most seniors couldn’t care less about documentaries, fitness or the Senior Olympics. Our next experiment was equally negative — our audience of “senior athletes” was confused why we weren’t showing them exercise videos.

Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast: ‘Kate Plays Christine’ Director Robert Greene On Making Nonfiction Cinematic (Episode 3)

But finally, for our third experiment, we hit the bullseye. We shared the film with nonprofits and businesses in the senior health community (senior centers, retirement homes, senior health companies) and they loved the film. They wanted to know how they could purchase it and share it with their local communities.

Result: We had identified our niche and it was time to start selling our film.

2. Double down on direct distribution

Although we eventually landed a national PBS broadcast, Netflix deal and iTunes/Amazon distribution, the vast majority of our revenue came through direct distribution on our own website.

Our first step was to create a range of products — consumer DVD, community screening kit, educational licenses and merchandise — and set up a simple online store using Shopify.

We focused all of our marketing toward driving traffic to our website. Any time someone purchased the film, we sent a series of automatic emails that encouraged them to tell their friends or buy additional products.
In the end, we sold more than $300,000 in DVDs, kits and merchandise directly through our website — 10 times more than all our traditional distribution revenue combined.

"Age of Champions" Screening Kit

“Age of Champions” Screening Kit

Filmmaker MBA

3. Make your community screenings profitable

Community screenings are a fantastic way to create a human-to-human connection with your film. The trick is to make them profitable.

For “Age of Champions,” we created a screening kit that included a DVD, discussion guide, posters, postcards and cheap giveaways — everything an event host needed to organize a successful screening at their senior center, retirement home or senior health company. We priced it at $149, which delivered a 90% profit margin after production and shipping costs.

READ MORE: How One Filmmaker Made The Switch From Documentary To Fiction

We partnered with senior health organizations and attended conferences to spread the word about our community screening campaign.

Over the course of two years, we sold 3,000 screening kits and generated more than $250,000 in sales.

4. Pitch yourself as a public speaker (for $3,000 an hour)

Every time we had an organization purchase a screening kit, we sent three automated emails letting them know we were available as speakers. For larger groups, having the director onstage to talk about the film adds a tremendous amount of value to their live event.

Q&A after "Age of Champions" screening

Q&A after “Age of Champions” screening

Filmmaker MBA

We priced our speaking fee at $3,000 plus travel expenses and made this clear upfront to our potential hosts. Our presentations were very simple — we introduced the film, delivered a 30-minute speech after the screening and took questions from the audience.

In total, we booked more than 125 speaking events and generated over $450,000 in speaking fees and follow-up sales.

5. Sell your DVD to universities for $250 apiece

You can sell your DVD to consumers for $25 — or sell the exact same DVD and an “academic license” to universities for $250.

For “Age of Champions,” we created a “university kit” that included a 60- and 75-minute version of the film and a 10-page educators’ guide written specifically for an academic audience, which we priced on our website at $250. To drive sales, we bought an email list for university libraries, attended an annual conference for gerontologists and directed all of our marketing and outreach efforts to the website.

READ MORE: ‘Life, Animated’: How Roger Ross Williams Captured The Insular World Of Autism For A Touching True Life Story

By the end of our campaign, we sold $88,000 in academic licenses (and another $26,000 through a non-exclusive deal with an educational distributor).

"Age of Champions" Screening Event

“Age of Champions” Screening Event

Filmmaker MBA

6. Hunt down corporate sponsors for the big checks

Our biggest single source of income for “Age of Champions” was corporate sponsorships.

When we secured a national broadcast on PBS, they gave us the opportunity to sell 60 seconds of “underwriting,” which most filmmakers never take. First, we put together a long list of companies that had a customer base aligned with our film’s core audience. Next, we pitched corporate brand teams and used the success of our community screening campaign as proof that there was a good fit. We ended up selling 15-second spots to Procter & Gamble, Rite Aid and Healthways for $75,000 apiece.

We also reached out to the largest senior living companies and sold screening kits and DVDs at a bulk rate, which they could share them with their customers and use for promotions.

All told, we made more than $500,000 through corporate sponsorships and sales — they were never easy to negotiate, but paid out big in the end.

Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat have produced three documentaries for PBS and teach an online course about direct distribution.  To get their free seven-day email course, click here

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