Self-Distribution: You Don’t Have to (And Probably Shouldn’t) Do It All Yourself

Self-Distribution: You Don’t Have to (And Probably Shouldn't) Do It All Yourself
Self-Distribution: You Don’t Have (And Probably Shouldn't) Do It All Yourself

READ MORE: 6 Ways to Maximize Theatrical Distribution in the Age of Digital On Demand

Let’s say you’ve spent four years working on your independent film, from idea to post-production, and now you’re finally ready to release. Like all films made under $100 million, your film isn’t for everyone. Instead, your film has an identifiable audience that’s bound by their love for surfing, their military service, their commitment to protecting the environment, or, generally speaking, their desire to see their experience reflected on screen.

With time, effort, and a strategic plan, this audience can be reached, engaged, and motivated to act in big ways. And similar to the making of your film, having the right team in place to execute makes the difference in successful self-distribution.

However, you’re tired. The filmmaking process has made you weary. And quite possibly, broke. You haven’t had the time to think about distribution or audience. Hell, you’re not a marketer. In fact, the word marketing makes you visibly cringe. Outreach sounds like a lot of work (because it is). And engagement seems like an overused term that doesn’t mean anything.

Yet, you want as many people as possible to see your film.

Therein lies the conundrum. It’s one that I’ve seen far too often during my time as an engagement strategist and now in my role as Director of Independent Film at Tugg. Jon Reiss, a filmmaker and media strategist, has been trying to help filmmakers overcome this conundrum for the past several years. “The passion and immediacy in making and finishing the film are so strong in your face,” Reiss said, “while the other stuff – distribution and marketing – seem like it’s in the future.”

Here’s the thing. Your future is now. Luckily though, you know how to collaborate. Just as the making of your film deserved the best collaborators that your resources could secure, so does your film’s marketing and distribution. This is by no means a new solution to the aforementioned conundrum. More than ever before, however, there is a growing stable of professionals, such as Reiss, to lighten the self-distribution load.
And at Tugg, we’ve started building a database of these professionals so that they can be more easily linked with filmmakers who need them. These collaborators may have different titles: strategists, PMDs (Producers of Marketing and Distribution), impact producers, community managers, or outreach coordinators. What matters most is how they can support your distribution goals. “Most of the work is engagement,” said Reiss. “It’s about getting someone to watch the film, attend the screening, buy it on iTunes. Distribution is easy. It’s the marketing that’s hard.”

We’ve learned that the films which are most successful using our platform have a strategy in place to reach their audience and at the very least, someone on their team dedicated to execute the strategy. And we’ve seen different variations of this scenario, depending on the film’s resources. Some filmmaking teams DIY both strategy and execution. Some consult with a firm to develop a strategy that they or an intern execute. Some bring on an outreach or impact producer to create and run their campaign. Either way, the ideal scenario remains: budgeting for and investing in financial and/or human resources specifically for marketing and engagement. And yes, sweat equity counts, big time.

Christo Brock, director/writer/producer of “Touch the Wall,” Tugg’s most successful title to date, realized that he had to stop being a filmmaker and start being an entrepreneur after bringing on a “hard-core businessman” to help him develop a business plan for his film, a documentary about swimming champion, Missy Franklin. The consultant, Jonathan Main, made Brock think seriously about stuff like ROI.

“When you’re making a film, you’re trying so hard to make a good film,” he said. “The cost weighs in your mind, yet you are almost willing to do whatever it takes to make a good film that people want to see. But when those credit card bills are due, you have to formalize some way to get that money back.” He and his small team developed a forward-thinking release strategy and after placing an ad on Craigslist, brought on Laura Aguirre as an outreach coordinator to help execute. The result: nearly 500 theatrical and non-theatrical screenings.

Jo Jensen is also one of those who is called upon by filmmakers who realize they need engagement help. “The good thing about working with someone like me,” said Jensen, “is that we can help breathe life into a film in movie theaters and beyond.” She actually doesn’t have a film background, but hails from political organizing, which, in her words means, she can “pack a room.” She added, “A lot of people think that the life of a film ends 3 to 6 months after it’s released and then they shift to selling DVDs, but if you do it right, you can extend that life.” Case in point: While working as the Marketing Director at Freethink, she helped to launch a grassroots campaign for “Honor Flight,” a documentary about veterans. Three years later, the film is still hosting screenings both theatrically and non-theatrically via Tugg, even after its DVD release.
So how can working with marketing, engagement and distribution collaborators help to maximize your film’s release? Here are some ideas.

Refine Goals

One of the first questions that I ask filmmakers interested in working with Tugg is to share their goals. It helps us understand how Tugg can be best positioned to help achieve them. This is definitely where you should start, as it will determine what follows. Maximizing revenue is a very different goal from changing the world and therefore requires a different strategy. A good PMD or outreach/impact producer can also help you refine your goals and ensure that they’re realistic, given both resources and time.

Aim Appropriately

It can take a few months to build momentum for your film. It won’t be automatic.  

“A lot of filmmakers suffer from the shiny object syndrome,” Jensen said. The shiny object is typically another film that’s been successful. And filmmakers want to duplicate that path to success regardless if it makes sense for their films. Your PMD or outreach / impact producer can help you understand if you should shoot for the stars, based on what your film has going for it – i.e. mobilized audience, strong partnerships, celebrity leverage – or if you should shoot for the height most aligned with your project. But start somewhere. One screening can lead to two, two to four, and well, you know the rest.   

Capitalize on the Big and Small Picture

On the flipside, they can help you see the possibility of your film. Too often these days, filmmakers are conditioned to imagine their film only holding a few screenings, then going straight to VOD. This assumption may overlook additional revenue and audience-building opportunities. For instance, my colleague and Tugg’s Director of Educational Sales, Meredith Miller, pointed out the importance of non-theatrical and educational market potential.

With “Honor Flight,” Jensen shares that the filmmakers were pretty visionary. They wanted to break the world record for the largest attendance at a film screening. And with Jensen’s help, they did just that, hosting their premiere for 28,442 people in Milwaukee. But she points out that they didn’t imagine receiving celebrity endorsements from the likes of actor Kevin Bacon or having a hospice center as their biggest partner. “Even when filmmakers are thinking really big, they can miss the small things,” she said. It is her responsibility to not miss the small things, which when compounded, can significantly boost a release.

Develop Meaningful Partnerships

Partnerships can be a film’s best friend, but they’re not always easy to cultivate and can take time to develop and grow. For “Touch the Wall,” Brock began forming a partnership with the national organization USA Swimming during production, which paid off big time during distribution. “We were able to secure a champion for our film,” said Brock. “Their involvement was part of the reason we were able to do so many screenings.” His outreach coordinator, Aguirre, focuses on fortifying the local relationships that the national partnership has yielded.

“Many partners have a sphere of influence that even they don’t realize,” said Jensen. “You can ask partners to sponsor a screening, endorse your film on social media, provide a quote, help to pitch media. It’s pretty limitless. You can ask them to do several things, if you’ve positioned the partnership for success.”

Personalized Outreach

What works for one subset of your audience may not work for another. For “Touch the Wall,” Aguirre spends a lot of time connecting directly with swim coaches and parents via phone and email, crafting tailored messages, call-to-actions, and asks and assisting them with hosting screenings. “You want to reach out and make not just the film, but yourself available,” she said. This personal approach led to screening host referrals, word-of-mouth promotion, merchandise sales, and long-term engagement.

Extend Engagement

Getting people to attend is just one piece of the puzzle. But what do you do afterwards? Initial interest can turn into additional action. Can attendees share the film with their networks? Can they attend again and bring a friend? Can supporters be positioned to buy the film when it’s available for sale? The more you can empower them to share, screen, discuss, and support your film, the better the chances of increasing reach.

And this groundswell can eventually be directed towards a successful digital or DVD release. After exhausting theatrical and non-theatrical screenings, “Honor Flight” was released on DVD. Jensen was able to contact past attendees from the emails she collected through their Tugg screenings and ask them to not only purchase the DVD, but also, to write a review. It worked. The film was the #1 Best Selling Documentary on iTunes for the month following the DVD release.

Jensen summed it up this way: “My job is really to consider the milestones on the journey of your film’s release and project manage them so you don’t miss something critical.”

And at Tugg, my job is to collaborate with filmmakers to help you maximize Tugg as part of your overall strategy so that you can achieve your goals. Don’t shortchange your project. Give marketing and distribution the same attention, resources, time, and effort that you gave the creative process. Your project, your future projects, and your career deserve it.

Felicia Pride is the Director of Independent Film at Tugg. Prior, she collaborated on TV, film, and digital projects, specializing in audience development, campaigns, and broadcast / theatrical extensions, for organizations like PBS, Participant Media, and NPR.

For more tips on how to self-distribute, register for #ScreenBig: The Role of PMDs and Impact Producers in Successful Self-Distribution, a Google Hangout on Air hosted by Tugg on December 2.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.