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10 Keys to Successful Theatrical Distribution for Your Doc

By Nayantara Roy

The distribution landscape is changing — fast. So, on April 21st, we gathered a panel of experts at our monthly Doc U series to discuss the rapidly shifting world of theatrical distribution in the first of a two-part series on distribution. Alexandra Johnes (The Square) moderated a conversation with Peter Goldwyn (Samuel Goldwyn Films), James Shapiro (Drafthouse Films), Michael Kananack (Gathr Films), and Brenna Sanchez (Burn) who covered the crucial role that theatrical exhibition can play in a documentary’s overall distribution plan. We’ve distilled their talk into digestible bits of advice to keep in mind as you take your film out into the world.

And be sure to join us on Monday, May 19 at Cinefamily in Los Angeles for Distributing Your Doc, Part 2 – Cable and Internet Movers and Shakers. More info / tickets

1. Make a great movie that stands out from the pack.

We’re in a golden age for documentary, which means there are a lot of great docs out there. Your film has got to stand out. Most distribution brands—those that aren’t studios—are highly curated labels. While they do look at the marketability and monetization of a film, they primarily want to know that your documentary is one of the best films they’ve seen that year.


2. Get your film out there.

Distributors find films just about anywhere: festival screenings, internet searches, recommendations from colleagues, walk-ins, sales agents, and sometimes even crowdfunding platforms. Cut a great trailer and make a great poster to showcase your film’s marketability. Anything that illustrates why it would be an easy sell is a huge plus. Great distributors will become aware of your film way before it hits the festivals as long as you create a buzz around it.


3. Drive your own distribution train.

Get active on social networks. You have to convince your distributor that you can really build an audience for your film, and then point those fans to wherever your film has landed. Social and email communication make your audience feel like they are in direct contact with you, the filmmaker. It can also help you gauge just who and how big your audience is so that when it’s time to decide on your distribution model, you’ll know which is right for you. At the very least, you’ll know how best to help your distributor steer your film towards a wider audience.


4. Be confident that you’re the best person to sell your film.

Bring your A-game when you advocate and market the cause or story of your film. Communicate on Twitter and Facebook consistently. Talk about your doc’s subject matter and let your unique passion for it shine. Your fan base will find a lot more reason to feel strongly about the film if you give them the bigger reason to care about it.


5. Accept that there is no one-size-fits-all model.

Opening weekends and weeklong runs don’t determine a film’s success anymore. Distributors are now constantly experimenting with all the different formats and platforms available. Sometimes, they only do one traditional film release a year (for example, theatrical-only for ninety days). Increasingly, they orchestrate day-and-date release (simultaneous release for VOD, DVD and theatrical). Other times, they negotiate streaming on Netflix to be made available a month after the film is released in theatres. Sometimes, one-off screenings in ten different cities are the way to go. Being flexible to new models will help make sure your film gets eyeballs.

6. Don’t be (too) difficult.

A distributor’s job is to get somebody who knows nothing about your doc to go to the theater, buy a ticket, and watch it on Friday night. Their job is to try and sell your product, that film you have lived and breathed for so long. Try to hear your distributor out on what might be marketable within your film and what will be a better idea to roll out once your audience is already hooked. Don’t be too difficult, and don’t be unreasonable. However, walk that line carefully. Don’t compromise on something that your instinct and beliefs tell you to hold onto. Most distributors will be open to you asking questions and fostering a true partnership.


7. Stop expecting everyone to have the answers.

That sales agent, publicist or distributor isn’t necessarily going to know more than you do. It’s the Wild West out there. If all the distributers pass on your film or nobody returns your calls, don’t sit around waiting for the golden ticket that the industry might provide while your film gets left out in the cold. You have to follow your gut and take the path you really believe in for your film.


8. Be aware of what constitutes fair use.

Too many filmmakers miss out on great distribution deals because they aren’t fully informed on their clearance issues. Understand the differences between clearing your footage for worldwide, for trailers or for ancillary merchandise. While distributors will work with you on the really vital pieces, they won’t like the inevitable delays that come with clearing rights for excessive clips. It might cause them to forgo your film altogether.


9. Let opportunity arise from desperation.

As there’s no one-size-fits-all model anymore (see #5), you don’t necessarily have to worry about being able to afford a publicist or sales agent. Brenna Sanchez (Burn) was forced to self-distribute her film when no one wanted it, even after the film won audience awards and gathered a lot of buzz. After traveling to 170 cities where she rented theaters and managed ticketing herself, she didn’t just break even; in the end, Sanchez grossed $1.2 million, beating out every distributor who had initially passed on her film. Word of warning, however: If you do choose to go your own way and distribute yourself, just be aware of the immense fortitude and commitment of resources it requires.


10. Understand that your failures don’t define you.

In a particular year, your really great film might not get the attention, distribution opportunities, or audience size it deserves because of various factors: it could be the wrong time for your subject matter, the economy might be in free fall, or a natural disaster could strike on the same day as your film’s theatrical roll out. Give it all you’ve got—and then go out there and make another really great film.