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Taking the Reins: 5 Digital Distribution Tips for Filmmakers

By Corinne Gaston

The rapidly changing distribution landscape has brought with it a whole new vocabulary and a seemingly mind-boggling array of different options for delivering films to audiences (link takes you to our new Distribution Terminology Guide). But where do you, the filmmaker, fit in? Just like you needed to train yourself to make a film, you need to learn how to distribute one. Because this new digital world can at times be confusing and overwhelming, we gathered a diverse group of folks together for our May Doc U on digital distribution to help you sort out what’s what. Peter Broderick, who consults with filmmakers and has studied this arena extensively, moderated our panel that included filmmaker Jen Chaiken (Inequality for All, Afternoon Delight), Chris Horton (Sundance Institute), Melanie Miller (Gravitas Ventures), and Erick Opeka (Cinedigm Entertainment). We culled through the evening’s discussion to come up with our top five takeaways you need to know to help mount a successful and individualized distribution strategy.

1. Always Grow Your Audience

Our panelists highlighted numerous marketing strategies for audience development such as maintaining a strong online presence, crowdfunding, and building email lists. Email lists are key; they can become the core market for advertising films, selling merchandise, and making pre-sales to people who have indicated that they’re interested in what you’re producing. Some filmmakers offer free products on their documentaries’ websites and collect names and emails in exchange, which they can use in the future. Crowdfunding is another great tool. As Chris Horton said, crowdfunding is “less about raising money than building an audience.”


2. Retain Rights to Sell Directly

Regardless if you make a traditional or a hybrid deal for distribution, Peter Broderick recommended that filmmakers retain the rights to sell their documentaries directly from their websites, whether the copies are digital or on DVD. Not only does this allow you more versatility for distribution, but it also allows you to collect the names and emails of those who buy your film, which, as mentioned above, is extremely important for developing an audience. Hit-documentary Hungry for Change made over a million in sales by selling copies of the film and cookbooks from its website. While this isn’t the case for every documentary, having the right to sell directly is invaluable.


3. Timing is Everything

By all measures, getting your doc into Sundance is a great achievement. And, based on recent trends, chances are that your Sundance screening will lead to your film being acquired for distribution. However, Horton believes that there’s one small flaw in this picture. Getting picked up for distribution at a film festival creates a gulf between the premiere and the time the film gets to market, leaving many documentaries high and dry after the festival buzz has died down. It can take upward of 90 days to program a film’s delivery with a cable operator, so planning ahead can be a daunting (and expensive) task. However, both Melanie Miller and Opeka recommend finding distributors and making them part of the process early on; that way, your festival buzz will translate more effectively into growing your audience.


4. The Rules Aren’t Always Meant to be Broken

If you have a film with the potential to be sold to cable TV or with high profile broadcast and VOD release possibility, the more stringent the distribution rules are. Opeka believes if you’ve already released it online or rocked the boat when it comes to traditional distribution, you run the risk of your film being passed over by the biggest platforms in the business. (In which case, you may not be able to follow the lead of the Hungry for Change example cited above). If you fail to mention that your film is already online and the distributor finds out after a deal is made, you may jeopardize that deal. You may have a really innovative release strategy on paper, but do consult someone who really understands how to navigate the windows and split rights of the business so that you aren’t exempt from any big distribution opportunities down the road.


5. Research How to Monetize your Film and Navigate Windows

Understanding the ins-and-outs of distribution windows is necessary, because your distributor(s) need(s) an informed filmmaker to partner with in order to get the film out as efficiently as possible. This means understanding windows and how to break them: pre-theatrical, theatrical, post-theatrical. In Miller’s ideal world, a filmmaker’s documentary would go to VOD and drop on DVD on the same day. Understand how early your film can get on the VOD, cable, Hulu Prime, Netflix, Apple iTunes bandwagon. Understand tiers — meaning the pricing for your film — and be in contact with your distributor to tap into their expertise on pricing.


Read our 10 Keys to Successful Theatrical Distribution for Your Doc from our Doc U in April 2014