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Weapons of Mass Distribution: Ammunition for Targeting Your Audience

By Peter Broderick

From director/producer Robert Greenwald's 'Uncovered' which was sold online prior to its theatrical release and airing on television. Courtesy of Robert Greenwald

Today it is even harder to bring a documentary feature into the world successfully than it is to make one. The traditional system for distributing documentaries is in critical condition. But as old distribution paths have become more treacherous, promising new ones are opening up. The challenge for every documentary filmmaker is to understand the current distribution crisis, assess older and newer options, and design approaches that will maximize their chances of reaching the widest possible audience.

While access to production improved dramatically for independent filmmakers during the past five years thanks to the advent of affordable digital cameras and editing software, access to distribution worsened. As the costs of marketing and distribution rose, studios increased their dominance over theatrical distribution. Distribution advances paid to distribute independent films declined along with the willingness of distributors to take risks on independent features without stars or other pre-sold elements. And when such films found distribution, their fate was often determined by the size of the audience their first weekend in theaters. Unless a substantial crowd appeared, their theatrical life was usually short, undercutting their ancillary possibilities. In the past few years, a number of documentaries--including Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Winged Migration, Super Size Me, Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans --have done extremely well theatrically and demonstrated the potential of documentary features to reach a wide audience. But these films are exceptions that belie the fate of the hundreds of documentaries that find little or no distribution.

Splitting Up the Rights

In many cases, the best way to maximize distribution, audience and revenues is to split up the rights, dividing some among different companies and keeping others. When considering splitting up rights, the first question to explore is whether theatrical distribution is a goal. Assuming the filmmaker is unwilling or unable to make a traditional overall deal in which one distributor is given all the rights, the basic alternatives for theatrical distribution are a service deal or self-distribution. In both cases, the filmmaker must find the resources to cover the costs of advertising, marketing and distribution.

The Service Deal

The filmmaker hires a company or an individual to provide a range of distribution services: supervising the creation of the ad campaign, press kit and marketing materials; booking theaters; hiring publicists; shipping prints; and collecting revenues. Service deal companies are given the monies to cover distribution expenses, and paid a fee (typically $40,000 to $50,000 or more), usually against a percentage of revenues (10 to 25 percent). By retaining control of the film's theatrical distribution rights, the filmmakers can participate in key decisions on spending, the trailer, the poster, positioning, publicity efforts and timing, since the service company is working for them. Both Fahrenheit 9/11 and Capturing the Friedmans made service deals for theatrical distribution.


Self-distribution may be the only option for filmmakers who can't afford to make a service deal. With this approach the filmmakers themselves handle as many aspects of distribution as possible. While they may pay for some help (with the trailer or poster), they will try to do everything as cost-effectively as possible. They often rely on grassroots marketing and publicity techniques. While filmmakers who are self-distributing start with less expertise and fewer contacts, they may be able to counterbalance these limitations through passion and persistence.

New Theatrical Options

Today filmmakers interested in service deals or self-distribution have new options. The arrival of digital projection in a growing number of theaters has expanded opportunities, lowered costs and increased flexibility. Before deciding on an approach to theatrical exhibition and committing a substantial amount of resources, filmmakers can test their film. If they can interest a theater or two in playing their film, they can then get a good sense of the potential theatrical audience. If the film draws a large audience and gets a good press response, it may be possible to convince potential investors to fund a service deal.

It is now possible to scale the resources spent on a theatrical release to the resulting revenues. Filmmakers able to test their movie in a limited number of theaters can make informed decisions about how much to spend based on projected box office. If they do theatrical distribution in stages, they can open their film in as many cities as revenues justify.

Whether hiring a service deal company or working with an experienced booker, filmmakers should utilize the expertise and contacts of people with substantial distribution experience. They can provide legitimacy with exhibitors, make the best deals and collect monies more effectively.

The primary goal of theatrical distribution for the most independent films is to increase awareness and enhance ancillary revenues. Few independent films make money in theaters, but they can be considered a success if they break even or lose less than they increase ancillary revenues.

Video Deals

The ancillary with the greatest potential is often video. This is the most important distribution route for independents to understand and master. When a video distributor offers to acquire an independent film, it will probably suggest a standard royalty deal with an 80 percent (distributor)/20 percent (filmmaker) split, in which the distributor covers expenses from its share.

Filmmakers may be better off making other types of video deals. They could make a "distribution deal" in which the video distributor gets a fee of 20-30 percent and the filmmakers receive 70-80 percent and cover all expenses. Another possible deal structure is one in which the video distributor and the filmmakers split revenues 50/50 after expenses are taken off the top.

Direct Video Sales

When making a deal with a video company to distribute their film to video stores, other retail outlets and Web merchants (like Amazon), filmmakers should retain the nonexclusive right to sell their film on their own website once it is in retail distribution. Filmmakers can either arrange to make their own copies or buy DVDs from their distributor at a pre-negotiated price (in the $3-5 range). Filmmakers should be able to make a significant number of video sales themselves online.

The filmmakers will be able to target, reach and sell to their core audience more effectively than any video distributor can. The video distributor should be able to reach and sell to a general audience through retail outlets more effectively than the filmmakers can.

The returns to filmmakers from direct sales they make online are much higher than from those they receive from retail sales. Assuming a $25 retail price, a $12.50 wholesale price and a 20 percent royalty, the filmmaker receives $2.50 from the video distributor for every DVD sold through retail. If the filmmaker sells the same DVD directly online, however, the returns could be seven times as much.

Core Audiences

When formulating a distribution strategy for a film, the first step is to determine whether there is a sizeable core audience interested in buying tickets and/or purchasing the DVD. A wide variety of core audiences exist. Some are defined by ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation; others are linked by the subject matter in which they are passionately interested--whether it is Tibet , college wrestling or motorcycle racing. A core audience must be identifiable and reachable, both of which have been made substantially easier and more affordable with the growth and diversification of the Internet.

Some films have an avid core audience that can't wait to see a film and own it. Some films have multiple core audiences. And other films never find one. While researching, preparing, shooting and posting a movie, filmmakers need to be exploring their film's core audience. How can they be reached online and offline? What are the key websites, Web publications, discussion boards and mailing lists? What organizations and clubs do they belong to? What special interest publications do they read? What organized and ad hoc social gatherings do they frequent? Who are the leading figures in the field whose endorsements could be most influential?

During the filmmaking process, the filmmakers will have one to three years to learn how to reach their core audience most effectively. They will also have time to create an effective Web presence. This will enable them to build a valuable mailing list as they are creating awareness for their film within the target audience.

Reaching a general audience can be very expensive and inefficient, while connecting with a core audience can be done inexpensively and effectively. For films with large and avid core audiences, filmmakers should make sure that they can effectively reach the core audience first, and then build on that base of support to cross their film over as widely as possible. Fahrenheit 9/11, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Monsoon Wedding and Y Tu Mamá Tambien each attracted core audiences to theaters, enabling them to stay on screens long enough to reach a general audience. Films with avid core audiences may be successful even if they don't cross over, if members of the core audience buy enough tickets and DVDs.

New Models

The key is to first build awareness within the core audience. Robert Greenwald pioneered a way to do this virtually overnight by using house parties to launch Uncovered and Outfoxed. Teaming up with and several other organizations, he was able to premiere both films in thousands of living rooms across America. The house parties catalyzed online and retail sales of over 200,000 DVDs for each film. Subsequently Uncovered and Outfoxed were both released theatrically and then shown on television. These examples demonstrate that new distribution sequences are possible, that alliances with national organizations can be critical to reaching core audiences, and that giving people an opportunity to watch and discuss a film can be a great way to turn them into advocates for the film.

A Personal Audience

Conceptually there are three audiences--the core audience, the general audience and the filmmaker's personal audience. Thanks to the Internet, today's filmmakers can now have a much more direct connection to a personal audience.

This audience is built one name at a time. It includes everyone who e-mails you about your film, registers at your website and buys a copy of a film from your site. This personal audience should also include everyone you meet while making and launching your film. At first this group's size may seem insignificant (in the 10s or 100s), but it may increase to thousands before long, and eventually, after several films, could reach tens of thousands.

Each member of this audience can buy a ticket and encourage others to see your film in theaters, and later buy the DVD for themselves or friends. Filmmakers sending out periodic updates to their personal audience should be able to create a sense of connection and loyalty. Filmmakers may be able to carry much of this audience to their next projects. They can also benefit from direct feedback from this audience; for example, reactions to the film in theaters may help filmmakers decide on the best extras for the DVD or how to market it most effectively.

A New Era

Independent filmmakers now have unprecedented opportunities. Filmmakers who can make movies digitally at lower budgets are no longer wholly dependent on financiers for resources and permission to make their films. Likewise, new distribution models are freeing them from dependence on a traditional distribution system that has been failing them. Powerful digital distribution tools--the DVD, digital projectors and the Internet are empowering independents to increasingly take their fate in their own hands and have a more direct relationship with their audiences. By effectively using these tools, filmmakers will be able to not only maximize the distribution opportunities for their current films but also find investors for subsequent projects designed to reach core audiences. These tools will also enable them to build and nurture a personal audience, which could ensure a long and fulfilling career.


An earlier version of this article appeared in the January 2004 DGA Magazine.

Peter Broderick is president of Paradigm Consulting, which helps filmmakers develop strategies to maximize distribution, audience and revenues. Broderick was president of Next Wave Films, where he executive-produced Fighter and Keep the River on Your Right.