Dollars, Doughnuts and Distribution

by Angelica Das
Festgoers line up outside the Box Office at 9 a.m. on Thursday morning to pick up passes and reserved tickets. (Photo by Rebecca Allen)

Festgoers line up outside the Box Office at 9 a.m. on Thursday morning to pick up passes and reserved tickets. (Photo by Rebecca Allen)

A few dollars and a doughnut are what most filmmakers can expect to have leftover after a distribution deal has been milked by distributor, exhibitor, sales agent, deliverables and marketing costs. Prospects for money from this traditional model are grim according to a panel discussion at the 2015True/False Film Fest, and self-distribution is the way to go.

Emily Best, founder and CEO of Seed&Spark led the discussion and the cautionary tale. Best outlined that even in the best case scenario, if you make one of the 20 best documentary films of the year, that then gets a 6 or 7 figure deal, you still might not make any money.

But there’s hope, and that hope is in the same mantra that the Center promotes for social impact: strategic from the start. The most important thing you can do—said not only Best, but also Peter Gerard of Vimeo, Jody Gottlieb of Vulcan Productions and Brian Parsons of tugg—is build your audience.

These four speakers provided ample representation of some of the tools available to you for self-distribution: Seed&Spark crowdfunding, Vimeo video on demand sales, Vulcan free-streaming short films (We the Economy), and tugg theatrical-on-demand—crowd-sourced theater screenings.

You as the filmmaker are an essential part of the distribution equation, counseled Gerard. You’re going to do the strategy, the audience building, marketing and promotion for the rest of your career. Beware of the lengthy contracts; Gerard himself signed a distribution deal and his film never saw the light of day.

“Swipe left!” said Gottlieb, and yes, this is a dating analogy. Protect your asset, whether it’s film or digital project. Do the strategic work to understand what is the best distribution pathway. This means doing…. research! You don’t have to be an academic to ask a few people a few questions about where they consume media and whether they’d consume yours. Some people call it stalking, Vulcan Productions calls it landscape analysis.

Audience research isn’t just about the life cycle of one film, it’s about building the audience for your career. Start a mailing list; keep track of ticket buyers; make friends on Facebook. Become a self-promoter.

And the best piece of advice: when you’re planning your crowdfunding campaign, raise as much money for marketing and promotion as you do for production.


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