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AN INTRODUCTION TO FILM DISTRIBUTION
Securing distribution is the critical step in getting your movie in front of an audience. Without it, your film will languish "on the shelf," for years, perhaps forever. To obtain distribution, you must sell a distributor on the market potential of your movie. Here is an overview of the process, which has three possible paths.
Successful producers secure distribution before the movie is made, not after. They do this by selling a distributor (or studio) on a package of pre-production elements, which includes the script, budget, and letters of intent from actors. Securing a distributor beforehand is the key to major league financing and guarantees distribution upon completion.
If you aspire to become a player in the film industry, this is the recommended route. It is more difficult and time consuming, but the payoff can be tremendous. Specifically, you will hone your pitching skills, develop industry contacts, and if successful, secure financing/distribution for your movie.
Your colleagues may scoff at this approach ("impossible without connections," they will argue), but virtually all of the major players in Hollywood and TV established themselves in just this way. If you believe that you have what it takes to become a career filmmaker, aim for this level.
Film Festival Approach
In situations where the film has already been completed, you will be at a disadvantage when negotiating with a distributor. They know you must have distribution to recoup your costs, so they will run a hard deal.
Because of this, the way you approach and "pitch" the distributor is critical. Most filmmakers in this situation hope to attract distribution at film festivals (hence, the term "film festival approach"), but there are several prongs to this strategy.
Festivals - The main purpose of festivals is to showcase movies. They are a great way to attract distributors, particularly if the film wins an award.
The key festivals are Berlin, Cannes, New York, Sundance, and Toronto, though there are hundreds of others. The festivals should be chosen with care, because entry in one festival may disqualify the movie from another.
Though festivals have been known to spark bidding wars between distributors, only a small percentage of movies gain distribution by this venue. The process is highly competitive and, at times, political.
Markets - A market is like a sales convention for movies. The movies are screened festival style, but the screenings are not open to the public nor are they in competition.
Unlike festivals--which are competitive--the main purpose of a market is to sell movies to distributors. Often festivals have their own market annex. There are several online directories that list festivals and markets, along with entry qualifications.
Do It Yourself Distribution
In today's digital age, do it yourself distribution is a viable approach and has been coined DIY Distribution. Though the approach is not new, it was difficult to accomplish years ago because of the high costs involved, especially in making release prints.
Today, DIY costs are minimal, so just about anyone can do it. The great benefit, of course, is that there are no middlemen since you are the distributor. Here are the techniques used for DIY distribution:
Video on Demand (VOD) - Video on Demand are digital systems that allow viewers to download and watch movies on their TVs and computers. The movies are accessed on demand, either for a charge or for free.
Amazon, ITunes aggregators, Internet Movie Database (IMDb), and others have developed easy to use Internet applications that allow filmmakers to earn money similar to cable TV's "pay-per-view." YouTube, of course, is free to viewers, but it is possible for filmmakers to earn advertising revenue from the display page.
Website- Creating a website for your movie can be done to support traditional distribution or VOD. Either way, a website to promote the film is mandatory in this day and age.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) won distribution through brilliant use of their website. The site was an extension of the documentary style movie, complete with interviews, pictures, and additional tantalizing information.
It generated over 500,000 hits a day and created a huge buzz about the movie prior to its release. It was so well executed that many people were surprised to learn that both the documentary and the Blair Witch legend were fictional.
Each of the above strategies has associated costs and it is not uncommon to spend thousands of dollars in an effort to secure distribution for a movie. These costs must be included as a line item in the development budget to insure that funds will be there when needed. -Lou LaVolpe
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