One trend that continues to grow in popularity is filmmakers’ foregoing traditional distribution channels in favor of self-distribution.  Unlike most distribution professionals, I think there are instances when filmmakers are better off selling their own stuff.  Thus, today we’re going to examine when it’s smarter to engage in do-it-yourself distribution, versus finding a distributor to release your cinematic baby. So, without further ado, let’s explore which path is right for you.

Profit Vs. Promotion
The first thing you should do when making a decision about self-distributing, is decide what your goal is. If the $31,680 you spent making your film is going to break you if you don’t get it back, then you should head down the path of self-distribution. Even if you only recoup one-half to two-thirds of your investment, the money you earn will be coming directly back to you. Besides, losing part of your investment is an easier pill to swallow than losing your earnings to distributor’s fees. However, if getting your name out, as a “distributed filmmaker” is more important to you than getting your investment back, then you should find a distributor or sales agent to release your film. This is because few film professionals are going to give you credit for being distributed, if a “known entity” didn’t release your film. However, if your self-distribution earns you a “socially verifiable profit,” then your film will be seen as being valid and impressive to those in the film industry.

Socially Verifiable Profits
Virtually every self-distributed film has a filmmaker behind it boasting about how much profit they earned. However, almost nobody believes them, unless their profits are  “socially verified.” Socially verified profits are those so large, the general public has not only heard of the film, but their impression of the film is one of a financial success. To be clear here, I’m not saying everyone in the general public has to love your self-distributed gem for it to achieve “social verification.” I’m just saying a substantial number of people have to believe your film greatly appealed to a section of society; like a horror or sci-fi film appealing to teenagers.

Micro-Micro Budgets Are Best Served Through Self-Distribution
A “micro-micro” budget is considered small, even by “micro-budget” standards. Let’s call this range $10,000 or under. If your film lives here, it makes little sense to get a distributor or sales agent, unless you are willing to forgo your investment in exchange for being seen as a ”distributed filmmaker.” This is because the administrative fees and sales percentages from distributors and sales agents will eat up any sales of your film, ensuring you won’t see a penny. However, if your film catches fire and earns $378,616.30, during the first six months of its release, then you may see a return on your investment, if you signed a good contract and if you’re dealing with a distributor who regularly pays out his or her filmmakers. That’s a lot of “if’s” having to fall into place before you see dollar one, so it’s highly doubtful that you’ll see a dime, much less a dollar, from distributing your “micro-micro” budget through a distributor.

Furthermore, if it’s obvious that your film is a “micro-micro” budget, most distributors and sales agents won’t even take it; much less promote it to their buyers, because they know few buyers have a need for such small productions. In fact, the only reasons distributors and sales agents may take on a ultra-small film, is a) to make their library look bigger and b) to appease the few buyers who need to plug “filler slots,” like 3 A.M. Wednesday morning.

Well-Crafted Micro-Budgets Over $50,000 Deserve A Distributor
Somewhere around $50,000, your film could start to look like a $100,000-$250,000 production because of the discounts, deferred payments and tax credits you negotiated along the way. Thus, spending $50,000 on a well made film in a sellable genre, (action, thriller, sci-fi), will definitely get you at least a few distribution bites. While you could make a go of distributing it yourself, and if it looks good, you will probably be able to recoup your investment, having a distributor or sales agent involved may sharply increase the sales of your film.

For example, you could self-distribute a $50,000 film and get back $70,000-$90,000 or so over two years, meaning you would have profited $20,000-$40,000. But, having a distributor or sales agent close deals for you on the same film over the same period of time would increase your sales to $150,000-$300,000. This is because a) they know more buyers, and know what each buyer is looking for, and b) buyers traditionally pay more money for a represented film. Thus, even after paying your distributor and or sales agent their administrative and sales fees, you would theoretically pocket more money and be seen as a distributed filmmaker. Of course, I said you’d “theoretically” pocket more money in the above scenario, because there is still the matter of your distributor or sales agent actually cutting you a check. While many companies follow the film industry standard and either “slow-pay” or “no pay” their filmmakers, there are still a few good distributors and sales agents to work with. The key is to choose a company you feel good about, and make sure the contract you sign is clear and fair. The bottom line is if you’re not happy with your distribution offer, then seek distribution elsewhere or start distributing your film yourself.

While there are pluses and minuses to both self-distribution and traditional distribution, one way of deciding which fork in the road to take is to think of your decision like buying a pair of shoes. If the fit is too tight or to loose, you’ll always feel uncomfortable. Thus, find the right fit for you and just go with it.

On that note, I’d like to thank you once more for lending me your eyes and I’d be honored to borrow them again next Tuesday. I can be followed on Twitter @Lonelyseal.

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  1. Brian says:

    I know a filmmaker who shot and indy which cost him well under $5000…thats right…$5000 and eight years later, even though it was shot in standard definition and looks very, very indy, his distributor got him a deal with Red Box and Walmart. These were pre-orders of 10,000 copies to Red Box at $3.75 each and 6,000 copies to Walmart at $7.00 each. This was just the first order. His distributor only take a flat 20%. Cleared over $63,000 on the first order not to mention the money made from the years of sales made through online distribution. He’s made well over $200,000 on the project. Not a bad return once he figured out how to play the game.

  2. In London Robert Redford commented on the state of indie film distribution and screening, admitting he is ‘drowning’ in the size of the event, as he launches second film festival in London. HasSundance got too big? That’s for others to decide,” said Redford. “Has it got too big for me? Probably, in the sense that I realised I’d been drowning in it. So now I’m content to just step in periodically to ensure it stays true to its original purpose, and make sure it doesn’t spend too much time raising

    For experimental film and first-time projects createspace.com is a good choice. Don’t judge a book by its cover, in this case the design of the site (hopefully amazon will improve this) soon. It offers free tools and a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing. It is essentially on-demand, and not a vanity service, so worth checking out.

    For newer players, doc-filmmakers and professional producers, filmbay.com is a good choice. For English-language content and foreign-language content, they offer worldwide distribution. Also VOD. Video-On-Demand, Filmmaker keeps 97%, Player mobility, Complemetary Social Media Marketing, Reach, Reliability, Track Record, Exposure & Visibility; Ad Revenue-Share, Lump-sum (cool) Payment, Access to major distributors, Access to itunes, Netflix, Amazon, Home for Shorts, Docs & Features, No set-Up Cost, IMDB integration, Highest Revenue Share; with cross-platform (from web news).

    Ideally, other services might be useful as well, maybe compilations, especially for shortfilms. Submission to a film festival is always worth considering, too. That can help get more publicity and audience exposure. The film industry should get more credit for the contribution it makes to the wider economy, according to Robert Redford. Independent film has always had to struggle for a place in the universe,” he said, calling for extra funding to aid the exhibition and distribution of non-mainstream titles. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-22278100

  3. shamim Zaidi says:

    Very well written.

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