By Avril Speaks
It’s every filmmakers dream. You put your heart and soul into making your passion project with little to no money and lo and behold, a major studio decides to pick it up for distribution. You imagine that your life is now set. Your film is now going to get the worldwide recognition it deserves and maybe, just maybe, you’ll even make a little money.
But then reality sets in.
I don’t think it’s a secret among independent producers that the distribution landscape has become the dark hole where dreams of artistic integrity die. While distributors bank on large tentpole films to drive their business, it’s often the indie films that get acquired and then pushed to the side.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who used to work in distribution and she said, “Distributors make money off of your ignorance.” Truer words have never been spoken. Fellow filmmakers and film schools are quick to prepare you for the difficulty of production, but no one prepares you for the clouded mystery that comes with actually selling a movie and getting it seen in theaters (or online platforms). As a result, producers can be blindsided by the process.
As I mentioned in my last article on Dear Producer, The Anxiety of Launching a Film – SXSW Style, our film, JINN, acquired distribution not long after our SXSW premiere. After several months of negotiation, we settled on a deal that looked good on paper but in hindsight there are several things I would’ve done differently, which I would like to share. This was not my first time distributing or delivering a film; however, it was my first time doing so at this scale. Here are some lessons that I learned along the way:
1. Know, Show and Prove – Every filmmaker should have an idea of what they want to happen to their film after it’s completed. Do you want theatrical distribution? Do you want to be on a streaming platform? Do you want to self-distribute? As indie filmmakers, the answers to these questions often dictate themselves according to the circumstances (budget or whether or not there are offers, etc.), but doing a deeper dive on your expectations can help you avoid lots of disappointment in the long run. For example, ask yourself, do you want to be considered for awards nominations (Gotham Awards, Spirit Awards, etc)? Do you have a specific audience in mind that you believe would benefit from your film? Do you want a full theatrical experience?
When distributors approach you about representing your film, make your wants known and make sure that each candidate is aware of those wants and can deliver. When distributors are courting you, they’re going to make it sound like they are onboard with your desires and that you will work together to release the film. Seek out evidence that a particular distributor has a track record for the type of release that you want. Talk to other producers who have had a film released by the distributor.
This is also a good time to re-evaluate your budget and determine if you have any money remaining after delivering your film to supplement the parts of the release that a distributor may not cover. Figure out if you have the means to walk away from an offer altogether. It’s OK to decline an offer from a distributor if they can’t give you what you want. For more on this, see the transcript from the Dear Producer panel at the 2018 LA Film Festival, The Future of Producing.
2. “Meaningful Consultation” is Meaningless – You should know that when you’re negotiating your contract with your distributor, they will often say that you will get meaningful consultation. While this sounds like you will be able to have some say in how your film is marketed or promoted, that is usually not the case. Once you turn over your film to the distributor, it is theirs and they have the right to do with it and package it however they please. Meaningful consultation, more often than not, means that they’ve already made decisions without you and at the last minute right before it’s about to go out they’ll come to you (maybe) and say “This is cool, right?” And you’ll be expected to say yes. Don’t fall for meaningful consultation. Instead, make your demands and wants known up front and fight to get them in writing. If that doesn’t happen, consult with your team about whether or not the deal is worth it.
3. Day and Date Releases Aren’t What They Seem – For any indie filmmaker who has any desire for a theatrical release, day-and-date sounds like a good compromise. The film will play in limited theaters for a week and then stream on VOD platforms immediately while the film is still in theaters. Ideally, you would get the best of both worlds. However, if your film has a niche audience (which many indie films do), it is difficult to have a say in which markets (cities) your film will play, thus making it nearly impossible to ensure that the film will reach its intended audience.
Know that the focus for day-and-date releases is more on VOD than it is on theaters, which means that if you had high hopes for a theatrical presence, you might need to rethink your expectations and your marketing strategy. This model can be problematic for niche audiences and specifically for communities of color, since the theaters that distributors often select are usually not accessible by the people who would frequent your film. Those people might be able to rent the movie online; however, since such a high value is traditionally placed on box office success, you may have to re-train your audience to understand that digital sales are even more important than box office sales. If theatrical is a non-issue for you, then you might consider day-and-date. If that is not the case, I would think again before agreeing to this kind of set-up.
4. Negotiate Delivery – Do not sign a contract without seeing the deliverables list first. Your deliverables list is part of the contract and you have the ability to negotiate your list. Most distributors have archaic delivery lists and you’ll have to assess what is even relevant to current technology and what is relevant to your film. For example, some deliverables lists say that you are required to turn in film negatives or turn in your score on CDs. But if you shot on digital, you can negotiate not turning on negatives and submitting your score on a drive.
5. Speaking of Delivery… – Delivery is one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of making a film. Especially when making a low budget film with little resources. In fact, I might argue that delivery is even harder than production. Your distributor will have lots of demands that are difficult for you to achieve with limited resources (which is why I advise you ask for a portion of your MG upfront). When we received our deliverables list for Jinn it was 21 pages long and half of the items on the list I had never even heard of before. Do yourself a favor–get familiar with the acronyms CDSL/CCSL, UCC, ISAN, LTO, M&E, etc. Each distributor is different so your distributor may not ask for these things, but it’s a good idea to know what they are just in case, and to research vendors that can help you acquire them when the time comes.
6. Minimum Guarantee – (also known as an MG or advance) – Your MG is the upfront amount of money the distributor will pay you to acquire your movie. Every January we always hear reports of films getting large advances coming out of Sundance Film Festival. Keep in mind that those are usually exceptions and not the rule. Every producer wants to make money back for their investors, and that is often our goal when negotiating the purchase price (as it should be). However, know that your MG can sometimes be a trade off for marketing dollars. In other words, in some cases if you get a high MG, you can expect less spend from your distributor on marketing costs. Whereas if you opt for a lower MG, you might be able to get more spent on marketing efforts. Once again, talk with your team to determine what is most important and what you’re willing to sacrifice.
Also, don’t forget to negotiate the actual payment schedule of your MG. Some indie filmmakers are fully spent by the end of post-production and can’t afford the costs of delivery. Ask for a portion of your MG to be paid upfront so that you can pay for delivery expenses. Otherwise, you will have to front the money yourself which is going to cost you and/or your investors money on the back end.
7. “Let’s just finish the film.” As a producer, I’ve heard these words uttered by filmmakers all the time (I’ve even said it myself). “If we get a distributor, we’ll let them handle everything else.” This could not be further from the truth. Your distributor will not pay for your music, they will not pay for your clearances, they will not throw you a party, they will not handle all of your marketing and press needs. They will handle enough that helps them make the argument that they’ve done their job. Be prepared to bear the brunt of the work.
8. Reach Out – I would not have made it through delivery if it hadn’t been for fellow producers like Rebecca Green, Amanda Marshall and Billy Mulligan who understood the struggle. There were others and in retrospect I wish I had reached out even more than I did. Find yourself a community of producers who can help you walk through the process. If you don’t have anyone you feel comfortable asking for help, let’s get coffee.
A huge takeaway for me through our process has been that the distribution system is not really set up for indie producers to thrive, let alone make money. Even less so if you’re a filmmaker of color who is looking to not only make films that challenge the status quo but also to screen them for audiences that will appreciate them.
Unfortunately, many indie filmmakers may not be given multiple options for distributors to choose from. You may only get one offer and feel as though you must go with that distributor if you ever want your film to see the light of day. I would advise every filmmaker to think long and hard about what you want out of your film release. Options, services and resources for self distribution are a lot more feasible today than they were 10-20 years ago. Before you start shooting, set some money aside in your budget to give yourself the option of exploring self-distribution as a possibility, or at the very least, to supplement any release strategy that a distributor may have. It might be the only way we as producers can truly maintain the integrity of the voices we’re trying to put out into the world.
Avril Z. Speaks has several years of experience as a filmmaker to include credits as a producer, writer, director, and editor. She was an Associate Producer on the TNT docu-series AMERICAN RACE, and is the lead producer on the feature film JINN, which premiered in Narrative Competition at SXSW in 2018 and won Special Jury Recognition for Writing. JINN continues to win awards at festivals around the country, and recently gained distribution through MGM/Orion Classics.
Avril is currently producing several feature films, including HOSEA, SCENES FROM OUR MARRIAGE, which is the directing debut of Yolonda Ross (THE CHI, THE GET DOWN, WHITNEY), Nijla Mu’min’s second feature, MOSSWOOD PARK, along with many others in development.
Avril is a Film Independent Producing Lab Fellow and was recently selected as one of the participants in the 2019 Rotterdam Producer’s Lab. Avril is a winner of the 2018 Movie Magic Producer Award and previously worked as a Production Manager for Scripted Programming at BET Networks.
Avril earned her M.F.A. in Film Directing from Columbia University School of the Arts in New York City and has directed two feature films. For more information, visit http://www.azuspeak.com.