Film Distribution PitfallsIndependent filmmakers face a multitude of theatrical release options. Whether you go the traditional route with full bookings or you’re looking for a one-night showing in the local art house, you can succeed by setting appropriate goals, managing expectations, and avoid these common pitfalls:

The Unsuccessful Pitch

When trying to distribute your own film, getting the attention of a theater programmer is hard to do. In their experience, do-it-yourself distributors are unreliable at delivering the promised materials. To alleviate their fear, your pitch should include information and assurances that your film not only will attract paying audiences, but that you have the capability to deliver it properly. Consider these tips when developing your pitch:

– Think business, not art: They want to hear concrete numbers, logistics, and data. They may be interested in the artistic value as well, but it won’t get you anywhere without concrete information that points to a successful release.

– Be aware of theatre attendance trends: How many people go to the theatre you’re calling? When are they busiest? When are they most likely to have openings? The more knowledge you demonstrate, the more likely they are to listen to you.
– Be prepared for the next steps: Polish your online ads, posters, and newspaper ad layouts in anticipation of success. If your initial query leads to a meeting, having these items ready to go will impress the programmer. If you have to rush to get these things done after you get a meeting, the risk of mistakes and poor quality increases.

The Ill-Timed Release

Watch your release windows carefully if the goal is to generate enough buzz to gain acceptance into a festival. Release your movie too early and momentum may fizzle before the festival entry period begins. If you book your release too close to the festival entrance window, you may not be able to provide the criteria necessary for entry.

Also, consider the home entertainment side when planning your theatrical release. Since the live event is the main press generator for your film, consider taking advantage of this momentum by shortening the time lapse between the theatrical and the digital release. If you wait too long, you risk losing the momentum generated by the live event promotions.

Starting Publicity Too Late

If you have a well-known actor in your film, don’t waste a moment in starting the publicity. Long lead press can start up to eight months before release. On the other hand, if you don’t have a star cast member, consider ramping up publicity over time. This way, you can save money by hiring a publicist just part-time for the first few months, and then hire him/her full time for the two months before your release date.

The Distribution Money Pit

Hiring your own distributor is a viable option. Service deals are available where you keep control of the release and revenues, but gain access to the distributor’s services. However, this move can cost millions (depending on the size of your desired release). And while going the do-it-yourself route can save money, the details and tasks are endless.

One option is to merge the two approaches; hire out some major tasks and perform some yourself. John Sayles and Maggie Renzi used this hybrid approach for their film Honeydripper. They hired a distribution team and also pursued non-traditional and grassroots marketing efforts.

Letting the Money Get You Down

The list of exceptions grows by the day, but the fact remains most do-it-yourself distribution efforts end up losing money. Advertising gets expensive in a hurry and does not guarantee success. The theatre may have taken too big a chunk of the box office percentage. The list of risks is never-ending. And while you can’t protect yourself completely, there are a couple things you can do:

  • Negotiate with the theatre: Just because they agree to show your film doesn’t mean you have to accept their initial terms. They may offer a more favorable percentage if you agree to perform more advertising. Sometimes, they’ll believe in your movie (or the issue your movie deals with) and be willing to negotiate. It never hurts to ask.
  • Flood your target audience with reminders: digital media such as email blasts, online ads, twitter campaigns, and Facebook pages can be done with little expense. Use these tools constantly to make sure your release is well attended.
  • Study the results: Learn as much as you can about the people who come see your film. This data could provide leads about other release locations and it also can help your digital release plan immensely. For example, if you know most of the attendees learned of the release through Facebook, you’ll want to ensure your digital release advertising focuses on that venue. After all, a successful digital release can help mitigate theatrical losses.

Above all, remember that your work has opened some doors even if it did lose money. The press, reviews, and the ability to claim a theatrical release can help you stand out in the digital or home entertainment release markets.