This year I launched my first feature film, Meme, across multiple platforms. We didn’t have a sales agent or a distributor or even a guy with a Lincoln trunk filled with VHS tapes to get the film out to the people.
We did that thing that a lot of filmmakers grit their teeth, turn white as a sheet and pass out at the mention of: we self-distributed the film. Not only that. Self-distribution was Plan A.
For many filmmakers, myself included, we have a fantasy of getting accepted to one of the big name festivals where our film will be discovered by a distributor. The distributor will fall in love with the film and it will lead to a whirlwind distribution romance. That’s not happening for the majority of us, though.
Not every film is bound for Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Toronto, Cannes, or any of the other top-tier festivals. In fact, most of us aren’t, and that’s okay. Before we get too much further though, if you haven’t read Chris O’Falt’s IndieWire article on killing the Sundance myth, go do yourself a favor and absorb that reality.
If you’re not in at a certain tier yet, you’re not going to get there out of nowhere. So, there’s those films and then there’s the rest of us. We made good films. People connect with them. They just don’t fit what some in the business are looking for, so we might as well just give up and try something else, right? Of course not. We can bring our films to the people ourselves.
There are plenty of reasons to self-distribute but I can really only speak to my reasons. Meme is an odd movie. It’s a tough sell. We’ve gotten a lot of lovely reviews from people who really connected with the film. But in the end a non-linear relationship drama with a VHS aesthetic and no names attached is a bit tough for many to get their heads around the marketing of. We knew this during production and one of the early conversations my producer and I had was that self-distribution was going to be Plan A. If someone wanted to jump in with us and distribute the film we were open to offers, but that wasn’t our goal.
We did get offers. If you haven’t already experienced this, one thing you’ll find is that when you have a feature and you start playing festivals you’ll start getting some unsolicited emails from distribution companies you’ve never heard of. Boutique outfits with a catalog of films you’ve never heard of will show up in your email expressing interest in the film, which they very likely have not seen. We reviewed each of these requests and the companies behind them and politely turned them all down.
Why turn down these offers from people who could have done all the work of distributing for us? Because that’s not what would have happened. In many private conversations I had with fellow filmmakers they shared that that just isn’t what their experience was. Many shared stories from their own networks that described similar experiences. This won’t be true across the board but the story I got from several filmmakers was that the common experience is that they signed over the rights to their film for a period of time and then they still had to take point on marketing and other distribution-related activities one would assume the distributor would take more responsibility for and they didn’t see much return as the distributor was still taking their costs from what money was coming through.
Still having to do much of the work while someone else makes money off the film just didn’t appeal to me. So, self-distribution was our first best option for our no-budget film.
Set Your Expectations
Before we get into the details of self-distributing we should talk about expectations. You need to take a seat, take a long slow deep breath, and set your expectations appropriately for self-distributing your film. Consider the work you’ve done to build an audience not just for this film but for everything you’ve done before. Consider how past work has done. Consider the popularity of work similar to yours. Are you in a tiny niche? Meme is in a tiny niche.
So, when I set out on the path of self-distribution I took the niche nature of the film into consideration. We’re not making millions off this film. We’re not going to become the breakout most popular indie feature on Apple TV. We’re going to find an audience who is interested in what we have and it may not be huge to start, but it will grow.
One thing I knew was that I couldn’t set my expectations high for a monetary return. I needed to focus my energy instead on getting eyes on the movie and finding how I could get the most eyes on it.
How Your Festival Run Can Help
Having a strategically planned festival run of your film can be a huge help to setting your expectations for self-distribution. See how many people show up to the screenings, particularly festivals outside the area you produced the film, and watch how the people who attend respond to the film. Get a sense of what people connect with about the film. This can help with everything else to come.
Not sure how to submit to film festivals. We’ve got a guide for how to submit to film festivals you should check out.
Methods of Self-Distribution
Getting your film out there takes a few forms from four-walling to streaming platforms. There are a lot of options available to you if you want to put in the time and the work.
Four-Walling your Film
You may think that self-distributing your film means you’ll never see your film on the big screen outside of your festival run. That’s not true. Four-walling your film, also known as renting out a theater and selling tickets, is a very viable option for many filmmakers.
We did a short tour for Meme, which was a great way to get the film out into the world and get a response from a potential audience outside of film festivals. We didn’t have a huge turn out at the theaters but those that did show up were very welcoming and very engaged. Our central Pennsylvania and Maine screenings drew out some young folks interested in becoming filmmakers, some of whom drove quite a distance to check out the screenings.
We’re, of course, not the only ones to do it. I worked directly with filmmakers Michael Dibiasio and Rebecca DeOrnelas on the tour for their film The Videoblogs. And Naomi McDougall Jones did a docu series on their tour with the film Bite Me.
That it’s been done before is all fine and good but how do you actually do it? My method was to research theaters across the U.S. and gather info on pricing and availability. I love spreadsheets, so I made one. I started with a handful of theaters I had heard of, like Stuart Cinema in Brooklyn, and then I started Googling. Fortunately, I quickly stumbled on a 2015 Film Comment article with a list of Art-House venues in every state with links to their websites. I copied this information into my spreadsheet and then started digging in to each one and filling out as much information as I could about contact methods, pricing, and availability.
Once I had a full list of venues, I chose to start by contacting venues in the North East United States, the ones most accessible to me. I emailed and called dozens of venues with dates in mind and got a sense of pricing and when we could possibly screen. My target was to do late night screenings on Fridays or Saturdays. We have an odd movie and late night is traditionally the time for those films. That may have discouraged some people from coming, but late night was also one of the few times some theaters could allow a weekend screening.
Here’s something important to keep in mind when pursuing your four-walling: if a theater plays first run studio feature, they have contractual obligations as far as when it plays and playing anything else during the time slot for a studio feature, especially on weekends. The theater needs to maintain that relationship to continue to exist. You’re going to have to keep it in mind and work around it depending on the venue.
Pricing varied quite a bit. Some rental prices in major cities were several thousand, many were just a few hundred. It varied considerably but on average I went with theaters that were between $150 and $350 for the two hour rental. I knew we probably wouldn’t be selling out the theaters, so I had to choose theaters where I was probably not going to be breaking even but the loss wouldn’t be too bad.
Bear in mind, you’re going to have to put effort into local marketing for your screening. We did social media ads and YouTube ads for the film. We hired some locals for flyer distribution. I also reached out to film programs at local universities and did as much as I could to contact local press. We had the most measurable success with YouTube ads.
Four-walling our film was fun and a great excuse for me to take some weekend road trips, but it was costly and didn’t have much of a monetary return. We cut ours a little short in favor of moving efforts to digital distribution.
Video on Demand
Once you’re ready to make the film available across platforms for people to rent or buy and watch in the comfort of their own homes, or wherever else they feel like watching it, you have quite a few options available to you. Apple TV (formerly iTunes) is a popular option, but you’ve also got Google Play, Amazon, Vudu, Sony Entertainment Network, and a lot more you could make your film available on.
Your instinct might be to try and get it on all of those platforms. That’s probably not the best idea, because it’s likely going to cost you even more and it’s also that many more platforms you have to advertise. Pick a platform or platforms you use or have used or ask around and see what your peers have done. We distributed Meme to Apple TV, Amazon, and using Vimeo OTT (formerly VHX) for rentals and purchases.
Apple TV has worked out for some of the people I know, as well as being a platform I’ve bought from before. Amazon is a platform I use regularly. Vimeo OTT is a platform my production company, 4MileCircus, has used to distribute other work. Each has different advantages, pay out structures, and ways to get your film available.
For Apple TV, we used an aggregator platform, Quiver, which helps you to setup your film for distribution across many platforms and has offers that might help you get in popular subscription platforms as well. This comes with a base cost of $1395 and then additional costs depending on the number of platforms you’re submitting to and other needs, like additional languages or territories. We get 70% of every sale and rental via Quiver.
For Amazon, we could have also used Quiver but Amazon has Prime Video Direct, which allows you to directly upload the film so it’s available on Amazon in the US, UK, Japan, and/or Germany. Note that Japan and Germany require the film is in Japanese or German, so our film, which is just in English, didn’t qualify. There wasn’t an up front cost for this. We get 50% of every sale and rental on Amazon.
For Vimeo OTT, we paid a flat fee a few years ago to have enough space to upload our previous release and Meme and special features. Otherwise it didn’t really have a cost. Vimeo OTT has also moved to being a platform for building subscription services since we joined VHX several years ago, so for many filmmakers Vimeo On Demand at $20 per month is probably more likely to fit their needs. With Vimeo OTT we keep 100% of sales and rentals. With Vimeo On Demand it’s 90% of sales and rentals after transaction costs.
Then there’s the other digital distribution option: subscription platforms, where people don’t have to pay to see your film because they’re paying to see lots of films and yours just happens to be a part of it.
Video on Demand is great. People actually buying or renting your film is a great feeling, but the thing you have to seriously consider is how many people are really going to do that. How often do you buy or rent a film you’ve never heard of created by a filmmaker you’re unfamiliar with that has no recognizable actors in it? If that’s your film, like it is mine, then you’re not likely to see that much as far as purchases and rentals immediately. It all depends on how much of an audience you’ve built for the film.
Subscription platforms–like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and so on–are less commitment for the potential audience and can bring your more people just by virtue of them not having to pay directly to see it. The other side of that is that you’re not going to be getting paid much for your film being seen on a subscription service.
An aggregator like the aforementioned Quiver can help to pitch you to subscription platforms. There is likely to be an upfront cost and you should consider how much that’s worth to you as some of the most popular platforms like Netflix haven’t been as open to independent filmmaker in years. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying but have realistic expectations.
The easiest major subscription platform to get on is Amazon Prime. Part of Prime Video Direct allows you to set when the film is available on Amazon Prime. You can even set it’s availability for a restricted period or turn it on and off very easily, with a little lead time. Payout for Amazon Prime seems to get lower all the time and in 2020 their scale is going to run from .01¢ per hour for the least popular titles to .12¢ per hour for the most popular. Indie Film Hustle has a good breakdown on this.
The subscription platforms aren’t likely going to be making your money back for you. So, approach them with the idea that it’s about the eyeballs. Amazon’s payouts are definitely low. That’s frustrating. You may have seen other filmmakers lamenting this. It’s a topic that comes up regularly. Maybe there’s a way to change it in the long-term, but for now, just go in with realistic expectations on your return.
Some Additional Considerations for Self-Distribution
Getting your film on platforms for sale or just as part of an existing subscription platform is great. That’s not enough, though. You’ve got to get the people to your film on those platforms.
We did a whole post just on marketing and building your audience and we recommend starting there. You need to make people aware of your film and build interest. You need to find out what clicks for people about your film. Then, you need to leverage that to get them to rent it, buy it, or stream it.
Social media connections and shares and word of mouth can help a lot, but in the end you’re probably going to have to do some paid ads. Avengers: Endgame didn’t make all that money because they hoped people would notice it. They plastered ads all over the place. You need to do something similar with your film. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube all offer easy to use ad platforms that you can access as long as you have an account and a credit card.
Make a budget, buy ads on platforms people interested in your film may use, utilize the targeting available through those platforms. Get the eyes on your film. Your festival run and any response you’ve gotten by sharing progress during production and post should help you see what people connect with and what you should emphasize in your film’s marketing.
One thing we did with the launch of Meme on Amazon Prime in November was to have a virtual watch party. We invited people all over to join is watching the film the first Saturday the film was available to stream with a Prime subscription. I gathered a small group of cast and crew at my apartment and we had a little party. We shared on social media as we watched together, including getting goofy on some live streams. This brought more attention to our Prime launch and brought in more viewers both as we were watching and throughout the weekend.
In some cases, like Vimeo OTT, your film will just be available worldwide to anyone who wants to pay. For Apple TV and other platforms, though, you’ll need to get your film translated to reach certain territories.
For example, I really didn’t like the idea that my film wouldn’t be available in Mexico, nations in Central America, or the entire continent of South America. The only barrier to that was getting Spanish subtitles for the film and trailer. I went to Rev for my Spanish subtitles translation, the same company I used for our captioning, which is also something multiple platforms will need. With that and an extra fee paid to Quiver for adding the territories I made sure my film was available to an even wider audience.
I’ve focused mostly on platforms and services I used for Meme for our initial release. There are a lot more out there you can explore. Some have better payouts than others, some just exist to get your film seen.
Among the additional platforms are Seed&Spark. The crowdfunding platform has been offering streaming distribution for filmmakers for years and can be a particularly great place for short films. They have a sliding scale fee for subscribers and generous payouts for filmmakers.
For Brooklyn filmmakers or films associated with Brooklyn Brooklyn On Demand offers free to watch streaming on their website and Roku channel. While there’s not a payout for filmmakers for this platform, it’s one with a dedicated group behind it, the team behind The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival, eager to get filmmakers films seen.
Another dedicated indie film platform is TruIndie, which is focused on highlighting indie films that might not get as much love on other platforms. Subscribers pay $4.95 per month and filmmakers get a percentage of 50% of the monthly revenue based on how many minutes of their film has been watched. They’re very transparent about how this will fluctuate based on subscribers and monthly activity overall.
What About … ?
As you’ve been reading through this you may have had some questions. Let’s dig into a couple of those.
What About Physical Media?
What about putting your film on DVD or BluRay? I can’t speak to it. There would have to be substantial demand for me to pursue this option. DVD and BluRay require the creation of the disk image, then burning all the discs, then packaging, and so on. It’s great to have a physical copy of the film, but it’s also costly and the market for physical media is shrinking. According to CNBC sales have dropped 86% in the last 13 years.
What About Distribber?
Distribber was one of the big aggregator services for indie filmmakers in the last decade. You probably heard they went bankrupt and a lot of filmmakers lost access to their films and weren’t getting paid. That’s been a big deal this year and it should be a wake-up call to all indie filmmakers, especially those of us looking to self-distribute. We rely heavily on services throughout the process that may not last. Services that make their money facilitating our ability to create and share our work.
The services are great and open up possibilities and opportunities for more filmmakers than ever. Services like KitSplit, Seed&Spark, Quiver, Amazon Video Direct, and everything else I’ve mentioned are amazing for filmmakers. We also just need to keep an eye on how much we lean on any one. One of the reasons I chose to use Amazon Video Direct separate from Quiver even though Quiver has Amazon options is that if one of them shuts down tomorrow my film is still available on the other.
What happened with Distribber should be a reminder that when it comes to our distribution we should be wary of putting all of our eggs in one basket. Otherwise bad management at one company could kill your film’s distribution on every platform.
What About Making My Money Back?
We’re in a shifting marketplace right now. Indie Film Hustle broke it down very well recently. The traditional methods of distributing films are less and less profitable for even the major players. The focus is shifting more and more to subscription models. Even movie theaters are offering them. So, how does the individual filmmaker get a return on the costs of making their film? Musicians have been on this for decades. You build an audience, you bring your work to that audience, you sell merch, and you keep building.
We’re in a transitional period for filmmaking and distribution. It’s not what it was five years ago. It’s going to be different in another five years. Maybe we’ll settle into a new paradigm then or it will once again shift.
You can’t really control how much you’re going to get back on your self-distribution. You can control how much work you put in to building an audience not just for this film but for your next one and the one after that. Find a path that works for you.
Learn More About Self-Distribution
There’s a lot more to be said about self-distribution. This is my experience. The work that I’ve done to get my film out into the world. There’s a lot who’ve been putting a lot more years into this than I have and you should do some research and ask anyone else you know who has pursued any avenue of distribution.
Indie Film Hustle regularly publishes interviews and insights on distribution that are well worth checking out. We’ve linked to a few of those here already.
The Sundance Creative Distribution Initiative is a great potential opportunity for filmmakers which comes with resources, mentorship, workshops, and funding for the distribution phase of your film. Meme made it to the second round of selection in 2019 but ultimately didn’t make the final cut. Even without that filling out the application was a good way to help hone some of how our distribution plan was being presented.
Seed&Spark has always offered great free events for filmmakers to help them build their skills and connect with each other. While originally this was primarily crowdfunding workshops they’re now offering distribution workshops as well. They have also said they are creating a handbook on distribution alternatives, coming soon.
Regardless of how you approach distributing your film, it’s going to take work, and it’s probably going to be emotionally taxing. That said, people discovering your film and telling you what it meant to them is very rewarding and hopefully you can even make back the money you spent on the film.
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