How and why filmmakers get screwed, or screw themselves, in distribution (and how to avoid it)

When nearing completion of our films, we are so fatigued, so pissed off at how things turned out, so financially vulnerable, so emotionally strung out that we often make poor choices about distribution.

We have learned SO much, I mean SO SO SO much on our filmmaking journey that all we can often think about is what we would do next time… ‘if only I could just let go of this film now, I could move on and really get it right next time…’

Hey, after all, I am a filmmaker right, distribution is someone else’s job…

I just responded to a frustrated email to a filmmaker who said (paraphrasing)….

‘I don’t know what to do, we are so broke and tired, I am considering signing the deal…’

This might be the right choice for this film and filmmaker, I get it, I really do.

But being tired is a poor reason to make any choice. Let alone the choice for the launch pad and resting place for something on which you have spent thousands (probably tens of thousands of man hours collectively), tons of your own resources (time and money), and the resources of so many other people too…

Don’t get me wrong. I have done this more than once myself. Made choices under pressure and when exhausted.

Remember, if you have investors, the likelihood is that you have gone over budget and over schedule and they want results. You have pitched your project like a straight business, so they have an expectation that you can just sell it. So get on with it right, it’s finished isn’t it? Sell it.

Hmmmm. We make the beds in which we lie.

It’s also easy to believe sales agents and distributors who supply amazing sales estimates (usually a work of fiction) or they stroke your ego, telling you how well it will do. We want to believe the industry wants our film, that audiences are desperate to see it, that it’s going to be the next ‘Clerks’, ‘Paranormal Activity’ etc. In short ‘it’s going to work out…’

Hey who am I to say that it won’t? It might, and I hope it does.

Adding to this mix is the feeling of invulnerability that we have in the later stages of production. After all, we have just spent the last year doing the impossible. When I made my first feature film, we coined a phrase… ‘we have been doing so much, for so little, for so long… we are now qualified to anything for nothing’. We even talked about getting T shirts made. It was a mindset that enabled us to do extraordinary things. But it’s also a trap. Viewing your film through these goggles will give you a false sense of value and position in any marketplace.

I have spoken with so many filmmakers who regretted the hasty choices they made when their film was completed, choices based on ego, on the desire to move quickly, under pressure, on believing when you should know better, choices based on the desire to abandon and move on. They almost always come back two years later and try to fix their mistakes. Again, I have done this more than once.

Finally, we are entering a new age of digital distribution where it’s entirely possible to find yourself a guinea pig for some new technology that may sound great in principle… but in practice? Well who knows, no-one has done it before.

So what is the answer? I wish there were a cheat sheet I could share, but there isn’t.

Here’s what I would do now… ( a list in no particular order)

First of all, take a damn break and clear your heart, mind and soul. Then I would do these things BEFORE I even spoke to sales agents, distributors etc.

  • Understand that the market is saturated with better movies than mine, and people don’t have enough time to watch everything. I need to find my distinct hook and exploit it. Being good, winning awards, having a Z list actor all help, but honestly, they don’t cut it. I need more to rise above the noise floor.
  • Figure out EXACTLY what my audience is, what’s the genre?
  • Create my own press materials and website.
  • Make sure I had killer stills from the shoot.
  • Take responsibility for all online presences from day one, and drive that forward aggressively.
  • Hire a professional poster designer to create the key artwork for the film.
  • Research the hell out of new technologies and deal structures, what has precedent for working or failing and why, what is hot air, what is built on shaky foundations, who ACTUALLY got some money back, how did they do it?
  • Avoid fully locking the edit, I know from experience my film is still probably too long and in need of a recut.
  • Speak candidly with as many distributors and sales agents I could get to meet me. It’s not hard, give them a call and ask for advice. Be credible and have a great promo and artwork and see what they say. Make it clear, you are not asking them to rep it, just for advice.
  • Speak candidly with exhibitors, film bookers, online distribution companies. Get their feedback and ask for precedent.
  • Consider a trip to LA to meet sales agents over there.
  • Speak to every filmmaker who has had a film released in ANY capacity, on ANY platform in the last two years, and ask them to share confidentially what they have experienced.
  • Learn to distinguish between fact, bullshit, hyperbolae and other stories in peoples heads about their film, the business and the future evolution of distribution.
  • Consider a small hyper targeted UK theatrical release for the PR and exposure it will generate (don’t let my ego get involved in this process).
  • Consider my bottom line. What MUST I get back? Remember, distribution costs money and distribution will always be paid off BEFORE anything comes back to the filmmaker. This bottom line is not what you want to make back, it’s what you must achieve to avoid catastrophe. That should become my target.
  • Move film festivals down the to-do list. They are great and they have value, but unless we crack a major festival, I think it’s a distraction right now. A festival run can happen later if wanted.
  • Consider distribution myself or some kind of hybrid model where I work with a sales agent or distributor closely.
  • Question everything, including myself
  • I try to remember, the world does not owe me a screen or an audience, I need to earn those things.

No-one really likes to talk about it, or even admit it, but films rarely make any money. Films usually lose money, and lot’s of it too.

Film is an extraordinary business where you are considered a success if you didn’t lose money. And that assumes you throw in all your time and resources free too.

So, like what doctors say at hospitals, I would ‘prepare for the worst, but hope for the best…’ Again, don’t get me wrong, I would also fight to the bitter end to manifest extraordinary success, but I would view the world through pragmatic goggles and take full responsibility for my choices.

There is so much more I could write in this post, but it boils down to this – to find success you must turn your creative skills to the business end of your venture, instead of the filmmaking end.

Remember, this is YOUR film, YOUR career, YOUR future. It’s also the future of every actor, crew member and investor who helped get you here, you owe it to them too to make good choices for the right reasons.

Finally, prolific British producer and good friend Richard Holmes put it best, ‘learn to make the distinction between what is real, and what you want to be real’. I keep that in mind at every stage.

And if you missed it last month, if this post resonated, take an hour out and listen to this podcast with Marcus Markou, it’s a game changer.

Good luck with your choices, they will be tough, but that means you are playing the game at the highest of levels. Bravo!

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
My movies
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My Twitter @LivingSpiritPix


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