Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why and How to get a Distribution Deal?

Film Production and Distribution
in one Indie Company
You're an indie filmmaker. You can get by with relatively inexpensive equipment, cast and crew and make movies. I made a short a few years ago for $3K, just for camera, sound, and editing software. Then I used the same stuff to do another one for the cost of feeding the cast and crew, about $500. A few years later I made a feature doc for $3K with some new HD stuff. But you don't need a cast or crew for docs. All you need is a camera, editing software, and great events to attend. However, if you do want a cast and crew, and you don't happen to know film school buddies willing to work for free, you really have to pay them, and you may need locations, props, and so on. So we see budgets more likely starting at $50K to $500K for first time feature director narratives.

If you want your film to be attractive to sales agents and distributors you will likely need some name talent. That will cost you anywhere from $5K to $50K at a minimum for a week of their time, depending on how hard up they are for work. But lately the trend is away from names and towards just really compelling stories. The script has become all important as it should be. With a great script you probably can attract some names anyway, which would add marketing value. Actors will want a killer script before they're willing to work cheaply or for a back end.

This is known as the chicken and egg dance thing that filmmakers do with talent and distributors. If you have a script good enough to attract talent, they (their agents actually) may be interested, but they will likely want to first know that your project is funded. If you had the talent signed on first, you could more easily find investors, or even pre-sales to fund the project, just based on the talent. So you have to be creative. Tell the talent that yes you're funded, which you will be if they are interested after reading the script (but don't tell them all that), assuming your distributor and investors concur. And yet it's not that quite easy.

There are requirements and priorities you have to have in place before talking to talent or distributors.
  • The script has to be compelling. 
  • You have to have a vetted project. You need a professionally done budget and shooting schedule by an experienced UPM (around $2K to $5K). 
  • You need to have a crew lined up (to be paid upon funding). And that crew or production company should have a track record. 
  • You also need to register a company (from $400 and up annually), 
  • and hire an attorney (around $5K) to review contracts and give your project credibility 
  • You need some completed work, short films, or maybe a proof of concept short film or trailer
Whoever looks at your project will want to know that you can actually pull it off (Why should they invest thousands of dollars?). With those things in place you can go to a state film commission to get approved for tax credits, up to 30% or so of your budget. State approval says your project is real to investors and distributors, and you can claim that as a funded part of the budget. Maybe you can get grants or government subsidies, especially outside the US. But the question may remain, is it marketable?

Part of the dance thing is to check with sales agents what talent you have in mind and how marketable they are for your project. If you don't have names, you should have a skilled cast. And this is where things fall apart for me. Because I think that named talent are in demand because of their talent. It's unlikely a cast without names can pull it off as well. But not impossible. Maybe you can find some good actors. You probably need at least a good CD (casting director) to help you do that. And a good CD costs at least $5K, maybe $20K. No, that hot girl you met in college is not that good of an actor.

Here is some in dept information from first hand accounts of this process:
I should credit most of my information to Stacey Parks and Adam Cultraro. Although it's general knowledge as well. Stacey is a former sales agent with a website, Adam is a successful indie producer-director who used the same concepts mentioned above which Stacey discusses and teaches on her website. It's like a grad school in film distribution, considering the huge amount of information she offers. Adam has a series of podcasts on that site (like this one), which are referred to as the Million Dollar Blueprint, where he discusses his own direct experiences doing these things. He was able to sign Tom Sizemore for $5K, I think, since Tom was just out of jail looking for new work (not anymore). Anyway, that is my original source of information and has proven to be solid for others as well. This information also changes from year to year. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of traditional distribution. Digital or self distribution is another thing.  Although, if you go through the traditional route, you'll likely end up with a traditional distribution deal that puts your film out on digital platforms, and if you're lucky and marketable, maybe VOD or cable as well. 

Distributors take around 20% off the gross, and that's after their expenses, which are not necessarily accountable. So you should be sure to include terms in your distribution deals that limit P&A expenses or even better, exclude them completely and let the distributor absorb them.

If the best you can do with traditional distribution is to land digital and DVD sales, it is not worth the trouble. You can do that level of distribution on your own and keep 100% of the gross.  You'd have to do your own marketing. But what kind of marketing will a distributor do for you? It should be way better than what you can do on your own. And I would want a deal to include cable and VOD. You should make sure these things are all in your contract and run it by a trusted attorney. You should assume that you will have to sue to get your share of the gross. In fact, it's common knowledge to assume that any first time filmmaker can expect nothing in terms of money from a distribution deal.

That means the only reason to do it is for exposure and to gain a track record. But will that actually happen? With thousands of digital titles on the market, how will your film be found and noticed. If all you want is to gain experience and recognition, you can do that without traditional distribution and even come out with some profit. The glamor and fame are not likely to happen anyway.

If you have to answer to investors or talent with contract stipulations, you may not have that option. But you should explain to them upfront that direct sales could turn out to be more lucrative than a distribution deal.

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