Preparing for independent film distribution

August 4, 2014
posted by sheric
question mark

db Photography

I’ve just completed a series with my colleagues over on The Film Collaborative blog dedicated to helping you prepare for distribution of your film. The series was inspired by the many questions we’ve answered over the years in consultations with our members and with independent filmmakers at industry events like Sheffield DocFest, Independent Film Week and SXSW.

Distribution is probably one of the most misunderstood processes in filmmaking. Plenty of schools prepare students for the intricacies of making the film, but leave off the part about connecting that work to an audience. It is a shame because creation is only one part of successful art. The other part is sharing it with people.


In Part 1, we talk about knowing the market for your work. Obviously, distribution falls into the business end of filmmaking and even though artists would like to think that whatever they create will automatically resonate in the market, it isn’t a bad idea to check beforehand.

Part 2 covers the role film festivals play in generating awareness for films, but also in generating revenue. Did you know festival revenue is one of the biggest sources of income for many of the films handled by The Film Collaborative? It’s true! But, the film needs to meet certain criteria in order to see this income stream. Read the post to find out what the criteria is.

Part 3 combines several topics. First, do you know the difference between a distributor and an aggregator? How about a platform and an application? Do you know the release sequence used in independent films? Does that matter any more? What about your chances for foreign distribution? We covered it all in this post.

Part 4 dives into deliverables. This addendum to most distribution contracts often comes as a nasty financial shock to producers. What will a sales agent or a distributor ask for? Isn’t digital distribution more affordable because there aren’t so many delivery items? We talk about what a typical digital distributor will need in order to put your film out on digital platforms.

Part 5 wraps up the series by talking about the financial realities of independent filmmaking. For the most part, it is about lots of little revenue streams (we’re talking hundreds of dollars from tens of outlets instead of hundreds of thousands from only a few). Joe Swanberg comments that artistic freedom comes from knowing the business side of your work. Creating with confidence is a whole lot better than creating with ignorance and subsequent anxiety.


I will be giving the keynote speech at the upcoming RoughCut New Zealand event on September 4, 2014. Preceding my speech, I will spend the day in consultations with local film producers about how to set a marketing strategy and reach the audience for their films. This is especially crucial if you plan to crowdfund and/or self distribute your film.

If you would like to attend either of these events, please see the Tropfest NZ site. I am so excited about my first trip to New Zealand!

While I am in the neighborhood, I am seeking further speaking or consultation invitations. Please contact me

[info at] to arrange the opportunity.

photo credit: db Photography | Demi-Brooke via photopin cc


As you know from last week’s post, I took part in the Sync Up Cinema event hosted by NOVAC at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I saw a video camera in the audience and was told a video of my conversation with Clint Bowie, Program Director for the New Orleans Film Society, would be uploaded online. I will post that when it happens, BUT there were many things I was prepared to talk about and didn’t get a chance to say. I made notes to prepare for the night, so I thought I would share those notes with you here on the blog. I was given an idea of the questions we would cover ahead of time, so I have included those with the notes.


Sync Up Cinema Conference with Clint Bowie and myself. Photo credit Ashley Charbonnet

Sync Up Cinema Conference with Clint Bowie and myself.                 Photo credit Ashley Charbonnet


How can filmmakers change their mindset to one of building and engaging their own audience and how does digital technology play into this?

SC: “The digital mindset has to be acquired now. This is no longer a world of the closed off artist. The new developments of crowdfunding, career sustainability by becoming an artist entrepreneur instead of being dependent on industry choosing you, and media interactivity/cross platform storytelling are all contingent on being open and connected to an audience.  Filmmakers must understand and use digital tools in their professional life to truly have a relationship with their audience. Anyone who can’t deal with that is going to be left behind in this world. That really goes for any professional, not just artists. I think we are now just in a transition period where we have to talk about this ‘mindset’ change because, believe me, young filmmakers are already doing this. It is natural to most of them and even more natural to 13-14-15 year olds! This will become a moot point very soon for everyone.”

How do you help filmmakers brand themselves rather than simply branding their projects so that they can move seamlessly from project to project without reupping every time? Is this something that is for “name directors only”.

SC: “Name directors would have an easier time connecting to an audience because their names are already recognizable, but the majority  don’t do it and that is detrimental for their continuing careers. They think the world where you can be removed and other people will just take care of audience attention for you will continue to exist. It won’t. Indeed, it is rude and selfish now to not be available.

Branding yourself simply means figuring out what you stand for, what your identity is. It isn’t a logo, it isn’t an image or a persona. It is who you really are as an artist. That identity does not radically change for most people. Independent artists in particular have a unique perspective. If they  didn’t have a somewhat unique vision, they would be selling insurance or working in a bank. Working in some nondescript job. They yearn to share their unique perspective with the world and they do it through images, stories. Social media, really the web in general, should be a place where they can thrive because it is full of stories and images!

Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman speak about artists being like dandelions. Instead of “giving birth” to only a few “babies” in a lifetime, artists should be creating all the time and putting their “seeds” out into the world. Some work will thrive and gather attention. Some work will die quickly, not be prosperous. Dandelions don’t care about their offspring, they just create. Sometimes their offspring live and sometimes they don’t. The internet is a place to create lots of little experiments and some will work wonderfully and some will not. Keep creating and try to make great work. That’s how you build your brand. That’s how you build a sustainable audience. Not by hoping to be picked up by the industry for a few of your offspring. It’s an audience for that one film, then you have to start over again. Your seeds can be blog posts or tweets or Facebook posts or Instagram photos. Something small every day.

This is the most basic thing to understand about brand building. All the digital tools and the metrics and the sales numbers, those are all byproducts of this basic understanding.

Be open, create great work, connect it with people. If you don’t do those 3 things, the rest of this doesn’t work.

What I do is encourage the filmmaker to figure out what their artistic identity is and how to share it with the world that can be reached online. It is hard work for me because few are embracing it as they should, but I know they are listening. They find me because I live what I am saying, I don’t spout out theory. I am not a publicist or a marketing consultant or a distributor who doesn’t even have their own website, or any social channels that they use regularly. I have to live it to help anyone with it.”

How do you work with filmmakers in terms of festival strategy?

SC: “Here is my strategy. If your film gets its premiere in a life changing festival, of which there are only a handful in the world, then that affects your distribution strategy. My colleague, Jeffrey Winter who handles all festival distribution for The Film Collaborative would call these IMPACT FESTIVALS.  He says an impact festival must offer at least 2 of these 3 things.

-Industry exposure which is what leads to a sale or a career launch.

-Press exposure to multiple major publications/media.

-Exposure to other festival programmers who will then invite your film to their festivals.

If a festival you are considering isn’t offering those things, then it is not an impact festival. There are also impact festivals within a niche like women’s film festivals, environmental festivals, Jewish festivals etc. If you cannot get into an impact festival, then the marketing and distribution strategy stays as it was in the M&D plan. Which means you have to have one from the start. If an impact festival premiere doesn’t happen, you need to plan your own impact premiere.

To me, the festival circuit is a theatrical release circuit with no revenue prospects, but far fewer costs than a conventional theatrical release. Unless you can get a screening fee, which is only possible in a few certain circumstances, then use a festival to do one night event screenings along with a service like Tugg or Gathr or community screenings where either a license fee is paid, or you are getting a significant cut of the ticket sales.

If the festival is small, the media coverage is small, no real industry people (ie, buyers or other festival programmers) attend, there is no screening fee and no way to make some revenue, then why go to that festival? It won’t make a difference to the film’s success and may not even make a difference to your career. If you know who your audience is and how to find them online, you don’t need a festival to reach them.”

Discuss festival darlings vs films that will be picked up and how to know what kind of film you have. Is it a festival film at all or something that should go to market or be self distributed.

SC: “A festival darling gets that way from being accepted into an impact festival.  Also, festival darlings will go on to play many other festivals, Jeffrey says at least 50 and they should be collecting screening fees with that so it becomes a source of revenue. Those films get picked up first.

If you mean a festival darling because it plays every little regional fest and stays on the circuit for over a year with no other distribution happening, it isn’t really a darling. It really means it doesn’t know what its doing.

There are elements that will help your film be a festival darling though..

-Name connections. I don’t mean name actors necessarily, but it never hurts :) . Is your producer connected? Is your director connected? Are you working with a sales agent?

-A lab program that is connected to prestige fests. Have you gone through labs with Sundance, IFP, Film Independent, San Francisco Film Society?

-A grant or funding organization like Cinereach on your side. Have you won a grant from a large film fund like Tribeca’s partnership with Ford Foundation? BritDoc Bertha Fund? Chicken and Egg? These organizations are filled with connected people who can pull some strings for your film if they think it is strong.

-A short film that is an alum of an impact festival. Impact fests love to champion their alumni filmmakers.

Festival programmers are tied into these networks and they ask ‘Is there anything out there I should be looking at?’  This is not blind submission territory. Anything they can do to wade through the pile of DVDs or online screeners to find the good stuff is welcome news to them. This is about getting to the upper end of the pile. Your film will be evaluated at a higher level. These connections change what is possible for your film.

If you haven’t got these connections, either GET them or be realistic about your prospects. You will be looking at your direct distribution options a lot more closely than a film with connections.

I still think a film with connections is going to have to build an audience though. Not all Sundance films get a pick up or get picked up and given meaningful release. Sundance didn’t create their Artists Services Program because they think all of their alumni will be given stellar releases. They created it because they know not all will and they can offer help to those willing to work. And while they do what they can to champion those alumni films, most still do not succeed because the filmmaker was ill prepared, budgeted no money for marketing and distribution and truthfully, some simply waited too long after their premiere to take advantage of the gift they were given in having that kind of premiere. That level of media buzz is not often recreated 2 years after the festival.

I am much more interested in seeing people like Shane Carruth, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, Thomas Woodrow, Ava Duvernay, Tiffany Shlain, all leaping out of Sundance with their own path than the ones who are waiting around for their sales agent to work a miracle for them. They prepared their marketing and distribution plans, they went to Sundance with it under their arms and laying the groundwork ahead of time with audience building and they were in a great position to say whether they would take offers or not. They didn’t HAVE to do it.

I will say there is NO SUCH THING as a film that doesn’t have distribution. If a film isn’t being distributed, that is by the choice of the filmmaker. They rolled the dice and lost on the big all rights deal and didn’t prepare for anything else. ALL FILMS have a path to distribution now. It may not be the path they hoped for, but it is easy to distribute a film. Getting people to watch it? Another story.”

Distribution – What are some concerns filmmakers need to have in terms of their distribution strategy and how production budgets are tied into this. How should filmmakers determine if and what sales markets can bear films like theirs.

SC: “For sure you should be working with a legal advisor who is looking out for YOUR interests. This is not necessarily a sales agent whose commission is based on your signing an agreement. On The Film Collaborative site we just published a guest post by a filmmaker who had to take his sales agent to arbitration and what a nightmare it was because of the agreement they signed. Use an entertainment attorney who works with independents, not just studios and distributors and is truly looking out for your interests first.

As far as budgets, marketing and distribution expenses are not part of your production budget, they are a separate section. They are part of your overall business plan budget. In any other business, marketing expenses are just part of doing business, in addition to creating the product.  But they haven’t been a concern to filmmakers and investors in the independent film sector, strangely. That has to change.

I recently talked on Film Courage about needing a 10% budget minimum …but really if you desperately want a theatrical release or you are contractually obligated to have one and you may be paying for it yourself, you need about $50K just for that. You’ll most likely need a booker which costs about $10K, you’ll have to 4 wall for a week in NYC, San Francisco and a few other cities first so the booker can make a case for why cinemas should book your film, that will cost about $20K. You’ll need to hire a national publicist to get you the important New York Times review as well as other major publications because without those, why are you showing theatrically at all? That will run about $7K or more. You’ll need someone working online outreach probably on a full time basis and that will run about $7K. You’ll need materials like Blu Rays, DCP, trailer, poster, shipping costs, printing costs and some advertising. That will take you up to about $50K for a very small theatrical run.

Then if you are going to go ahead and direct distribute via digital platforms, if you work with a Gravitas, they will charge about $10K for encoding your film and getting it onto Cable VOD services. You will pay about $1500 to encode for iTunes and you need to have closed captioning and maybe subtitling which will run you about $1000 each for that. If you want it on iTunes in Australia, New Zealand and a few European countries, you’ll now need to have the film rated by the ratings board. They charge per minute on the film with an average cost of $2300 for Australia alone.

But if you have an impact festival premiere, great reviews, lots of buzz going on the film, you may not need to 4 wall so you can reduce that theatrical cost significantly. You still won’t make money on it, but it won’t cost too much either.

Sales markets are best handled by sales agents. If you want your film to be available at a market, I am assuming you mean for foreign sales, you are better off having someone whose whole job is devoted to buyers and markets handle your film there.

I think all filmmakers should attend a film market though because if you were ever under the illusion that you were making “art” you will learn very quickly that is about the last things buyers are looking for. They are looking for something that will sell. Sex, violence, stars..those are easy sells. And it is all right there on the poster or in the trailer. Right in your face. Go have a stroll around Cannes Marche du Film or around the Loew’s in Santa Monica at AFM. Visit before you even have a project to sell and it will be very illuminating.”

What is the average in terms of indie distribution.  We hear a lot of success stories about foreign markets, but that isn’t necessarily the average.

SC: “First, there is no average for advances. It is totally dependent on what kind of film you have and its pedigree.

Foreign market for the average American independent film is close to zero. I think the successful foreign sales you are hearing about are for the bigger budget, well known actor films. Presales are highly dependent on cast so if you don’t have A list or close to it in your film, you aren’t looking at presales. Yes, plenty of people are still talking about foreign presales, but ask them for examples. You’ll see they are talking about Hollywood level cast.

But say that you do want to see what your prospects are for foreign sales? I do suggest you get a foreign sales agent because they know who the territory distributors are. They deal with them all the time and they can be more effective at collecting money from them than you can. They license films to territory distributors in different countries. Territory distributors acquire rights to exhibit a film, show it on TV, use digital platforms within their territory. These territory distributors find out about films from film markets such as Cannes, Berlin, Asian Film Market and American Film Market and TV markets such as Mip, also in Cannes.

Here is a selection of top grossing American indies in foreign markets for 2012:

Silver Linings Playbook (David O Russell, Oscar nominated) $101mil (Australia and Spain top countries, sold to 46 territories)

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, Oscar nominated) $22mil (uk, France, Australia, Germany & Spain top grossing, but sold in 41 territories)

Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, produced by John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd , started as a novel) $15mil ( Australia, UK, Italy top countries, sold in 28 territories)

Cast involved in these films (Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Emma Watson, Dylan McDermott) Typical American indie film does not have this cast.

So what is an average advance in terms of domestic indie distribution? Very hard to say. Depends on the buzz coming off of it and what time of year the film sells. There were some strong sales at Sundance this year, Sundance being the beginning of the year. The Way, Way Back sold for $10 mil and will be released in July (fitting for a movie about working a summer job in a water park) and got only a C+ out of Indiewire. It has Toni Collette, Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell in it. Don Juan’s Addiction sold for $4 mil with a $25mil marketing spend guarantee on 2000 screens out of Relativity Media. It will need to gross about $35mil to just recoup. I have no idea if that MG paid for the production budget. It is a Joseph Gordon Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore film.

Some of the smaller films like Fruitvale Station (around $2mil to Weinstein, playing Cannes), Concussion (around $1mil, Radius-TWC), The Spectacular Now (around $1mil, A24)  S-VHS (around $1mil, Magnolia), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (around $1mil, IFC also playing in Cannes). Many of these are already getting screening fee revenue out of other festivals that have programmed them.

Compare this with Toronto purchases, one of the last buyer festivals before the end of the year. The Place Beyond the Pines was picked up for under $3mil by Focus Features, but the production budget was $15mil. It was just released March 29, already hitting $12mil and most of that is foreign. Stars Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper.  I think they’ll be all right eventually, but Focus recoups and profits first, not the film’s investors.

What Maisie Knew went for $2mil to Millenium Entertainment, which is now for sale. It is set to go into theatrical release tomorrow.  Stars Alexander Skarsgard and Julianne Moore.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions bought a trio of films for a grand total of $5mil. Thanks for Sharing, Imogene and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I’m thinking the total production budgets for those films were a lot higher!

SXSW sales have been slow.  Cheap Thrills sold to Drafthouse for low-mid six figures which probably means $200K and a promise of theatrical and VOD/digital.  Holy Ghost People sold to XLrator Media for an undisclosed amount. Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies has some high profile actors like Ron Livingston, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick and was picked up by Magnolia, again no amount disclosed. Doc Good Ol’ Freda just sold to Magnolia and they say it will get a theatrical, again no amount disclosed. Usually Magnolia does Day and Date releases.

These are some of the top festivals for sales, the rest of the festivals are just exhibition exercises that you are hopefully using to launch into digital release. Hey, distributors do this too. Often even if a film will have a limited theatrical, it will still use the festival circuit as an exhibition space. But the difference is, those films will get screening fees.

But then you have films like Euphonia which premiered at SXSW and then went online for free.  It was a no budget (or no one is getting paid back) film, 54 minutes long so really not programmable in many places as far as festivals, broadcast, theatrical. It doesn’t have sales prospects and the filmmakers didn’t care. They are newbies, put their film on Vimeo just so people would see it without a money barrier. That isn’t wrong. Their goal is just getting people to see it.  They may accomplish that goal.

Numbers, everyone likes to know those and yet, we don’t. I would like to call on industry to start divulging more. Filmmakers start divulging more. We did this in our book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and it was difficult to get at them. A few filmmakers dropped out when they heard what info we wanted because they didn’t want to share that info. So you can’t complain about not knowing if you aren’t willing to share. Also, it is contractually agreed not to divulge numbers, keep everything private. We can know box office numbers, we can know DVD sales numbers, but so far there is no public database for digital numbers.

According to Gravitas Ventures’ Nolan Gallagher ‘When an independent film opens in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles—and those four theaters report $10,000 each for box office earnings—that’s a very easy amount of information to compile and publicize. But with VOD, we’re talking about over 100 different operators, each with its own way of compiling and disseminating information.’ Still statements and checks are sent to rights holders so a figure is obtained.

We know, based on self released numbers by Lionsgate/Roadside that Richard Gere’s Arbitrage which had a concurrent theatrical and VOD release took in about  $11 million in VOD/digital sales and over $7.5 million in ticket sales. The distribution company paid $2.1 million to acquire domestic rights out of  Sundance Film Festival, and Roadside spent about $2.5 million promoting the theatrical debut.  Marketing expenses for the VOD were reportedly only a few hundred thousand.

Margin Call with Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons had VOD sales of about $6 million and grossed $5.4 million in theaters. Also released by Lionsgate/Roadside.

Bachelorette grossed $5.5 million on VOD but took in $448,000 theatrically. Released by Radius TWC. Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Rebel Wilson star.

Where did all of those films come from?? Sundance!

But know this. It is nearly impossible to attract significant VOD revenue without a star driven film!! And sometimes stars want a theatrical guarantee, or their agents do.

A couple of more realistic indie film case studies that worked with Gravitas Ventures.

The Truth-made for a reported $500K, starring John Heard, Brendan Sexton III, Daniel Baldwin, Erin Cardillo. Made $ 75K in an advance from Netflix. It is a thriller.

American: The Bill Hicks Story: made for under $1mil, Cable VOD gross at $375K and iTunes gross $55K for both rental and download, though rental accounted for vast majority. A 2 year Netflix and Amazon  deal for about $100K license combined.”

As soon as the video of what we did actually talk about that night is available, I will post it here, tweet it, put it on my Facebook page and in my G+ community.

Next up for me in June, an Amsterdam workshop with the Binger Lab and Sheffield DocFest in the UK. If you’ll be in either of these places, give me a shout!



Interview with AFFRM’s Ava Duvernay

March 8, 2013
posted by sheric

While conventional media has shown us that women make up only a tiny percentage of the leadership in the film community, I am heartened to find that we are tiny, but mighty! As a tribute to International Women’s Day, I want to highlight a woman who is of particular inspiration to me and who was kind enough to take time out of her busy day way back in December to share her wisdom, her courage and her savvy with me. [ed. note: Ava, I'm sorry this has taken so long to be published, but girl you haven't stopped and every time I go to publish this piece, you up and do something else incredible and I have to add to it!]

ava duvernay, filmmaker









Director Ava Duvernay has many things to be proud of in the last few years. Having successfully produced, directed and self distributed 3 films of her own (This Is The Life, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere) and distributed 2 films made by others (Kinyarwanda and Restless City) using her own money, she knows the challenges that come with being an independent, especially for black cinema. She recently won the John Cassavetes Award from Film Independent for Middle of Nowhere, previously she was the first black female director to win Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival 2012 for Middle of Nowhere, she collaborated with fashion house Miu Miu to direct a short film called The Door (released online), and she is now in production on a documentary  for ESPN Films’ Nine for IX titled Venus VS, described as an in-depth documentary that explores tennis star Venus Williams’ fight for fair pay for female tennis players at Wimbledon.

Ava started out in the film business as a publicist, working on high profile campaigns for films by Steven Spielberg, Bill Condon, Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann. She has taken that knowledge and those media connections with her into her new career as a film director and into a company she launched in 2011 called the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) dedicated to releasing black cinema theatrically. I asked her what led to the creation of AFFRM.

“In 2003, I started a division of my PR agency, called Urban Beauty Collective . It was a network of urban beauty salons and barber shops providing in- salon entertainment and programming. I was always interested in reaching the African American community outside of all the nuts and bolts stuff my competitors did, you  know, call Jet and Ebony and send out a street team. I wanted to do something that was like the Tyler Perry brand. Everyone knew of Tyler Perry before his deal with Lionsgate, he was an undercover brand. So I was always finding new ways to tap into the African American community and networks to bring my clients’ projects to them in new ways,” said Duvernay.

“In becoming a filmmaker, I knew that I could tap into those networks for promotion, but there weren’t clear cut pathways for distributing films, especially not for films I was interested in making. I started thinking about those wonderful black film festivals that I had started visiting with my first documentary, This is the Life. I went to a lot of these festivals and film series and got to know the organizers. A lot them were these amazing, stellar leaders with bold ideas and well formed infrastructures and adamant about creating a space in their local communities for the black cinematic image. There were about 4 or 5 really dynamic people and I thought they should all know each other. And that lead to the idea of self distributing my film. And that lead into ‘Why would I build up an infrastructure for self distribution and then dismantle it?’ I see so many filmmakers self distribute a film and get into the rhythm and really understanding how to do it, and then they walk away from it. Then they have to come back later and start all over again, or why don’t they leave the structure in place for the next person?”

“All of those thoughts were in my head when I decided to approach those festivals to see if we might all work together to distribute a film and, if it really worked out, we would leave it standing to distribute more films so that other filmmakers could come through it.”

It is no small feat to get a group of enthusiastic and strong people to commit to working together in an organized way. Each usually has their own agenda and personalities can clash causing the effort to fail. Ava said this hasn’t been a problem so far. “Each member is the distributor in their market. I don’t pretend to know what to do in Philadelphia, or New York, or DC. I know about the marketing and publicity and the bookings. What they brought to the table was expert knowledge of the audience of their regions. There was no stepping on toes. We curate the films together. It was structured to be very respectful of everyone’s lane.  While we had heard early on that we probably wouldn’t be able to all get along, we’ve never had an issue. These are all well rooted organizations that have been in their markets for a long time.”

“They benefit. There’s financial benefit, there’s branding benefit as there are only a handful of festivals that are branded AFFRM festivals, they have all seen an increase in admissions to their normal festival activities, they’ve seen increase in local press coverage. Really, it is about giving these films a theatrical presentation that they otherwise wouldn’t have. No one is getting rich here believe me, but we strongly believe in the theatrical presentation of the films and a cultivation of the audience.”

I know that it can sometimes be difficult to get a filmmaker to commit to a smaller or emerging distribution entity. I can even imagine that filmmakers do not want their films branded as “black cinema” hoping instead to reach a mainstream audience. But Ava explained that AFFRM films are not denied the ability to reach wider, either in press coverage or in the theaters they are shown in.  ”We don’t just distribute to the black community. Our films are playing mainstream theaters in Times Square New York, on Sunset Boulevard in LA, those theaters are open to any audience. We get press coverage in the New York Times, LA Times, NPR. Every filmmaker who has gone through AFFRM has had a CNN piece and we do very intentional outreach to black press as well. The press our filmmakers get, I would argue, is above and beyond what one would get from distributors like Cinema Guild or Strand Releasing. We get mainstream and niche press. So they get a NY/LA run at minimum and VOD after that.”

“Unfortunately, there is no one else here in this space. I think there should be more people in this space, and I hope people will duplicate this model in the Latino film space, the women’s film space, the LGBT film space, anything outside of dominant culture. This is a great way to distribute films theatrically without needing a lot of financial resources.”

Ava explained that the 2 films released so far that were made by other filmmakers, Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda and Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City, were destined to go straight to home video and would not have been released through conventional theatrical. “They were going to be going to DVD, nothing at all in support and we thought those films should be seen. When Roger Ebert called Kinyarwanda one of the best films of 2011 and I knew that 7 months before, it was headed to DVD only release, I am proud that we didn’t let that happen. I want more people to see the work of Andrew Dosunmu and Bradford Young and Alrick Brown and for them to have a proper theatrical release and proper reviews. AFFRM is nourishing the filmmakers and also the black arthouse community.”

Any conversation about film distribution will inevitably lead to money. I wondered if AFFRM is really a service company, being paid to release films theatrically. If so, how much do they charge? But Ava set me straight. “No, I am the crazy one putting my own money in. We lost money on some of the films, but I loved them and couldn’t stand to see them go by the wayside. We license the films because, as a filmmaker myself, I set this up to be beneficial to filmmakers and I am not going to tie up rights longer than the standard theatrical window of 3-6 months. We give the filmmaker a theatrical window and the promotion of their film, a full scale multi market promotional push that comes from having a theatrical release. They are no longer only going straight to DVD/VOD, they can get the momentum from a theatrical that will propel those ancillaries to help make their money back and make another film. No one is getting rich here though, most theatrical campaigns as you know do not make money. Someone has to take the plunge and cultivate this audience and no, it isn’t going to make money right away.  But this isn’t about just money. We work tirelessly for 3 months on these campaigns to make up for the advertising we can’t buy so we’d better love and believe in what we are doing because there isn’t necessarily going to be a check at the end of it.”

Many of those working with AFFRM are volunteers called AFFRM Mavericks. A small army has been amassed of people willing to devote their own time and effort to spread the word about the films. “They are just people around the country who are activated around the idea of having options in what films they are seeing. Most of the AFFRM Mavericks are just regular people from plumbers, bus drivers, mamas with 3 kids, to professionals who run companies and have creative ideas. Folks that are canvassing posters and postcards on the weekend, barbers who put all of our branding in their shops. Basically we say what can you do, what do you want to be involved in?”

“They sign up on our website. We have a national maverick coordinator who talks to them to find out what they can do, make sure they will be responsible and helps to coordinate all the efforts. We have about 500 people. We also have digital mavericks who live in places outside of where we will be screening the films who just want to help in some way. There are 20 people manning Instagram, 75 people covering Twitter, a maverick digital captain coordinates all of them. It is very cool the amount of support we have from volunteers.”

On March 15, AFFRM’s new label ARRAY (which is now handling multiplatform releases, instead of only theatrical) will release their next film, Storm Saulter’s Better Mus’ Come, in New York and LA as well as one night screenings on March 13 in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Houston, London, Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Amsterdam.

I often hear filmmakers complain about having to think about and set aside time to promote their own films and about a lack of significant theatrical release options. I asked Ava how she found the time to do this work, not just for her own films, but for filmmakers she admires. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say I have a background in marketing and publicity at a very high level before I became a filmmaker. I could say ‘Hey, just do it’, but I came from a history of this kind of expertise. It is very second nature for me to do the publicity and marketing. The hard part came from learning the booking side. It was challenging and still is because of all the politics that surround it. It is hard to break in to that community with new films from people that cinemas  don’t already know.”

“What I have struggled with is the balance between the creative and the business. If I want to go shoot for 3 months and I don’t want to go into the office, I can’t do that yet. Or if I need to do office things, but I want to go edit. It is hard for me to mix my days, creative and business. I can’t do business related things in the morning and then go into the edit suite or go write or go scout locations in the afternoon. I can’t do that. I do it by days. This is a director day, or this is a distributor day. It is about finding what your strength is and tapping into other people who have what you don’t.”

“But you have to be willing to stretch yourself because in 2013, you’re kidding yourself if you think all you will be doing is directing films. That is an antiquated model, the old guard of filmmaking. Very few of us will be able to make a film and hand it off and know that it will be well taken care of. It certainly isn’t me or anyone who looks like me. No women, maybe one came to mind, can think like this. You no longer have an option to say I don’t want to do that.”

Thank you Ava, from being so giving of your time and sharing your knowledge with all of us.


About 2 years ago, I made a checklist on this site of major items you should prepare and duties to perform at different stages in production in order to implement the marketing strategy of your film . This is an updated list.

Some form of direct distribution (self distribution) should be incorporated into the overall distribution plan of independent films. This helps to safeguard investment should no attractive distribution offers come in for your film because you can at least start recouping the money by getting the film into the market yourself. But it also allows you to see a payoff from all of the hard work you have done in gathering an audience during production. Remember, no one will work for your film as hard as you will so why should you agree to pay sales percentages to an entity that did not take any initial risk in producing the film? In order to put this plan into action, marketing preparation needs to be completed.

Always carve out the ability to sell copies (DVD for now, streaming from now on) and set up your own event screenings where the production has first dollar payment of the proceeds.  If any company wants all rights, they should be paying VERY handsomely for them and be willing to submit a marketing proposal with budget attached that clearly outlines what their marketing plan for the film will be. Otherwise, you are squandering all of the months (or years!) you have put into building up a fanbase by giving up the monetary payoff to a third party who hasn’t clearly explained what they will do with that audience and how they will expand it.

This checklist takes into consideration that you have ALREADY identified and researched the core audience of the film. Also, you have written your marketing plan and budget. The plan is your guide, but this is actually building the road. These items are in no certain order apart from the headings and timeframes.

Marketing/Distribution Check List

Pre-Production (two-four week timeframe)

-Source an on set photographer and set schedule for those days. See this post for more details.

Also arrange for a videographer to shoot separate video content for later use.

-Draft a synopsis – paragraph, 3 lines (100 words) and one line versions (20 words) for festival submissions, website/social media sites, press kit, media inclusions etc.

-Brainstorm creative ideas for film branding, partner with graphic designer and manage production of all branded media/materials going forward.

-Publicity – draft early press release to the trades announcing principal photography.

-Continue  audience research and online listening to “influencers,” bloggers, and grassroots organizations.

-If interested in product placement/branded entertainment opportunities, prepare a pitch document for presentation to companies and set meetings with them.

-Start the process of website development for the film’s official site-source a web designer and flesh out all elements to be included.

-Choose email database program to maintain a fan contact list.

-Think about any additional media/merchandising that could be created for  maintaining audience interest/additional revenue streams.

Production (six week timeframe)

-Write content for website and digital press kits (bios/about/synopsis/production notes/trailer/blog/email signup/estore). Work with graphic designer to match film branding.

-Design website/manage website design firm.

-Publicity – coordinate with local press for coverage on the set.

-Coordinate video shoots of content to be used later for the website/released on social channels.

-Oversee stills photography shoot with actors on set for use as content on website, social networks, on the DVD, media coverage, festivals etc.

-Start researching appropriate festivals.

-Complete and launch website.

-Start utilizing Director’s/Production blog of what is happening on set, respond quickly to questions and feedback.

-Set up Google Alerts keeping a list of relevant links that you can share with your audience on social channels.

-Procure a recent film delivery list from any sales agent/distributor to ensure that you are collecting every item. Put all materials in an organized filing system.

-Start stockpiling material to be used on website/social channels in lead up and throughout release.

Post Production (4-6 months before release)

-Set up IMDB and production listings management once a firm film title and completion date is known because it can be difficult to change a title or production date later.

-Start utilizing email list with weekly blasts of material relevant/useful to your audience.

-Devise a content calendar and start releasing content to populate website/online channels. This material should be well spread out to ensure you will have regular content.

-Choose final publicity stills from the library of photos taken and retouched by the photographer. You will need a mix of scene shots and a few behind the scenes.

-Key art creation. Working with a professional designer is strongly recommended.

-Outreach to influencers, organizations and bloggers and keep them updated with regard to the film.

-Set up social networking sites and start populating. These will need continuous maintenance and responses to feedback from fans. Best to start when you have an idea of the premiere date.

-Set up online monitoring tools to analyze all conversations and press mentions happening around your film and respond to them. Collate weekly reports.

-Edit/update press kit. Multiple video clips/photos needed for various online media and website/social networking sites as well as DVD content. Upload to your website.

-Edit the most gripping trailer anyone has ever seen. Use a professional trailer editor. Choose a date to premiere it to start buzz in lead up to film’s release. Engage the services of a video seeding company.

-Coordinate test screenings of the rough cut, collate notes to give to the editor for adjustments.

-Submit inquiries/applications to festivals or settle on venue and date for film premiere.

-Finalize Key Art layout. Print the posters, business cards, postcards.

-Update IMDB/productions listings with photos, trailer etc.

-Identify possible affiliates for DVD/digital streaming sales if doing this through your own site in future.

-Prepare press release copy for festival acceptances, this can be altered as needed.

-Set up database of all publications and editors to contact for press opportunities. Set up separate page in database to track press breaks/mentions.

-Start theatrical/public screening booking process if possible. May not be possible until outcome of premiere.

-Determine paid advertising placement and book space. Create the ad according to specs.

-Determine and ensure long lead press placement.

-Attach a sales agent if applicable or finalize distribution roll out based on audience media consumption habits/interest from distributors.

Release (6-12 months)

-Plan and coordinate premiere party or event.

-Maintain social channels and website.

-Maintain email communication with fans/influencers.

-Set up/reply to public screening requests.

-Reply and coordinate promotional materials with theater/screening event publicist or event host.

-Apply for award competitions.

-Keep press kit updated.

-Continue to pitch press on feature stories and reviews.

-Encourage audience to leave feedback on imdb, Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon, iTunes etc.

-Set up own digital distribution outlet on website and estore goes live to sell merchandise direct. Manage fulfillment of sales and run special promotions.

These are main points and clearly the person who is primarily responsible for getting these items accomplished will not be working occasionally. A thousand little things will happen in the course of distribution so make sure you have a responsible team and a significant budget to handle it.


 Creative commons photo from <a href=””>nocklebeast</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

The value of test screening your indie film

December 10, 2012
posted by sheric

No amount of marketing will save a film that needs improvement. Many times I am sent films that need a few more editorial passes or maybe some reshoots to get it at the level it needs to be in order to release successfully.  Mostly these rough cuts are accompanied by a caveat from the filmmaker that this is a temp sound mix or color grade, but that isn’t really what I am looking for. I want to know that the story doesn’t have structural problems, that the pacing isn’t flabby, that the acting is strong. Coloring and music can be easily fixed, but poor acting will make the film hard to save and no amount of clever marketing is going to work for a film that isn’t strong.  It isn’t worth spending significant time and money on marketing a title for a film that really won’t find an audience, not even on the torrent sites.

Test screening the film while in post production is a good way to gauge what an audience will think of your film. While Hollywood studios do this on a regular basis, they usually select a cross-section of the population because they want their film to appeal to a mass audience. They also can use it as a way to badger a director to change endings that fit their point of view, change a story to fit better into a certain, more lucrative demographic or figure out how best to market a title that needs to appeal to a very diverse audience. I am not advocating using your test screenings like this though. You NEED to make sure that the film stands up to audience scrutiny by your core audience, those for whom you made the film. These people are not your friends, the cast, or your family because those people generally offer enthusiasm, not unbiased opinion. What you are looking for is real feedback from people who should like the film you have made, but have no vested interest in sparing your feelings.

I recommend the director and editor view the film with the audience to gauge the feeling in the room. Did the jokes work? Did the tension build? Was there whispered confusion among the audience members at a certain point in the film? What parts seem to need work and what parts already work? Was there a restlessness that indicated the audience was growing disinterested?  Hiding at the local bar while the film is screened means you are hiding from the people most likely to love your work. Don’t do this. You have made the film for them and you should want to know if your vision came through. This can also bring clarity to both the director and the editor who can sometimes find the editing suite combative.

Besides watching with an audience and taking your own notes on what you felt they reacted to (good and bad), you also want to give them a questionnaire to fill out so you can analyze their feedback. A few of your questions will concern pacing (were there places that lagged?), confusion over the plot, and perhaps most importantly, would they recommend this film to their friends? If the bulk of your marketing effort is going to focus on using social media, having people recommend the film is going to be crucial to the success of that effort. Ideally, they will want to sign up to your email list so they can keep up with the news of the film so make sure you ask for this information. You may also want to engage in a post screening discussion because more issues may be clarified for you in conversation rather than only on paper.

For indie filmmakers, employing an agency to handle the test screening process will be financially wasteful. For the purpose of making your film stronger, chances are you can handle organizing these small screenings on your own. You’ll need about 15-20 people in your core audience, NOT a diverse group. Your limited resources are going to be spent on connecting only to this audience while your distribution partners later will help you to expand beyond it. Therefore, it is very important that the film resonates with these people specifically.

This will probably mean overbooking the screening because there will always be those who don’t show. You may find potential test screening audiences on, craigslist,  churches, community centers etc. Wherever you have pinpointed in your marketing plan that your audience is likely to be reached (this also helps you test the soundness of your marketing plan!) I don’t really recommend online test screenings because you can’t gauge the room for those screenings. After months of sitting alone with your film, it is time to venture out and see how it plays to a live audience. I am betting your perceptions of your film really will change once you are sitting in the room with strangers.

If you can, test screen again after making changes and hopefully you will find problems solved or gain different perspectives on the story. These can help you in figuring out the stance to take when presenting the film to industry people as well as your own marketing. Ultimately I am suggesting that you not attempt to distribute the film in any way until it has seen a test screening or two to insure that your story reaches its greatest potential.


photo credit: <a href=””>cavale</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>



There is no audience for this film

September 28, 2012
posted by sheric

Many indie filmmakers, especially documentary filmmakers, hear this phrase from potential sales agents and distributors as a reason the film isn’t picked up for distribution. Let’s dissect what they are really saying.

It will take us too much time, effort, and money to reach this audience.

You may know, through spending many years making the film, that there IS an audience for it, but is that audience big enough to rake in the revenue needed by these facilitators? Distribution companies deal with a catalog of films for many years and each one needs some sort of attention if the title is to sell. Many times they use the same methods for every title because those processes and staff have been in place for a long time. They aren’t going to hire new staff and formulate new processes just to deal with one title.

The less time, effort and money they can spend on getting an audience or a subdistributor interested in buying, the better for them. They also have normal business overhead to pay like their employees, their office space, legal costs, utilities etc, which you,  the filmmaker, may not have, to the same financial degree, on a daily basis. So the revenue from each film they need to sustain themselves in business, not to mention your cut of this, needs to add up with minimal outlay. Challenging films or films with a limited audience are not attractive for this reason because too much effort will be involved to reach those people for the small amount of revenue that audience represents.

Often, I read news stories of films that are raising money and heading into direct distribution because mainstream distributors passed on the title and the stories are usually tinged with indignance, “they didn’t believe in our film” kind of sentiment. It is simply a business decision that the film doesn’t make financial sense for the distributor. It may make great financial sense for the filmmaker to self distribute though.

With this knowledge, filmmakers who have prepared their distribution strategy, allocated a budget/staff and do have a clearly defined core audience will be in a better position to incorporate direct distribution because they know exactly who supports their work, how to reach them and the outlets they should use for sales. Those outlets may be organizational/educational screenings and merchandise sales, specialist websites for affiliate sales, their own website, digital outlets that can be accessed either directly or through an aggregator on a non exclusive basis, and incorporating tools like Tugg or Gathr to book conventional theatrical screenings. These will all generate revenue that goes to the filmmaker without excessive percentages taken and waiting months (or years) for a check. Planning and preparation is needed for this during the preproduction/production phase at least.

Most films of quality do have an audience, but they may not have the masses required by a distribution company. There is no longer a need or an excuse to put a film on the shelf because a company didn’t acquire it.


SXSW, upcoming film events, book to be in print

August 23, 2011
posted by sheric

Just a little update for all the readers here.

I am involved in 2 SXSW panel proposals for the 2012 festival. Both contain some pretty awesome people and information that I think you will all find valuable.

Connect with Fans + Reasons to Buy = $$$

This is a workshop/speed brainstorm type of event moderated by Mike Masnick, founder of Techdirt , an online blog focused on analyzing and offering insight into news stories about changes in government policy, technology and legal issues that affect companies’ ability to innovate and grow.

My fellow panelists are Ross Pruden, founder of the Twitter discussion panel #infdist among other things and Jon Reiss, I think most of you are familiar with him. :) We will be taking  film project examples from participants in the room and dreaming up alternative revenue streams to help maximize your ROI. Gone are the days where you can be completely dependent on making money from selling copies of your film. When copies can be obtained for free online, you could try and sue, issue take down notices OR you could build in other ways to make money so that your revenue isn’t completely dependent on selling copies. New business models are emerging every day in other sectors, why not in film?

I envision a very high energy session with ideas flying out from everywhere so bring a recording device to catch them all. If you think this would be a much more useful session than just listening to the same industry folks sitting at a table talking about how bad everything has become, VOTE! We want to shake things up at SXSW.

Selling Your Film Without Getting F*#ked

Yes the title is a little racy, but we were told that’s what gets attention when people look through the event catalog to choose sessions they want to attend. Besides, you’re INDIE so you can take it.

This is a panel I am moderating and it will include several independent filmmakers who have traveled the distribution path less taken. All have retained some rights over their work and received attention and revenue for their films be it organizing their own theatrical tours, using festivals as a source of revenue by charging screening fees, or enlisting the help of high power industry people to champion their films. Some have even managed to do equitable deals with distributors! Our panelists are Ava DuVernay, Casper Andreas, Thomas Woodrow and our very own co author of Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, Orly Ravid who is also the founder and co executive director of The Film Collaborative, a non profit (on purpose!) organization dedicated to brokering equitable deals mainly with the filmmaker in mind. If you would like to hear from real people in the trenches of the business of independent film who can offer you good and usable advice, VOTE for this panel.

moving on….

I will be traveling to 2 important independent film events in September. The first is the Business of Film Conference held at Rice University in Houston, Texas on September 10. I’m going to be speaking on DIY marketing, some of the tools you can use right now and how best to use them. I will also be on a panel with my friend Orly to talk a little about why we wrote SYFWSYS, key takeaways we learned through talking to all of our filmmaker participants in the book, and how The Film Collaborative helps filmmakers who are trying to negotiate the best distribution deals for themselves, not for the distributor.

Next will be our book launch at IFP Week in New York City. I am scheduled to be a panelist on Monday September 19 for Walking the Line: The Fine Art of Self Promoting Your Film so if you are attending that talk, come up and say hi after. Our launch cocktail party hosted by SnagFilms will be in the evening from 6-8pm and if you want to be invited, leave your email address on the SYFWSYS site under the Get tab. All of the authors will be in attendance and we will be selling printed copy books that you can have autographed if you want or just stare at us in disbelief! There will be wine and I will be having some.

Speaking of printed copies of the book, yeah there will be that option. I know what you’re thinking, this was supposed to just be a digital book with all the lovely bells and whistles currently available such as video, url links, social media sharing. It still will be that and for the month of September, right after launch on September 13, it will be completely FREE on ALL platforms thanks to the sponsors who have helped us make the development of the book possible. Starting in October, that price climbs to a whopping $4.99. But now, due to a multitude of feedback that says to me filmmakers aren’t the early adopters I thought they were, we will have physical copies of the book too just so you can highlight, dog ear and not worry about the battery life of your reading device when reading it. Gigantic thanks to our sponsors, Prescreen who upped their sponsorship commitment for this and Area23a Movie Events, for enabling us to go to print without any personal outlay of money. We are planning to have the physical copies in by our launch party on September 19 and you can leave a presale request on our site. I think a Topspin shopping cart is going to be implemented within days to allow for that. The retail price on the paperback is $19.95

Ok folks, we’re in countdown to launch mode. We have a tips series going on indieWire over the next few weeks. You can find our advice about things to know before you embark on the festival circuit here and audience building tips from me and some of the participants in the book here.