Going Alternative: Five Ways to Distribute Your Own Damn Movie
By John Ott
Nobody wants to be the boy or girl at the prom with no one to dance with. But that’s exactly how some filmmakers feel after doing the festival circuit and still finding themselves without a distributor. Thankfully, filmmaking is not like a high-school dance. It’s more like Weird Science, where you can use smarts to build your own perfect date.
Only 706 films got an MPAA rating in 2010, and this number includes many that were not theatrically released. A wide theatrical release just isn’t going to happen for many films, either because of market saturation or because the films were never meant to appeal to the mass audiences needed to support such a strategy. Fortunately, there are many exciting alternative ways to get your film in front of audiences, some of them just now emerging due to new technologies. Here are five…
5. DVD Pre-Sales… Crowdfunded
Crowd-funding has been made trendy (and more effective) since the rise of websites like Kickstarter, which provide infrastructure for filmmakers to fund their films entirely through small donations. Usually, there are rewards at different tiers. By making a DVD one of these rewards, you’ve auto-magically ensured distribution and funding in a single step. Even better, your donors can also help you spread the word, giving you marketing clout, too.
Among the filmmakers with success partially-funding films with DVD pre-orders are the folks behind Jens Pulver / Driven, a documentary which raised $25k in three weeks on Kickstarter, almost entirely from the $25 donations level. This level offered as a reward a pre-release, special edition DVD of the film, signed by the martial artist subject of the film, Jens Pulver.
4. Party Down with Screening Parties
Don’t sell your film, sell an event. Screening packages are premium sales which include other items beyond the screener DVD to help throw a party — decorations, prizes, popcorn… the only limit is your own creativity. If you were to give your film a Rocky Horror Picture Show treatment, what would make for a fun live viewing experience? Not only can these packages be more profitable, encouraging fans of your film to throw parties for their friends is also a great way to get the word out.
There is currently a wide range of configurations for these kits, but there are some commonalities. To pick two examples… The filmmakers behind Who Does She Think She Is? offer a House Party Kit for $29.95 which includes a DVD, a limited edition poster, 10 invitation postcards, 20 discussion starter cards, and a set of instructions with tips on how to run the party. Anti-slavery doc At the End of Slavery have a kit for $15 which includes two copies of the DVD, instructions and checklists for running the party as well as postcards that can be signed and sent to political representatives. I have also seen filmmakers sell kits with several DVDs and encourage the party host to sell these copies themselves to offset the cost of the party.
3. Take Your Film to School
For both teachers and students, a film screening in the classroom is a special treat. So if your film can be used as a teaching opportunity — and most films can — consider creating an educational package with a copy of the film and sample lesson plans. You can charge more for this, because it turns out that, even in this economic climate, some schools still have budgets for buying lesson plans. Also, schools are technically supposed to also secure permission for public screenings.Why not make it easy for them to keep it legal? The documentary What’s the Matter with Kansas?, for example, offers two versions for educational institutions – the 90-minute festival cut as well as a 56-minute cut-down – with public screening rights. The cost: $195 and $145, respectively. Nothing the matter with that.
2. Buddy Up with Nonprofits
Similar to the educational approach, working with non-profits who align with the themes or issues in your film can be a big win all around. Why not make a deal to provide the non-profit copies of your film at a steep discount, so they can in turn offer it as a reward to donors? Or, have them run screenings of the film as a consciousness-raising or fund-raising event.
The Kansas filmmakers behind The Battle for Bunker Hill, an action movie with themes about civil liberties, were able to set up a screening in Washington, D.C. by teaming up with the ACLU, for example. Non-profits already have strong nation-wide (and sometimes international) networks, and experience at running events. Providing content that is of interest to their network is a win-win.
1. Leap to the Second Screen with Online Streaming
It is my firm belief that online streaming rights will be the next gold rush. With the market fractured between giant companies — Comcast, Netflix, Google (YouTube), Apple, Amazon and Wal-Mart are all competing to become the dominant platform for streaming movies — you have an increasingly valuable commodity.
Right now Netflix and Apple are not currently making deals with individual filmmakers. But YouTube, Amazon and other outlets are. There is also the option of selling the rights to a third party, like IFC Films, that can get your film streaming on Netflix and other platforms by bundling together the rights to many indie films.
Just be sure to shop around carefully, because this is a space where big piles of money are already being thrown around. Netflix paid $32M to Relativity Media for a just a year of non-exclusive streaming rights to their small library of films.
So don’t wait for the head cheerleader or the captain of the football team to ask you to the dance. Get into weird science mode and distribute your own damn movie!