The film industry loves hyphenates: Writer-director; Actor-producer; Actress-model-whatever. (Television just runs words together turning producer-editor into “preditor.”) It’s time for a new hyphenate to take the stage: the producer-distributor.
Of course studios have distributed the films they produce forever. They split things up these functions into separate entities to help the creative accountants hide where the money goes, but essentially one company does both functions. However, for a long time when independent producers have done the same thing—distributing the films they make themselves—they’ve been labeled with the rather pejorative: “self-distributed film” stamp.
Self-distributed films tended to be seen as films that failed to find a “real” distributor. (This may have been an invention of the distributors themselves.) And perhaps there was some truth to this in the heyday of independent films. For the past several years, however, I’ve seen self-distributed films as more progressive and often more successful than those who partner with traditional distributors.
Why should a traditional distributor be seen as better than producers distributing their films themselves? Short of a big acquisition from a well funded distribution company, or perhaps a distribution company like Gravitas that is showing real expertise in the new model of film distribution, there’s nothing better about being with a distributor. In fact, it is usually far worse.
Among the most common complaints from independent film producers is that their distributors do not consult them enough about reaching the audience, creating the marketing materials, or launching the films. Additionally, distributors have been accused of murky accounting and sometimes poor payment. In my view, many producers make deals with distributors hoping that they are giving their films to trusted experts only to find that they could have done the job better themselves. (Some filmmakers also give up their films to producers for a sense of validation or even just to be finished with them. Sadly, these motivations rarely end up in a good result for the producer or investors.)
As a film’s producer, you undoubtedly know better than any distributor how a film plays for audiences, what elements resonate, who your core audience is, and how best to reach them. Today when I hear about producers self-distributing their films, I cheer them. I frankly think that this is where serious filmmakers should aim for the foreseeable future. The most successful indie bands I know personally are all up in their fanbase with email lists, Topspin shows, fan sites, everything. We filmmakers ought to follow their lead and build our own audiences. And of course, this is precisely where independent film has been heading for the past several years.
I would like to bid farewell to the term “self-distribution”…or at least to its negative connotations. As I’ve been developing business plans for film projects lately, I’ve found myself using the term producer-distributor to signify that—short of a big acquisition by a well funded distributor for a profit-ensuring minimum guarantee—my team would be planning to ensure the distribution of the film that we would produce. (In fact, those plans are laid out right in the business plans.) I was a bit shocked to search Google and find no real mention of a producer-distributor or producer/distributor in this context. I believe words matter, having a name for a thing lets us better conceptualize it and accept it. So I’m putting producer-distributor out there into the ether.
What would a producer-distributor do? To me, a producer-distributor thinks about various distribution scenarios for a film project from the very beginning. Where a producer is looking at an end goal of completing a film and (hopefully) making a sale, the producer-distributor knows that finishing the film is only half the job. A producer will budget for the film to be finished; a producer-distributor budgets for the film to be finished and then distributed so it can return on its investment. (Even when this budgeting and fundraising may occur in stages, at least there is always a plan.) Would the film benefit most from a day-and-date release; an “ultra”; a platform release; an audience-demand theatrical; a schools-and-churches non-theatrical; Internet-only, what? There are so many new and exciting options for getting a film in front of audiences—the old standard model seems tired and, frankly, foolish for most films today.
This is a seismic shift in thinking about how a film project is created and when it is completed. I believe it’s far more responsible to the people who put their money, time, and talent into the project because it helps ensure that the film will have a life. In my experience, so many independent films that I’ve seen at festivals fail to reach an audience because someone made completion or the film festival premiere that film’s finish line. They budgeted, planned, allocated resources, and everything else so the clock stopped ticking at that point in time…which is usually long before anyone gets their money back.
By making the successful distribution the finish line for a film project, suddenly, you are allocating resources for a much later time. The filmmakers aren’t hit in the 11th hour with the stark realization that their job has only just begun.
If you are an independent film producer, please start realizing that you are, in fact, a producer-distributor. Perhaps you’ll sell your film off to a big distribution company, but the odds are that you will not and then you will have to figure out how to split up the rights you have among a number of companies, and which rights you may want or need to exploit yourself. This is all so much easier if you plan for it ahead of time and build your budget to leave a little money to help you get the film out there.
The Good News
The good news about being a producer-distributor is that there has never been such an amazing time for it. I often say that in the independent film world, just about everyone’s Plan A is exactly the same. It’s your Plan B that determines whether your project will be a success. As a producer-distributor you can create a Plan B that has some funds to work with and is in the forefront of your mind throughout production. That means you know that no angel distributor (oxymorons anyone?) is going to swoop in and pay to create all the bonus material, poster elements, BTS featurettes and fan pages that you need to successfully market it—so you’d better make those things as you go along. That’s when it’s easy. You know the best way to market your film. Rather than have a distributor sock you with the bill for their poster designer or trailer editor (who almost invariably do a crap job of it) you can oversee these elements yourself—almost always at better rates and with better results because the people involved give a darn.