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A Journey in Distribution: Part 1

With the fall season on us (well, that is for our fellow southern hemispherians), ‘harvest’ is an appropriate theme. For a filmmaker, distribution is the equivalent of reaping a crop. But how do you ensure that you have a bountiful harvest, and not just a gathering of rotten fruit? The answer comes from the expert in the northern hemisphere.


by Signe Olynyk

Traditional distribution means many things to a filmmaker. It means finding an audience for your work. It means sales of your project, and perhaps pre-sales to trigger financing. In a nutshell, it means assigning the rights to exhibit your work for a fee, and getting your work into the world.

But the world has changed, and continues to with spectacular speed. Today, distribution can mean retaining all – or some – of the rights to your project, and interacting directly with your audience. Confused about how social media contributes to distributing your film? Read on. I’ll give you some quick lessons that I hope will help you with making your own decisions on whether traditional or modern distribution is best for you.436104_film_camera

I recently wrote and produced the feature film, ‘Below Zero’. We shot the film for $1.2 million, but that doesn’t mean we had that money in hand to shoot the film. Instead, we made ‘soft money’ deals that allowed us to raise that budget. For example, instead of spending money we didn’t have on a RED camera package, we arranged a trade with a DP (Director of Photography) who owned his own gear and who was also looking for his first directing credit.

In exchange for contributing the gear, he had the opportunity to direct his first film, and it allowed us to cover that expense in our budget. We also worked with others who were looking for ‘step up’ positions (ie an Art Director became our Production Designer, a production assistant became an AD, etc). These crew members helped us out by working at reduced rates in exchange for professional credits that were important to each of their careers. In turn, we were able to piece-meal our budget together, using the value of each of these line items in our budget. Combined with approximately $350K hard cash, a ton of favors, and the hard work of everyone on our crew, it allowed us to reach our budget and get the film made.

Instead, we made ‘soft money’ deals that allowed us to raise that budget.

For a number of reasons, we chose not to sign a distribution agreement in advance. We didn’t believe a distributor would support us or the film at this point in our careers, or agree to the terms we felt were necessary to produce the film in the way we wanted. So we decided to believe in ourselves and move forward making the best decisions we could in order to get the film made, and then sell it as an acquisition
once complete. I don’t recommend this for everyone because it is extremely risky, and the odds are stacked high against you.

We went into this fully aware that we could become like the thousands of indie films that are made each year, that are never seen beyond festival audiences. We increased our odds by ensuring we had a recognizable cast, a reasonably low budget that we could recover from if we were not successful, and a well crafted, original script that brought something new to a proven genre. All of these elements were checked against the advice and experience of others who had gone before us – script consultants were hired, and rewrites completed until we felt confident the script was ready. Casting directors and distributors were
consulted with to help maximize the potential of international sales, and production managers were hired to review and prepare a budget to help keep us on track.

We went into this fully aware that we could become like the thousands of indie films that are made each year.

Now, you can make a micro or low budget movie (at $1.2M, ours is still considered a low budget), and you can get distribution. Whether you want that or not is a question I will get into further below. If traditional distribution is your goal, there are a few things you will want to consider:

1123474_film_crew_1Internationally Recognizable Cast: ‘Who is in your film’ is typically the first question any distributor will ask you. You can sell a film without stars, but it generally makes it a tougher sell for a distributor.

Great Artwork with sex appeal: Your artwork for the poster, dvd cover, onesheet, website, etc, should ‘tell a story’ in the image that is portrayed. If possible, provide an image that conveys the story of your movie. (Examples ‘Jaws’, ‘Grace’, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, etc.)

High Production Values: If your film looks like a low budget movie, that is likely going to reflect in the deal you get from your distributor (unless there is a good story reason for it, ie many of the found footage films of today. ‘Paranormal Activity’, etc.). We wanted to produce a film that looked like a studio movie, despite the low budget. That has also proven to make us stand out from the vast number of low budget films that are out there, and has been instrumental in obtaining traditional distribution for our film. For example, we arranged to cover the cost of fuel with a local helicopter company in order to get some inexpensive but great looking aerial footage that was seen in the first ten minutes of the movie. That allowed us to make the film look more expensive than it actually was, and command a better deal as a result.

Thrillers & Horrors: there is a glut of horror movies out there, sure. But that doesn’t mean that the audiences are going away. New material in these genres is always sought out by fans and distributors, especially fresh work that brings something new to the genre and has an original voice. What is scary in Japan is also scary in Germany, Canada, Italy, etc, whereas comedy and drama don’t always translate into other languages or cultures as well. Fear is king when it comes to internationally successful feature films, second only to action films. However, those films are generally more expensive to produce because they require more shots and camera setups due to the very nature of action.

Once ‘Below Zero’ was complete, we then started the daunting task of finding a distributor. This intimidating process becomes easier the more time you spend educating yourself and talking to others who are open to sharing their lessons.

Tune in next week for the second instalment of A Journey in Distribution.

-Signe Olynyk 

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Signe OlynykSigne Olynyk is a Writer / Producer, who also is founder of the Great American PitchFest Screenwriting Conference, held annually in Los Angeles, CA.

Signe is also behind the Great British PitchFest, held in partnership with the London Screenwriters’ Festival in the UK.

You can check out her movie, Below Zero.

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Photo Credits: Stock XChange,
 and Signe Olynik

About the Author

Jamie Campbell

Jamie Campbell is an author, screenwriter, and television addict.Jamie is proud to be an Editor for The Story Department.Her latest series Project Integrate is out now.

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