32 Tips on Making an Indie Feature Film: Distribution & Sales
32 Tips on Making an Indie Feature Film: Distribution & Sales
I've made a lot of movies. I started off as a Runner and worked my way up. I worked on 13 movies as a 1st AC & 2nd AC and Director of Photography before I became an award-winning Director & Writer in my own right. Having gone from Runner to director I have experienced the whole gauntlet of film making from the biggest shoots (Harry Potter and James Bond) to tiny micro-budget one-man crew shoots. I have seen many ways to do things effectively and simply.
There are 6 main areas of filmmaking for the indie filmmaker: Development, Pre-production, production, post-production, festivals, and sales. In my first blog, I cover development and pre-production. In my second blog, I covered production and post-production. In my third blog, I covered the festival circuit. In this blog, I will be giving my tips on sales and distribution for indie filmmakers.
These are my observations from more than 1,000 days on set and 29 years in the industry! Hopefully, they will make your filmmaking journey more fun and more productive.
Sales is horrid, dirty and nasty. The sad fact is you’ll almost certainly get ripped off at some point.
It all feels like some sort of dark art but technically what happens is this: You make a movie. You take it to festivals, it does quite well and you get some laurels. You then send it to Sales Agents (SA) in the hope they will like it. Some Sales Agents might even contact you and ask to see your film.
If they like it they will make an offer and send you a contract. If you sign it then, you will send them all the ‘media’ (your film and posters, trailers etc on a hard drive) they will try to get it distributed in different territories around the world. Within each territory (eg: North America) there are different areas: eg Theatrical, TV, On demand, DVD etc.
Sales Agents are arguably a necessary evil, as they already have the contacts with the distributors and the delivery pipeline. We sort of need them and they 100% need us.
A decent Sales Agent will report back to you each quarter with a spreadsheet that tells you how much money came in, how much they are keeping and how little you get.
That’s the process here are 32 tips, which I hope might, in some way, make your sales agent experience less painful.
Tip #1: Read the contract. This is so obvious, but just do it. Pay someone to read it for you if your movie cost more than $100K.
Tip #2: Do your homework. Before you sign anything - contact another filmmaker who has the same sales agent and ask them how they sales agent was? This is now all about money, ask them if they got paid and how often. Believe them.
Tip #3: I can’t think of any indie filmmakers who have that much positive to say about Sales Agents, so if you find someone who says their Sales Agent is great then listen carefully and take notes.
Tip #4: You almost certainly won’t have control over the cover of your DVD and promotional posters. This can be very depressing. One way to solve this is to get your own awesome poster done. Pay the money and then the sales agent will probably just be too lazy or tight to get another one done. Otherwise you’ll have to look at this awful travesty of a cover on your work for decades to come. Tres depressing.
Tip #5: The platform your film is distributed on will take a cut. Your distributor will take a cut, your sales agent will take a cut and you’ll get what’s left. There will be all sorts of deductions you won’t know about and won’t understand. If you goal if to make money, then I would recommend investing in Gold instead.
Tip #6: You don’t need to meet your Sales Agent - it can all be done via the internet, but I would advise meeting them if possible. Just see if you like them, as you might possibly be dealing with them for the next 20 years. Try and find someone who cares about your film at least a little bit, or at least someone you can have a nice chat with. If you feel filled with dread every time you see their name in your inbox, then maybe it was a bad choice.
Tip #7: If your Sales Agent says they are at all the major markets, they mean Cannes, Berlin (EFM) and The American Film Market (AFM) in Santa Monica. Ask them if they can help you with a pass, even just for one day and go and see how it all works. It’s a real eye opener. You will be amazed how many films are made and how many sink without trace.
Tip #8: Listen very carefully to everything the SA says they are going to do. If they say they are going to be at Berlin, and you can’t go, send someone to see if they are actually selling your movie.
Tip #9: If your movie is low budget than the chances are the SA will treat it as such. This means they won’t spend much money on advertising and consequently no one will know about your movie and it won’t sell so well. Bit of a catch 22. Remember if the SA had 10 movies and sells all of them for $1000 then they get $10,000! Woo hoo! But you only get a % of $1000. Boo!
Tip #10: It’s up to you to create the hype, the SA won’t. Do all the social media you can. Know anyone with a lot of followers? Ask them to tweet. SA’s probably won’t help with film festival submission, unless it’s to top tier.
Tip #11: Advertising is a tough one. If you are going to spend a few thousands on advertising it’s probably not going to make any difference, you need to spend a significant chunk of change to get more than that expense back in profits. And for most indie films it sadly isn’t worth it.
Tip #12: When you sign with a sales agent they will send you a list of deliverables. This will be very long, very boring and very complicated. Even now, after all these years, I still see stuff on a deliverables list and think, “what the Kodak is that?” You will need an editor for a few days to put everything together. The SA might ask you to deliver the film with their logo on which means you have to do a new Master of everything. And don’t forget adding a few frames of logo at the front could push the whole sync of your movie out if not done properly.
You can save a lot of money and overheads here if you do it yourself, but it has to be perfect. One single frame error and you can be rejected at the Quality Control. I had one movie that failed Quality Control three times. One time because the blacks were too black! I did not know such a thing was possible. I had to go back into the edit and re-master everything with the colour black set to the appropriate level. It was very tedious and expensive.
Tip #13: You will need to supply closed captions (Subtitles) it will be cheaper for you to do this and pay for it, rather than leave the SA to do it. Because they will just take it out of your profits further down the line, and usually charge you 10 times what they spent. If you’ve got loads of money or don’t care about making a profit, then leave it with the SA.
Tip #14: Communication: emails should be short and to the point, this is now the business side of the film industry. All creativity has gone.
Tip #15: The Sales Agent will be selling many films, yours is just one of their whole catalogue. Many Sales Agents will never even watch your film. It’s just the way it is.
Tip #16: They might try to sell your movie as part of a catalogue, eg they sell ten horror films to Spain. This is normal. Don’t take it personal.
Tip #17: Keep in contact. Give them a nudge every quarter to see what’s going on and get your sales report.
Tip #18: you can only really have one or two Sales Agents at one time Eg: Worldwide rights and your home territory. You could have a Sales Agent for each country, but that would be incredibly complicated and mean you had to deliver deliverables to every country. It’s not worth it.
Tip #19: Different countries mean different languages. You need different closed captions for each different language. Many countries prefer their films to be dubbed. Which can end up being very expensive. Your Sales agent will charge you for it, which means that a low sales to another country might end up meaning you get no money at all.
Tip #20: The first couple of sales reports will be low as the film is finding it’s way and all the overheads etc have to be paid off. However if when you get your 3rd and 4th quarter reports it still isn’t making much money, then I am sad to say, but that’s probably the way it’s going to be.
Tip #21: Hollywood regularly spend $40-$100 million advertising movies. Quite often the advertising spend is more than the budget of the movie. You probably can’t afford that. And if you can then I have some scripts I want to show you. Please get in touch.
Tip #22: Read the sales report. We’ve all heard of Hollywood accounting and creative accounting, well, this is where that all came from. Go through every item of the Sales Report and ask what it is. I once got charged $1500 for poster artwork. I had done the poster.
Tip #23: Don’t be scared to speak to the Sales Agent, I know they feel like evil monsters in a distant citadel stealing our money, and some of them are, but ultimately they are just humans doing a job. I have lost endless nights sleep over SA accounts, but you just have to speak to them.
Tip #24: Sales Agents go bust, retire, get fired and all sorts, so keep in touch just to make sure they are actually still operating and doing what you are paying them to do.
Tip #25: Read the contract very carefully to see who retains rights etc. You might find you have given your whole film away for 25% of sales with £50K of expenses. This means that the first £50K goes all to the SA and you don’t get a thing. So if the film makes £100K! Hooray! You get £12.5K. Boo!
Tip #26: Do a Google search for your own film every now and then. You’ll be surprised where your film pops up and how no one ever told you. One of my movies is on release in Germany. The SA never told me and I have never been paid anything. I’ve been trying to sort that out for 6 years.
Tip #27: Make sure the SA checks with you before every deal. If they want to give all the rights to China (population 900,000,000) for $1000 they are not really trying.
Tip #28: Check for residuals. When you make a sale then usually the territory gives some money up front for the sale, eg: $10,000, then you get a % of every time a unit is sold (eg: 1 DVD or download etc).
Tip #29: Check how long each deal last for. Eternity is a long time. It is very difficult and costly to get out of a bad contract. So again, read the contract and trust your gut. Small print is there for a reason. By reading this you agree to pay me all you money for ever and ever.
Tip #30: There more than 100 territories in the world to sell your movie but in reality there are really only 40 or so. But this does mean that if you make a great film and have a good Sales Agent then you can sell your film many times and make some money. We all dream of making the ‘retirement film’ which provides you with cash every quarter forever.
Tip #31: At the beginning of your relationship with the SA things will be very busy and complicated, with a zillion emails back and forth, as you deliver everything and do the Markets etc. But after a couple of years (remember you might sign your film to an SA for ten years or more) then it’ll calm down to an email every quarter with a sales report. That’s all you need.
Tip #32: If you made a movie, despite all the odds, and got it sold and distributed then you are one of a very small number of people on the planet who did and you should be proud! Now if you can make another one, then you will be in an even more elite club!
About the Author
Martin then spent 15 years in the camera department as a 1st and 2nd AC (Assistant Cameraman), learning his trade on films like Judge Dredd, Harry Potter, James Bond: Goldeneye and The Muppets, including a year working in Australia and two feature films in Tunisia, as a training ground before becomi...