A Filmmaker's Harvest: A Journey in Distribution

Posted by Signe Olynyk
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today we welcome back Stage 32 member, screenwriter, producer, founder of the Great American PitchFest & Screenwriting Conference, and my friend, Signe Olynyk. Signe is currently in London preparing for the first Great British PitchFest which will debut in conjunction with the London Screenwriters Festival (run by the tremendously talented Chris Jones) on October 25th through the 28th. While in the UK, she's touring with her film, Below Zero, which will have screenings in London, Oslo, Manchester, and Transylvania (pretty cool if you ask me). Below Zero has won numerous film festival awards and was released to critical acclaim this past August. The film is available on DVD from Amazon and belowzeromovie.com. It is also available for streaming on Netflix.

In this guest post, Signe shares some of the hard won lessons she learned in the process of producing Below Zero.


With the fall season on us, 'harvest' is an appropriate theme for this guest post. 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?

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.

I recently wrote and produced the feature film, Below Zero, which was released on August 28th. 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 (i.e. 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.

Signe Olynyk at the Calgary International Film Festival
Signe Olynyk at the Calgary International Film Festival

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.
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:

  • Internationally 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. There are more and more options all the time, but at the time, these were the primary distribution options we were considering:

  1. Producer's Rep

    This is essentially an agent who represents you and your movie. For Below Zero, we decided to sign with a Producer's Rep because 'we didn't know what we didn't know'. We felt that as first time producers, we wanted to work with a company who had more experience and connections than we did to help us secure the best distribution options possible for our film. It was an education we felt was necessary for our first film in particular.

    When deciding who to go with, be sure to talk to other producers who have had films represented by the company, and make sure that their experience is recent so that you get the most accurate references possible. Ask for producer references from potential Producer's Reps, but also reach out on your own to the producers whose films are listed on the Producer Rep's website. Those films have been out for a while and the producers will have a history of what it was like to work with that company on their film. Also, study the list of films that Producer Rep represents. You want your title to be in similar company, with a company that has had a direct role in successful releases. Signing with a Producer's Rep means you tap into a company that understands the 'ins' and 'outs' of distribution, and they will send your project to their various contacts to hopefully get the best deal possible for your film.

    For us, giving 7-10% away of our sales, felt like a reasonable trade because that percentage was essentially paying for lessons on how to navigate the intimidating world of distribution. Although you are able to safely ask questions and confide in your Producer's Rep, the downside is that you never really know if they are doing exactly what they say they are doing. Did they really send your project out to the people they claim to have contact with? Did they really get you the best deal? Everyone in this business has their own agenda and interests at stake, including you. Make sure your interests are protected by questioning everything, and weigh all advice against your own experience, and the experience of your fellow filmmakers.

  2. Sales Agents

    It is easy to get excited when you start being contacted by people who want to represent your film, and they express their excitement and enthusiasm for your film. Be wary of this - especially if your film hasn't even gone out into the world yet. Like many producers, our film was pursued aggressively by a number of sales agents and some of them were adamant that we were "ruining our chances of selling the film if we didn't sign with them right away so they could pursue sales immediately at the next upcoming market." When you are new to the distribution part of the process, that can leave you really questioning yourself and second-guessing all of your decisions. You can feel very pressured to sign because you might miss out on sales that you so desperately need. The truth is, there is always another market coming up (although some are bigger than others - AFM, for example).

    It is also easy to become confused about what these people really do, and giving into this excitement and pressure from Sales Agents to sign is a huge mistake unless you really understand who they are, what they do, and what they want from you. This is where hiring a consultant and talking to other producers who have gone through the process is critical. From our experience, we sometimes found it confusing as to whether a sales agent was really 'just' a sales agent who would then take the film to distributors and sell it, or if they were a distributor and would release it themselves. Many of their company websites describe their services as sales agents and as distributors, which is confusing for the new producer. Essentially, you have to understand that a Sales Agent is generally NOT the same thing as a distributor. Through this process, we've met many producers who sign with Sales Agents thinking that means they now have distribution for their film. Not true. They only have distribution if a Sales Agent then sells the film for them. You also want to make sure your representative is attending all of the major markets with your film in hand.

    Also, many sales agents will claim to LOVE your film, even if they have never even seen it or it's not quite finished, and they want you to sign with them immediately. You ego says 'wow, my film must be really hot if people are chasing me for it already'. That might be true, but let's consider again that everyone in this business has an agenda. What is their primary reason for wanting to sign you and your film? Hint. It's a dirty, five letter word that starts with 'm' and rhymes with honey.

    Of course they want you to sign with them. If they sell your film, they get a percentage of that sale. But there is no obligation for them to sell your film or that it will have any success at all. Many sales agents want to sign as many properties as possible so that they can increase their chances of selling some of those films. It's like throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what will stick. Hopefully yours will be one of the ones still clinging to the wall. But making a cautious and well thought out decision is crucial when you consider how hard you have worked to make your film. You want to give it the best chance possible for success. Don't blow it by making a bad decision so close to the finish line.

    A sales agent is a middle man, and they take your film to the various distributors around the world and negotiate deals on your behalf. It is very possible to arrange sales without a sales agent, sure. But in most cases, you will want a sales agent for your foreign sales because it is a massive, time intensive undertaking that is extremely expensive to cultivate and maintain international relationships with foreign buyers. It means travelling to foreign markets and meeting buyers from all over the world. It helps to speak multiple languages, and have buckets of money for travel expenses, conference and market fees, long distance, courier and shipping costs, etc, etc. Since most indie producers don't have access to that kind of capital, it is my opinion that you must have a foreign sales agent if you want to achieve foreign sales.

  3. Distributors
    Distributors are companies with the means to get your film into the world. They often work with Sales Agents or Aggregators, and sell the rights they have to your film to VOD, DVD, cable, etc for a percentage.

Hopefully those definitions help to give you a basic understanding of what traditional distribution involves. So how do you get distribution? Or a sales agent? How do you find your audiences, and the money?

For Below Zero, we were pursuing traditional distribution. For us that meant attending the American Film Market in Santa Monica, finished film in hand. We contacted companies prior to the market and requested meetings at the event. In our email queries, we provided a link to a professionally developed trailer and poster, and made our meeting request as succinct as possible. It was essentially a written pitch to buyers requesting a meeting at AFM, highlighting our cast and their credentials, a synopsis, links to some of our film festival reviews, and our available meeting dates/times for their convenience. In addition to this, we arranged for the talented and very recognizable, Michael Berryman (one of the stars in Below Zero) to join us at the AFM. Having him present at the event enabled us to not only book meetings in advance because people wanted to meet him, but also opened doors to unscheduled meetings while there.

We then met with those companies at the AFM, and instead of being desperate for them to buy our film, we interviewed them. We studied the posters and artwork for the films they represented. We listened as they pitched buyers to see how well they represented the filmmakers. We met with other producers in the hallways to seek advice and connect with other resources who could help us to advance the film. In the actual meetings with these distributors, we were prepared with our trailer on a DVD that we could show on their large screens, and we were also ready to show it on our laptops, tablets, etc (Note: the large screens were always best because it often drew in others on their team to come over and view with us to discuss further).

We also approached each meeting with the objective of finding companies who would be good partners for us - where the chemistry felt strong, the films they represented were solid titles, and who were interested in working with us for the long term. Because my producing partner and I also run a screenwriting conference, we work with a lot of writers like ourselves who are just trying to get their films made. We've worked with many of these writers to develop a slate of projects, and we wanted to find distributors who would not only be interested in Below Zero, but in these other projects and writers as well.

As a result, we had an impressive number of meetings and offers. It also allowed us to develop relationships with a number of companies who we will continue working with on various projects.

Now, all that being said, would we do it this way again? Would we sign with Sales Agents and Producer's Reps, and pursue traditional distribution again? Not sure. Our film has just been released, so it will depend partly on how that goes. Overall, we are pleased with the foreign sales agent that we signed with, although it is still too early to tell whether their sales projections will prove accurate. For domestic, we will probably self-distribute in the future for a number of reasons. There is no longer the need to partner with distributors in the same way as we have in the past. Audiences and the means for getting your films out there have changed significantly since our decision to pursue traditional distribution. Self-distributing will likely become our choice for the future, where we can build the audiences for our films using social media, manage our own marketing efforts, and own 100% of the domestic rights. We would likely not hire a producer rep again, because we gained the confidence, knowledge, and experience we needed by going through that process once. Hiring a consultant to advise when necessary will probably be our choice for our next film.

The world is getting smaller all the time, and with grass roots funding options such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, combined with social media such as Twitter and Facebook allow you to connect with global audiences in a way that is unprecedented. By building an audience, you build a following and an interest in your film that you can sell to directly without giving away a percentage of your hard earned sales. Independent filmmakers are no longer at the mercy of high powered distributors or studios. What audiences are watching has changed, and there are so many more options for releasing content into the world. The market and materials out there have expanded considerably, but the industry has not yet caught up. As filmmakers, we need to learn and grow with those changes and embrace them if we are to find our audiences, get our work into the world, and make a living doing it.

This article has become much longer than expected, so please leave me a note in the comments section below if you have questions or want to know more. I'll answer as best as I can (and as timely as I can, but please be patient if it takes me a day or so). I hope you will also seek out your own answers because I can only write from my personal experience and the lessons I've learned on my journey. A forum like Stage 32 thrives when we all share our collective wisdom and hard-learned lessons along the way.

Here is to a successful harvest for us all - may all your hard work and filmmaking efforts be fruitful.

Follow Signe on Twitter @Screenwriter12 and join her network on Stage 32.

Signe encourages all creatives to be their own protagonist. Join forces with our peers, get your movies made, and share your own lessons with us all. She welcomes all questions and comments below.

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