Tips for Distributing Your Film in 2021: What Distribution Deals Look Like Today

Tips for Distributing Your Film in 2021:  What Distribution Deals Look Like Today

Tips for Distributing Your Film in 2021: What Distribution Deals Look Like Today

Ami Mariscal
Ami Mariscal
a year ago

When should you first start talking to distributors to sell your film? Unless you’re an industry veteran, I bet you’ll be surprised to find out the answer. In this article, I’m covering Stage 32’s Film Finance Summit 2021 - the distribution portion.

In the first portion of this article, we go over where distributors look for films, when to talk to them, and what’s in demand. In the second portion, I share wisdom from the panelists about backing into your budget, what films are going to theaters, what contracts look like in streaming vs. all rights distribution deals, and predictions for the future of the entertainment industry.

When To Talk To Distributors

As a person passionate about development and marketing, I believe in talking to distributors as early as possible. And that is precisely what some of the panelists said. Others said they work mainly with complete films. That’s why these types of events are great because you get different perspectives.

Tips for Distributing Your Film in 2021  What Distribution Deals Look Like Today

Danielle Gasher, Director of International Sales at Voltage Pictures

Some distributors also get involved in production. Danielle Gasher, Director of International Sales at Voltage Pictures said, “If we're producing, we like to bring on projects as early as possible.” They like to be involved in the packaging and the budget. When they are distributing, “If there's a cast and a story, we try to jump on that.” Finally, they can come on as sales agent-only. For that situation, Danielle likes to look at “something that's in post… Maybe we received a link, and it's fantastic.” Generally, a sales agent will forgo marketing and other pieces of distribution, taking the project directly to streamers or theaters.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kristin Harris, VP of Distribution and Acquisitions at Good Deed Entertainment, clearly stated, “Our bread and butter is finished films.” She gave a great anecdote, “My diamonds in the rough are films overlooked by someone else that are not an easy sell but make you feel something, and there's an angle. Lucky Grandma was an example where no one knew how to sell it. It’s a Chinese language film about an octogenarian grandma who steals money from the mob”. Kristin likes to find a niche audience and with Lucky Grandma she says, “We struck a non-traditional deal and the filmmakers got paid. It was very successful.”

Tiffany Boyle, President of Packaging & Sales at Ramo Law, had the most unintuitive answer. She’s gotten involved as early as the IP stage and every stage all the way through to “help me track down the sales agent they released my movie two years ago.”

In summary, research the distribution company to know which part of the process they’ll want to see your project. If you’re just starting out, look for distributors that get involved in the IP stage like Tiffany. I don’t think there’s an easy way to do that, it’s basically an “ask around” scenario. One idea is to find distributors that produce, then start asking those companies if they help at the IP stage.

Tips for Distributing Your Film in 2021  What Distribution Deals Look Like Today

Tiffany Boyle, President of Packaging & Sales at Ramo Law

Back Into Your Budget!

Another reason to talk to distributors early on is so that you can back into your budget. I talked about this in the second post in this series about finance, but it bears repeating. Your sales agent will tell you how much they can make with your film. Paying attention to this number is a way to prevent risky losses.

On this point, Tiffany said something uber importante, “Trust your sales agent, but do your due diligence.” This is a principle I try to adhere to for everyone I work with, do your research in the beginning, and then trust them to do what you hired them to do. One thing Tiffany said the thing to look out for is a sales agent who, “to get the movie, will inflate those numbers to seal the deal.” Of course, they are killing their long term business, but they probably deserve that dose of poetic justice. And that’s why it’s just as vital for you to get referrals about distributors as it is for them to get referrals for filmmakers.

If you’ve done your due diligence and you still doubt the reliability of your sales agent’s numbers, listen to what Kristin said, “The outliers that over perform are truly the outliers and not the norm.”

A big topic of conversation among producers, financiers, and distributors is how the foreign sales market is doing. Kristin said, “It's remaining to be robust.” And somewhere else I heard that foreign sales are strong. So we’ve got that going for us.

My personal plan is to look for distributors to work with during IP development and when I find those who may be interested later, add them to my spreadsheet :) This plan begs the question, where do I find distributors to work with?

Wisdom From The Stage 32 Film Finance Summit Part 1 Focus On What Audiences Want

Kristin Harris, Good Deed Entertainment (LOVING VINCENT, SUMMERTIME)

Where Distributors Look For Films

Danielle mentioned three places she finds films:

  1. Cold submissions
  2. Filmmaker relationships
  3. Film markets or people she’s met through film markets

Then she stated, “It's a very democratic process to get your script discovered.” It may not feel that way when trying to get your project sold, but I agree.

On the other hand, Kristin gets most of her films “curated through producer friends.” She has a relatively small team and needs to filter unsolicited submissions. But she was sure to say that “When someone is recommended, we always look.”

Tiffany finds films “all over the map.” Like the others, she said, “a lot is referral-based.” It delighted me to hear that she occasionally finds clients on Stage 32! She said, “I EPed, developed, and brought in half the financing for the Chick Fight.” Starring Alec Baldwin, Chick Fight is a film incubated through Stage 32, which came out in November 2020.

As you can imagine, the distribution part of the film industry is tight and can be collaborative. Tiffany said, “I've sold to both Good Deed and Voltage over the years.”

Tips for Distributing Your Film in 2021  What Distribution Deals Look Like Today

What’s In Demand

We all know the demand for streaming content is at an all-time high because we binge-watch shows, and almost all the major studios have their own streaming platforms. One point brought up is that demand from AVOD (advertising-based video-on-demand) companies seems to be growing. With all the streaming services, people feel like they have a cable bill again, so they are trying the advertising-based platforms. Tiffany said, “A lot of friends have had success on Kanopy and got money they never would have seen otherwise.”

As stated in the first and second blog posts in this series, quality, cast, and sellability matter. In the case that you have a “Product of quality, with a certain level of cast, that is sellable - pricing is competitive. There are a limited number of those types of films in the market right now”, said Tiffany.

Finished content probably has the highest demand right now. As Casey Sunderland, Agent and Media Finance at Creative Artists Agency, put it, “The supply out there is much smaller. There’s still a shortage of finished content out there. Once you have that finished content, everyone will take a serious look because they don't have as much to pick from. You can go in with a targeted batch of movies and begin bidding wars”.

Wisdom From The Stage 32 Film Finance Summit Part 1 Focus On What Audiences Want

Casey Sunderland - Agent, Media Finance CAA (Creative Artists Agency)

What’s Going To Theaters

Todd R. Steiner, Senior Vice President in Entertainment at Comerica Bank, put the short answer well when he said that most independent movies “do not have committed theatrical. Some do, but it’s the exception rather than the rule”. Danielle backed up Todd’s answer with more detail, “Distributors are adding in clauses like we want to do theatrical, but…” Then, Tiffany added, “For true indie's 10% may be doing theatrical, but they may only have a 10 city release.”

Most indie films might not have committed theatrical deals. Still, Kristin’s company has “a policy that almost everything we release has some degree of theatrical exposure if only to help triggers national publicity.” She mentioned it’s important to release in NY and LA for reviews. Then she veered another direction saying that “right now PR is insanely difficult.” Because the press is no longer spending as much money on journalism, there are fewer reviewers. She seemed to be doubting her company policy’s effectiveness in the near future and beyond.

There are several reasons to do a theatrical release. Two reasons Danielle noted include exposure and vanity of producers. She said, “We rep Imagine on some of their verticals, and almost all of their films will be theatrical.” I’m assuming that’s for triggers like exposure and not vanity, hehe. Danielle said, “Maybe 60-70% we like to view as having theatrical potential. 30% of our slate is probably straight to VOD pickups”.

Kristin’s tactic of almost always having some theatrical exposure is part of her windowing strategy, “My film is only in theaters, then transactional, then streaming, but that's not the right model for everyone.” She also noted that “Theatrical windows have shortened from the 90-day window. Now, for a lot of films, 45 days is going to become the norm”. Just as the theatrical release window is changing, so are the contracts for distribution deals. Let’s take a gander at some deal points that are changing.

Attracting Finance Talent and Distributors Wisdom From The Stage 32 Film Finance Summit

Todd R. Steiner, Senior Vice President, Entertainment, Comerica Bank

What Contracts Look Like; All-Rights Distribution Deals vs. Streaming Distribution Deals

There are basically two types of contracts that Kristin and probably the rest of the distributors deal with in the independent film world; the all-rights distribution deal and the streaming distribution deal. If you are going to self-distribute, you might put together a hybrid distribution strategy, which the distributors do for you if you are lucky enough to sign an all-rights deal.

All-Rights Distribution Deals

The all-rights deal assigns the rights to distribute your film to one company that puts it in cinemas, on TV, and online. This is nice for exhausted filmmakers who can hand off the work, sit back, and collect the mailbox money. Another plus side for enterprising filmmakers is the opportunity to negotiate an upside on the backend. So you’ll make a deal for an advance, a minimum guarantee, and “overages based on how the film performs,” is how Kristin put it. She went on to say that since “distributors have films for 10 to 30 years, you want to continue in the film’s success long after its initial release”.

Harrison Glaser, Director of Education at Stage 32, stated a solid differentiating factor between distributing theatrically and via television versus streaming. The success rate of your project is “opaque with the streamers and transparent with theatrical distribution.” With Neilsen rating and apps like it, success is relatively transparent with TV as well. With streamers, you have no idea how your project is performing. Of course, there’s always an exception.

Kristen noted that AVOD, advertising-based video-on-demand, is providing more transparency for filmmakers. Hopefully, that will turn into a trend and continue into a norm. Information wants to be free - especially to the deserving. But, please don’t hack my bank account because I said that, and you think you deserve my money. Now, let’s break down the pluses and minus of streaming deals.

Tips for Distributing Your Film in 2021  What Distribution Deals Look Like Today

Harrison Glaser, Director of Education at Stage 32

Streaming Distribution Deals

As alluded to above, Kristin notes, “with a streamer, you're not going to know much about the performance of the film. What you get upfront is what you get - there’s no backend. There’s less risk, but it’s not going to be exploited on as many platforms. If you are doing a straight license deal, keep the term as short as possible, so there is outside value. If you are lucky to do a direct deal with a streamer, try to make sure there is some flexibility in monetizing those windows outside that streaming deal. Distributors will pick up rap around rates if there is thoughtful windowing and they have time to do something”.

Danielle made a crucial point about streamer contracts. She said, with other deals, “we usually use our IFTA contracts, but with streamer contracts, you have to go through them with a fine-tooth comb.” So get excellent legal help when working on agreements with streamers.

Attracting Finance Talent and Distributors Wisdom From The Stage 32 Film Finance Summit

Jeanette Milio, Author, EP and Producer, Alliance Films

The Future of The Entertainment Industry: 2026 Predictions

Because I’m a self-proclaimed futurist, I love the question Jeanette Milio, Author, EP and Producer asked her panel; “Pretend you have a crystal ball and can see into the future; what will the entertainment industry look like in five years?”

Viviana Zarragoitia, Vice President of Three Point Capital, chimed in quickly with, “I don't think everyone having their own streamers is going to last. All of the streamers are spending lots of money to feed their pipelines, but not all of them will survive”. Then, she backed off a little, saying, “Maybe they become smaller and more niche instead of going away entirely.”

Then Todd and Casey followed with a prediction that I hope happens. Todd said, “Individual creators become the real stars, and studios/production companies become like the record labels of old, but more creator-focused.” When Jeanette nudged him to go further, he said, “I'm positing that storytellers become more powerful.” Casey followed with a similar prediction, “I think it is going to be sort of creator-driven. The indie film space is more important than ever. Studios are focusing on big tentpoles. It's kind of on us to figure out every other story that needs to be told… To make things that aren't interesting interesting.”

Attracting Finance Talent and Distributors Wisdom From The Stage 32 Film Finance Summit

Viviana Zarragoitia, Vice President of Three Point Capital

Chop Wood Carry Water

Whew, this has been quite a series! I hope you enjoyed the ride. If you happened on this blog post first, this is part of a three-part series covering Stage 32’s Film Finance Summit 2021. The first two posts cover audience-building and financing in the film industry. You can view part one here and part two here!

Because making a film or TV show is such a monumental feat, I am ending this series with a resource that E. Brian Dobbins, Talent Manager and Producer at Artists First, recommends. Though it’s not specifically about the industry, Brian said Chop Wood Carry Water “is the best book that I've read; it applies so much to life… It’s geared towards things you have to endure to make big things happen.” I got the book as soon as possible because I recognize some realizations I’ve had in the bit he said about it.

Here’s a quote from Chop Wood Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf; “Every now and then, a person comes along and accidentally gets it the first time, but most of us have to learn the hard way through multiple failed experiments, which allows us to learn lessons and skills those who had it easier did not develop.”

Whatever you do in your filmmaking career, you have to keep going if you want to succeed. Grit is the number one predictor of success in any field, says gobs of research by Angela Duckworth noted in her book and TED talk about grit. It’s going to be hard, and that’s okay. You can deal with hard. What you don’t want to do is suffer. Suffering is pushing against pain, so on your journey, accept the hard stuff and move forward.

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About the Author

Ami Mariscal

Ami Mariscal

Producer of Marketing & Distribution, Transmedia Producer

As a social entrepreneur and multimedia producer, Ami helps leaders and artists grow their impact, wellbeing, and prosperity. She has helped business owners double their profit, politicians & non-profit leaders expand their impact, and entertainment entrepreneurs improve their wellbeing and prosperi...

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