Are you a victim of white horse syndrome?
This is an affliction that far too many independent filmmakers fall prey to… It's the mistaken thinking that a distributor will ride in on a white horse, take all of the rights to your film, bring it to everyone in the world, and write you a seven-figure check.
Reality check: a distributor is not a savior. A distributor in the best scenario offers you access… Access to markets, platforms and buyers that we independent filmmakers cannot access. They are a conduit and connector to audiences and acquisition deals that you cannot put together yourself.
From Kanopy to Netflix to Hulu to television buyers in foreign countries, we as filmmakers can't always pick up the phone and pitch ourselves. We are reliant on professional distributors who already have these relationships and output deals.
That said, no distribution deal is better than a bad distribution deal. For most of the filmmakers I work with (and in my personal experience releasing my films), expectations about what a distributor can deliver wildly differs from the results. And in the worst case scenarios, distributors will take control for years and either do little or nothing with your film leading to smaller audiences and less money than you deserve.
"A distributor is not a savior… An effective distributor is a collaborator"
An effective distributor is a collaborator. They're a partner you trust; someone who's going to work alongside you; someone who's going to collaborate with you to maximize your audience and revenue. They’re going to benefit from your knowledge about who your target audience is, who your film is uniquely for, and why your film is contributing to important conversations.
But finding the right distributor takes some work. That’s why I propose Distribution Matchmaking. This process will help you identify distributors that have a track record of work aligned with the distribution goals for your film.
What follows is a simple breakdown of what to do and not do when looking for the right distributor. This list came from my conversation with the talented filmmaker and Distributor Matchmaker Liz Manashil.
Liz worked for Sundance at the Creative Distribution Initiative and Picture Motion. She also helped create the Distributor Report Card and the Distributors Fact Sheet–both of which are incredibly useful resources.
Check out some of Liz’s matchmaking tips:
Beware of the Minimum Guarantee
When a distributor is interested and they're talking about making a deal, they may send the first draft of an agreement and a Minimum Guarantee or MG. Sometimes it's called an advance.
The idea is that this is the amount of money you are guaranteed to make, whether the amount of revenue that comes through due to the efforts of the distribution company ever surpasses their billable marketing efforts.
Recommendation: Look beyond the MG because the terms of an agreement may be predatory and the MG is a way to get you to sign on the dotted line. Getting cash up front seems great but ultimately it could be a distraction.
Avoid Handpicked References
The best distributors are good at one or maybe two things. But many distributors claim they're good at a number of things and want to take all of your rights. Distributors all have strengths and weaknesses. And this is true for the best distributors in the world.
To understand what their weaknesses might be, you need to be a bit of a distributor detective. Every distributor is going to have a handy little list of filmmakers they'd love for you to talk with because they will provide stellar reviews. Even the worst distributors have one or two filmmakers that were happy with the results. But the truth is, those are the last filmmakers you want to hear from.
Recommendation: Go to a distributor’s website, find out what films they represent, and talk to some other filmmakers that aren't on their list of references. By getting your input from filmmakers, you may be able to avoid a lot of potential heartache. Also, check out the Distributor Report Card, a free resource from The Film Collaborative, which shares candid filmmaker opinions on specific distributors.
Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate
You're interested, they're interested. Next step, a distributor will often send you their boilerplate contract language. It's going to have a global territory. It’s going to control your rights for too long. It's going to have a lot of stuff that you don't want and they might not even want for your film, but it's just in the boilerplate.
Just because it's in the first draft of the agreement doesn't mean that it's non-negotiable. When you're thinking about how to negotiate, understanding what the distributor’s strengths and weaknesses are is going to help you understand what you might want to negotiate for or negotiate out of the agreement.
The term length is a common place distributors can go too far. Another is asking for territories that they don't have a clear track record of selling in. And perhaps one of the most damaging clauses, is the ability of a distributor to deduct undefined marketing expenses from the revenue of your film before you get paid.
Recommendations: You want a shorter contract. You want to allow them rights only in territories they have relationships in. And you want to be at first money with the distributor–not just getting the leftovers after they make their deductions.
Some of the questions that we filmmakers can use to root out the distributors who aren't any good for us:
- How long has your company been in business?
- How many titles do you acquire a year?
- Of these titles, can you break down how many are or how are they being
- Do you take all rights? All territories?
- Would you be willing to share a rough range of the term/length of your contract?
- What do you look for in acquiring titles?
- How important are festivals?
- Do existing social media numbers impact your decision?
- How many employees do you have?
- How should filmmakers approach you?
- Do you take unsolicited submissions or do you work with sales agents?
Working with the right distributors can help you grow your audience and put money in your pocket. But good deals with solid distributors often don't happen when you feel desperate, like you have no other options. It is in those moments of desperation that we can be taken advantage of.
I want you to feel like you have the option to sign a deal or to walk away. If you are convinced, after doing your due diligence, a distributor can add to your vision for your distribution, read the fine print and sign the deal! Just make sure they are a good match for YOU! You and your film deserve it.