Sundance actually isn’t the pinnacle of success.
Yes, getting accepted into Sundance is a great honor and something to be proud of, in addition to being a wonderful experience as a filmmaker. What it is not, however, is a golden ticket to success. Whether “success” to you means heaps of revenue for your film or from a flood of gatekeepers chomping at the bit to share it with their audiences, no film festival alone can hand you that.
The reality is, festivals and awards don’t guarantee your film will make you money or seal mega distribution deals. Beyond that, the raw numbers on acceptance into Sundance are so low that it’s worth reconsidering the amount of time, energy, and attention you put into it. For your budget, your audience and revenue prospects, and your morale, I urge you to approach festivals with an open mind, and with a set limit on the amount of time and energy you’re going to put in.
Escape a festival-only, or even festival-first mindset, and instead dedicate time to more promising avenues towards distribution and revenue. How do you decide how much is too much? I recommend the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 Rule
To get your film seen and to get you paid, you need to avoid distribution distractions. By applying the 80/20 rule, you can cover your bases without draining all of your resources into one pot.
Yes, apply to Sundance. Yes, try to connect with the Netflix buyers…but don’t make either your focus. I recommend that you spend a maximum of a combined 20% of your efforts on
- applying to festivals
- securing a sales agent
- trying to make a streamer deal
Then, spend the other 80% of your time and resources on overlooked opportunities. I’ve helped hundreds of filmmakers find success with this approach. Why do the direct partnerships for distribution work so well? The two primary reasons:
- You’re not a filmmaker begging a distribution giant for a deal. You’re offering an opportunity to an aligned partner that meets a mutual need: getting your story in front of the audiences that need to see it and providing your partner relevant content for their network
- You don’t have layers of middlemen–suits that need to get paid for their time and efforts. The deals you secure aren’t going to fees and facilitators - they’re going to you.
The myth of the million-dollar deal
Before spending too much energy on the Sundance, Netflix, Hulu dream, you should know what sits at the end of the rainbow. I’m sharing the details of what a recent $1M deal looks like so you can go in informed and prepared.
Million-dollar deals are real. The myth is that you, the filmmaker, can expect it to come to you first, or at all. The truth is that distributors, agents, and publicists will all get paid before the filmmaker. That means your million-dollar streamer deal can easily become a barely-breakeven deal, or even net loss for you as a filmmaker.
In our recent tell-all webinar with the filmmakers of a Sundance award-winning feature documentary, they revealed the details of their million-dollar deal with Hulu that followed. They produced their feature documentary for about $300,000 and brought on a major sales agent, CAA. The film premiered at Sundance, leading to a deal with a major distributor who facilitated the film’s sale to Hulu for $1,000,000. After CAA got their cut, the distributor took their fee and deducted marketing expenses. The filmmakers didn’t even cover their $300K budget. Their Sundance award-winning, million-dollar Hulu streamed film ended up losing the filmmakers money.
This is not the first time I’ve seen filmmakers take a 7 figure streamer deal only to be disappointed — left with much less than they thought and deserved.
My mission is to show you that there are other ways than the festival to streamer conveyor belt that often only leaves the scraps to the filmmaker. I hope this brief 1-2-3 has been helpful.
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