"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
Liz Manashil & Rebecca Green - This is What Distributors Want in a Film
There is nowhere for filmmakers to go to learn the protocol for selling your film. No one tells you who is supposed to reach out to whom—do you call the distributors or do they call you? Liz Manashil and Rebecca Green joined forces to create a distribution resource for filmmakers that could help break down the walls between artists and gatekeepers.
To create this resource, they reached out to the distributors who are currently acquiring and releasing independent films and asked them a series of questions:
How long has your company been in business? HISTORY
How many titles do you acquire a year? TITLES PER YEAR
Of these titles, can you break down (even if a rough estimate) how many are theatrical vs how many are just digital? TYPES OF RELEASES
Do you take all rights? All territories? RIGHTS
Would you be willing to share a rough range for term length your contracts i.e. 1-5 years, 10-15 years. TERM
What do you look for when acquiring titles? WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR
How important is having name cast? CAST
Do existing social media numbers impact your decision? SOCIAL MEDIA
What festivals do you attend and consider strong markets for acquiring films? FESTIVALS
How many employees do you have? EMPLOYEES
How should filmmakers approach you? Do you take unsolicited submissions or do you only work with sales agents? SUBMISSIONS
What follows is a breakdown of the distributors who were willing to participate and be transparent in giving an inside look at their process.
1) Term lengths are still astronomically high.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the typical term length for most distributors is 10-15 years. At a time where we can barely predict what will be the most successful distribution model six months ahead of time, why are independent storytellers acquiescing to giving away our rights for so long?
2) Distributors did not admit the influence of social media in their acquisitions.
As someone who manages the Creative Distribution Fellowship at Sundance Institute, I’m aware that social media presence is really important. It implies that the filmmaker has taken the time to build a foundation of an audience from which a distributor (or themselves in scenarios of creative distribution) can build upon. It seems very clear to me that a distribution company would want to target an audience that is at least already partly built, but the answers below imply otherwise.
3) Shocked by lack of discovery.
Too often distributors are dependent on the curatorial powers and prowess of certain signature festivals without looking to regional festivals. You’ll see a lot of the usual suspects in the festivals that are mentioned below—it would be great to expand this list so that more films are being exposed to distributors. Please also note that distributors were interviewed before Los Angeles Film Festival decided to close its doors. I wonder who will take its place?
4) The majority of rights taken, territories focused on, and distribution strategies are similar across the board.
I’d love to see more distributors take a chance on innovation. Very often distributors will take as many rights that they can get (though mainly domestic territories noted below) and will not have the resources to be super customized in how they release their titles. Additionally, (there are exceptions) there doesn’t seem to be enough direct communication between artist and distributor. It would be great for the two forces to truly line up for each film’s release so that marketing and release strategy align with the filmmaker’s goals as well as their aesthetics.
5)There are still no open doors.
The majority of people I talked to expressed reticence at looking at cold submissions. Sure, there’s an influx of content, but to be reliant on recommendations, agencies, and festivals is shortsighted. There are a lot of great movies out there looking for homes. I’ve even had distributors admit to me they are not watching the full duration of the films they receive. There is too much valuable substantive content for just a few festivals to properly curate and exhibit all of the quality work in the world. If distributors take chances on more festivals, they’re contributing to communities who could really benefit, and could have access to new quality and unsupported storytellers for them to consider.
Regardless of my takeaways, let this document inspire you to get your work out into the world. Abide by how each company wants to be approached and approach them respectfully.
Check out responses from individual distributors