When we released Blood on the Leaves, we intentionally skipped the festival route.
This was a big mistake.
Even if you're planning to distribute your film independently, you should still aim for film festivals.
Also, consider distribution offers. If you are remotely business-savvy, you will be able to negotiate a moderately good deal out of a distributor that you may not be able to achieve on your own. Remember that rights can be sold in pieces. So having an international theatrical distributor (yeah-right) would cover something you're unlikely to achieve on your own.
Getting a Strategic View of Distribution Options
After years of watching the indie market and distributing a few projects of my own, I've come up with a pattern that works best to maximize potential profits from a film.
At the end of the day, if your movie is not interesting to audiences, it won't make money.
Following this roadmap, however, could be the difference between $2,000 in returns and $200,000.
Once you're getting closed to finishing post production, you'll want to start with a few private screenings.
Invite your friends, family, and some opinions you trust.
I've even seen some filmmakers pull random strangers in to do a "focus group" type experience.
The point here isn't to make money. It's to make sure you have the best possible version of your film and it's ready for screening in a theater. Try a few different locations. Independent theaters are relatively easy to get into (sometimes for free if you do it on an "off" time).
Do not promote these as your premiere or you'll severely hurt your opportunities down the road. (Learn about Premiere Status from SXSW).
Tier 1 Film Festivals
While your chances of getting into a top tier film festival are slim to zero, it's not worth skipping if you have time to wait for premiere status. (more on premiere status later)
Getting accepted to just one of these festivals will be a game-changer for the financial opportunities for your film.
Here's a list (in no particular order) of what we consider top tier film festivals and a ballpark submission cost to each:
Just because you get accepted, doesn't mean you've crossed the finish line.
The other steps still apply. If you can use this time to get on the radar of a high value distributor (defined in the next section), then it will be well worth the expense.
If you can't get onto the radar of a big distributor, there's still hope! Having an Official Selection laurel from any of these top tier festivals will make all opportunities down stream more lucrative.
Note: These festivals usually have their programs considered before submissions start rolling in. Your certainly open to a chance if you have anyone in your cast and crew that’s been attached to other successes in the past, your opportunity increases marginally. By no means do I expect most people reading this will get into Tier 1 Fests, but I believe it’s worth learning about the process regardless. And I love a good Hail Mary.
Updated Note: It's unlikely that it's a good idea to submit to all these festivals. Mostly due to the rolling submission dates that would set everything else back by a year or more.
Consider your wrap date and the other types of films that do well at these festivals. Pick accordingly.
Medium - High Value Distributors
In today's environment, everyone seems to be either completely enamored with distributors or completely write them off.
While banking on a big distributor buying your film is a big (BIG) mistake, it's also a mistake to write them off entirely.
If you're capable of getting into a Tier 1 Festival, you might have a shot at a good deal with a big distributor.
The playing field with distributors is constantly changing.
Netflix, Amazon, and even Apple have jumped in the game of buying up film rights at big festivals. That means there's more competition for a good film and more opportunities.
Do A LOT of research before heading to one of these festivals.
Getting a Sales Agent (section on this later) ahead of time and knowing which distributors will be represented at the festival is all essential preparation if you're fortunate enough to get into one of these big festivals.
You can see a pretty interested guide on distributors here from The Numbers, but remember it's changing so quickly that information will be partially outdated by next festival season.
Tier 2 Film Festivals
You didn't get into a Tier 1 Festival OR you did (go you!) and you're ready for the next step.
Tier 2 Film Festivals still carry some prestige and opportunity with them. You'll probably recognize some of the names on this list and so will audiences. That's why these ones matter.
Getting Official Selection at one (or many) of these Tier 2 Film Festivals will help add legitimacy to your film in the eyes of audiences and more exclusive distribution platforms.
A note on Premiere Status: The reason this step comes after other festivals is because almost all Tier 1 Film Festivals require that you have not shown your movie publicly anywhere else. Usually they are more lenient (but take you out of competition) if that other public screening was at another Tier 1 Film Festival, but absolutely not if it was a smaller festival.
Here's a list (in no particular order) of what we consider Tier 2 Film Festivals:
There is a certain degree of objectivity to considering a festival a Tier 2 or 3 Festival.
All the festival on this list, however, are Academy Award qualifying festivals (at least as of 2018).
Getting into one or many of these festivals will get you into big urban markets that have established film audiences.
There will be opportunities to talk to distributors... but beware: most distributors at this level aren't a good deal.
Low Value Distributors
When you attend medium sized festivals, you'll likely be approached by a distributor.
Not so fast.
The deals these smaller distributors make are often unfavorable to the filmmaker.
This is where you really have to assess self-distributing (later in this guide) vs. what they can provide. There may be things they can do for you that you're unlikely to achieve on your own, like getting DVDs into Walmart or Redbox.
DO NOT allow a distributor to buy your streaming rights. Unless they can prove they have a massive audience and the payout is worth it, you're not getting anything from them you couldn't do yourself. (more on streaming distribution yourself.)
Tier 3 Film Festivals
After getting your film into a few Tier 2 Film Festivals, it's time to really assess where things are at.
If you've sold some of your distribution rights, you'll want to be careful moving forward that you don't conflict with any of those agreements.
The next big step is not going to bring you any big national acclaim or fanfare; however, it will introduce your film to some passionate small communities of film lovers.
Tier 3 Film Festivals have popped up all over the United States and globally over the last few decades. There are 1,404 festivals listed on Withoutabox and there are 7,178 on Film Freeway as of November 2018.
That's 8,582 film festivals happening most years around the world (probably more that aren't listed on these sites).
Even if we only look at ones that accept feature length films, the number is 4750 festivals.
Set yourself a budget and a timeframe for Tier 3 festivals and start applying. Use the search filters on Film Freeway and Withoutabox to narrow it down to applicable festivals.
These festivals are also sometimes referred to as "Regional Film Festivals." Film Freeway has a great article about making the most out of these festivals.
Smaller and newer festivals often spice things up with themes and other things to keep the events interesting. So there's a lot of really cool experiences to be had... even if the audience is under 50 people.
A sales agent can get you into deals that you have on other way of accessing.
Honestly I don't have a ton of experience using this route, but there is an EXCELLENT in-depth article by IndieFilmTO you can check out to learn more: https://indiefilmto.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-sales-agents/
Sorry. Hopefully I'll have more first-hand experience with this soon!
Cable, Big Box Video on Demand, In Flight, etc.
There are a lot of different ways a film can make money that goes beyond screening in theaters, DVD sales, and streaming online.
Some examples of this are airlines, cable networks (although these are shifting towards buying streaming rights too), educational uses (especially for documentary films), and big DVD rental giants like RedBox.
Having a sales agent will do wonders in this department OR identifying distributors that specialize in one of these more niche outlets.
My suggestions is to go to these outlets and look for films of a similar size to your film. If there are none, try to identify the smallest film or one that is close in genre. Look them up on IMDB (Pro works even better) and see who is distributing them with those specific rights. Then reach out and contact those distributors.
Getting the contact information and planning a meeting at the American Film Market might work out well. I interviewed Spencer Folmar (Producer/Director) on how he sold his films himself at AFM. Check that out here.
4-Wall Theater Screenings & Revenue Splits
Now that you've made it through festivals, distribution companies, and sales agents you're finally ready to get to work.
That's right. The real work starts here, but it's also where you can make the real money.
First we'll talk about running your own theatrical release. It's a good idea to run the numbers on this early so you know if a distributor's theatrical deal is good or not.
We went this route with Blood on the Leaves.
Like I said in the beginning, we made the mistake of skipping festivals and going right to our own theatrical release. We made some money from it, but having clout from a festival would have helped open a lot more doors and make marketing A LOT easier.
Some theaters are willing to allow you to show your movie for a revenue split. Theaters that aren't primarily movie theaters are much more likely to do this type of deal.
For example, our local playhouse theater also has the capability to show movies. They split the ticket sales with us 50/50.
On the other hand, most theaters will make you rent out the theater like everyone else.
You could get frustrated about this (like we initially did) but instead try to look at it as an opportunity.
It's called 4-walling when when you rent the theater, do the ticketing yourself, and basically cut the theater out... which weirdly most of them would prefer you to do because of complicated theater-studio deals.
Often times you can talk them down from their regular rental fee in support of independent film and the community. The fee depends on the capacity of the theater, which night/day you're renting, and wether it's a chain or not. A ballpark in my experience is $100-300 per theater.
If you stick to the lower fee range and rent theaters in major or small cities for around $150, you can make some good money. We should have done more. The money was lucrative on these screenings (not so much in rural areas, and not at all in 50/50 splits). We simply ran out of money in the bank to pay the upfront fees because we had already started paying our investors back.
The lesson: budget money to pay for four walling theaters.
Bonus: budget money for marketing those screenings. Luckily you can get a lot of free press through local radio stations, newspaper, and Facebook groups. It's a "cool thing" especially if you have a Q&A or mixer afterwards.
I'll be getting into marketing your movie in later posts and resources. Subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss those!
DVDs & Blu-Rays
DVDs and BluRay used to be THE money maker for indie films. These days they've become a very niche product, but still serve as a collectors item for fans of your movie.
By the time your 4-wall screenings roll around, you should have DVDs made and ready to sell during the screenings. Other merchandise like stickers, signed posters, t-shirts, etc. are great too.
We sold very few DVDs or BluRays online. Mostly they went to IndieGoGo supporters and sold to friends and family.
Although it's not the money making opportunity it once was, it's not a step to skip. Some people REALLY love having a physical form of your movie and they are likely the best viral advocates. Do everything you can to cater to them and make a little extra profit in the process.
We used Disc Hounds and found they were great to work with. The quality of DVDs & BluRays were top-notch and the packaging looked great.
Paid Video on Demand
We're finally to the part that everyone says you should just skip to from the beginning!
Video on Demand.
I won't lie. Video on demand will net you the highest per-purchase profit compared to every other distribution method.
It's harder than it used to be, but there's still a lot of opportunity. A few years ago, I would have recommended VHX, but now they've been bought by my second choice,Vimeo on Demand.
Another option is YouTube if you have reached the subscriber threshold (it's 5,000 at time of writing this) to unlock paid content features. [Actually, I just found out they discontinued this feature. I will update soon!]
The trick with Video on Demand is marketing.
Treat it just like 4-wall promotion, but this time your market is internet-wide. Use any and every accomplishment your movie has achieved until this point to really sell it on social media, podcasts, and promotional videos on YouTube.
If you have any special promotional tricks up your sleeve, now is the time to use them.
Once your film starts to trail off in sales, it's time to move onto the next step.
Your marketing will have it's highest return on investment during your Video on Demand window, so I'll say it again:
Big Marketplace Streaming
Finally, we'll talk about streaming platforms.
By now, it's pretty well known that it's relatively easy to get your movie onto Amazon Prime.
There's a guide we made to getting your movie onto Amazon Prime (through Prime Video Direct) that you'll find very helpful.
The current royalty rate on Amazon is lower than when we first started, but it's still better than you'll see on most other platforms.
If you're feeling ambitious at this stage, research the royalty rates of top streaming companies internet-wide. Be very away of audience size though. Very few other services can compete with Amazon's market size and consumer trust.
This is where Blood on the Leaves made most of its money. Find out more in this post.
Free Streaming with Ads
Finally, once you've squeezed every penny you think you can make out of streaming, it's time to release it for free.
This is the step we're currently discussing with Blood on the Leaves and haven't tackled yet.
The trick here is to figure out which platform can net you the absolute highest number of viewers AND pay you a decent ad rate.
YouTube is currently the best option, but you need to reach a certain subscriber count to unlock the ability to run ads on your videos and upload hour plus long videos.
Amazon does have an alternative free with ads platform.
Facebook Watch is a newcomer that (once they figure out their ads issues) will be a good opportunity too.
This roadmap is not entirely comprehensive. While writing this, my brain was buzzing with new ideas for marketing, promoting, and distributing low budget movies.
If you want to be around when I post more ideas, case studies, and detailed breakdowns for specific topics, subscribe to our email list.
Thanks for reading and I sincerely hope you find this helpful. Don't hesitate to reach out to me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your ideas or problems.
This article has been a long time in the making, so I'm ecstatic to finally be sharing it with you.
If you found this useful, it would be a huge help if you could share this post in any filmmaking groups you're part of.