In 2019, when filmmaking has long since been revolutionised by digital technology, when movies shot on smartphones open at Sundance, when there are festivals dedicated to vertical filmmaking, and when so many people are making features that the ‘mystique’ of it has long since dissipated, the one area that still seems to hide behind a shroud of secrecy is distribution.
We’ve all heard the adage getting your film made is only half the battle; the real work begins when trying to sell it. Many filmmakers don’t understand the best practices when it comes to distribution, and choose to explore that path only when forced to, and I am prepared to admit that I am one such filmmaker.
Is working with sales agents, producer’s representatives, distributors the most viable method to release a micro-budget feature film? Or is self-distribution the best approach? One year later, after releasing our first micro-budget feature, myself and my partner Sarah Jayne are asking ourselves that very question.
Looking for Support
Friends, Foes & Fireworks is an improvised drama about a group of friends in the acting scene who reunite on New Year’s Eve. But the good mood is ruined when old tensions and rivalries resurface, and the night devolves into confrontation and chaos. We filmed it in a single night on New Year’s Eve 2016/17. At the time, we envisioned an iTunes and Amazon release for the film, maybe Netflix if we were lucky, after the obligatory festival run of course.
By July 2017 the film was ready and in November 2017 we went to the American Film Market searching for a sales agent or distributor. We met with five or six. All showed interest face to face and we left the market feeling positive about our options. We followed up with everyone after the market, but only two ever replied and offered to take the film. This was our first experience pitching at a market so we weren’t sure if this lack of response afterwards was typical or not. Neither of the two offers we did receive involved any money upfront but this was to be expected – a micro-budget feature, no star power, no festivals. We just wanted somebody who would release the film as wide as possible and promote it as carefully and passionately as we do ourselves.
We should note, we also met with Distribber, a popular aggregator who send films to various VOD platforms on your behalf so the self-distribution option was also on the cards. But at the time we were not in a good financial position and couldn’t afford the upfront fee Distribber charges to pitch the film to Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, etc.
In the end, we choose Turn Key Films to release Friends, Foes & Fireworks, an American company that was a mix of traditional sales agent and their own distributor.
Festivals & Cinema
This was early 2018. By this point we had already been rejected by the festivals that matter like Sundance, SXSW, Slamdance. But it wasn’t just major festivals turning us down, most of the festivals we had entered were saying no. We weren’t quite sure why, as the film has been consistently positively reviewed, and at 75 minutes, it was short for a feature so theoretically easier to program, and to be honest, we thought the one night, completely improvised aspect would appeal to festival programmers.
So we were feeling a little disillusioned with the festival system. The path we thought we would travel was blocked and we needed to take matters into our own hands. We contacted an independent cinema chain in Melbourne ourselves, and did a premiere for the public. It allowed us to keep 50% of the money from ticket sales, which was financially better for us than premiering at a festival, at least in the short term. We had an encore screening at another cinema part of the same chain, but it drew low attendance. A combination of screening on a Saturday afternoon on the Easter long weekend and Melbourne audiences never being particularly supportive of indie film, so though we were disappointed, we weren't surprised. Our cinema run was dependent on continually drawing numbers, so after the second screening didn't draw, that was the end of that.
Digital Release & DVD
After that, Turn Key released the film on Amazon Prime on May 1st, 2018. They've pitched to Netflix and Hulu but it has been rejected from there. We've put it up on Vimeo On Demand and OzFlix, an Australian VOD company. We've wanted iTunes and Google Play too but Turn Key doesn't seem keen on that. VOD sales have been low.
A producer's rep from Sydney, Ignite Pictures, approached us wanting to see what else he could do with the film. We're non-exclusive with Turn Key, so we had nothing to lose by letting him try. However, all his American distributors passed as the film is already on Amazon. For us, it seems distributors are most interested in what is easy, and as the simplest platform to get onto, Amazon, was already taken, they weren't interested. However, an Australian distributor, Bounty Films, took the film for TV rights in Aus / NZ through our producer's rep, and they have pitched to a television network there. We are yet to hear the result.
Turn Key did manage to secure a DVD release for the film in North America, selling mostly through Barnes & Noble. That was a nice surprise and money up front. And we actually saw the film on the Walmart website the other day. It was a bit of a thrill.
So we ask ourselves have we gone in the right direction by relying on sales agents, producers reps, and distributors to release Friends, Foes & Fireworks? Could we have done this ourselves with aggregators like Distribber, BitMax, or Quiver?
It is difficult to say.
Access to information and lack of communication has been the biggest frustration working with traditional distributors. With Vimeo On Demand, it is our platform, so any time we want to see sales figures it takes only seconds to log in and check. But the last time we heard from Turn Key about sales figures on Amazon was in October 2018. The film has also been on DVD for six months now and we have no idea how it is selling. We emailed Turn Key to find out in April 2019, followed up in May due to receiving no reply, followed up again in June. We are still waiting.
Getting information out of OzFlix is just as bad. Friends, Foes & Fireworks has been on the Australian streaming platform since April 2018. In all that time we have never received a sales report despite trying since January 2019, sending numerous emails and chatting to the CEO of OzFlix on FaceBook when it became obvious the emails would remain unanswered. I actually know the CEO personally as Melbourne is a small filmmaking industry. He keeps saying he will get it sorted. He means well. But as I write this, five months later, we are still waiting for it to be sorted.
We are not angry though. We know distributors are busy, they have multiple titles to manage, and we suspect our sales for Friends, Foes & Fireworks are low, hence we are hardly a priority. We probably come off as pests too, constantly following-up, always in the nicest way possible. Perhaps that’s the problem – are we too nice? But in an industry built upon relationships there seems no sense in burning bridges. No, the bigger question is what has the distributor invested into your film to care? For them, it is just another title, just another chance to make money, just another product. There is no financial stake involved, not at this micro level, not in the streaming game where we are all splitting transactions of six cents an hour, or whatever Amazon’s new pricing model is. If you are not selling, the distributor needs to focus on the films that are. It is business after all.
But for us as filmmakers, it is our sweat, our blood and tears, our money invested into the film, years of work to get it made. It is our passion. Our life and career. So how could anybody care as much about the success of our film as we do ourselves?
The answer is nobody can. And that’s way for our next feature, In Corpore, we have decided to self-distribute.
Self-Distribution & What We Learned
Of course, there is some trepidation going at it alone, some things we wonder if we can do. We are grateful to Turn Key for getting the film onto DVD, selling in Barnes & Noble, and on numerous online retailers. We never expected that and don’t know how we could have done it ourselves. Also, we have expanded our deal with Bounty Films to include streaming rights too in addition to Aus / NZ TV, and they have recently placed it onto SE Asian AVOD platform iFlix. Something we would not have even thought of.
One thing we know is we wouldn’t use a distributor to place In Corpore on Amazon for us. We should have done it ourselves. We also wouldn’t go Amazon first, rather offer an exclusive window on iTunes (Apple TV now) with a pre-order window before moving onto other streaming platforms. We also felt we released the film online too soon. The fear of missing out is strong when you are new to distribution. You get an offer, you want to say yes. It takes courage to hold back and wait for other offers, wait for other options that may or may not happen. But distribution is a long game, the rights to a film are valuable, so we need to, and intend to, practise patience with In Corpore.
We also know we need to build our audience, find our niche to market to, right from the very beginning, before any frame of footage is shot. We did not do it for Friends, Foes & Fireworks: it was an experiment for us, a film made in one night, completely improvised, because we were disillusioned with traditional filmmaker and needed to try something new, something crazy, to revitalise our love of filmmaking.
It worked. But ever since we have been playing catch-up, trying to find an audience for the film after the fact. No. As micro-budget filmmakers you need your audience to join you on the journey from the start.
Good thing is, we have a chance to try again so soon with In Corpore and now that we have some experience with distribution, we know what to expect going in. We will aim for festivals again – it is still an experience for filmmakers, still opportunities to build networks, still publicity for you and your work. Then we’ll try cinema releases in the four countries the film was made in: Melbourne, Malta, Berlin, New York. We have already been making acquaintances with cinema owners in anticipation.
After that, or in conjunction with cinema releases, we’ll likely make the film available on Apple TV, working with aggregators, likely Quiver, as I am not a fan of the ongoing annual fee Distribber charges. We’ll also sell digital copies directly on the In Corpore website, including DVDs, for those who still want physical media, plus our own production company store, which we are currently building. And we’ll continue to reach out to additional streaming services ourselves after evaluating there suitability on an individual basis.
For example, we placed Friends, Foes & Fireworks on IndieFlix by contacting them ourselves because we felt our film aligned with the types of themes and films they promote.
And, in the meantime, we are cultivating an audience for In Corpore, communicating and building relationships in the niche we want to market to, which is poly and mono relationships. So though our experience releasing Friends, Foes & Fireworks has been a mixed bag we are determined to jump back into the world of distribution once again. Each time we hope to unravel more of the mystery.
Written by Ivan Malekin.
This article also appears in Filmmaker Freedom.
You can watch Friends, Foes & Fireworks here.