15 Essential Tips from Distributors to Help You Put All the Chances on Your Side From the Get Go
I am extremely excited to share with you the two amazing conversation colorist Tom Parish has had with indie distributors Andie Grace from Devolver Digital Films, and Linda Nelson from Indie Rights on his podcast, Color Talk.
I learned a lot thanks to Grace and Nelson, from how to find a distributor to why Netflix is not where you want to head first, from online platforms peculiarities to why shooting 4K makes more sense than ever today. (And yes, a year ago, it didn’t.)
I recommend you to listen to both episodes, that I’ve embedded below, as they contain even more information than what I’ve selected, including specific examples about films and Grace and Nelson’s backstories, which are both very interesting.
Listen to the podcasts and check the recap below. I would be very surprised if you felt like you had not learn a thing by the end of it:
15 Essential Tips from Distributors to Help You Put All the Chances on Your Side From the Get Go
#1 – Talk to a Distributor BEFORE Starting Making Your Film
Andie Grace: Right now I wish that I had the opportunity to talk to so many filmmakers before they ever started making their movie just because, from top to bottom really, thinking about who your audience is going to be and where you’re going to find them is more important now than ever with so many different channels and so many different ways to find film.[pullquote]Right now I wish that I had the opportunity to talk to so many filmmakers before they ever started making their movie just because, from top to bottom really, thinking about who your audience is going to be and where you’re going to find them.[/pullquote]
It’s incredibly hard for indies and micro indies to figure out where their audiences are. If you don’t think about who those people are and how they watch movies before you ever start shooting and start building an audience at the very beginning, you’re just going to labor in obscurity. So I think it’s one of the most important things that a filmmaker can do.
Linda Nelson: I would say today more than any other time it can mean the difference between success or failure of your film. I truly believe that you should have discussions with distributors during pre-production and the same with a colorist. I think that filmmakers must get used to focusing on multiple facets of their film, rather than just one, how am I going to tell the story. They also, I think, think about casting the right people and things like that, but what is critical today is how your film looks.[pullquote]I think we have to get back towards the process that filmmakers used when they were shooting on film because they were forced to consider color and lighting and look and feel because it was expensive to shoot on film. I think technology has let filmmakers become lazy.[/pullquote]
What’s happened is that because there is such great inexpensive technology, and you can get a camera so inexpensive these days it’s easy to have a film that you think looks super high quality. That part of it, I think, let’s filmmakers feel like, oh, I’ve got this beat. Now I can do what I want. Also, they feel like they can just keep shooting and not be so prepared as they used to be.
I think we have to get back towards the process that filmmakers used when they were shooting on film because they were forced to consider color and lighting and look and feel because it was expensive to shoot on film. I think technology has let filmmakers become lazy. I think now it’s really important to kind of backtrack a little bit and get back in those good habits. There is nothing like being prepared. It saves you a tremendous amount of money.
#2 – Don’t Stay Isolated, Use Cross Fertilization
Andie Grace: We launched at South by [South West] in 2013, and we’ve been putting out Indie films ever since. I think what sets us apart in a very crowded field is that we’re kind of operating at a boutique level. We pick up just a few films at a time.
We really try to partner with them as if they were our own movie. So that means not just putting it out on all the channels and expecting you to do all the work of promotions but picking up the stick and running with you for the second wind that a lot of filmmakers need once they’ve finished and they’ve done the festival circuit and everybody’s heard about their fifteenth premier for the nine thousandth time.
They need a second wind and a boost to a bigger audience, to a broader audience than they’d be able to reach on their own. One of the ways that we do that is really kind of bonding our filmmakers together on the label and saying, “You’re all here to support each other.” Especially the more films we’ve added the more critical mass we’ve gotten.
That’s the thing I’m proudest of is that all our filmmakers talk about each other’s movies and review each other’s films. We have them doing cross interviews and other things to really elevate their work with each other and their artistry as part of the story.
#3 – Don’t Rely on Good Storytelling, It Won’t Be Enough[pullquote]You do have to examine the current market and think about where are films like this being watched.[/pullquote]
Andie Grace: It’s a tightrope to walk to not feel like you’re just becoming a marketer when you’re making your movie and just making what’s going to be popular. You do have to examine the current market and think about where are films like this being watched. How big can a story really be? Is my romantic comedy with two people in it that nobody has ever heard of, can I realistically expect that it’s going to just be a festival darling and it’s going to get picked up by Lions Gate?
Storytelling is an art, and not everybody who makes a movie is necessarily a great storyteller, but some of these movies at this level really do have some amazing artistry in that regard. I don’t think that alone is enough.
Maybe if you have a story that doesn’t have a niche – I don’t want to call it a gimmick but a niche audience. It’s not a genre. It’s not an easily defined group of people who are going to watch it. Well, maybe you have to push the bar a little harder to get a name cast member or find somebody else to attach to the project to really kind of elevate it to the people are going to pay attention to this level because attention is a tough, tough, tough game right now.
People have so much content lying at their eyes all day long. You have to figure out some way to stand out.
Linda Nelson: One of the things that I think filmmakers have to do is if a filmmaker is extremely creative oriented and they just don’t feel like they can embrace the concept of being an artist entrepreneur, then they have to have a good, strong producing partner that does handle that side because if you don’t prepare for distribution from the beginning, you’re going to have terrible problems on the technical side – how you shoot and in what format you shoot because now getting your film out to key distribution platforms is totally dependent on passing very stringent quality control.
#4 – Use Facebook As a Search Tool to Find Your Audience
Linda Nelson: With Facebook you can identify people that are going to be interested in your film. For example, on this film, if you put PTSD in the search graph on Facebook, over a thousand organizations come up. It’s a simple matter of using the message function, writing to the admin of the page, and saying, “Look. We have a film that touches on your subject.”
This is so important because everyone is looking for content. You can’t just keep saying, “Buy my movie. Buy my movie. Buy my movie.” Believe me. People get bored with that. You want to be able to provide valuable content for your audience besides where they can get the movie.
When you start your social media early, you wind up having the strongest uber fans that you can imagine that are going to force all their friends to go see your movie – believe me – because their name is in the credit.
We gave a location scout credit to everyone who provided a location.
What we did was we posted, “This is what we need. If you can provide us with one of these locations for free, we will give you a location scout credit.” Right? And so people just love to go out and feel like they’re part of making your movie. It’s a collaborative process making movies. It makes them feel good to know that they got that location. They’re proud of that.
#5 – Focus On Getting Reviews, They Still Matter (But What They Say… Not So Much)[pullquote]A lot of times with reviews it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s good or bad. Sometimes even bad can stir up a lot more discussion.[/pullquote]
Linda Nelson: It’s so much about finding some way to get exposure. A lot of times with reviews it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s good or bad. Sometimes even bad can stir up a lot more discussion.
There is a third film that we have, and I’m not going to say the title because I don’t like to talk about bad reviews. On Amazon it’s important that you get as many people as possible to review your film because they have robots that watch and algorithms that pick up activity. If they see a huge amount of activity on a film, they start recommending it to other people because they put out a newsletter weekly saying, “Oh, check out this film.” In order to pump that algorithm pump and recommendation pump, you’ve got to have a lot of reviews. We encourage our filmmakers to get 50 to 100 reviews on their films. When they do, that activity pays off.
#6 – Start with iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. (Netflix is Your Last Stop.)[pullquote]The trick is putting it out in the right order so that some of the platforms that are subscription are still paying per viewing and others pay a flat fee and they want your movie for two years as many times as it gets watched.[/pullquote]
Andie Grace: iTunes and Amazon Instant Video are the first things that you generally want to do. If you’ve got any audience that you think will pay to watch this movie or own this movie, you want to go there first before you move to subscription services where people are paying a one time fee to watch a whole lot of movies in a month.
That’s known as the transactional VOD window. That’s usually where you go first, where your distributer is going to go first. That’s the first window when it comes to a digital VOD release. Of course, there’s theatrical and DVD and all the other things that can be folded in there as well.
Overall, I think that the subscription VOD window is right now the strongest place for an indie film. If you’ve got a movie where, again, it looks like an interesting story, it’s got a nice poster art and a great description but I’ve never heard of these people, I’m way more likely to take a chance on that if I paid $8 for my Hulu subscription this month than I am to pay $12 or $19 on iTunes to own your movie.
The trick is putting it out in the right order so that some of the platforms that are subscription are still paying per viewing and others pay a flat fee and they want your movie for two years as many times as it gets watched.[pullquote]When you put your film on Netflix as an indie and taking a really small amount to do that, you’re pretty much finished earning money on your film.[/pullquote]
When you put your film on Netflix as an indie and taking a really small amount to do that, you’re pretty much finished earning money on your film.
A lot of the times Netflix is often the first thing people ask us about. They are really largely focused on television content right now. A lot of the throughput that’s happening there is television content. You don’t see them making good offers on a lot of indie films anymore.
The number has just decreased so much that, sure, we could get you there, but we want to wait and figure out if there are any other revenues anywhere else for your film before we jump there and just show it to everybody basically for free
#7 – Get Into Festivals and Build an Online Presence to Seduce Online Curators[pullquote]Now what curated sites are looking at is what is your social media audience. If you have no Facebook page or no IMDb page, they won’t even consider it.[/pullquote]
Andie Grace: The ones that curate are looking for social media following, those awards at Festivals. Festivals definitely still count.
Festivals are often thought of as markets where your film is going to get bought, but I think that filmmakers really need to be thinking of them as an opportunity to pop with the first audience that they can get in front of their film. That might mean you can get some reviews during that process or get some audience buzz going or take pictures of the full house that you get, whatever it might be.
You’ve got something that you can stick up on social media and say, “We exist. I’m a film and people care about me.” The more of that you have when you walk in the door, the more likely those curating platforms are going to pick your film up.
Linda Nelson: Now what curated sites are looking at is what is your social media audience. If you have no Facebook page or no IMDb page, they won’t even consider it. These things are important. IMDB has become super, super important. You must have an IMDb page. I think that everyone needs to be in some film festivals, even they’re small.
You need a Facebook page from pre-production on. You need a Twitter account from pre-production on and a YouTube account so that you can start sharing behind the scenes clips, those types of things that are going to engage your audience once you are in distribution. You want to get people excited about your movie. Those things are very important to curated sites.
#8 – Get a Lot of Reviews in Your First Week on Amazon to Seduce their Robot and Get Picked Up by Their Algorithm
Andie Grace: Amazon Instant Video not necessarily. In order to get your film moved Amazon Prime, which is a subscription service and which is really where I’m seeing a lot more action for indie films, you do, again, want to have some buzz going that stokes the fires.
The more reviews and shares you’re getting in the first week when your film goes live on Amazon Instant Video, the easier it is to get it moved to Prime.
The algorithm needs to be paying attention to your film. Some films you can get placed on Prime right out of the gate, depending on how the package looks when Amazon sees it.
#9 – Go Through an Aggregator to Get onto Amazon Prime, Because Once Your Film is Up, It Can Never Go Down.[pullquote]If you want to see your film looking good on that, you have to go through an aggregator because only Amazon partners can distribute your film in HD and on Prime.[/pullquote]
Linda Nelson: If you want to be there in HD and you want to make it to Amazon Prime, which is a critical platform to be on these days – it’s become one of the most popular platforms on the Internet, and everybody has it on their TV. I think it outperforms just about anything.
If you want to see your film looking good on that, you have to go through an aggregator because only Amazon partners can distribute your film in HD and on Prime.
That’s really, really important. The last thing you want to do is put it up there as soon as it’s done – I see this over and over again – because it’s almost impossible to get it down. That’s because once you put it up there, and say you sell even two or three copies of that film, what people don’t realize is you’re not buying the physical digital copy on Amazon.
You are buying a license to view that movie whenever you want forever. They have to leave it up. If somebody has purchased it, how can they take it down if somebody has already bought it? So big mistake to do that thing first
#10 – Keep Your Editing System in Place as Long as You Can, Coz You Might Not Pass the Amazon Robot Test.
Linda Nelson: It used to be that if you were going to have a film you’d send a tape, and they’d watch the tape, and they would author a DVD from it. That was the end really. If your tape was good, it would go onto broadcast and wind up on television or something.
Now they actually have robots that perform software tests and QC your film. It needs to be technically proficient. For example, they have software that will pick up audio dropouts. If you have audio dropouts, they’re going to come out and say, “No, you’ve got audio dropouts here.”
First, it’s got to pass the robot test. Unfortunately, that comes after they’ve decided if they want to do the film. You can get approved and then not be able to pass the robot tests, which is really rough. It’s really important that you keep everything from your editing system in place until you have gotten on these digital platforms.
#11 – You Don’t Need a Distributor Anymore (If You Like Doing a Distributor’s Job)
Andie Grace: I mean the first thing I’ll say to anybody is, no, you don’t need a distributor anymore. You definitely don’t need us. If you have the resources and you feel that you either are surrounded by people who will help or you yourself are a powerhouse at all the things that need to happen to have a release be successful, I would not take your movie on. I only want to take on films that we can make bigger than they would be without us.
That means not everybody has the wherewithal to sit and do the social media stuff and knows how to make boosted posts and how to do targeting on an ad. They might just be filmmakers who are ready to go off and make their next movie and not really sitting there in front of the laptop day by day doing all these things, as well as press and marketing and all the different encoding that you have to do to reach all the platforms.
This is a way to be able to say, “I need a partner. Will you help me?” We grab whatever balls are in the air. In some cases, that’s a filmmaker who has moved on to their next project, and we’re doing everything. In some cases, I kind of stay out of the way while they do what they do, and I just help to amplify their message that they’ve already got going because we have our own followership around the world as well, largely coming from our video game audience. Sometimes that’s an audience that we can help them to reach if it’s appropriate.
#12 – Shoot in 4K Because Most People Won’t See Your Film in Theater (But They Will on Their 4k TV)
Andie Grace: 4K is how most people are going to be watching your film. This is what people aren’t thinking about. Most people do not see a film in a theater.
What you want to do is you want to future proof your movies. It’s the biggest reason to shoot in 4K. Sony’s got a really inexpensive 4K camera now that’s gorgeous. Canon has 4K cameras
#13 – Be Careful With Your Audio, It Can Hold You Back from International Sales[pullquote]For example, on iTunes, if you only have stereo, you cannot sell your movie in HD even. You can only rent it. In order to sell and rent on iTunes in both HD and SD, you must have 5.1. That’s something that a lot of people don’t know.[/pullquote]
Andie Grace: Audio is the biggest failure that I see just from a purely technical point of view. Sometimes the audio sounds fantastic, but they have not separated their audio so they don’t have separate audio tracks for the music and effects and the dialog.
This is really important because what we now have – the opportunity for independent film now is global. This is not just about getting your movie out in the United States. There is a global interest in independent films. We’re selling in 120 countries with digital.
For example, on iTunes, if you only have stereo, you cannot sell your movie in HD even. You can only rent it. In order to sell and rent on iTunes in both HD and SD, you must have 5.1. That’s something that a lot of people don’t know.
#14 – Talk to a Colorist Early On[pullquote]People have this idea with digital, just shoot it clean, and then the colorist will fix it in the end, right? It’s so not true because you cannot add light to someone’s face.[/pullquote]
Linda Nelson: When you are planning your film, it is definitely great to talk to a colorist because it – and this, again, goes back to the discussion we started in the beginning about making sure that you have some feel for what the look of this film is going to be, whether it’s going to be dark or whether it’s going to be bright or fluffy, and lighting is so, so very, very important because you can’t fix most lighting problems in post. People have this idea with digital, just shoot it clean, and then the colorist will fix it in the end, right? It’s so not true because you cannot add light to someone’s face.
#15 – How to Find Right Distributor[pullquote]Ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.[/pullquote]
Andie Grace: Ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. They’re always going to entertain any suggestion that you might have. Our deal is set up very purposefully to be filmmaker friendly. It’s a little four-pages contract. We don’t take all your rights. We only take the ones that we can use.
If we have an opportunity to put more of them to use for you, we’ll extend with and addendum on the agreement, but you keep your DVD rights, and you keep your international broadcaster rights and other things that we can’t touch. Our deal is only three years. We tried to be only one year when we started out, but every platform we work with takes too long.[pullquote]The number one rule, if you do nothing else relative to distribution, is go on IMDb Pro, look up the distributor, look up the distributor that you are considering, see what films that they’ve had for at least a year or two, call five of them.[/pullquote]
Linda Nelson: The number one rule, if you do nothing else relative to distribution, is go on IMDb Pro, look up the distributor, look up the distributor that you are considering, see what films that they’ve had for at least a year or two, call five of them. All you have to do on IMDb – every single film has contact information. Call them.
They don’t have to tell you how much they made. Just say, “Do you get quarterly statements with details so you can see where and on what platforms your film is selling on, and do they pay you on a regular basis?” You’ll get tears.
That’s why we started Indie Rights because people were crying saying, “Oh my God, they took my film. I never made a penny. They didn’t bother to put it here or there” or whatever. If you call five people and four of them say, “Oh my God, they will never answer the phone. I can’t get them to return an email. I never get any reports. I didn’t notice in the contract that it said this,” they’re stuck.
So that’s the first thing. If you just do that, you’re going to get a feel for what that distributor’s relationship is with his filmmakers. One of the things that sets us apart is that we have a personal relationship with our filmmakers and respond to every phone call and email. It’s critical. Our reports are transparent.
Regarding the contract, you want to keep the term as short as possible. Most of them will ask for 7 to 10 years. They might back down to 5, but most of them will want at least 5. We have a 3-year contract that renews automatically unless you tell us you don’t want it anymore.
The next thing is the expenses. Most distributors will put in there – they might put in there first you get $50,000 worth of expenses over the time of the contract. You want to negotiate that as low as possible. I would never agree to anything more than $10,000.
A lot of distributors they want to go to Cannes. They want to go to Berlin. They want to go to Venice every year. They want that paid for. It’s really important that if you do agree to expenses that you cap that as low as possible.
The next thing that’s important – and it’s also hard to get – is a performance clause. I have many friends that have been stuck in 10-year contracts or 5-year contracts and never saw a penny or got a single report.
A performance contract says you will put X amount of dollars in my pocket within two years, or I get my film back. Very simple.
Every contract that I’ve seen from traditional distributors will have a tiny clause that says, “If you haven’t earned any revenue, we don’t need to send you a report.” Change that. You need quarterly reports. We talk to filmmakers that three or four years have gone by and they’ve never gotten a single report. They may have had quite a few sales, but if they’re not due any money – in other words, the expenses were more than what they earned…