Back to selection

Audiences in the Sky: How to Sell Your Film to the Airlines

Photo by Tim Bruening

In 1996, flying home from Slamdance, I was stuck on the tarmac at the Salt Lake City airport in a blizzard. After an hour and a half, a Sundance actor and I tried to talk the flight attendants into playing a VHS tape of my film Omaha (The Movie) in the cabin. They were happy to but said we had to clear it with the pilot and led us into the cockpit. The pilot thought it was a cool idea, too, but ultimately wondered whether the corporate office might object and decided he probably shouldn’t play the film. 

To this date, that is the closest one of my films has ever come to playing on an airplane.

For indie filmmakers like myself, the means and mechanisms for getting films shown on airplanes is a mysterious and impenetrable form of distribution. We’ll sometimes watch more movies flying to film festivals than we actually see at the film festivals. But how did these films get onto the planes? The times when a rogue filmmaker could (potentially) “hijack” a plane just to get a couple hundred eyeballs watching the overhead screens are long gone. Now, most airplanes are equipped with elaborate seatback devices that offer dozens of different movies and TV shows, in addition to music, games and the ever-present geo-tracking map. (Who knew Greenland was so huge?)

Despite all those movie choices on planes, the vast majority of them are recent studio releases: Marvel, Star Wars, Jason Bateman hijinks comedies, Nancy Meyers rom-coms or British period piece Oscar-bait movies. Meanwhile, there’re always several obscure (to U.S. viewers) East Asian films (i.e., Let Me Eat Your Pancreas) and Bollywood extravaganzas, particularly on international flights. But every so often, you will actually see what most of us would consider an independent film: a narrative festival favorite, an obscure documentary or some other film that makes you wonder how it got on the airplane. Is there some secret cabal that gets together and figures out what gets “air” play?

The Gatekeepers

Turns out, there is. But the good news is that it’s not an impenetrable cabal. If you’ve got the right kind of film and right timing, it’s definitely possible to get your film screening in the friendly skies, even if you don’t already have a distributor behind you.

To begin our lesson: All the big studios and TV networks have their own in-house departments that make deals directly with the individual airlines. They meet at a once-a-year conference organized by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), which also puts out a bimonthly trade magazine with updates on what films are available to the airlines and when. OK, but what about the indies? 

About eight or so in-flight entertainment (IFE) “distributors” (or aggregators) specifically handle independent films and then in turn sell them to individual airlines around the world. Some of these niche distributors have been around 30 years or more, with many of the same people still at their helms. It’s a small group, and they all know each other. These outfits don’t exactly have household names: Terry Steiner International, Cinesky Pictures, Captive Entertainment, Jaguar Distribution Corp., Encore Inflight, Entertainment in Motion (EIM), Penny Black Media and Gate 23 Entertainment. But now that you know their names, you’ll start to notice their logos more when you spot their films on your next flight. 

These niche distributors may pay minimum guarantees (MGs) or advances, or they may just work on commission, depending on the company and on your deal with it. Airline deals can range wildly, from close to a million dollars down to the low four or five figures. But for a microbudget indie, that still sounds a lot better than a cookie-cutter VOD deal with no MG, dubious accounting and no discernible back end. In this day and age, an airline deal might actually be the one place you could see a dime.

But don’t get your hopes up just yet. Even these so-called independent distributors still prefer some of the highest profile indies out there. EIM put out Oscar-level films like The Post; I, Tonya; Lady Bird and The Wife. Betsy Hamlin, of Cinesky Pictures, which has released films like Destination Wedding (with Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder) and Papillon (with Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek), told me, “We need A- and B-list stars.” One distributor who didn’t want to be named told me, “The movie has to have had some kind of theatrical release, known actors, some box office and high Rotten Tomatoes [numbers].” 

All About the Timing

Almost more than content, timing is key when it comes to airline sales. The lead time to get a film onto airplanes can be three to four months and is a thorny issue. Airlines like to get films as soon after their initial theatrical date as they can get them, preferably before their VOD or SVOD window. And, yes, that’s a challenge for day-and-date indie releases, although airlines are starting to accept that new reality.

The nature of in-flight entertainment means that delivery is intrinsically slow: The IFE distributors need time to pitch the airlines. Once an airline buys a title, it can take more than a month to get all the appropriate formatting, airline-safe editing, subtitles and dubbing done. Finally, each airplane has to have its IFE hard drive installed on the first or second of the month, in its airline’s hub airport, by a technician with the appropriate security approval. (Nobody wants someone hacking a seat back to take over the cockpit, so these systems are self-contained.) And that’s if they’re even using hard drives. Airplanes have a lifespan of about 30 years, so some are still using Hi8 and even VHS tapes.

Seasonal timing is also relevant. According to Gate 23’s Peter George, “Holiday films are best during their season, and family films do best when families are flying in the summer. But a good film will sell any time of year.” Airlines also want Oscar contenders available right at the height of awards season in late winter. Consequently, they’ll make deals with the high-end indie distributors as early as late summer, long before Oscar buzz has started. Arguably, IFE distributors are some of the best Oscar prognosticators in the business.

Some of these distributors are picking up titles as early as the script and packaging stage. Others get involved as soon as these films start premiering at festivals. The airline distributors usually have existing relationships with domestic indie film distributors (i.e., A24, Magnolia, IFC Films). Very often, they get involved through relationships with seasoned foreign sales agents, who are handling international and sometimes world rights. And, occasionally, individual producers’ reps (like the Submarines and Cinetics of the world) will have relationships directly with the airline distributors and carve out those rights from domestic and/or international deals. Keep in mind that airline rights are often lumped in with other ancillary rights, which may include cruise ships, oil and gas rigs, prisons and sometimes colleges. But in terms of revenue, airlines represent the lion’s share of ancillary rights.

If you try to make a deal too soon with an airline IFE distributor and carve out those rights from either your domestic or foreign deal, you make your film less desirable to those broader distributors that count on airline and other ancillary revenue streams. But if you make the airline deal too late (say, after your U.S. theatrical release), then you run the considerable risk that airlines will consider the title too old by the time it gets to them. Gate 23’s George told me the first thing an airline does is look at the film’s IMDb page to see the year of release. The catch is that IMDb considers festival premieres the earliest release date, even if that’s six months to a year before the actual theatrical release.

The bigger issue is that airline distribution is simply the least of everyone’s priorities, and it can sometimes fall through the cracks. Your domestic distributor (or you, if you’re self-distributing) should be looking for an airline four to six months before your theatrical release date. But that’s exactly when you’re starting to ramp up everything you need for your theatrical release. Meanwhile, you might not have even gotten a foreign sales agent until after your U.S. release. So, by the time they start calling airline distributors, the film is already too old.

Which Territory Is It?

A further complication is that IFE distributors can sell just domestic rights, just international rights or the whole world. An airline’s territory is defined by where that airline is “flagged.” In other words, United Airlines is considered a U.S.-flagged company, so it’s covered by domestic or North American deals. But British Airways is considered “international” and specifically part of your “British” territory. So, your foreign sales company would handle the contract and deliverables for any British Airways deals.

Conceivably, you could have two different IFE distributors: one dealing with your domestic distributor and with U.S.-based airlines, and one dealing with your foreign sales company and just selling to foreign-flagged airlines. But it seems to be more typical and simple for one IFE distributor to deal with both foreign and domestic markets. That raises the question of who is giving the IFE distributor the deliverables for the film. To make matters worse, your foreign sales agent may want to have the airline distributor hold back the airline release until it’s been distributed theatrically in each individual territory. But your airline distributor will want to set the holdback for worldwide release, not territory by territory.

All this confusion is why airline deals can sometimes fall by the wayside: Your domestic distributor might think your foreign sales agent is handling the airline rights and your foreign sales company might think your producers’ rep or domestic company has sorted things out already. Meanwhile, precious months have elapsed, and by the time you get everyone on the same page and try to scramble to contact the airline distributors yourself, it may be too late for the airlines to be interested at all. You’re all hosed.

The List Gets Longer

Keep in mind there’s another subset of companies that also get involved, so if the IFE distributors pass on your film, don’t give up hope. Content Service Providers (CSPs or “service” companies) are like the bookers of the airline film distribution world. Your IFE distributor will often pitch and sell the film to individual airlines—there are 104 individual airlines that are members of APEX but also dozens more that aren’t. With that many airlines, the IFE distributor sometimes sells to CSPs that may each have 10 to 20 individual airline clients that they work for. The CSPs (with names like Spafax, Stellar Group and Inflight Dublin, among others) are often more geographically based (i.e., they just handle Middle Eastern, Asian or European airlines), but sometimes they’re very global. Spafax, for example, has clients ranging from JetBlue to Lufthansa. These CSPs often also handle other needs for the airlines, including safety-demonstration videos, music, games and even in-flight magazine publishing.

In theory, you or your distributor can go around the octet of IFE distributors and go straight to the CSPs, which occasionally do buy films directly from filmmakers or distributors. For example, Spafax sent a rep to the American Film Market this year for the first time for that exact reason. But then you might be limiting yourself to the dozen or so airlines that that one CSP has for clients. Likewise, if you happen to know someone at an individual airline, you can also go directly to that person. That might make sense, for example, if you already have a product placement deal with that airline or if there’s a particular geographical affinity (i.e., if you shot the film in Alaska, you might do well to go straight to Alaska Airlines and offer exclusivity). But exclusive deals, which are rare, usually only happen with the biggest of the studio films.

This Film Has Been Modified

Of course, all this is premised on whether you have a film that’s even appropriate for airlines in the first place. The good news is that all films don’t have to be family safe for everyone on the plane. Gone are the days of completely sterilized “airline edits” shown on big screens that impressionable young viewers could see. With so many seatback choices on many airlines (some of which with privacy screens), you now can catch up on all the naked bits of Game of Thrones or Red Sparrow without feeling too self-conscious. But still, the airlines are fairly conservative when it comes to content.

“We are looking for what you would imagine on planes. A solid drama, comedy, action film,” said Cinesky’s Hamlin. “Nothing controversial. Anything that would scare, involve politics or touchy subjects is a no, like plane crashes, Middle Eastern politics, stories about terrorists, abortion, sci-fi (without big names). Horror is a no.” Gay-themed films sometimes hit a brick wall, too, unless they’re Oscar contenders. Some countries, like Singapore, are particularly averse to gay content. Delta still got into hot water when it ran a highly edited international version of Carol on domestic flights that excised even lesbian kisses. Encore’s Jovita Toh told CNN, “The Middle East is strictly against any form of sexual language or bare skin but highly tolerant of violent scenes. Muslim airlines also request all mentions of pig or pork be removed, even from the subtitles.” And if you’ve got product placement with one airline, get ready to edit it out or blur it if you hope to sell the film to another airline.

Gate 23’s George has a great idea, particularly now that most of us are shooting and editing digitally: “It would be preferable if a filmmaker could consider airline distribution when shooting and maybe create a cover version (less cursing, less nudity).” Most R-rated films wind up being in the PG-13 range by the time they land on airplanes, so as filmmakers, we should prepare for that.

Doc, Doc, Goose

Documentaries can be tricky for airlines, too. “I rarely pick up docs because the airlines pay almost no money for them. They are considered ’TV product’ in their pay grids,” acknowledged Hamlin. “It isn’t worth the work to put them out.” But of course, there are exceptions. Adrian Belic, who produced the 1999 Oscar-nominated doc Genghis Blues with his brother Roko, said, “We heard from a friend of a friend that they had recently flown from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow on Mongolia’s national carrier, MIAT, and Genghis Blues was screening on board.” The Belic brothers never found out how the airline got it. “We never got paid, but some stories are better than money.” 

More recently, Ehren Parks, producer of the 2014 doc My Life in China, told me, “We were lucky enough to find an airline distributor, Gate 23, who got it on nine airlines worldwide, including American, Delta and United.” The film, which had played a modest run in regional U.S. festivals, would gross close to $30,000 in airline sales alone. “For us, it was a big revenue stream,” said Parks. The film, about a Chinese émigré living in the United States, sold largely to airlines outside Asia, including ones in Canada, New Zealand, Ethiopia, Kenya and Kazakhstan. “We had to edit out a shot of a pig roast for Emirates Airlines.”

Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr.’s feature doc, Pick of the Litter, which premiered as Slamdance’s opening night film in 2018, found success with an airline deal on the heels of its first screening. An all-ages appropriate, feel-good “dogumentary” about puppies training to be guide dogs for the blind, the film is almost perfect for airlines; even dogs love to watch this movie. During a bidding war for the film at Slamdance, producers’ rep Submarine carved out the airline rights and sold them to Jaguar, one of the eight main airline distributors. Meanwhile, IFC Films picked up all other domestic rights, and the film has been a minor hit, grossing more than $500,000 in U.S. theaters. Just nine months after its fest premiere, the film was playing on Delta and other major airlines. Nachman’s prior film, Batkid Begins, also wound up on airlines. “I have had hundreds of people tell me they watched my films on planes,” Nachman told me. “What used to feel as an added bonus now feels a premiere way to watch entertaining films at a time where your attention is solely focused on the little screen in front of you. That’s a rare opportunity in this day and age.”

Another Slamdance ’18 doc, Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End, has already found itself on seatbacks. “In addition to our domestic [North American] distributor, I sought out a foreign distributor who had connections with foreign television and the airlines,” producer Ted Collins said. “We did a shorter cut to work for the demands of the foreign television market. Luckily, our distributor has a working relationship with certain airlines, and we made a deal with Air Canada.”

Short films can also find their way onto airplane seatbacks. Short docs, especially if they’re focused on individual countries or regions, may be perfect fits for airlines that service that same area and often look for short, tourism-oriented films. Some airlines are dipping their feet into the festival world. Swiss International Air Lines recently held their Flying Film Festival just for short docs. Similarly, Air Canada ran its enRoute Film Festival for more than a decade. Over the years, some airlines have also set up curated in-flight channels with sponsored film festivals, such as United Airlines and Tribeca, and Alaska Airlines and the Seattle International Film Festival (primarily past shorts that have played at SIFF).

Swimming with Turtles

Getting your film on airlines isn’t an end to itself. It can also lead to some real opportunities for filmmakers. “Airline distribution opened up a whole new realm of people who saw the film,” said My Life in China producer Parks. “You never know who’s going to be on that flight. We had professors see it and then buy educational DVDs and invite us to come talk and do Skype sessions.”

Last year, Barbados Independent Film Festival director Jennifer Smith saw filmmaker Lone Scherfig’s British WWII-era drama, Their Finest, on a flight. Smith loved it and invited Scherfig and her husband to Barbados for the Caribbean premiere of the film, a trip that included snorkeling with giant turtles, among other unique excursions.

The high-flying era of scores of films available on seatback entertainment might be ebbing or, at least, changing. Individual seatback screens are heavy (adding up to a ton per plane) and expensive for the cost- and gas-conscious airlines. According to The New York Times, some airlines like American, United and Hawaiian are starting to forgo seatbacks in shorter haul airplanes in favor of Wi-Fi-accessible in-flight entertainment, as Southwest Airlines does now. They’ll still be acquiring new films and TV content, but as Wi-Fi becomes more robust on airlines, there’s a fear that some airlines will just start to count on customers using their own subscription streaming platforms for their in-flight needs.

Low-cost Spirit Airlines hitherto has had no Wi-Fi or in-flight entertainment (unless you count the cannabis edibles dealer who was sitting next to me on my flight to Chicago and the conversation he had with the other dealer sitting in front of me). Spirit announced it would be adding Wi-Fi to its fleet starting this year. It won’t offer any prepackaged movies, but passengers will be able to use their Netflix and Hulu passwords for the price of Wi-Fi (for an average of $6.50). As Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have changed their business models toward in-house film production rather than acquisitions, selling individual indie films, even to the airline market, could start to shrink, too.

All of this is to say that you shouldn’t take airline distribution for granted. Work on it early, be proactive, do your research and don’t assume your producers’ rep, domestic distributor or foreign sales agent is going to take care of it for you. When you do your due diligence with those distributors and agents, ask them if they’ve had success with airlines and other ancillaries, and then ask their other filmmakers if they were telling the truth.

On my new film, Bernard and Huey, even though we already had a domestic distributor and foreign sales agent, I proactively contacted the eight IFE distributors directly and pitched the film. As of this writing, Gate 23 has signed a deal with our foreign sales agent to get the film out to various airlines. It’s too early to say whether any airlines will actually pick up the film and, if they do, if any money will trickle back to me. But if it works out, at least it will be very satisfying to my cast, crew and investors to know that the film will be available at 30,000 feet somewhere around the globe.

© 2019 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF