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How to Build Your Documentary’s Distribution Strategy

Dawn Porter's Trapped

Gone are the days when if you were lucky enough to sell your documentary to a single distributor, they would take care of the rest. Though a select group of established documentary filmmakers still operate along those traditional lines, the majority of independent filmmakers working in documentaries today rely on a hybrid distribution plan in which theatrical, festivals, broadcast, educational, non-theatrical, and VOD rights are split.

The upsides of a hybrid plan are that it potentially enables filmmakers to earn more revenue and also to develop a long-term audience. The downside? It means more work for filmmakers.

A workshop at the recent Oregon Doc Camp, presented by Women in Film Portland, focused on developing a distribution and marketing strategy for documentaries. Panelists Caitlin Boyle of Film Sprout, Julie Whang of Tugg, and Amanda Elder of Collective Eye Films detailed the roles their companies play in the new world of hybrid distribution.

Film Sprout is a consulting and distribution firm that helps social-issue filmmakers create community and campus screening initiatives for their documentaries. The company helps to run between eight to ten community screening tours a year with the primary goal of “serving those communities that are really underserved by traditional distribution,” according to Boyle, who said she also consults with about 50 additional filmmakers a year who want to run their own campaigns.

“We are trying to figure out what can we do that the filmmakers couldn’t do on their own,” said Boyle, who most recently worked on the campaign for Dawn Porter’s Trapped. Boyle said she asks, “What can we do to take the film to the next level?”

In addition to the grassroots screening campaigns, most of the projects that Film Sprout represent also have a festival run, a theatrical release and a broadcast release.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Collective Eye Films is a boutique distributor focused primarily on educational distribution and non-theatrical distribution. The company started as a collective of independent filmmakers in San Francisco who had terrible distribution experiences. “Through shared frustrations, this group of filmmakers came together and decided they wanted to figure out how to do it themselves,” said Elder.

Tugg is a crowdsourcing theatrical platform for films with and without traditional distribution. “Films that didn’t get the traditional big theatrical deal can just apply to Tugg, use our platform, and bring audiences to the theater,” explained Whang. The big plus is that Tugg is “financially risk-free,” said Whang. “It’s a cinema-on-demand model. You’re not signing any rights over. This is just a platform for you to use. Tugg takes care of logistics, booking theaters.”

For the Tugg model to work, said Whang, you need to “know your audience, grow your audience.” In the case of Tugg, it might be financially risk-free, but it does require work on the filmmaker’s part. “You’ve got to give your personal time and energy to your release,” said Whang. “As much as Tugg is there to support your independent cinema release, there’s a lot you have to do on your own.”

Below are some other key takeaways from the workshop:

There’s a transition going on in the world of indie film distribution.

“In the old world, plan A was to give all your distribution rights to one company, and Plan B was to take on self-distribution,” said Elder. “In the new world, plan A is doing your own direct sales on your own web site while splitting up the other rights.”

The new hybrid distribution model combines direct sales by filmmakers with distribution by third parties (DVD distributors, TV channels, VOD companies, and educational distributors).

“The benefits of this hybrid model are that you maintain the distribution control,” said Elder. It’s a lot more work, but there’s also potentially larger revenue for filmmakers who are actively involved in distribution.

“If you are making sure that all your rights are exploited, you could potentially retain more revenue,” explained Elder. The hybrid model also helps filmmakers develop long-term audiences.

In this new model, if you don’t have a distributor, you can still distribute on your own by selling the film from your web site, organizing your own screenings through a crowdsourced theatrical campaign (such as Tugg or Gathr) or distribute via a non-curated distribution platform like Vimeo, VHX or Distrify. Through an aggregator like Distribber you can sell VOD on a variety of platforms, including iTunes, Netflix and Hulu.

Assess your goals.

Is your goal to create social impact, screen at festivals, or make money? “It’s important to assess your motivation early on,” said Elder. That will ultimately help you decide what approach to distribution you should take.

Define your audience in very specific terms.

It’s not enough to talk about how your film will appeal to women between 25-59 years of age. Get even more specific with your demographic. “There’s so much content out there. To break through, you need to have a more precise way of talking about and thinking about your film so you can find audiences that are out there,” said Boyle. “Be brutally honest with yourself about who your audience is and be brutally specific.”

Don’t just think in terms of demographics, but also consider audience’s beliefs, “how they orient themselves in the world,” said Boyle. “Psychographics are often overlooked when filmmakers think about audiences.”

Keep in mind that it’s a whole new world out there when it comes to independent film distribution. “Be flexible with the changing industry,” said Elder. “That’s the bottom line.”

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