Independent film distribution: everything you need to know

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Independent film distribution is a confusing, opaque process that can be difficult for indie filmmakers to navigate. There are tons of independent film distributors out there, each with all their own pros and cons, plus there’s the wide world of self distribution to explore. Let’s break down some of the different options for independent filmmakers looking to distribute their movie.

What is independent film distribution?

Distribution is the final step of the film production process. This is the part of the process where the movie you just worked so hard on makes it out into the world and lands in front of audiences. You’re probably already familiar with distribution companies like Sony, Paramount, and Warner Bros, but it’s incredibly difficult for independent filmmakers to get a foot in the door there. Independent film distributors focus specifically on distributing indie films (or films NOT produced by big studios) and they can be your ticket to getting your film on online streaming platforms and in theaters. In addition to the numerous independent distribution companies out there, many indie filmmakers do their own distribution, a process called self-distribution.

How do you connect with an independent film distribution company?

There are two ways you can connect with a distribution company. The first way is a process called cold querying. Some distributors will have information about their specific process on their website, but essentially you will pull together any information they need to consider your film for distribution. At the very least, you should have a pitch letter you feel good about and a copy of your film for them to watch. Depending on the specific company, your film doesn’t need to be 100% done to submit to a distribution company. In fact, many distributors come on board early in the process, before the movie has even been filmed, and are considered a major asset for any investors. That’s probably not a realistic goal if you don’t have a solid track record, so for beginners who don’t have a big name attached to their project, I recommend cold-querying during the post production process.

It’s also completely possible that a distribution company will approach YOU. This, of course, can only happen if they know you exist. A good way to catch the eye of an independent film distribution company is to have screenings at film festivals that distributors attend. When making your plan for your festival run, do some research about what distributors attend what festivals, and see if you can find out in advance what types of movies they’ve picked up before. For example, if you’re making a horror movie, try to attend genre-specific festivals with a large distributor presence. Once you’re there, make sure you’re prepared and professional when speaking with distributors. Make an effort to network without being pushy, and have materials like business cards and information about your film prepared ahead of time so you can stay in touch. Read our tips for attending film festivals here.

What is self-distribution?

Self-distribution, as the name suggests, is the process of a filmmaker distributing their film by themselves. This covers everything from building buzz with the festival run to reaching out to streaming companies to even arranging for a small theatrical release. There’s way too much to learn about self-distribution from a single blog post; if you’re interested in learning how to distribute your own film, consider checking out our Self Distribution Workbook, which walks you step by step through the entire process, helps you solidify your goals for your film, and even gives you a script for cold calling theaters. Self-distribution isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a very achievable way of getting your art in front of audiences, and importantly, you don’t have to sign away any of your rights or profits in order to do it. I think for the hardworking indie filmmaker, self-distribution is absolutely something important to explore, even if you end up signing a distribution agreement with another company.

What red flags should I look out for?

When researching independent film distribution, it’s absolutely vital to protect yourself and your art. I’ve heard horror stories of filmmakers signing away all of their rights, agreeing to predatory commission rates, and completely compromising their artistic vision simply because they were so eager to land a distribution deal. When you’re cold querying or being approached by distributors, do your due diligence and make sure you understand their process, commission rates, and vision for your film’s distribution. No two distribution plans are the same, so you should have a clear understanding of what YOU want for your film (for example, maybe you really want it to be on a big streaming service but you don’t care about a theatrical release) and what compromises you are or aren’t willing to make. You should always be willing to walk away from a deal if it isn’t going to serve you and your movie. Another thing you should be aware of are sales reps who claim they can 100% land you a distribution deal, but take a huge cut of the profits. Not all sales reps are scammers, but like with distribution companies, make sure you do your due diligence and don’t get taken advantage of. If you’re ever in doubt about something, reach out to a more experienced filmmaker and see what their perspective is. If someone’s telling you to run, you probably should. 

The world of filmmaking can be difficult to navigate because it’s equal parts art and business. It’s 100% valid to need to make money from your films, or to strive for difficult to reach opportunities because it aligns with your creative vision for a project. It’s also valid to create films just for the love of it, enjoy showing off your hard work at film festivals, or upload them to Youtube and leave it at that. There’s really no wrong way to do this as long as you are careful, considered, and do your research. 

Do you have any other questions about independent film distribution that weren’t answered here? If you’re a filmmaker with a lot of experience getting films distributed, what would you add to this article? Feel free to reach out and share your thoughts!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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