Independent Film Distribution Tips: a Guide for Indie Filmmakers

If you think shooting your film was tough, just wait until Film Distributors get their hands on you.

Key points

1. Distributors are in the game to profit from films that are easy to sell, not to nurture filmmakers.

2. An independent film will languish on the shelf indefinitely if it is not marketable.

3. Self-distribution platforms allow filmmakers to distribute their films independently, bypassing traditional distributors.

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After attaining the hard-won goal of completing an independent feature film, filmmakers are confronted with the equally gargantuan task of securing distribution. It may seem like a tedious task, but without some form of distribution, your film will languish on the shelf forever. This article will cover the independent film distribution options that are generally available to independent filmmakers.

Finding a reputable independent film distributor

The ideal situation was and still is to sign a distribution deal with a reputable film distributor who will then take care of all the possible distribution channels: theatrical distribution, television, DVDs, video on demand, etc. In the ideal situation, the distributor pays the filmmaker a decent advance and they then split the revenues after the distributor has recouped costs (this is known as Gross Adjusted Deal). What many filmmakers don’t realize is that the advantage of an advance payment from the distributor is not just about money — the real advantage of this sort of deal is that it really forces the distributor to do his best with the film, because they paid you an upfront fee for it and are therefore highly motivated to generate some serious revenues. Conversely, with the First Dollar Split deal, in which the distributor and filmmaker do a 50-50 split with no advance payment, the distributor is not under as much pressure to do anything with the film and may completely waste your time and leave the film on the shelf until the contract expires and you manage to snatch it back. Many filmmakers have gone through this and it’s a real pain, so beware! Of course every filmmaker’s dream is to get a decent theatrical run for the independent film they worked so hard to make. This was extremely hard to obtain before the recession and is now all but impossible. Of course there are one or two exceptions every once in a while – “Paranormal Activity” is a good example of this — but if you consider the thousands of independent films that never see the light of day, I think we can all agree that the odds are spectacularly against you.

Producer’s reps

A producer’s rep is essentially a well-connected representative who can shop the film around to a variety of distributors and film buyers for the purposes of acquiring the best possible distribution deals. The amusing thing here is that finding a producer’s rep who is willing to represent you is almost as difficult as finding a distributor, but it is always worth a shot. Of course they will want to see the film and all the publicity material, to determine whether the film is marketable. If your independent film is not marketable, nobody will distribute it, for the simple reason that there is no money to be made from it. If people do not think they can make money off your film, they will leave it on the shelf without mercy. This is probably something worth considering when preparing your feature film, but if you have completed your film and are seeking distribution, it is pretty much too late to do anything about that, although radical re-editing can sometimes make a film more marketable.

Self distribution

You have given blood to complete your independent feature film and have contacted every producer’s rep and independent film distributor on the planet — and they have all turned you down. Is this the end of your film? The answer is no. If you’re in this situation — a situation that many independent film makers find themselves in every year — it may feel like you are dead in the water, but actually independent film self distribution has been a viable alternative for years and is now better than ever. For example, with CreateSpace you can submit your film and all the artwork electronically — completely free — and your film will be available for sale as professionally-made DVDs on Amazon.com, where it can also be sold as video on demand. CreateSpace is part of Amazon.com and absolutely reputable. There are no start-up fees for filmmakers and it is guaranteed and instantaneous distribution. Sure, we all want to see our films on the big screen, but when all else fails, self-distribution will allow your film to be bought by as many people as are willing to watch it. Depending on how popular your film is, you may even make a good profit! Independent film self-distribution is now unquestionably the way forward for the overwhelming majority of small independent films. Even before the massive economic recession, it was next to impossible to secure meaningful distribution for small independent films. You know the ones I’m referring to: ultra-cheap independent films shot with camcorders and of mediocre quality at best. The truth is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with cheap mediocre independent films: as long as they are marketed honestly and priced correctly, there is usually at least a small market for that sort of film. Many people enjoy scruffy independent feature films if they are quirky and enjoyable! However, the problem with these films is that they are impossible to distribute profitably via traditional means (cinemas, television). For this reason, independent film self-distribution was the only option for niche independent feature films. Until a few years ago, this meant screening the film privately (a practice known as “four-walling”) or making your own DVD copies and selling them. When all was said and done, my guess is that very few of these feature films were seen by more than 1000 people, and did not make their money back, let alone make a profit. The filmmakers learned valuable lessons in filmmaking and the business of films, but it was not a viable business by any stretch of the imagination. The reason for the lack of economic viability of independent feature films was simply that, no matter how cheaply they were distributed, the costs always exceeded the revenues. How can an independent feature film make a profit if it cannot even find 1000 people willing to spend three dollars for a copy or a screening? It just couldn’t be done, and independent feature filmmaking was essentially a cheaper and more effective option than attending film school and building a reel, but nothing more than that. The good news is that, thanks to CreateSpace, which is part of Amazon.com, it is now possible to make a profit on just about any feature film, because all the filmmaker has to do is upload the video file and the associated artwork to CreateSpace and within minutes the film is available for sale on DVD or as a video-on-demand download on Amazon.com. This solution is efficient and economical because it is fast and has no start-up costs for the filmmakers. You signup for a free account on CreateSpace, upload your materials and you’re ready to go. The advantage of this independent film self-distribution approach is not just the enhanced likelihood of actually making a profit on your independent feature film: it also cuts out all those nasty, sleazy independent film distributors who have been taking advantage of independent filmmakers for so many years. There might have been a golden age for independent filmmaking, but filmmakers generally agree that there has never been a golden age for independent film distribution: the filmmakers almost invariably got screwed – every time, everywhere, with rare exceptions. Of course, when it comes to independent film self-distribution, one always had the option of ordering a batch of a few thousand professionally made DVDs and then selling those on Amazon.com. As an independent film self-distribution solution this is pretty good, but it made the filmmakers carry the cost of DVD replication or duplication. With CreateSpace, all of that is handled by them on a per-order basis. This reduces the costs and therefore also the risks for the filmmakers. In short, despite the bad economy and a largely paralyzed independent film industry, it has never been so easy and risk-free for independent filmmakers to self-distribute their indie films, make their money back and perhaps even make a profit, depending on how many copies you manage to sell. Of course marketing and publicity will always be necessary, otherwise nobody will go to Amazon.com to buy a copy of your film, but CreateSpace has definitely made the process much more smooth. In spite of all of the above, many independent filmmakers understandably still dream of securing theatrical distribution for their independent film. That is what all filmmakers dream of, and understandably so! If you decide to attempt that route before going for self-distribution, I was given an extremely valuable tip by a film publicist at the Palm Springs Short Film Festival: when screening your feature film for potential film buyers and distributors, it is absolutely essential that you screen the film once only when all the interested parties are present. Choose a screening date, give the film distributors and buyers plenty of notice and make it emphatically clear that there will be absolutely no sneak previews or DVD copies for anyone. This is because if you allow a buyer or distributor to take a look at your film on DVD before the main screening and they decide to reject it, the other film buyers and distributors are going to hear about it and it will kill your film’s chances instantly, regardless of its merits. All film distributors and buyers must watch your film at the same screening — absolutely no exceptions! In addition to making it impossible for an early rejection to kill your film, this will also garner your film a considerable amount of respect and might even generate some excitement about the film that no one is allowed to watch in advance! That’s a huge tip I was given with regard to theatrical distribution for independent feature films.

A few thoughts on independent film distributors

I have met a good number of small independent film distributors — the sort of distributors that nobody has ever heard of, but who nevertheless have distributed a number of independent feature films, with varying degrees of success. All I’m going to say about small independent film distributors is this: watch out. Be extremely reluctant to leave them copies of your film, and if you are in the early stages of searching through distribution, absolutely no film distributor or buyer should be allowed to watch the film ahead of the official screening of the distributors, because if somebody turns it down early, your film is instantly dead. I was given this advice by an extremely reputable and successful producer’s rep at a film festival in the United States and, over and above the reliability of this particular source, this advice makes perfect intuitive sense, so we’d better take it seriously. I’ll say it again: when dealing with small independent film distributors, watch out. Be suspicious and reserved and try and get some references. Some of these characters are sleazy, so be prepared for that sort of experience.

Film Distribution Resources

Comprehensive list of film distributors American Film Market Good luck with securing independent film distribution for your feature film!

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30 thoughts on “Independent Film Distribution Tips: a Guide for Indie Filmmakers

  1. Martin S.S. says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I adore this site! 😀

    I’m curious about distribution through CreateSpace. I’m a 19-year-old newbee from Norway and I see myself in perhaps less than 4-5 years working outside Norway, but I need to practice my craft (in directing, screenwriting, producing and editing) in my home country to begin with. As I start independently, I wonder if I can distribute and gain profit from my first feature film(s) through CreateSpace in order to ensure that the film gain some international attention. But does that only work for independent films made in the US? Do they accept foreign films? I’d really like to know.

    • Hi Martin,

      Thank you for the kind words! Anyone can distribute their work through CreateSpace, regardless of location. It’s as simple as that.

      And it’s not just for films and videos: you can also sell books and music.

      I hope this helps, and thanks for following my work! 🙂

  2. I had read the article and what I understood: firstly, try to distribute your movie via big distribution companies. Even if they take 30% from general revenue it means they do work. It is a sort of stimulus for them. Everyone wants to make money. But if your movie is turned down try self-distribution via Create Space.
    Is my conclusion right or not?

  3. Hi,

    Great article; however, I will partially disagree with you for your inherent bias against small distributors. I am a small distributor myself in India and I work hard, put in sincere efforts and do whatever I can for the films I get. But if you see the quality of the films we get, even you would ‘run away’ and even feel guilty of the kind of people you are teaching to make films/cinematography etc. and what they end up making!
    A majority of them are absolute big or small-pocketed ‘nuts’; they have scant or vague, self-motivated idea of storytelling, big egos for their level and technical expertise is far from superior. They use short-films etc. simply as a board for their future projects. And then, they blame distributors for all the problems. This is very UNFAIR.
    We also have to do ‘business’ and make some money! Distributors are not supposed to eat mud!
    Recently, a few months back, when I approached a Producer whose film got a nomination in one of the categories in a Film Festival, the first thing he mentioned to me (with a bloated ego) was that he was in deep debt! And he came from a wealthy family. I would say he is an a###ole. Till date, he has not got a Distributor!
    I came to your site because I liked your content; if you made poor content and then leave it to me to sell it, and I as a distributor cannot, it will not be correct to blame me for everything! Because film-making is such a complex art that a great story with bad lighting can falter; a technically sound project with a poor script can flounder; great cinematography with poor audio can falter. And we DISTRIBUTORS HAVE TO FACE ALL OF THAT!

    Thanks.

    • Agreed — most filmmakers and film distributors are of low quality. It’s just the way it is.

      It’s not the same in every industry: for example, it would not be correct to say that most doctors or lawyers suck, but it’s true in non-regulated industries that race to the bottom. Video production is the perfect example, and filmmaking follows close behind.

    • Curious to know what Indian distribution is like. Can you discuss with me offline? lisasabina. h at gmail

    • I think that if you feel so negative about the films that you receive and you don’t think they have a snow ball’s chance in hell, then why do you accept them and agree to distribute them? Don’t accept them and tie them up with your unconfindent distribution company. Allow the filmmaker to take it elsewhere. I’m sure you don’t tell the fillmmakers that you have no confidence in their projects. And you want and accept them for some reason. Some unrevealed reason.

    • This is a worthy conversation. Having just completed my indie feature film, I am birthing it and learning as I go. Thank you! Krish, please please contact me offline at homeskilletmovie.com. I believe that India is a great market for my film HOMESKILLET and actually shot it with this in mind. Thank you!

  4. Yasmin Irani says:

    Sir,
    Loved your article.
    Now i have a question to ask.
    I have a friend who writes novels and he tried to sell the novels through a number of sites ( so called reputed ones) and the sales did take place because our friends bought from the site but no royalty was paid to my author friend. The site guys said no sales took place. Are you sure Amazon and Create Space will pay the film maker on the sales.

    • You can’t get much more reputable than Amazon, I suspect. Your friend is most unlikely to have problems with Amazon. I have no idea about how well the other websites treat people.

    • I published one book on Lulu.com (print on demand books making it easy to self publish without upfront costs) with an ISBN and so it could go to Amazon.com and no trouble with royalties even second hand (paid from Amazon to Lulu and then to me). So I’d trust them. This is the first I’ve heard of a place that really focuses on making it easy for the film maker also. Thanks.

  5. Natacha Mannhart says:

    Thank you so much for those precious infos, it is exactly what I was looking for and I have been searching for a few hours already today. Thanks Natacha Mannhart

  6. I recently gave away the rights to a feature film I made to a NY-based Indy distributor. He ‘lured’ me by telling me how much he liked the trailer of the film. The film was shot in 2006 on DV, and even though it’s a good story which pleased a festival audience, I lost faith in that it would ever make money. Like a dope I signed even though I found it curious that he would accept the film w/o seeing the entire film. THAT should have been the tip-off. Bottom line QUESTION: Is there a chance I can get back the rights so I can sell it to Amazon? Thx.

    • Read the contract. Look for some sort of expiry date.

      Better still — have a lawyer go through it and see what your options are. It won’t cost you more than an hour’s worth of billable lawyer time, and it will be money well spent.

      These distributors are absolutely despicable, but take heart: their business is dying and will never come back. From now on the market will be dominated by the major reputable distributors and by self-distribution: the low-rent distributors — those who most frequently swindle filmmakers — are going the way of the dodo. Rejoice!

  7. James Hampton says:

    Just recently Redford commented on the state of indie film distribution and screening, admitting he is ‘drowning’ in the size of the event, as he launches second film festival in London. HasSundance got too big? That’s for others to decide,” said Redford. “Has it got too big for me? Probably, in the sense that I realised I’d been drowning in it. So now I’m content to just step in periodically to ensure it stays true to its original purpose, and make sure it doesn’t spend too much time raising

    For experimental film and first-time projects createspace.com is a good choice. Don’t judge a book by its cover, in this case the design of the site (hopefully amazon will improve this) soon. It offers free tools and a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing. It is essentially on-demand, and not a vanity service, so worth checking out.

    For newer players, doc-filmmakers and professional producers, filmbay.com is a good choice. For English-language content and foreign-language content, they offer worldwide distribution. Also VOD. Video-On-Demand, Filmmaker keeps 97%, Player mobility, Complemetary Social Media Marketing, Reach, Reliability, Track Record, Exposure & Visibility; Ad Revenue-Share, Lump-sum (cool) Payment, Access to major distributors, Access to itunes, Netflix, Amazon, Home for Shorts, Docs & Features, No set-Up Cost, IMDB integration, Highest Revenue Share; with cross-platform (from web news).

    Ideally, other services might be useful as well, maybe compilations, especially for shortfilms. Submission to a film festival is always worth considering, too. That can help get more publicity and audience exposure. The film industry should get more credit for the contribution it makes to the wider economy, according to Robert Redford. Independent film has always had to struggle for a place in the universe,” he said, calling for extra funding to aid the exhibition and distribution of non-mainstream titles. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-22278100

  8. Seems to me that it is only the already main stream stuff that is selling on CreateSpace and that your film will be buried by that sort of stuff. For example if you make a shark film (and may amateur divers have great shark movies) the only hits a search for ‘shark’ finds on the Amazon Instant Video site reveals are twenty ‘Discovery Shark Week’ shows and yet I know there must be some people adding their own home-made shark shows.

    I am not sure if you have tried to find films made by individuals but I can’t see any in the top fifty listings for, say, documentaries on the Amazon Instant video site. It needs a separate category for smaller outfits or to identify individuals making films on extremely small budgets; not for them to be competing directly against broadcasting monsters like Discovery.

    Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place but if it’s hard to find other people will be missing it too.

  9. If you are starting out, how do you price your work? I’m working on my first feature, and I decided to follow your suggestion to make a couple of films with no crew to learn as much as possible about every aspect of film making. (And boy am I learning heaps!) But after all the work that’s gone in, I’d love to make something back, bless all the volunteers who have helped, and get better equipment! So what could I reasonably charge at this level? How do you gage that?

  10. Indie Guy North says:

    Warning about CreateSpace! I have two feature-length projects that were accepted by CreateSpace this year for listing on Amazon.com. They were prompt about putting up the DVD listing. They are also prompt about making changes to the artwork or the information material.

    BUT WATCH OUT FOR THE INSTANT VIDEO! What a nightmare! More and more people want to watch downloads instead of buying discs, so I think that the Instant Video feature is critical to sales success. So far I have been waiting SIX MONTHS to get one of my projects up on Instant Video even though Amazon says it takes only up to 60 days.

    I have been trying for months to get an old version of our other movie removed from Instant Video so that we can replace it with the new version. The last word from them was that it would be removed within 5 to 7 working days, but here it is almost a month later, and the old version is still there like an unwanted house guest that won’t leave.

    When I get responses from CreateSpace support, I just get very apologetic messages that say they are trying to do their best. Lots of kind words, but no results of any kind.

    I am trying to find good alternatives to Amazon’s Instant Video. I think CreateSpace is still good for discs, but if you are like me, you may experience extreme aggravation in regard to their pay-per-view download (“Instant Video”) program. It’s just incredibly bad.

    • Interesting article. Amazon instant video does state everything you have said but I’m going to go with the assumption that they will only convert popular DVD’s. I.e if they see that your film is selling really well then they’ll upload it onto their server for instant viewing. If it isn’t then they just come up with some crappy excuse like in your case where they are just stalling. I reckon it’s because they don’t want to clog up their server. But then why advertise it say that we can upload our films on their VOD service. Hmm interesting. Thanks for the eye opener. I did think it was too good to be true.

  11. I would advise I have tried all of these avenues. None are effective. Anyone downloading a dvd from createspace/amazon can quickly copy and pirate it. Best move now is online streaming. Within a year or so there will be many streaming online movie services where your film is protected and you will be seen.
    mol

  12. ashkhanproductions@hotmail.co.uk says:

    I have completed a horror “Spirital Phantoma” looking for distribution anyone interested?

  13. Sundeep Misra says:

    An Indian biopic on one of India’s greatest field hockey players goes on the floors today…it’s called ‘Prithipal Singh’….we are looking for distributors…it’s a low budget film with a good cast and a good script. How do I distribute this film to Indian audiences in the UK, US and Canada….

  14. We are looking for distributors action thriller entitled “Shir-zan” middle eastern female protagonist. Very good cast. Excellent storyline. Any interests?

  15. I agree to a certain extent. Distributors want your film basically for free as they need to recoup all their P&A costs etc. The filmmaker is left with pretty much nothing. It’s good for exposure if you get a deal with a decent distributor as you may get some form of limited theatrical release but if you have investors that have put a lot of money into your film I won’t giving away the rights to your film. I personally as an indie film producer feel that if we do all the hard work in marketing the film to it’s full potential and you manage to reach your target audience on a BIG scale then you don’t need a distributor! Just get the viewer to buy your film from your site. So in a nutshell, do you want a distributor to do all the hard work for you and take a huge slice of the pie, or are you willing to put in the hard work and promote and market the film yourself and retain 100% of the profit?

  16. Joseph Rios says:

    Great advice about small and big distributors, and especially, about self-distribution and the advantages of going that route. Great links all around! Bravo!

    BTW, since you kept plugging CREATESPACE, you must be intrinsically tied to it. Founder/creator? What?

  17. As actor and as an independent filmmaker (the whole writer,

    producer, director thing), I went the route of self-distribution for

    my first feature film. “The Suitcase” which via CreateSpace allows

    it to be both sold as DVD and stream-able online via Amazon On

    Demand.

    I probably spent around $40-$50k making the film, and it has

    recieved mixed reviews. Proud of the work I did with editing and

    sound mixing, even I’ll even admit the script was not too great for

    the first segment of three (and I had no budget for the 4th segment)

    The film was originally a short and my last year of ‘self-learning’

    or a personal senior project. However fans at festivals insisted it

    become a full length film. Eventually I resolved a way by designing

    it as a segmented vehicle allowing me to produce the feature. Three

    short stories about a cursed suitcase. Great. You can tell the

    writing and production value get better for each. Off topic but my

    personal advice, never shoot a feature without a completed well

    written script. Anyway, I made the price for streaming dirt cheap

    at $1.99 (the lowest Amazon allows a film to be streamed for if I

    remember) to obtain the largest audience possible. With the success

    and exposure of an expensive premiere (also costing me more than was

    taken in at the theater), the pay to play aspect was really just a

    venue to get my first work seen and appreciated. “The Suitcase” is

    my ‘evil dead’ or Ed Wood stab (pun intended) at films. Intentional

    B style acting and dialogue where it makes the most sense with a

    noirish backstory of an evil traveling salesman (played by myself)

    most people get what I was doing, which was basically making fun of

    horrible B style movies while keeping it all entertaining.

    So in producing my big budget (appearing) comedy The Rude, the Mad

    and the Funny I used Quentin’s Resevoir Dogs paradigm that one

    location for an entire film is less expensive. Except the one

    location of RMF is Jake’s truck. Thus the scenery is always moving

    and several locations where still utilized, and it was still cost

    effective. http://www.rmfol.com That said, the film is in last

    stages of post and self-distribution is NOT the angle I am vying

    for. A kickstarter campaign for distribution after you’ve completed

    your film is the reason I am adding this comment (other than the

    shameless plugs), because if you can show the property you’ve

    produced and raise enough awareness with the fund-raising tools on

    the internet these days, getting distribution by putting up some of

    the cost will help to match the remainder you are going for with a

    viable distributor. I’d say the distribution goal for an

    independent film-maker if profit is desired would be ultimately

    getting the film onto Redbox. If you investigate the distribution

    success of the film “Creep Van” which could be found in Redbox’s

    nation wide (and watch some clips so you know why i’m using it as an

    example), it’s important to understand that getting a decent

    distributor (are there any?) along with a region specific deal is

    the first step. Once you get additional distribution in other

    countries using sub-titles, and your film fairs well and profits

    well, it appears larger distributors may become interested in your

    property and getting a large distributor interested is then

    possible, and probable. If I had to guess “Eagle Films [lb] (on

    IMDB) are probably at least partially responsible for handling the

    portfolio well enough for Redbox to allow its inclusion. If i’m

    wrong on any of this, i’d appreciate hearing what others with more

    experience would have to say. Also feel free to let me know what

    you think of either of my films either on my facebook page or on the

    RMF website: http://www.rudemadfunnymovie.com Thanks for letting

    me reply, and hope others have more to educate on this very

    important step in the industry.

  18. what can’t the film maker allow for a portion of the budget to do the distribution in house. Why can’t the producer simply rent the 3000 theaters for a given period of time.? Viola?

  19. sir I liked your article
    if we release movie on online and in theater at same time it give a chance for privacy so how can we over come by this

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