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Finding Distribution for your Documentary

Finding Distribution for your Documentary
You've hammered your way through pre-production, survived all of the ups and downs of production, and nearly fell apart during post. But you're here and your documentary is done. Not to mention, it's spectacular! Now what? It may seem as though your job as a documentary filmmaker is complete. However, the long road to distribution still lies ahead of you. Distribution is the key to getting your completed documentary off of your shelf and into the lives of the viewing audience. That was the whole point of making a documentary in the first place, wasn't it -- to share the experience with the world? There are many avenues you can take, however, it may take several tries before finding a means of distribution that works for you and your project. Here are a few do-it-yourself ways to distribute your documentary:
  • Four Walling: Basically, this means you find and rent the theater or space where you show your movie. Depending on the arrangements you make with the property owner, it's possible to make a profit in ticket sales. On the down side, you may shell out more cash than you get back if no one shows. At any rate, this means of distribution has a lot of potential, and has worked for many independent filmmakers.
  • Online distribution: The possibilities of online distribution are nearly endless. There are many online video sharing sites these days, such as Vimeo, Openfilm, and YouTube to help you get your documentary viewed. But don't stop there, you can promote your documentary through social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook, and by creating a website specific to your project.
  • Festivals: Getting your documentary into the right festivals can be like hitting a gold mine in the world of distribution. Festivals provide a viewing audience, hype for your movie, and could put you in contact with those already working in the industry. However, as with any means of distribution, festival success requires more work than simply submitting your documentary.
Remember, finding distribution will usually take time. Persistence is key! If one avenue of distribution doesn't work, try another. With enough preparation and perseverance, you will be well on your way to gaining a viewing audience. Interested in more tips on documentaries? Sign up for Videomaker's free Documentary Course. This free tip series is designed to help you improve your video production skills, fast. Learn More. The Videomaker Workshops are a great place for hands on training in all areas of video production. Videomaker has been teaching video production to small classes of video enthusiasts for over 15 years. These intimate, detailed workshops allow attendees to fully immerse themselves in the subject matter with enough face time with the Videomaker experts to answer any specific production questions they may have.Learn More.
March 16th, 2011


GRX21's picture

As somone who has been through the gambit of independent film making with our own documentary, I would like to make a few points and perhaps someone else will chime in providing some additional information which we weren't aware of.


#1 disregard just about everything you've ever heard or read in the popular media concerning independent film release.  I read and/or studied just about every book ever written about independent film at one time or another.  Over-all, I would say that these resources actually hurt me.  The fact of the matter is, the information provided is generally wrong.


#2 Do not hurt your film budget by shotgunning it out to 20 film festivals.  The fact of the matter is, unless you have a large PR budget. your chances of getting into a film festival is slim!  (this goes against everything you're told).  You're competing against others with large budgets, know the people involved etc.  


#3 Independent film festivals are no longer totally about independent film.  Do not submit your independent film to a major film festival unless you have some sort of backing.  No one cares anymore about the size of your film or even if you managed to beat the odds and complete it on a microbudget- that went out in 1995! Even smaller festivals will push truly independent films aside if they have the opportunity to present the latest larger budget, larger PR pseudo-independent film instead.  Like I said, it's not about independent film anymore.  Often, it's not even about locally produced films (well, in all but the smallest festivals anyway).


#4 Submit your film to the smaller, local film festivals first (NOT the other way around as popularly directed to).  I would say submit it to about six festivals and see what happens. Contrary to everything you're told, the large film festivals WILL pick up a film that has won awards or garnered some press due to the smaller festivals.  SunDance picks up films from other festivals all the time (Please note: this again is in direct conflict with what people are told).  While this is possible, it is almost impossible that your film would be directly chosen for Sundance or SlamDance or anything else unless you know someone there.


#5 The reason you want to avoid submitting to tons of festivals is because they are a waste of resources.  Unless the festival just happens to have no fees and pays your way there or you are certain the press resulting would be worth it (a big event), you're wasting resources. While Withoutabox has made submitting films to festivals easy, they have also turned festivals into a fee churning machine.  Freeing up these resources will allow you to spend money doing your own premiere and having the funds to advertise and promote it properly.  I received as much promotion doing a premiere (Or four walling) of my film than many film festivals can muster for their entire event!   You must weigh these factors.  Even if you are accepted into a small festival, if it will provide little promotion for your film, it may be a waste of time and resources.  The festival may present the film but only at a net cost to you!  Be choosy.


#6 After that, seek out any groups or blogs etc that are compatible with your film and promote it there.  Remember, you must be as dedicated to the promotion of your film as you were creating it.  It's unfortunate, but true. You will be promoting it for a very long time and it may take a long time before you make a break through.  We have been promoting our film for almost a year.  That's the difference between independent film and having a massive Hollywood promotion budget.


#7 I have read some articles about independent film promoting the idea of putting films up for Free on the internet and then taking donations or selling product.  They even gave a few specific examples of films which had pulled in $10,000 this way.  Question: Out of the five example films which made money this way, how many others out there have made $1, or nothing?  100, 200, 1000?  Perhaps others can correct me, but I would never distribute a film this way.


#8 While promoting this film and meeting people, you are setting yourself up for better success on your next film (if you make another one after being run through the mill once). Or, go with a separate approach (a myth actually accurate) which is to go to film festivals and meet people there BEFORE submitting.  When you submit a film, your chances will likely increase dramatically.   However, even with that you can appear at a festival which does your film no real good.  It can just be a stroking of your ego.  Make sure any award you can get will actually have weight. Cash In Hand is preferrable to lip service from a festival using your film to fill seats anyday.  I am personally open to travel, guest screenings and providing a big effort into any events we are invited.  But, I am not open to the idea of footing the bill for all the expenses involved.  


#9 Why should we as filmmakers foot the bill making the film and promoting the film, then pay for the "honour" of allowing festivals to show the film?  That never made sense to me.  If the festival/event is enthusiastic, will promote the film and cover some expenses- that's different.


I know this may come as a shock to some of you but that's just the way it is.  I wish someone would have told me this before.  Now I know, I'm no longer green and I'm passing this off free of charge- Lucky You.


Hope this helps and I hope that others in the mill will leap forward with advice (I'm always open to new ideas).