Distro Bistro

You've finally got that masterpiece in the can, now what?

You've managed to produce your great American film. So, what do you do next? If nobody besides your family and friends see it, what's the point? The next step is distribution.

Screen Test

A public screening not only gives you the unbiased feedback of strangers who see your film, but also provide the opportunity to draw in other filmmakers and do some networking. After all, filmmaking is a collaborative effort and the more kindred spirits you can meet and swap business cards with, the better for the success of future projects. Then there's the added benefit of local press.

The first thing you want to do is secure your venue. There are plenty of great places around, which could be turned into screening venues without breaking the bank. The thing you want to think of is location, location, location. A centrally located venue will make it easier for your audience to come to your screening. And the central hub is usually the ideal location for local theater companies that have seating and snack bars, while restaurants, coffeehouses, pubs and nightclubs all sell food and drinks.

All will be eager to bring in a packed crowd on a slow night to improve the bottom line so the key is to think "off night," and sell a manager of a venue on the fact that you're providing a solution to that problem. Bringing in people, who will not only watch your film, but will buy their food and drinks. And if it's successful enough, the manager may want it to be a regular weekly event. Which is good for you, and good for your colleagues who want to also showcase their work.

Then, when you hold the screening, advertise the venue's food and drink specials, letting the management know you care about their success for the evening including your own.

Once you've secured the venue, you want to consider the equipment you'll need to pull off a successful screening. A 25" TV and a VCR won't cut it if there's 50 or 100 patrons expecting to see something on a silver screen. This is where one needs to think not only big screen, but also projection TV. The larger the screen, the more impact your film will have on its audience. Contact local video groups and join them. You'd be surprised what equipment you may gain access to by making a few friends and sharing resources. There's also local camera stores, which operate rental equipment. Make a deal to offer some sort of cross promotion, or get them to sponsor the event.

Getting the Word Out

This is where the real work begins. Use everything from postcards and flyers, to a well-placed ad on web sites like craigslist.org, which can let people know the where and when of your screening. And every community has "free" newspapers whose ads are very affordable. Their circulation is often large and with an eye-catching ad, people may just get the idea for a night out.

There's also safety in numbers. People may be more likely to come for a screening if a full bill is planned. So, not only showcasing your film, but the films of friends and colleagues (especially shorts), can offer a mini festival feel and give more bang for the buck. It's also much easier if 5 fellow filmmakers are splitting costs and effort to get the word out, than for you to go solo.

If you do go the "co-op" method, though, you need to protect yourself with some simple ground rules:

  • Length. Make sure you only take submissions that are short. Like ten minutes. That way people are more likely to stay over the course of several shorts rather than a marathon of features.
  • Ratings. Be careful of how racy a film may be. This is not only to avoid offending your audience, but also to avoid offending your venue management. Nobody likes bad press, especially word of mouth. Stick to the basic guidelines of the Hollywood ratings system and show films no "harder" than what some would consider PG-13..
  • Rights. Make sure that any film you show has secured rights to music used, has signed talent releases, and location release from property owners, unless it was on government property. The rule of thumb should be, if you think you need a release, get one. And if you don't think it's necessary, get one anyway.

The Big Night

If you don't want to host your screening, then find a charismatic host who can entertain and moderate the evening. Perhaps a local comic or radio personality (this offers the added bonus of possible PR potential in the form of an interview or at least an on-air mention of the event). Make sure the cast is on hand and offer a brief Q&A so the audience can engage with those they just saw in the film and offer some instant feedback on the screening.

Competition – The Next BIG Step

Once you've had a screening or two under your belt and have gotten some really good feedback, it may be necessary to go back into the editing room in order to dial your film in for the next big step — Film festivals. These competitions not only offer exposure, but also a chance to garner awards, PR opportunities, and even access to those who can distribute your film. But the question is, how to get into one?

Web sites like filmfestivals.com offer comprehensive coverage of festivals from Cannes to Slamdance. And many festivals get some or all their submissions from one stop sites like withoutabox.com, a service started by filmmakers to submit to a wide variety of film festivals by only creating one package. This service is free to the filmmaker, except for film festival entry fees.

The key is to find the best showcase for your film. Granted, every filmmaker would love to see his/her film get the Palm D'Or at Cannes, but that's unrealistic. Mainstream festivals like Cannes or Sundance are not only way too competitive, but have gone "corporate" with major studios or Indie labels taking up all the air in the room, and raising the bar to the point that smaller independent films like yours may not even be considered.

Often times, being a big fish in a niche pond is more advantageous. Film festivals like the Santa Barbara International Film Festivals are more into discovery than popularity. And many films often "tour the festival circuit," gaining buzz off a smaller festivals, which can position them to be noticed and accepted by even larger ones.

The most important thing when submitting your film is to assure it has the best success by following the submission requirements to the letter. If the festival wants your film on DVD, don't send it on VHS.

Once selected, the way you market your film can directly affect its success at the festival. Be at every single screening for the Q&A, and for the entire film festival. Be armed with cards and flyers telling the time and get volunteers to pass them out. Make friends with filmmakers and the press office. Be visible, and be nice. Get your actors to come to support your film and be ready for the Q&A.

Film festivals offer both jury awards and audience awards. And many times, the audience award will garner your film better publicity and buzz than the jury prize. Both are good in helping your film to take the next step.

Online

Finally, the World Wide Web has changed the world of filmmaking. In today's high speed, mobile world, people are driven by what they see on the net as much or more than on television or in the theaters.

There are web distribution options like peer to peer file sharing (P2P). Networks like BitTorrent offer a great way to get your content out to the masses, but the downside is the difficulty with keeping track of who has possession of your video and what they are doing with it. Additionally, if you're not careful, you can also get computer viruses and spyware via P2P downloads. So, although it can be a great method of distribution, it can be slightly dangerous as well.

Legitimate options can include offering your film for download from such web portals as AtomFilms and iFilm, which can give your film exposure, while portals like Yahoo or Google Video can even help you sell your film via purchasable downloads. Both YouTube.com and MySpace.com are also becoming very popular ways to get your video out. What's really cool about such portals as iTunes, is that the infrastructure of vidcasting allows for getting your film out there via RSS feeds, a way in which video players and computers can automatically download by reading the XML file for updated content. Additionally, iTunes is the hot ticket right now for downloaders so exposure is excellent.

Every portal has its own requirements for how a film should be encoded for download, and it's usually easy to find this information on its website.The idea is to get your film out there. Get it watched and get it noticed. From there, who knows what the next step can be?

James DeRuvo is producer and editor for a broadcast production company

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