One of the greatest joys of videomaking is the thought that, eventually, other people may actually see the
production you’ve been slaving on for months. And for those financially-inclined readers, this scheme sets
up a monetary reward as well. As long as an audience exists that wants to view your videos, this same
audience may be willing to pay to view those very same videos. That’s correct, you can actually make
money with this hobby-turned obsession. Now I’ve got your interest!
Getting your tapes viewed, purchased or rented should be a top priority for any serious
videomaker. All of these functions fall under the umbrella of distribution–that magic word that makes
producers salivate. Distribution is what makes the film and video world turn. While distribution is
obviously responsible for placing films in your local multi-plex, it also allows you to go down to the local
video shop and rent a copy of Tombstone, purchase The Lion King at McDonalds or order
the latest Faces of Death installment from the back of a magazine.
And it’s distribution that brings special interest videos, documentaries, instructional tapes and other small
and low-budget productions to audiences worldwide. Imagine this kind of distribution making
your tapes available to the masses.
Even though traditional video distribution is a multi-billion dollar business that moves hundreds
of thousands of VHS tapes and titles around the globe yearly, the reality is that distributors are tough to
If that seems confusing, let me explain. Basically, there are three level of distributors. At the top
of the heap are, of course, the big guys–Warner Home Video, Columbia and the like. These huge
companies pick up major movies to distribute on an international basis. Usually video deals are made when
the film is going into production. This means that the producers of these films don’t have to concern
themselves with selling their production to a distributor; the deed is done before one foot of film has run
through the camera. The companies involved at this level, known as the majors, only deal with big, multi-
million dollar budgeted films. They won’t be on your call list when you finish that “Tone Your Thighs
While You Sleep” exercise tape.
Next in the pecking order are distributors referred to as mini-majors. Prism, Hemdale and HBO
Pictures qualify. Many companies at this level actually produce product for a direct-to-video release. Their
productions move immediately into the crowded video pipeline, the same route you’ll eventually want your
video traveling. Again, most of these firms handle only mega-buck projects, so unless you’ve got the next
El Mariachi or Clerks, trying to work with these companies is a waste of time.
At the bottom of the traditional video distribution heap are the independents. With a wide range of
low-to-mid-budget releases, Hemdale, Interscope and Full Moon operate here. Direct-to-video and limited
theatrical release films as well as special interest videos fill these companies’ release rosters. Unfortunately,
like the above, even this bottom-of-the-ladder group is still too sophisticated for the independent
videomaker. Is the “distributors are tough to find” statement making more sense?
If you’re fearing that your special interest video on Bonzai tree collections will miss what you’re sure
is a large, interested audience–don’t. Even though you may not land distribution with a nationally-
recognized player, there’s hope.
What I didn’t tell you is that there are hundreds of smaller distributors that exist below the
independents. These distributors handle projects produced on a thousand bucks, or less. These companies
actively seek special interest productions, low-budget movies and other independent shot-and-produced-
on-prosumer-video-gear projects. These national businesses may be your first, best hope for finding an
Firms at this level make their money by handling a large number of small projects. They may not
sell as many copies per title as the big guys, but they carry so many different titles, it doesn’t matter.
Sometimes referred to as sub-distributors, companies operating in this manner will handle just about
anything that they think they can profit from. Whether it be a unique exercise tape, some exploitative
documentary, or even kid-vid, a sub-distributor will probably pick it up if there appears to be a market for
Now the obvious question is, “Where do I find these companies?” Well a good place is your local
video store or mass merchandiser. Check out the company names on some low-budget productions. Scan
the special interest aisles, specifically trying to locate something that resembles your own video. Record the
company names you find on the boxes for future reference.
Big retailers like K-Mart, Wal-Mart and Target have huge video bins for what the industry calls
“sell-through.” Sell-through is the other side of the retail video market. The first class of sale is for rental
purposes. All of the distributors, from the top of the ladder down, try to place tapes in stores for this
purpose. Traditionally, movies have dominated this business. Now, many specialty tapes–exercise and
documentary in particular–are finding their way onto your local video outlet’s shelves.
This business actually started with special interest tapes. Distributors believed these productions
were things that customers would rather own than rent. And it made sense. It’s hard to use an exercise tape
if you only have it overnight. Why not, they asked, just lower the price and make it available directly to the
consumer? Over time, distributors got wise and realized people like to own movies as well. Thus the
phenomenon of big hit movies selling at under $20. The sell-through arena is a perfect market for low-
budget specialty productions.
Scanning boxes at your local Rent-A-Hit may not seem like a very scientific way to gather data,
but it’s a very good start. For a more efficient method, you may want to try checking out some of the many
books available on video distribution. These texts list hundreds of video distributors’ names and addresses
Guess what? Sub-distributors aren’t really the last level of distribution lurking out there. Below them
is a complicated jumble of buyers and sellers. And today it seems that anyone who can place a classified ad
in the back of a magazine can qualify as a video distributor. But more on that later. Who are some of the
other buyers, and what are they looking for?
- Rental stores, operating on a national level, may buy direct from the producer. They’ll want features,
children’s and some instructional.
- Local rental stores will buy features, children’s, some how-to, documentaries as well as local interest
and locally-produced material.
- Chain stores will seek features, children’s and instructional tapes, though they rarely work directly with
- Cable television is always after new features, children’s shows or documentaries.
- Local television, including public access, leased access and low-power TV may buy features,
children’s, documentary and local-interest productions from independent videomakers.
- Satellite systems, which are fairly new but gaining ground, act as suppliers to many independent
television stations around the country. Movies, documentaries and special interest tapes are all possible sale
- Public television is not a big buyer, but they will occasionally pick up a documentary and some local
- Theaters–hey, why not? An independent producer booking his project in a theater is a rare event, but it
- Foreign markets are open to lots of stuff. Again, it’s tough for the independent to enter this market
without some assistance from a distributor.
- Other markets include educational (colleges, public schools), libraries, industrial (airplanes, hotels),
catalogs and even the military.
Getting the attention of any of the above markets requires you to prepare a professional and
organized sales effort. And you must make it your best effort, because usually it’s your only shot.
The Attack Plan
A few years ago, the sales efforts to distributors would begin as early in the production of your video
as possible. In this way, you may have been able to set up pre-sales (selling your project to various markets
before it is a finished product). This guaranteed you’d see a profit before one inch of video had rolled.
But in the world of low-budget videomaking, these golden days are history. The vast majority of
all distributors you contact for possible representation of your video will ask if a screener is available. In
other words, they don’t want to hear about your tape until it’s a finished product. And believe me, there is
no room for argument. No matter how beautiful a picture you think you can draw describing the merits of
your yet-to-be epic, nobody wants to listen.
Trying to presell a low-budget video today is basically a useless activity. If you have a finished
video, great. It’s time to get selling. But even if you’re not to this point yet, the following information will
be valuable in your quest for reaching the masses. Advance planning has never been a detriment.
Confirming a distributor’s interest in the type of product you have to offer is the first step in
establishing contact with the buyers. You don’t want to waste your time and money by mailing your expose
on animal mistreatment to an exercise video distributor. You must survey the list of potential buyers,
systematically deciding which fit the profile of an interested party for your project.
When searching through the different classes of buyers, contact the highest level of distributor that
handles your type of product first. These guys are in the business to sell videos. It’s what they do. They
have the facilities and contacts available to move your video into numerous markets, some you may have
not even known existed.
In the uneventful chance that you can’t hook up with a recognized distributor (though this is slim,
considering they number in the high hundreds), you might want to self-distribution on a small scale.
One of the easiest methods is to use the classified ad section of a magazine. Depending on the
subject of your video, it shouldn’t be hard to find a specialty magazine on the market who’s audience
matches your own. Just check the back of this magazine for examples of how this method works. A simple
multiple line listing is the best way to start. It keeps your costs low and lets you gauge interest in the title.
In time, if sales warrant, you may want to move up to display ads within the editorial content of the
magazine. The best part about this kind of distribution is that you get the money at the front end, allowing
you to only make copies of your video as needed.
Another way to locate wider audiences for your VHS productions is to simply cart the tape from
video store to video store in your area, looking for a sale. Approach store owners with the pitch that they’re
supporting local artists while offering their customers something different. Besides, it’s not like you’ll be
asking $99.95 for the tape, which is the cost of most movies they put on their shelves. If you sell the tape
for $15 or $20, the store can recoup their investment after a couple of weeks. If you’re really hard up for an
audience, you can give the tape away and allow the store to lend it to customers at no charge. It’s hard for
someone to pass up a free offer, so both the store owner and customers should go for your tape.
One final approach at distributing your tape may be through public screenings, such as festivals
and cooperatives. Landing your production on the screening list of a video festival, touring program or
even at the local library’s art night is an ideal way to get viewers interested in your work.
Finding a distribution outlet for your video production is not as important as finding the right one.
Thorough preparation of your materials and research of the market are two good ways to start. This
industry may appear intimidating at first, but like anything else desirable, the effort is worth the results.