Share the Dream:  Documentary Distribution and Sales --Part III

You found the "story" that needed to be told, you scraped together enough funding to shoot and post it and now you have an end product that you and your small circle of best friends think is great. But now what?

Festivals are one of the first places you should look to get your project noticed. Start by building lists of potential places to show your film and group these into at least two categories: festivals that are well known and often lead to distribution and festivals that are grouped by production type or topic (i.e., an all female film festival if your work was all done by females, or a film festival that celebrates stories from the South for documentary about Freedom Summer in Mississippi). Most festivals will involve some cost to enter and you need to count this as a loss even if your film doesn’t make the selection cut.


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Your Own Backyard

Look locally. There are at least 15 film festivals each year here in Iowa that feature projects created within the state. Contact your state (or even county) Film Commission and get a list of all the local film festivals. If you can, speak with someone in the film office and tell him or her about your film. Their job is to promote films produced in state, so allow them to offer their suggestions for local distribution and attention.

Public Television

Accessibility to public television will vary greatly from state to state and even regionally. Iowa, for example, has a very developed Public Television programming department that is very accommodating in terms of providing information and support for our documentaries. They even offered seed monies for one of our projects, but we decided to self-fund and maintain complete rights until the project was completed. They did, however, refer us to ITVS (Independent Television Service), which is a service that assists filmmakers and showcases independent producers.

Unfortunately, much of what you have heard about the state of Public Television is probably true. They still seek first-quality programming and though open to documentaries, they are no longer the land of "milk and money." Public Television has become quite dependent upon grant and gift monies to support project funding.

Cable Distribution and Television Syndication

What cable outlet or Broadcast channel is the best possible match for your project? As more and more channels become available, the appeal of each channel becomes more selective and niche oriented. Many cable channels run a high level of documentary programming and much of it is tied to a very specific topic (E Entertainment, Style, The History Channel, Bravo). Some cable channels are connected to entire cable networks. The Discovery Channel is a flagship cable station connected to 14 other cable channels including Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, The Travel Channel, and FitTV. If you contact the Discovery Channel distribution office they can send you the required forms for submission and will help move your material to the proper cable outlet.

The Internet

The Internet is exploding with showcase opportunities. Many Web sites allow for very extensive streaming video. Does your project relate to or help clarify some aspect of someone else’s Web site? Could a portion of your documentary play on their Web site via streaming video and then be offered for purchase? Do you have your own Web site where you can sell your end product? If not, and your documentary is one that people might purchase if they knew it existed, you probably should be selling it through a Web site. Make sure the site is clean and simple and has a shopping cart that allows others to purchase your documentary in a variety of either downloadable formats or DVD.


Vidcasting (also known as video podcasting, vodcasting, and other names) is different than streaming. It is a method of transmitting up to broadcast quality video via an RSS feed [Really Simple Syndication] to a computer. This method of video sharing provides a low-cost, broad and immediate marketplace for video distribution by enabling users to receive continuous, high quality updates directly to their personal computer. Independent producers and filmmakers can benefit greatly from this technology as it enables them to cut out the middleman and make their videos instantly accessible to a wide audience at TV broadcast quality.

Independent filmmaking especially documentary filmmaking is by nature a challenging area of video production and finding a viable distributor presents a special challenge all of its own. If you are new to the documentary arena, this is an opportunity for others to see examples of your work and for your exposure to networking and marketing opportunities. If you are ready to start selling or marketing your work you can create a sample or a trailer of your documentary and encourage those who see your sample to go to your web sight to purchase the entire piece. For more information on vidcasting visit

Educational Video

An Internet search for educational videos will bring up a substantial list of catalogues and services that specialize in videos and documentaries appropriate for classroom and educational purposes. If your documentary qualifies as a possible option in one of these catalogues, it would certainly be worth further investigation. Be prepared to create a study-guide for your documentary if they request one.

Finding Funds for Distribution

Fundraising to help find distribution outlets and marketing opportunities for your project is different than looking for "seed" money. You already have a relatively finished end product and now you simply need help finding ways to get people to see it. In our small town, there are many known businesses that routinely give to special projects. The cost of underwriting the marketing for your documentary will probably not be that much more expensive than underwriting a good-sized event for your town or for an organization.

Take your outline, your budget and a one-page synopsis of your project which includes not only your subject matter but why your "subject matters," along with possible areas for distribution to the meeting. If you can create a short 3-4 minute DVD that can function as a sample reel of your documentary, it can be a very motivating portion of your pitch. Take a portable DVD player to the meeting just in case. Have a detailed marketing plan for your project that shows all the festivals you plan to enter, all the ways you want to present your documentary, and the costs for this exposure.

You don’t need a formal business plan at this point, unless you are truly attempting to raise a substantial amount of money. If that is the case you will need to create a formal business plan that includes projections for how the money will be returned to those who invest. Many documentary filmmakers have been very successful at raising dollars in support of their endeavor while promising no more than a credit listed at the start and finish of the documentary. PBS won’t allow much more than a simple acknowledgement of support. You do however need to know how you plan to accept the funds if an individual or a company offers them to you. If PBS partners with us on one of our projects, anyone wishing to donate to the project designates the funds as a gift or grant to Iowa PBS. PBS then re-allocates the funds back to the project. Sometimes the organization which functions as the "pass-through" will charge a "processing" percentage to cover their time and effort.

Last Thoughts

We have now traveled the full course of documentary filmmaking. We have discussed finding a subject, defining your style, the technical requirements for bringing that vision to video, and how to market that video to a group of people. Like any artist or craftsman, you are now equipped with the necessary tools of your trade. I look forward to one day hearing a breathless documentary filmmaker at the Academy Awards stating how an article in Videomaker magazine helped get you started. Hey, I can dream too, you know!

Randal K. West is the Vice President/Creative Director for a DRTV full service advertising agency.

Sidebar: Release Me

Devising an effective paper trail for your project is not the most fun you’ll ever have as a documentary filmmaker, but it is an essential step for avoiding potentially costly legal suits. It doesn’t matter if everyone appearing in your documentary is a friend or family member you should still have them sign a simple release allowing you to use their name and likeness at no charge to you. I have witnessed too many cases where someone who was fine with being shot initially, but insisted later upon edits or complete removal from the finished product. The way to protect yourself is to get a release before you shoot them.

"I hereby consent and authorize the use of my name and likeness, which may appear in any film, videotape, or still photograph released by, (you and your address), in connection with the distribution of an as yet untitled documentary (The Documentary).

I hereby authorize (you) and/or their assignees to use, reproduce, sell, exhibit, broadcast and distribute any promotional materials containing my name and likeness for the purpose of The Documentary.

I hereby waive any right to inspect or approve the finished videotape, soundtrack or advertising copy, or printed matter that may be used in connection therewith or to the eventual use that it might be applied."

You will need each individual to state whether they are over or under 18 or 21 years of age, depending upon the legal age of adulthood in your state. If they are under that age, you will need to have a parent or legal guardian undersign the release. They should provide you with their name, address, date of birth, and signature and you should have a witness present at the signing. Some producers also state directly in the release that there is "none nor will their ever be any recompense for this recording" if that is in fact the case. I realize that this sounds a little like over-kill but these kinds of releases aren’t often read before the shoot, but they may save your project down the road.

Read the Other Parts in this Series

How to Make a Documentary – Part I

How to Make a Documentary – Part II

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