How do you distribute an independent documentary? Veteran filmmakers share their secrets

In 2018, documentary film enjoyed greater mainstream success than ever before. Hence, some are calling this the Golden Era of the genre.

Noteworthy new documentaries like Minding the Gap and Bad Reputation: the Joan Jett documentary (both Sundance alums) made huge impacts on social media and with their theatrical runs. Minding the Gap was acquired by Hulu. Bad Reputation will release on-demand and on iTunes on Sept. 28, 2018.

There is no doubt that subscription companies like Netflix and Hulu have also helped contribute to the revival of the doc genre. Besides that, cable networks like CNN, HBO, Showtime, ESPN and Fox have also started to acquire more docs. Thus, the demand for nonfiction storytelling has sky-rocketed.

There is no doubt that subscription companies like Netflix and Hulu have also helped contribute to the revival of the doc genre.

Together, with my dear friend and mentor, doc director Kevin Kerslake, we’ll share a few ways documentary films can reach audiences. We’ll also discuss theatrical releases and licensing deals.

Later, we’ll review the nitty gritty of subscription and transaction-based online releases (also known as SVOD and TVOD).

A Doc Distribution Case-Study

I met Kerslake a few years ago at a Las Vegas screening for a doc he directed, As I Am: Life and Times of DJ AM. The film is a doc feature about the late Adam Goldstein, aka DJ AM.

Kerslake has a prestigious reputation that includes directing credits with iconic rock bands Nirvana, Soundgarden, and The Ramones. Consequently, he has also made short films and commercials for brands like Quicksilver and Nike.

Hence, his documentary films have reached large audiences. Moreover, As I Am premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was eventually acquired by Showtime. Bad Reputation premiered at Sundance 2018 and launches a theatrical run paired with a worldwide release on iTunes on September 28th, 2018.

Filmmaker Kevin Kerslake

Unique Evolution

First of all, for Kerslake, documentary film-making evolved naturally from his music video work and from the short films he created. Besides that, he was doing film work for Insomniac Events in the early 2000s, long before the rave scene hit.

Insomniac is the company behind Electric Daisy Carnival (aka EDC), which went on to become one of the biggest electronic music festivals in the world.

In 2007 Pasquale Rotella (founder of Insomniac Events) reached out again to start shooting other events. Rotella mentioned, that back when their operation was small they often just gave away the films.

Similarly, the electronic music boom, known as electronic dance music, or EDM, was just getting started in the United States during that time. Thus, there became a demand for content about this underground movement that had gone mainstream.

Many Pathways

Moreover, in 2011 they landed a massive distribution deal for their documentary film Electric Daisy Carnival Experience. Soon after, it showed Nationwide in around 600 theaters.

Consequently, “What happened at the time of EDC… was a big push for a one night experience. It was rare you saw breakout films of this genre then. [With] EDC, because of the impact of the event, the desire was to make a push to crossover to find a bigger audience to tell anthropological aspect of that culture.” Likewise Kerslake explains, “We were sort of gunning for, but never started looking for a theatrical release.”

As a result, Kerslake and his team ended up partnering with a company called NCM/Fathom events. They had a partnership with major theater chains across the country. NCM/Fathom has the science down for how to throw these one-night theater events.

Solid Partnerships

In the EDC doc, Kerslake talked about how the partnership was just the right fit at the right time. Besides that, “It’s such an event based culture, so we anticipated having great success, we broke records with pre-sale tickets for theaters.”

According to Kerslake, “People were dancing in the aisles, something theaters weren’t keen on experiencing. It was the model of distribution we ended up adopting for the DJ AM doc As I Am as well, coupled with longer runs in NY and LA.”

A company called Abramorama distributed As I Am theatrically. Abramorama is an independent and marketing company specializing in music films. As a result, As I Am opened in New York and LA in the summer of 2016, then rolled out to theaters across the country in music-centric areas such as Austin and Las Vegas.

“Because we are music related and pop culture based, we work directly with those entities,” Kerslake said, regarding his partnerships with companies like Abramorama and NCM/Fathom.

Deeper on Distribution

When working with a distribution partner who takes on your film, Kerslake suggests the key is to “Know your audience, do your homework, and know where you’re going to get traction.”

Secondly, he notes that the “Most imperative thing is taking care of [your] home-base and building enough potential to crossover to a broader audience. Once it performs well at home, something becomes a phenomenon, it’s important to do that homework.”

Kerslake on set calling the shots.

Getting a theatrical run for your doc film is rare, especially if you don’t have the support of a major music label or brand like Kerslake had. However, that doesn’t mean you should give up all hope of seeing your film on the big screen.

The Festival Circuit

Another way to get that type of theatrical distribution is to play film festivals. Major film festivals are still the entryway into major distribution paths.

Kerslake says “It’s imperative I think. For As I Am and Bad Reputation, it was inarguable. We were lucky to play great festivals, that helped us find distribution that we didn’t have before either festival.”

Kerslake goes on to say it’s also important to play festivals because “it helps build awareness in the film community. All the press is there and it’s their job to report on your film. If you’re in the conversations, that’s money you don’t have to spend. It can help if you have a good showing. Those two things are important.”

Press at major festivals like Tribeca and Sundance (where Kerslake premiered his last two docs) stems from the prestigious reputation of those festivals. If you are able to play multiple regional film festivals, it can have a similar effect.

“you don’t necessarily need to be playing the big splash festivals to get around” — Kevin Kerslake

“I have friends who haven’t played those festivals but played regional festivals; you don’t necessarily need to be playing the big splash festivals to get around, but playing more of the regional festivals can have a similar effect because distribution is so viral.”

In my own experience with doc distribution, I’d have to agree that even playing one regional film festival can help your film find a distribution path. Our last doc release entitled El Pantera (2017) and focusing on Mexican UFC fighter Yair Rodriguez, was entered into all the major festivals like SXSW, Tribecca and others, but was not selected.

Persistence is Key

After several months of submitting and getting passed on, we then came across a more niche festival called the New York Latino Film Festival. After some back and forth with the festival programmers, we were selected for the festival and ended up winning “Best Documentary Film.”

This breakthrough eventually led to the film landing a distribution deal with a major broadcasting company later on.

Landon Dyksterhouse at the New York Latino Film Festival premiere for “El Pantera”.

The way the distribution deal played out was not typical. The festival itself did not lead to a direct offer for El Pantera, but it did help us leverage a licensing deal with Fox Latin America a couple months later.

That experience at NYLFF put is in direct contact with the head of HBO documentaries, whom we met at a panel. HBO did review our film for consideration but ended up passing on the project. The award for “Best Documentary” and media buzz from the festival raised the portfolio of our film and was the tipping point for us to securing a Fox LatAm deal.

Social Media Plays a Role

The conversations for that Fox LatAm deal actually started via a direct message on Instagram from a Fox programmer who saw our film’s poster before the festival and reached out to us, inquiring about distribution. We invited the programmer to the film festival premiere, but they could not make the showing.

However, shortly after the success of the premiere, we were invited to a meeting with the Fox LatAm SVP of acquisitions at the American Film Market to discuss licensing options. We did not finalize our deal with Fox LatAm until seven months after the initial first message on Instagram, but it did prove that, even if you don’t receive the exposure from a major festival, you can still score a licensing deal with a major broadcast company like the Fox Network.

Timing and scope of the project are important as well. Fox was launching their online package, Fox Premium, and used our film as a lead into UFC and other combat sports based content in Latin America.

The Right Place and Time

Another important factor to consider for doc distribution rollout is timing and sequencing windows. This refers to when the film releases online after it’s theatrical run or film festival premiere. Timing is crucial.

You want the film to be available for your audience when there is the most buzz around it. “One thing that crippled us for the EDC film — there ended up being a riot at the LA premiere. We were booked to play 600 theatres but had unforeseen circumstances.

Unpredictable Events will Happen

Besides that, Kaskade had tweeted the night before that there was a block party the night of the premiere. So 15,000 people showed up and flooded into the streets of DTLA, stopping the traffic.

For that reason, the LAPD riot squad came out shooting rubber bullets and sandbags at people. We held the screening still, but LAPD contacted the other theatre chains warning them about the riot, causing us to lose 90% of those theatre showings.”

While some people may even think an event like that could have been capitalized on in today’s society, that wasn’t the case. Yet, the EDC film couldn’t be shown for four months due to an exclusive rights deal with NCM/Fathom, the theatrical distribution company. Maybe if a closer online release date had been set, Kerslake and team could have capitalized on the moment.

Certainly, Kerslake says “When setting the windows, make it as close as possible. The theatrical run does not make money; it’s a marketing run. You capitalize on that second run, the transactional release. If the film is out of people’s conscience, then it does not work — important to sequence it that way.”

For our doc films The Proving Grounds and El Pantera, which both had transactional video on demand releases and center around stories based on mixed martial arts fighters. Above all, we always make a concentrated effort to schedule the online release around one of the primary characters upcoming UFC fights. This optimizes click-through rates for our potential audience.

Even more, viewers are more likely to buy or rent the film when they are excited to learn more about their favorite fighter leading up to their fight. Sequencing and release windows can play a crucial part in an indie doc’s success.

Optimizing viral opportunities around release dates can lead to larger revenue returns. This is where the filmmaker and the distribution company have to communicate effectively to have a successful release.

Subscription-based Licensing Deals

A licensing deal from Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime or Amazon typically comes from a strong film festival showing. Alternatively, they are conceived early on with an original production deal where the company is financing the film from the start.

The big subscription platforms like Netflix are also constantly evolving. In the past, they would only consider an indie doc film if it had a strong theatrical run, but now Netflix is focusing on more original content produced in-house.

Licensing deals for films picked up by companies like Hulu can start around $40-60k and vary dramatically from there. If you are lucky enough to get a licensing offer from Netflix, a lower end deal could start around $100k and an exclusive licensing deal offer could rise as high as $5 million, which was the acquisition price for the award-winning doc film Icarus.

Icarus was a buzzworthy film that premiered at Sundance in 2017 and focused on the ongoing Russian doping scandal. Keep in mind this is one of the largest ever deals for a documentary.

More common distribution paths for indie docs include SVOD (streaming video on demand) and TVOD (transactional video on demand) methods via an aggregator. An aggregator can be any type of distribution company that can get a film on digital storefronts and online retailers like e iTunes, Vimeo, Google Play, Vudu, Playstation, Xbox and Amazon.

The Orchard and Filmbuff are two aggregators that can get a film onto an online platform like iTunes, but there are also many others. Connecting with one of these companies can occur via a film festival, a film’s online presence or even by the filmmaker’s solicitation. Going with a more reputable company like the Orchard can usually ensure a smoother delivery of your film to the online platform and make it easier for your audience to find.

After we completed our licensing deal with Fox LatAm for El Pantera, we still had the distribution rights available for North America. I talked to a buddy of mine who connected me with another filmmaker who had worked with the Orchard.

Thus, he then connected me to the acquisitions head for sports docs, who offered to take the film and put it on the transactional digital platforms. As a result, in addition to El Pantera being available in Latin America on Fox Premium channels, the film is also available on all the major online retailers in North America and the UK.

Similarly, these types of distribution deals don’t usually involve an upfront licensing fee or advance from the aggregator to the filmmaker. It usually involves an agreement between the filmmaker and the aggregator where the distributor will receive anywhere from 15-30% fee of the transactional sales.

Rather, these companies then pay the production company a quarterly check based on the revenue sales from the online retailers. The more people who buy or rent your film, the more revenue you will collect at the end of each quarter.

Notably, this is where viral marketing, meme blasts or having a notable star in your film can help it gain traction via sales. Typical aggregator deals can last from 5-7 years.

Certainly, if your film does well in digital storefronts and rises up the iTunes documentary charts, your aggregator can also help negotiate a pitch to get it on a subscription service. This is a roundabout way of landing your film on a Netflix or Hulu.

Though it’s not very common, it does happen occasionally if your film is popular enough. Kerslake says “Licensing deals, typically — numbers are so much further south than an original film deal. Doing bundled deals, where the aggregator pitches 10 or 20 films, you’re a widget versus an original.”

Maybe it’s safe to say you won’t be commanding a $5 million deal like Icarus, but you could still earn another $50-150k in licensing fees on top of your transactional sales — which is respectable. Kerslake’s As I Am commanded a licensing deal with Showtime and also a wider transactional release with Filmbuff.

Even still, rights and territories for films can be negotiated on a project by project basis. Typically a licensing fee to a larger platform like Netflix or an HBO is a great way to secure revenue up front. However, bringing your film to a transactional platform like iTunes can help it reach a wider audience and make it available over a longer period of time to your audience.

Looking Ahead

Doc distribution is a tricky space that continues to evolve. Reach and audience engagement do not always correlate with profitability.

As a result, “It depends on where you end up. Dealing with other issues, activating bootleg cultures, in a culture prone to pirating and sharing, that’s the outlier. The more people, the more return on your investment. It’s all a game getting the most amount of people to your film and helping them find it using as little effort as possible to get to that point,” Kerslake says.

Some final advice from Kerslake: “Have composure to assess the offers you’re given, or offers you need to generate when you’re completely exhausted, impatient and financially exhausted. These sorts of pressures are difficult to bear. Take your time to assess the virtues of one offer over another, always being mindful you just donated a lot of blood getting your film done.”

Likewise, what’s the best way to have your doc reach your audience? This can be a number of options, but a combination of traditional theatrical and newer online rollouts seem to be the best duo at the moment.

While “People have one or a handful of ways of getting content, they are not changing behavior. You have to change the way you roll out your product to them. It changed the way I looked at film; they are either going to wait for a platform they use, or you’re going to go them.”

There is no exact science to indie doc film distribution.

If you’re lucky enough to play a major film festival, land a theatrical run, or nab a subscription licensing deal, along with a second or third window TVOD release, then there is a good chance your film will reach a wide audience.

If you are able to land an original licensing deal with an SVOD service, that can be lucrative and effective too.

Kerslake ends with one remark. “You may even consider building a pitch deck and cutting a trailer before your film is finished to get a distributor on board… Hit a couple of key people. How you get a hold of those people, there’s an art to that, too.”

There is no clear-cut archetype for indie doc distribution except–do what works best for your film, your resources and your audience.

Landon Dyksterhouse
Landon Dyksterhouse
Landon Dyksterhouse is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and is the founder of D-House Entertainment.

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