How To Get Film Distribution For Your Independent Film

Film distribution is the process of getting your film seen by an audience.

For independent films, film distribution vehicles include festivals, theatrical showings, and SVOD.

Film Distribution – Overview

Independent filmmaking requires understanding film distribution.

Unfortunately, many independent filmmakers struggle to make it happen.

The issue is that many independent films develop without the end (distribution) in mind.

Rather than making your film and then considering how to get film distribution, I recommend considering the aspects that relate to film distribution during the screenwriting process.

Advice From A Film Distribution Expert

Sebastian TwardoszTo help us understand film distribution, I asked Sebastian Twardosz, a film distribution executive who works at Circus Road Films. Previously, Twardosz worked at Cruise/Wagner Productions and International Creative Management (ICM). In addition, Twardosz teaches film distribution classes at USC and UCLA.

 

Stephanie: Can you explain what you do to help filmmakers get film distribution?

Twardosz: I represent filmmakers who have made their first feature films. I also teach about film distribution and I host a show about filmmaking. I look at all three jobs as one overreaching effort which is to help emerging filmmakers to make successful, profitable films.

When is the right time for a filmmaker to approach you? What happens next in the process of working with you?

The best time to begin working together is actually when they are in development on the script.

Another good time is once they’ve secured financing and before they begin casting because we can help with that. In terms of film distribution, it would be advisable for filmmakers to think about finding and engaging their audience before they actually start shooting.

The biggest mistake indie filmmakers make is to think about film distribution after they’ve already made their films.

But most of the time, it seems that we meet our clients when they are in post-production.

What do you do for a movie that doesn’t have wide appeal?

It’s difficult to compete with studios which have budgets of $100+ million for production and marketing. But there is an audience for indie films and there are ways to reach regular people. So what we do is help the filmmaker to maximize their reach by getting into the best festivals and getting the best distribution.

How has the independent film market changed in the last five years?

It has not fundamentally changed as much as some people would have you think it has. What’s changed is that the process has been democratized so that more people can actually make films now. The question becomes how do you engage and connect with your audience?

Once a director or writer/director has a script they intend to make, what should their next steps be?

There are two paths—the studio system and independents which sometimes cross if we’re lucky. With regard to breaking into the studio system, it’s about agents and managers.

The way to get them is through some of the prominent competitions (Black List, Nicholl Fellowship), labs (Film Independent, Sundance), and festivals (Austin, Slamdance).

With regard to independents, it’s about getting educated (film school, books, sites like Good in a Room) and surrounding yourself with people who have the experience, knowledge, and relationships to help you which will all come at a cost. You really cannot do it alone and it’s not free.

How does an independent film make money and what sort of return can the writer/director expect?

It’s a good idea to work with someone to help you navigate the festival circuit and negotiate with the various distributors. Just as you want to hire the best writer, actor, cinematographer or editor for your film, it’s a good idea to hire an excellent distribution and marketing rep.

If you had one piece of advice to give to independent filmmakers, what would that be?

Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

What is the difference between selling a screenplay and selling a movie?

Actually, the process is remarkably similar. There are agents and managers in both arenas. But they tend to specialize. So most reps work with screenplays. But there is a very small community of reps who also sell completed films.

The main difference is that writing a screenplay basically costs nothing. There’s time of course but there are no hard costs.

Whereas a film can cost thousands to hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars. So when a rep sells a script for even $10,000 the writer is usually thrilled! (Unless they’re a high-end Hollywood writer but I digress…)

However, when a film distribution rep sells a movie for $10,000 with the promise that there will be more to come then the stakes are much greater.

What’s your opinion about whether aspiring filmmakers should work on creating an award-winning short vs. jumping right into making features?

You only need a short film to prove you can direct.

You’re hosting a new show called The Insiders that is terrific. How did it come about?

ST: I represented a fantastic film called Junk which screened all over the country at numerous film festivals. We represented the distribution rights via my company Circus Road Films and negotiated a deal with a solid distributor. You can find it wherever if you’re up for a watching a wildly entertaining indie.

The filmmaker, Kevin Hamedani, was happy with the results. I invited him to my classes at USC and he came up with the idea of doing a web series which would be an extension of the class. Kevin was already directing various shows for TheLipTV which is a popular YouTube channel and he’s now directing and producing The Insiders which I hope will do some good in the world, especially for emerging filmmakers.

The Insiders with Film Distribution Exec Sebastian Twardosz

What has been something that you have learned from the show so far?

Anyone can do it. But it’s harder than you think.

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Discussion About How To Get Film Distribution For Your Independent Film

  1. Will Walker

    Thanks for sharing. I really liked ST’s answer to one of the questions: You only need a short film to prove you can direct.

  2. Irene H.

    Thanks for posting this!
    Will you be appearing in a future episode of the Insiders?

  3. Jon Miles

    My biggest takeaway from this is build your audience first and foremost and that film distributors want ideally to be involved early in the process. Can you elucidate this point a bit? In my experience talking to the buyers, those closest to the zeitgeist, buyer trends, personal desires of the decision makers can give valuable input on what will sell. Meaning what do they feel like buying.

    My experience is primarily reality and current affairs..Knowing what the nets want, be that Esquire, Bravo, Discovery ID, and what stories Al Jazeera wants to cover that day, week, month are just a function of talking to people I already know and pitching them on my ideas. When I’m in tune with them, it’s all pretty easy, and I just have to go find what I know they already want and infuse my ideas into that wrapper. Admittedly I still get ‘well will know it when we see it’ but I’ve always found that if I can ascertain the voice of an outlet, pitching them is much easier.

    So in thinking about an indie film, would you say that distributors are the trend spotters – will they know what’s going to sell besides ‘we know it when we see it.’ Outside of a studio system setting, are the canary in the coal mine, at least for what NOT to develop and spend effort on? (i.e. Sci-fi is hot, but zombies are not this year)

    I guess that’s my question – who are the best people to talk to in indie and studio film to determine what has an increased chance of selling.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Your experience holds true in the indie and studio world too. Executives from studios, distributors, and financiers can give their opinion about trends, but often the most valuable information is what not to develop. Agents and managers who represent projects in these areas often have a good sense of what the trends are because they are talking to all the studios, rather than focusing on one company. By talking to buyers, you will get valuable information about what that person likes and is looking for, which can help you customize what you share about your projects for that specific person.

  4. Jon Miles

    Thanks for the answer. As a personal aside – you’ve done an excellent job of developing products and community . People probably don’t realize how opaque the business used to be, and perhaps they take all this great information, if not for granted, perhaps with a lack of gratitude for what you’ve put in place here. I for one do not and I look forward to engaging with your services and products into the future.

  5. Deborah N.

    Thanks a lot ST for the tips. The tips are relevant and very useful. However, there are few project buyers in Africa. Moreover African films are not as popular as western films all over the world so it is difficult to sell. Distributors at least where I am (Tanzania) would prefer films than projects.

  6. Terry River

    Your article is so good to read. Amazing!!
    Thank you for sharing, could I post it on my blog to share to my families?

  7. D.R. Pedraza

    Stephanie, I am preparing to pitch in the next couple of weeks and your advice has been invaluable. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  8. Joseph Wilson

    Thank you for your honest knowledgeable insight. I have just completed writing a screenplay and am torn between selling it or producing it myself. From what I read in your article it would seem easier to sell your script verses making your movie and trying to squeeze out a large enough profit to launch you toward your next film. I have written, directed,and produced one feature already and know what is involved. Do you know of any financiers that might be interested in becoming partners in a project and help to bring a higher production value to my project for a profit. And would those people also have better access to distributers. You can e-mail me privately . Thanks for your time.
    Joseph Wilson
    http://www.imdb.me/josephwilson

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Both paths are challenging- making your own film or selling the script. The financier recommendations are very dependent on the specifics of your project. I suggest targeting financiers who have invested in films at a slightly higher budget than your last film, but in the same genre. Once people have been successful with a particular project, they almost always are looking to replicate that same success with a new project— and it should be yours.

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  12. Raman Raghav

    These are some really cool tips for film distribution that everyone in this business should know about. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  13. Naziya Khan

    These are absolutely fantastic tips for film distribution. Thanks for sharing.