How To Self-Distribute Your Film

Kevin Smith speaks at Comic Con

Filmmaker Kevin Smith has had success exploring new means of self-distribution, including touring his film Red State.

Producing and filming an independent movie is laborious work, though not impossible. And while bringing your vision to life outside the studio system might seem difficult, you’ll find it’s exponentially harder to get that vision to the masses. There’s a reason there is a huge industry dedicated entirely to distribution—the dissemination of movies in formats of all types. Doing it on your own is almost impossible.

However, with technological improvements and the decentralization of the Internet, more and more artists have turned to self-distribution. Some have it easier than others. Comics like Louis C.K. and filmmakers like Kevin Smith have found success putting distribution in their own hands, but they also benefitted from built-in audiences and closer sources to financing. If no one has ever heard of you, let alone your movie, you’re in for a serious undertaking. Here are some tips to help you along the way.

1. Get Attention

While streaming and video-on-demand are growing in popularity, booking movie theaters is still vital for most unseen movies to get seen. If you haven’t picked up a distributor after major festival screenings, it’s probably up to you. Your first goal should be to find a talented graphic artist who shares your vision. Make art—posters, flyers, etc.—for your film that catches the eye while also conveying its tone or mood or theme. You’ll also need a skilled editor to craft a movie trailer that will get your movie noticed. Art and trailers aren’t just necessary for social media or buzz, they will also grab attention in theater lobbies and as windows to your film on streaming websites. Most importantly though, they’ll help you raise money.

2. Get Money

Distribution is more expensive than you would probably guess, and depending on your production’s budget, could actually cost more than it did to make the movie. Renting theaters and paying for prints and ad materials rack up big costs. You may also find the need to hire assistance even if you’re distributing on your own. Use platforms like Kickstarter and more traditional grassroots campaigns to raise initial startup cash. Use your sweet trailer and posters to make people want to get involved. Find those interested in what you have to say or patrons of the arts or wealthier citizens who would like to see their name in the credits!

3. Get Ads

You’ve got the art and you’ve got the money to make prints so it’s time to get the word out. Theaters want ad materials well in advance because if people aren’t seeing your movie, it’s costing them money too. Ideally you could keep them in good shape and reuse them if you’re moving from city to city, but it’s hard to keep perishable material safe in the hands of strangers. You’ll probably just have to pay for more copies, so be prepared. And remember to get them early.

Movie theater lobby

4. Get Social

Social media is the best way to gain buzz around your film. Use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—anything you can get your hands on that will get your story to the masses. Share your trailer and your cool poster. Post photos from the set or from your tour or time at festivals. Post your thoughts, even if unrelated to the film, just to keep your name and the name of your project in the air. Also, use your networks to find your audience. What cities or types of people seem to gravitate towards your project? When you self-distribute your distribution is limited—that makes efficient targeting very important.

5. Set Good Dates

Choosing the right release dates for your theatrical and online releases are key. You want to avoid the Fall and early Winter because the films with awards season buzz are already hogging the spotlight. You’ll also want to avoid sharing dates with major releases that are going to suck up all the audience, or, conversely, release concurrently with a film you think will turn off your potential audience so they’ll see yours instead. Counter-programming is a vital tactic used by distributors—if everyone is seeing the new sci-fi blockbuster, your low key drama would make a great alternative. And don’t forget to think small. If you’re doing one- or two-time screenings, choose Mondays and Tuesdays, days when an audience isn’t likely to be doing something else.

6. Go On Tour

Touring with your film may seem old school—it was originally done to save money on costly film prints, and has fallen out of fashion as digital prints have made distribution cheaper. But it’s a great way to focus resources and meet your audience in person, forging a stronger connection. Use social media and your art to keep locals in the know and go city-by-city, staggering your dates while building word of mouth.

Limited releases

7. Do Q&As

If you’re touring with your film, don’t just make it a series of run-of-the-mill screenings. Organize a Q&A, talking to your audience after the screening. Guest speakers make screenings more exciting and give people more incentive to come out and see it. You can also engage better with your audience and learn from them, increasing your buzz as well as teaching you how to better target a larger crowd

8. Stream

Once you feel your theatrical run has run its course, you should get your film online to stream. You can also make home video releases on DVD and Blu-Ray, though the format is quickly falling out of fashion. Distributing online later in the game is smart because it prevents potential piracy and forces people to come out to the theaters to see your film first. However, once you do go online, you’ll reach a much, much larger audience, especially considering all those who wanted to see your film but weren’t in the cities of your release. You can post on sites like YouTube, which isn’t as discriminating as companies like Netflix or Amazon, though it may give your film a less “professional” demeanor. But it’s a start.

9. Team Up

If you can’t make headway with the big companies like Netflix and Amazon, there are interesting and innovative organizations and companies you might have better luck with. Groups like Indieflix and Createspace back your film with screenings and streaming and help raise awareness of your project. Some, like Indieflix, have models that allow you to get paid for each minute your film is streamed. For self-distributors, organizations like these are becoming a must.

10. Be Prepared to Work

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. You may be physically and emotionally drained after finally getting your project on film or video, but if you’re going to distribute yourself you have to prepare for a great deal more effort. There’s a reason those with cash will pay someone else to do it for them. But if you’re an artist with no other choice, you’ll have to muscle through it. It’s not all bad though—self-distribution allows you to connect with your audience in a way many filmmakers never get to. And what’s making art and movies if not an attempt to connect?

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