The complete guide to UK film distribution for indie filmmakers

I asked my pal Amir who has worked as a film maker AND in UK distribution, to offer  some notes for film makers entering the market. I didn’t realise he would pen an epic and essential guide to film distribution… Blimey! Over to Amir…


Film distribution is pretty much the final frontier that the independent filmmaker of today has to tackle. The intimate dealings are a mystery to most – but if you can understand and embrace the process, you’ve just bettered your chances of having a sustainable career in this strange old industry of ours.

Before I launch into the nuts and bolts of getting a film out into the market, I’d just like to explain that before working in distribution, I was greener than a Granny Smith when it came to the process. I’d been making films for 5 years and didn’t have a clue. Since then and during the last 3 years, I have received a substantial education, packed with highs and lows, and I hope that some of my experience benefits you and your projects.

 

Starting Off
So, you’ve finished your film. You’re bloody knackered but uber proud, and so you should be! But now you’ve posted a screener DVD off along with that lovely poster you designed to a variety of distributors – what happens?

 

The film is screened, of course. The decision, however, isn’t always made on how ‘good’ the film is. A film can be perfectly enjoyable but not have a commercial edge. So, be prepared for knock backs – but remember that a distributor knows what they are comfortable selling – this will differ from distributor to distributor, as they all have their own niches that they know how to sell better than anything else. Although, this doesn’t guarantee results – it’s a bit more complex than that, as you will read shortly…

 

But, they like your film – yay! So you enter into negotiations with them. Percentages of sales and minimum guarantees will no doubt be mentioned. Sometimes, it can be less beneficial to take an MG up front, as opposed to a chunk of sales revenue. This is because an MG is an advance of sales that has to be recouped, along with various expenses (such as manufacturing, BBFC, etc). Marketing spend can also be recouped, so it is wise to set a limit in the contract or your DVD sales could be paying those off and leaving you empty handed.

 

However, if you can negotiate something called a corridor, this allows you to get paid a certain percentage of sales while other expenses are being paid off. As Chris mentioned in his recent blog on negotiation (http://www.chrisjonesblog.com/2012/06/top-ten-reasons-why-film-makers-screw-up-in-high-level-negotiations.html), be prepared and research as best you can. Also, don’t forget about ancillary outlets for your film; will they be working on selling TV rights, hotel and airline rights – the splits on these can be different from the DVD or theatrical splits, so it is useful to remember that and use it to your benefit.

 

Ok, you have got the deal you want. Well done – but the hard work hasn’t even begun yet. Let’s talk about the different type of release:

 

Theatrical
You are having a theatrical release. Seriously? Be honest now, is it because your film actually warrants it, or is it for your ego’s sake? You need to have your business hat on here because theatrical releases are EXPENSIVE. Even small ones can rack up the expenses bill. Plus, unless you make an absolute killing at the box office, its unlikely you’ll make cash. Of course, some releases are used as loss-leaders, to maximise on exposure and to ‘legitimise’ the film in the eyes of the audience, but beware, this is a double edged sword. Sure you can get some high level coverage, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to £££ in your pocket.

 

In my experience, the hardest thing for a filmmaker to do, once finishing a film, is to detach themselves from it – which is understandable – it is their baby. But failure to do this can lead to unhealthy hopes and expectations and an overspend on marketing which will leave your project in the red.

 

However, if a theatrical release is the way to go for your film, what has to happen?

 

Theatrical – Nuts and Bolts


BBFC – Unless your film is a documentary (which are exempt from classification) you’ll need to get your film classified by the BBFC.  It is expensive – how much exactly? That depends on the length of your film and a couple of other details. But as a ball park, for a 90min film for theatrical release, it costs £730+VAT (£615+VAT) for DVD/BD

 

Advertising/marketing – The quality of this, just as much as, if not more than, the film itself will go a long way determining the financial success of your film. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but always be wary of spending and make sure you have a drip campaign that informs your audience of the film on a regular (but not too regular) basis, so you build anticipation, as opposed to irritating folk.

 

Bookings – You/the distributor needs to speak to the cinema bookers. For the chains (Cineworld/Odeon/Vue etc.) they will have a central department that books films across their screens. You need to get your film to them and keep following up. They get STACKS of films to watch and your film will be fighting for screens against blockbusters that will turn a profit, as well as other indies.

 

For the arthouse/indie cinemas – they tend to have more autonomy, so it is possible to speak to the cinema booker at a given theatre. However, many use City Screen (http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/city_screen.aspx) or the Independent Cinema Office (http://www.independentcinemaoffice.org.uk/) to book for them, or at least a portion of their screens – so it is wise to approach both.

 

Whoever you speak to it is imperative, that you keep them updated on the marketing plans and coverage that the film is getting. They’ll probably want to know what the marketing spend per screen is. Remember, booking films, especially a low budget indie film with no one famous in it is a massive risk. You have to show them why people will see your film as best as possible. Also, useful to remember; even if your film has done wonderfully in festivals and you have bunches of laurels – this doesn’t necessarily mean that the cinema bookers will want it. They are experienced and know that certain films play well at festivals, yet don’t have that commercial edge that will mean an audience will want to part with their cash to watch it.

 

Its also worth noting that in terms of percentages, normally, the cinema will take the lion’s share of the takings. Expect something along the lines of 25% to 35% (obviously, this changes from cinema to cinema).

 

Prints – The DCP is the present and future in terms of projection. There are facilities that will create these on a large scale if the release warrants it. But as Danny Lacey demonstrated in his excellent video blog (http://dannylaceyfilm.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/getting-to-grips-with-making-digital.html) you can create these for free. Great! So, it can cost next to nothing to get your print screened then, right? Wrong, and here is why…

 

Virtual Print Fee (VPFs) – The VPF has been something of a bone of contention in the industry for a while. In short, it is a mechanism of getting the distributor to pay for the shiny new projection kit that has been installed in cinemas that permits the screening of a DCP. As far as I am aware, all cinemas charge the VPF now. It will cost approx. £650+VAT per print shown. One man band self distributors pay the same rate as the Hollywood big boys – ouch.

 

Tracking the Box Office – Want box office reports sent to you as soon as the cinema closes its doors after its screened your film? Check out Rentrack Edi (http://www.rentrak.com/section/media/box_office/iboe.html) they will email you a sales report detailing exactly how much each cinema has taken on your film. You will need to register your film and the precise sites it is showing. This is quite inexpensive (less than £3 per screen, if my memory serves me correctly).

 

OK, so your film has been in the cinema – great! Hopefully you broke even – the last thing you want are theatrical expenses to pay off as you tackle the next hurdle…

 

The DVD/Digital Release
This window is the best place to turn a profit. But if it is mismanaged, all chances of making cash disappear into smoke. Here is what is likely to go down…

 

BBFC – No, I’ve not forgotten that classifying your film was mentioned above. You really do have to do it twice. Really. Yes, I know that not a frame of your film has changed and that it is in every way the precise same film they charged you for classifying prior to the theatrical release. But they need to do it again and there is no way around it. Think of it as one of life’s great mysteries, such as Stonehenge, or why Bobby Robson thought that England had a chance of winning Euro 2012…

 

Blu Ray or not to Blu Ray – You shot the film in glorious HD. You have a lovely master just ready to be burnt onto a Blu Ray. But consider this: in 2011 200m DVD units were sold in the UK. Blu Ray sales for the same period? 15m units. They are more expensive to make than DVDs and folk, in general, aren’t that bothered. Do you really want to go to the extra expense now? Again, think about what is best for the project as a whole, be as removed as you can and consider the cost, compared to the benefits.

 

Physical Product/Distribution – So, your DVDs have been pressed and they look fab – now what? Well, they need to be made available to the paying public via a variety of outlets. The main ones being Amazon, Play, HMV and perhaps the supermarkets. Amazon and Play ordering models are low risk, so expect them to take only a few at a time. Once, HMV would take large orders (in the 1000’s) of a variety of titles, but due to their issues, they have employed a safer buying approach. Again, only buying a few at a time. The biggest bricks and mortar sellers of DVDs are the supermarkets. They have massive foot flow, loads of outlets and thus lots of buying power. But it can be expensive to get your film stocked by them. In some cases you have to pay a ‘co-op’ fee for them to take it, along with giving them a discounted price. It sounds crazy but it’s the reality. They have so much power and potential that they can cut these deals all of the time. They could order 15k units week one and if it flies, then they will keep ordering more. But, if it doesn’t sell to their expectations, they send the stock back to the distributor – the word distributors fear more than most: RETURNS! Stock that you’ve paid to manufacture, collecting dust – large returns kill releases. So while supermarkets can offer potential big sales, be wary that dealing with them can be a double edged sword.

 

But how do the physical products get into the above outlets? Well, normally, a distributor will work with a sales agent. Some one who specialises in dealing with retailers and has existing relationships with them. They will take a commission (from my experience between 15 to 20% – but that will vary). They will meet with and present your titles to the buyers at said retailers. It is very unlikely that you will get your DVD into the likes of ASDA by calling their buyer – mostly, they will want several titles, all of which have the commercial appeal that is essential to them. Remember, it isn’t how ‘good’ your film is in this case – it is ‘will it sell’?

 

Manufacturing is mostly done by the likes of Sony DADC/Technicolor. They will press the DVD, print the artwork, pack them in the amaray cases, wrap them and ship them to whoever places the orders. The sales agents will work closely with the manufacturers and often you have to deal with the sales agents in order to speak to the manufacturers. Because they deal with big orders (again, thousands of discs) they are unlikely to deal with one off filmmakers who are self distributing. But do bare in mind that you can get your film onto the likes of Amazon etc without a sales agent.

 

Digital/VOD – We all know that digital distribution is growing rapidly. There aren’t the overheads of physical, so profit margins are better, plus the reach is growing. Also, people are becoming more and more used to watching content online now. Among the big ones are FilmFlex, BT Vision, Netflix, iTunes – something to consider at negotiation stages is how are they embracing digital; is it a key part of their strategy or an after thought?  Also, many platforms do not deal direct with indie distributors, but go through an agent who will deal with sales, accounting and quality control. Again, like the sales agents for physical product, they have pre-existing contacts and take a similar commission.

 

Distrify – I’m sure the vast majority of readers who frequent Chris’ blog knows about Distrify (http://distrify.com/) so I won’t go into detail. But I do think that it should be a key part of a release strategy as it ties in seamlessly with social media and other online outlets. It is certainly worth your while looking into using this set of tools as you have total control and visibility. Something that isn’t always there when dealing with a distributor.

 

Marketing – This was very briefly mentioned in the context of a theatrical release above and there are many people more qualified than I to give advice here. What I would say though is that it is imperative that you know your audience – if you don’t know who your film is for, then you end up talking to nobody via your marketing materials. Just as crucially, don’t fool yourself- you need to be honest; you cant take a drama and try to make it look like an action/thriller via the trailer/poster etc. just because you think that kind of film has more appeal and will thus sell more. Know your audience, embrace them, connect with them.

 

A Myth – When I worked in distribution, over time, I found that there was something of a myth that an indie distributor is able to pick up the phone and just books a film into a given cinema or retail outlet. Or that they decide how many units the likes of Amazon or HMV take. Sadly, it simply doesn’t work like that because there isn’t really the clout to give them the kind of traction that the big Hollywood players have. So many people have to believe that your film will work commercially and if one link in that chain doesn’t, the film wont be as profitable.

 

Firstly, the distributor has to believe that they can package and sell it. Then, their sales agents have to believe in it and be excited by its commercial potential. Once they are on board, they must convey this belief to the retailer, which takes time and compromise (for example, a supermarket may want changes made to the DVD packaging). If the retailers are on board, then you need the public onside and compelled. This is done by the quality of marketing and promotion. Remember, your no-budget film will be on shelves next to Harry Potter etc. The competition is startlingly tough.

 

Fundamentally, it is all about the film; it’s USPs in particular, to borrow a business term. This is what the distributor, sales agent, retailers and public will want to know – why should they choose your film over the myriad of others being produced.

 

Now that I am working back in production, I have found this knowledge to be an enormous help in that I can approach my films with a strong dose of reality and I understand what really is key in the grand scheme of things.

 

I hope that for the self distributors out there, that there are some transferable points above. I’ve always considered a filmmaker an entrepreneur of sorts – nowadays, with the way production and distribution are evolving, it holds more truth than ever.

 

Thanks for reading and wishing you the very best with your projects.

 

Amir

 

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WOW! Thank YOU Amir!

 

OK you can follow the man himself on his Vimeo Channel here https://vimeo.com/amirhb

 

Chris Jones

www.GuerillaFilm.com

*Originally posted on www.ChrisJonesBlog.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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