Monday, June 01, 2015

How to Distribute an Independent Film in 8 Steps

Self-distribution used to be a sad term for people who made movies so bad no one wanted to pay money to see them.  Today it’s not shunned the way it used to be, in fact there’s great potential for the artist making the movie to cut out the middle man and go straight to audience members.  Everyone wins right?  Well sort of.  Most artists make terrible businessmen and vice versa.  There’s a ton of media available on a ton of different platforms, how are people supposed to find your little film among the fray?  If you’re going to self-distribute, you the artist are now responsible for getting your film to audience members.  Most filmmakers study shot composition and acting.  We’re storytellers not story sellers.  So how does it work?  I don’t know yet.  This is my first foray into being a story seller, but here’s a candid break down of what I’m doing with my first feature film, My Toxic Backyard

Click the Links to go more in depth.

Feature films fees average about $50 per entry.  Then if you make it in, you want to be able to attend and network.  The costs can add up quickly.  Did you remember to budget for it?

You have to spend money to make money right? 

Having a theatrical release seems really lofty, but it’s totally doable.

Because I had a documentary film, it made sense to broadcast it over the air for free on TV.  This might not make sense for most projects, but I’ll tell you why I did it.

With multiple ways for people to view your movie, you can make it available only one way at a time and maximize your revenue and announcement process.

This used to be the only way to go, but now with alternative distribution you have choices to make.  Traditional distribution has both advantages and disadvantages.

What do you need to have together to get your movie ready for distribution?  How long will take?  I went with Createspace.  I'll tell you why I did and what I learned through out the process.

I keep talking about this film My Toxic Backyard that I am in the process of selling.  Check out the actual film and see how it looks on Amazon and in my official store set up through Createspace.

Everything you read here is just my opinion and my personal experiences going on this crazy roller coaster ride.  If you're not a filmmaker, I hope you gained a little insight into what it's like as an independent artist trying to make it in the world.  If you are a filmmaker, hopefully you'll have a little more knowledge after following my film's journey and maybe it'll save you a little frustration with your own work.


My Toxic Backyard for Sale

My Toxic Backyard is available for sale on the webpage and at Amazon.  

You can buy DVDs directly on the webpage. Click "purchase" and it will take you to the official store here:  If you'd rather go through Amazon here's a link for DVDs: You can get free shipping with orders over $35.  

If you haven't read about how I messed up my first project with Createspace you can go back and see why there's a separate page and project that I manage for VOD (Video on Demand.)  That link is here:

UPDATE: After about 14 weeks, the VOD option is now live on Amazon.  I was bringing a retired project back out of retirement and was told it should take about 2 weeks.  I think this long wait was a fluke.  The staff was very helpful every time I reminded them that I was still waiting.  My main takeaway is, make sure your project is live and available on Amazon well before you want to announce it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Self-Distribution: How to Navigate CreateSpace

I chose Createspace / Amazon / IMDb / Withoutabox (it’s all owned by the same umbrella company, but you will deal with each individually.)  Create Space is the place I’m selling everything through.  I picked it because Amazon is a large platform, it doesn’t cost anything up front and still has some flexibility in how I want to release.

Let me start by saying Create Space had me pulling my hair out on more than one occasion with timely, yet vague, responses from their staff.  They will not hold your hand through the process of getting all your work into their system and it’s a pain!  They give you all the information you need to do it, but it’s not easy to follow and the information you find online from others is probably outdated.  I’m going to write up a step by step process for 2015, for all those filmmakers out there feeling the frustration I felt.

What I Learned about Createspace:

1. You need an unencrypted disc image file (.iso) you can burn this with toast on a mac, which is what I did.  You might also be able to burn one on a PC with Windows Disc Image Burner.  I can't speak to the PC way of burning this since I didn't go that route.

2. Your iso file must have 2 folders and only 2 folders on it and they must be "VIDEO_TS" and "AUDIO_TS." Nothing more.  If you're like me, you might have a disc that only has the video folder.  If that's the case, you must create an empty audio folder before you burn the iso.  Createspace will reject your file if it isn't done exactly this way.

3. When your submission gets rejected, the Createspace staff won't tell you exactly why.  They'll give you a standard rejection message basically saying something didn't meet their standards.  You just have to try to figure out what specific guideline you failed to follow.  They will reset your submission status fairly quickly so you can try again.  I think I submitted iso files 3 times before they finally approved my last one.

4. I accidentally started a VOD only project and now there are 2 My Toxic Backyard pages on Amazon...forever.  Unfortunately someone bought a copy before I had the file deleted (even though on my dashboard it was listed as still pending approval and I couldn't delete it myself, plus the purchase didn't show up in my royalties so I had no way of knowing that someone purchased it.) After many messages back and forth trying to understand what happened, Createspace informs me now that they can never get rid of this second page on Amazon.  So make sure if you want to give people the option of purchasing a DVD that you are doing a DVD project when you start!  You can add a VOD option all in the same project later on or at the same time.

5. Expect to wait 4 to 6 weeks for your files to be approved.  You want to start this process well in advance of your release!  Once approved, you will still have to enable it for sale, which will take at least an additional 30 days for VOD.  You must order a test DVD (about $7) and check it before they will let you sell it.  You can't skip this step.  When I enabled my DVD for sale, it was available within a day.  Trying to enable the VOD in the same project, has proven to be taking much longer.  At the time of posting this, I'm still waiting.  They won't tell you when your project is up for sale either, you just have to keep checking it. (Be sure to check on Amazon, don't trust your createspace dashboard, mine said "pending" when it was actually "available.")

6. You can set the price for your DVD sales, but you can't set the price for you VOD download and rental.  You only get to suggest VOD pricing.

7. You also have the option to make a Createspace store front that you can have directly on your website and you'll make more royalties from it, but it's separate from Amazon, so anyone buying from your store will have to enter their shipping and credit card information to make the purchase and they don't have an option to get free shipping.  You can offer coupon codes for your store to sweeten the deal for your customers, but the coupon codes don't work on Amazon.

8. The price you set for your DVD will be the same on Amazon and in your Createspace store front.  You can't make one less than the other. So keep that in mind when setting your price.

9. Amazon takes a huge cut.  They do all the order fulfillment so they are taking a lot of the burden off your hands.  Just don't expect to get rich quick unless you sell lots and lots of copies.

10. The money you earn from sales (royalties) gets paid out either once a month or once every 60 days, depending on the type of media.  For example for VOD if someone rented your movie in February, you would not get the royalties for that until the end of April.  You also have to meet a threshold before they will give you any money.  You must earn $10 or more for direct deposit and $100 or more before they will issue you a check.  So if only one person rented your movie in February and you only earned $1, you still don't get paid at all.  You need at least 10 rentals or some other combination of purchases that gets you up to $10, if you have direct deposit.

11.  You will see royalties reported for DVD sales right away.  So if your friend says, I bought a DVD from you! You can look on your Createspace dashboard and there it is.  VOD sales are not reported in real time.  You will see those sales 30 days after the end of the month the purchase was made.  So if someone rented your movie in March, it would appear in the sales report at the end of April. 

12. Closed Captioning.  Remember earlier how I was doing closed captioning for broadcast, well I also needed it on Amazon.  The process for submitting your closed captioning file is a little strange given the rest of the process.  You don't upload it anywhere from your account.  You have to email your .scc file to and you have to make sure you name the file properly so they know which project it goes to.  If you have questions about it, you can also email the same address and ask them.  Again, they won't tell you if captions are required or not.  You have to figure that out.

Hope that helps clear a few things up!  Leave a comment if you have questions or want more info.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Traditional distribution

This used to be the only way to go, but now with alternative distribution you have choices to make.  Traditional distribution has both advantages and disadvantages and a lot of how you choose to proceed will depend on the kind of deal you’re offered.  Going with traditional distribution may not be the best way to get your movie seen and sold...

But it never hurts to try.  The advantage with traditional distribution is that established distribution companies have experience and will market your film and get it seen places that you might not have thought of.  The downside is they take a huge cut out of the profits to do this and many times the filmmaker hardly sees a dime.  Another downside is that there are many small distribution houses that will take your film and sometimes your money and do nothing with it.  You have to do your research and be really careful who you trust.  One good rule of thumb is don’t give them any money up front.  Look at their library of other work and see if your film is a good fit there.  And ask what their marketing strategy is for your film and how they plan to sell it and reach audiences.

You might be able to use multiple distributors for different markets.  There’s domestic (US) and foreign sales and you might strike one deal with one distributor and have a different deal for a different region with another. You can find distributors online through web searches.  The search method I've used is to find a film similar to mine, see who the distributor is and look up the contact info and just cold call.  You'll stand a better chance of getting through to someone if you have a sales agent.  They can be expensive though and your film will probably be one of many in their roster, but they have connections that you don't.

If you can't afford a sales agent and want to have a better chance of making a connection with a few, well researched distributors you might consider a trip to a film market.  The Cannes Film Market (Le Marché du film) is the largest market in the world and The American Film Market (AFM) is the largest in America.  You'll want to set up multiple meetings well in advance and do lots of prep work on who you want to meet, your pitch and your business card.  Attending a market is an expensive endeavor and you definitely want to do your homework ahead of time.

For My Toxic Backyard, I’ve been approached by a few acquisitions people.  These are the people that look for new films to add to their company’s inventory.  You’ll find them at film festivals and film markets and when you win awards, they’ll start to find you.  I’ve sent screeners to them, and I even followed up to see if they’d had a chance to see my film but it never went anywhere. 

Being a documentary with educational value, my next step will be to approach companies that distribute educational copies to college and university libraries.  Media copies are much more expensive than personal copies (like what you would buy or rent at home) because with media copies you get licensing to have screenings in classrooms full of kids and it can be checked out and seen over and over without additional fees.  Media copies can run anywhere from $100 to $500.  And since it’s a completely different kind of licensing and audience, it won’t interfere with distribution for home use.  Next I'll talk about self-distribution.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Scheduling Releases

With multiple ways for people to view your movie, you can make it available only one way at a time and maximize your revenue and announcement process.  I’m planning more than one release.  First, there were film festivals, then a limited theatrical release, then broadcast.  After that comes the opportunity for people to purchase the film on a DVD and finally it will be available as VOD (video on demand, both rental and download.)  

The reason I’m doing it that way is, I’ll be able to do more than one release announcement blasted on social media and I’ll make more through DVD sales than VOD so I’d rather most people that are interested purchase a DVD.  Making that the only option for a while, will get impatient people to do just that.  I don't want to miss out on sales though, so shortly after the DVD release will be VOD so that the documentary is widely available to as many potential audience members as possible.

Make sure you have a plan for how you want to release your movie, before you get to that point.  You don't want to miss out on a chance to have your movie in a film festival because you released it online too early.  And you don't want people buying a copy at home before you do a theatrical release, if you want to go that route.  Timing is important.  Make the most of it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Because I had a documentary film, it made sense to broadcast it over the air for free on TV (I should say free for anyone to view, not free for me to play it.  Buying air time was actually pretty expensive.)  This might not make sense for most projects, but I’ll tell you why I did it.

First and foremost, I wanted to make sure that everyone in the area had an opportunity to see the documentary without having to purchase a copy.  I think it's important information for people to have no matter where they live, but most especially in Western North Carolina where the documentary was shot.  Having it broadcast also made it eligible for awards like the Emmys and I wanted to have a chance to enter it.  I should hear if it's nominated in May.  Keep your fingers crossed.

In order to have it broadcast, it had to be closed captioned.  There are multiple ways to close caption a film both in how you create the captioning and how you deliver the film with captioning.  I used Adobe Premiere to caption and I ended up needed 2 types of files for delivery.  For broadcast I had to embed the closed captioning in a quicktime file.  Later for selling on Amazon I had to create a separate file called a scenarist closed caption or .scc file.

After having done the work myself, I now know that I'll probably hire someone next time.  It's not that expensive to have a company do it for you and it's so worth the money.  Captioning was long and extremely tedious, but I'm glad for the experience and for gaining a better understanding of how it all works.

I had some difficulty finding a local station that would air my movie because it's a point of view documentary.  Here's a link to a previous post with more on that. 

Warning the follow is boring technical information.  Only Read this if you want more info on captioning in Adobe Premiere CC:

1. You can import a file into premiere or do it from scratch.  I made mine from scratch.  Right click in your project window and choose "new item - closed caption" (bottom right of the project window.) The default is CEA-608 and CC1.

2. You won't be able to see any captions until you go to the upper right corner menu in your program and source monitors and click on "closed caption display - enable."  But that alone isn't enough. You must make sure you are enabling CEA-608 (the default on the monitor was CEA-607 for me. You won't see the captions unless the type you are making matches what you've set to display!)

3. To edit your captions go to the "window" menu and click on "captions" to see the window you'll need to edit in.  Click on the add a new item in the bottom of the project window and choose "captions." (make sure you have selected the caption file in your timeline to see it in the captions window.)

4. Hit the plus button to add a caption and start typing.  You can see the in and out in the timeline, but to change the in and out you have to adjust the time code in the project window.  Text doesn't wrap, so you have to do a hard return at the end of each line.

Those are the basics.  If you have an specific questions leave a comment. Hope that saves you a little frustration in your captioning endeavors.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Limited Theatrical Release

Having a theatrical release seems really lofty, but it’s totally doable.  First, find a small art house movie theater and see if you can get them to give you a screening, maybe at an odd time, maybe for one time only, but see if they’ll split the ticket revenue with you.  Usually the theater keeps 60% of ticket sales and the distributor (in this case that’s you) gets 40%.  You might think, yea of course they’ll go for it, I’m the one giving them my movie, but keep in mind that you’re a risk to them from a business standpoint.  You are responsible for getting people to buy tickets, not them.  You have to advertise your own screening and fill up those seats.  They’ll post the time your screening is happening and maybe they’ll have a marquee or something, but you have to do everything else.  That’s what traditional distributors do, that’s why that system is still in place.  It works.  Distributors buy airtime and ad space.  They screen trailers and get posters out there and seen so people know there’s a movie at the theater that they need to go see.

If the theater doesn't want to take a chance on you, that’s totally understandable and you can still do a screening, just rent the theater.  You can rent a small movie theater at anywhere from $300-$500.  Now there’s no risk to the theater and let’s say you sell tickets at $10 a pop, if you rented the theater for $300 that’s only 30 tickets you have to sell to break even.  Anything over 30 is 100% profit going straight to you.  You might actually make money.

One thing you'll have to get together a head of time is a DCP of your film.  DCP, or Digital Cinema Package is the format you'll need to have your film in so it will play in a professional digital projector.  That can be an expensive endeavor if you have someone else do it ($1,500 to $3,000) but I made one with Open DCP.  It was a pain, but worth it.  I have more info on how I did it here.

 Another advantage to a theatrical release is a film critic might now review your film, since it’s available to the public.  You might be able to do this at the film festival stage with local critics in the area the festival is happening, but there are lots of films for them to write about and it’s harder to get a review.  In your home town, you stand a better chance.  Reviews give you free advertising, an unbiased opinion that people are more likely to trust and critical reviews show that your film is of interest to the public.

My Toxic Backyard screened at a fantastic local arts theater, the Fine Arts Theater, for a week, which was unprecedented and awesome.  There was never a sold out screening, and audience sizes varied greatly from day to day.  I was a little disappointed at my own inability to fill the theater.  Even with extensive community outreach weeks before the screening, a story on the local news, radio interviews and magazine articles it wasn't enough to generate as strong of a turn out as I would have liked.  I was able to split ticket sales and still made some money.  I also got two movie reviews in local papers.  Both were really positive!  It was definitely a worth while venture, just not something to take lightly.

Monday, March 30, 2015


You have to spend money to make money right?  Sadly, that’s true especially if you see your time as having a monetary value (and you should.)  If you’re like me, you’re working a day job to pay the bills and making your movies on the side with the dream that you’ll be able to one day leave all that 9 to 5 madness behind and just make movies for a living.  But until that day comes, remember that just because it’s called free time, that doesn’t mean it comes without a price.

So where should you spend the precious little money you have for this venture into independent film marketing?  Well you can start with a solid poster and trailer.  Those are your main selling points.  People will look at those two things and decide in an instant whether or not they want to spend their time and hopefully some of their cash watching your movie.

Then there’s your website.  That’s a showcase piece as well.  You might hire someone to make yours and optimize it’s performance.  I thought about that, but I ended up going with wix.  I tinkered around with the design for a while before I decided to spend any money and I like the ease with which I can update and change things.  There are other similar sites, squarespace comes to mind, Weebly, maybe you’re a Word press person.  There are lots of options.

Getting reviews and press about your movie is extremely helpful.  I'll talk about doing a theatrical release in the next post and how you can get movie reviews, but in the mean time get to working on a press kit, you'll need that.  You can google articles on how to make a good press kit for your film, but briefly you'll need: contact info, a short, medium and long synopsis, bios for your cast and crew, photos, and you might want to include a director's statement.

You’re not likely to make the nightly news with your big DVD release, but after you’ve gotten the accredited critics to review your film, you might find some smaller online places that will give you a fresh review just before your online release.  You’ll probably want to do a google search for these wonderful, lovers of movies who are willing to take the time to not just watch your work, but also write about it.  I got a review from Rough Cinema.  In the past I’ve had reviews from Film Threat, they charge a small fee, but honestly I’m surprised anyone will do that kind of work for free.

Mail Chimp is a real thing, it’s not just something you hear about on podcasts.  It’s pretty awesome too.  You can have multiple lists of people and send out customized “campaigns” which are just a way to mass email people on your list.  Hopefully lots of people have signed up to get these, which means they’ve expressed an interest in what you’re doing and won’t see these email updates as spam.  It’s free up to a point.  There’s no reason not to start using it.  I think if you get to the point where you have so many subscribers that you have to pay a fee, it’ll be well worth the money.  They do automation, but you have to pay for that too.  So if you don’t mind doing everything manually, it’s a great way to reach your target audience.  Want to subscribe to my email list?  Click here. See how easy that is? 

Traditionally feature films would spend as much on P&A (Prints and Advertising) as the budget of their film.  Make a million dollar film, spend a million to market it.  But if you don't have a million laying around, here's a range you might be able to work in from very low to very high:

Marketing Budget Breakdown

Poster design: $300 to $2,000
Website hosting and design: $120 on a DIY platform to $4,000 for pro design and SEO
Trailer: $100 canned music and you cut it to $15,000 for a trailer house to do it all
Business Cards: $20 for small batch free template to $2,000 for a custom design
Social Media Guru: $0 and just your time, if you do it to $25-$50 per hour
Advertising: $1 on google ad words to infinity
Publicist: $3,000 to $10,000 per month (usually with a 3 month minimum)