5 Questions to Ask a Potential Distributor

Distribution meetings are an important step for your indie film and you’ll want to do everything you can to get them right. 

A distribution company is interested in meeting with you. They want to take your indie film and introduce it to the world. A dream come true, right? Maybe. But just to make sure, you owe it to yourself, your investors and your crew to make sure the distribution agreement you sign works for you. Distribution meetings are an important step for your indie film and you’ll want to do everything you can to get them right. 

Over the past several years working as a producer I’ve been lucky enough to find a home for multiple doc projects as well as, most recently, two features. My latest feature, The Good Catholic, found theatrical and digital distribution in the larger markets in the United States and went on to be distributed internationally. Along the way I’ve made mistakes but I’ve also learned a lot about the delicate distributor/filmmaker balance and what can make that balance really work for both parties.

Similar to a job interview, your discussion with distribution providers may take many forms, but at the end of the day you are entering into a business partnership — one that may last five, seven or even ten years depending on the contract you sign. The questions you ask upfront can determine if you’ve found the right partner, or just a fast-talking VP bent on building a library of titles and playing the volume game to make a profit. Collecting hundreds of titles may work for the distributor, but doesn’t lead to much hands-on attention for a filmmaker.

Prep work: Before going into a meeting I like to know as much as possible about who I’m meeting with. Most of the time a few minutes on google will tell you if the person you’re meeting with comes from a creative or sales background and that usually helps inform how I tackle the meeting. I also suggest learning what types of titles they represent in their library. Do they cover domestic or international territories or both? Do they represent two dozen one-hour sports docs with only one narrative project? This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it’s helpful information to know going in.

Whether you are pulled into a nondescript conference room at one of the fabled “market” festivals for a meeting, or your favorite coffee shop in one of this country’s film hubs, these are the five questions to ask of your potential distributor:

1. What did you like about my film and where do you see it finding an audience? This may seem obvious, but this question is a biggy. If you see your film as a feel- good summer indie in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine and your distributor thinks of your feature as Black Swan with laugh lines, you’re never going to be able to bridge the gap. Sharing the same vision of what your picture is all about will inform everything down the line from interviews to the Q&A during release week and beyond. From the beginning you’ll want to know you and the distributor are on the same page.

2. What do you see as a viable return for my film? I recommend asking this one primarily because it reveals the experience level of the distributor you’re meeting with. Seasoned indie distribution companies will never give you a number. First, because they know it could open them up to litigation if they don’t meet the mark and secondly, because they know that managing expectations is tricky in business as a whole, but especially so in entertainment. The seasoned distributor will work hard not to give you a solid projection as they don’t want to be seen as underperforming if profits don’t manifest. On the other hand, if they strike it rich with your title, that they will happily take credit for. Of course, every distributor has a figure in mind that they expect to make from your film. All distributors will tell you they love your film, but the first contract pass will reveal how much they love your film. Here are a few contract examples and what they could mean:

    • *Are they offering money guarantees (MG)? (They like your film)
    • Are they offering a higher amount of upfront print and advertising spend (P&A)? (They like your film.)
    • Are they offering to cover your E&O insurance? (They like your film, but this is rare in a first contract pass. More often you’ll need to ask for this in the course of negotiations.)
    • Are they offering all of the above? (They really, really, like your film. This puts you in a very strong negotiating position.)

3. What is your rollout strategy for my title? Does my film make the most sense as a 15-city or larger theatrical release? VOD? What about a day-and-date release, or straight to video? Do you have any first look deals with Netflix, Amazon or other large streaming platforms?  Many streaming platforms have an “in theaters now” category that means premium placement for your film on VOD and some distributors will leverage a small theatrical run as part of a day-and-date release to gain as much revenue as possible. While day-and-date is a popular model in the indie world your film, especially a genre horror film, may do very well going directly to VOD. In short, there is no right answer to question three, but at the very least, you’ll want to know a distributor’s rollout strategy.

4. What will you need from me? The best distribution relationships are a give and take that lasts years. Meaning you don’t hand over your film deliverables and walk away. There should be a press and marketing strategy that includes the filmmakers and the stars of your film. Now perhaps your actors won’t be discussing your project on Good Morning America right off the bat, but there are dozens of entertainment focused publications (digital or otherwise) that would love to learn more about your movie or be granted an exclusive clip of some kind. Make sure your distributor has a plan and their in-house or out-of-house PR department has prior relationships with the outlets that will get the word out about your movie. Your distributor may expect all sorts of things from you, or very little, but both sides being upfront about time expectations and commitment to the film film post launch is important.

5. Which territories do you handle and how will the rollout differ in each? (You’ll already know this from your prep work, but you’ll want to ask)  International film markets and domestic markets in the United States are not the same. A company that may excel at distributing titles in all 50 states may not have the relationships or understanding of international markets to take advantage of that revenue potential. Having a distributor focused on international rollout and a second distribution company aimed at the domestic markets is fine, but they’ll need to avoid stepping on each-others toes when it comes to release windows and even marketing materials. If you sign with a domestic only distributor, make sure you understand the implications of that decision as it relates to your international distributor. The last thing you want is the domestic and international distributor of your feature in conflict with one another. Usually steps can be taken in the contractual stage to avoid the potential for this type of dissension, but you’ll want to be prepared.

If everything goes well and you like both the offer and “vibe” of the distribution company, go ahead and move forward, but I strongly recommend having an entertainment lawyer take a look at any contracts. This is business and distributors will try to build a deal that is the most favorable for them. Don’t blame them for this, but work with your legal to gently swing the contractual pendulum back in your direction whenever possible.

These days you have more options than ever when it comes to finding a home for your feature. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are trailblazers for other smaller streaming outlets popping up every single day, but making a profit on a film, especially an indie title, can still be elusive. Work hard to find the right distributor and you are building a great platform to launch of your film. Good luck! 

*A word on money guarantees (MG) — While it is always great to make money before anyone has seen your indie film, you should keep in mind that money upfront from a distributor is nearly always a recoupable cost, i.e. they will get their upfront payment back before you see a cent.

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Emmy winner, Graham Sheldon, resides in Southern California, where he works as a producer and director of photography. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America. Learn more about him at www.grahamsheldon.net