This year I was fortunate enough to have a film I shot and co-directed premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival as part of the Digital Bolex Fearless Filmmaking Showcase. Last year, I was at Slamdance with a drama that I executive produced, and before that I was at Sundance with a period western that I shot.
I have now hit the festival circuit with over a dozen films of all sizes and have seen the flurry of market activity that surrounds the bigger festivals, but this still seems to be a wildly mysterious and often not talked about part of the festival experience, so I’m going to share some of what I know, and hope it helps some fellow filmmakers along the way. First off…
Hire an Entertainment Lawyer
Congratulations! You just got into your first big festival! If you are wanting to sell your movie, the first step is to hire someone that can speak legalize. You need a lawyer on your side that knows what to look for in distribution contracts, knows what to add, what to take out, and who can be on the phone at a moment’s notice. Your dad’s friend who handles divorce law will not cut it. Make sure it’s someone who is experienced in entertainment law.
Now that you have them in reserve, as the days lead up to the opening night, remember that:
Publicity Leads to Distribution
You need people in those seats to watch your movie. Either you hire a great publicist to get your movie out in the trade mags, film blogs, and newspapers, or you dedicate hours out of each day leading up to the festival and do it yourself, but either way, get it done!
There will be lots of journalists wanting to cover this festival. At any given Sundance, between features and shorts, they will screen almost two-hundred films! There is no way that journalists can cover all of them. So make sure that they know about your film, and more importantly, that they write about it.
If you gets some write ups you can get people into the theater. Hopefully, those people will talk about your film, and a buzz will start to build. If this happens, guys in really expensive clothes will start tracking you down and talking about getting your film out there, and this is when you need to learn to distinguish who is whom. For starters:
Producer’s Reps Are Not Distributors
These will most often be the first people to contact you regarding your film. Oftentimes, the new to the game producer’s reps will contact you first. The really in-demand reps probably already have a slate of films and probably won’t reach out to see yours.
Who are producer’s reps? Producer’s Reps are the middle men or women that offer to take on your film and sell it to a distributor for you. If you get a good one, they have built in connections with distributors and really can help to get your film sold. If you get a bad one, they will charge an upfront fee, shotgun DVDs to everyone listed in the phone book and call it a day. Do your research. If you decide to go with a producer’s rep, check with the filmmakers they’ve worked with before, and see if they’re happy with the experience. This is your biggest barometer. If any filmmaker has any hesitation about their experience, don’t sign a contract, and move on.
And do not pay an up front fee. Just don’t do it. The one grey area could be if the rep is also an entertainment lawyer and can double in that role. Then you can consider an upfront payment as a lawyer’s retainer, but in general, you want the rep to make money when you make money. They should only get paid off of the small commission they make each time they sell your film. If someone wants another arrangement, then caveat emptor.
There Are Now a Million Distributors
Actually there’s a million and two. After you wade through the sea of producer’s reps, you will probably start to see queries from actual, bonafide distribution companies. There are many companies out there, so everyone will want to see your film, but not everyone will want to distribute it.
General rules are: don’t send out screeners of your film until after the premiere.
Try to get as many distributors in the actual room for your premiere as possible. If the crowd reacts strongly to your movie, it will bode well for whether or not the distributor thinks they can sell it. If enough distributors are in the room, and enough of them want it, then they might invite you back to their condo for drinks, and…
Secret Back Room Deals in Condos Really Do Happen
It seems like this is almost the stuff of legend, but yes, deals in condos are made at festivals all the time. If your film is really generating buzz, distributors will likely try to woo you back to their condo to seal the deal. Sometimes you might get multiple condo courtships. If that’s the case, weigh who’s making the offer, how much they’re offering and how it lines up with what you want out of your film, but whatever you do:
Strike When You’re Hot
On several occasions, I’ve seen films get a lot of buzz at a festival, receive amazing offers from major distribution companies and then hold out to see if something better will come later down the road. The result is each subsequent offer gets substantially less, and eventually the offers stop coming at all.
If you get an offer for an advance, and the distributor is looking to get your film out how you want it released (Theaters? Blu-Ray? VOD? All of the above?), take it. If you’re in a major film festival, if you’re getting a lot of press, and if people are talking about your movie, you will probably not get a bigger offer after this point. Sure, there are always exceptions to this, but for most films out there, this will be your biggest chance at getting that advance. Of course, make sure to remember that you do own a lot of rights, and you don’t have to sell them all at once, because…
Your Foreign Rights Are Valuable
A distributor will probably try to buy all rights from you. Most filmmakers don’t realize that every single country in this world can potentially be its own sale. At festivals in North America, if someone is wanting to buy the rights to your film, counter with North American rights only and hold out for a bigger advance if they want worldwide. Maybe your film would have specific appeal in Vietnam? Or Russia? These are markets that you can approach individually to carve out more revenue for you and your investors.
So, What if I Don’t Get That Crazy Backroom Deal?
Most films that premiere at a large festival like Sundance or Cannes will not make that big sale at the festival, so you need to have a strategy for moving forward after your world premiere. A bigger festival can be a launching pad onto the festival circuit, and a lot of other festivals will probably want your film after its prestigious debut. Take your film on the road and physically attend as many film festivals as you can. Distributors attend festivals all over the world, and more importantly, you can meet other filmmakers that will have great insight into the world of distribution.
Try to rack up as many accolades and laurels as you can and then start your foray into approaching distributors. Make a list of distribution companies you know, or that put out films similar to yours, and start sending out screeners. Or if you want to try to meet with them face to face, check out this guide for tips on attending AFM.
There are now many ways to get films out, so don’t necessarily limit yourself to the traditional platforms. You could even look into self-distribution. The possibilities are near endless, so as you move forward remember to trust your instincts, research all possible distribution partners and feel confident that you will make the best decision for you and your movie.
Jeremy Osbern is a cinematographer, director, and writer. His most recent film, COURTESAN, premiered at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival as a part of the Digital Bolex Fearless Filmmaking Showcase. Previously, he was the executive producer of the Slamdance film The Sublime and Beautiful, and co-director of photography on the Sundance Film Festival feature, The Only Good Indian. His first feature film as director, AIR: The Musical, has been sold for distribution in territories across four continents. You can check out more of his work online at: http://www.jeremyosbern.com