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So Your Film Was Picked Up By A Distributor At Sundance; Now What?

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 29, 2013 at 3:38PM

In light of all the film festival talk on this blog, as the Sundance Film Festival ends another year, with several film acquisition deals signed, I thought I'd revisit this old piece from the old S&A site - coverage of a panel I attended at the Tribeca Film Festival 3 years ago, here in New York City.
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Movie audience

In light of all the film festival talk on this blog, as the Sundance Film Festival ends another year, with several film acquisition deals signed, I thought I'd revisit this old piece from the old S&A site -  coverage of a panel I attended at the Tribeca Film Festival 3 years ago, here in New York City.

It's all still very relevant today, and something worth considering for filmmakers whose films were picked up at Sundance, or will be picked up at other upcoming festivals.

And some of you filmmakers (like myself) and non-filmmakers reading this may learn something you don't already know... or not. But it's all worth sharing. After all, each of us has to constantly be thinking of new and effective methods of distributing our films, because it, long ago, became crystal clear to me that relying strictly on some traditional, conventional approach really can be hazardous to your health and, of course, your film.

The panel was called "Tools of the Trade: Alternative Distribution, Marketing 2.0, and Beyond." The Hollywood Reporter's Steve Zeitchik moderated the panel, which contained a diverse group of filmmakers and their advocates: IFC Films' Ryan Werner, 42West publicist Cynthia Swartz, YouTube film and animation manager Sara Pollack, Bomb It director Jonathan Reiss, Oscilloscope Pictures' David Fenkel, and Tribeca Enterprises chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore.

Here are snippets of what took place at the event, which was put together by Eric Kohn (now at indieWIRE) for The Wrap:

- There was no discernible argument among the panelists about the current need for filmmakers to dramatically increase their outreach efforts. "It doesn't matter how a film comes to me," said Gilmore, who recently moved to Tribeca from the Sundance festival. "The real question is how an audience will find out about it." He explained that relying on a distributor to find an audience simply doesn't yield the results it once did. "I sometimes think theatrical distributors don't trust audiences anymore," he said. "I've never seen anybody so frightened about taking risks." 

- Following up on that thought, Swartz said that filmmakers should raise print and advertisement costs at the same time as their production costs, rather than waiting for a distributor to cover them. "Every film has a niche," Swartz said. "No distributor is going to have time to become an expert in that niche. You should be the expert."

- Internet-based audiences... continue to thrive even if the distribution models have yet to fully emerge. [Although]... it's not an entirely rosy scenario. Fenkel noted that streaming video is a lost cause for anyone looking to make a serious profit. "I haven't heard one number that's worked for any film, ever," he said.

- Reiss, whose experience with self-distributing his graffiti documentary "Bomb It" has led him to write a book that will come out this fall, urged people to expand their definition of theatrical release. "Even a living room can be a theatrical release," he said.

- Everyone agreed that all small movies benefit from distinctive release strategies so that they can reach their specific audiences. Otherwise, they just turn into more faces in the murky crowd.

Got all that?

The song was, and really still seems to be... even when your film is picked up by a distributor, don't rely on the distributor solely to ensure your film reaches its audience. Just as you would if you were self-releasing, be relentless in your own personal outreach. Don't just put your "I'm an artist" hat on, and leave the business and marketing of your film entirely in someone else's hands.

Also, you should already be thinking about how you'll market your film before you even begin shooting it... or, at least, during the process. Don't wait until after it gets picked up to start coming up with a strategy, which could prove to be even more costly.

Also, expand your scope; look to the web - although, don't expect to make money there.

In fact, expect to work hard at getting your film released, whether it's picked up by a distributor or not; but, unfortunately, don't expect much of a reward for your effort, if any at all. At least not right away, or with that first film. The reward really is if you get a chance to make another one.

And I'd say that these *rules* become even more significant for films about and by people of color, which are usually considered *niche.* Your distributor may not know how best to market your film, or reach your film's target audience - assuming that you know who your target audience is. So don't just assume that they know exactly what they're doing.


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