Pre-Production and Getting a Leg Up On Distribution, Part 1

Excerpt from “Insider's Guide To Independent Film Distribution” (2nd Edition, Focal Press) by Stacey Parks. Available in paperback and kindle versions at www.FilmSpecific.com/Book

What drives Distribution value? This is a question I get asked quite frequently. People want to know what they can ‘do’ to their film to make it more distribution-worthy and quite frankly, this is a very valid question!

Pre-production is the ideal time to start thinking of distribution for your film.  By planning in advance, there are so many things that you can institute at this stage of the game that will give your film infinitely better chances at distribution later. I like to call it ‘distribution in reverse’ or simply reverse engineering your film for distribution. There are many examples of filmmakers operating with this mindset and finding much success with getting their films made, seen and distributed worldwide. Later on this chapter, you will see some specific case studies of this.

Distribution in reverse has been going on for some time. Historically, this was called Pre-Sales and although they are quite uncommon for low budget films these days, I know of a few filmmakers who have managed to get one or more pre-sales for their films during pre-production, and therefore are guaranteed a certain amount of distribution when the film is completed.

By contrast to today, in the 1990’s it wasn’t uncommon for an independent film to get several foreign distribution deals before going into production, and then U.S distribution was always the icing on the cake. Films of all genres were able to benefit from this, as long as there were a few names attached to the script. Today pre-sales work a bit differently in that they are reserved for films by big Producers and Directors with serious track records. Distributors got burned in the past with films they pre-bought that subsequently never got made or got made very poorly. Hence the necessity of having a track record before a distributor will ‘trust’ you enough to do a pre-sale.

Don’t despair though if you are unable to secure distribution during pre-production because you are not alone. Most filmmakers do NOT secure distribution for their films at this stage and instead, work on things that can significantly improve their chances of getting distribution after their film is completed. Yes, there are some horror stories out there of filmmakers who sink their life’s savings into making their film, only to have it never see the light of distribution. However I am a firm believer that there are precautions you can take in advance, which will significantly increase your chances of making a film that sells.

The following are five ways you can improve the chances of distribution during pre-production:

1. TARGET YOUR AUDIENCE

The first thing you want to ask yourself during Pre-Production is this “Who is the target audience for my film”? You want to focus on who the end user/market is for your film FIRST, and THEN go through the process of creating it (but ONLY when a distinct and target audience can be established).

WHY? For 2 reasons:

1. Before any traditional distributor picks up your film they are going to want to know what their 'marketing hook' will be, and that is predicated on having a distinct target audience. Distributors are already thinking about how they can market your film before they acquire it from you, and marketing a film is an expensive proposition that can delay profitability. So it makes sense that a distributor would only choose to pick up films that they see they can market efficiently and cheaply to specific target audiences, and thus decrease their overall spend as much as possible.

2. If you don't end up getting traditional distribution then you'll need to know who your target audience is so you can execute a DIY campaign efficiently and cheaply. Just like a traditional distributor, you’re going to be looking at how you can save money on your marketing and promotions while self distributing your film – and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to market to a specific target audience rather than trying to market to everyone.

Also....

You'll notice that even at the Studio level films are being made for specific target audiences. Look at films like TWILIGHT and THE HANGOVER. Those are made for very specific audiences. So if you aspire to move up to making studio level films, or selling your films to the mini majors or major distributors, then you need to focus on making films for specific target audiences at a smaller more independent level, and work on building up a track record for yourself.

Let’s face it though - in most cases in today's market you are going to be doing some sort of DIY distribution whether it's a hybrid strategy or 100% DIY. Obviously you can't just get your film on to iTunes or another digital platform and hope the sales will magically appear. Nor can you put a DVD for sale on your website and have traffic automatically show up on your front doorstep. And neither can you do your own theatrical screening tour and people automatically show up.

So this is where having a target audience comes into play and the key thing to remember is you don't want to wait till your movie is done before you start building an audience because building an audience takes time. You want to start in Pre-Production building your audience -- building an audience is like your insurance plan for the film.

How do you start to build your audience?

Look at who the audience is for your film - is it sci-fi geeks? horror fans? do you have a documentary with a social cause? Where do these people hang out online? Which blogs, forums, Facebook groups? Find out where they congregate (both online and offline), mingle, connect, and interact with them there with the ultimate goal of driving them back to your site and Facebook page so you can start aggregating them as your own audience. Do this consistently over a period of several months so you have that 'insurance policy' of an audience by the time you're finished with your film.

2. GET IN TOUCH WITH THE MARKET

The second thing you can do during Pre-Production to improve your chances of distribution later is Get In Touch With The Market.

What does that mean? Well let’s have a reality check. The reality of today’s marketplace is that acquisition prices for films are a fraction of what they were   5-10 years ago and even though new distribution models are emerging and revenue sources are shifting, the new revenue sources aren’t fully developed yet.

In today’s marketplace as filmmaker you basically have 2 potential paths to follow. You either:

  1. Make a film and sell it into the traditional system, or
  2. Make a film and pursue DIY or hybrid distribution

Unfortunately I find that in general, most filmmakers and producers are out of touch with market realities. And of course they are. It’s not their job to know what particular market forces are in play at any given moment. However, if you spend just a little bit of time studying what kinds of films ‘sell’, you will be able to glean enough insight to assist you in making educated decisions throughout your production process.

Here’s something you can do: this may seem overly simplistic but have a look what’s playing in the theaters, what’s still for sale on the video shelves, what’s showing on cable, and what’s premiering on cable and internet VOD. Look at the quality of these films, the actors they’re using, the artwork used to promote it. It’s cliché but it’s true: there has to be some kind of ‘hook’ in order for your independent movie to find distribution, Whether it’s star appeal, a popular genre like horror, family, or sci-fi or a ‘niche’ film (gay, sports, children, etc.), there has to be a special ‘hook’ that makes your film stand out from the rest.

Here’s a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. I was working with some filmmakers who wanted to make a romantic comedy to go straight to video and cable. Despite potential red flags, the filmmakers were very attached to their story and did some basic market research before even writing the script.  They started by taking a trip to several video stores to see if there were any independent romantic comedies on the shelves that hadn’t already had a U.S theatrical release. Red flag #1 -there weren’t any. Next, they made a target list of 10 cable networks where the movie might air, including HBO, Showtime, A&E and IFC among others. They visited the websites of these 10 cable networks and scrutinized their programming schedules. What they found was that most of these networks aired only films that either had a major U.S. theatrical release, or were one of their own original productions (which are becoming increasingly more common). In the rare cases where we saw an independent film on the program schedule that hadn’t had a U.S theatrical release, the film had either a star-driven cast or was in the ‘family’ genre category (red flag #2).

After researching video stores and cable networks the filmmakers made a list of some romantic comedies they had seen in the last year and indicated what the ‘hook’ was in each of them that garnered them distribution. The most common reason on the list was ‘cast’ followed by ‘remake’ or ‘adaptation’ of some previous film or book.

The last thing they did in the market research process was visit the American Film Market (AFM) and visit the booths of foreign sales agents and distribution companies to see what was being sold at the market. How many posters for romantic comedies did they find? Red flag #3: not many. In talking to a few foreign sales agents and even buyers visiting the market they ascertained that romantic comedies were not a popular sale at the time and incidentally didn’t translate well to overseas markets.

In this particular case, the results of a little basic market research were clear. The only circumstances under which it made sense to move forward with a romantic comedy would be if  they could raise enough money through private investors to attach at least two A-list cast members. Since the filmmakers were so committed to the project, they decided to give it a shot by increasing their budget and reformatting their business plan to raise the money they needed to hire A-list actors.

And don’t forget to carefully consider genre….

Certain genres of films do better than others at certain times. For example horror, action, thriller, and sci-fi films have been doing well for a while in the straight-to-video market (while dramas, comedies, and art-house have not). Therefore, it makes sense to engage in market research for the particular genre you have in mind and if you find there is low demand for it, consider switching to a genre that is in higher demand. Seems like common sense right? Keep in mind that the market is continually changing – one year horror may be a hot commodity and the next year it’s saturated. The market is a fickle place so chances are a project you put on hiatus now can most likely be resurrected at a later date when there may be a place in the market for it.

There are some genres though that I find to be consistently in demand.  Family films, animation, current affairs documentaries, and action films (with B-stars or higher) are generally wildly popular genres nowadays since they can always seem to find an audience.  (Please keep in mind, those genres are just a partial list and represent what is currently happening.  When it comes time to make your film, research the market and find out what the hot sellers are as the results may be different. )

To be continued....

About Stacey Parks: Stacey Parks is a film distribution expert and Producer with over 15 years experience working with independent filmmakers. As a Foreign Sales Agent for several years she secured distribution for hundreds of independent worldwide. Stacey currently specializes in coaching independent filmmakers on financing and distribution strategies for their projects, and works with them both one-on-one and through her online training site www.FilmSpecific.com The 2ndedition of her best selling film book “Insiders Guide To Independent Film Distribution” (Focal) is now available at www.FilmSpecific.com/Book