Documentary Distribution / Circus Road02.26.21
Over the years, I've had a number of documentary filmmakers reach out to me specifically over my experience with Circus Road Films. (Presumably they found an earlier blog entry where I talked positively about them.) I recently had another filmmaker reach out to me asking some follow-up questions and I thought I might write a short piece going more in depth about my experience both with them and distribution overall.
Distribution for me happened once I got into my first major film festival. I thought it might make sense to start understanding the landscape prior to this -- but largely I found this to be a waste of time. Get pre-vetted somehow and your world changes. In my case, the change happened when I got into Nashville. Keep in mind -- this is Nashville; not Sundance, SXSW, Toronto, True/False, AFI, etc. Nashville is a lovely festival but obviously not as prestigious as those festivals. As soon as the lineup for Nashville was announced, I remember getting a phone call from maybe MTV? -- but some network and the person I spoke with basically said, "We heard you got into Nashville. We don't know anything about your film but would love a screener." More inquiries like this would trickle in over time -- sometimes from networks (e.g. Showtime), sometimes from just big people (e.g. Ron Meyer's office asked for a screener; though I suspect that was more for his own personal screening series that I read about in The Hollywood Reporter rather than anything official to do with Universal -- though I'm sure those two things blend together sometimes), and then from other folks like Circus Road Films (a producers rep).
Now when I was at Nashville, I talked with another filmmaker who had a doc there who Circus Road also approached and he was adamently opposed to working with a producers rep. In his viewpoint, anyone working with him should believe in his film so much that they should be willing to take a commission. (Just FYI, back then the fee they were charging was a $5k flat fee -- this was around 2012). I too was a bit skeptical but remembered them. As I mentioned, at the time, I also had "names" calling me so I kind of thought that I could just hold out for someone better known to rep me.
Fast forward to a year later and my film was still not sold / placed / etc. I got back in touch with Circus Road and to their credit -- absolutely no ego. No "you should've gone with us when you could've" etc. They were more than happy to chat further and rep me. One additional detail -- prior to signing with them, based on the advice of a friend of mine who worked in film distribution -- I asked them for references. They gladly supplied two filmmakers, one whose film got into SXSW and another whose film sold to Showtime. The gist of what each of them replied was, "I signed with Circus Road. They sold my film. My film now plays on _____." Good enough for me.
Circus Road basically told me that the way they work is they have a list of distributors / platforms / etc. (at the time, everyone from networks to well known doc distribution places) that sort of went more prestigious to less prestigious (can't remember exactly -- but it's basically like an ordered list based on some order). They said they go down in order and see who bites. That's what they did. I would occasionally hear from them, usually with a question or needing some additional material. Once, maybe twice, it seemed like a pretty big player was interested (I can't really remember now, but it was of the order of like an HBO or maybe a real well known indie company). Then nothing. For a while. Then they said Gravitas Ventures was interested. They set up a meeting -- just a conference call with them where they walked me through a PowerPoint presentation about their business, how they work, what the splits were (75/25) and that was that. Before I signed I asked Circus Road what they thought and they basically said that Gravitas was good. I signed with them and Gravitas was *excellent*. They got me onto iTunes (with excellent placement on launch weekend; we ultimately got as high as #12 in the Documentary section I believe), Amazon Prime, and Hulu. We also had amazing placement in Hulu but I think that was b/c I had at the time a friend who worked at Hulu who was able to advocate for my film a little bit. I couldn't have asked for anything more.
Some errors I made. I think I made an error not signing with Circus Road immediately (about a year past between meeting them and signing with them) -- though frankly, I'm not sure if that even affected anything associated with my film. No one really knows or cares when the film was finished -- at least not at the scale I'm operating at.
Another possible error is that someone interested in distributing my film internationally reached out and I ultimately didn't go with them. This was more just a fear of the unknown than anything (and also they weren't willing to provide references.) I couldn't really tell how big or legit they were and quite honestly, I wasn't sure how my Gravitas distribution agreement might or might not affect things (something I obviously could've reasonably figured out). It may sound strange (it even sounds a little strange to me in retrospect) -- but at the scale I was operating, I was basically a one-man band and the volume of decisions and stress coming out at me was just pretty high. So more uncertainty froze me a bit. I could've easily reached out to doc filmmaker friends or just other people I knew in the industry who might have some experience (or know some people who did) and I could've sorted that out well.
At one point a division of Gravitas reached out about potentially selling DVDs (and presumably Blu-rays) and I quite literally had no idea how to handle it. That division didn't pursue it any further. But I could've figured this out and made it easy on Gravitas to do that too. My suspicion in retrospect is they probably wanted a reply to the effect of, "Yes, I have DVDs / Blu-rays available and ready to ship." Again -- would've taken some work and effort, but I could've gotten it done. People obviously know how to do this.
But beyond that, I got really lucky with Gravitas. At the time, the industry was still really focused on getting theatrical distribution which was pretty rare, even then, for docs (outside of like limited NY/L.A. runs). Gravitas basically was like "our specialty is digital distribution" -- a pretty good business model particularly now.
Bottom line, total money I ended up making -- low 5 figures ($20k? $30k max?). Got paid quarterly and there were very detailed breakdowns of how much I made on each platform (and Gravitas got me into all sorts of places including apparently airplanes, etc.) I'm sure that dollar figure might strike some people as low -- but my film did what it did. I actually think we did ok. Could we have done better? Obviously. But I think outside of being a top-20 doc for the year, there's just not going to be a ton of money -- but that's just a guess. With the growth of content platforms everywhere, it's quite possible there's more industry (and audience) appetite for docs resulting in more $ -- but I don't know.