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Getting Distribution for My Documentary

My documentary, "The Magic Life", recently got distribution and I thought I might blog a little about the process in case it would be helpful to other filmmakers. Part of my rationale is that in the course of making any sort of film (or web series, short, etc.) -- is that there are so many unknowns. Having a handful of unknowns is always exciting, a chance to learn something new. However, having 104 unknowns is terrifying and often paralyzing. Hopefully walking through my process might alleviate some of the unknowns for some other filmmakers out there. (I should also note, that in talking with a number of other filmmaker friends who are more accomplished than me, it is shocking at how little producers often know about distribution.)

When you're making a film, distribution is one of those last things on your mind / deep recess bug-a-boos that haunts you every so often. You're so focused on making something that actually resembles a film, that worrying about who might see it and how (beyond hoping it gets into a major festival), seems slightly off kilter. And there are a handful of resources out there, but I found researching and studying those resources too early on to be a bit academic. It's good to know information but generally doesn't influence what you're actually going to do. 

A. Friends who can help
I had a lot of friends who offered to help with distribution of my film. Some of whom had a ton of experience. Some never even saw my film but just offered to help. Over time, they got my film to some of the biggest distributors / agencies around -- including CAA, Submarine, Preferred Content, etc. So a few notes on this. I think a lot of filmmakers assume this is where to start -- that they're nowhere unless they're connected. There's no doubt that my friends got a warm intro into places that 100% wouldn't have looked at my film otherwise and I am very appreciative of their efforts. However, I think it's a mistake to assume that a distribution company (or equivalent function) will not look at your film without a referral. I had one very helpful friend who made a lot of introductions but also heard great things of places where she didn't have contacts -- for those places, she suggested I just contact them out of the blue. For those folks, they almost -- without fail -- got back to me. Some immediately. Sometimes my film wasn't the right fit (e.g. they work with films at an earlier stage, they're focusing less on docs, etc.) and other times they wanted a screener. It just depended. But the response rate was super high.

B. Biggest is not necessarily better
I think as filmmakers, we can get so caught up in getting the biggest place to take our film on. Now, I don't have first hand experience with this as I now only have 1 film distributed as experience -- but I certainly have had friends that have had their films distributed by some of the bigger players. Of course, the bigger players have undoubtedly done well by at least *some* films -- otherwise they wouldn't have gotten big / stayed big. However, I know of examples where a film goes with a bigger player and suddenly they're on the shelf. It just boils down to fit -- and prestige plays a component, but shouldn't be the only factor.

C. Festivals, etc.
My doc played at a number of festivals -- outside Tier I (e.g. Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Toronto, etc.). I should also note that the vast majority of our inquiries came because we played at the Nashville Film Festival. But the core value of that aspect with respect to distribution is our doc was effectively on a list then -- as one acqusitions scout / agent / associate said when she called me, "I haven't seen your film but I'd love to." Which just means -- try to get your film to one of the top Tier I or II festivals. It'll help with getting people interested in engaging with your film and undoubtedly will help if you're doing any sort of referral / cold submission / etc. I didn't necessarily find attending the festival to be useful in terms of making new connections, etc. This might be different at a place like Sundance, but just wasn't my experience in the places I went to. (but of the places that contacted me -- they would often ask if they could meet me at that festival. If I couldn't, we could always set up a conference call later.)

D. Producers Reps
We ended up going with a firm called Circus Road Films -- if you look them up, they've had a number of solid features / docs that have played at major festivals and/or sold to places like Showtime, First Run Features, etc. We had a number of inbound inquiries from places like this (and places that offered direct distribution too -- both international and domestic.) A distribution friend of mine gave me what I thought was a great piece of advice which was to always ask for references whenever chatting with these guys. He said, always take the meeting, and always ask for references. Circus Road, interestingly, was one of the few who very willingly who gave me references -- the two directors they put me in touch with had great things to say about them. Obviously the world of documentary directors is relatively small and particular, so getting strong recs from other doc directors made me much more comfortable with them. I ended up having a very strong experience with Circus Road who seemed quite knowledgable about the space.

The thing I should note about Producers Reps -- is they're not commission based (as far as I know.) They charge an upfront fee and basically connect you with larger players. I have a friend who directed a doc that also played at Nashville and he was quite adament against going this route -- in his words, if they're really behind the film, they should take a commission and not charge an upfront fee. While I totally get and sympathize with that perspective (and the desire to not keep spending $ out of pocket), the reality is that for independent films, and probably docs especially, there's just not a lot of money. They need to get compensated one way or another and this way they ensure a solid compensation and you get distribution for your film (hopefully). Personally, I found the fee reasonable (but non-trivial) and, especially in the context of the larger overall cost of production, it's just something that one should budget for.

E. Chasing "Names"
We ended up having some much larger folks reach out to take a look at my film including Ron Meyer's office (COO of Universal) and MTV. While I received quite a number of complimentary notes in response, none of these ever panned out. Which is totally fine -- but I mention it because I think this is a little bit like hoping for a theatrical release or part of what paralyzes a lot of filmmakers. Your film is what it is. I made a documentary about the business side of being a magician. The cold reality is that maybe 10 docs a year, mabye even fewer, get a solid theatrical release (beyond a single week run in a specialty theater). There's just not a lot of money out there for docs. And those docs are typically made by Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Davis Guggenheim, etc. Can't say it can't be you, but odds are against you. I think what ends up happening is then you're always hoping for that huge thing as opposed to realistically assessing where your film fits in the marketplace. And that's what it is -- a product within a larger marketplace. Something that you care very much about and love and put a lot of time, energy, and money into -- but still a product. I always thought my film could be popular, but probably not one that warranted a theatrical release -- but would love for it to have a long and solid life on VOD and various online platforms (Netflix, iTunes, etc.)

F. Housekeeping
Even after you end up getting connected with a distributor that you like and likes your film (we went with Gravitas Ventures via Circus Road) -- there's still a bunch of stuff that you have to do. Proper conversion of your film, additional artwork, E&O insurance, etc. I found this process to be non-trivial, but less painful that I expected. And there was additional outlay of $. But again, it is what it is. I should also note that one of the things that always held me back early on when I got offers on my film was that I didn't have someone that I felt like I could count on to help me with the process. That's one of the things that I've found helpful about having Circus Road. I could just ask simple questions like, "Do you like these guys?" etc. It's always nice being able to ask someone that has a reasonable history with someone else what they think of them -- has the experience of a number of films, etc.

So that's about it. Beyond that, it's a process. A fairly lengthy process. We recently signed but premiered at Nashville over a year ago. I should note that we probably could've gotten it done way sooner (I frankly dragged my feet on another of areas) -- but sometimes you take longer than you would've liked in retrospect. Gravitas plans to release The Magic Life in the October / November time frame. 

If you're a filmmaker and have specific questions about the process I went through, feel free to reach out to me directly (contact form on this website.)