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Independent Documentary Distribution in Turbulent Times

By Susan Margolin

From Christo Brock and Grant Barbeito's 'Touch the Wall'

During IDA's Getting Real 2016 conference back in September, we held a panel called "So Your Film Didn't Get Into Sundance (and Even If It Did): Navigating the New Distribution Landscape." As the title suggests, the panel aimed to address the problem of finding a distributor, and/or determining a path to self-distribution. In this ever-complicated media landscape, with disruptors everywhere, and the challenge of breaking through the noise an increasingly difficult proposition, we sought to bring some clarity and guidance to filmmakers whose films weren't being sold in an auction environment at a major film festival—which is to say, the majority of documentary films being made today.

The marketplace is transforming actively and, at times, convulsively, and it is expected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future as technology offers up new modes of content delivery. Amidst the meteoric rise of subscription video on demand (SVOD) behemoths such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, along with the concurrent decline of the DVD business, cord-cutting of linear TV by consumers, and the rise worldwide of OTT (over the top) channels, the rate of change to the global distribution landscape is nothing short of dramatic.

As a direct result of these changes, several long-established distribution companies on both sides of the Atlantic have shuttered or scaled back dramatically. Disintermediation is a prevailing wind, as platforms become content creators, financing original content and working directly with filmmakers. Clearly, the rise of the SVOD players has realigned the power structure of the independent film landscape. Complicating matters further are the issues of an oversupply of content pouring into the pipeline, the disruption of the long-reigning content windowing strategy, and the resulting decline in specialty film theatrical box office.

Yet it's not entirely a doom-and-gloom picture. There are some very interesting and exciting new developments on the horizon. New solutions are being devised, new analytical tools are being implemented and new digital platforms are launching globally. Our panel addressed some of these new players, the latest trends, and new lessons to be learned from both experienced hands and first-time filmmakers.

Filmmakers are taking a more active role in distribution and marketing of their work than ever before. Self-distribution is gaining wider acceptance. Hybrid distribution, in which some rights are licensed to a third party and other rights are retained by the filmmaker/rights holder, and split-rights deals are also gaining in popularity as a broadly deployed approach for filmmakers.

Today, impact campaigns and the incorporation of paid speaking engagements into the outreach plan are often part of the release strategy from inception. Increasingly, filmmakers are thinking like startups, and are learning to deploy best practices from the startup world. They're creating extensive business plans, marketing plans and branding strategies, and utilizing analytics tools in their distribution and outreach plans. Distributors and aggregators are providing tools such as digital dashboards to enable these strategies.

What you'll find here is a brief summary of the panel discussion that took place at Getting Real. We heard detailed case studies from three filmmakers who have been in the trenches with their films, forging new paths; as independent distribution experts, we led and moderated the discussions.

First, we heard from Nanfu Wang, the filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed Sundance film Hooligan Sparrow. Hooligan Sparrow exemplified the limited art house theatrical film model and what that looks like in today's marketplace.

Next, we deconstructed the case of Christo Brock and Grant Barbeito's Touch the Wall, which deployed festivals, various partner organizations and an innovative on-demand-cinema model for the film's release.

Finally, we looked at the case of Keith Ochwat and Christopher Rufo's Age of Champions. Taking their cues from the startup world, the filmmakers created a robust self-distribution model. Eschewing a traditional theatrical release, their detailed strategic plan was fortified by sponsorship from a major partner organization.

The filmmakers were joined by some of the independent film world's top players, including Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment; Orly Ravid, entertainment attorney and founder of The Film Collaborative; Annie Roney of ro*co films; Nolan Gallagher of Gravitas Ventures; and Felicia Pride of Tugg, the theatrical event platform, to discuss the latest developments and opportunities for independent films in the global marketplace.

Here are some of the key themes that emerged during the panel discussion:

  • Develop a strategic plan that aligns with your goals as you consider distribution options.
  • Identify your audience early on in the process and understand how to best reach and engage them.
  • Partnerships with organizations and corporate sponsors with resources and reach can be potent tools, yet can be complicated.
  • In this world of digital access, is a theatrical release still necessary?
  • Traditional windowing strategies are being disrupted. What are the new models?
  • An emerging trend involves global all-rights deals and global representation deals. When is this approach a good solution and when is it not?
  • Manage your rights strategically and with care. Split-rights deals can lead to maximization of opportunity.


Identifying Your Audience

Christo Brock, producer of indie success story Touch the Wall, advised filmmakers to "bring your audience to the release of your film." He followed the advice of consultant Peter Broderick and set out to find his niche audience early in the process, and then worked towards engaging them. His team worked with Tugg, the crowd-sourced, on-demand cinema company, on the release of their film. They hired a full-time outreach coordinator, who stayed on the project for 18 months.

Orly Ravid of The Film Collaborative recommended that filmmakers use social media and targeted Facebook advertising to identify and learn about their film's potential audiences. She suggested that filmmakers also choose film festivals strategically, to help build a following. "It's not enough to just get your film out there; you have to build community," she maintained. She also advocated for bringing on a producer of marketing and distribution, or PMD, to have them focus on building audience and community even before the film's first premiere. "It's way too late if you show up to Sundance and that's when you start to think about who your audience is," Ravid asserted.

Nolan Gallagher of Gravitas Ventures added that filmmakers who can devote six to nine months to the marketing and audience-building for their films achieve the greatest success. "Artist-entrepreneurs are a dream for distributors to work with," he noted.

Felicia Pride of Tugg acknowledged that not all filmmakers will want to or will be able to spend their time becoming de facto distributors. For those filmmakers, she suggested creating a budget and raising funds to hire an outreach, social media and marketing team through individual investors, foundations or crowd-sourcing platforms such as Kickstarter or Seed & Spark.



Many filmmakers are finding that sponsorship can provide valuable outreach funding and promotional support. Keith Ochwat of Age of Champions had AARP underwrite community screenings and events. Christo Brock brought on USA Swimming as an organizational partner, which proved to be a valuable promotional partner.

The panelists acknowledged that there were often trade-offs and compromises to be made when involving partners and sponsors, and that they generally want to see the film both before and after its completion before they commit to a partnership/sponsorship package. From time to time, sponsors will request that changes be made to the film, which can create issues around editorial control and the potential for censorship. At times, filmmakers have had to make painful decisions around pleasing the sponsor, or risk losing valuable promotional support or production funding. Clearly, sponsorship can be a slippery slope.


In the Age of Streaming, Is a Theatrical Release Still Necessary?

Many experts in the distribution world agree that for certain films that are determined to have real theatrical box office potential, there still is no substitute for a theatrical release in terms of creating awareness and value in the marketplace. Annie Roney of ro*co films stressed that a theatrical release builds value for the educational market. She spoke about one new development in which some theatrical distributors have been willing to allow a semi- and non-theatrical campaign to launch day-and-date with theatrical. She cited the recent film Trapped, which opened in 20 cities. The team was able to capture the momentum created by the release to open in scores of additional cities simultaneously through an impact campaign.

Nolan Gallagher of Gravitas Ventures suggested that filmmakers try to retain their theatrical rights when doing deals with distributors: "I don't want to force spending $75,000 on theatrical, and then if the film doesn't perform in ancillary that money is sitting out there in deficit for years upon years,"

There was a consensus among the panelists that although awards qualification requires a limited theatrical release, too many films are spending money there that might be put to better use elsewhere in the campaign. The panelists agreed that while doing a 15- or 25-city release does create value, one must determine in advance if it is worth the cost, as very few films make money on their theatrical release alone.


Disruption of Traditional Windowing Models

For decades, the traditional order of creating windows of exploitation of channels of distribution followed a familiar pattern: three to six months of theatrical, followed by an educational window, then home video and transactional video on demand (TVOD), followed by pay TV and then linear TV.

First, a radically constricted theatrical window disrupted the traditional windowing pattern with premium digital distribution offerings coming within weeks, or in certain cases, day-and-date, with theatrical openings. Streaming services such as Netflix would generally follow TVOD availability by an additional window. Today, SVOD services often want to be day-and-date with TVOD, further truncating windows. Clearly, the rate of change is unprecedented, and the level of disruption is challenging for distributors and filmmakers alike.

Josh Braun of Submarine observed, "The windowing and what each entity needs [in a split-rights deal] is the bane of our existence because you put one piece of the puzzle into place, and then everything else has to fit around it. That wasn't the case five years ago." He explained that streaming services are looking for shorter windows—90 days, for example—in which filmmakers are able to exploit premium digital offerings and theatrical.


International Sales

Several new trends were discussed on the international sales front. The first was the question of the value and efficacy of global representation and global all-rights deals. According to Ravid, "Filmmakers have to weigh the value of doing one deal versus doing lots of smaller deals. In some cases, doing multiple deals will add up to significantly more [money] than doing one overall deal." Roney added that a Netflix deal might cannibalize what you could ultimately do in each territory. She cautioned that some films with strong international potential warrant doing deals territory by territory, but others will not.

Braun spoke to the new trend of global representation, in which sales reps line up a coalition of up to six international partners with whom their companies may have a first-look deal. Submarine will now often bring these deals to the table to help close a deal with an international sales company.

Gallagher described the rise of the simultaneous VOD release on a worldwide basis. He cited For the Love of Spock, which was released in 25 markets theatrically, 100 million homes in North America and over a billion homes worldwide. Gallagher spoke to the fact that 50 percent of the business that the film will do on iTunes will come from overseas. The filmmakers were able to promote the release via PR and social media, and spent very little ($25,000) on the marketing campaign.


Manage Your Rights Carefully and Strategically

Felicia Pride of Tugg stressed the importance of knowing your film's rights status. "Oftentimes filmmakers that I talk to don't even know the rights they have available. They don't realize that they can often carve out educational and non-theatrical rights. Filmmakers need to remember that your rights are your most valuable asset." Gallagher also cautioned filmmakers to make sure that their distributor has a plan to fully exploit all of the rights that they are being granted.

Gallagher added that filmmakers should keep SVOD term lengths as brief as possible, so that once the initial exclusive term expires, the film can be licensed to several smaller SVOD platforms on a non-exclusive basis. He described a whole new tranche of SVOD services that have launched around the world recently.

Following are the in-depth case studies of Hooligan Sparrow, Touch the Wall and Age of Champions.

From Nanfu Wang's 'Hooligan Sparrow'. Courtesy of POV.

Case Study: Hooligan Sparrow

Even though Hooligan Sparrow is Nanfu Wang's first feature film as a director, launching her career was only third on her list of goals for the release of the film. The film follows the harrowing journey of human rights activist Ye Haiyan as she seeks justice against an elementary school principal who abused six girls in China. Wang's primary goal was to build a wide audience for the film and raise awareness of its issues. But she also prioritized repaying her investors. The total budget was under $600,000, with approximately $200,000 in equity. With an increasingly robust sales market in recent years, spurred by the rise of such powerful SVOD players as Netflix and Amazon, her selection into the Sundance Film Festival boded well for her ability to meet those goals. This hope was confirmed by Submarine coming on board to sell the film at Sundance.

Though Hooligan Sparrow garnered acclaim and favorable publicity at Sundance, the film did not land a splashy all-rights sale there. Like a large percentage of films sold at festivals, Hooligan Sparrow ended up with a split-rights scenario with several distribution partners for both domestic and international rights, all secured at Sundance and finalized sometime after. Wang negotiated a television broadcast sale with POV for mid-five figures, and an SVOD deal with Netflix for low six figures. Submarine created a nice strategy for POV and Netflix, with a near day-and-date for the two platforms. After the festival Wang made an international sales deal with ro*co films and a deal with The Film Collaborative to handle festival rights. The outstanding rights coming out of Sundance included theatrical, TVOD and educational. A number of months later, Kino Lorber came on board for the educational and TVOD rights. So Wang was left (as many filmmakers are) with the theatrical rights.

Hooligan Sparrow became an international festival darling, screening in over 60 festivals in 20 countries and winning many awards and prizes. Nevertheless, Wang did not feel that there would be a strong theatrical audience for the film (her festival screenings were not regularly sold out), and she was on the fence about whether or not to even have one. She knew that theatrical releases can be very expensive and you really need to have your goals in mind in order to proceed with one. Bryan Glick of The Film Collaborative loved the film and set out to convince Wang to let him book it. He argued that a theatrical release would trigger great reviews for the film, which would (1) help raise awareness for the topic through traditional press; (2) help the long-tail revenue stream from the film, especially when it comes to TVOD and educational, which would compensate for a very stripped-down theatrical spend; and (3) help Wang's career. Glick felt that if the film started booking 90 days before broadcast and SVOD, he would be able to get up to 20 bookings without any four-wall fees.

With limited resources, Wang was able to get the film out to as wide an audience as possible. While she was happy to have secured the sales, she has not recouped the entire production cost for the film. Because Netflix pays over a number of years, her investors will need to be patient to receive their money. Ultimately she agreed to spend a little more on the release in order to qualify the film for Academy Award consideration. This paid off handsomely; in December the film made the Oscar documentary shortlist—which, in turn, will help secure additional theatrical bookings thanks to this heightened awareness of the film.

From Christo Brock and Grant Barbeito's 'Touch the Wall'.

Case Study: Touch the Wall

Filmmakers Christo Brock and Grant Barbeito had a different goal for their film Touch the Wall. They wanted to share the inspirational story about two female swimmers training for the Olympics with as wide an audience as possible. Through social media, a Kickstarter campaign and partnerships with leading swimming organizations, the filmmakers began outreach to their targeted audience of swimmers and swimming associations a year out from the premiere of the film. While this approach took a lot of planning and personal engagement, it did pay off.

Partnering with USA Swimming provided the filmmakers with a connection with the organization's 390,000 members and 450,000 Facebook followers. Additional relationships with swimming website SwimSwam and retailer SwimOutlet provided Brock and Barbeito an additional 750,000 Facebook users.

Building their film's audience a year in advance allowed the filmmakers to recognize they had a fan base to support theatrical screenings. Immediately after premiering Touch the Wall at the Denver International Film Festival, Brock and Barbeito brought their film to theaters via both conventional and on-demand distributors. As their limited-theatrical approach flagged, they quickly realized they'd have greater success going directly to their fans. They began to self-distribute the film using theatrical-on-demand platform Tugg. Their audience embraced this model enthusiastically; Touch the Wall screened 363 times to over 55,000 people, grossing over $700,000.

Approximately nine months after the Tugg screenings, the filmmakers began direct sales of their DVD from their website and as an affiliate with Amazon, resulting in sales of over $150,000. (And some say DVD is dead.) They were also successful in direct sales of group license, digital downloads, educational license and related film merchandise.

Brainstorm Media was hired to distribute the film after most of the Tugg screenings were finished, and Brock and Barbeito secured a broadcast deal on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The film went to TVOD in May, to broadcast on OWN in July, and then SVOD on Netflix in August, just ahead of the Olympics. However, the Netflix deal was for only $20,000—disappointing to the filmmakers. They had received an offer of $15,000 earlier in the year, but they turned it down. According to Brock, "Netflix's rationale, as told to us by our distributor, was that the film had been around in theaters for a while, and we had sold DVDs on our website and through Amazon. They considered us already played, and not 'new.'" The filmmakers ultimately took the offer just before the Olympics, but their decision killed their DVD and TVOD ancillaries. As Christo reflects, "My feeling with SVOD/Netflix is that it's a Sophie's Choice kind of moment: You can take the guaranteed money from Netflix…and know that your other streams of revenue will dry up, or you turn them down and go for greener pastures on your own. Tough choice nowadays, given the importance of Netflix. For us, I think it was the right choice, but our other revenue streams have dried up, and the film's a bit long in the tooth."

One of the options the filmmaker would advocate in the future would be to tighten the timing windows between theatrical release, DVD sales and broadcast and digital sales. The momentum of the film had slowed considerably by the time the sales agents were engaged.

Overall, the Touch the Wall filmmakers viewed their distribution strategy a success because they reached their goal of presenting their film to a large, passionate audience—and they were also able to make back a large part of their investment in the film.

From 'Age of Champions' (Dir.: Christopher Rufo; Prod.: Keith Ochwat)

Case Study: Age of Champions

Created by director Christopher Rufo and producer Keith Ochwat—who also teach an online course about direct distribution at www.filmmaker.mbaAge of Champions tells the story of five competitors, up to 100 years old, who sprint, leap and swim for gold at the Senior Olympics. For Rufo and Ochwat, the primary goal for this film was to bring their careers to the next level. They had made two previous films with ITVS funding, but they wanted to make their careers more sustainable.

Age of Champions premiered at AFI Docs and screened at a few festivals including San Diego and Austin. Like Brock and Barbeito, Rufo and Ochwalt realized that they would have the most success going after their core audience, which they first imagined to be seniors and senior athletes. This did not turn out to be the case, however. Through trial and error, the filmmakers ultimately found that their audience was nonprofits and businesses in the senior health community. The filmmakers realized early on that social media would not be the best way to reach any of their target audiences; strategic partnerships and conferences were the way to go. They started going to make connections—unpaid at first, but then they realized that they could get paid. They focused on senior living, gerontology and higher education conferences. They ended up doing 3,000 screenings and speaking engagements, with fees ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 per event; this revenue stream grossed a total of $294,000, with an additional $165,000 from AARP-sponsored events (for which they had to pay expenses, which were substantial).

Rufo and Ochwalt then created a screening kit that they sold for $149.95 (after experimenting with a few price points). This kit included a double DVD, posters, postcards, bracelets and the license. They grossed $143,000 from these sales in bulk to partners and another $192,000 from direct sales of the kits. An additional $111,000 came from direct-to-fan DVDs, which they only sold months into their screening campaign. An additional $88,000 came from direct educational sales. The filmmakers also secured non-exclusive DVD and educational deals with Passion River and Collective Eye; these deals grossed $26,000. You can see why they focused on direct-to-fan: They were able to engage an audience that was willing to pay a premium for this kind of content. They were also able to create customized video marketing content for corporate partners, earning an additional $160,000.

Concerning broadcast and digital, the greatest success for Rufo and Ochwalt was having the film play on PBS Plus, who took the film out nationally through the PBS affiliate network. The filmmakers were allowed to sell a minute of underwriting time to monetize this broadcast. They brought on a underwriting consultant who, while working hard for a year, was not able to sell any underwriting. This consultant advised them to sell each 15-second spot for $100,000-$150,000. But when they were three months out, Rufo and Ochwalt cut the rate to $75,000 and ultimately made $235,000 from the PBS underwriting—a pretty decent broadcast deal. They made an additional $38,000 on SVOD through Netflix and Amazon Prime through Cinedigm. However, their TVOD numbers have been very sparse, perhaps owing to the way that the audience consumes media, or perhaps to how late TVOD was engaged. But note the very high DVD sales; different audiences consume media in different ways.

Looking back at their distribution strategy, the Age of Champions team was very pleased with their decisions. They took a very unconventional approach to distribution by relying on partnerships and speaking at conferences, but it allowed them to bring their careers to a new level and start a long-term relationship with their audience. Thus, they achieved the success they wanted with the release of their film.

There are still a lucky few who can go to a festival and sell their film, but even then, chances are likely that you won't fully recoup. What is essential to success? Know what your goals are; identify and engage with your audience as early as possible; and understand that, as the landscape is ever-shifting, you will be better off with a split-rights strategy than with an all-rights deal.


Susan Margolin has over 25 years' of experience in film distribution, having launched New Video Group, Docurama Films and, through Cinedigm, the Docurama Channel. She has served as executive producer on a number of feature documentaries, both independently and through her production and distribution services company, St. Marks Productions.

Jon Reiss is a filmmaker and media strategist who wrote the book Think Outside the Box Office. Through his company HybridCinema, he helps filmmakers such as Nanfu Wang navigate the new distribution and marketing landscape. @Jon_Reiss