A Guide to Selling Your Independent Film
Having worked for both an independent production company and latterly for a film distribution company, Emma Norton has experience of the process of both selling and buying independent films – here she describes the steps to think about when selling your film.
Selling an independent film can be tough. Even if you are an established director/ producer or production company that has sold films in the past, the process can often prove complex and exhausting.
That being said, if you have managed to create a film which hits all the right buttons with buyers, then you could find yourself in the rare and privileged position of having a bidding war fought over your work.
Selling a film requires entering into legal contracts and taking part in extensive negotiations, so it’s important to be properly clued-up before you sign or agree to any deal being sent your way. And remember, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
There is no perfect step-by-step approach to selling a film. The path you take is entirely dependent on your budget, your production team’s experience and the potential of your film to generate an audience and financial success. So, here are the points to remember when embarking on selling your independent film.
Who, what and where is your market?
Before embarking on the process of selling your film, it is important to carefully think about and understand where your market is.
Consider who your audience is and how they will seek to watch your film – are they most likely to want to see your film on the big screen, on TV, DVD or online?
Theatrical distribution is the main goal most filmmakers seek, but what many don’t realise is that it is rarely the best means of making money.
In all, it is important to be realistic in your aims – so think very carefully and do your research before you start trying to sell your film.
Once you have a finished cut of your film that you’re proud of, the best thing to do next is to enter it into international film festivals.
The festival circuit is the best means of garnering attention for your film. If you can get it accepted by major international festivals such as Cannes, Tribeca, Sundance, Berlinale, Toronto and Venice then that can often stand as a good sign that you will receive interest from sales agents or distributors.
However, do not be disheartened if such illustrious festivals reject your film as younger or more niche festivals such as SXSW, Edinburgh, IDFA or Doha can also draw a considerable crowd.
It is important to be targeted in your applications to film festivals – look at each one closely and see if your film will fit the selection criteria and appeal to judges. Submission fees can add up and unless the committee selects you for a major award category, you may well have to finance your travel and stay at the festival yourself.
Most major festivals stipulate that your film screening must be a continental premiere, so be careful when agreeing to screen at smaller events if you are holding out for acceptance to a major festival.
Though it may be an exhausting process, it’s at festivals that you get to meet people, make contacts and get the opportunity to sell your film directly to distributors.
Selling your film using a sales agents
A sales agent is not necessary or advisable for every production, but they can serve as a useful intermediary between filmmakers and international distributors.
It is the role of a sales agent to sell the rights to your film internationally.
Sales agents can be beneficial to a production as they:
- Work on a commission-only basis
- Assist with making your film as commercially viable as possible
- Help with the creation of marketing materials
- Have established connections with film distributors, so they have good knowledge of who to approach and what course to take
- Have an in depth understanding of how the sales process works, so will be less likely to get involved in unscrupulous deals
- Ensure that payment of any distribution deal is made
- Assist with the delivery of materials to distributors
If you believe that a sales agent could be of use to your film then it is important to try and get them involved in the production as early as possible. A sales agent will approach your film from a purely monetary viewpoint – if they can’t see any profitability then they will not get involved.
One of the real incentives of getting a sales agent on board before you start shooting your film is that they can put a ‘value’ on your film and this can help keep your production on budget – if a sales agent values your film at a certain amount of money, you don’t want to spend more than that during production or you won’t be making profit from it.
If you wish to use a sales agent on your production, make sure you do your research, see what genres they have worked on before and investigate their past successes/failures.
It is worth noting that the distinction between sales agents and distributors is now beginning to blur – many distributors now provide the same services as sales agents, so it is worth thinking carefully about your options.
If you don’t have the privilege of a sales agent, you’re going to have to do all the legwork yourself when it comes to researching and contacting film distributors.
Whether or not you’re lucky enough to get into a film festival or find a distributor there who’s willing to buy your film, it’s worth sending out emails and screeners to as many relevant companies as possible. Screeners are low-cost to produce and postage doesn’t cost the earth, so go for it.
However, be prepared for rejection. Even if you have a viable film on offer, it is almost guaranteed that you will either get no response or will be rejected by around 80% of the distributors you contact.
The fact is that decent distributors are bombarded with unsolicited emails from filmmakers every day – if you don’t have any bait in the form of fantastic reviews, awards or festival appearances, then grabbing their attention is going to be near impossible.
For more in depth information, have a read of our top tips to find distribution for your film.
Getting an offer from a distributor
If you’ve received an offer from a reputable distribution company, but you have little or no experience of the film selling/ buying process, then you need to tread incredibly carefully when entering into negotiations or signing any contracts.
If you want theatrical distribution of your film then companies will seek to purchase all the rights to the film, including (obviously) theatrical, as well as broadcast, DVD and online rights. Most small to medium distributors will focus on one region only, so you may well have to find a separate distribution company for US, EU and Asian markets.
If you’ve decided to avoid using sales agents or distributors, then there is another option: you can sell your film yourself.
Some filmmakers are keen to keep close control over their film, or if they’re part of their own production company with a bit of finance behind them then they may want to cut out the middle man and release their film all by themselves. This step is not for the faint hearted.
Attempting the DIY method requires in depth planning and an absolute confidence that your film is marketable and can generate enough audience interest to ensure you emerge from the project without bags of debt.
Things to think about if you’re undergoing theatrical screenings without a distributor:
- You’ll need money – there are lots of upfront costs to pay for screenings, materials and marketing
- You’ll need to send out screeners or organise screenings for cinema programmers/ bookers to try and convince them to show your film in their theatres
- You’ll need to get your film certified by the necessary boards e.g. in the UK you’ll need to send your film to the BBFC
- You’ll need to manage relationships with all the cinemas at which you’re screening and provide all necessary materials including posters and DCPs (digital cinema packages), which are not cheap to produce
- You’ll have to track the box office sales
Undertaking theatrical distribution independently is no simple undertaking. There are easier and more affordable distribution options for less experienced filmmakers or production companies, including:
- Using digital distribution platforms such as Distrify and video on demand (VOD) services such as Netflix and FilmFlex.
- Selling educational rights (most relevant to feature documentaries)
- Physical distribution of DVDs – it is now feasible for independent filmmakers to produce their film on DVD relatively cheaply and sell it online via their own website or via sites such as Ebay and Amazon. Retailers such as Walmart, Tesco or HMV are difficult to sell to – they will normally only accept films that are box office hits, or can appeal to a specific consumer demographic.
You will also want to consider setting up a website and social media channels for your film to help get the word out there. See our guide on how to promote you film through social media for more detailed information.
This guide offers just a glimpse into the complexities surrounding selling your film, either through sales agents, distribution companies, or independently.
Going in blind to the process can leave you vulnerable to dodgy dealings, so it is best to try and gather as much advice and information as possible.
Nevertheless, there are opportunities for filmmakers out there, so stay positive and you may end up successfully selling your independent film!