Indie Filmmaking and Self-Distribution: Lessons Learned

2 years ago, SMUGGLED, premiered at the Riverside International Film Festival, where it would win its first of five awards.

Writer/Director Ramon Hamilton and Lead Actress Denisse Bon with Riverside International Film Festival President Harki Dhillon.

Writer/Director Ramon Hamilton and Lead Actress Denisse Bon with Riverside International Film Festival President Harki Dhillon.

Two weeks ago, it screened to an audience of more than 150 at a major university in the Dominican Republic.

SMUGGLED-DRLooking back at the journey and self-distribution process we took with our small (micro-budget) film, I thought I would jot down what I’ve learned (as a producer), in case it might help others. As I look back, I certainly see things I would have done differently, but I also see that, for us, self-distribution was definitely the way to go — however, it has meant working tirelessly to get our film out there and feeling like we’re NEVER done.

1. Know what you’ve got — One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard at a film festival panel is simple and goes something like this: “Be honest with yourself about what your product is.” This is INCREDIBLY important. Making a film is a major achievement, and can often lead to thoughts of grandeur. Check your ego at the door, then step back and really look at what you have so that you can clearly (and honestly) assess its potential audience and reach. Every choice you make about your film: to submit to film festivals (or not), which festivals to submit to, what distribution deal to take, if you should self-distribute, how you will self-distribute, etc., etc., they all follow from being very honest with yourself about what you’ve got.

1a. Make a Good Film — I left this out initially because it seems obvious, but received some feedback and comments that reminded me that it isn’t necessarily obvious, so I’ve added it. I could write an entire blog post about what make a good film (several people have), and much of what makes a good film is subjective, but a few basic things: an engaging story, professional production values (sound, picture, etc.), strong acting (don’t just cast your friends — unless your friends are professional actors), etc. Again, be honest with yourself about your film, about the ability of the cast and crew and take the time to get things done right. It also helps, especially when you’ve got a limited budget, if you bring together a passionate group of people who share your commitment to the film.

2. Submit to film festivals wisely (if it all) — Don’t submit to everything and don’t necessarily chase the biggies (Tribeca, Sundance, Cannes, etc.). Be realistic about your film and where it will most likely get selected so that you can save money and spend it wisely. Again, be honest with yourself. All told, we only submitted to about 45 festivals. Yet, of those 45, we were selected for a third and received awards at five of them. This means our ROI (return on investment) for festival dollars spent was pretty high. How did we figure out which festivals to submit to? We found similar independent films and researched what festivals they were in. Again, be honest with yourself about what constitutes a film that is similar. Our film is an immigration film, but I didn’t look at immigration films that had named talent in them or producers or directors with connections/recognition before they made that film.

Since our budget was limited we basically didn’t submit to any festival with a submission fee over $45 and tried to prioritize festivals that were good fits for our film and were within driving distance for us, since we know that festival attendance can increase your chances of receiving an award. (A case has been made that for some films, festivals are not necessarily the best way to go, so do your research and assess what’s best for your film. Don’t throw money away on festivals if you can reach your goals without them, especially since fewer and fewer films are getting bought at festivals.) Also, don’t blanket submit to festivals that don’t have submission fees because DVDs and shipping still cost.

3. Leverage film festival media coverage — A major break for us was getting into Cine Mas, the San Francisco Latino Film Festival and, subsequently, getting covered by NBCLatino in their press coverage of Cine Mas. Coverage from a major media outlet like NBCLatino gave us something to talk about (besides festival acceptances and wins) and put us on the map for other media outlets. NBCLatino’s coverage led directly to coverage from ABC News/Univision.

4. Get on Twitter and learn how to use it — Hopefully, you’re already on Twitter, AND using it to connect with your core audience. This is something I wish I had done sooner — set up a Twitter account for myself (@IndieJenFischer, the producer), and for the film and its Writer/Director, Ramon Hamilton. Even if I was late to the game, being on Twitter has been an invaluable outreach tool. Almost every single media piece and film review for SMUGGLED has come through Twitter. Initially, when our film was releasing on VOD and DVD last April, I used Twitter to identify critics and bloggers who reviewed small, indie films and reached out to them offering to send review copies. Through this approach, we were able to get some quality, key reviews of the film to share, and, most importantly, bloggers/reviewers were retweeting our initial tweets of their reviews, helping us build our Twitter following. By engaging in some niche twitter chats (some that were focused on Latinos and some that were focused on indie filmmaking), we continued to grow the film’s outreach and get additional media coverage. Our numbers are not staggering, but the value of the connections has been high. I choose to focus on cultivating quality, not necessarily quantity. Some (or even a few) of the right followers can be much more effective the scores of the wrong followers.

5. Evaluate and Assess — This is a must! It’s important to constantly evaluate and assess your outreach efforts and your distribution model and see what is working and what isn’t. With self-distribution and projects that are made and promoted by a very small group of people, assessment is critical. Our company is small and the time we have available to promote/sell the film is quite limited, so we have to spend our time wisely. If we realize a strategy is not working well, we stop and assess so that we can take another approach.

6. Find your niche and you’ll find your market — Through honest re-evaluation and assessment and by taking a close (and critical) look at what our film, we were able to switch our sales approach and drastically improved our outcome. We realized that VOD sales were not the right area of focus for us, for many reasons. It made more sense to focus our efforts on the academic marketplace — a market usually reserved for documentary films. We felt that a narrative film about immigration that felt very real and intimate could do just as well, or even better, as a documentary about immigration if we targeted the correct professors. Yes, it was risky. Yes, it took time to research who to contact. Yes, it required persistence. However, in the end, we found the right distribution model/approach for our film.

7. Ask for help — Be direct. You can’t just tweet about your film and think other people will act or re-tweet or do whatever you want them to do. You have to ask. I would tweet directly at organizations and/or individuals that I hoped would review the film and clearly ask them to do so. (P.S. It helps if you’ve already established a relationship with them). I didn’t send blanket tweets saying the film was available for review. When the VOD was available, we circled back to every film festival the film had been in and ask if they wouldn’t mind sharing that the film was available — on their social media platforms and in their upcoming email newsletter. We made it easy by having everything written for them. Many of them shared it. After successful screening events at universities and colleges, we would ask key professors for quotes endorsing the film that we could then add to our website and share on social media. We looked carefully at who we already knew that might have particular interest in sharing the film, reviewing the film, or connecting us with academics or Latino organizations. You can’t do it all yourself, so don’t try. (Help may include a professional publicist, if you have the marketing budget for that).

8. Stay engaged with indie filmmaking as a community and industry — I follow indie film thought leaders, marketers and producers that I admire on Twitter. I subscribe to Hope for Film by Ted Hope. I’m a part of Sheri Candler‘s Indie Film Marketing G+ Community. I have a Pinterest Board dedicated to Filmmaking Articles and Resources (a board recognized by Indiewire as one of the Top 10 Indie Film Boards to follow). I follow indie film publications and key festivals. If I weren’t engaged with trends in the industry and hadn’t been reading various resources focused on helping independent filmmakers, I might not have realized that the academic marketplace was the best way for us to sell SMUGGLED. I came across an article about selling documentaries to universities and colleges, and that was when I realized this approach could work for us. I spoke with individuals who had done it. I read more articles about how to do this, and then we decided to give it a whirl.

9. Put the pieces of the puzzle together — There’s not one magical thing that will make your film a success. It’s never that way for any film, not for that surprise film at Sundance or the indie film that wins an Oscar. It is always the sum of its parts. Success comes when that “one thing” is actually just a piece of the puzzle and not really one thing at all. For us, it seems like the “one thing” was deciding to sell the film to the academic market. However, if we hadn’t had film festival acceptances and wins, major media coverage and endorsement quotes, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the traction that we did when we began reaching out to the academic market. We also put the pieces of the puzzle together by re-designing our website so that it was tailored to the academic market, rather than focused on VOD or DVD sales to individuals.

10. Build your email database along the way — At every screening, we build our email list. We make sure the audience knows that our e-newsletter will keep them up-to-date on this film and our future work. At every screening, we also share a bit about our company in general. In this way, we’re building a core audience interested in supporting the types of projects our company focuses on and not just this one film. We want to be able to reach them directly. Yes, we also mention our Facebook pages and Twitter handles. But, to be honest, we haven’t seen large growth and numbers for SMUGGLED on Facebook or Twitter. Some people might obsess about this, but I don’t because I see our email database growing, and I see a high open rate when we send emails. This matters more to me than Facebook likes and Twitter followers, particularly given how few people see Facebook shares these days. The emails in our database are ours (not controlled and owned by a third party). I’ve also learned that outreach and interaction from my personal Twitter account works better than from the film’s account. After all, it’s about building relationships and building community — it takes a real person to do that.

11. Don’t be afraid to give your film away, even if it’s only now and then — Even from the beginning, when the VOD became available, first on Vimeo and then on Amazon, we always had a secret Youtube link, which we could use for reviewers. We would also share that link through social media now and then. It worked to jumpstart interest. In the last year, as we’ve seen the academic success of the film grow, we’ve added a Google Download of the film, which we also give away — all the time, to anyone and everyone. This is another way to spread the reach of the film and grow our email database. Getting the free download requires an email to us requesting it. We make it clear when we send you the links over email that we’re adding you to our database, but also make it clear that you can request to be removed from the list, but this rarely happens. We also did several initial academic and community screenings for free early in our outreach process, including a sold out (250+) screening hosted by the Palm Springs International Film Society and three back to back screenings at a community college not too far from us. Again, these freebies provided us with leverage and credibility when reaching out to the academic marketplace on a grander scale for sales and honorarium support screening events.

Have you self-distributed a film successfully? Hit me up on Twitter (@IndieJenFischer) with what worked well for you. Want to know more about our film? Check out www.getsmuggled.com. Anything else you want to share or chat about? Comment here or connect with me on Twitter.

Oh – and if you’re wanting more tips and resources on indie filmmaking and distribution, as well as crowdfunding and much more, then you’ll definitely want to peruse my Film Articles and Resources Pinboard with nearly 400 articles.

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3 thoughts on “Indie Filmmaking and Self-Distribution: Lessons Learned

  1. Pingback: Getting Started and Getting Better – Filmmaking Tips from an Indie Filmmaker and Former Film Festival Programmer | Think Ten Media Group - The Blog

  2. Pingback: Indie Update: Sundance, Oscar, Selma, SAG-AFTRA and PDMs – Top Filmmaking Reads from the Past Week | Think Ten Media Group - The Blog

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