Rebecca Norris is a writer and filmmaker with her production company Freebird Entertainment. Her award-winning self-produced feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is currently on the festival circuit and will be distributed on DVD and streaming platforms this summer. Additionally, Rebecca writes the Writers on the Web column for ScriptMag where she explores the production process of creating web series, and enjoys teaches screenwriting classes and webinars through Screenwriters University and The Writers Store. Rebecca is also a busy script analyst who has read for multiple contests and production companies. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!
A hot topic in the indie filmmaking world as of late is self-distribution. Just as companies like Amazon completely reinvented book publishing as we know it, the same thing is happening with film distribution. Gone are the days when you needed a distributor to take a chance on your indie film, so that people other than your mother and closest friends could see it. Now, with self-distribution, your movie can be placed in front of a potential audience of millions--without the middleman.
Cindy Baer, a critically acclaimed director, producer, writer and actress, is at the forefront of this self-distribution movement. Her most recent feature, Odd Brodsky, screened at 29 film festivals and won 20 festival awards, and although it was offered traditional distribution, she chose to take the reins herself. The movie is currently available on VOD, including iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
Odd Brodsky is about a woman who quits her dreary desk job to follow her dream of making it in Hollywood --told in a Wes Anderson sort of style. When she meets an aspiring cameraman on the internet and moves in with a sexy new roommate, the adventure of her life finally begins. This quirky comedy is about following your passion and finding the magic in life --something we filmmakers can all relate to!
Cindy has a treasure trove of advice to share with us about how to self-distribute and promote independent films. (I’ll also have info to share soon, as I’ll be doing digital self-distribution for my feature in the coming months! Stay tuned!) I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her about how distribution has shifted into the hands of the filmmakers, and what she has learned throughout her journey.
Rebecca: You chose to use an aggregator to distribute Odd Brodsky rather than a traditional distributor. Can you explain to our readers what the difference is between an aggregator and distributor, and why you felt self-distribution through an aggregator was the best option?
Cindy: Years ago, I used a traditional distributor for my first feature, Purgatory House, and although it was a spectacular experience to be vetted by a large company and see my movie lining the walls of video stores and widely available on VOD, at the end of the day, we received no revenue beyond the distributor’s initial advance. This was actually “the norm” back then. Today it’s even tougher because there’s more product than ever before, and most distributors offer no advance at all.
Even though my current feature Odd Brodsky did extremely well on the festival circuit, extensive research suggested that without huge stars it would be almost impossible to get good “placement” on VOD platforms. Since that’s the biggest benefit a distributor can provide, and the majority of the low budget filmmakers I knew had not recouped the cost of their films by using traditional distributors, I knew the old way was not working. (Did it ever really work?) That's why I was excited to try out this new world of self-distribution using a service deal through an aggregator! As filmmakers, we’re starting to have access to the tools that provide more direct control. I think if you use the right aggregator it can be a real game-changer for us.
The difference between a distributor and an aggregator can be confusing, and to make matters worse, some aggregators refer to themselves as distributors. Either can get your movies on VOD Platforms, cable, Subscription VOD (Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.), discs, and in theaters.
Using an aggregator can give you complete control over choice of platforms, time frames, prices and marketing materials. An aggregator works in one of two ways. They either charge a one-time price,
along with a small annual accounting fee (sometimes called a “service deal”), to encode and place your film on various platforms and/or pitch your film to curated sites (like Netflix, Hulu), after which you retain 100% of the title’s revenue, or some will charge a percentage of the film’s profits, in addition to, or in lieu of, an upfront fee.
After researching several companies, I ended up choosing Quiver, who does “service deals.” Their process was fast and easy to follow, but what I loved most was the financial interface they provide, which gives filmmakers instant access to almost REAL-TIME accounting. This allows not only for complete transparency, but the ability to use real-time sales data to target your advertising, while it’s still relevant.
A distributor (or an aggregator that doesn’t offer service deals) typically reports quarterly. They make many or all of the decisions for your title, including choosing the platforms, the artwork, the trailers, etc. They may or may not charge upfront fees, and will take a percentage of the profits – normally somewhere between 20-45% - plus recoupment of expenses. Because they report quarterly, you can’t know how your title is performing until it may be too late to have an impact with your own ads or social media.
The largest benefit of having a reputable distributor is that they may be able get you on more hard-to-land platforms, and get your title better placement there. This means you’ll be seen by a larger audience organically. The problem is that good placement is usually reserved only for high profile movies.
The good news is that with a solid plan and tools, even a small self-distributed indie can find ways to be seen. Thanks to an effective grassroots campaign, when Odd Brodsky was released on iTunes, we held our own alongside four high-profile films that were coming out the very same day. During the pre-sales window, we were in the “Top Five” alongside Bridget Jones’ Baby, Pete’s Dragon, Ben-Hur, Spielberg’s BFG, and Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep!
The bottom line is that there’s never been as much opportunity for indie filmmakers to get their work out into the world as there is now. Whether you use a distributor or aggregator, the biggest challenge will be figuring out how to reach your audience. Whoever can crack that nut will change the world for all filmmakers. In the meantime, it’s exciting because artists have choices we’ve never had before.
Rebecca: What qualities should filmmakers look for in an aggregator? How can filmmakers separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to these companies?
Cindy: My process started by finding and making a list of the current aggregators on a spreadsheet. Many answers to the questions you’ll have can be easily found on the aggregators’ websites. I read through all the contracts, terms and conditions, and deliverable requirements for each company, narrowed down my top contenders, and sought out other filmmakers who’d used those aggregators for their own films to get honest feedback.
At the end of the day, I chose Quiver because I liked the service deal/flat fee model, their prices were reasonable, they had a fantastic platform, several filmmakers I knew gave them great marks, and they were patient with my questions.
Things to Consider When Looking for a Service Deal:
1) What are the upfront costs? Are there discounts for multiple platforms?
2) How long is the process?
3) What deliverables do they require?
4) Which platforms do they service?
5) Can I choose my own pricing? Can I change the pricing?
6) How often do they pay -- monthly or quarterly?
7) What type of financial reporting is available? Do they have an online financial portal? What is the reporting lag-time? Can I see a sample?
8) What is the annual fee and will it remain the same?
9) What is the aggregator’s history? How long have they been in business?
10) What are the cancellation policies?
(NOTE: Read the entire contract!)
Rebecca: Can you speak to the belief/myth that filmmakers should go with a traditional distributor for the “prestige” of “getting distribution”? Is there validity to that or is it really more about whether or not you were able to successfully monetize your film? What’s the true measure of success as an indie filmmaker, in your view?
Cindy: I’ll admit it felt great to be able to say we had a distributor, and then see my debut feature lining the shelves of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. But video stores are gone, and so are many of the gatekeepers. For a small independent movie today, I could not justify paying a distributor somewhere between 20% and 45%, plus expenses (which may still include aggregator fees they contract to their own middle-men), plus sales agent fees (10%) on top of the Platform fees (which range between 30% and 50%). By the end, it would take even the smallest of budgets YEARS to recoup its costs, if ever.
A service deal made more sense to me, especially because I had very specific ideas about trying a “window” roll-out strategy. It sounds great to be able to say you “got distribution”, especially to those who are on the outside. But as a producer, I think it feels even better to be able to say you recouped your costs. It’s show BUSINESS and if you can’t at least break even, you may not get a chance to make another movie.
I’d say for me, my measure of success as a filmmaker is threefold: creating a quality movie that’s in the black, widely available, and touches people. There is no greater feeling than receiving an email from a complete stranger who says your movie connected with them on some deep level. That’s what I live for!
Rebecca: You mentioned releasing in a “window” roll-out strategy of one platform at a time. Can you elaborate on this method and how it’s working for you?
Cindy: For Odd Brodsky, we started with iTunes exclusively for one month, and then went wider from there. I directed all of our energy to the first platform, with the goal of making the iTunes Charts, which we did! We came in at #19 for Indie Comedies in the US, #13 in the UK, and #2 in both Sweden and Armenia!
Next we went to Amazon Video (rentals), where the movie has been “live” for about two months now. After that we launched on Google Play and a few others, each time focusing all of our energy on the new platform. Eventually, when rentals start decreasing we’ll expand to sVOD, which are subscription services like Amazon Prime or Netflix. This roll-out strategy made the most sense to me, and seems to be working wonderfully!
Rebecca: When do you think it's appropriate to self-distribute, and when do you think it's best to go through a traditional distributor? What advice do you have for other filmmakers just embarking on their journey through distribution and facing these tough choices?
Cindy: That’s a great question, but unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
It will differ for each person. Certainly if you have a movie with household names or buzz, a distributor may be able to exploit that better than you can. Another reason would be if you want to hand your project away and just “be done with it,” which I hear a lot! Just remember that we reap what we sow. Everyone I know who succeeds at any level remains actively involved in the promotion and marketing of their own film.
My advice would be to listen to your gut. If you see red flags, do not ignore them. Before you go with a distributor or aggregator, talk to other people who have used those companies. Make sure they are reputable and have a track record. You worked so hard for so long to make your movie. Take the time you need to see it through to the end!