how to distribute your documentary film

How to Distribute Your Documentary Film

In my opinion, film distribution is about where people can find your film and film marketing is about how people can find your film. The two have to be divided and explored thoroughly if this series is going to help you make better movies and get them in front of more eyes. I wanted to write about marketing and distribution in the same post but, because each specific topic is so dense, I decided that they deserve their own posts.

How to Distribute Your Documentary Film

The first and most important step in distributing your documentary film is deciding on a goal. You can’t determine an approach without a goal because each goal is so vastly different. The way I see it, you should set one of these three goals:

  • Free, Independent Distribution. This is the goal most people should set for their documentaries, especially for their first few documentaries. With free, independent distribution you are trying to show your documentary to the largest audience possible without discouraging them by trying to charge money. Releasing documentaries online (and offline) for free is not only a great way to get them seen, but it’s also a great way to build your following as a filmmaker. If you release a handful of free documentaries (they can be short) and build a following, you can do things like crowdfund and pre-sell future documentaries.
  • Paid, Independent Distribution. This is a good goal for people who already have a following, are collaborating with other filmmakers who have followings, or are featuring people in their documentaries who have followings. The reason is that, despite the fact that your documentary may cover an interesting topic or may tell an interesting story, getting people to pay for it is going to be challenging if you haven’t already established some sort of trust with them. Doing paid, independent distribution can be profitable, but it can also put a limit to the amount of people who watch your documentary, so it’s important to take stock of your own project and following and determine whether you’re ready to take it on.
  • Paid, Broadcast/Theatrical Distribution. This is the traditional goal for many filmmakers, and for good reason. For many years, broadcast and theatrical distribution were the two channels that ensured documentaries would reach the widest audience. That is no longer the case. In fact, many of the television shows I’ve worked on lately feature people who are already popular on social media, because their followings are much larger and more wider reaching than broadcast and/or theatrical distribution, and the traditional media outlets are desperate for the viewership. For years broadcast and theatrical distribution was the first stop for documentaries, and even after things like online video on demand (VOD) platforms were introduced, projects would only move onto these platforms after they had had an exhaustive run on the traditional outlets. Nowadays, more and more documentaries are going straight to online VOD and negotiating deals with broadcast and theatrical distributors afterwards. Why? If the project is marketed correctly, it can be much more profitable to the filmmaker.

Now, I’m not saying that any of these goals are better or worse for your project and your following, only you can decide that. But, if you do have a goal in mind, you can narrow in on an approach by determining…

Where to Distribute Your Documentary Film

There are a virtually unlimited number of platforms to distribute your documentary film. Rather than writing a list of a thousand options, I thought it would be a better exercise to focus on a few that I like best.

  • For Free, Independent Distribution. If you are choosing this goal because you want your documentary to be seen by as many people as possible, your best option is to upload your project to YouTube. YouTube is now the #2 search engine in the world, second only to Google, who owns YouTube. That’s important because it means more people are searching for content to consume on YouTube and Google than anywhere else on the web, and YouTube videos show up on Google searches! To tap into the power of YouTube and Google searches, you have to upload your video with keywords that people are searching for, and feature those keywords in the title, description, and tags of the video. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to forgo a title for your film and replace it with an endless string of keywords. Choose a short, snappy title, add a colon, and then put the best, most relevant keyword string after your title (ex. “Film Naming: How to Choose a Good Film Title”). To research keyword strings, simply type the topic of your film in YouTube or Google (or into Soovle, an SEO tool). Make sure this keyword string appears in your description and tags, and you’re good to go. Choosing this string based on keywords people are searching for gives your documentary a higher likelihood of being discovered by people who wouldn’t otherwise find you online. The best part of YouTube? It’s incredibly easy to monetize through Google’s AdSense service. The payouts are low, but because your primary goal in distributing on YouTube is getting your documentary watched by as many people as possible, the passive income you generate from AdSense is just a bonus!
  • For Paid, Independent Distribution. If you’re choosing this goal because you have an audience that you’re ready to offer paid content to, your options are numerous. Even if you’re just looking at the most commonly used VOD platforms, the list includes names like AmazoniTunesGoogle PlayVimeoVHXNetflixHuluCable VOD… and on and on. If you only want to distribute on one platform, for the sake of simplicity, one of the better options is Vimeo, which allows you to rent or sell your film to your audience and preserves a generous share of the profits for you. In my opinion, however, distributing on one platform can be limiting, especially when you factor in the discoverability I mentioned with YouTube. To me, search and discoverability is an important marketing channel for documentaries, and because of that I believe it makes more sense to distribute your project across multiple platforms. Your viewers may be looking for documentaries to watch on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, or any of the other platforms out there, and if your documentary isn’t where they’re looking they may not find it. Not only that, but some users prefer the platforms where all of their other content lives, so if your documentary isn’t where they’re already shopping they may not want to buy it. The good news is that there are services out there that help you aggregate your content to all of these platforms without having to submit your project individually to each of them. Of course, these aggregators will take charge you, but time is money and the fee they charge is likely well worth it, especially when your time could be better spent on audience building, marketing, and outreach. Perhaps the best aggregator for your projects is Distribber, which submits your projects to online and cable VOD platforms.
  • For Paid, Broadcast/Theatrical Distribution. If, after all of the badmouthing I did about this goal, you still think it suits your project best (I don’t blame you, the majority of my work the last few years has been on television documentaries), you have a few options. When your film is at the rough cut stage and beyond, you can begin shopping it around to sales agents. It may take some digging (Google searching) to find a list of documentary sales agents, but perhaps the best place to start is by looking at films similar to yours and trying to figure out who represented them. A sales agent really is your best bet when it comes to approaching television or theatre distributors because they know the ins and outs of deals and it’s in their best interests to represent your best interests (because they’re trying to get a commission from selling your film). Some filmmakers have acquired sales agents and/or distribution by submitting their projects and screening them at film festivals like Sundance. Other filmmakers have acquired sales agents and/or distribution by shopping them around at film markets like the American Film Market. There is no one way to do it except making an awesome film and getting it in front of as many potential agents or buyers as possible. One caveat here is that you should not pick this approach because you don’t want to build an audience for your film. In fact, I’ve heard stories of sales agents being attracted to films because they had built an audience before they were released. Additionally, signing away rights to your project for broadcast or theatrical distribution means you will have to compromise creative control, and you may be asked (or required) to make changes to your project against your better judgment as a result.

Whatever You Do, Just Put It Out

Regardless of where you are in your filmmaking journey, one thing is true: you depend on the feedback loop of creating and showing your work in order to grow.

In the beginning of your journey, the most important thing is to just put your work out there and see how it’s received. You will get positive feedback, you will get negative feedback, and you can choose who and what to listen to, but the important thing is that you are getting feedback.

As your journey progresses and you are trying to monetize your work, the feedback you received in the early stages of your career will help you create and show more effectively, and the feedback you receive in the middle and late stages of your career will continue to do the same.

Don’t get too caught up on how to distribute your film, and definitely don’t fall into the trap of second-guessing yourself. There is no perfect distribution plan, and the more time you spend trying to perfect a plan is less time you are devoting to more important endeavors, like marketing your film or creating a new film.

Now that you’re armed with the information necessary to distribute your film, I want to spend my next post exploring the various ways to market it.

In the meantime, go make some movies, put them out for the world to see, and then move on and make more movies!

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