I spent the last several weeks preparing for the digital release of my latest documentary film. This is not my first foray into film distribution; but it is my first time releasing a film during a global pandemic, so one could say a few things have changed. For one, streaming services have replaced the Theatrical Box Office around the world. While this provides exciting opportunities for filmmakers to get in front of broader audiences, it also brings more complications.
Below are seven time-saving and cost-saving tips I gathered while delivering our film for its Spring 2021 digital release. While this is not an exhaustive list of all the steps involved with distributing your film, I share them in the hopes you will save time and money when delivering your film.
Bigger is Not Always Better
There are two ways to look at the size issue. First, cinematographers love talking about how big there are cameras; but bigger is not always better. Filming in 8k may look stunning, but if film festivals can only project a film in 2k or if people are streaming everything from home, you are paying for something no one will appreciate. You end up paying a premium to store huge film files, send huge files, and to convert the native resolution down to a smaller size (“down-res”) so you can meet the specifications provided by the festival or platform. These extra costs add up, so think about where and how you plan to release the film during Pre-Production, so you can budget for these.
The secondary size issues is audience. Streaming platforms offer global audiences, but those audience require more deliverables, insurance, and licensing. Adding subtitles and metadata in different languages is a great way to be inclusive, but if you don’t have any audience demographics for certain regions, it may not make sense to release the film in certain territories. Adding extra territories also means you have to pay more for licensing music and images, as well as Errors and Omissions (“E&O”) Insurance. You can get ahead of these expenses by having a Distribution Plan before you make your Film Budget.
Organize your Hard Drive
The average amount of time you will work on a documentary is five to seven years. Therefore, it is highly likely that the editor who edited your film may not be the person who uploads the film to the distributor. Having a well organized hard drive is imperative so you can find the files you need to deliver your film on time.
Protect Yourself and Your Film
Hopefully you have worked with an attorney throughout the life of your film. I typically bring one on during Research and Development (“R&D”) and continue to work with them until I close the film production company. If you have somehow escaped working with an attorney until now, rectify that immediately! Between opinion letters on fair use materials, licensing agreements, on-camera appearance releases, trademarks, copyrights, and negotiating terms with a distribution company, you need someone looking out for you and your film.
Once you have an attorney, ask them to add bankruptcy protections to your distribution agreement (sometimes called a “Deal Memo”). Given all the distribution company bankruptcies in 2019 and 2020, you will want to be able to get your film rights back if your distributor goes bankrupt without warning.
Ask for Referrals
Ask your distributor and/or your attorney for referrals to other filmmakers who have worked with them. Speak to other filmmakers about their experience working with your potential distributor before you sign anything.
Potential questions to ask include:
- How do their rates compare to others?
- Do they pay on time?
- Are they fiscally solvent or at risk of declaring bankruptcy themselves?
- Do they share reports and data on the release so you can refine your strategy?
- Will they continue the relationship with you by answering your emails or calls once the film is online?
Discuss Internet Upload Speeds with the Tech Team
This is a definitely a 2021 problem, and one I recently spent weeks troubleshooting, so I want to address it. With everyone working/schooling/streaming from home, bandwidth speeds have slowed. While your download speed may be okay (i.e. you can stream a movie without issue) at your location, you need to know the upload speed for your location and the distributor’s. You also need to know if their server times out after a certain amount of time or number of attempts. Ask to speak to their Tech Team if you have any questions about this.
In my recent experience, I suffered for two weeks before asking the Tech Team to call me. During that time we experienced three failed attempts, a lost hard drive over two weeks, and unbudgeted editorial hours. Once I spoke to someone, I learned there was a typo in the upload speed they sent me: Their server could receive a file at up to 100Mbps, not 10Mbps which was emailed to me). Consequently, we aborted our at-home attempts (where were averaging 6MBps) and called in a favor at a place that averaged 40MBps. This meant our film could arrive in 12 hours, as opposed to 5.5 days. This was a gamechanger!
To summarize, it will take longer than you expect to upload the film, but you can minimize your headaches by speaking to the Tech Teams about upload speeds ahead of time.
Have a Publicity Plan
One of the worse things you can do for your film is to drop it online without any promotion. If you have a Publicity Plan, you can plan when to begin your negotiation with a distributor. For example, I knew I wanted to release our film between March—April 2021 for promotional reasons. I also knew that digital distributors usually need 90 days to get the film online. Consequently, I began negotiating with a distributor in December 2020. Our negotiation and upload took longer than expected, so our release date is slated for mid-April. Had I waited any longer, we would have missed our ideal publicity window. Additionally, this means we have time to plan our publicity efforts and maximize our audience.
Have a Budget Contingency
You’ve probably noticed a theme throughout making your film, but it really comes into focus during Distribution: expenses will add up.
Unforeseen delivery expenses can include:
- Re-exporting the film to different specifications (“specs”) than what your last distributor or film festival wanted
- Paying for faster internet upload speed
- Re-formatting your subtitle, closed-caption, or artwork files
- Licensing fees (music, images, video)
- Insurance fees
- Legal fees
Having a budget contingency (money set aside to cover potential unforeseen costs outside of the original estimate) helps you cover these expenses and still distribute your film on time.
I hope you find these tips are useful. If you did, or if I left anything out, drop me a note in the comments. Happy filmmaking!