Letter to a Filmmaker Seeking Distribution

Advice on film distribution from Cynthia Close, executive director of Documentary Educational Resources


Cynthia Close (left), executive director of Documentary Educational Resources, and filmmaker Nina Hasin.
Cynthia Close (left), executive director of Documentary Educational Resources, and filmmaker Nina Hasin.

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Dear Filmmaker, I just got off the phone after talking to you. You had called our company asking to speak to someone about our potential interest in distributing your film. When I asked you if you had visited our website, you seemed slightly confused and said no, but that you had a few questions for me anyway. You started to pitch your film but it was clear it wasn't the type of film we distribute. Finally I just cut you off, gave you the URL to our website, and suggested you read the section we have set up to inform filmmakers about submitting films to us for distribution.

The most important lesson I hope you have learned from that experience is to do your research first before you call up a distributor. If a distributor does not have a website, then they are not worth pursuing. So, taking for granted that every distributor does have a website, that is the first place to go for information. Look at the titles they present. Do they specialize in a particular genre? (In our case we only distribute documentaries, so don’t send us your narrative feature starring Ben Affleck – although, if you made a film with Ben Affleck the distribution would likely be all locked up before the film was finished.) Does the distributor have a content focus? (In our case, we lean towards “cross-cultural” films, films about human rights, the environment, people and places but not historical docudramas.) Does the distributor address a particular market and is it the same market that you think will buy your film? Do you like the way they present the titles they offer? Does the atmosphere they create on the web look like it would be a good home for your film?

If the answers to all these questions lead you to believe the distributor might be interested in viewing your work, then that's the time to make the phone call. And when you call, be polite. You could start off by saying something complimentary, like “I was so impressed by the list of quality films you offer and I would love to see my film on that list.” Flattery is good if it is informed flattery, and I tend to like filmmakers more who clearly have a high opinion of us as a distributor, and filmmakers who may have come to us on the recommendation of a filmmaker whose work we already distribute. Who you know always counts in this business.

So now we are actually talking, and you’ve told me a little about your film, and I encourage you to submit a DVD for review. We have guidelines on our website that tell you exactly how to submit. There is a reason why we ask you to send a cover letter and/or press release. We also ask that you make sure the DVD itself is clearly labeled with all your contact information, address, phone, email and the length of the program! You would be amazed to know how many DVDs we get with nothing but the title scrawled on it with a sharpie. These get tossed in the round file right next to our recycle bin. Then when you call us six months later to find out why you haven’t heard from us, and we have no idea who you are, don't be offended, and don't be surprised.

But distributors don’t just sit back in their offices all day, waiting for the submissions to pour in. They also attend film festivals, talk to festival curators and actively pursue films. So getting your film accepted for screening in festivals is a great way to get a distributor's attention and have them chasing you instead of you chasing them. My two favorite festivals for conducting business are HOTDOCS in Toronto (coming up in April) and SILVERDOCS (in June) just outside of Washington, D.C. I like these events because they include an industry conference that draws all my international colleagues and I get to negotiate deals as both a “buyer” (acquisitions) and a “seller” licensing our programs for international broadcast. The actual time I spend sitting in a theater, watching a film in its entirety, as it was meant to be seen, is minimal. It is sad, but true. Therefore the “doc shop” or viewing stations set up mainly for distributors and buyers at these events is a great way to have your film available at times when the distributor can watch it, and hopefully decide to offer you a contract.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of film festivals out there and some are better than others. As a distributor, we like to acquire a film early in its festival life, and then we take on the responsibility and cost of promoting it for you. Not all distributors do this. We have an international perspective, and relationships with festival curators from Brazil to Beijing. We are more likely to get your film accepted to those festivals than you are because of our knowledge of the proclivities of festival curators. This kind of promotion is essential in building an international audience for your work.

Having your own website for a film is also an essential requirement, and a great way to build interest, connect with your audience, and provide information. As a distributor, I can get hooked by a well-designed site and a gripping trailer (no more than five minutes long). By the same token, a poorly designed site, where the video doesn’t play well, can do more harm than good. Don’t have your entire film streaming off your site, that is overkill, and it might actually jeopardize a distribution deal.

Some filmmakers think they need an agent to represent them. I find agents tend to complicate communication and add a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy to the negotiation process. I prefer to work directly with a filmmaker. It is an important part in building what can be a successful long-term relationship that may include future work. The relationship between a filmmaker and a distributor is based on trust, and it has to be built over time.

However, not every filmmaker needs or wants a distributor. Some filmmakers are more actively involved with their films, often because they fall into the realm of “advocacy” or are meant to motivate people to take some sort of action to improve the human condition, that they are the best spokespersons for their own work. There are more opportunities today for “self-distribution” than there were just a few years ago and some consultants have built a whole business around encouraging filmmakers to “go it alone.”

But the best situation is when you have a great film, an enthusiastic distributor, an informed, engaged filmmaker, both working collaboratively to find the broadest audience and making enough money to keep everybody happy.

All the best,

Cynthia Close
Executive Director
Documentary Educational Resources
101 Morse Street
Watertown MA 02472
1-800-569-6621
www.der.org