Distribution 303

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Art Skopinsky. I am the President of Monarch Films, Inc.I started in the film distribution business over 20 years ago, working in theatrical distribution for Troma Films. From there, I became Vice President of Donald L Velde, Inc. a distributor of theatrical promotional materials for major studios, independents, and for advertising agencies to theaters through out the USA.Within Donald L. Velde, Inc. I created Monarch Films, Inc., and theatrically booked numerous features to over 200 arthouse theaters, museums, and colleges in large markets and small all over North America. Eventually Monarch developed into a distributor of programming for the international market. We currently distribute over 250 hours of non-fiction programing to over 75 countries worldwide.

In my career I have distributed low-budget action films, shlocky horror movies, foreign language art house films, award winning documentaries, and reality series. I have lectured singularly and as the part of many panel sessions on international distribution at IFFM and other film festivals

Consider these pages and the others included here, as a kind of college seminar series on Film Distribution, My attempt here is not to encourage the reader to become a distributor (there are too many of us as is now), but to educate the producer as to have a knowledgeable and realistic view of the realities of distributing a film, or series either on the domestic or worldwide markets. In the interest of brevity I will refer to feature films, documentaries, series, specials, etc... as films. So assume unless I specify otherwise that each definition refers to your film no matter what it's format.

I think the best way to start is to cover a brief glossary of terms used in distribution. Other people may have different definitions, but these are mine.

If you haven't read Distribution 101, or Distribution 202, please do so now. They both provide background on what we are going to talk about below.

Question: Ok, I have made my film, now I want to find a distributor. What do I do? Who do I start with, and how do I approach a possible distributor and present my film.

Pearls from Swine: I know that most of you think that on a whole, distributors are spineless thieves who wouldn't know a good film if it bit them in the ass. Granted some of my colleges are all that and more. But on a whole, what most distributors/sales agents are overworked small businessmen who have taken a financial risk and have to work hard and smart to keep themselves profitable.

Keeping that in mind when deciding which distributor to approach and the best way to approach them to get the decision you desire. I can suggest the following rules to follow.

1) Do some research. Try to determine which distributors already have programs similar to yours, and offer your film to them. It is not true that since they have one of a certain kind of film they won't want any more. Just the opposite. If a certain kind of subject matter, let's say in my case erotic reality or living history has worked well for a distributor, that means he already has relationships built up with buyers who acquire these kinds of programs, and continually need new programming of that type to offer to these audiences. One way to get an idea on what kind of programming a distributor markets is to read Variety and other trade papers (Hollywood Reporter, Real Screen, Electronic Media, etc..) focusing on the issues published the week before and the week of a given sales market (the dates of various major film markets identified in Distribution 101). Back issues over the last year can be obtained from the publisher or are located at the library or sometimes on line. Also many distributors libraries can be found via the internet at www.Reelplay.com, www.Mipinteractive, and others.

2) Be realistic about the kind of film you have. Don't assume that because you made the film that it's going to be the next Bowling for Columbine or Blair Witch. Don't spend a lot of time waiting for an answer from Miramax for your 54 minute documentary about midgets. A large distributor like that is looking for a picture that can make millions for them at the box office, not a few hundred thousand. To achieve a large gross a fictional picture usually needs some recognizable names, and very strong story elements. It needs to be able to stand on its own theatrically. A non-fiction picture has even a more uphill battle to be considered by that size of a company. It is very hard to find an audience for a non-fiction film in a theater Michael Moore not included. Most documentaries natural home is television.

A good rule of thumb is that if your film has been to a major festival (Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, or Venice or has been on the festival circuit for over three months and you still haven't received interest from a major distributor, then it is not going to happen. That is also true if your film has been submitted to a distributor, and you haven't heard anything in six weeks. Believe me, if they want a film they jump on it.

3) Sometimes a smaller distributor geared to selling to a certain media such as the television or the educational market is the best place to place your film in order to reach it's full marketing potential. Being with a distributor that knows what your kind of film can and can't do, and will direct their attention to the markets were it can sell is the smartest way to proceed. There is something to being the right size fish for the right size pond.

4) Your presentation materials have a direct bearing on your distribution options. The fundamentals you should have in your presentation kit to a distributor are the following:

a) a one to three paragraph description of your film. A longer, one page (no more) synopsis of the film, a one to two minute tightly cut trailer of the film on the head of screening cassette, any and all artwork created for the film, a series of Color photos from the production (not pictures of you the producer, or photos of the cast goofing around). Additional promotion information such as any festivals you have been selected too or any awards the film has won. Cast list and bio's of the key cast and crew members. Also if it is a fiction film, note if any of the actors in the film are appearing in any future films or series of note.

Let me elaborate on some of these key components.

"a one to three paragraph description of your film"- I have found that if a filmmaker can't sum up their film in a few paragraphs that usually can't make a well structured film.

"A trailer of the film at the head of screening cassette"- Here is a good example of the phrase less is more. Don't put a 15 minute promo of film or selected scenes. A one to two minute trailer shows an ability to convey a story, or emotion in a short period of time, which is a good indicator on what the viewer can look forward to seeing. It also gives the distributor a good idea on how they will market the film. Remember most acquisition executives have hundreds of tapes to screen on a regular basis, so in reality they won't give a film more than 15 minutes to get interesting before turning it off and throwing it into the rejected pile. If the trailer is good the acquisition executive is more likely to hang in there and screen more of your film.

5) Know who you are dealing with, and the terms of the deal before you sign a contract with a distributor. Ask for references, ask around about the company. Ask to see their brochure, or go to their website.

You would think that a filmmaker knowing the terms of their agreement would be a fundamental thing everyone would do. But you would be surprised how many filmmakers when asked the terms of their existing agreements don't know how many years, or which rights were granted.

6) When approaching any possible distributor for distribution your personal manner whether it's by phone call or in person is very important. That's means a business like approach is the best. You never know who you are talking to or who might be the eventual distributor of you film. So to be rude or disinterested because the person you are speaking to is not on your distribution wish list isn't smart. I have had filmmakers be very condescending to me at IFFM because they believe that it is just a matter of time before that 7 figure offer from Sony Classics is faxed there way, and then when that offer doesn't materialize they come a calling three months later looking for a distributor. Distributors are like elephants, we never forget, and if you are an asshole to me, I'll be an asshole to you, and treat your film accordingly.

An equally wrong approach is to come across in dress or in manner as if you just came from a Cyprus Hill concert. If you aren't prepared to or can't present yourself in a business like manner. Find someone who can, and have them be the front person.

7) Come in with a realistic length for the film you are marketing to the distributor. If you are making a documentary, what is the point of making a 63 minute cut. Where else besides a festival is a 63 minute cut going to be shown. Commit to a realistic length for the type of market that your film will be sold into. Meaning since most documentaries are sold to television and the standard there is 45 to 52 minutes, with PBS in the US being 56:30. Why spend the time and money on a longer cut unless you feel a theatrical release is really possible. In regards to feature films obviously anything less than 75 minutes and over 2 hours is really pushing the limits of what the market wants from an independent film.

8) Anything you say can and will be used against you. We all talk to each other and compare notes. Don't tell a distributor all the negatives before they have screened the film. They don't want you to lie to them, but don't reveal everything until they have developed some interest. Then if there are problems, music rights, or other problems let them know then. They will try to overcome them if they are interested.

But don't lie to the distributor up to the day of the contract signing and then come clean or worse hide things until after the deal is closed. They will find out, and you could face a lawsuit and no distribution deal.

9) Eliminate reasons for a distributor to say no. The easiest word for us to say is no. We need programming desperately, but unless your program is a sure winner most distributors won't crawl over broken glass to get it. Meaning, eliminate obvious problems in production before reaching the distribution stage. For example: Many filmmakers will offer a medium size distributor a film with a soundtrack featuring top ten and very expensive recording artists. To further compound this they have not made any effort to find out how much the use of this music for broadcast and theatrical will cost.

The problems presented here are multi-faceted. First of all, No Distributor is going to sign a film unless they know what additional costs they may be facing, and a distributor doesn't want to spend a month doing the research that the filmmaker should have of done to come up with the amount of how much the music costs.

Thirdly, unless you have produced a film or documentary in 3 to 10 million range, theatrical possibilities are not that strong. And if we are talking about a film under a million, the odds are even greater. So if a distributor is faced with signing a film where the soundtrack is going to cost them $300,000, not to mention the other costs that are already built in, and they can only hope to market this film on TV and Video, and you are asking them to assume much more risk than they may want to take on. So it becomes easy for them to say no.

You would be far better off depending on your budget level, working with music you can afford. There are hundreds of bands, and small record labels that will allow you to use their music, either on a strictly promotional and credit basis or in a deferred back end profit arrangement.

10) Finally be cautious, but operate with integrity. Too many producers agree to give away part of their rights on an exclusive or non-exclusive arrangement to anybody they meet who promises them big money at the end of the rainbow.

If you do that you are placing your film rights in great danger. Some agents will take your cassette on a non-exclusive basis to a market, show it to every buyer around and if they hit a homerun, they do a deal with you. If they don't, you'll never hear from them again.

The problem here is that there is only a finite amount of buyers and if this non-exclusive agent either doesn't have a good reputation with a buyer or has badly presented the program he has killed any possible sale with that particular client.

When the next market rolls around and you have now signed a real distribution deal with a respectable agent. That agent offers the film to that same buyer, and if the buyer remembers the film, they are either going to say that know the program (whether they have either screened it or not) and that it's been around and they are not interested or worst, start to doubt the rightful ownership or rights chain of that particular program and shy away from acquiring it. The buyers don't want problems. No is an easy word for them to say too.

And as a distributor at a market, if I hear more than one buyer tell me that about a particular film, and I didn't know it already. I will stop offering the film, and you lose.

So what's the moral of this story. Develop a plan to get your film distributed. Research the market. Defeat problems before they become obstacles. Be business like. Be realistic. Be very careful about who you do business with. Just like in picking a spouse, you shouldn't select the first person that you talk to just because they tell you they love you or your film.

You can read more of our distribution tips by clicking on Distribution 101 and Distribution 202

Mr. Skopinsky is available to speak before your organization or appear on your film festival panel. If you would like to have him appear, email a formal request to monarchfilms@aol.com with details, such as the dates requested, the event, and the compensation or travel package if any provided.