It’s not easy deciding between two very different types of film distribution. If you’re in need of a little advice on what route to take, our industry veteran and Managing Director of Entertainment, Kirt Eftekhar, can help you out...
First things first, how would you define both Traditional Theatrical and “Do It Yourself” distribution for documentaries and how do you know which one to pursue?
“Traditional theatrical distribution is an old school term where a distributor locks in a date to release a film on x amount of screens and depending on how the film performs on opening weekend will expand to additional screens. The filmmaker has granted his or her rights to the distribution company. Obviously, most folks are familiar with this model.
DIY is exactly what the term says: it’s do it yourself distribution where all the responsibilities fall on the filmmaker. Good news is you have not given up the theatrical rights to your film but now you have to do all of the work, which usually involves raising your own distribution and marketing funds to release the film and hiring marketing consultants to advise on your theatrical release. Consultants can range from a theatrical booker, publicist to grassroots specialists.
In regard to a DIY documentary release, I would recommend pursuing this avenue only if the film has a strong built-in audience that the filmmaker has access to whether it’s through an alliance with a non-profit organization or a die-hard fanbase connected to the film’s subject matter.”
What are the initial steps a filmmaker should take when considering Theatrical/DIY distribution?
“A filmmaker needs to look at a release from the perspective of an exhibitor and distributor, meaning how is this movie going to sell tickets. If the film has played in top festivals and has an ‘on-going’ buzz about it and the distributor is excited about the commercial potential of the film and wants to back it with a sizable marketing budget, than traditional makes sense.
For DIY, the response from exhibitors and distributors would be the exact opposite whether they would not want to invest in the film or give screens, mainly because they do not believe in the commercial potential. In this situation, the best route would be to raise money for a DIY distribution deal if the filmmaker believes in the theatrical potential of the film and their ability to connect with the film’s fan base. Again, if a filmmaker decides to become their own distributor, they need to be aware that theatrical distribution is a costly endeavor but has a huge upside if they are able to demonstrate to exhibitors that their film can perform over a seven day run and possibly longer.”
What are the main differences and advantages between the two?
“For a traditional theatrical release, you are assigning the rights to the film over to a distributor and the distributor is taking all of the financial risk in releasing the film, so the filmmaker has to wait until the distributor recoups all of its distribution fees and expenses before any revenues are released to the filmmaker.
Whereas with DIY, the filmmakers receive a percentage of box office receipts directly from the exhibitor. If the film is booked or if the filmmaker needs to rent (4-wall) a theatre during the theatrical release, 100% of revenues go directly to the filmmaker.
In regard to promotion and publicity opportunities for a traditional release, the filmmaker does not have as much say and will rely on the distributor to guide them on what needs to be done. With DIY, the filmmaker steers the marketing and PR ship, continuously trying to connect with the film’s audience in lieu of having a sizable advertising budget to spread awareness.
There's a common phrase called Opening Weekend Blues – if a film does not perform on its opening weekend, a traditional theatrical will lose steam and the film distributor will most likely spend less on advertising for upcoming cities booked for the release. Through a DIY release, the filmmaker may want to continue to revise his marketing strategy to connect with the film’s audience and continue to fight for the film even if the film ultimately does not succeed.”
What is the difference between a traditional theatrical release through a studio, versus an independent limited release?
“Traditional theatrical release through a studio will play anywhere from 600 to 4000 screens, which is considered a wide mainstream release. Independent film releases through independent film distributors, and studio specialty labels vary far and wide. Sony Classics may release a film on 300 to 400 screens, which is considered a solid release for an arthouse film or documentary, and based on the film’s box office performance, will continue to expand the release to a wide release. Independent film companies may release a film on 2 screens in NYC/LA and if the film continues to perform, they’ll likely release the film to a couple of screens in each of the top 25 designated marketing areas (DMAs). The advantage of slow build is positive critic reviews and social media buzz that will ultimately boost audience demand.”
How do you know what type of distribution to choose per project?
“It really depends on the goals of the filmmaker. If the filmmaker is only in the business of filmmaking and doesn’t want a second career as a film distributor, than working towards a traditional theatrical release is the way to go.
DIY makes sense if the filmmaker feels they can capture their fan base better than a traditional distributor, resulting in a higher financial return. Or, if there is no traditional theatrical offers on the table and the filmmaker is determined to release the film in theatres, than DIY is the way to go.
Both approaches require a financial commitment, strong marketing team and a viable audience. The big difference is going the DIY route, the filmmaker will have to put any future projects on hold for at least four to six months as their new role as a DIY distributor will be life consuming.”
What are the most exciting aspects of the two types of distribution?
“Success through either approach is unbelievable. The odds of having an established distributor acquire a film and commit to a theatrical traditional release is not easy. That means they believe in the quality of the film and they can create a campaign to attract a mainstream audience, meaning an independent film-going audience.
Same goes for a DIY release, if the filmmaker is able to directly connect with his audience, the experience and financial reward can be amazing. As you will have real time interaction with the audience via social media and you’ll be able to watch your audience continue to grow and larger network of moviegoers to the campaign.”
Have any specific questions regarding your film? Feel free to reach out to Kirt himself at email@example.com, or call 310-710-4378. Also, if you’d like more information on our film marketing services, take a look at our Entertainment page.