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The Pitfalls of Indie Film Distribution

There seems to be a false sense of accomplishment sometimes when it comes to independent filmmakers who seek distribution on a smaller scale. I was having a conversation with a friend recently and they were talking about how I should seek distribution for a short I made because that would make me look like an “accomplished” filmmaker before pursuing other projects and/or business ideas. Now, on one hand distribution sounds exciting and the gleaming possibility that more than your family and friends will see the work you’ve created will likely get any filmmaker’s mojo going. But seeking indie film distribution can throw new-comer filmmakers into a cash-trap or cause them to spiral down a rabbit hole once they've found distribution and the dead silence that can sometimes follow and experience the business side of the film world.

In this day and age distribution just isn’t a big some. While to others it’s everything. And before you make any assumptions about this topic, think about it. You make a short film or feature and you get it distributed to a streaming service with 10,000 other filmmakers doing the same. Or maybe you get your project on a TV channel that no one knows exists, except you but they said they’d air your content so you’re running with it. Now I’m not saying it’s not great and something to be proud of, but what does that do for you? What does putting lots of energy, time and money into a project that doesn’t have any marketing (beyond your friends and family) get you when it’s hosted on a platform 99% of the world doesn’t know about and doesn’t make you any money? Right now, nothing.

There’s no difference in putting your content up on social media, then. The only people who know about most of the indie hosting platforms are indie filmmakers and maybe a handful of die-hard indie film enthusiasts. But, again, ask yourself. At the end of the day what does that get you? A whole lot of nothing. There’s this dream-like idea that if we, as filmmakers, just get our films seen, someone is going to be banging down our door begging us to make the next Oscar winning movie with a bag of cash ready for the taking. And that’s not true in the slightest. Sure, maybe someone will see your work and it might lead to something but chances are very slim. Very few, if any, agents, managers, directors and producers are scoping these platforms for hidden talent. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m simply saying don’t only do it. This is a bit of a different story when it comes to big streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and HBOMax. But the same lesson remains the same, don’t stop doing the work. Because even with these platforms, success is not guaranteed and you’re doing a disservice to yourself. I’ve seen far too many actors and filmmakers act like seeing themselves and their work on channel 79 of their local cable provider was going to change their career overnight and when it didn’t they lose a bit of their mojo and get jaded.

If you want to get distribution for your project that’s great! But don’t measure your success on whether or not your film plays for free on a platform most people will never view. Put it up and move on.This epidemic has become so obvious just like trading laurels for money. There are so many different types of indie film distribution avenues that the waters get murky. And not only are the waters murky, filmmakers will sit in their metaphorical boat without a paddle waiting for a distribution deal that it almost becomes a sickness. Even if it’s a 7-year old short they released on Amazon Video, I’ll see filmmakers still promoting it hard and clinging onto the film.

Move on, do other work. Create more work. I’m not saying don't look for distribution but if you do, make sure you’re offered something worth your time because bragging rights these days aren’t much. Filmmakers and content creators are getting millions of views on TikTok and Instagram and people are over here trying to get their work on a dupe of PBS like it’s their life’s mission. Circling back to the conversation with my friend, it was clear our mindsets don’t align fully when it comes to filmmaking. If I had a lot of downtime, then sure, why not. I’d spend time researching and submitting to indie streaming services but to be honest, I have more important things to do like networking with industry folks who I can actually build a connection with and will view my work rather than spending my time throwing my project out into the indie streaming void hoping it lands somewhere. And the same goes for low tier film festivals that don’t offer any marketing or plan for your film to continue its lifespan, even worse when you’re paying fees and getting the same in return...nothing.

I know “distribution” may be subjective to some, but defined on Google (because what else), distribution is when a project is distributed - shared to many recipients. This means if you submit your project to Amazon Video, which has an extremely low standard for projects, and work has to pass only a few requirements, you now technically have been distributed. And let’s say you get your film on Amazon Video or some streaming service where there’s literally no marketing, but just a date that you’re going to air. What happens next? Honestly, nothing much. As filmmakers, actors and creators we get caught up with the fact that someone, anyone, wants to share our work, which is really awesome. But sometimes that doesn’t actually mean the work is special. Do you know how many times I’ve seen the work of people I was friends with or met on set that was distributed and honestly, it shouldn’t have seen the light of day. I mean we’ve all been there. You work on something and unfortunately it’s just not good.

Whether it’s the edits, the lighting, the script, the acting or everything. It’s okay, It happens. A lot of filmmakers cling to projects even when their crap and try to force them into the world as if their career will pop off from this particular project and boast about the project as if it were a box office smash, meanwhile people can’t even get five minutes through without turning it off. Sometimes you don’t want to be known for a project where the fake blood is clearly ketchup and the audio is barely audible and the actors look like they’re reading from a teleprompter, unless that’s the vibe of the project. Use it as a learning experience and move on, there’s no reason to seek distribution for a film that doesn’t highlight your best quality work up until this point. So many streaming platforms are saturated with C level content that it’s hard to decipher what to watch and it deters people from actually watching independent projects. There will be more opportunities, more ideas, more time, more budget, more everything. I promise you will do more with your career than that crappy movie you made inside your mom’s basement if you keep leveling up and moving forward.

There are so many avenues for new and seasoned filmmakers when it comes to getting your work seen that goes beyond small scale distribution. I was at a seminar back in 2019 when the speaker talked about their experience getting a distribution deal after paying an aggregator and how they basically were morally robbed out of money and did most of the work during their contract with the company. Work they were under the impression was going to be done by the distribution company.

They ended up striking up a distribution deal with many local theaters nationwide, traveling across the country to screen in most states and brought in way more money when they did it on their own than the actual distributor did. Sometimes, distribution isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and sometimes it is. But either way, whether you get your project distributed to a large or small platform and you have an audience or you don’t, the work doesn’t stop there. You are your biggest fan and biggest promoter. You shouldn’t expect a company to go farther than what you would for yourself if you had the means to. Indie film distribution isn’t the end all be all and isn’t some magic pathway to creating a career in this field by riding the coattails of one project, if done right, it can be a gateway to more and better opportunities sometimes. Creating consistent great work is the magic pathway.

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