Indie documentary distribution for absolute beginners
February 9, 2010 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Beyond Film Distribution for Dummies: What do I need to know about distributing my feature-length grassroots documentary film? (specific q's inside)

I made a somewhat unorthodox documentary, a feature-length video about young women and sexuality around the U.S. I am not trained in filmmaking, although I've had lots of help along the way from my experienced friends. The project is basically done and, not too surprisingly, doesn't fare very well with the film festival programmers, even among the niche markets (women's film festivals, documentary festivals). Audiences who see the movie, however, have been extremely enthusiastic about the project. My primary goal is to reach the most people, my secondary goal is to make back the personal investment that I put into the project. I am not putting it on youtube and I am not cutting it down to a 30- or 60-minute version. I don't have my sights aimed at theatrical distribution (although I don't want to sell the project short), but late night PBS in small cities would be a dream come true. I am trying to develop grassroots outreach techniques to accommodate my grassroots project. So, my question is in two parts:

1. Immediate Issue/Self-distribution: For now, I am distributing it myself, through screenings on college campuses and the like. What is an appropriate rate to charge (if I charge at all) for a campus screening? Should that amount be less if it's a club with a small budget rather than a department? If I am invited to do a Q&A or lecture, what should my speaker fee be, again for clubs and/or departments (there is no "salary finder" for guest speakers)? I have also been approached by teachers and professors who want to use the film as part of a curriculum. I'm not sure how much that should cost, either, and what the terms of that transaction should be. I really don't want to prevent any screenings from happening but I also don't want to undervalue the work or give the impression of being unprofessional. I have checked out the fees on New Day Films, so I have $300 as an idea for an institutional purchase, but that feels like a lot for me to be asking someone who approaches me and wants to use this film in her college course.

2. Medium-Term Issue/Regular-distribution: I don't have a reasonable sense of whether a distribution company would want my project, and I've been hesitant to approach them without some knowledge first. I'm not incredibly excited about learning everything there is to know about distribution in order to do it myself, but I also want to retain control of what happens to the project. For instance, I would like to facilitate small MoveOn-party-style home screenings at little cost to the host, and I'd like to pursue pay-per-view online streaming, but I'm not sure that a distribution company would be open to those approaches. I could do each of these things on my own, but I am not sure how scalable my efforts are, and I'm not sure how much of a liability I am to the project with my lack of know-how. What are the ups and downs of seeking distribution? What are the differences between companies? What rights should I be looking to retain? The types of places I'm looking at are: New Day Films, Women Make Movies, Working Films, and Chicken and Egg Pictures.

Is there a (reliable) book I should be reading? What are your insights? Message me if a link to my project would be helpful for advice-giving.

P.S. I am familiar with MediaRights and I tried to obtain the toolkit mentioned by djacobs in a 2003 askme post, but the links seem to be out of date.
posted by mtgoldma to Media & Arts (3 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I can't help you all that much unfortunately, but since you mentioned late night PBS, have you checked out the submission guidelines for their Independent Lens program? It's no guarantee; but if your work is selected you'd be able to get something back and have it printed & distributed on DVD. Sounds interesting! G'luck.
posted by inkytea at 4:42 PM on February 9, 2010

You don't have to put the whole thing on YouTube, but could you make a trailer and put it on YT, Vimeo, or wherever? Just so you can put something on a business card or in an email that doesn't take someone an hour to know what you're trying to distribute?
posted by rhizome at 5:12 PM on February 9, 2010

rhizome: I do have trailers and excerpts on youtube/vimeo, which have been essential in promoting. I also have a website (and facebook, twitter, myspace, blog, etc.) with those videos embedded, which I can share with you if you message me.

inkytea: As far as I can tell, the open submissions call for Independent Lens is incredibly cutthroat and I am not sure if I have the production values for their requirements (I shot it before the prevalence of consumer-grade of HD). If I knew how to get more than a passing glance from someone there, I definitely would.
posted by mtgoldma at 10:30 PM on February 9, 2010

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