Posted on Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A Comprehensive Guide to Studio Distribution

Naive filmmakers may have the idea that leaving film distribution to the “experts” is enough. After all, as a filmmaker, I did my part. I made my film, I got it into a noteworthy festival, the audience loved it. A distribution deal will fall into my lap, right? Sadly, no.

It’s important to be as educated and involved as possible in the distribution process, whether studio or indie. This way, as a filmmaker you can maximize your profits, exposure and release opportunities.

The Big Six

If you’re in the industry, you’ve probably heard of the Big Six. The Big Six is the group of well-known distributors including the following: 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Columbia, Universal and Walt Disney Studios.

Each of these companies has its own subsidiaries that manage distribution, which explains how they manage so many distribution deals. Landing a distribution deal with the Big Six may seem out of reach, especially with the changing landscape of the film industry.

Whether you’re looking to land a deal with one of the Big Six or a less well-known studio, the distribution process is quite lengthy and imperative to your film’s exposure.

The beginning stages

Before you embark on a journey destined for distribution, you need to have a solid understanding of the process. Strategic filmmakers will develop a distribution strategy before even starting the filmmaking process, and sometimes even before writing the script.

Gone are the days of relying solely on film festival screenings for distribution deals. If you’re relying solely on your upcoming film festival screening for a deal, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Major distributors don’t frequently offer universal, all-media buyouts anymore, even at the big festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, etc. Split rights deals are more common.

In a split rights deal, distributors pick which national rights they want. Maybe the distributor just wants TV rights, which leaves others to the producer to maximize earnings.

It’s also important to note that getting your film into the theater is costly, and it’s no easy feat. Booking ad space is only getting more expensive. Once you add the cost of PR and social media assets to the cost of your film premiere, you’ve got a hefty bill.

Now that you know what you’re getting into, let’s go over the steps for distribution.

  • Selling rights to your film. Ideally, you want to have a deal with a producer before rolling. As a company, you are the copyright holder for intellectual property. When you sell rights to a producer, the filmmaker is given an option fee.
  • Producer must secure funding to greenlight the project. If a producer can’t secure funding, the option will expire and as the copyright holder, you can explore new options for production or renew your agreement with the original producer.
  • Once the project secures funding and film rights, production and the search for a distributor begins. Next, you must secure a licensing agreement with a distributor that will do the work necessary to get your film into theaters globally. Production reps and film sales agents are the people that work to secure national and international distribution for your film. They work for the distribution subsidiaries of larger companies.
  • Once licensing is secured, distributors start negotiating with a film booker. A booking agent negotiates terms between films from the Bix Six and many other studios. Typically, there are distribution splits between the distributor and exhibitor around 90/10. For a major Hollywood release, often the studio will take 70 to 90% of the preliminary box office sales.
  • Distributors ensure deliverables reach theaters. Since we’re beyond the days of prints, distributors usually ship the digital cinema package (DCP) to theaters.
  • Your film runs for its release window. Back in the day, films used to run in theaters for up to a year. Today, the average release window for a film is 2 to 3 months.
  • Time to pay up. Once your film release window ends, the DCP copies are sent back to the distributor and the leasing agreement is paid.
  • Ancillary rights make your film widely available. Now your film moves onto ancillary rights. These rights are agreed upon by the filmmaker and distributor. Today, it’s quite difficult to keep ancillary rights for your production. These rights include physical media like DVDs, digital media, streaming and TV rights.

Protect your project.

It’s important to be strategic when making distribution deals, especially because the larger the studio/distributor, the smaller your voice in everything becomes. If you’re thinking critically, you’ll include protection in your deal that allows you as a filmmaker to leave your distributor if a minimum revenue hasn’t been achieved.

It’s also common to include a void clause, which protects you if your film isn’t released by a certain date.

To maximize profits, you should estimate the earning potential for your film. Then, go out and make a film for less than that earning potential.

Keep in mind that payment delays after your film’s release window are common. You know you worked for your earnings. Unfortunately, the distributors are working in their best interests.

Network like mad.

If it’s not already apparent that networking is vital in this industry, then let this shed some light for you. Without networking, your film may never see the theaters. Not just that, but your film may never see the public.

No film is guaranteed exposure in this industry. It’s paramount that as a filmmaker, you do your due diligence to get your film before some sort of audience. However you choose to do so, just make decisions keeping the nuances of distribution in mind.