By Mia Bruno
If there is one concept that I hope that every filmmaker and distributor can start to embrace it is this: Distribution is a strategy, not a formula. What works for a horror film is not necessarily going to work the same way for a romantic comedy. What works for a budget of six figures is going to look different from a budget of five figures is going to looks different from a budget of nothing. And what worked in 2011 is most certainly going to be challenging to make work in 2018. But when was deviating from a formula something that scared artists?
I work with filmmakers and distributors to custom build distribution campaigns that are specific and effective to the film for which they are designed. This includes a combination of knowing how to use windows and timing, booking theaters, booking events, doing grassroots marketing and impact producing, and doing sales to the platforms directly. I was likened recently to a "distribution doula." It is not an inaccurate description.
When the SADIE team approached me, they were in a situation that many filmmakers are in: they had played in a notable film festival to great fanfare, but weren't impressed with what traditional distributors were offering them, either in financial terms or in the form of support for the release. Recognizing that they had been enterprising and creative enough to get the film made and qualifying for Amazon's wonderful Festival Stars bonus, they decided to venture out on their own into the waters of creative distribution, and brought me on to help guide the way.
We started with a discussion around the goals they were looking to achieve: money was one (it usually is, as filmmakers tend to prioritize getting their investors' money back so as to maintain those relationships). Another was visibility—as already established filmmakers, they wanted to continue to be able to tell the stories they wanted to tell on their own terms. The third and most important was impact: they had made the film to contribute to a larger cultural conversation around youth and violence. Their hope was that this film would be able to serve as a discussion point for audiences to talk about the violence we are bombarded with in our society, how it affects us and our nation's youth, and to galvanize people to consider what they might do as individuals to challenge the status quo.
The reality of the distribution marketplace is that it is constantly changing. Platforms are constantly morphing into new entities. Distributors appear and disappear. A strategy that worked for a film even a year ago may be totally ineffective for a film today. For SADIE, we built a strategy that incorporated many traditional aspects—a theatrical run followed by a digital launch, compelling marketing assets that highlighted the film as a riveting and necessary conversation piece, digital marketing and social media. Within that we layered more innovative aspects to pull in different audiences outside of just a cinephile world: direct outreach to youth groups, free screening events for teens, conversations with women in media groups to talk about how female anger is depicted and other themes of the film, outreach to military family groups to discuss how they specifically grapple with absence and violence, and youth developmental screenings for educators to talk about how to identify and deal with young anger before things go too far. Our strategy was comprehensive—addressing the notable benchmarks of traditional distribution while expanding around it to bring in and engage new audiences.
We have worked on this campaign for many months together, come up with fresh ideas and burrowed down into data and analytics. When there is no distributor on board, there is no one to blame for difficult news. But conversely, there is the peace of mind to know that every rock is being overturned, every opportunity explored. And the excitement that when one strategy doesn't work, there is always the flexibility to pivot.
It behooves us all to experiment a little, to be nimble enough to adjust our approach if the data doesn't bear our theories out, and to develop a nuanced understanding of how the marketplace works and the value and consequences of atypical decisions. Making distribution a process that is based on informed assumptions allows for trying new things and challenging existing paradigms without ignoring potentially lucrative opportunities that may exist in a more traditional sphere.
The reality is that we are living in a time when there is no longer a "one size fits all" model when it comes to storytelling (as evidenced by so many things, certainly beyond just this film). If Netflix and Amazon can riff around their distribution strategies, then why can't independent filmmakers do the same? With fewer formulas, we have more fluidity.
This is a time when we can approach distribution with the same creativity that it takes to make a film.
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