GOING BIONIC: DISTRIBUTING INDEPENDENT FILMS INTERNATIONALLY – FILMMAKERS VS. DISTRIBUTORS, PART 1

Hi Everyone. I hope you had a productive week. Today we’re going to discuss the battle that causes more headaches than most divorces, the fight that trumps all heavyweight-boxing matches and the melee that emulates the ultimate “good vs. evil” conflict. That’s right, we’re talking about the war between filmmakers vs. distributors. I have been an independent filmmaker and producer long before I started my distribution company, so I have won and lost on both sides of this conflict. Thus, I’m here to tell you that both sides are wrong. Of course, both sides are also right. The result is a vicious circle that does more than bruise egos and reinforce stereotypes, it destroys the potential of the only innocent player in the game: the films.

Since the level of miscommunication between filmmakers and distributors rivals the most outlandish episodes of Three’s Company  (for those of you under 40, or without a classic sit-com TV channel in your cable package, Three’s Company was a wildly successful sit-com that aired on ABC from 1977-1984), my mission today is to shed light onto both sides of the “filmmaker vs. distributor” coin. Hopefully, a mutual understanding can emerge. Better understanding is a beautiful thing to embrace, because it leads to better sales efforts, more successful films and ultimately happier filmmakers and distributors. Damn, somebody pinch me back to reality, because I’m starting to sound like the children’s books I read to my daughters. In any case, here are three issues that filmmakers and distributors clash on. As I lay these classic disagreements out, I’ll share points of view from both sides, so you can see how the other side assesses the issue.

The Perception Issue

What Filmmakers Think: Distributors Are Crooks.
As I look at my career, I’m hard-pressed to think of more than a few filmmakers who thought their distributor was good. While in most cases the issue was over money, sometimes it was over the promotion of the film, size of its release, or the marketing angle. In fact, it seems as though the only time distributors are thanked is when filmmakers are holding their Academy Award on stage at the Oscars. Short of that once in a lifetime moment, filmmakers view distributors as being heartless, evil buffoons with too much power and no talent.

What Distributors Think: Filmmakers Are Unbearable
Filmmakers usually blame their distributor for all of the shortcomings their film experiences, because most filmmakers refuse to blame themselves for their film’s lack of success. Furthermore, filmmakers know their distributor is a socially acceptable scapegoat for their film’s failures. Thus, what starts out as few testy phone calls or cutting e-mails from the filmmaker to their distributor, often times escalates into threats of legal action and a flurry of media-based bashings proclaiming how much their film would have succeeded if their distributor would have known how to release it. Of course, distributors expect such behavior from filmmakers, which is why they too find filmmakers to be heartless, evil buffoons with too much power and no talent.

Side note: I stay outside of “what distributors think” on this one. While I have dealt with difficult filmmakers, I have also had many positive experiences. I strive to get to know filmmakers on a personal level, so I can understand their goals. However, my efforts don’t always lead to harmony, because when a film underperforms, the blame usually finds its way back to me.

Where the Truth Lies: Somewhere in the Middle
While many distributors take liberties with accounting practices, some don’t. Conversely, not all filmmakers are difficult. The problem is distributors expect filmmakers to understand the business, while (several) filmmakers are fiercely uninterested in learning the business side, because they feel doing so may impinge on their image of being an artist. This disconnect results in filmmakers thinking they’re always getting screwed, while distributors get frustrated for having to teach filmmakers standard industry practices.

“Rules” Vs. “Rules of Engagement” on Payouts

What Filmmakers Think: Payments Should Be Immediate
Most filmmakers want to get paid immediately, even if their contract states otherwise, so they push weekly, daily and even hourly for their payment, even if it isn’t due for several months.

What Distributors Think: Contracts Should Decide Payments
Most distributors will not pay one minute before they are contractually obligated to. Even then, they often times delay payments because every other distributor has done the same for decades. While I’m not validating the practice of paying late, most distributors ask themselves, “why should I pay on time, when every other distributor on the planet pays several months to several years late?” This belief is practiced tenfold these day because cash flow is such a rarity and everyone is stretching their dollars as far as they can go.

Where The Truth Lies: Advantage: Filmmakers (Kind of)
Even though I side with filmmakers on this point, I’m not naive enough to believe that 100 years of “distributor payout tradition” would ever change. However, “never” is a hard word to swallow, especially in this rapidly evolving technologically advanced world. So, I’ll leave to door cracked open for filmmakers to someday get paid in a timelier manner.

Who Did Whom A Favor?

What Filmmakers Think: “That shitty-ass distributor should be lucky to be given the privilege to release my movie.”
If you, the filmmaker, haven’t said or thought the above statement, then you’re probably not being truthful with yourself. Virtually all filmmakers believe their film(s) deserve a bigger and better release, including those who get the releases that the rest of civilization would kill to be blessed with.

What Distributors Think: Damn filmmaker! If we didn’t pick-up their shitty little film, then nobody else would.”
Take note, filmmakers. Like driver licenses, getting distribution is a privilege, not a right. Since 80%-90% of independent films are never picked up, you should be thankful that some company wants to endorse and sell your creativity.

As for being upset that you didn’t wrangle a bigger distributor, (should that ever be the case for you), just think of the 8,000+ independent films every year that fail to get formal distribution.

Side Note: One big “favor” that distributors think they grant filmmakers is the gift of distribution. Distributors know the value attached to a filmmaker when they become a ”distributed filmmaker,” so distributors frequently delay-pay or even no-pay filmmakers as “payment” for jumpstarting their careers. 

Where The Truth Lies: Advantage: Distributors
Distributors have to spend a considerable amount of time, energy and money to release their slate. Thus, contrary to what most filmmakers believe, distributors will do everything in their power to give their releases the best shot to be successful. This is especially true of smaller distributors, because the financial hit from a flop hurts far more than it would a studio. Thus, filmmakers shouldn’t assume their distributors don’t care about their film. If distributors like money, they care.

All right, that’s what I’ve got for you today. I thank you once again for lending me your eyes and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday. I can be followed on Twitter @Lonelyseal.




Posted on June 12, 2012 in Features, Going Bionic by
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