Types of distribution deals

These days, distribution deals vary about as much as snowflakes, no two seem to be the same. But there are still some general categories that help frame the big decisions ahead. In this section we look at the pros and cons of all-rights distribution deal, hybrid distribution and self distribution.

But here's one major caveat before you get stuck in. As this guide develops it will eventually have regional-specific advice and guidance but for now we are largely focussing on describing a model of distribution which applies mostly to North America, Western Europe and Australasia, and to parts of Latin America and Asia. Thank you for your patience.

The all-rights distribution deal

'Distribution is a lot of work. So much more work than you think. So the question is not whether you want to do the work, it is what kind of work do you want to be doing for the next 18 months (at a minimum)? Identify the tasks and pair them with the best possible people or institutions you can find, cajole, pay or persuade to do them'

Brenda Coughlin, Producer, Dirty Wars

'If a company has never distributed a documentary before, think twice about being the first'

Thom Powers, from 'Distribution Advice for 2014'

In the 'old world' of distribution, filmmakers went to festivals and hoped to get an all-rights distribution deal, which had the benefit of being able to hand over the film to a specialist team who did all the legwork for them - put the film in cinemas, on TV, in shops and online.

For some film teams like Bully, who did an all-rights deal with The Weinstein Company (after winning the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival) or Blackfish, who secured a distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures at Sundance Film Festival in 2013, these major distribution deals work perfectly well and take the pressure off having to deal with the complexities of the distribution minefield. In these deals, you get a lump sum of money up-front (it's unusual to see any further money so this 'minimum guarantee' is usually the fee in exchange for seven or more years of the rights). If the release works well, you reach a bigger audience, the distributor invests marketing spend and expertise that makes your film a recognised title, and they can help with winning major awards (which typically distributors enter).

But in some cases, these deals also cause problems. If the film doesn't perform well initially, distributors can lose interest and move on to their next title rather than squeeze the rest of the juice from the lemon. Even if it does perform well, much of the control is now with the distributor, and the film team may be very restricted - even prevented - in executing their impact work.

And if you do get that all-rights deal, it's still quite a lot of work for the filmmaker anyway. Dirty Wars signed to IFC but because the film team was passionate about their film; they still did hundreds of hours of work contacting people and partners, organising panels, etc.

The tough reality for many documentary teams is that you may not be of interest to distributors, even the smaller ones. If that's true for you, feel reassured that you are in great company! Some of our favourite films and ones which created huge social impact are in this boat too. The great news is that, whether you didn't get a distribution deal or whether you did and it wasn't worth signing, these days there are lots of other options.

This raises the question - are you going to seek an all rights distribution deal at all?

Hybrid distribution

'I wanted to make a film, but I couldn't reconcile the film I wanted to make with the industry. No one was putting out the kinds of films that I wanted to make. As a person who has an entrepreneurial spirit, I couldn't figure out how to make that movie and not know where it would end up… I had to figure out the endgame for the film for myself '

Ava DuVernay, Filmmaker

'The prevailing theory is that the days of theatrical releases for independent films are in their last slow throes... We disagree because we just spent the last year filling 300- to 2,000-seat theaters in 170 cities with the firefighter documentary Burn. We did it with no distributor, no P&A budget and no experience. And the film has grossed more than $1 million to date in the box office alone. Along the way, we learned that with the right film and approach, theatrical can still be a major - and profitable - part of a winning release strategy'

Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez, Filmmakers

Today it's increasingly possible to 'carve up' the distribution, giving the film team an opportunity to retain certain rights, allowing them to be responsive to the campaign and demand from audiences. It's increasingly possible to negotiate separate deals for retail, home video, television, educational, theatrical, non theatrical and video on demand, as well as splitting all the digital rights for the film.

You can give away some parts, and retain others, all to suit you. This 'hybrid' approach has the benefit of allowing film teams the chance to tailor their distribution plan to their exact strategic aims.

The Invisible War did a deal that gave theatrical, DVD and online rights jointly to Cinedigm and New Video. PBS took TV rights. Ro*Co Films did educational distribution and international sales and Film Sprout did non-theatrical distribution as part of the film team's Invisible No More movement.

In The House I Live In, a film about the 'war on drugs' in north America, there were two primary objectives for the distribution strategy; the first was to reach the widest possible audience and the second was the ability to be nimble, ensuring the film could be deployed to support local reform in venues that may not traditionally carry it. As a result, the team chose a hybrid model of distribution, self-releasing the film theatrically and partnering with Film Buff to make the film widely available on VoD and SVoD platforms.

Similarly, Granito, Pamela Yates' powerful film about bringing a South American dictator to justice employed an alternative distribution model whereby campaign goals were given more weight than commercial goals. The objective was to ensure a widespread distribution of the documentary to audiences who need it most using PoV, VoD and DVD purchasing. But to really ensure the film permeated Guatemalan society, the team gave master DVDs to the country's lead bootlegger so he could make quality pirate versions for his customers under the name of 'The Greatest Story Never Told', which were distributed to all of the street markets in the country, retailing at $1.25 a time!

As we've seen in earlier parts of the Guide, your choices will depend on the energy and capacity of the film team. Negotiating and managing all the different distribution options takes time, and can be a slog, particularly if you're new to it all.

There are loads of new resources to guide you through the brave new world of what's increasingly called 'hybrid distribution'.

Self distribution

Some teams take a hybrid approach and then take it to the max. They don't just negotiate the theatrical rights separately, they ring the cinemas themselves, or in the case of Weapon of War, they create a mobile cinema to screen their film where cinemas don't exist.

The Age of Stupid team organised a solar powered ''cinema tent'' premiere in London''s Leicester Square and linked it by satellite to 62 cinemas around the UK in 2009. They took £100,000 at the box office over 13 weeks and then took another £100,000 in non-theatrical bookings and cycle-powered green screenings.

It can be a lot of work, but many filmmakers believe that they made more money cutting out the middle man and of course they retained total control of how the film was handled.


Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation