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 deals, hybrid distribution and self distribution - all from an impact perspective.

We’ve updated this guide to offer regional-specific advice and guidance, incorporating lessons and case studies from other regions including Australasia, parts of Latin America and Asia. Even so, we acknowledge that it nonetheless weighs towards models of distribution that apply to North America and Western Europe. If you’re operating outside of these contexts, we hope that the mixture of examples offers you interesting ideas about what you might create or adapt.

The traditional all-rights distribution deal

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 - putting the film in cinemas, on TV and online.

For some film teams, such as Knock Down The House, which sold their worldwide rights to Netflix at Sundance 2019, Bully, who made an all-rights deal with The Weinstein Company in 2012 (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.

But in some cases, these deals can go sour. 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, meaning the film team may be very restricted in, or even prevented from, executing their impact work. So it’s important to ask precise questions about how the rights will be exploited going forward and be very clear on which territories are implicated.

And remember: even if you do get that all-rights deal, it can still be a hell of a lot of heavy lifting for the filmmakers. 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. This was true for Chasing Coral and it tends to be true for most film teams running muscular film impact campaigns.

Then Video Streaming arrived...

Just a few years ago, the emergence of video streaming (SVoD) platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu dramatically shifted the distribution landscape. While there are plenty of cases where a film is shown on both SVoD platforms and public broadcast and other traditional distribution channels (more on that under “Hybrid distribution” below), these platforms are responsible for a new kind of “all-rights” trend.

Some are acquiring the rights to a work when completed, others are getting involved in production early on as an executive producer who buys the Intellectual Property (IP) rights. Netflix Originals and Amazon Prime are examples of this. It allows the distributor to produce the film as ‘original content’, release it exclusively and use it to draw subscribers to their platforms.

For some filmmakers who enter them, these deals can be a welcome relief as they are able to make their money back and get paid up front. But the flipside can mean loss of control around the production process. In most cases it also means losing access to audience data. And it can also mean foregrounding marketing priorities over impact priorities. Also: if impact is your priority, be sure your target audience has access (i.e. broadband internet) to the platform you strike a deal with. (More on this in the 'Where’s Your Audience' section 4.4.)

While the major players may be different today, negotiating the difference between a distributor’s marketing priorities and a filmmaker’s impact priorities is nothing new. Know that you’ll be issued with a standard contract to start with and that you must be prepared to have detailed conversations and negotiations upfront about your impact needs and expectations. And adjust the deal terms accordingly. They may be much more receptive than you think.

Chasing Coral made a deal with Netflix in 2017. They went into conversations knowing that their impact engagement work was the priority. As a result, Netflix's Educational Screening licences allowed for thousands of Netflix subscribers to hold educational community screenings of the film through the platform for localised climate education and action globally, so long as they were free and open to the public. And they worked on a case-by-case basis to ensure that those without access to Netflix could get to the story in this way. A year into their campaign, the team was able to support 1500+ screenings in over 100 countries!

Virunga also secured global distribution with Netflix. (At the time of Virunga’s launch in late 2014, Netflix was in 55 countries with 60 million subscribers. Over the next 12 months this rose to all 190 countries in the world and they now have 117 million subscribers.) The team described Netflix as an extremely understanding partner that was supportive of their campaign aims: to reach as wide an audience as possible but also to reach key target audiences. So, when they asked, they were given permission to screen at 100 film festivals worldwide and at another 100 international non-theatrical screenings. They were able to hold influencer screenings in crucial spaces, including the EU, UK, Belgium and Dutch parliaments, on Capitol Hill in the U.S. and in development ministries. They were also able to screen in the business and investment community, for shareholders, politicians, policy makers and high profile influencers, as well as for I/NGO’s and the conservation community.

Not only was Netflix willing and flexible to support these important screenings as the campaign expanded, but because Netflix was not yet available in Africa at the time of launch they allowed the team to partner with Afridocs in order to reach this crucial territory for the campaign. Six months after launch, Virunga had its official African broadcast premiere on Afridocs, screening to all 49 sub-Saharan countries in Africa on satellite TV and terrestrially to an additional 100 cities in eight countries.

This was not a normal deal, but it became possible because the interests of the filmmakers and the platform were aligned. The bottom line here is: ask for what you need - you might be pleasantly surprised.

Now the reality check: many documentary films will not be picked up by distributors, not even the smaller ones.

If that's true for you, feel reassured that you are in great company! Some of our favourite films, ones which had huge critical success and created significant 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 so many other options.

Hybrid distribution

Today it's increasingly possible - and even common - to 'carve up' the distribution, giving the film team an opportunity to retain certain rights and allowing you 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 as it suits 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.PBStook 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 it 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 ones. The objective was to ensure a widespread distribution of the documentary to audiences who need it most using VoD and DVD purchasing. But, in order 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!

In South Africa, the Miners Shot Down team aimed to get the truth out about the Marikana massacre and to change the public narrative to show that the Lonmin Mining company and the state were to blame for it. So, they needed to get the film in front of a broad public at a pivotal time, during the commission of an inquiry into the massacre so the politicians couldn’t bury it. This meant a hybrid approach.

Before the film was released, they decided to hand some crucial forensic eyewitness footage to the media and to the commission concurrently. Once the film was out, they needed to get the story out far and wide. So they struck a deal with theatrical distributor Ster Kinekor in 2014 for a one-week run. But, with a robust multi-platform social media plan and word of mouth, the film continued for two more weeks after that. They then ran their own community screenings tour in key cities and towns across the country to keep up the pressure-campaign. They handed out DVDs to shareholders at the Lonmin Mining Company’s annual general meeting, and eventually, with tremendous public support, they were able to secure an SABC public broadcast deal in August 2018.

In the end, through this hybrid distribution model, the publicity the commission was getting, and the efforts of the Markana Support Campaign, Miners Shot Down succeeded in changing the public narrative on what happened. They also raised over one million rands to support the cascade of mining strikes that rose up in the wake of the massacre. This money helped to feed strikers’ families during the five-month strike. Their film also helped get the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) to come out against what happened. Today, the film team and their partners continue to organise for justice for the miners and their families.

Negotiating and managing all the different distribution options takes time, and can be a slog, particularly if you're new to it all. But it’s worth fighting for. And, as we've seen in earlier parts of the Guide, your options will often depend on the energy and capacity of your film team and partners.

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 middleman, and of course they retained total control of how the film was handled. Sometimes, this is essential.

The 9.70 documentary team in Colombia had an uphill battle from the start. With a film that critiqued the government and a media-blackout on their story, they had no choice but to self-distribute. While they were able to strike a broadcast deal with the Venezuelan company Telesur, it was not the best way to reach audiences in Colombia. But then, something unexpected happened.

Almost overnight, a leaked copy of their film was uploaded to YouTube and viewed 7,000 times! Recognising the huge momentum and clear need that the farmers had for the story to help grow their movement, they decided to make the film available for free on YouTube. Within 24 hours another 10,000 people had viewed it and by the end of the week, that was up to 200,000 views. The entire campaign was run horizontally, with the filmmakers responding to requests to appear at screenings that were being run entirely by farmers, activists, and other community leaders.

Their self-distribution strategy was so successful that 9.70 became a common talking point in the media. It led the government to issue a cease-and-desist warning to the filmmakers and launch a campaign to discredit their work. But the momentum the filmmakers had built eventually forced the mainstream media to bring them onto their shows to respond. And, twenty days after the film’s release on YouTube, the government was forced to repeal Resolution 9.70.

This trend of content creators becoming their own distributors is not likely to go away anytime soon. On one end, we’ve discussed large co-production deals with major distributors. On the other, we’re seeing all kinds of creative ways that filmmakers are building direct relationships with their audiences using whatever tools they have at their disposal.

Crowdfunding platforms, for example, have risen up not only as ways of raising funds for a film but also of building an audience base and a direct relationship with them. The Insignificant Man team did just that. Lacking a sales agent and contending with an impenetrable film market that was not used to accommodating a political film, they decided to go direct to their audience, using an India-based crowdfunding platform. They were able to raise over $120k. It was the platform’s most successful crowdfunding campaign ever for a film, and an added benefit was that these direct relationships were then the filmmaker’s to keep for the next film or request.

There are resources out there to help support all kinds of creative distribution strategies. For example, Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship provides cash grants and resources to filmmakers interested in releasing their films without a distributor. Their goal is to use the lessons learned to benefit other productions, which makes it a win-win!

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