What is impact distribution?

Your film is ready to go out into the world. There are many paths to audiences, but which is right for you? Possibly a launch at a festival, perhaps a theatrical run. Maybe you’re hoping for international TV sales, wondering which platforms you should be using online?

Maybe you’ll hand your film over to a distributor. Maybe you won’t get any decent distribution offers. Or given the possibilities of the digital age, maybe you’ll decide to self distribute. Maybe you’ll do a bit of both. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The fact that this is an impact project adds even more opportunity and even more complexity. Given your impact goals and your partnerships, your priority may be working with community organisers to equip them in their changemaking. Or perhaps you are focused on effective political lobbying around the release. Any one of these outcomes could spell success, there are no wrong answers, just what makes sense for your film and issue.

This chapter is intended to help you figure out what kind of distribution is right for you. To get the film seen as widely as possible AND to get it seen by the right people in the right way to achieve the right results.

We call this Impact Distribution.

In this chapter:

We’ll start by calling out some of the big changes that have happened in distribution over the past few years, and defining Impact Distribution in a little more detail.

We’ll look at some different ways of doing it – sketching out a spectrum from keeping it simple and handing over completely to a distributor at one extreme, to doing it all yourself at the other, and using case studies to illustrate the points along it.

We’ll break down some of the key Impact Distribution activities, like lobbying or online campaigning, and get you some ‘been there, done that’ advice from the experts.

And finally, we’ll help you draw up a quick checklist for your film – in case you get a distribution offer and need to make a fast decision.

Distribution vs impact

Until recently, Distribution and Impact were pretty much separate issues – and they came in that order. You made a film, you sold it to a distributor or a broadcaster and then separately you organised some impact work (probably calling it ‘outreach’).

There were two separate questions:

Distribution asked ‘How can we sell the film to as many people as possible, making as much money as possible?’

Impact asked ‘How can we get the film to the people who really need to see it, so that we can make the most impact?’

The answers led to two separate spheres of activity, distribution and impact, usually by separate teams, which at best is highly inefficient and at worst leads to outright conflict.

Impact and Distribution

At worst a distributor worries that the impact work will undermine their marketing of the film, associating it with social issues which they believe will make the film less attractive to general audiences and giving the film away to people that they would like to sell the film to. Some of these worries may be justified.

At worst the impact team worries that the distributor doesn’t care about the social goals, and will treat the people who need to see the film as simply a market to be sold to, not a community to be engaged and helped and will market the film in a way that’s cheesy or off-putting to the experts or the affected communities they want to work with. Some of these worries may be justified.

Some of the common points of conflict are:

'The first question I’d ask of yourself is what is your goal in distribution? Is it to make money? Is it to get accolades? Is it to get the film the widest possible audience? These things occasionally coincide, but I wouldn’t expect it. I’d also think about who your audience is. Is it easily identifiable (and reachable)? What are you looking for a distributor to bring to the table?'

Morgan Neville, Director, 20 Feet from Stardom


The distributor will put the film out when it’s most commercially advantageous but the impact team may have timelines based around what's happening socially or politically.

Free screenings

Sometimes distributors will resist these or only allow them much later - so be prepared to negotiate. This can mean missing screening at key conferences or meetings, or not being able to engage audiences who won’t or can’t see the film when it comes out (they may not have HBO for instance or be able to go to or afford cinema tickets).


Who gets to place stories about the film in the media and speak for the film? Harvey Weinstein famously forbade Errol Morris from using the word documentary when talking about his film to press because the mogul thought audiences would be put off. What about the partners and film team talking about the issues behind the film and capitalising on the release to do so? Will they be allowed?

Website, Facebook and Twitter

Who owns these channels and are they for selling the film, running the engagement or both?

Channels of distribution

Where is your film going to be seen and is that right for your strategic audience? The platform that offers the most money might not be one that the people you want to see your film use.

The good news is, we think there’s a better way.

Impact and Distribution

With the advent of the web, the overturning of traditional distribution windows, with more sophisticated approaches to impact strategy, we think the new question is this:

How can we optimise both impact and commercial return by getting the film to the right people in the right ways?

This way of thinking recognises that there are overlaps between Impact and Distribution, and seeks to get the best of both worlds - with each activity driving the other.

Impact and Distribution

Conflicts must be negotiated – there will be trade-offs, but there will be win-win situations too. Fundamentally, experience shows that Impact and Distribution aren't separate and these activities need to be planned and strategised together!

They’re best thought of as one thing. Not Impact and Distribution but Impact Distribution.

Edward Snowden speaking after a screening of CITIZENFOUR at Amnesty International in London

Which takes priority over the other, should be your choice and should reflect the priorities that you had going into the process. Remember the Know Thyself Section? If you haven't sorted out your priorities yet, use the tool and do it now.

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