Self Distribution Breakdown: Made in Malta & Love to Paradise
Make no mistake – If you go down the road of self-distribution, be it by choice or necessity, get ready to do some serious work! Having done this now on both my feature films LOVE TO PARADISE (2017) and MADE IN MALTA (2019), I can tell you the success of your self-distribution effort is a direct result of two factors; 1. How clearly you can define your audience, and 2. How effectively you can target and reach them. Let’s dive in.
At the time of writing this article, TVOD (Transactional Video On Demand) is still a central component of a windowed digital release strategy but all signs are pointing to an SVOD (Subscription Video On Demand) only future. No one wants to “pay” to watch movies in the home entertainment space anymore. Piracy, especially overseas piracy, is the biggest threat to studios and independent producers.
And just like Napster destroyed the old music model, a new subscription platform evolved to combat it in the form of Spotify, etc making it simple, legal and with fewer barriers to access ridiculous amounts of content for a minuscule fee. And the movie industry is right there behind them.
Netflix is now the biggest show in town and the global SVOD game is where it’s at! These guys aren’t just throwing darts at a dartboard anymore like the studios have been doing forever. They now got stats. They got stats ALL DAY! (As my buddy Alex Ferrari would say). They got viewing habits. They know what people want and when they want it. They’re a powerhouse.
A force to be reckoned with. And if I had a choice as an indie filmmaker in today’s landscape – I’d be making movies directly for Netflix. No dodgy middlemen. No complicated foreign landscape. Just one clean global deal. And in my opinion, this is where I see the future for independent filmmakers.
We’ve also got Amazon Prime trailing behind along with the soon to be released AppleTV+, Disney+ and WarnerMedia all fighting for a piece of the action.
What about theatrical? I think theatrical will always be there but for event type films only. Viewing habits have changed. People are used to Watching quality content in their own privacy in their own time – especially given the number of amazing tv and movies that are coming out of Netflix, Prime, Hulu, etc.
Smaller indies may have a short life in some cinemas but there’s simply not enough ROI for distributors to get behind them. I know we all want to see our films on the big screen, and there is something very special and sacred about watching your film play in all its DCP picture and sound glory to a crowded theatre – but times have changed, right? Well, that’s what I thought — but there is still a glimpse of theatrical hope if you’re willing to work for it.
With LOVE TO PARADISE, I was never thinking theatrical for such a small film, so the plan was always a VOD release. Initially TVOD on iTunes with carved windows before launching on SVOD. But I got really lucky with a couple of major exhibitors in both Malta (where the film was set) and Australia, where I negotiated split rev deals inclusive of the exhibitors own marketing commitment (in-cinema trailer advertising, print, social media spend, radio etc.) and acted as my own theatrical distributor.
It’s a lot of work, but the great thing about this type of deal and getting the exhibitors buy-in is that they are risking their valuable screen space so it becomes in their best interest to make the release work as well. Working with an exhibitor as a marketing team, leveraging their audience and yours, can be very successful.
Part of that conversation is not only demonstrating to them that you have a quality film but that there is an audience for it which you have been building up through social and is waiting for the release of the film. They want to see your content engagement. They want to see your marketing plan. They want to see marketing material. They basically want to be convinced that you’re going to put bums on seats.
Your other theatrical alternative is to hire screenings (4-wall) or a cinema on-demand type set up like Tugg etc. but after exploring this option the risk vs reward did not stack up (risk being time).
Filmmakers, there is an opportunity to self distribute your films direct with exhibitors. Even cinema chain giants like AMC in the United States have AMC Independent label set up to serve their diverse audience that you can pitch to. Note, it extremely competitive and they only approve 4-8 titles per year. You are required to execute all marketing and PR initiatives and AMC does not leverage resources towards the promotion of your film.
You are also going to be up VPF (Virtual Print Fee) – so don’t forget that little nugget. They also have a 90-day policy where you can’t release on VOD before then. But it’s an option and could be incorporated into part of your release strategy.
LOVE TO PARADISE had a month-long theatrical run in Malta and a limited run in Australia. With the success of these theatrical releases, I was able to really build buzz and generate press which really helped with the pre-orders on iTunes and was definitely the biggest factor in achieving 3rd place on the iTunes best-selling charts in Australia – beating Alien and Wonder Woman! Pretty impressive for a micro-budget two-hander set in Malta.
Having LOVE TO PARADISE placed beside major studio releases gave the illusion that the film was a hell of a lot bigger than what it was. But most importantly, it got placed in front of an audience that you would never have had access to and who are there to buy films – and this is when you start making real sales.
When you’re marketing an indie film, the more effectively you can zone in on your target audience the greater the success you’re going to have. And sometimes that’s by trial and error. Test out content. Create heaps of it. Not working?
Change one element and try again. Not working? Change one more element and try again – until you find your target demographic, interests, behaviors, social status, etc. It’s pretty damn freaky how targeted you can get these days on social. That’s what I did until I found what converted. Could you imagine how much money that would have taken back in the day in P&A shotgun marketing? Forget about it.
You can also pull your hair out trying to convince yourself that there is a sub-sub audience for this drama you just have to make – but I suggest you leave that one up your sleeve if you don’t have the budget for the name/s required to carry that type of film and if your only hope is self-distribution.
But on the flip side, if you make it cheaply enough, and it’s something dear and personal to you and you’re not owing a whole lot on it, then that’s always a good idea. You don’t learn to make a movie without making a movie.
You may get lucky and premiere that film at a top tier festival but remember, it ain’t the mid 90’s anymore. The chances of getting your little indie with no stars premiering at one of those babies is total lottery ticket mentality and definitely not a solid release strategy. But even then, distributors still need to work out how to release your film and reach its audience and without a star/s or a clearly defined audience, you’re up shit creek.
The truth is, the easier you make it for distributors, the more they want your film, and the more they want your film, the more you will think twice about handing over your rights when they throw some crappy offer to you for little to no MG just for mere validation of your work.
Guys, we don’t need to say ‘yes’ anymore. Distribution has been solved, but what hasn’t is getting that film in front of the people that want to or would be interested to see your film if they knew it existed. Throwing it up on a platform like iTunes and Amazon and hoping people see and buy your film is not a strategy. It’s stupidity.
But remembering that this whole self-distribution thing is pretty much a full-time job if you want it to be successful, it’s tempting just to hand it all over and move onto the next thing. But if the offer stacks up and you’re convinced that your distributor ‘gets it’ and has a track record of distributing successful films and you’ve spoken to a few filmmakers they’ve worked with, then go for it.
Just try and negotiate terms that fair and reasonable – like not having your film tied up for something stupid like 20 years (which happens), minimum marketing spend, capped expenses, and including a clause that stipulates if your distributor goes out of business that the rights revert back to you/production company (distributors always go out of business).
Back to SVOD – Another thing you need to think about is that not everyone does Apple. I know many people who refuse to use any of their products due to bad experiences. In fact, I personally took Apple to court and won late last year when they refused to replace a dodgy computer they sold me. One of the perks of being protected by Australian Consumer Law – Anyway, that’s for another article.
So you have Apple users and Apple haters, but there are also other TVOD platforms to get your film on including Amazon’s Prime Video Direct and Google Play that work on android but they don’t do pre-orders.
Another strategy is to release at the same time on every single platform you can including Xbox, PlayStation, Vudu, Vimeo, tubi tv, etc. But I think by doing that, especially during the initial release of the film, when the only buzz you’re ever going to get it is right then, you’re just diluting your USP.
Because I live in Australia and a large percentage of my audience are Australians, and Amazon does not operate in Australia yet (only Prime Video SVOD if you go through an aggregator not if you do it yourself and not Prime Video Direct TVOD), and I wanted to have a pre-order period, I chose iTunes as my platform of choice and drove all my traffic to that platform knowing that I was losing some of my audience who didn’t do Apple, but hopefully I could reach a percentage of them when I opened up to more platforms down the track.
It worked, but it would have been great if Amazon did pre-orders and even people with Apple TV could use Amazon. Anyway, the point is, pick a platform and market exclusively to that – then you can add platforms after you’ve exhausted your windows.
The whole idea of doing the pre-order thing is that they all count as Day 1 sales. So all the pre-orders you manage to generate hit iTunes the day you launch and are actually transacted. So with some super targeted marketing spend on Facebook and Instagram and reaching out to people you know (never underestimate word of mouth), you have a chance of getting your film positioned against much bigger titles – even get placement on iTunes New & Noteworthy section which we were able to do.
I would also suggest doing a Buy Only period (no rental) for the first Premium window. Some would disagree, but I believe this is the only chance you are ever going to have to sell your product at a premium and ride the perks of the film’s buzz and press. Then open up rentals on the Regular price window 3/4 weeks later. You can also drop your price again on your last Discount window before moving onto SVOD.
Whether that be a deal you have already carved out before even starting your TVOD launch (which I would suggest) or an afterthought. If you can’t secure an SVOD platform like Netflix, Hulu, etc. that will pay for your film, you’ve always got Amazon Prime that you can release on/off with the touch of a button and will pay per minute streaming. It ain’t much, but if you’re racking up some miles it’s an extra avenue of income and a nice place for your film to live on. You’ve also got FTA (Free To Air) channels and ancillary markets to distribute your film to as well.
Also, think about this – would you rather invest thousands of dollars in film festival entry fees and the cost of travelling to these festivals in the hope of getting selected to screen, then hopefully get the attention of distributor that you’ve never done business with, make an offer for little/no MG or marketing commitment just to place it on digital platform that you can do yourself buy paying an aggregator a small fee ($1000-$1500 USD), or even just do Amazon’s Prime Video Direct (for free) and hold 100% of the rights – and spend that saved money on super-targeted social media ad spend where the cost for such curated attention is still very underpriced.
I could not have been happier with the success of LOVE TO PARADISE, so when it came time to get my second micro-budget indie MADE IN MALTA out into the world, it was literally a rinse and repeat type scenario. The film was released theatrically in Malta again for a month and had limited sold-out screenings in Australia.
What was great the second time around, was that I had already developed personal relationships with exhibitors, journalists, editors, news stations, TV stations, radio stations, magazines, bloggers, influencers, community groups, etc. so I managed to generate even more traction for this film. And if being ranked 3rd on the Australian iTunes charts for pre-orders wasn’t enough on LOVE TO PARADISE, this time on MADE IN MALTA we ranked 2nd within 24 hours of its release! Beating John Wick 3 and Aladdin only behind Avengers: Endgame. It was all very surreal.
So, am I a self-distribution advocate? For the right film, yes. But as outlined above, it’s a lot of work to do it successfully. You need to be part marketer, part publicist, part PR firm, part graphic designer, part content creator, and full-time hustler – but it’s possible and totally in your control.
Written by Julian Galea
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