** Editor’s Note – Although we have verified the information in this post, we have chose to not only omit the name of the filmmaker, but also the name of the distributor to protect both parties from slander and legal repercussions. All other information remains intact and unchanged. Thank you.**
The more indie film seems to gain a foothold in the industry, the more horror stories we hear about distributors and streaming platforms taking advantage of novice creators, selling good films short and promoting others in their place to the tune of producers with bigger Hollywood affiliations. Whatever, the reason, whatever the payout, choosing the wrong distributor can AND WILL kill a good film in its tracks. Often with horror, it will kill that film DEAD.
A few years ago, I set out to finally direct my first feature. I had tried my hand at writing and directing shorts in the past and had come close to getting my work “out there” when a script I had written began to gain some momentum. Long story short, but like many well-laid plans, the Corona virus had a different agenda, and another dream bit the dust during a very depressing and drawn-out lockdown. I spent a lot of time looking at an ever growing beard and a lot less time actually creating. Luckily that changed.
As many investors and producers had wet feet after the quarantine, the probability of securing funds for a first-time directorial effort was not a real option for me. So, I did something a little different and decided to write a film based on what I could actually do as a sole financier. So, the film was going to be small, but it would at least give me an opportunity to play on my strengths as a storyteller. The film, largely, was shot with the kindness of strangers, and more than just a few friends. The shoot was completed over a three month period and was ready to enter the festival circuit by fall of that year.
The film quickly found its audience and with that, the project that was only ever meant to serve as a placeholder for an eventual bigger film, took on a life of its own. It won multiple awards, and I was approached by multiple distributors, producers, sales agents, and brokers. From my association with the industry and the horror genre in general, many of these entities were what I considered household names. I had a lot of meetings and realized quickly that the deals were largely similar, the only thing that seemed to separate them was how much enthusiasm each party had for my movie. That varied WIDELY.
Finally, I was in talks with a smaller distributor by the name of [redacted] that seemed to genuinely want to champion the film. They were not a horror-centric company, but they were excited about their first forays into the genre and seemed to approach the challenge with some real zeal. I was taken by both their attitude and their plans for the film. There was no MG initially, but they were very adamant that the marketing for the film would more than make up for that. They were purchasing horror films on a smaller slate, and they were ready to go to bat for mine, to get into as many homes as possible. Or so I thought.
The first red flag was just a general lack of communication. We didn’t have a solid timeline for the release and dates were thrown around inconsistently. Having promoted many films myself, release dates are a KEY aspect to marketing your film, with some being in place up to a year before the actual film hits theaters or VOD. We were mere months away and still no one seemed to have any idea of the actual release date for the film. I was mired down in QC and like most filmmakers will tell you: The more your distro has to step in to help you, the bigger their cut grows. Why? Well, because your 50% out of the starting gate just isn’t enough to justify their help towards a film where they are making as much money as you are. Sound a little “off”? Yeah, it is. Finally, after all QC was said and done, the distributor sent the release date my way… and… it was a DISASTER. There are times when horror films do really well… and other times they do NOT. This is not a mystery; this is well-known and easily googled.
I plead my case, even throwing a few numbers their direction (yes, I also thought it was funny that I was having to educate my distributor on the best release time for a film) and we came to a compromise. We had a loose VOD, TVOD and AVOD release schedule in place with the promise of a physical release as well. As a lover of physical media the thought of the dvd/bluray in stores was particularly thrilling. Our designer spent a lot of time on the dvd/bluray covers highlighting quotes as well as our multiple awards to entice our would be audience into checking out our little film. There were, however, still some concerns.
Weeks away from the release I still had not seen any actual marketing for the film. Again, this is an industry that I am heavily steeped in, seeing promotional items, trailers, press releases and more from every movie that gets released, from the wide studio releases, to the boutique distro releases. I was accustomed to seeing even the smallest of films reaching an audience, their distros making the most out of a new film, their lifeblood and how they them themselves, make money. Again, I was told that my film was going to get as much attention as their other releases as word-of-mouth on the festival circuit had been good to us and we already had a number of people ready to rent and purchase the movie upon its release. I mean, they had to have researched this and seen the early press, correct? There were putting “tens of thousands of dollars” into marketing, right? Uhmmm…
The reality of what happened finally set in as the film was released. I saw pictures of the distributor at [redacted] with posters of about every film on their slate but mine. There was not a single press release to any horror outlet that was not sent out by me personally. They had not paid for a single social media campaign, nor had they approached any news outlet that could have run a release story or a simple Q&A. They relegated the DVD release to print-on-demand, leaving such a huge price point that no one would in their right mind order it. There was no bluray release at all. The DVD cover had in fact, been totally changed to a design that was so far removed from what was originally conceived that it looked amateurish in comparison. [side-by-side images removed] No quotes. No awards. Nothing. The film they talked about championing, the little film that defied all odds on the festival circuit had been officially gutted by its caretaker, the distributor.
The movie, against all odds, still opened to a decent release. Well, maybe the odds were slightly in my favor. I did after all, counter the rather abysmal representation from [distributor name redacted] by taking out several small personal loans – enough to try and promote the film in my own way. To this date I have still not broke even on those loans. I doubt I ever will.
I have been approached by individuals and other entertainment companies about helping the film reach a wider audience. Contractually, those requests still must go through the initial distributor. I have been told that their attempts at contacting [name redacted] have been met with either no reply or a reply that promises a follow-up that never happens.
I make films with largely my own money. I advertise with my own money. I still work a 40+ hour work week to ensure that I can do both of those things. Although I will continue to create, I do so with a more cynical disposition when it comes to the idea of distribution. I’m not a bitter person so this is weight I simply don’t like to carry. For those of you entering the indie film industry there are alternatives to the traditional model. I implore you to seek them out.