Tips and Tricks for Documentary Film Distribution
Experts Scott Glosserman, Rachel Gordon and Jon Reiss share their secrets at the Hot Docs Film Festival.
Just a few years ago big streamers were seen as the new champions of the documentary film industry. But now they’re pulling back, laying off staff, shying away from political films, and relying more on in-house content.
Theatrical releases are less important than they used to be and live events and independent screenings, which took a hit during Covid, are making a comeback.
As the ground shifts beneath the distribution landscape, the Hot Docs Film Festival invited three industry experts to suggest creative ways for documentary filmmakers to regain control of their films and lessen their reliance on those dreaded “gatekeepers.”
Here are 7 recommendations that came from a live discussion with Scott Glosserman, founder and CEO of the event cinema company Gathr, Rachel Gordon, author of The Documentary Distribution Toolkit, and 8 Above founder and consultant Jon Reiss.
1. Leverage the People Who Participated in Your Film to Build an Audience
Did you interview a CEO for your film, or a talking head who represents a particular organization? Reach their employees and followers with targeted screenings.
“They've already spent an hour of their time volunteering and being in the film. They've got social media followings, they're the ones with the email listservs,” said Glosserman.
He recalled Gathr’s approach to releasing the 2017 doc Walk With Me about Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, whose foundation has hundreds of chapters. “Without even spending money on a New York East Village release, if half of those chapters, social activities, committee chairs had a screening of 105 people at a $12 a ticket that film is going to do almost half a million dollars.”
Cut several versions of your doc at different lengths. A full-length feature might not be right for a corporate off-site where time is limited, but a 13-minute version may be perfect. Those events can pay top dollar.
Short films are also good for live events because they can be paired with a longer film to complete a program. That pairing is ideal for promotion since a short-film creator can tap into the feature film’s marketing and social networks and vice versa.
Gordon recalled a conversation she had with an Australian producer. “She has a 15-minute film for educators, she has a 40-minute film for non-profits, she has her hour-long version [for] public broadcasters…. Do as many versions as you need to do.”
3. Hold Back Money and Resources for Distribution and Marketing
Film schools teach you how to make a film, but rarely how to connect with an audience and get your film out there.
It’s up to you to figure out who your audience is and start connecting with them as soon as possible — by the time you enter post-production, at the latest, said Reiss. He also suggested anywhere from 30% to 50% of your resources should be saved for distribution and marketing.
“As filmmakers you have to own that responsibility,” said Reiss. “You have to at least have some understanding so that you're not at your festival release and going, ‘Oh my god, there's no distributor. What am I going to do with my film? I'm totally burned out and I have no resources.’”
4. Fight For Your Rights
Big streamers will ask for exclusive rights in every category even though they may not use them. This is where you negotiate and carve out rights they don’t need, like educational rights, regional rights, or rights to live events.
Have a lawyer look at the contract, and don’t feel like you must accept the first offer. Unless you’re getting big money, and money is your primary objective, don’t give anyone rights they don’t plan, or have the ability, to execute.
“Some of those deals are the first and last deals that you will make for a very long time,” noted Glosserman.
Similarly with film festivals, be careful when committing to a premiere because if you agree to premiere at one festival it may mean a larger or more appropriate festival for your film will reject your doc because it has already played somewhere else.
5. Look Beyond Big Streamers
There are plenty of streamers beyond Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon. Smaller outfits like kweliTV, which specializes in Black stories and storytellers from around the world, and SurvivorNetTV, for people living with chronic disease and cancer, may be a better fit. Know your audience.
Also consider Substack. Reiss pointed to filmmaker Gary Hustwit, who specializes in design-oriented content. Hustwit set up a Substack channel where he posts his films and full interviews with some of his subjects. “It's a really fascinating way to look at creating your own channel,” said Reiss.
6. Vetting Partners
When making a deal, do your research, talk to people, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Gordon suggested joining The D-Word (d-word.com), a free online community for documentary filmmakers, some of whom have probably worked with the person or company you’re researching and are happy to advise.
Reiss added, “When you're asking people for advice on companies, ask a recent person [they’ve worked with] to see how they're dealing with people now and ask someone who's been there for a few years to see if they're getting paid.”
7. Build Email Lists
Get people to sign up for your emails. Reiss had a paper and pen circulating through the auditorium at Hot Docs. “Which you should all do at all of your screenings,” he insisted.
Email lists aren’t just for encouraging people to see your movie. If your film’s main goal is to make positive change it can help measure your impact.
Glosserman used the example of Ron Finley, a.k.a. the Gangsta Gardener. Gathr released Finley’s film Can You Dig This, which was made to drive awareness about food insecurity and urban gardening.
Finley’s goal wasn’t to make money but to make a local impact, so attendees at an Atlanta screening were asked for their email addresses and as they left the screening they received an email inviting them to meet at the side of a highway Tuesday at noon to “plant some sh*t,” a reference to the film’s slogan.
“And then people show up and they take pictures and put it on social media and they tweet about it,” recalled Glosserman. “I mean, that's just incredibly gratifying in real measurable impact.”