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Masterclass Series Highlights: Creative Distribution for Documentary

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Nora Poggi is the creator of podcast ‘Creative Distribution 101’. She shared practical strategies on how to distribute your documentary independently to the global market, how the system works, and how to plan an impact distribution. 

This session was moderated by John Badalu, Producer, Programmer, and Festival Consultant. 

What is creative distribution and why should we care about it?

First of all, films don't sell themselves. You have to do the active work as a filmmaker. Basically, there are two types of distribution: (1) Creative Distribution, which is about splitting up rights and exploiting them in various ways with various partners, and each of these rights help you make money and get your film further, and (2) Impact Distribution, which is intersecting distribution with impact to raise awareness on an issue. These two things can work together. Nowadays the competition for attention is very high. The market is now consolidated with big players like Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, etc. So, you should have your distribution plan ready so that you have leverage to negotiate which plan you will take. As a filmmaker, you are trying to get your film distributed, but you’re trying to build a career as a creator, as an artist.

When should we start thinking about this? And who would do this job?

The earlier you start, the better. The number one question to ask is “Who is your audience?”, and “Who are the people I want to care about this film?” First, you can start mapping out all the different groups of people who need to see your film. Be as specific as possible. You can do research ahead of time, but you also can start doing test screenings when your film is almost finished to see how they respond to it. Second, think of how to reach those people. You don’t have to have a massive, expensive team. You can train an intern to help you with the research and spreadsheets. Third, start building a mailing list by using some free softwares, such as MailChimp and Sendinblue. Make sure that you have a website for your film, and there is an area where people can subscribe to your mailing list. You can also create social media accounts to share some behind the scenes from the film, and a little bit about yourself. But, don’t share your content too much and too early. If you have money, you can hire somebody to do this, but if you don’t, you can invest like two hours a week to work on your Instagram page, website, and spreadsheet.

What can you do during production?

Building your marketing assets, like your trailer and images is really important and super helpful. You want to be very strategic when you release your content, so you need to have all those things ready. When you’re at the roughcut stage or final cut stage, you can email your trailer to journalists first so they can help you build your community and support, apart from your social media.

What are the distribution windows I can look at? 

In addition to festivals, you can also look at some non-profit conferences, corporations, events, and community screenings because these are where a lot of money can be made. University is a big source of revenue for filmmakers to do educational screenings. Universities, corporations, and a lot of communities pay money to screen your film and to have you speak. Community screenings are a great way to connect with targeted audiences, create an experience, and build word-of-mouth. Digital would come last because you make very little money on digital. However, every film is different. It also depends on what success looks like to you. Are you targeting the revenue, eyeballs, or impact? It is rare to have all these three at once. 

How do you research the right person to reach out? And are they only taking films from the US?

For educational screenings, you basically want to pitch to the head of the organisation and marketing person. You can go on LinkedIn and find this information for free, or use a paid platform Rocket Reach to find people’s emails. And it is not only for films from the US. Educational institutions absolutely want your films because people right now are more interested than before to know what’s going on around the world. Every school wants to teach about human rights stories, historical events, and what's happening in other countries. 

How do I do an impact campaign for my film?

Distribution helps you reach your impact goals, and vice versa. Partnerships are really the way that you can accomplish a lot of your impact goals. First you need to do your research, which non-profit or communities care about this issue, then you start approaching them. Partnership is not about emailing an organisation or non-profit and asking them to help promote your film, but you want to approach them and say that your film is a tool for them to reach their goal. Then, sponsorship from corporations can be part of your impact or distribution strategy, too. They can do a lot of internal screenings, in which they also pay speaking fees for you, or they can sponsor the community screenings. Online marketing on Facebook and Instagram, reaching out to press yourself, and getting a journalist who can help you as a publicist are also great steps.

What about the role of social media influencers?

You don't even need to reach out to really famous people with millions of followers. Nowadays, there's something called micro influencers. Brands and communities are starting to support micro influencers who have maybe like 1000 to 5000 followers, but who are very engaged followers, real people who comment on their posts, and easy to reach. You can start liking or commenting on their posts, and ask them to spread the word about your film, maybe by offering a discount for their community to watch your film.

How to get into a festival?

You don’t always have to aim for the biggest festivals like Cannes or Berlin because maybe your film is more suitable for regional festivals, maybe smaller but really engaging festivals can create a bigger impact on your film. Also, you have to learn about the premiere status that a festival requires. The best way to submit to a festival is by emailing the programmers because that will get their attention very quickly. If you don’t know the programmers, you can try to ask around who knows the programmers.

With the pandemic, how should I navigate my windowing strategy? Should I go digital first?

I still feel that going online first is difficult, especially if you need to make money back. But, you can absolutely try to make an impact online with online screenings because a lot of schools will want to screen your film online.The cool thing about going online is it’s so much more accessible for people with disabilities for people all around the world. My only advice is, if you're going to do everything online, make sure that you get decent pay for those. There is a webinar series that talks about how to release a film during the pandemic and all the digital aspects that you need to understand. You can watch here https://cmsimpact.org/report/digital-power/