How to distribute your film

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How to distribute your documentary 

Hello, fellow impact filmmakers. In this post, I’m discussing something I know you will be interested in. And how do I know that? Because almost every conversation I have with an emerging – or even established – filmmaker leads to the same question: How do you distribute your impact film or documentary? 

The thing is, there’s no one clear-cut answer that I can give. Because in 2022 there are endless ways to distribute your film and the landscape feels as if it is constantly changing too.

The way my team and I released films 15 years ago is quite different to how we do it now. Long gone are the days when engaging a distributor was the key to getting your film out into the world. 

And many film makers still think they’ll create the work and attach a distributor, so they don’t put a lot of thought into how they’ll find an audience and how their film will go out into the world.  A distributor is responsible for that right?  Yes, and no.  

If you can attach a distributor, and that is not a sure thing.  Then yes, their job is to put your film out to the world.  But how they do that, how much priority they give your film in the their catalogue and how much they will commit to marketing your work.  That’s a big unknown, no matter how good your contract looks.  Things change.  And you really need to be clear on your numbers when you do your contracting or you can find out if any returns due to you can be swallowed up in ‘marketing costs’ on the distributers side.  Leaving you with very little.

What sort of distribution are you considering?A theatrical release? Video on demand? YouTube or broadcast television?  Maybe it’s a combination. 

Once you set a path, the next step is working out who will help you distribute your film. Will you do this yourself, or are you considering working with an outreach producer or putting a team together?? And how do you go about building an audience to put your film front of? That’s a whole other layer you should really give some thought to as well. 

If your head is spinning, don’t panic. I’m covering all thing related to distributing a documentary or factual project or an impact film  in this post. Mike and I zoned in on the topic in the latest episode of Moonshine Moonshot too.  So if you’d prefer to watch, click here

Let’s begin. 

Firstly, what is film distribution? 

In simple terms, film distribution is how you get your project in front of an audience. . Once you’ve made your film, you want people to actually watch it – right? Of course! 

But it can be a complicated mystery at times, which is why it’s so important that you research all your options. Getting your content in front of an audience while also seeing a return on your investment is no easy feat, but it is an essential piece of the filmmaking puzzle. Especially if you want to make more films.

What’s more, there are now numerous ways to release your film to the general public. Theatres or DVDs are no longer the stock standard choice, but they certainly still are a choice, even if they might sound quaint in the age of streaming sites and video on demand (VOD). 

So what are your film distribution options? 

The digital age has opened many doors for the filmmakers of today. From Facebook to Netflix and everything in between, distribution has never been more possible. 

Below are just a few avenues that you might consider when thinking about how to distribute your film: 

  •  Video on Demand – this includes streaming sites such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu. Stan. And that’s just scratching the surface. 
  •  Cinema on Demand  – like Tugg or Demand Film 
  •  Hosted Screenings – you could encourage community groups to screen your film 
  •  YouTube – the biggest online video sharing platform in the world 
  •  Pay per view through Vimeo – a video hosting and sharing site that has great tools for selling directly to your audience
  •  DVD/ Blu-ray – yes, trust me, Some people still watch DVDs depending on the region
  •  Broadcast Television – a more traditional route 
  •  Theatrical Release – dreaming of seeing your film on the silver screen? 
  •  Social Media – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram each provide opportunities to share video content and get people excited about your feature film

Many of these, particularly Cinema on Demand, Hosted Screenings, YouTube and Social 

Media can easily be set up by without the assistance of a third-party. 

How do you build an audience to ensure people actually see your film? 

I’d like to take it back a couple of steps before moving further. Because while all of the distribution models above are worth your consideration, if you don’t have an audience to distribute to, you’re never going to drive results. 

So what does that mean? It means you need to build an audience before  you even think about distributing your documentary. Probably before you’ve even finished making it!  As I mentioned earlier, you shouldn’t assume this is in the hands of a distributor. 

When we begin planning our impact films, we generally give ourselves an 8 - 12 month run up to find an audience, build anticipation and accelerate interest ahead of the film’s release. 

We do this by publishing a steady stream of content across social media, YouTube, eNewsletters and through our partner networks. The content will include short films (around 5-9 minutes long), micro films (between 30 seconds and 2 minutes), images and quotes. 

YouTube is one of my favourite platforms to gain momentum, find an audience and raise awareness for your documentary ahead of an official release. It gets a big tick from me (I explain why a little later on).

My team and I use this lead up period to assess exactly who our audience is, what social platforms they’re present on and what interests them, so we can tailor our content appropriately. 

This is the project stage where I really lean into the principles and theories I discuss in the Define Your Ideal Audience short course. You can learn more over here. 

When it comes to distribution, I favour the hosted screening route to begin 

As I mentioned earlier in this post, there are many routes that you can go down when it comes to distributing your film. 

While every model has its place, my team at Moonshine Agency and I tend to begin releasing our films through ‘hosted screenings’. Meaning we invite anyone who has engaged with the project or who fits into our ideal audience profile to share the film with their community.  For our films this could be organisations, non-profits, hospitals, educational institutions and individuals.

They might run the event at a local cinema. At a public library. At a university lecture hall. Or even in a private home. There are many ways to run these screenings and you can also monetise the events if you make them ticketed or ask your hosts to pay a one-off screening fee. 

These events usually partner really well with panel discussions or Q&As to drive conversation, raise awareness for the subject matter your documentary focuses on and encourage audience members to spread word about the film (which, will hopefully lead to more hosted screenings!). 

In my opinion, distributing your film through hosted screenings gives you a lot more control than going through a third party distributor. It’s also really rewarding  to watch the number of hosted screenings climb each week or month! 

How I distributed my first impact film 

The first impact film I produced was called Life Before Death, which  released in 2012. 

The documentary centres on a particularly challenging topic – palliative care and pain relief – so I knew it would be difficult to have the project commissioned by a commercial network and broadcast on television. 

Life Before Death is also an impact film, meaning it is very much designed to inform audiences, educate viewers and encourage them to take action.

After liaising with several broadcasters and distributors to get the film into the world, we quickly realised that it was not fit for a “traditional path”. Even though, ironically, it actually has been picked up by a number of different distributors and broadcasters over the years including Amazon Prime.

So we asked organisations and community groups to host their own screening of the film.To date, there have been more than 350 screenings in 60+ countries.

We also published a series of short films on YouTube before distributing the feature film and over the past 10 years those short films have continued to clock thousands and thousands of views. In the first 5 years, the YouTube channel gained close to 1,000,000 views and since then it’s reached almost 3,000,000.

I actually think the project is connecting with a greater audience now than it did when we first released the film all those years ago. 

And that’s why I love YouTube. 

What else do you want to know? 

 I’ve chosen to zone in on hosted screened as a means to distribute your film in this post, but there are of course many, many options available to you. If you’re interested to learn more about one particular option – such as VOD or streaming services – let me know! You can leave a comment below or send me an email via  [email protected]

 

 

 

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