Indie Film Distribution Lessons We Learned the Hard Way (And Lived to Tell About It) - Part One

There is a unicorn in independent film: distribution. Actually, believe it or not, that little unicorn is precious to all filmmakers. Because even George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are also considered "indie" filmmakers (that's a whole 'nother post) that sometimes find themselves on a challenging road to distribution. Sometimes it seems like a fairy godmother descends in an opalescent magic bubble to bestow upon the lucky few a magic deal that leads to a fulfilling career in independent film. Sadly, as the industry makes a massive shift in how films are acquired and distributed, the yellow brick road is more than a little jagged - not mention playing hell on our ruby slippers.

While I consider myself and my partner among the lucky few who have managed to get our film into distribution, the road has been long, difficult and not without a few shed tears. More than once our whole team was ready to throw in the towel. Our sales agent was our best friend during that time. He coached us through it, holding our hands when necessary. He also ignored us wen we got a little to needy, making sure to bring us back in when the situation demanded it. We made a whole lot of mistakes, but fortunately for us we learn quickly. While I could write a whole novel, there are a few things we learned that I feel many of my fellow filmmakers are under-prepared to face when they get ready to market and distribute their film without the help of a studio.

What's in a Name?

I'll tell you one thing: Titles = Marketing. Selecting the perfect title that encompasses everything about your film is as delicate and personal as selecting the name of our first-born child.

Just don't get attached to it.

From beginning concept to the distributed film, our feature has gone through three title changes. One, right before we ran our Kickstarter campaign, and another when the distribution company didn't think they could sell our current title, The Anniversary. They gave us a list of titles, all of which made us roll our eyes.

Then it dawned on me what these new titles were. Search Engine Optimized, or SEO in digital shorthand. In marketing terms that means our title is likely to come up in a Google search based off of the gambit of things a potential viewer (customer) might be looking for. We made a horror film. The chance that the words run, hide or die may be part of your search are incredibly high. Ergo, the new title: Run. Hide. Die. No seriously, that is the new title. That's what they decided best fit the film, and you know what? Go ahead and Google it. See what comes up.

Congratulations! It's a Movie...Not a Baby

I get it, film is art and you're an artist. My partner often rolls his eyes because my mantra is that we are in the business to entertain. That's why it's show business. No one cares about your art. While that is a broad generalization, it also proves largely true. Understand this: if a distribution company asks you to "cut it down", it is because they think it drags. However long it may have taken you to create that amazingly artistic, but entirely irrelevant jib-dolly-aerial shot... they do not care. And, unsurprisingly, they are not about to fix it.

To put it simply, if the distributor has to put any work into editing it themselves, they will scrap it and move on to something else.

We were asked to "cut it down" with no guidance as to what exactly needed to be cut. For a while there, we stuck to our guns about it. Then, the film just sat there. It was too long to fulfill their needs. Our editor, bless him, agreed to come over to our place for some long hours and late nights and we cut a 104 minute feature down to 76 minutes. That's right, we cut out 28 minutes of fluff.

We followed a very strict formula for horror films down to the exact number of minutes it should take to get from one pivotal moment to the next. We cut anything that had poor audio or bad visuals, even if it was helpful to clarifying a bit of exposition later. I have no idea if they actually watched the new cut, but the new length was enough to get a deal signed.


Stay tuned for Part Two of Erin Neal's Distribution Lessons.


Erin Neal has been on set since she was 6 months old, crying on camera with Jack Lemon in MASS APPEAL. Learning hands on under the supervision of her mother (it's a family business after all), Erin tried her hand on the sets of HARD EIGHT, DIAMONDS and THE RING. There wasn't a job title she hadn't experienced by the time she was 20, including Visual FX Assistant on ANNA AND THE KING, 2nd AD for independent coming of age drama THE FLATS and lead Camera-op and video Supervisor for the classica car race documentary JUNKYARD TO FINISHLINE. Along side her husband and business partner, Director Collin Joseph Neal, she founded Faith vs Fate Productions. Visit site here.