As more brands move into long form branded content – meaning feature length documentary or narrative films around 90 minutes – brands increasingly have the same plan - to premiere at Sundance or another top festival and then “get onto Netflix”. These are worthy goals to be sure, and I’ve sold multiple brand client films to Netflix and other distributors. But this is just one strategy for distribution, and I keep hoping more brands will wake up to the reality that maybe they don’t need to follow “the rules” and go down this path to distribute their films. Perhaps it could be better to break the rules of the old-school film world and forge their own paths.
This might seem counterintuitive, but if part of the goal of premiering at Sundance/SXSW and then landing on Netflix is to show prestige and break through the noise, you might be picking the most crowded path of all. An estimated fifty-thousand unique films apply to festivals globally each year via FilmFreeway, the festival submission tool of choice these days. Most film festivals show between 150-350 films (including shorts), and it takes most festivals 3+ months to make a decision. Brands submit their films and then wait, and fret and worry about where they will be accepted. Then, if they are accepted, they will fight for a good sales agent (or consultant) and try every angle to sell to Netflix (which is always their first choice), or Hulu or now Apple TV+, Disney+, Peacock, etc. But if they are picked up for distribution, they end up in an endless sea of content, with consumers doing the endless scroll trying to find something, anything to watch. And oh yeah, if someone does watch your content, you will never know because these platforms don’t release any viewership data.
That to me sounds more like being buried in a sea of content, with no control over your destiny. To be clear, I am going through this process with many clients myself right now, and sometimes this is the game you have to play. It’s what everyone does, so it must be the right way, right? Maybe. But this system was set up to help independent and arthouse films to get discovered – because they didn’t have any other options. They didn’t have Studio support, knew nothing about marketing, had no customer base, and no money to build an audience. That’s not true of most brands.
Brands – good and great ones – have a loyal customer base. They know marketing, and they have budgets to do it right. Many have retail stores & catalogues (online or print), strong social media followings, brand loyalty and lots of experience finding their consumers. Plus, they have designers, marketers and support staff galore, along with most of the other elements needed to successfully bring products – like a film – to market. They might not know all the rules for releasing a film but guess what – no one does, as the market, and what works, changes daily. There are no rules anymore.
But there’s also another tried and true secret of the film world – many distributors work for-hire. That’s right, you can approach distributors and pay them a fee to help distribute your film with their expertise, but with you controlling more of the roll-out and marketing, and also getting more of the upside. It’s called a service-deal, and it can be done with the Studios, mini-majors (like Roadside Attractions), or smaller outfits like Abramorama, or Argot Pictures. Or you can hire any of numerous consultants in this space, and build a release yourself. It might include theatrical releasing by four-walling (renting) theaters, or using Fathom to do one night events (see the TCM Big Screen Classics screenings), or if your film is great, theaters might book it via your service-deal booker for no fee and just a split of the door. Costs and strategies vary but can be as cheap as $150,000 or go into the low seven figures for most films.
Regardless of the exact for-hire company used, Brands re-gain control of their destiny a bit. You can dictate when it will play in theaters, how it is marketed – you can even be the marketer – and you can make up the rules of how it will premiere and reach consumers. You can pick the date you want to premiere in theaters, then choose festivals based on whether they fit your schedule, instead of building your schedule around their decision process. When done right (and with good content), your service deal partner can likely help you land on most digital platforms, and sometimes even on Netflix.
You don’t even have to do festivals or theatrical to make this happen – you can do event-based marketing, throw parties, show the film outside your stores, and still build demand and land on a good digital home. Why let a festival show your film four times, with no revenue or audience stats or demographics given to you, when you can make your own festival around your film, turn it into a special event and keep all the rewards. I’ve run film festivals, and they’re great, but you can create a special event launch of your film without them. You can ensure that your film reaches and audience and has its desired impact – even if that is just to enter the cultural conversation – by taking more ownership and ditching the rules of the system to make up your own.
You might think this makes your content less professional. But service-deals can be very successful. This year, Roadside Attractions has made over $20-million at the box office for Peanut Butter Falcon, and it has a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Abramorama just made $320,000 in one night for the Lil Peep documentary Everybody’s Everything, plus another $350,000 internationally, and is on track to make a couple Million or more. Importantly, a majority of the attendees were Gen Z audiences who don’t normally flock to theaters. (It should be noted that both Roadside and Abramorama do a mix of traditional distribution and service-deals). I’ve helped Patagonia release the film DamNation without a distributor, and we premiered at SXSW because they liked the film and it fit our timeline, and then played over 600 film festivals, did a full theatrical release, played every Patagonia store in the world, went for sale on Vimeo 30 days after our NYC premiere, and then sold the film to Netflix, and to NatGeo for a second window broadcast. All without a distributor.
The point is, there are many ways to find an audience and achieve success, and with a service-deal or hybrid release strategy, brands can take more control of their distribution. What sounds better to you – following the “rules” and waiting in line for a festival premiere and hoping someone buys your film and takes it to audiences? Or breaking these rules and being in control of how your film reaches audiences, when and through what mechanisms. Why put yourself at the mercy of festivals and the market when you can go directly to your market on your terms? The truth is that both strategies are fine, and require different degrees of work, money and time, but brands should stop thinking they must work with the system and build a new one instead.
About Brian Newman
Brian Newman, founder of Sub-Genre, consults on content development, financing, distribution and marketing to help connect brands and filmmakers with audiences. Clients include: Patagonia, REI, Keen, Yeti Coolers, New York Times, Shopify Studios, Stripe, Sonos, Sundance, Vulcan Productions and Zero Point Zero. Brian is the producer of Love & Taxes, The Outside Story, and The Ground Between Us, and executive producer of Shored Up. Brian has served as CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute, and is on the advisory board of the Camden International Film Festival.