Independent films journey through a complex process to find distributors

Alex Pelham

While big-budgeted movies, such as the “The Avengers,” are expected to draw millions in box office profit, hundreds of independently produced films scramble just to make it to theaters. 

Independent films, which are movies major film studios do not produce, fight tooth and nail to reach an audience. To do this, they try to sell the film’s rights to film distribution companies. 

Major film studios normally don’t have to worry about this because they have the financial backing necessary to get their film into theaters. If the producer of an indie film fails to find a channel to release the movie, then they have no guarantee of making a profit.

Film distribution companies help movies reach mass audiences. They have the power to determine both a film’s release date and whether it’s released in theaters or through a different medium. Although a majority of distributors generally try to push the film into theaters, the growth of the video-on-demand industry creates an incentive for releasing films straight to streaming services. 

Films that stream on a video-on-demand service have a better opportunity to gain audience attention because they don’t have to compete with studio films. Distributors also provide both publicity and marketing services for a film, meaning they create posters, trailers and other forms of advertisements. 

The first step for a producer hoping to get a film distributed is to screen it everywhere. The process of finding a film distributor usually begins when an indie films premieres at a film festivals. Festivals such as South By Southwest allow directors to present their movies to hard-core film lovers and help build much-needed hype for their work. Producers pray for glowing reviews and strong word-of-mouth for their films, as these things set them apart from the competition and increase the chance of getting purchased. 

Films that fail to attract buyers at one festival move on to others until they finally attract a distributor. If a producer can’t find a buyer, then the only remaining option is self-distribution — an expensive venture. Finding a potential buyer is a harrowing task. Film news website Indiewire speculated that out of 110 feature films the 2012 Sundance Film Festival screened, only an estimated 40 films would be purchased by distributors.

A few independent films that premiered at SXSW last month managed to pick up distribution deals. Drafthouse Films bought “The Invitation,” a thriller that premiered with favorable reviews. “Manson Family Vacation,” a quirky black comedy, reached an agreement with Netflix. These acquisition deals pave the way for these films to become big hits.

Once a film has been acquired by a distributor, the marketing aspect comes into effect. HowStuffWorks columnist Jeff Tyson wrote that distributors “determine the best strategy for opening the movie” and consider factors such as target audience, star power and season. They have to do everything in their power to ensure that the indie film, on which they spent up to seven figures, generates a profit.

This isn’t the absolute way that indie films are bought and distributed. Numerous factors go into such a complex process. Independent film producers face treacherous, uncertain roads as they present their movie to the world. Some get lucky and snatch up a distribution deal after one successful run at a film festival. Others consider self-distribution or evaluate a video-on-demand release. Either way, it’s important to know that there are hundreds of small films just waiting to burst onto the scene dominated by big-budget studio films.