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How to start a film distribution company

Updated April 17, 2017

The film distributor's job is to secure placement for a film in the most appropriate and lucrative media outlets in as many markets as possible. The distributor is responsible for both the marketing and eventual circulation of films to both traditional and emerging platforms. The competition is fierce, with major Hollywood studios all the way down to small independent production companies vying for spots. Despite emerging technologies that have opened new avenues for independent filmmakers, there are some basic business fundamentals anyone wishing to become a film distributor must know.

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Incorporate as a formal film distribution company. You will need to be a recognisable legal entity in order to make deals as a film distributor.

Create a press kit that specifically outlines the kind of films you intend to distribute, your marketing and recoupment strategies, your preferred media platforms, and your industry contacts, if any. The press kit should also include mock one-sheet movie posters, and a mock distribution game plan for a single project, if you have not already bought and distributed a film. Investors want to see that you have solid knowledge of how to make money in the film business.

Contact the various media outlets you wish to work with: theatres, online, etc. Send your press kit and make them aware of the kinds of films you will be offering. It's also a good idea to find out what they are looking for.

Secure funding for your company. Without financial backing, you will be unable to bid for films and pay for marketing and "P & A" (prints and advertising), thus you will not be able to begin your business. Funding can come via equity investments, personal or bank loans, or lines of credit.

Attend smaller film festivals and screenings. Most of the films at larger festivals like Sundance, Toronto, or the NY Film Festival are too high-profile and expensive for a new distributor and most established filmmakers are not going to trust a start-up company with their film. Try the smaller festivals to unearth new, affordable talent and create relationships with producers and filmmakers.

Tip

Hire a good entertainment lawyer. Film distribution agreements can be very complicated, so be sure your agreements and legal paperwork are vetted by an industry professional. Attend seminars and take classes on film finance and distribution. The models are constantly changing, and what worked a year ago might be obsolete today. Think globally: Secure distribution internationally whenever possible. Do your homework before buying: Check on the recent performance of similar films, the stars' current box office clout, etc. Having multiple films to sell is often advantageous, as theatre owners may buy pictures they find less desirable to get the ones they really want.

Warning

The film business is high-risk. There are no guarantees, no matter how great the script, cast and cinematic execution. As William Goldman said of Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything." According to Stacey Parkes, the author of "The Insider's Guide To Independent Film Production," it is harder than ever for an independent film to get distribution because there are so many films on the market.

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About the Author

Lee Michael Cohn has been writing since 1986. He co-authored "A Practical Handbook For The Actor." He has optioned films and TV pilots, and has edited and written for the "Santa Monica Mirror." Cohn holds Bachelor of Fine Arts in drama from NYU and is currently getting his Master of Fine Arts from the UC Riverside Creative Writing Program.

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