Questions to ask before you say yes
I have written before that the essential difference between academic distributors and D.I.Y. is that distributors sell their catalogue, while the D.I.Y. method sells your film alone. Think of it like the difference between a grocery store and a door-to-door salesman (though D.I.Y. is a lot less work). If a grocery store gets good traffic, and gives you good shelf space, and works to build their brand among grocery shoppers, you could do fairly well. This is especially true if they let you write your own text on your packaging that pitches the strongest points to the buyer most likely to buy your bag of potato chips.
How long, however, will they keep you in that shelf space, bring in buyers, and the rest? Also, what is their track record, not with their one or two big sellers, but with the average products in their store?
Here is a list of helpful questions to ask a potential distributor. Feel free to alter them as necessary:
1. What do you do on a yearly basis to publicize your catalogue and brand to academics and librarians? For example, do you set-up tables at academic and librarian conferences? Do you send out email updates? How much would you estimate that you spend each year publicizing your brand? If the distributor essentially does nothing and simply waits for academics to come to them, this is a very bad sign, especially if they’re taking a hefty percentage. You want someone who earns their money.
2. What kind of publicity/campaigns/outreach will you give my film as a new release? How much money will you spend? Will you simply put me in a list of “new releases” on your site, or will you do more? Also, for how long will I stay in that list? What happens to me after I’m not a new release?
3. Looking not at your strong sellers but rather at your films in general, tell me the AVERAGE number of academic sales per film among the titles that have been with you for over 3 or 4 years.* Here you can do some research before hand at worldcat.org, the database of all library holdings on earth. Put in the name of the distributor and a year you want to research, then see the number of academic holdings (i.e. sales) for each of their older films. Get a sense of the truth(italics) before they give you their version. You’ll also get a very quick take on their honesty.
I realize that the concept of “choosing a distributor” is, in itself, a huge paradigm shift. If it’s the only distributor who’s come calling (or who’s said yes), how can you possibly refuse? That’s where they get us, though, and where we have to turn the tables. If you’re not going to do D.I.Y., at least let distributors know that you expect something in return for their 60-85%, beyond a berth in their catalogue.
*To get an accurate comparison with D.I.Y., also keep in mind the sales prices for these films. $25 sales don’t really count, since a D.I.Y film will be sold for at least $200. After you take the distributor’s percentage, how much revenue have these films generated per year?