Your Film Just Won the Lottery… Now What?


A filmmaker contacted me recently with an interesting dilemma.  His film, just off of several strong festival screenings, was starting to attract tempting distribution offers, including educational distribution from one of the best houses in the country.  Then he heard about Academic DIY and began to wonder if that could offer anything equal.

I gave him my usual rap…how much he’d make per year (after you get up-and-running, as much as $25-$30,000, for several years), the limited amount of up-front work and money required to get started, and so forth.  He wasn’t convinced.  How could Academic DIY compete with a company like the one offering him the contract?  What could I say to convince him?

Then over coffee this morning, the answer came.  Worldcat.org, the international database of all library holdings on earth, held the key.   Any filmmaker considering a distributor should go first on Worldcat, choose several of the distributor’s top titles, and search the number of library and university holdings for each.   Is the distributor actually placing films?    And if it is, how many film placements would be needed, at the cut they’re offering you and film price, to make your annual DIY profit?

For example, if it’s an 80/20 split as many top distributors offer, a film priced at $300 would have to make 416 sales to net the filmmaker $25,000.   How many of the distributor’s films, priced at high numbers, reach 416?   (416 at $25 each don’t count).  To give the benefit of the doubt, double the number you see on Worldcat since it doesn’t  capture all holdings.   Once you double the number, you’ll see some at 416 or more, but be aware that 416 is close to the maximum number of academic sales that an average film can make over its lifetime.  Even 250 sales in total is strong.  If one’s goal is to sign with a top distributor and you have a top offer, you’re where you want to be; if your goal is to make money, you should flee.

I tell you all this as a wake-up call.  Another filmmaker came to me recently with a similar story, though one that happened ten years ago.  Her film screened at Sundance to strong reviews, and she signed, very happily, with NewVideo out of New York, another 80/20 company that gave her a $5,000 advance.    Over the ten years she’s been under contract, she has not seen one penny more.  She came limping to me, half believing she has a lemon on her hands, and unsure if she’ll make anything more.  (Of course she will…her film is wonderful.  She will see soon enough).

The truth is, all distributors, even cooperative ones, are set-up to pitch their catalogues, not each unique holding.  Thus success for the catalogue is defined by a strong percentage of sales overall, not a strong percentage of your sales.   You are the only one with enough interest to really sell your film.  That’s why DIY works.

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