The distribution sector is a multi-faceted arena comprised of distinct operational roles and functions. Acquisitions, marketing, publicity, sales and technical acumen combine at various junctures of a film’s journey to shepherd it safely through its lifecycle.
Whether looking for the building blocks of a franchise, discovering future auteurs or unearthing a festival gem, this is where it all begins. Acquisitions seek out and bring together a distributor’s slate of films, often helping directly develop titles on their eventful path to release.
Finding the moment – the rights to distribute (and in some cases produce) a film are acquired at various stages of development: at script; before principal shooting begins; during post-production; or as a completed project. Competition can be fierce, and it pays to be on-board early, particularly when optioning existing properties such as plays, best-selling books or comics.
Sizing up – the timing of an acquisition is often dependent on the potential/budget of a picture and the relative size of the distributor. A studio might look to acquire rights across multiple countries, brokering a deal with many moving parts. A smaller independent operator may have a foothold in just one territory and more limited funds, but an advantage in fleet of foot decision making.
Ways and means – films are acquired through a wide array of channels: first look deals with producers/directors; agreements with sales agents; content flow through parent studios; one-off deals for single pictures; output deals with production companies/studios; or bidding wars at film festivals. Content is king, and distributors will keenly vie for the films they believe will fare best.
Gut feeling – whilst historical box office and audience data has come increasingly to the fore in most aspects of the film business, gut feeling still plays a huge part in landing the right films. Not all pictures come neatly packaged with star casts, named directors, prescient topics or based on a best-seller. Sometimes you just know what you have your eye on is something special that audiences will love.
The smoke and mirrors magic often credited with driving a film’s success. The creation and timely release of posters, trailers, online, tv, radio and outdoor advertising is the engine at the heart of the marketing department and is often both the earliest and latest brush the public has with a film before its actual release.
It’s all part of the plan – the media plan dominates the landscape of any film release schedule, stating when specific assets from the campaign will be revealed to the public. Get it right and the wave of anticipation will build to carry your title into cinemas and beyond.
Promotions and partnerships – often collaborations with specific brands will be part of the campaign. These can sometimes be with the involvement of exhibition partners, and looked after by a distribution company’s trade marketing representatives.
Agency of agencies – departments can often be under-staffed and over-stretched, so using outside collaborators with specialist knowledge and skills can take the pressure off when the heat is on. From creative to research and media buying, external resources can allow for a flexibility in approach and harness long-standing trade relationships.
Tried and tested – marketing will often spearhead market research initiatives, either post-production in the form of test screenings to judge a film’s readiness and appeal for release or post-release to gauge the impact of a campaign.
The publicity team bring together all of the various strands of a campaign to gain maximum positive exposure for a film. These can include reviews, features, editorials, events, stunts or clips all with a focus to disseminate information through appropriate media channels into the culture of the day. Publicity will often do some work on set during production or utilise the work of unit publicists, yet the majority of their hustle is in the build-up to release.
All-star cast – long lead magazine pieces, radio or tv can pave the way for appealing opportunities on the talk show circuit if you have a well-known lead or big name director. This can boost a film’s profile in the days leading up to release.
Sign of the times – should your film have a prescient theme, idea or plot this can be utilised extremely effectively in pushing the release firmly into the zeitgeist, often compensating for a lack of stars or budget.
Close quarters – publicity work hand in glove with marketing to allow their disciplines to dovetail nicely as the release date looms ever closer. Social media work will often be outsourced allowing the team to concentrate on delivering from their key assets.
Different strokes – whilst studios tend to have marketing run the show, publicity teams can find greater parity in the independent sector, where its more frugal nature can be embraced over costly marketing spends.
Sales is the oldest profession in the film distribution sector, predating marketing and publicity by several years.
A-B-C. Always Be Closing!
Choosing the best release date for a film – this is key to a title’s prospects and lifecycle, as you only get one chance to open. With close to 900 films released theatrically in a year in the UK and Ireland alone, the right date is paramount for both survival and financial success.
Data and analysis – the use of historical data in the arts is rapidly on the increase, whether to shore up the experience and gut feeling of seasoned executives or to help analyse why something went to the wall. Pre and post-release number crunching to identify past glories or signpost potential pitfalls is now commonplace.
Creating and maintaining a strong bond with exhibition – a good relationship with the purveyors of the cinema industry is vital, they are the gatekeepers to the audience and therefore the theatrical revenue for your film. Securing champions and assuring partnerships will pay dividends when it comes to negotiating a film’s theatrical longevity or the terms at which you’ll receive box office income.
Negotiation – every Monday morning, distributors with a film in the market negotiate with exhibitors showing their titles, all based on 3-day box office takings and admissions from the weekend in an attempt to maximise the run of their film. These much-needed skills are also key when it comes to duking out the rental terms for your picture.
The technical department handles material creation, quality control and subsequent delivery of all filmed content. They are often the invisible heroes of the distribution chain, only brought into the limelight on the very rare occasion when things don’t go to plan.
Early access – technical teams will often be involved from pre-production onwards and liaise with production to secure access to early footage for trailers, as well as creation of on-set materials such as EPKs (electronic press kits).
Behind the scenes – any successful event to promote a film, be it a star-studded Premiere, packed multi-media screening or talent attended Q&A needs a strong and steady technical team to make sure sound and picture play perfectly on the day.
Quality control – tech teams cultivate long-standing relationships with labs throughout the lifetime of a film’s journey to the big screen. Allowing for the best possible job to be done, even when turnaround times can verge on the impossible.
Logistics and delivery – whether it’s trailer elements to a post-production house or a finished film to your local cinema, the technical team will have a hand in getting you what you want, when you want it.