The Best Ways to Market and Distribute Your Documentary

Making a documentary film is truly a labor of love. The process can take years, and finding the money to turn an idea into a finished product is incredibly challenging. Plus, once the film itself is done, you need to find a way to share it with audiences. If you’re a filmmaker trying to make it all happen, you may find yourself wearing multiple hats—including those of fundraiser, social media marketer, and campaign manager.

How can you balance everything and get your film seen?

We have some advice from the experts. At a recent distribution workshop at Oregon Doc Camp, a documentary filmmaker retreat sponsored by Women in Film Portland, Caitlin Boyle of Film Sprout, Julie Whang of Tugg, and Amanda Elder of Collective Eye Films shared advice on creating and executing a distribution strategy for your film. 

Never heard of these organizations? Be sure to check them out, but we’ll give you a little backstory on each: Boyle founded Film Sprout, a consulting and distribution firm, to help documentaries reach the right audiences (read more about Caitlin and her advice on finding your audience here). Tugg is a crowdsourcing and theatrical event platform that allows anyone to screen a film, and Whang acts as their Director of Theatrical Sales. Elder works at Collective Eye, a boutique educational distribution and production company, as the Director of Distribution and Acquisitions.

As a filmmaker, you can utilize any of these platforms, and more—Seed & Spark, Distribber, and Gathr are a few other notable ones. But if you’re looking for a starting point this post is for you.

Here are the best ways to begin marketing and distributing your documentary film:

Determine your distribution plan

The times of distribution are a-changin’, explained Elder, Boyle, and Whang. Distribution used to be thought of in terms of a Plan A or B:

Plan A: Give all rights to one company.

Plan B: Self distribute.

Now, however, Plan A is to do direct sales while splitting up other rights. The new Plan B relies on making a deal with one company and giving them all rights to a film. You can also hybridize your distribution plan to combine direct sales with 3rd parties like DVD distributors, TV channels, VOD platforms, or educational outlets.

The benefits to the new Plan A? You as a filmmaker can maintain distribution control, and you may make more money if you’re actively involved in the building and promoting of the release campaign. You can also develop long term audiences and partnerships while learning to manage distribution for any projects down the line. The downside? Doing direct sales and managing a hodge-podge of other distributors means a lot more work and time on your part. Coming up with a plan from the start will help you dive into getting your film seen after it’s finished.

Outline your objective

Before you can go about promoting your film and seeking audiences, the panelists recommend determining your main goal with distribution—i.e., what you want to get out of it. Are you interested in fame? Recouping your costs? Reaching a community and promoting social action? Identifying your goal will help you hone in your strategy and give you something to work towards in the distribution process.

Identify—and grow—your audience

Poster from  Trapped,  a film by Dawn Porter. Film Sprout helped create a grassroots campaign for the film.

Poster from Trapped, a film by Dawn Porter. Film Sprout helped create a grassroots campaign for the film.

The number one way to get your film seen? Identify your core audience, and go after them. It’s common knowledge that people are inundated by media, so reaching an audience means thinking about specific ways to do it. This means looking beyond demographics to consider not only an audience’s beliefs, but how they orient themselves in the world. Boyle recommends imagining your audience as one caricature, and drawing them out. This theoretical exercise highlights the fact that each member of your audience is a tangible, concrete person. So how can you reach them once you’ve gotten a feel for who they are? Reach out to networks they belong to, seek out partners in those organizations, and consider communities that they are a part of. 

From there, potential partners in showing and promoting your film can reveal themselves, too. You can get the ball rolling on community or educational screenings, partner events, or promotion. When thinking about cultivating specific audiences, it’s never too soon to start reaching out and building relationships. For more advice from Caitlin, check out this post on finding your audience

Develop your online presence (and EPK) from the start

From the get-go, set up a great website with information on your project. That could mean including a release date and trailer, or information on local screenings. Consider making an FAQ page for people who want to learn more, or even host screenings themselves. Maintaining a production blog that continues even as you go into distribution is a great way to draw people into your story. Another good way to reach a larger audience? Create an email newsletter list. That way, you can tell people directly about any news or future screenings.

If you’re crowdfunding or seeking donations, make sure you have a clear call to action to ask for donations, whether this is a “Donate” button or a link to your film’s PayPal or Kickstarter. And don’t forget to give people a way to buy the film if it’s available!

Lastly, make an EPK—an electronic press kit—to share with the folks looking to learn even more about your film, and possibly write about you or promote you in some way. A good EPK includes your film’s synopsis, a director’s statement and team bios, the film’s specs, press quotes or award laureates you’ve received, high res stills, key partners or supporters, and any additional links to information about the film. Your EPK is a great all-in-one resource to send to members of the press to get your film seen.

Be patient and avoid release conflicts

When considering a distribution plan, remember to be patient and also to consider any conflicts in release windows so that you can make the most out of showing your film. You can screen your film in a theatrical release, at festivals, broadcast it, sell it to educational institutions, conduct non-theatrical screenings, and release your film as VOD. There are many options!

But the important thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re considering a hybrid distribution plan, is to check with your distributor about timing when you can do what, so that you don’t violate any exclusivity deals. Another thing to remember is that release windows happen in cycles, and they take time. Whang told filmmakers that the Tugg-released film Salam Neighbor was on-boarded in October, had a theatrical release along with community screenings and educational sales, and just launched on iTunes in May. She advises that especially in the educational market, successful films can take 9 months to a year to gain strong educational sales, so you should hold back on doing transactional VOD during this sales window.  

Maintain good relationships

Another reason to avoid distribution conflicts? To maintain a great relationship with your distributor. Oftentimes, your distributor or consulting firm will have relationships with certain film festivals and can help you when deciding when and where to submit your film. Film Sprout, for example, has relationships with many smaller and niche festivals. Why do festivals matter? Even smaller fests can make a big impact when it comes to community outreach, says Boyle. She also notes that festivals are an incredible indicator of community success—they provide feedback, and also allow a chance to do market research on a film to see who is responding to the message and where. “Everything is relationship based,” says Boyle. Building and maintaining connections with distributors and festivals will ultimately help your film be seen by more and more  people.

Consider an impact producer

You may think you’ve heard of everything when it comes to film job titles, but there’s a new role that’s gaining traction in the distribution world: that of an impact producer. Impact producers do extensive outreach for your film, rather than hiring a distributor to do that for you. And don’t get this role confused with a publicist, who handles media relations from a press perspective. Impact producers aggressively work to get your film in front of audiences. Don’t know where to find one? POV, Fledgling Fund, and Tugg all have a list of recommended impact producers on their sites; Tugg even has several campaign and promotion toolkits that you can view for inspiration.

Now that you have these marketing and distributing tips, you can put them in action to get your film out into the world. Stay tuned for more posts from Oregon Doc Camp, sponsored by Women in Film Portland, and be sure to check out Tugg, Film Sprout, and Collective Eye.

What marketing and distribution companies have you worked with? Do you have any advice on distribution deals? 

Cover image from Gnarly Bay's story, Iceland, from License this clip here.