How to Distribute Your Film as a First-time Filmmaker

Somebody said to me once that filming is the easy part and post-production is a much more difficult process.

Building up the whole scenario, carefully selecting each sentence and word, editing, graphics, sound mixing, checking license and credits, all while still working on my day job to secure the budget for the film! In this process, I definitely needed the help of other professionals; luckily, I have been able to work with amazing people. With the help of my editor, sound director, graphic designer and others, I finally completed the entire production of my first ever feature-length documentary <One Way Ticket> in January 2017.

Afterwards, during the next month, we made use of the feedback from our backers to apply some minor editing and to fix the subtitles (English/Korean). As promised, the film was pre-released online for free to our backers who thankfully participated in my crowdfunding over the production period.

For the pre-release, I made use of a digital distribution platform named VHX. My experience with VHX was outstanding because of its very detailed customization options and their kind and helpful customer support as well. Compared to the other options I had (e.g., Vimeo), VHX has a variety of customizable options. These options include the possibility to:

  • send a separate screener via email with an optional letter as well;
  • set how many days this screener will be made available for viewing or when the access will expire;
  • on/off sharing option;
  • manage recipients as a group;
  • check when recipients open/unopen the screener and when the video was last viewed; and
  • send 100 screeners per month for free with an extra $1 for subsequent screeners.

After pre-release, I started to think about the final distribution. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that it’s late to start thinking about distribution AFTER production.

Welcome to the distribution stage!

If you are reading this post and you are thinking about making your own film or are already in the process of making your first film, I’d like to tell you from experience that distribution is a much more difficult process than production. Finding and securing the best method of distribution can take years, especially for an independent filmmaker—and obviously, you need a bit of luck as well. In my case, production has been completed for about 7 months now, so I’m going to be sharing the tips I got from every step I’ve tried and considered, and I believe it will be useful to you.

At first, I didn’t even think about distribution. My first thought was on making a video and publishing it online (just like what I did with the short preview clips I have on my YouTube channel). No muss, no fuss. But because of several reasons like I’ve mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve started to think about my options in terms of distribution. In addition, I was already pretty upset with a lot of people embedding my trailer/previews on their thoughtless websites to sell lifestyle consulting or digital nomad dreams like MLM and passive income tricks. I can easily imagine what will happen if the full film is out on YouTube.

Anyway, I decided to experiment in every way I could with my film. I mean, how many feature-length films are you going to make in your lifetime anyway?

1. Apply for a pitching opportunity in order to get not only funds in advance, but to also make the distribution much easier

I don’t have many regrets about it this time (and I didn’t even know what “documentary pitch” was when I started making it), but I’ll definitely try to get this opportunity during the pre-production stage when I make the next one (there are too many fascinating topics in our world!). There are a lot of organizations that provide documentary pitch opportunities. If your project proposal or trailer or previous work is impressive enough, you can get a chance to present them to potential investors, distributors, film festival’s programmers, etc. This takes time, sometimes about 3-6 months at the very least, so skip this if the topic you’d like to talk about is time-sensitive.

But if you are not in hurry, you should consider this option. Pitching can give you not only funds but also distribution opportunities. You might solve this huge distribution issue—one you have to deal with anyway—by suffering a little bit at the pre-production stage.

2. Film festivals: pros and cons

Submitting your film to film festivals for over a year or two is a traditional step to make your film relevant to as many sales agents as possible. It can be the easiest and simplest option for distribution, but it comes with significant pros and cons.

If you’ve decided to bring your film to festivals (or if you are like me and you are not aware of alternate means of presenting or securing distribution for your work), you should do some research and set a proper strategy. There are literally thousands of film festivals worldwide and they are all different from each other in that they all have their unique taste (and yes, it costs about $30-$150 to submit each film). Also, film festivals might not be suited to your work.

In my case, what I did was to submit my film to well-known A-list international festivals for the first couple of months because I didn’t know where to start. After spending several months and a considerable amount on submission fees, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to show my film to current/former programmers through my good friends.

According to them, my film was simply not suitable for festivals, especially traditional A-list ones. I should instead have targeted documentary-only festivals or independent work-only festivals. In terms of narrative, my work doesn’t possess a strong main character, drama, or intense emotional moments. Also, I can’t boast of the flawlessness of my work’s visual beauty as my budget limited me from making use of professionals till the post-production stage.

The strength of my film is in its topic, the information it provides, strong interviewees, diverse aspects it covers, and certain demographic groups who hold a strong interest in this topic. After I heard this, my immediate priority was to switch to other distribution methods. I advise you to immediately get a consultation from people in the industry, even when you just finished a draft edit. If you can get one, it will greatly benefit you.

Personally, another con to this approach was that I had to keep the premier status for years. In most cases, your hands are tied during the submission process. Actually, it’s not limited to just the festivals, it extends to the entire distribution process. When you are finally done with the production and you are eager to share what you have just made with people, you can’t share it freely, because the moment you make your film public online or offline, you will immediately lose a lot of potential opportunities to try diverse distribution options. Yeah, it sucks!

If your work is already known through any kind of PR or crowdfunding campaign, you will naturally be asked by people for a public release. Every time I get these kinds of emails, although I appreciate their interests, I still find it exhausting because some of them come out in a very rude manner. I understand that they are not aware of the complications involved in the distribution process (I also did not know any of these before), but emails like, “I can pay you now. I will pay, so just send me the damn link,” can be really frustrating.

In conclusion, you should investigate properly, set an appropriate strategy, calculate how long you can try, and do not be afraid to try other options because even the festivals won’t always guarantee a distribution opportunity. You can keep submitting your work while you work on other options.

“In any major film festival showing 200 or more feature films, at least 40% of these will never get distributed in the UK and will not be seen again on a cinema screen in that country. In the UK, in 2012, over 600 films were distributed theatrically which means intense competition for screen space. But put that number against the number of features made every year globally, and at best 10% of features produced will see the inside of a cinema.”
– “How do I get my film into distribution?“, The Independent Cinema Office

3. Get a decent distribution agency/expert if you can afford it

I have thought about it several times especially when I think of alternative things to do while struggling with this exhaustive distribution process. Making a film is a totally different aspect from distributing that film—same as how a director’s job is different from that of a producer. If you have a budget, you should go for it so that you can move on to your next project or do what you are good at without worrying.

4. If you are considering cinemas, think of the benefits you expect to get

If you’d like to try the traditional distribution process via cinemas or you are already sending your screeners to distributors, there are several things you need to consider in advance.

First, it will take a very long time. Even if you eventually get to sign a contract with a distributor, there won’t be an open slot in the cinema’s timetable for your film until late this year or possibly early next year (the situation might be different in other regions but East Asia).

Secondly, there will most likely be zero financial profit for the creator. Distributors pay at least 4 digits of dollars to cinemas/multiplexes to secure a spot. This translates to zero profit for the creator unless the film reaches the break-even point. The depressing part is that it is considered huge if up to 10 people leave behind Marvel’s new movie in a theatre to watch your independent film instead (again, the situation might be different in other regions but East Asia). So, it’s sad when you consider the next-to-nothing profit and minimal audience that your film can reach. And this is the major reason why I decided to refuse a distributor’s offer for cinema distribution.

In conclusion, frankly, the only real benefit you can get from getting your film on cinema (after the long and exhausting process) is credibility as a filmmaker, and this will make the starting, fundraising, and pitch opportunity for your next project all that much easier. Otherwise, there are no benefits. You need to carefully weigh its benefits and also consider the amount of time you are willing to spend on it.

5. Community screening

As opposed to traditional distribution, community screening can be a productive way to get your work out there, and it’s increasingly becoming popular among creators. You can check here for more information. With community screening, your film can be watched by several groups of people all over the world. Compared to the other options, community screening will engage your audience with the film’s topic. In addition, most community screening events have a group discussion time which will increase the social impact and buzz created by your film.

You can always make use of a distributor or agency if the workload from managing community screening requests becomes too much. All the requests will be forwarded directly to them and they will take care of everything including sending a screener. However, in most cases, at least 40-50% of the screening fee will go to the agency as commission.

*Common misconception: Any screenings of a film to a group of people requires licensing, regardless of whether they are a paying audience or not. That it is perfectly legal to screen films to a non-paying audience for free is a popular misconception—this is simply not the case.

6. Do not empty your pocket before the distribution stage

You are finally done with your production but there is no budget left? Yes, that’s a huge problem. The distribution process requires a considerable amount of money. I am currently working on preparing community screening and getting my film to several online platforms all at once, and every aspect of these will incur expenses. For instance, this is a section of the QC sheet I got from an agency I’m presently working with:

Even though I got the help of professionals for the editing and audio mixing, this is still only the beginning of a long list.

In order to get your film onto large online platforms, it must pass the required criteria—and they are pretty strict. Working all these technical issues of video/audio on both sides costs time, endless effort, and a lot of expenses. I have a day job which I make a living from, so I can afford these expenses, but I see a lot of filmmakers around me struggling to secure additional funds for distribution after the production stage. In most cases, this is the reason why a film’s release gets delayed.

7. Prepare in advance and do everything at the same time

Some people might say, “Why try these things when you can just upload it on YouTube?” There is a point there. You need to consider that it’s worth spending your time, effort and money on. Also, nowadays, there are numerous online self-distribution platforms—indeed, there are too many of them. Eventually, it’s about how you define your work, what goal you have for your work, and what plan you have upon completing your work. Is this film just a part of your portfolio or is it worth distributing on a more larger scale? Are you thinking about making the next film or this was just casual for you and a one-time film?

Prepare in advance, and if you’re going to try distributing, do it all at once. Every step consumes more time than you presume.

For example, it took weeks to get my first QC report from the agency, and another month to fix all the issues with contacting my editor and audio director, setting up Skype call schedules, uploading and downloading 100GB of feature files repeatedly, and so on. For festivals, it will usually take more than 3 to 4 months before you can get an announcement. I got a response from the distributor—introduced to me by my friend—after 3 weeks. In most cases, you won’t even get a response from them if you don’t have a mutual friend or something.

So, it’s better to do everything all at once, as long as you don’t publicize your film online/offline—you can pre-release only to your supporters such as those who participated in your crowdfunding—you can try all the distribution options to reach as many audiences as possible. This is your precious baby so you get to decide how you want it introduced to the world :)


I plan to complete the whole distribution process before the end of the year including community screening and public release on online platforms. If you’d love to get the release news when it’s ready, sign up for my newsletter :)