BY:STEVEN C. BEER, JAKE LEVY AND NEIL J. ROSINI
This Q&A was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Documentary magazine, a publication of the International Documentary Association, a nonprofit media arts organization based in Los Angeles.
In the new marketplace for documentaries, a mastery of marketing and distribution is indispensable, particularly as the relationship between distribution companies and documentary producers continues to evolve. Given the hyper-competitive marketplace, a distributor’s decision to take on a film may turn on tangible marketing assets that can be marshaled by the producer. Critical praise and jury prizes may not be enough to seal a distribution deal if the producer does not have a marketing plan. Today’s leading distributors may seek institutional partnerships, extensive curated mailing lists and celebrity champions before making a commitment. Even financiers may want this validation before choosing to invest.
Marketing and distributing a documentary is expensive and labor-intensive. Producers are being asked to shoulder more of this burden as distributors shrink away from obligations they assumed in the past. One example is the preparation of educational and community outreach materials; producers must often organize their own. As another example, distributors may expect producers to pay third-party publicists and social media teams beyond initial film festival campaigns and to take on more responsibility in launching semi-theatrical and theatrical releases. It’s not just that they’re shirking; rather, the competitive marketplace, high costs and enormous effort required to market a film, coupled with uncertain returns, makes distributors increasingly reluctant to assume all responsibility. Producers must know what to do and how to do it in order to fill the void.