Tuesday, November 28, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 8: Distribution

The purpose of this series is to share my experience of making my microbudget feature film, Wait, while being as transparent as possible. This series is specific to my experience only. Please do not take these posts as universal How-Tos. Also know, this series is intended to shed light on the process of making a film, not on the quality of the film itself. 

How do you know when your film has completed its festival run? As mentioned in my previous post, your film will likely get rejected from more festivals than it’s accepted to. This level of rejection could motivate you to keep submitting your film to new festivals. I have to get into one more. This is the last one. It HAS to get in here. But, at some point, you have to call it and move on.

I knew Wait’s festival run was over based solely on my level of exhaustion. I began submitting Wait to festivals in November 2014, and I submitted for fests that ran through November 2015. One solid year. As November 2015 approached, I flirted with the idea of submitting to just one more, but I had ultimately had enough. I was ready to move on and get the film in front of as many people as possible.

Online Platforms
When I started pre-production on Wait, I knew absolutely nothing about how to distribute a microbudget film. Learning about various distribution models made for one of the most challenging learning curves surrounding Wait. Occasionally during editing, I would take a break from assembling the film and research various distribution methods. While Wait was being mixed and colored, I became fully immersed in distribution.
I spent a year formulating a distribution plan, and in late 2014, I knew I wanted Wait to play on iTunes and Hulu. I chose iTunes because I felt it would give Wait some validity. Even though iTunes retains more than 35 percent of every rental or purchase, it seemed like a good place for Wait to be. I chose Hulu because Netflix was far too expensive, and I wanted to give people the option to view Wait for free. Hulu’s business model was different from iTunes: I would pay a flat fee to have Wait appear on Hulu, and the more commercials people sat through, the more I would get paid. If people turned Wait off after 10 minutes, I wouldn’t make a dime. But if they watched it until the end, I’d make a few bucks.

While Wait was playing at film festivals, online film distribution completely changed, and my distribution plan was made irrelevant overnight. As Netflix and Hulu’s original content began to flourish, both sites changed their rules for independent film distribution. In the past, you could submit damn near any film to Netflix or Hulu (provided it wasn’t pornographic), and they would play it. You paid, they played. Today, they are much more selective over the films they choose to play. Netflix, in particular, has changed its model to 50 percent original content, 50 percent films; they no longer accept every film that is submitted to them. Additionally, Hulu implemented a paywall similar to Netflix. If people wanted to watch Wait on Hulu, they would now have to pay Hulu’s monthly fee.

Because of these changes, Hulu was out. iTunes was still a viable (though expensive) option, and I ultimately chose Amazon as my other hosting platform, simply because Amazon was affordable, and I liked giving people a choice on where to see the film. 

I locked in iTunes and Amazon as my distribution platforms, and now I needed a way to get Wait to them. I soon learned that to get your film on a major online platform, you have to go through a content aggregator. This aggregator essentially acts as a middleman between you and the online service of your choice. You give all of your files to the aggregator, your aggregator reviews everything, then forwards your files to the online platform.

Like all middlemen, you have to pay the aggregator a fee for something you could be doing yourself. After all, why couldn’t I submit Wait to iTunes and Amazon myself? 

While it is possible to submit your film to various online platforms, it is highly discouraged. I recommended forfeiting doing it yourself and accept the fact that you’re going to have to fork over a decent amount of dough for an aggregator. In my research, I learned that online platforms trust aggregators, and using an aggregator makes the process of online distribution much more streamlined.

I did exhaustive research on which aggregator to use. I measured the cost benefit of every online aggregator available. In the summer of 2015, I finally settled on one. They seemed personable, and their system was intuitive. The only downfall was that they were expensive. Upfront, they said they needed $1,500 per online platform. I had to pay this aggregator $1,500 to put Wait on iTunes, and $1,500 to put Wait on Amazon. And those were just base aggregator fees; I still had to add Amazon and iTunes’ respective fees, which were roughly $1,600 total. Basically, I was paying this aggregator $3,000 to retain their services, which didn’t seem right. Thank God, at the final hour, I did a little more research and came across Juice Worldwide. Juice’s upfront service fee was $1,000. Meaning, for $1,000, Juice would submit Wait to as many platforms as I wanted. I still had to pay the iTunes and Amazon fees (which Juice does not control), but for $1,000, I was able to retain Juice with their guarantee that my movie would get on iTunes and Amazon in perfect condition.
I began communication with Juice in August 2016, and Wait became live on iTunes and Amazon in January 2017 (though Juice didn’t inform me that the film as live until late April 2017). Between August 2016-January 2017, I worked with Juice to deliver Wait to the exact specifications required by iTunes and Amazon. This demanded extensive knowledge of digital output like video codecs, file types, sound mixes, etc. Again, if you aren’t willing to learn about all this stuff, hire an editor or post-production manager to help you. Juice also needed a poster of Wait, a trailer, and a subtitle track for the movie. Most major online platforms (including iTunes and Amazon) require your film to have subtitles. You can do the subtitles yourself, but the platform will likely reject them. This is why it’s important to get an aggregator: for $461, Juice created a subtitle track for Wait, which iTunes and Amazon accepted immediately, simply because they trust Juice’s work.

I can recommend Juice, but it isn’t a flawless endorsement. Occasionally, Juice was a little unclear in their correspondence, which explains why they didn’t tell me my movie was live on iTunes and Amazon for several months. Juice also expects you to know everything about digital output. When Juice first told me they were having trouble formatting Wait due to macro-blocking, I had no idea what they were talking about. When I asked for clarification, I got no response. I soon realized it wasn’t Juice’s job to describe technical issues. It was my job to fix technical issues on my own, and send Juice the proper files. 

I live in America, and Juice is a Canadian company, which, at times, has made finances a bit trickier than necessary. Juice bills me and I pay via PayPal, but there is a 5 percent added fee for US dollars conversion. Tax documents are needlessly complicated as well. Juice is also a bit unreliable in their reporting. Sometimes it takes a week for them to send me my monthly report. Other times, it takes a few months. Admittedly, I’m nitpicking Juice here, because my experience with them has been mostly positive. Just know that no matter what aggregator you chose, you need to anticipate potential complications you’ll have with them.

The Money
I tossed around a lot of figures so far, so I want to be clear here. I paid Juice roughly $1,000 for their services. This $1,000 guarantees that Juice will deliver your film to the platform(s) of your choosing, in perfect working condition. If there are any problems with the film on any online service, this $1,000 guarantees that Juice will fix them. This $1,000 was a one time fee. Subsequently, I will pay Juice $100 per year for their service.

The cost of online platforms varies based on the site. Streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu require hefty up-front licensing fees. Initially, you pay Netflix to host your movie. If your film gets a lot of plays, then you can renegotiate with Netflix, and they may end up paying you to keep your movie on their site. This is why so many movies and shows come and go every month from Netflix: either studios don’t want to continue to pay Netflix licensing fees, so they take their film off Netflix, or a movie is getting a lot of plays, and Netflix is paying to keep the movie on their site.
Catherine Warner and Ana Lucia Villalobos in Wait
iTunes charged me $945 to host Wait on their platform. Amazon charged $195. Juice created a subtitle track for the film for $461 (the cost of which is determined by your film’s runtime) and sent that to iTunes and Amazon. One year of distribution on iTunes and Amazon, via Juice, was roughly $2,600.

Now the big question: how much money do I make? Obviously, the more people who watch your film, the more money you make, but both iTunes and Amazon collect 30-40 percent of the profits. Additionally, I have no control over how much it costs to rent and buy Wait on iTunes and Amazon. They set those costs themselves. Right now, you can rent Wait from iTunes and Amazon for $4.99. So I’m profiting a little less than $3 per rental.

I knew from the beginning that it was unlikely that Wait would get green. For that to happen, I’d have to recoup the entire cost of production, post-production, film festival submissions, and distribution fees, which, all told, is about $60,000. While Wait is starting to make some money, it’ll never get near that total. And that’s okay. As I’ve said before, the most important lesson I can impart in this entire series is that you save half of your overall budget for post-production. Post meaning actual post-production, festival submission, and distribution costs.

Releasing it Yourself
It is possible to submit your film directly to online platforms, but I suspect it would take a great deal of time, and require an extensive knowledge of post-production output. I did, however, forgo Juice in one aspect of my distribution of Wait.

Once Wait was live on iTunes and Amazon, I quickly realized that only people in America would be able to watch it. I always knew that would be the case for iTunes, but I was given misinformation about Amazon. I was told that anyone with an internet connection could watch Wait on Amazon. Not the case. A month after I began marketing Wait on iTunes and Amazon, I submitted the film to Vimeo OnDemand myself, and I can tell you with complete confidence that Vimeo has been the easiest online platform to work with regarding Wait’s release. For Wait to be featured on Vimeo OnDemand, I had to upgrade to Vimeo Pro (cost: $200) and agree that Vimeo keeps 10 percent of Wait’s profits. Vimeo let me build Wait’s OnDemand page myself, set the rental and buying price myself, and they deposit my earnings into my PayPal account on the first of every month. The only real complaint I have about Vimeo OnDemand is that it isn’t a well-known platform. Not many people log onto Vimeo OnDemand for new movies, they way they would for Netflix or iTunes.
Micah Parker in Wait
And, it’s worth mentioning that I did seriously consider putting Wait on Vimeo for free. No iTunes, no Amazon, no OnDemand, just Vimeo. I thought a lot about this. And I ultimately realized that while it was doubtful that Wait was going to recoup its budget in streaming profits, I felt that putting the film on legitimate platforms helped validate Wait. I’ve never charged anyone to watch a short film or music video I’ve made, but I felt strongly that a feature film warranted a cost.

Making Wait was the hardest, most exhausting thing I’ve ever done. I wrote the film in January 2013, and I’m still dealing with distribution tax issues today. In January 2018, I will have been working on the film for five years. I mention this because, most any filmmaker will tell you that making a movie is hard, but getting people to see the movie is even harder. 

Conventional marketing comes naturally to me — designing posters, writing blogs (hi!), telling people about the film, and so on. Self-promotion, however, is not my bag. Constantly getting on social media and pushing people to watch Wait makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure why. I promoted the hell out of my previous short film, Earrings, online. I wrote long posts about it on Facebook, and damn near live-tweeted the entire making of the movie on Twitter. I don’t know when or why that level of self-promotion left me, but it has. In all honestly, my lack of self-promotion is arguably my biggest downfall as a filmmaker. Many of my friends can promote their shorts and features with cunning vigor. But that’s just not me; not anymore, anyway.

Part of the reason I wanted to write this series of posts was to share my overall experience in making a microbudget feature film. And I figured, Who knows, maybe this series will be of use to a filmmaker down the line. But, of course, I also hoped these posts would encourage people to watch the film. I didn’t make Wait to get rich. Nor did I make it to get famous. I made it because I felt like I had to. The key motivating factor for making a microbudget feature film should be the desire to share your art, not to get rich. Though asking for a little money certainly couldn’t hurt.

Main Takeaways from Part 8: Distribution
—Decide if you want to release your movie for free, or on various online platforms.
—Research every platform exhaustively. Weigh the pros and cons of Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Google Play, etc.
—Research every aggregator exhaustively. Measure their cost benefits. 
—Be prepared to give your aggregator very specific deliverables for your movie. (This is output stuff, i.e. codecs, file types, etc.)
—Develop a marketing plan for your film’s release. Social media, blogs, paid ads, etc.

Primary Costs for Part 8: Distribution
Aggregator: Juice Worldwide, $1,000 one-time service fee. $100 per every subsequent year.
Platform: iTunes, $945/year
Platform: Amazon, $195/year
Subtitles (required for most platforms): $461 (cost based on movie runtime)
Platform: Vimeo OnDemand: $200/year for Vimeo Pro membership

Emotions to Expect for Part 8: Distribution
Relief that you’re approaching the final step of your film
Interest and exhaustion from researching all the platforms and aggregators
Frustration at the specific output requirements of each platform
Dread at the cost to put your movie on online platforms
Pride that your movie out there, ready for the world to see

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film




  1. You made your film for the right reasons my friend, because you wanted to, not for fame or fortune. Happy to hear Wait is starting to make some money though as I hate to see you with debts. iTunes and Amazon collecting 30-40 percent of the profit from rentals is pretty steep, but that's the way the cookie crumbles! Vimeo sound less greedy.

    I know Ruth at Flixchatter has finished her short and is looking for distribution. I'm sure your article and experiences will come in handy to her and others.

    Just a thought. Have you looked into tv rights and getting your film shown on movie channels or cable tv? I kow nothing about it. Could be a way to reach a bigger audience and potentially make a few bucks.

    1. Thanks Chris! Sadly, unless your movie is a random hit, the online film distribution system is set up in a way that makes it damn near impossible to go green. All of the aggregator and platform fees, and the percentage withheld by each platform, makes it difficult to turn a profit. But hey, that's just the way the game is played.

      I did briefly consider the TV/On Demand route, but it is insanely expensive to put your movie On Demand via TV. When I was doing research in 2014, it cost $7,000 just to be considered for On Demand play. And the percentage withheld by the TV providers was crazy high as well. That would, however, damn near guarantee that your movie would be seen by more people. Just have to have the dough to make it happen.

      I can't wait to see Ruth's film!

  2. This was really informative. I knew nothing about how someone gets their film onto these platforms, much less the fact that a middle man needs to be there to do it for things to go smoothly. Wow.

    Also didn't know Vimeo had an On Demand service. I'm learning a ton of stuff here.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on these posts! Vimeo OnDemand has been so cool and easy to use. Again, the only major downfall of that platform is that no one uses Vimeo to find new films. You have to push them there on your own. But still, I love 'em!

  3. Wow, I'm glad you didn't go with Hulu or Netflix. The film would be lost in the shuffle. I'm planning to purchase Wait through Amazon hoping you get a nice share of the money.

    I don't blame you for not wanting to promote yourself. It's like wanting to see attention and whore yourself to see how much you can get through this and that. I don't think I would want to do that. I prefer to just make the film, do a press conference for a film festival, and that is it. Move on to whatever project I'm doing next.

    After all, I'm still not fond of social media because I don't want to know what people had for breakfast or this and that. Fuck that. I'd rather maintain a certain air of mystique which is definitely missing these days. David Bowie was probably the last person to maintain that mystique where people didn't know who he was right till the end. That's the way to go.

    1. Yes I agree. The oversharing of one's life on social media is simply not how I'm wired. I get why some people do it, but it's not for me. And yes, part of my resistance to constantly promote myself/Wait on social media is that I've moved onto other things. But I thought I should be promoting it a bit more, which is one of the reasons I wrote all these posts. Thanks so much in advance for taking the time to watch the film, I really appreciate it!

  4. Replies
    1. Haha! That was so funny because I already had it schedule to post when I saw your comment. Mind reader!

  5. I finally had an entire day with nothing to do so i have been spending the day reading through all these articles now and it's really interesting stuff. I, like most people interested in movies, have dreamed about making one myself, but i never knew it would be this much work. Even just releasing it online sounded way more complicated than i imagined. It's inspiring stuff to read how you pulled this all off.

    1. Wow, thanks so much for reading all the articles. I really appreciate it.

      One of the reasons I wanted to write this series was to help manage expectations in terms of how long it is going to take, and how much money it is going to cost. I'm very happy you enjoyed reading the posts. And I hope you make a movie someday!