Hardly a day goes by without producers have to think about distribution. They are sure they’ve got the work will sell big, after all there is a lot of interest in the subject. The truth is, distribution can be tricky. Some serious homework needs to be done in advance. Often, after learning how difficult the process can be, producers will go to someone else for distribution. So there are a few ways to distribute your project:


There are independently operated commercial theaters, museums, and academic venues throughout the world that show feature and documentary films. The web can help locate these. You will need to mount a Public Relations campaign to ensure the seats are full at each venue. You will need to contact film critics at local newspapers, radio, TV stations and film websites. Make sure you prepare a press kit. Just sending a VHS cassette or DVD is not enough to get a critic really interested. Provide background and sidebar material that enhances the experience. Images, clips, or behind-the-scene glimpses can get your film more attention. Advantage: even a limited independent theatrical release can be a great launching point for consumer distribution. It can create a "buzz" about your film. Disadvantage: It takes lots of personal involvement to make this a reality.

Retail Distribution Channels

There are lots of distributors, so look for one that has experience with the type of program that you have produced. Distributors of features do not usually handle documentaries or educational material very well. The reverse is also generally true. Good distributors will know what the do best and will tell you upfront if you don’t have a good match. Prior to signing a retail distribution deal, be sure to ask these questions:

  • How successful have they been with your type of programming? Do they have some examples?
  • What stores, catalogs or online retailers can they deliver?
  • Are they really going to “market” your product?
  • How quickly will they pay you? What assurances will they offer?
  • Do they require a hold back of , let’s say, 20% to cover “returns?”
  • Do they require 5% for their advertising efforts? What will these “efforts” be?

Advantage: if your title is a hit, it’s likely they’ll move many thousands.
Disadvantage: your portion of the money from sales (generally 40% of retail price, less “hold back” and “return” money) will be delayed far longer than you originally estimated. There are several “hold backs” and “return” issues that seem to keep the money in their bank account rather than yours.

Selling through your website

Most websites do not have the traffic throughput to sell many tapes or DVDs. Unless you are in the business of selling content, you will not have the type of traffic necessary to move product. This method should only be used to supplement other distribution. Advantage: you get to keep all the money. Disadvantage: there will not be many sales.

Outright Sale of Rights

Some producers prefer this method because it is easy and immediate. A cable channel could buy he rights for a few years and with it distribution rights. You could get money upfront for the cable channel portion and percentage of what is sold. Many artists and rights holders are suspicious of how the accounting is done when the percentages are calculated. Creative accounting can make your percentage add up to zero. Advantage: it is generally a clean and easy way to get some money for your work and quickly move on to your next project. Disadvantage: You lose complete control of your program and may struggle to get much from the retail distribution portion of the deal.

There can be additional talent fees due when a program gets distributed. Music rights can be a forgotten frontier. The original rights fees may only cover a specific product release but not mass distribution. Did you use any stock footage in your program? Mass distribution may trigger additional fees for this too.

An attorney should review your distribution agreement. This may cost you a little money, but it can save a great deal if the deal doesn’t work out.

Consider all the options and choose carefully. If you do, getting your program distributed can bring you professional success and economic rewards.