10 Things to Do When Trying to Sell Your Documentary Film

Creating a documentary film, whether a short film, television broadcast, or theatrical feature is no small accomplishment.  But, as we have covered in past columns and in interviews with filmmakers, this is only half the battle. In this series, I am reporting from IDFA – International Documentary Festival Amsterdam to investigate the state of the documentary film industry and provide some helpful advice for selling your documentary film to distributors.

  1. If you don’t like a sales agent, don’t sign with them. You must be along for the ride.  If you are promised something great remember the old adage “too good to be true”.
  2. At the end of the day, you will need to do all the work and take none of the credit. That’s how the real pros do it. Go to indie film markets filled with career professionals every year and have a product to sell. Expect to try and connect with a sales agent.
  3. When approaching buyers, sales agents, press, and distributors at a film festival, don’t fool yourself.  Be aware of the story you are telling. It is broken into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and end.  A pitch is about three things: establishing an interesting character, environment, stakes, and obstacles to overcome. Combine these things and throw in a cliffhanger or a mysterious reveal.
  4. Believe in it and make it all believable. This should be rule number one.  Don’t try to fake it. It will fail. Live it and know it. Remember the rule of respect.  Don’t try something to impress anyone but know when to brag about your access. In a documentary development situation, a good story is part of the pitch along with a team of agents, distributors, and collaborators.
  5. Don’t sign a pre-sale deal for territory rights if you can help it.  This is your leverage. To give you confidence and bargaining power, you don’t want to be sitting at the table with North American rights but no Asian or French.
  6. Think of the festivals as a fragile bridge between the artists and the marketplace. Try not to rock the bridge and the bridge won’t rock you. Your film will impress people more than money spent on a fancy release party.
  7. Keep the car on the road and the production under budget. Be frugal at all times. Remember that you need money to make money but recouping your investment is every sales agents first line of business.
  8. Credits are something you can afford to give out generously.  Be mindful of taking too much credit. We get that you are the producer/director.  The guy who edited with you deserves an editing credit for his reel. The screenwriting teacher you had might get a kick out of being an executive producer or story consultant.  Be generous and it will pay you back.
  9. Subscribe to withoutabox but don’t only apply to Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Cannes, and IDFA. See where you get in and take workshops, approach executive producers. Never give up, get advice on the ever evolving marketplace. But always be very protective of your premiere and only share it with the very best festival possible!
  10. Finally, take a look at Vimeo and Distribber.  Vimeo does a video on demand service. Distribber acts as an aggregator to iTunes, Amazon, Google Play but will cost a fee and take time as they test the movie files to specific codes for each streamer.

Related Articles