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How to Theatrically Distribute a Film?

Even though a lot of filmmakers skip theatrical distribution nowadays because of the vast cost and the lack of return on it, it still cannot be of overestimated value. Even pretty limited theatrical distribution in a few theatres across the country may produce revenue in DVD, VOD, Internet sales and merchandising. It may also give you the media exposure you are looking for.

This is what we would like to focus on in this short piece. The most traditional way of film distribution is theatrical distribution.

In the old days, when it was the only way of distributing a film, and the most important one, a producer would typically hire a distributor to deal with the theatrical release of the film. The distributor’s services would include:

–    Booking theatres

–    Creating the marketing strategy and promotional materials

–    Sorting out advertising and promotional events

 –    Managing prints

–    Delivering prints and promotional materials

–    Picking up receipts from theatres

However, that kind of deal is pretty pricey, and most independent filmmakers can’t afford to pay something between $100,000 to $500,000 or even millions for extensive theatrical distribution, money that might not be made back. You have to keep in mind that you are out there against the big bad guys with their guns loaded with huge bucks.

Anyway, should you decide to hire a distributor, you need to remember:

– Get someone with a track record and contact the filmmakers they worked with. This honest feedback is beneficial,

–    find someone who will understand and like your film,

–    check with the distributor what kind of promotional and marketing plans they have for your movie (s).

–    what can they bring to the table?

– Do you click together? Can you work together? This is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. You may be able to tell right away if you click with someone but that does not always mean it’s the best opportunity for you. On the other hand, you can hire the best distributor in the world, but if the two of you don’t understand each other, it may not work at all for you or your film.

–    is the distributor open to your ideas and suggestions or are they some alpha and omega who listens only to their guts and experience?

But as we pointed out before, you most probably drained your budget for the production and don’t have that kind of money the serious distribution agreement needs. This is where you choose the option called:


Apparently, in the case of theatrical distribution, it will involve doing everything the traditional distributor does but on your own or with your production team. You will have to:

–    book theatres

–    create a marketing strategy and promotional materials

–    sort out advertising and promotional events

–    manage prints

–    deliver prints and promotional materials

–    pick up receipts from theatres

1. Booking a theatre is not like calling your friend to go out. It takes time. I mean you have to plan it, sometimes even up to six months in advance. For instance, if you get accepted by a festival and want to release your film right after the festival screening, you will have to book theatres at least three months ahead. (In most cases it’s tough because you don’t know about the festival status until two months before the festival begins.)

2. As I said before, don’t expect to make money on your theatrical release. In this case, the thing you should care the most about is media exposure. There are many forms of media these days, many sites, portals and papers writing about the film business but it all starts and ends in the cinema. The theatrically distributed films have the best and the most comprehensive coverage of all.

3. Decide what you want from your theatrical distribution and give yourself time if you are after a wide range of towns and smaller markets rather than the major cities in your country.

4. Give yourself a two-month window between the theatrical release and the DVD release. Supposedly you don’t have a big team behind you so, first of all, it will give you enough time to concentrate on different cities that you are going to play your movie in. This time frame will also allow you to take advantage of the media buzz you created for the theatrical release. However, if you take too much time, building further anticipation for the DVD release will be almost impossible.

5. If you decide to hire a publicist, do it early. There are some industry insiders who advise hiring a publicist up to 8 months before the release of the film (especially if you have a strong hook or a start attached to a project). On the other hand, some projects get help from publicists only before and during film festivals and then during the theatrical and DVD releases. After all, it all depends on how much money you have. Publicists are expensive, so you need to know what you can afford.

6. Promotional materials (photos, stills, posters, synopsis, trailers, cast and crew lists, awards, director’s statement etc.) have to be downloadable for anyone interested in writing about your film.

There are some necessary things you should do before you embark on the long adventure of DIY Theatrical Distribution:

1. Do your homework very thoroughly and research all theatres that could play your movie. Look for the ones that have programmed similar film to yours in the past. Naturally, it would be easier to book small independent or art-house theatres than large chains.

2. Call the theatre bookers to talk about your film.

3. If you have more money to spend and you are not very good on the telephone (you have to be an excellent salesman to do it), you can hire a booker. This is a hybrid approach to DIY and hiring a distributor. Top bookers can help your film to be programmed in by the top independent cinemas, but there is no guarantee, then again there is no such guarantee when you sign a contract with the distributor either. It is essential that your film is screened in excellent and well-known cinemas for both, raising awareness of your movie and gathering media exposure.

4. The following terms are the most common ways when working with theatres: –PERCENTAGE (the most common) you can expect to get something around 35% of the door revenue. Hardly ever will you get 50% or more. FOUR WALL refers to hiring the cinema for a day, night or weekMINIMUM GUARANTEE AGAINST THE PERCENTAGE you agree to pay the theatre a minimum if the percentage doesn’t equal a certain amount.

5. Of course, you will be required to provide promotional materials such as postcards, posters, trailers etc. In some places/cities, a theatre will need you to purchase print ads, which is very expensive. Some theatres have lists of publicists they like working with and will ask you to hire one of them.

6. Usually, your film will run in the theatre for a week or so. Sometimes some theatres can offer you only one or two slots. You have to keep in mind all the time that your theatrical release is very unlikely to make any money. So don’t despair if you only have one night of the screening. If your film is perfect for the cinema or another venue it’s screened in, you may end up having a full audience.

7. Once you have a theatre booked, you have to deliver the materials you promised to provide such as promotional & marketing materials, press kit, trailers (in the format screened by the theatre), artwork, print of the film (once again in the format the theatres can screen), a promotional campaign for the city etc.

8. Home markets are incredibly crucial for opening dates. So don’t ever dismiss the home market landscape.

9. Early on you will have to decide if you want to start with small markets in several smaller cities or big markets in a few more significant cities. Each market has its advantages and disadvantage. So you will have to decide what you are after with your theatrical release.

I hope this short article will show you the beginning of the winding path into the thick of DIY theatrical distribution.


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