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by Jennn Fusion
Film Distribution Expert
(Originally published at Fan Quarterly)
Jerome Courshon is a Film Producer and Distribution Expert who knows the "game" of distribution from his 15+ years in the trenches as a Producer. Courshon has faced innumerable obstacles -- from his film festival journeys to self-releasing his first movie into theaters, to securing distribution with Warner Bros.
Now he is sharing his real world approach of "what works and what doesn't" with fellow producers to help them attain success. For over the past 6 years, Courshon has offered distribution assistance by way of his classes, speaking engagements and consultations. In this exclusive Fan Quarterly interview, you'll get a behind-the-scenes look at how films move from the editing suite to the market for your consumption.
Fan Quarterly: What are the three biggest mistakes indie film Producers & Directors make in their distribution efforts?
1) Overconfidence. They think they'll "win the lottery" and get into Sundance -- and then win it again with a big deal at Sundance -- so they don't bother to learn about distribution and what it takes for most films to get into the marketplace successfully.
Don't get me wrong: Confidence is one of the most important assets for a Producer or Director to have. We just tend to take it too far, until we get that dose of reality that making a good movie and getting it to market is not a piece of cake.
2) Stubbornness. Very little time passes between each time I hear a Producer tell me that their Director doesn't know much about distribution, but is insisting on doing it his/her way... and then I later hear about the horrible mistakes made. Or a Director telling me the Producer has the final say and is insisting on doing it his/her way... and then I later hear about the horrible mistakes.
Here's the truth: Stubbornness and unwillingness to look/learn about the 'game' of distribution is a top killer of completed movies and documentaries. Frequently goes hand in hand with Overconfidence.
3) Believing the Bullsh*t. Here's the truth about distribution: Most everyone who speaks about it, is either: a) parroting something they heard or read -- which frequently is not true although they they speak it as though it's the truth; b) doesn't really know what they're talking about; or c) has an agenda to get you to believe something.
Want some examples? "Indie film is dead." "The sky is falling for indie film." "DVD is dead." The first two of these were spoken in 2008 by a well-known person in the industry (Mark Gill) during the recession. Did indie film die? Of course not. But these words spoken by this man ricocheted everywhere, and did a great disservice to people.
The third phrase ("DVD is dead") has been spoken/written about all over the place; after all, it's a great story for the media, as the media loves to speak and write about doom & gloom. Is DVD/Blu-ray dead? Of course not. It's still the single largest revenue generating segment of the film industry.
FQ: Why do you think film schools skip courses in distribution, even though this is such a vital aspect to industry success?
Jerome: Film schools are about enrollment. Yes, I know they exist to educate and help people become filmmakers, but their number one goal is enrollment. It has to be. Without it, they die. So how do you get and entice people to come to your film school and spend $50,000 a year? You appeal to the creative side of those creatives. "Become a filmmaker!" "We teach you how to shoot and make your movie!" "Learn filmmaking skills and become the next Quentin Tarantino!"
NYU Tisch School of the Arts
After all, how many people would sign up for a class about the business of film? Not many. Not willingly. The majority of Producers & Directors who learn about distribution do so as a necessity for survival and longevity in this business, not because they really love that part of making movies.
One other reason film schools skip distribution courses is that most instructors know nothing about distribution.
FQ: You say that the "industry stacks the deck against filmmakers from the beginning with a fear-based mentality where rookies are expected to pay their dues and industry veterans keep their secrets to themselves." Can you expand on that?
Jerome: It's not that the industry intentionally stacks the deck against filmmakers starting out. It's just this is a very dog-eat-dog business, and many people making a living in it are worried about the day that someone smarter, younger, more talented, etc. comes along and gets their job. After all, the ranks of the executives (managers, directors, vice presidents) at the studios and networks are primarily in their 30s and 40s.
But that "culture of fear" if you will, is not limited to the "suits." It's experienced by the creatives as well, who live or die by their latest project, their latest produced script, their latest movie opening. ("Oh please God, let the box office numbers on opening weekend be good!")
So given people in Hollywood by and large don't feel age is on their side, one can understand why many don't want to give a real helping hand to the young up & comers.
FQ: Given the popularity of media streaming on mobile platforms and computers, there are many more resources for filmmakers to use today than there were 5 or 10 years ago. What advice do you have for filmmakers to better promote their works in this arena?
Jerome: Here's a few tips:
1) Learn social media skills, if you haven't already.
Now, this doesn't mean you have to spend a year learning everything there is to know -- things change constantly anyway. But stay up on the latest trends, and pay attention to what others are doing that you like. See what they do, how they do it, and implement accordingly.
2) Be consistent.
This means that when using the internet to promote whatever you're promoting or selling, spend a bit of time daily, even if it's just 15 minutes a day. This can be challenging for creatives, because when we're involved with a project, that's where all our time goes. So when you're in the middle of a project, do what you can to maintain a presence online.
3) Collect email addresses.
When people visit your website, your Facebook page, etc., implement ways to capture names and email addresses of those who like your work and want to follow you. This is a real asset that you can utilize to reach your audience directly. For example, with Facebook, when you post (whether on a personal page or a business page), only a fraction of people typically see any post. But if you have people's email addresses, you'll be able to reach them directly, and consistently.
FQ: You have a 3-Day Program and a live 2-Day Master Class, where you share your knowledge with producers, directors and independent filmmakers. Can you tell us about a few success stories from your graduates?
Jerome: There's so many success stories, and I hear new ones every single month from those who've taken my class or gotten my Program. But here's one I think is also quite telling about the typical filmmaker's frame of mind:
A Producer/Director attended my class, loved it, but then decided to ignore my methodologies & strategies, because he was, well... stubborn. So a year later, he calls me up, frustrated. We talk, I ask him what he's done, and then I tell him the exact steps he needs to take at this point. The call ends with me saying something like "Please just follow what I'm suggesting you do this time."
So you know what? He does -- finally -- follow my advice and gets distribution with Lionsgate, of all companies. Not only that, he ends up selling another film, one that was three years old that he called "unsaleable." If more Producers & Directors actually followed my advice as this one finally did? Many, many more independent films would have success in the marketplace -- guaranteed.
FQ: You say that selling a movie to a distributor is a "psychological game" where one must sell the product's value. Sure, we all know distributors are looking for "a marketable product" or a "hot topic" they can pitch to the masses... but is there more to it than that?
Jerome: Yes. Way more. But I'll try to be concise for the scope of this interview here. Nothing -- Nothing -- has any intrinsic value. The value of anything, even gold, is so because we all agree on it. Any products, widgets, etc. brought to market, just look at their advertising. What are they doing? How are they selling them? They're selling their virtues, their usefulness, how they'll make your life better, how they'll make you sexier, how they'll get you laid, how they'll make you healthy. They are selling you on the value the product will have to you.
If you buy that product, you are agreeing & confirming the value they have placed on it. (Of course, if you don't believe the advertising and don't buy that product, then the maker failed at convincing you of its value. But if enough people do buy, then the value of that product is confirmed anyway.)
Movies and documentaries are no different. What we creatives generally miss, is that no matter how passionate we are about what we make, no matter how much blood & sweat & tears we may put into something, no matter how personal the subject matter is that we film... the value we place in our movie is not the same as the other 7 Billion people on this planet.
So as independent Producers & Directors, we must establish value for our films, and I outline very specific strategies in my Master Class (and 3-Day Program) to do this. Because once you do, you then increase the number of people buying your film if you're DIY'ing it, or you increase the number of distributors wanting your film, if you're looking for a distribution deal.
FQ: It's interesting that you mention filmmakers have less than a 1% chance of getting a major theatrical deal, if they have not first premiered at the Sundance, Toronto or Cannes film festivals. Say I'm looking to submit to Toronto, what methods should I be focusing on to help my submission's chances?
Jerome: Given the top three festivals are so competitive to get in -- since they're the crème de la crème -- if you personally know the festival director or someone on the staff, you should make a personal appeal. Or if you can find someone who knows the festival director or staff, and have them make a personal appeal on your behalf.
Does this always work? No. Is this the only way to get in? No. Can unknown, unconnected filmmakers still get in? Of course. But a connection to someone at these top festivals can certainly help one's film get a more serious look during the screening process.
FQ: Most filmmakers focus on 15 or 20 home video companies to get their DVD deals, but you say there are at least 100. How do people find these other companies and how should they decide where to submit?
Jerome: The best place to find all the companies is through my curated Home Video Distribution contact list (contained in my 3-Day Program or handed out in my Master Class). There really is no other complete source for this.
Which companies to submit to will depend upon your film or documentary. Each company on my list delineates what type of films and/or docs they handle.
FQ: What protections do filmmakers need to consider when negotiating a contract with distributors?
Jerome: Many. There are many points and clauses filmmakers need to get into their contracts with distributors. The mistake most first and occasionally second-time filmmakers make, is they accept whatever contract is offered, too afraid to ask for things or too timid to negotiate the longform agreement. They're often just happy someone wants their film, and then basically sign away their film without even a proper review by an entertainment attorney. DON'T DO THIS. Read the agreement yourself, and hire an entertainment attorney who knows film distribution. This is your best protection.
Here's the thing. Distributors are like any other business in this world. They're going to try to get everything they can in exchange for as little as possible. Love it or hate it, that's the business world in many ways. It's absolutely incumbent upon us filmmakers to either learn how to negotiate deals, or hire someone to do it for us. If you get screwed because you didn't negotiate a contract that was at least fair, then the chances of you ever making a second or third movie go down exponentially. So... don't accept a boilerplate contract just because that's what was given to you, unless it's a good or fair deal. Negotiate it.
This is important as well: When about to make a deal with any distributor, do your due diligence on them. I go into this fully in my classes, but you must check them out, make sure they're not one of the corrupt ones.
FQ: How can people learn more of the distribution specifics from you?
Jerome: From my Master Class ("THE SECRETS TO DISTRIBUTION: Get Your Movie Distributed Now!"), and from my powerful 3-Day Program, where Producers & Directors anywhere in the country -- or world -- can now take my class at home.
About the 3-Day Program
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