Selling short films: sales and distribution for beginners
You may think it’s not possible to make money out of your short film, but it can be done. If you’ve made a great film, and plan the right sales and distribution strategy, you have a shot at making some (if not all) of your money back.
A sales agent is your best friend
Securing a contract with an established sales agency is crucial to making money from your short film. An experienced sales agent will have a wide network of existing relationships with buyers, and know which ones to promote your film to, and how best to market it.
What does a sales agent do?
Sales agents license the rights to short films, and then market those rights to buyers at TV channels, VOD (video-on-demand) platforms, in-flight entertainment programmers, and so on. The rights they acquire from filmmakers are typically worldwide, but sometimes exclude the filmmaker’s home country if you would rather sell the film there yourself. They then divide up those rights and sell them off. For example, they could sell:
- the pay-TV rights in Mexico to a company there
- the VOD rights for North America to another company
- the in-flight entertainment screening rights across several continents to another company.
Sales agents usually pay you 50-75% of the fees they make from selling your film, after deducting their expenses. Expenses are things like producing promotional materials, replicating screening materials and travelling to markets.
Sometimes they might pay you an advance – and this is the dream of many short film makers. I’ve heard of advances being anywhere between EU$1,000 and EU$4,000. Most likely you would need to win an important award at a significant film festival for a sales agent to want your film badly enough to pay you an advance. It does happen, though, especially if you’re able to generate enough interest from competing sales agencies to generate a bidding war – the ultimate dream.
TIP: If you manage to get yourself into a bidding war, look for a sales agent who really ‘gets’ your film, or at least is highly enthusiastic about it: the more they love your film, the better job they will do selling it to others.
So what is a distributor?
A short film distributor is similar to a sales agent, and sometimes they both do the same thing. Confusingly, the names are often used interchangeably in the industry.
The key job of a distributor (eg. Network Ireland Television) is to get your film seen, so in addition to selling your film they might help get your film into festivals. A sales agency that focuses exclusively on making sales (eg. Kurz Film Agentur) will not help with entering film festivals – they leave that to you.
Distribution activity outside of sales deals (such as getting into festivals) doesn’t generate money for the distributor, although it may help increase the perceived value of the film so it can make more later.
Sometimes distributors charge you money instead of them paying you. If they do that, you should expect them to come up with a distribution strategy for your film that includes getting it into film festivals (which ones and why) and enter the film for you. Paying a distributor can be risky because there are some crooks out there who will take your money and run. If you are going down this route, your best bet is to work with an established organisation.
TIP: If you are not sure about a sales agent or distributor, ask other short film industry folk who have worked with that distributor for their thoughts. Most people will be happy to share their knowledge.
How do I find a sales agent or distributor?
When to secure a sales agent or distributor can be a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, because getting into a significant festival (and winning awards) can get you the attention of these people, but a distributor can also help you get into festivals.
When you plan your festival strategy, we recommend you place increased importance on festivals with a market attached – such as Clermont-Ferrand, Toronto, Palm Springs and Edinburgh – at the beginning of your festival run. Festivals with markets will usually provide accredited delegates with some kind of industry pack (so make sure you buy this if you don’t get it free), which lists the distributors who are attending. They are likely to be on the lookout for new films, as are buyers and festival programmers. Do your research and contact only the sales agents and distributors that look like they might be a fit for your film and your goals.
If you don’t get accepted to a film festival with a market, you can still make contact with sales agents and distributors. You’ll just need to do a bit more research online to find out who to contact.
TIP: Here’s a handy list of short film sales agents and distributors that we have prepared to get you started.
How do I pitch?
Before pitching to sales agents and distributors, you should already have promotional materials (an EPK) for the film ready to go. It will be crucial to include a short synopsis, a strong promotional image, and a link to a password-protected online screener. A link to an online trailer will also be useful, but only if it’s really strong and works to make people want to watch the film.
TIP: DVDs are dead. Don’t send them to sales agents and distributors. Provide a password-protected online screener by email or on a printed postcard promoting the film.
A short, simple email is the best way to pitch. Send them your EPK and the link to the password-protected online screener, plus mention any awards the film has won. If your film is screening at that festival, you can invite them to your screening. You should end by inviting them to meet with you during the festival. If your pitch is compelling enough, they will watch the film (either at the screening or online) – if they like it, they will contact you and agree to meet.
TIP: Do you have a quirky gimmick that helps generate interest? For example, Kiwi short film maker Ivan Barge took the stuffed cat from Madam Black to the 2016 Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival (where he won the People’s Choice Award). Many people wanted to take selfies with it, so it got lots of social media attention during the festival, generating buzz for the film.
Need advice on the contract?
For short films, deals are often discussed over a casual drink and signed on the spot. We recommend that if you manage to secure a contract from a sales agent or distributor, make sure you understand it fully before signing. Licensing deals can be complex and you should be clear on the geographic locations and length of the ‘term’ you are signing up for. If you do not have a legal background, you could consult the Directors and Editors Guild of NZ if you are a member. They offer advice through their own staff or through lawyers who are free or subsidised by membership.
TIP: Before signing any contracts, seek advice – from a lawyer or others in the filmmaking community.
Does Show Me Shorts do sales?
Yes. We act as a sales agent for New Zealand short films that have featured in our festival. So there’s another reason to enter our festival!
This is something we have been doing for a few years, so we’re still building up our network of national and international buyers. It’s not automatic for films that have been in our festival; we ask filmmakers if they would like to be part of our deals, and if they agree (and sign our licence agreement) we offer their films as part of the packages we sell to VOD platforms, TV channels and other buyers.