How To Successfully Self-Distribute Indie Films

People want to see your movie, some just don’t know it yet.  To find a film’s audience, indie filmmakers must put their energy into self-distribution.

You have spent years making your film, you dream to distribute your beloved “baby” in the movie theatres, you want to raise awareness and eventually change the world, but the best that can happen is that you are selected by some festivals and then screen your film in your city’s theatres and nowhere else. This could have been Claudia Tois’s case, until she discovered Self-Distribution.

This is a guest article from Claudia Tosi, an Italian director, winner of three awards at DOK Leipzig festival, including the Golden Dove and the FIPRESCI Award,  and the creator of  The Perfect Circle, and I had a Dream. 

No Distributor – No Problem

Back in June of this year, my documentary “The Perfect Circle” premiered in small cinemas in Italy. The film’s reception at screenings in local cinemas was positive. People kept coming, again and again, bringing their mums, dads, being touched, turning Q&As into marathons of shared thoughts and feelings.

But distributors weren’t interested, saying, “The audience doesn’t want to see this stuff.”

I refused to give in. I felt there was an audience out there for my film. Maybe not the mass audience the distributors wanted, but a more specific one.

(Image: Claudia Tosi, The Perfect Circle on Facebook)

I know, most filmmakers see themselves as artists, and marketing is the last thing they want to do. I can understand how they feel, I’m a filmmaker, and dreamer. I didn’t know the first thing about self-distribution. But, I got curious, and I decided to attended Kobi Shely’s three-week seminar.  The seminar gave me enough useful information and tools, and I made up my mind. I’m not just going to self-distribute my film, I’ll do it in the smartest ways I can.

Indie Filmmakers Self-Distribution And Marketing Lessons

Marketing a film starts with understanding its strengths and weaknesses and emphasizing the former.

A bit of research suggested two things. Firstly, the existence of an extensive, well-organized network of hospices in Italy. Secondly, a relative lack of documentary filmography on the subject.

The film also had a good selling point: As a tool for raising awareness of the need to provide tools for coping with death.

Its biggest turn-off? Death. My protagonists are not heroes. It’s very hard to bring people to a movie theatre to watch a film about death. So the word “death” disappeared from my synopsis, log-lines, and one-liners.

Networking To Grow Your Audience

If it was difficult to get people to come to watch The Perfect Circle. I had to work at establishing relationships with those who did arrive and fell in love with it. They shared my urge to raise awareness around the issues.

The Perfect Circle by Claudia Tosi from Movimenta on Vimeo.

This meant making myself available for my audience, creating dialogue, answering emails. It requires time, but it pays back in terms of personal enrichment and ‘meaning’. I did further reading and attended some congresses on palliative care, while at the same time keeping my eyes open for theme-related events and campaigns.

Attending a further masterclass on film-centric marketing and self-distribution, I learned about a US “theatres on-demand” platform named TUGG.  The platform allows people to register, choose a film, city and movie theatre, and book a screening. A quick Google search uncovered an Italian version of TUGG – Movieday. Many famous people were supporting my Movieday campaign. I remember thinking, I could be part of something bigger than I thought, and I could participate in a big change.

Using Social Media To Identify Your Audience

Learning to use social media tools in a productive way was the key to reaching out to ‘my people’.

It also helped me to understand who is my core audience – and who wasn’t. By forking out a bit for Facebook ads, and varying my keywords and use of iconography, tone, and language, I soon found that cinephiles and art-house fans were not my audiences. Those who reacted to my ads were women over 35 years who were looking to share their own experiences.

I used to read the data section on the Facebook ad manager tool even more often. I collected a lot of info about the quality of my campaigns and how I could improve them.

Twitter helped me to connect with bloggers and journalists. helped me checking the popularity of her tweets, while Facebook was useful for events and ongoing chat with my fan base. I had a very low number of ‘likes’, btw, but often behind every ‘like’ there was an organization or an institution.

Indie filmmakers’ self-distribution efforts usually fail because they just don’t know how to use online tools to get to know who is their audience, and that’s critical.

Creating An Online Home For Your Fans

My next step was to create an online home for my film. The Perfect Circle blog is an educational hub about the end of life and palliative care, with posts about the film and my experiences while traveling with it.

The tone had to be confidential, intimate, inspirational, secular – very personal.

The Perfect Circle Facebook page served as the gateway to the blog, as well as a platform for audience interaction. Blog posts were shared on the Facebook page, and ads used to smartly spread the word. I used my pixel number for every AD and Boost, so I could create lookalike audiences to enlarge my audience.

The Importance Of Creating  Mailing Lists

Last but not least, I created mailing lists and started sending out newsletters on Mailchimp (up to 2000 addresses for free). But I only sent out a newsletter when I had something to say, and never more than once every two weeks.

Mailchimp, helped me understand who reads what and how many times. So you can consider to give a call to people with a stronger interest and involve them for a screening.

Thinking Big While Remaining Realistic

It took a while, but it finally became clear to me what should be the focus of my ambitions for The Perfect Circle. My main role was to create a buzz around it. My main goal was:

  • Getting the attention of doctors, nurses, volunteers, psychologists, and others in the field of “terminal illness”.

Self-distribution makes it possible for indie filmmakers to reach their goals since it’s really all about direct contact with their natural audience. How to do this? In the end, it was my personal network that came up with the answer. Approaching a friend of mine who happened to be an MP, I asked her if she thought a screening at Parliament might be possible.

“Of course, we have to!” She said at once. “They are discussing the end-of-life legislation. It would be perfect!”

And so she set a date, booked the hall, sent her first newsletter, spread the news, called for accreditations – and it worked. She had doctors, psychologists, nurses and oncologists attending my screenings.

And from there it has been snowballing. Following the screening, I managed to organize 15 more screenings through Movieday’s “theatre on-demand” system.

Twenty screenings were my final goal, but, considering the requests, I raised my goal up to 100 screenings and I will keep the film in the movie theatres until the half of next year, at least. Then it will be available for educational programs, university masters, and congresses.”

What’s The Payback?

In terms of money, the film is earning 30% of the cost of the ticket, plus, my expenses and a fee when I attend a screening. So far, the audience averages around 110 per screening.

My target audience is evolving. I have been invited by a thanatologist to organize events together, a graphic novel artist would like to do something together, and I have received some invitations to participate in congresses.

Above all, however, I learned all over again why I became a filmmaker in the first place: to change the world.  You see, to update a blog with passion, sharing “indie filmmakers self-distribution” case studies, to dialogue with people every day, to spend 8 hours a day for three/four months on distributing my work, you can do it only if you care deeply about your documentary,  an absolute necessity.

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