5 Top Doc Filmmaking Marketing and Distribution Recommendations

The whole process of making a film is complicated but nothing compares to the feeling of achievement of finishing a doc film. But then, just when you should have been celebrating this monumental achievement, a single terrible thought happened: now what?

I know the feeling. Other than maybe a premiere in your hometown, where would you go with the film? How would you get it out to the world to actually be seen by more than your family and friends and a few people who gave some money during your Kickstarter run?

Well, that is what we’re going to take a look at today. Because I don’t want you to ever have to experience this feeling. I want you to jumping up and down and all the way to Timbuktu celebrating the completion of your film, as well as, celebrating the next phase of getting your film out into the world.


1. Figure Out Your Objective for Distribution

What is your reasoning for seeking distribution in the first place? Other than just plain wanting your film to be seen as opposed to on a hard drive and collecting dust in the back of your closet.

Are you going to be distributing the film to make money?

Or are you hoping to at least recoup some if not all of costs?

I know that just breaking even is often a goal of many doc filmmakers. They, perhaps, a little realistically, are just hoping to get the film distributed so as to help recoup some of the costs that were incurred in filming. Interestingly, I know some filmmakers who actually apply for post production grants, less to pay for the actual post, but more to pay themselves back from all of the credit card debt they’d accrued during the course of production (not that we recommend that as a way to fund your film).

Anyhow, a distribution goal of making some monies is not something to feel weird about. Embrace it. Of course that is only one reason you might be seeking distribution.

Are you hoping to reach a certain community?

Are you hoping to promote some social action?

Are you hoping to create awareness of a social issue, or even get the film seen by individuals who can directly affect the change that you’re seeking?

Figuring this sort of thing out before promoting and seeking audiences is going to help you figure out the best strategy or path for doing so. It will give you something to work towards in the distribution process.


2. Figure Out Who Your Audience Is

This one is a biggie for me. And we talk about it all of the time here at TDL. In fact, we talked about this subject with doc filmmaking veteran, Lydia B. Smith, who by figuring out who her audience for her film Walking the Camino was, well before filming even began, was able to sow the seeds for what would become a full-scale grassroots crowdfunding campaign for her film… which then became a full-scale and tailor-made audience for her film. Which she then took great advantage of when she decided to tour across the USA – in a really sweet motorhome, by the way – and show her film to communities that had long been either made aware of or were already actively a part of the grassroots campaign for the film.

Stephanie and I, ourselves, were heavily influenced by what filmmakers like Smith have been doing this past decade, by taking the funding and promotions part of filmmaking into their own hands.

When we ran our Kickstarter campaign for our current documentary project Elvis of Cambodia we did it from Long Beach, California, which happens to be the biggest Cambodian-American population in the U.S. Cambodian refugees and their interest in the ‘Elvis of Cambodia’ played a huge part in the success of our crowdfunding campaign. And it was from there that we really spread the initial word of our film, and really got it into the collective consciousness of Cambodia refugees throughout not only communities in America, but Cambodian communities globally, as well.

Remember, by figuring out who your audience is early on, you can start to tailor the content of your social media, the story of your film, the fundraising strategies. You can begin to cater to the people who are going to be your audience!

You are actually building your audience – with things like social media and crowdfunding campaigns – well before your film is even shot, let alone distributed!


3. Develop Your Online Presence from the Start

Actually, you should be doing this before you even start filming. You should be crafting your online presence by building a website for your film, a Facebook page and/or other social media accounts.

Word of caution here: Don’t simply go and open up a bunch of social media accounts for your film – simply to have all of the social media ground covered – if you don’t plan on actually using the accounts. If you’re not using the accounts, that’s as good as telling the world, ‘Hello! I’m not actually serious about making this film!’

Now, that doesn’t mean that you should be tweeting or blogging about every meal that you have throughout the week or every thought that you had about Newcastle match last night. A little bit of that stuff is good, because it gives some personality to you, it makes you accessible as human – and people like that – but for the most part, you should be pretty strategic about the type of content that you’re posting online.

You want to seen, yes, that’s true – that is the point of developing an online presence, after all – but you also want to be seen as someone who is in the know about the subject of your film. So pretty regularly, you should be posting content that goes along with the subject of your film. For instance, if you are doing a documentary film on immigration in the UK, you should be posting news articles on immigration policies, sharing social media of gatherings for immigration community meet-ups, putting up polls on Twitter about the subject, sharing stories about how immigration shapes communities, etc.

Again, the idea here is to be seen as someone who not only knows a bit about the subject, but also is passionate about it as well. The more people take in this kind of content on your social media, the more they begin a trust relationship with you. The more they will naturally gravitate to your sites, which later on will hopefully translate into more people wanting to see your film when it comes out, or maybe even better, setting up screenings for your film in their communities, or maybe even better than that, taking some kind of action, if the goal of your film is to do just that.


4. Consider an Impact Producer

Now, this is kind of a newer one. The title has been a bit of a buzz word that’s been being used over the past few years. ‘Impact Producer’. The impact producer is solely entrenched in that world that we’re talking all about in this segment: the distribution world. Initially, their job title sounds similar to that of the publicist – who, yes, handles media relations, but strictly from the media’s perspective. That is not an impact producer. The impact producer does extensive outreach for your film, rather than getting a distributor and relying on them to do this. You would hire an impact producer, if you are planning on doing the distribution yourself, as opposed to selling it outright to a distributor. He/she will be doing everything in their power and knowledge to get your film to as many audience as possible, and maybe more appropriately to the kind of audience that is best suited for your film.

BritDoc – who actually coined the term Impact Producer – now runs annual Impact Producer Labs. And they’ve even developed something called the Impact Field Guide & Toolkit, which is basically a free online course about the the Impact Producer process.

Places to find an Impact Producer are POV, Fledgling Fund, and Tugg. And if you’re not familiar with either of those three organizations, regardless if you’re looking for an Impact Producer or not, you should definitely acquaint yourself with all three.


5. Realize Any Release Conflicts

We all want to be able to release to as many outlets as possible, and rightfully so. You’ve got a theatrical release to think about, video-on-demand (or VOD) outlets, the film festivals, educational distribution platforms, university screenings, non-official screening tours. There are so many options nowadays. But before you quickly just try and release to as many as possible, it’s well worth it to step back for a minute and put together an actual thought-out strategy.

The reason for this is so that you don’t end up with any conflicts in your scheduling. For one, certain festivals have very strict guidelines as to when and where you show your films. The biggies like Sundance or Toronto want to be the festival where your film premieres. Imagine if you were actually accepted into one of the big festivals and they find out that you’ve already played another competitor or that you’ve been selling the film on VOD already for months, and they pull the plug on your big festival showing. That’s not going to feel good. Not to mention, you’ve quite possibly put a distribution deal in jeopardy.

The educational market, which is often a big one for documentary filmmakers often take a while, like 6 – 9 months before gaining any kind of meaningful sales. Not only that, but educational sales can be pretty strict about your film being distributed in any other form. So you want to be aware of this, in case you’re looking to go on tour with your film, sell via VOD.

Release windows and film festivals all run in certain cycles. So get yourself familiar with the cycles of your festivals and your distribution platforms.

Really, if you want to approach your distribution plan in a hybrid way, just make sure you do your due diligence and find out what the various distributors timings are and what, if any, exclusivity there is.


Do you have a plan for the marketing and distribution of your film? What are you strongly considering as your options? Share with us your thoughts and intentions in the comments below.


Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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