The Current State of 
Independent Film Distribution

Every year, headlines hit about record deals made at the Sundance Film Festival. Despite these mammoth sales, our industry, like many others, has hit an inflection point due to colossal shifts within the marketplace. SVOD proliferation has drastically changed viewership trends and expectations and the theatrical market has remained stagnant for years. Even though there’s currently a dearth of information surrounding non-theatrical performance, we can deduce independent films aren’t making money and are having trouble reaching their core audience in the current market place.

For the majority of filmmakers who receive modest distribution offers, the future is even more bleak. Most all-rights distribution deals operate on an advance or MG, minimum guarantee, model, where a distributor offers an advance in exchange for all exclusive rights in specific territory. From there, the distributor decides whether or not to release theatrically, what platforms to release on digitally and how to market the film. Rarely is the filmmaker involved in the process. Once all of the revenue rolls in (after the theaters and digital outlets take their cuts), the distributor takes a 30% fee, and then recoups the advance amount and the amount they spent marketing the film, and finally an additional 20% of the remaining net, leaving the filmmaker with little to nothing at all. It’s not uncommon for the filmmakers’ only income from the film to be the original advance, which, even at major markets like Sundance’s, are a fraction of the film’s production budget. Faced with these offers, filmmakers are often left with the feeling of settling when it comes to deciding on the best distribution path for their film.

For 30 years running, it’s been the mission of Sundance Institute to connect audiences with bold, diverse, unique independent art. In this changing landscape, it’s crucial we begin to find new, sustainable ways for artists to reach audiences with their work. Que the impetus for the Creative Distribution Initiative, where we’re all about experimenting to find solutions. Besides providing distribution guidance for Sundance alumni, we’ve created the Creative Distribution Fellowship, which provides a suite of major resources to entrepreneurial, pioneering filmmakers willing to take a leap with us and creatively distribute their work. We’re collaborating with filmmakers to find ways to utilize the wealth of available audience connecting tools, that allow them to maintain control of their work and garner a meaningful return. Following Sundance Film Festival 2017, we launched our inaugural Fellowship, which supported the filmmakers of Sundance titles Columbus and Unrest. These indefatigable filmmakers worked for over a year to creatively distribute their films, and we documented the entire process from start to finish to share with the independent filmmaking community.

We're not trying to "one-up" an all-rights deal. We want to be sure storytellers are given as much accurate, concrete information as possible so they can make informed decisions about how best to release their work out into the world. Our Fellowship isn’t just about providing support, but about finding innovative distribution strategies through collaborative trial and error. Our goal is transparency - transparency about the process, transparency about what worked and what didn’t work, and transparency about all failures and all successes - and through that transparency we hope to illuminate innovative strategies that reshape the distribution landscape.

Here’s the story of the first filmmakers who decided to take a leap with us.