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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


#TBT - Grassroots Distribution: The Challenge of Indie Film Distribution

Miranda Sherman

Over the next two months, we'll be re-releasing Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald's white paper on Grassroots Distribution in targeted installments. This #tbt, we revisit some fundamental thoughts and challenges posed by independent film distribution and explored by Josh & Michael. 

Some thoughts to start with:

  • "If film lives online and online content is shared, then these days anyone who sends such content via email, a social network, or a blog is, in a way, a film distributor. But how do you mediate that process to build enthusiasm about a film in a smart, strategic, grassroots way?"
  • "...distribution is not the finish line of an independent film's process, but rather just the third act... or even the beginning of a film's life."
  • "And, in order for that film to stay alive, it needs to be supported by constant work, strategy, effort, enthusiasm on the part of the filmmaker and the filmmaker's team."

CRI Mentor James Belfer noted, in a conversation with the CRI, the paramount importance of finding and cultivating an audience in the current independent film distribution climate, which requires that filmmakers know their audiences not only to get a film seen to but to get subsequent films financed. It's not unlike a market-research requirement that a venture capitalist fund might deliver to an entrepreneur, a comparison James drew on his blog last year:

A true EP should be viewed just as the startup world views VCs. We need to be an integral part of the indie film venture. We need to be the ones looking out for the financial success of the film. We need to be the ones capable of assessing the overall value of the film and strategizing its monetization.

Knowing your audience helps you to determine your best strategy and the best use of your (presumably) limited resources.

Similarly, MBA/MFA and 2012 CRI alumnus Ryan Heller and BAD TURN WORSE director Zeke Hawkins detailed, in a Grad Film Chair's Workshop co-hosted by the CRI, the necessity of a film's advocacy network and support system. Ryan noted how important it is for filmmakers to think of their relationships with distributors as partnerships, wherein filmmakers leverage the access and capabilities of the distributor while constantly advocating for the project, and actively working towards its positioning in the marketplace. Zeke shared his epiphany that a film's marketing comes in non-traditional forms, such as in the enthusiastic support of casting directors who present a film to the talent industry in a way that can elevate its credibility and contribute to its top-of-mind positioning. Informed and passionate casting directors, talent, local crew, invested vendors, etc. can all help independent filmmakers in their distribution efforts. 

Finding, engaging, and maintaining an audience is a central problem of independent film distribution and hard work, but Josh and Michael see an opportunity in the vastness of the independent film audience "market:"

Film... is inherently a thing that many people can endow with many different meanings, that a huge cross-section of people can appreciate from a multitude of angles and for a plethora of various reasons.

Just like then-candidate Barack Obama, they note, audiences connect with films in myriad, sometimes even conflicting ways. Find out what your film means to people, and bring it to the people who care. How? Check in next week for more insights and tips on Grassroots Distribution, or read ahead in the



Talk back! Tell us what you wish you knew in your first meeting with a distributor.