Reality Check: Are Producers their own best distributors?

Bo Landin
April 1, 2005

Bo Landin

MD and exec producer, Muddy Boots Productions/Scandinature, Sweden

The small documentary filmmaker should not run distribution on their own. You need a catalog of at least 100 hours or a couple of good series. And there needs to be new programming; as soon as you’ve sold films into the major territories, they’re gone for two to five years. You also need a diversity of programming. If you have one genre and the world marketplace trends change, you’re in danger. And some satellite and auxiliary markets don’t want one or two titles, they want 50. That’s the strength of the distributor – they’re able to put those deals together.

The bottom line is: distribution is the most complicated side of the business to understand, run, and make work. When Granada bought ITEL in 2000, our catalog suddenly became 40 films among thousands with a distributor that was not specialized in our field of interest. We felt we got lost.

Over the years we had gotten to know the major buyers, so we concluded that if we ran a small distribution organization on our own, while we wouldn’t reach every market and buyer the bigger distributors could, maybe we’d reach the ones with the bigger bucks. At the end of the day, it would be more profitable.

My daughter, who grew up with our films, set up an office and focused on the major markets. In one and a half years, she made more money than itel had in the previous years, which were golden years for natural history and the kinds of docs we do. She did pure acquisition sales of us$300,000 in a year, which is good for our catalog. But it was too difficult to do as a single person. We decided we needed at least five people to do a decent job, but we ran out of capital to feed that organization and take it to the next step.

Paul Heaney

Managing director, Cineflix International, U.K.

I would think carefully about how international your existing catalog really is. You have to have shows that will work in other markets, because if you don’t crack the European markets you’re going to have a narrow profit margin. My advice is, if you think your shows are international, hire a sales specialist and go for it. If they’re not, give your catalog to a distributor who can make sense of it.

Before we launched Cineflix International in 2002, Cineflix used outside distributors, but they weren’t seeing huge numbers from their relationships. They saw that there was a lot to be said for selling your own way and controlling things all the way through. Also, there was a bit of a departure in the types of shows that were coming down the line, like Mayday or Aircraft Investigations. There was a lot of lifestyle, and then science and history started to come through. That vindicated the decision to have their own distribution arm.

We always planned to have it on a very small scale in the beginning to see how things went, and we cash flowed it from production. We only had three series: Dogs with Jobs, Birth Stories and eLove. We put so much effort into those three series that it’s no surprise we sold them into countries that hadn’t really bought Cineflix programs before. And we started pre-selling shows, which helped. In year one our costs were about £300,000 (US$575,000), but we were covering our costs from about six months in. In the last six months, I’ve started to pick up third-party content, and our catalog is now about 150 hours.

We were lucky because we had good shows, but there’s a lot to be said for using a sales specialist. The 80/20 rule that everyone talks about still applies, but the goal posts move. Some territories go quiet, and other territories wake up. Having a specialist doing that intelligence helps. Doing your own thing, for me, means still hiring a specialist distributor [in house] to do the job.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.