Part 1: A First-Time Filmmaker And Documentary Distribution

Part 1: A First-Time Filmmaker And Documentary Distribution

Finally, we were finished. We dove in head first, right out of school, with no idea what to expect from attempting to make a feature documentary (that was initially meant to be a short). After years spent with our passion project left simmering on the back-burner as we tried to balance consistent work in the

Finally, we were finished. We dove in head first, right out of school, with no idea what to expect from attempting to make a feature documentary (that was initially meant to be a short). After years spent with our passion project left simmering on the back-burner as we tried to balance consistent work in the film industry, Matt and I put our final touches on ‘Mamakrom.’ Hitting the ‘export’ command never felt so satisfying. We let out deep sighs and sat back, once again discussing our goals and dreams for the completed film (now we just needed to wait for the Academy to call). About three minutes later we began to realize just how far from finished we still were.

A decision was made very early on that 100% of proceeds from the film would be reinvested into education in Ghana through the ESI Foundation. But how can we directly impact the lives of the children of Ghana if the film doesn’t generate revenue? How could the film generate revenue without people paying to rent or buy it? How could people rent or buy the it unless the film was on a popular platform or in stores? How could the film get on a popular platform or in a store without a distributor? What does a distributor even do, really, and how could we as first-time filmmakers hope to garner the attention of one? Even if we did get the attention of one of these magical distributors that occupy the upper echelon of Hollywood, how could we prove to them that our two-man, no budget ‘Mamakrom’ is a story worth watching, and worth their time and efforts?

What followed was (and is) yet another massive learning experience, as most everything in life seems to be. This one just happened to shatter expectations and leave me doubtful, hopeful, joyful, crushed, excited, terrified, and everything in between at various stages of the journey.

Expectation: we are the exception that becomes the smash hit. A powerful story is enough to produce momentum, draw crowds, and become a self-sustaining force.

It always starts with confidence: we were going to make it into Sundance. After attending the festival and seeing several of the globe-trotting docs that were being produced by industry names with veteran crews and budgets 20 times the size of ours, I quickly realized that Sundance might be a long-shot for us. And the doubts creep in: would any film festival want us if Sundance doesn’t? Would a distributor even look at us if we didn’t have a major laurel beautifully edited onto our poster? A plan was hatched that was equal parts flawed and effective: we submit to roughly 50 festivals and see if we can cover our minimalist poster in laurels. Start with small festivals, then see if our laurel-laden poster would attract the attention of some larger festivals.

The flawed: we learned a little too late that festivals LOVE to have a premiere status for your film. ‘World Premiere’ or ‘_____ (Insert country name here) Premiere’ being the two most coveted. We should have aimed high first. Would we have been rejected right off the bat? Possibly, but we’re always bound to end up with a fair amount of rejection, anyway. In the end, our lack of premiere availability severely limited our chances with the many of the bigger fests.

The effective: aiming small allowed us to find several young festivals that Mamakrom was a perfect fit for. As we dug deeper, we found fests that were built around themes such as education, empowerment of the next generation, economics, current issues in the developing world, Christian faith/missions, and African culture, among others – the themes we spent so much time discussing and anchoring our story around.

The bad: no Sundance premiere, and no offers from distributors flooding in.

The good: as Mamakrom screened at many of these smaller festivals, we made ties and had some of the most meaningful discussions with festival hosts and guests who were either eager to learn or deeply passionate about the film’s subject matter. For the first time, we felt that we were on the right track. The West African Film Festival hosted a Zoom call after a screening of Mamakrom with nearly 100 guests from all over the states and parts of Africa. Despite the time differences, these people came together to discuss the issues brought to light in ‘Mamakrom’ regarding the education of the next generation in the developing world. The conversation was so very inspiring and insightful. The specific vision drew passionate crowds of like-minded individuals, many of whom were working towards similar goals. And this was the case at several of the festivals that accepted Mamakrom.

The ‘Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival’ (the most prestigious festival we were a part of) hosted several socials where filmmakers were welcome to hear from and speak with production companies and distributors. This should go without saying, but just in case: always attend these! My eyes were opened to a whole new way of creating documentaries, one where ideas and stories are pitched to distributors and production companies beforehand. If they like the story and believe in its potential, they help bring it to life by connecting you to large amounts of funding and support. And when it’s complete, you already have a partner to help distribute the film. Oh, the things I wish I knew…

A ‘Best Documentary’ award here, a ‘Best of the Fest’ nomination there, and I was starting to feel pretty confident again. But – we still had no contact with distributors.

I hate to be a bother. It’s both a blessing and a curse. But I especially hate to bother friends and talk shop with them. I’ve always felt that in doing so, I abuse their friendship and ‘use’ them for their connections and knowledge.

Mistake: diving into the festival/distribution world without seeking out the counsel of more seasoned veterans.

Solution: seek out the council of more seasoned veterans (yes, some solutions are a lot more obvious than they initially appear).

So, I put aside my pride and uncomfortably began reaching out to several friends in the industry. After just learning how to float in the pool of festivals, I was swiftly tossed into the ocean of distribution.

To be continued…

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