The ICO is frequently approached by filmmakers hoping to get their film distributed and screened in UK cinemas.
A huge number of films are released theatrically each year in the UK. Until the onset of COVID-19, this figure was rising all the time – from an average of 11 films per week in 2010 to 17 per week in 2019 – and even now there is intense competition for screen space.
In addition, there is no single path to the cinema screen and with over 300 theatrical distributors in the UK alone, and self-distribution remaining popular, it can be daunting for filmmakers to choose the right method for their film. Here’s our guide to the main routes you can take.
The traditional route
The traditional route for a film seeking distribution is to enter a major international film festival such as Cannes, Berlin, London, Sundance or Toronto. A film selected for these festivals will be seen by global distributors, who – if you’re lucky – will bid against each other for the right to distribute it in their territories.
International sales agents are equally important. These companies assess new films and buy worldwide rights which they sell to distributors across the globe. They often have excellent relationships with festivals and distributors in all markets, and are invaluable for getting good deals for territories most filmmakers may not even have thought of. A distributor is much more likely to take a film seriously as a commercial proposition if it’s presented to them by a recognised sales agent.
So the traditional steps are to show your film to as many relevant sales agents as possible in hopes they will take it on, enter it into key festivals, market it to distributors (an expensive business) and sell it for you worldwide. Once your film has been seen and hopefully bought by a distributor it will likely find its way to cinemas in that territory and from there to TV and home entertainment (streaming and Blu-ray/DVD) markets too.
Film Freeway is a useful resource for isolating festivals to target and for submitting your film.
The direct approach
However, if your film is not strictly a commercial genre film or hasn’t generated interest from sales agents, what can you do? You can still approach festivals directly; you can also approach individual distributors (in your country and beyond) with a track record of distributing films of a similar nature/genre to yours and see if they will do the same for you.
Your first step is to identify suitable distributors, e.g. companies distributing films similar to yours. You can do that easily through interrogating the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) website, the Film Distributors’ Association’s UK Film Release Schedule or via magazines such as Sight & Sound, which lists the UK distributor of every film they review.
Ask yourself: are you aiming for a commercial mainstream audience, or a specialist cinephile one? Is your film a genre film or a documentary? Having thought about your audience, find out which companies have recently distributed films aimed at a similar audience to the one you hope to reach. Send them an email containing a brief synopsis of your film, explaining why you think it’s a good fit for them, and ask if they will consider watching it.
The more time you spend identifying the right distributor and framing your pitch specifically for them and around the type of films they have a profile in distributing, the better the results are likely to be. Distributors receive mass requests to view titles every day, so putting together a bespoke, carefully considered pitch will help your film stand out.
Alternatively, you could opt to self-distribute your film. This involves pitching to cinemas directly and cutting out the middle man. You will produce your own film materials (DCPs), marketing materials (posters, trailers, stills, social media assets etc.) and book and pay for your own advertising.
You should hire a specialist PR company to ensure the national film press (print and online) see your film in advance and review it on the day of release. Reviews are free advertising and a good one is a huge aid to getting your film into cinemas.
You must certify your film with the BBFC, hold exhibitor screenings for cinemas usually three months or more in advance (and/or provide cinemas with an online preview screening link), and sell the film to cinemas. This can be a tough job, as you’ll need to persuade them to choose your film over the other 10-20 releases that open every week in the UK.
So, you must communicate firstly why your film is great, and secondly how you will generate the visibility it needs to get an audience. Cinema programmers are busy people, so make it as easy as possible for them to see how your film can work in their venue.
Visibility comes from advertising, festival exposure, reviews and word of mouth and is one of the hardest things to secure and to convince cinemas you will have. An international studio will typically spend seven figures publicising big blockbuster releases, an art house independent, five figures; so think about how you can achieve visibility through other means.
What makes your film unique and will drive an audience to see it? On a limited budget, imagination is key – editorial is free, so work the press and find ways to create stories around your film. Think about creative ways to use social media and possible links that could get your film public attention, for example: is your film related to an upcoming event, like International Women’s Day or Black History Month? Is it related to a current news issue, a historical figure, or a cultural trend that may garner contemporary press coverage? Does it have relevance to a particular region through its setting, talent or narrative? Can you identify particular audiences or communities who may wish to see it?
Once a cinema has booked your film, it’s your responsibility to deliver a copy in good time on a professional format, typically DCP. You must also supply a trailer, posters and stills for the cinema’s marketing and collect film and box office data (number of admissions and income earned at the box office per screening) from them after their screenings. Finally, you must invoice the cinema and chase payment.
- ICO List of distributors
- ICO Cinemas in the UK and Ireland map
- BFI – Industry data and insights
- Film Distributors’ Association (FDA) – UK Film Release Schedule
- British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)
- ICO blog post: ‘Self-distribution in action: Beyond Clueless’