03 Working in distribution
The UK's film distribution sector ranges from the national offices of international Hollywood studios down to small, specialist independents, bringing films from blockbuster releases to world cinema debuts to UK audiences. Here are the main working areas available in distribution.
Sales – theatrical UK and international sales
This position offers the closest relationship between exhibition and distribution. If a Cinema Programmer is booking a film it’ll be the Sales person they need to speak to – firstly to ask if the film is available on the date they require it, and secondly what the terms of the contract will be for their cinema if it is.
The terms of the booking that the Sales person will establish are whether the cut the distributor takes is a flat fee, or a percentage of the box office takings. More often than not, for an independent, second-run cinema, the agreement they come to with the distributor will be a combination of the two. These values will be decided by a plethora of factors, including the amount of time and screenings a cinema can give to a film, the size of the audience (and therefore revenue) they will be able to generate, whether the film has already screened in another venue nearby, the distributor’s plans and/or expectations for the release, etc.
If it’s a small release, distributors may be more flexible. If it’s a wide release the distributor will have higher expectations for the amount of money the film can make, so may require the cinema play it for longer (e.g. three weeks rather than two), probably for all shows (meaning the cinema won’t be able to show any other films in that screen for the length of the film’s run) and will likely charge higher terms.
A Film Buyer working for a distribution company will be responsible for identifying and acquiring all films for the company to distribute. Buyers will attend major international film festivals and film markets, where most films are sold. A distribution company may have a very good existing relationship with a sales company or director (perhaps they released their previous films) and may be given first dibs on their latest project. Buyers may also be looking at acquiring back catalogue titles, e.g. older films that they may wish to re-release. They will need to find out who holds the rights for the geographical territory they wish to release the film in.
Rights are usually acquired for a fixed amount of years, so it may be that the rights held by one UK distributor have expired, presenting an opportunity for another UK distributor to now buy the rights. Rights are divided into Theatrical (referring to films screening in cinemas), and Video – which means the company can release the film on video, DVD for home entertainment. Films can also be sold with VOD (Video on Demand) and TV rights so a distribution company can sell these on to the highest bidder. The more rights a company acquires, the more expensive the sale will be!
The Home Entertainment division of a distribution company will handle any film released on DVD, Blu-ray or Video on Demand services. A lot of films will have been acquired for both theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray so the film is likely to already have been released by the Theatrical department in cinemas – this will have raised the profile of the film which will help boost DVD sales. There is usually a ‘window’ between a film’s theatrical release and its DVD release. This enables the cinemas to maximise income from the film’s initial release prior to the DVD release; as many exhibitors understandably believe that if the cinema release coincided with the film’s availability on DVD, fewer people would go to see it at the cinema. However, ‘windows’ tend to be getting shorter, although most are still usually at least a few months.
Video on Demand services have now become as important as the DVD release of a film, and choosing which VOD service to use is a very important job for the Home Entertainment division. With some titles, the distributors are choosing to launch the film on Video on Demand services at the same time as a limited cinema release, in order to gain as much media coverage as possible. Moreover, producing a DVD often requires quite a lot of technical work, particularly now with higher definition formats such as Blu-ray – if a film hasn’t originally been shot on a digital format it will more than likely need upgrading.
Some distribution companies produce (make) films as well as release them. Production will be aiming to source potential new projects – they will be reading lots of scripts, many submitted to them but some sourced by the Production team; they may acquire film rights to a novel that they feel would make a good film and they may come across films through relationships with other production companies who perhaps already have a project they are working on, but are looking for partners to support its completion.
The most public facing department in a distribution company and one of the most important, as it is the work done in this department – posters, social media and trailers – that the public are most likely to see and which will eventually (hopefully!) drive them into the cinema. The marketing department will decide the design of the poster and where and how wide to place these – online, on social media, in print (magazines and newspapers), on buses / at bus stops and at various other poster sites.
The marketing campaigns that they design will be meticulous, and will cover all of the above fields and more. They will decide the look of the trailer, as well as the amount of different trailers they will create; and will get it produced and edited using clips from the film.
PR stands for Public Relations which is a little misleading, because someone who works in PR will actually have very little contact with the public through their job and will mainly deal with journalists. However, the articles, reviews and coverage they manage to generate will be seen by the public and hopefully (if it is positive coverage!) will encourage public interest in a film.
There are two main areas of PR – firstly, Unit Publicity, which is publicity generated while a film is being made, and includes organising the filming of EPKs (Electronic Press Kits) and getting interviews on set with key actors (or ‘talent’ as they are often referred) or the director for magazines, online articles, social media, newspapers or blogs. The other area is getting journalists to review films which they watch at press screenings or film festivals.