Sunday , April 21 2024
Melanie Miller distributes 500 films per year, reaching 100 million homes in North America. Find out how she does it.

Film Distribution Workshop with Gravitas

Putting their motto — “Don’t just make a film, get people to see it” —  to work, Ted and Courtney Balaker of Free Minds Distribution held a workshop at Reason-TV Studio on creating a distribution plan for a film. They brought together screenwriter/producer Wes Kemp and distribution guru Melanie Miller of Gravitas Ventures in front of an audience of LA filmmakers.

Ted introduced Melanie first. “We’re very lucky to have Melanie Miller with us. As a Vice President at Gravitas Ventures she is responsible for distributing 500 films per year, reaching 100 million homes in North America.”

Film Distribution Panel
Melanie Miller,left, of Gravatas Ventures, joined Courtney and Ted Balaker to discuss ins-and-outs of film distribution.

Courtney added, “Melanie also has strong Indie credentials as a former director of the Jackson Hole Film Festival and she has her own film company, Fishbowl Films.”

Melanie explained what Gravitas does. “It started out as a VOD [Video-On-Demand] company but then began to strike deals with cable companies to provide them with a certain amount of guaranteed content every month. I wanted to work for Gravitas because, as a filmmaker, I saw that this would be the way to learn about distribution. We also work directly with filmmakers, producers’ reps, and online platforms such as iTunes, Netflix, and ad supported operations such as Hulu.”

Courtney asked Melanie what types of films they dealt with.

“Oh, everything and anything,” Melanie said, “from horror to documentary.”

Ted quipped, “I’m so glad to hear you say ‘documentary.’ It used to be when you told people you made a documentary, they’d pat you on the head and say ‘Oh, that’s so cute. You don’t want to make money in this business, do you?’”

Melanie smiled. “That’s certainly not the case anymore,” she said. “Documentarians can make good money because they often know better how to use their fanbase than narrative film makers do.”

Ted then moved the meeting on to the main event, creating a distribution plan for a narrative film. Ted brought out Wes Kemp.

Wes wrote a screenplay called Hefty and is now seeking to get his story made. Melanie said that this was exactly the right time to think about distribution. “You have to reverse engineer the film,” she said. “Ask ‘Who is the audience’ and ‘What channel are you creating this for?’ Do you see this as a theatrical project, VOD, or television movie? Once you have an idea of where you want the project to go, then you can begin your distribution planning and actually start implementing even before the first scene is produced.”

Melanie asked Wes to describe his project. Wes went into great detail describing his story and the characters in it.

I won’t give away all of his story, but here is the essence of Hefty. Troy, an iconic high school football star, enjoys bullying Billy and Tim. Just when things are getting really unbearable for the two victims around Halloween, Billy’s grandfather, a Native American, moves in with the family. Stealing a sacred scroll from his grandfather, Billy puts a curse on Troy. Troy immediately starts putting on weight. He can no longer play football, gets kicked off the team, ends up in regular PE and becomes a victim of humiliation.

As things begin to look really dark for him, the goofball wrestling coach spots him and recruits him for the team, which has never been popular at this school. Troy keeps getting bigger, even as the wrestling team makes its way toward the state championship. But when it looks like Troy is contemplating suicide, Billy and Tim begin to feel bad about what they’ve done. They meet Troy in a pizza shop to confess. They introduce Troy to Billy’s grandfather who explains to Troy that the only way he can remove the curse is to perform a series of good deeds. The rest of the story involves Troy’s efforts at redemption and winning the state wrestling championship.

At this point Melanie began to ask Wes a series of questions, while Ted scribbled notes. As I watched her interrogate Wes, I was reminded of the probing, to-the-point questions an accountant uses to help you prepare your taxes.

Melanie asked Wes the genre. “Comedy”, he said. “Eighteen to forty year old demographic.”

Then a critical point: “Where did you get the idea? What did you draw on?”

To everyone’s surprise, the slim, muscular Wes explained, “I was bullied some as a kid. I was a fat kid.”

“So it comes from the heart,” Melanie observed. She continued with questions about whether he wanted to act in or direct the story and after some additional drilling, she advised him to take the indie film route. Besides the nitty-gritty business stuff such as get an industry lawyer to negotiate contracts and make contacts for you, find a line producer to help you put together a budget, and hire a social media marketing person to get the buzz going, she advised Wes to seek to develop a following for the movie while it is in production by capitalizing on hooks in the story.

The hooks she saw as having potential included aligning himself with anti-bullying groups and organizations concerned with kids’ health. The Native American element had the potential to align the film with organizations and individuals with that heritage or interest. She suggested that he run the script through the Sundance Native American Lab, to make sure he had cultural details correct. Sports angles include wrestling and football. He could look for high schools, she said, that might want to have their teams participate as extras. And even though pizza and Halloween were only involved for a few scenes in the story, sponsorships or release timing could be influenced by these elements, Melanie suggested.

She also said that the positive nature of the story had the potential to attract the interest of production companies that specialized in inspirational or faith-based films.

As for social media Melanie recommended a Facebook page, Twitter account, and even Instagram because “It’s popular with younger generation.” She added, “Even if your friends and family are the only ones who initially join your social media groups, that’s OK, because it’s a start.”

Melanie concluded, “It’s important to do all this work, because when you go to a production or distribution company, you can say, ‘Look what I’ve already built.’ A script with a 100,000 member fanbase is a lot more impressive than just a script by itself.”

“And don’t forget to bring it to Gravitas,” she added. “We look at everything.”

Ted then gave Wes the notes he took for him and told the audience, “Make sure Wes doesn’t hang around the after show reception. Chase him out to the parking lot so he gets right to work.”

Any ideas on inventive ways to promote your film or get distribution? Discuss them in the comments, below.

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About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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