ALTERNATE ROUTES: Becoming a Produced Screenwriter through Self-Distribution

Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, won Best Premiere at the 2012 Seattle True Independent Film Festival, and was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.

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Before I graduated from film school, I was lucky enough to intern with Practical Pictures, whose producers made the AMERICAN PIE and FINAL DESTINATION movies. One of those producers, Sheila Hanahan, gave me a bit of advice that’s stuck with me for a long time:

Making movies is all about material and distribution.

Now I worked with Practical in 2004, and at that time, Sheila meant that you need to get a great script, and you need to get a studio to help put it out into the world with you. That advice is just as valuable today, but with the advent of crowdfunding, streaming services and self-distribution of movies and television content, you can look at her words now in a completely different context.

If you’re looking to get your script made and seen, you already have the material, and you can handle distribution on your own! By becoming a writer/producer and putting in the work, you can literally will your film into the world!

Script EXTRA: Running Film Distribution Promotion

Filmmakers have done this from time to time, with some impressive results. After writer/director Kevin Smith premiered his horror film RED STATE at Sundance in January 2011, he held an auction for the distribution rights for the film right there in the theater. He humorously began the bidding at twenty dollars – and then his producer ended the auction! Smith’s plan was to release the film on his own from the beginning. He ended up barnstorming RED STATE to theaters around the country, holding Q&A sessions after the film. And it made money! Its budget was $4 million, and it made its budget back in six months; his theatrical tour made $1 million, foreign sales made another $1.5 million, and a US VOD deal added $3 million more. All on his own.

UC_Poster_for_store_800x800-2You might dismiss this strategy as out of a new screenwriter’s reach; Smith has a huge audience, bigger than any screenwriter trying to get a film into the world. But it works for indie filmmakers, too. The science fiction filmmaker Shane Carruth self-distributed his second feature UPSTREAM COLOR. Made on a $50,000 budget, Carruth sent the film out to arthouse theaters across the country, and ended up making $415,000 in theatrical revenue! His film was in profit before one person watched it on iTunes or Amazon.com. All this, from a filmmaker whose previous film, PRIMER, was made for the astoundingly low price of $7,000.

But the economy isn’t in the best shape these days, you might say. I don’t even have any money to put into a film that’s not guaranteed to recoup. That’s okay – crowdfund your budget, and your distribution will generate all profit! The Austin, Texas-based production company Rooster Teeth spent years building their audience on their Youtube channel with short-form video content. When their first feature project, LAZER TEAM, was ready to go, they asked their audience to help them make it. And they did in record-breaking fashion – over 37,000 backers backed them on Indiegogo, helping them raise $2.4 million to make it! Once the film was done, they went back to their audience last year to let them know the film was playing in theaters, working with the on-demand distribution company Tugg to book screenings – and to have their fans set up screenings of their own. That fan-powered strategy was so successful, LAZER TEAM sold over $1 million in presales (over 100,000 tickets!) through Tugg, and screened the film in six countries.

Script EXTRA: Dramedy Screenwriter Deborah Pearl Talks Directing, Screenwriting, and ‘Getting Ed Laid’

Putting an operation like this together could be daunting to a screenwriter, I know. But the great thing about this new distribution ecosystem is that there’s no one way to make movies now. When you’re making and distributing films on your own, success is on your own terms. If you’re looking to become a produced screenwriter, you can do it, without asking anyone’s permission.

Let’s say you’ve written a feature script with a great story. You can find collaborators to help you make the movie. A director, cameraman, editor, sound person, composer – you don’t need a crew of 50 people to make a film. You could even direct the film yourself, if you were so inclined. Once you put your team together, guess what? You’re now a writer/producer!

And as a writer/producer, one of your responsibilities will be to come up with the budget for your film. Does it need to be a a lot? Not at all. Try thinking about making a script that’s logistically simple, with few locations and no minors, to make things easier. And try to crowdfund your budget. Crowdfunding sites like Seed&Spark offer lots of free educational videos and guidance on how to build an audience and secure donations. That can potentially get you into production, without having to run up a balance on your credit card.

When you’ve completed your crowdfunding, make your movie! Experience the thrill of seeing your words come to life with your chosen compatriots. Work with them to overcome the many challenges of making an independent feature film. And come out the other side with a finished movie. (This is obviously a simplistic explanation of making something. But going over making a film this way would be a book project, not a monthly column.)

Once your film is done, decide where you want your film to play! If you want it to play on transactional VOD platforms like iTunes, Amazon.com or Google Play, or subscription VOD providers like Hulu and Netflix, you can work with aggregators like Distribber or Quiver Digital, or Seed&Spark, which is a combination crowdfunding/distribution site. They can also get your film into retail sites like Walmart, and into cable VOD distribution through regional and national cable services. And if you’re interested in theatrical distribution for your film, you can work with on-demand theatrical distribution sites like Tugg or Gathr.

And once you do that, your film is out in the world, and you can call yourself not only a produced screenwriter, but a film producer to boot!

This path, I’m sure, is very different from what screenwriters might imagine to get their work up on the screen. But many screenwriters express frustration with how hard it is to break into the business, and how hard it is to get people to read their work. One thing goes a very long way in helping to connect with agents, managers and producers: being able to say you’re a produced screenwriter, with a film on a major platform. With all the tools filmmakers have at their disposal now, you can get to that stage of your career on your own.

Remember what Sheila Hanahan said: making movies is all about material and distribution. If you’ve got the material, you can create the distribution, which means you can control the whole process. So make it happen!

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