September 23, 2016

For years, filmmakers set themselves on a unicorn hunt to “get distribution.” The idea was to sell all of your film’s rights to a major distributor in exchange for an oversized check. There’s only one hitch—it doesn’t work that way anymore.

We learned this lesson with our documentary Age of Champions, which tells the story of five competitors up to 100 years old who chase gold at the Senior Olympics. We had done all the right things—premiered at AFI Docs, secured a national PBS broadcast, and pitched the film to distributors. But when the offers rolled in, they were so small we had to pass.

So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work building our own distribution from the ground up. We spent more than two years distributing the film and generated more $1.5 million in revenues. More importantly, we had enough money in the bank to fund our next project and made the jump from part-time filmmakers to having a sustainable creative career.

Here’s the five-step playbook outlining exactly how we did it.

Double-down on direct distribution

Although we eventually landed a national PBS broadcast, Netflix deal, and iTunes/Amazon carriage, the vast majority of our revenues came through direct distribution on our website.

Our first step was to create a range of products—consumer DVD, community screening kit, educational licenses, and merchandise—and set up a simple online store using Shopify.

We focused all of our marketing towards driving traffic to our website. Any time someone purchased the film, we sent a series of automatic emails that encouraged them to tell their friends or buy additional products.

In the end, we sold more than $300,000 in DVDs, kits, and merchandise through direct distribution—10 times more than all our traditional distribution combined.

Make your community screenings profitable

Community screenings are a fantastic way to create a human-to-human connection with your film. The trick is to make them profitable.

For Age of Champions, we created a screening kit that included a DVD, discussion guide, posters, postcards, and cheap giveaways. We priced it at $149, which delivered a 90% profit margin after production and shipping costs.

We partnered with senior health organizations and attended conferences to spread the word about our community screening campaign.

Over the course of two years, we sold 3,000 screening kits and generated more than $250,000 in sales. 

Pitch yourself as a public speaker (for $3,000 an hour)

Every time we had an organization purchase a screening kit, we sent three automated emails letting them know we were available as speakers. For larger groups, having the director on stage to talk about the film adds a tremendous amount of value to their live event.

We priced our speaking fee at $3,000 plus travel expenses and made this clear up front to our potential hosts. Our presentations were very simple—we introduced the film, delivered a 30-minute speech after the screening, and took questions from the audience.

In total, we booked more than 125 speaking events and generated $515,000 in speaking fees and follow-up sales.

Sell your DVD to universities for $250 apiece

You can sell your DVD to consumers for $25—or sell the exact same DVD and an “academic license” to universities for $250.

For Age of Champions, we created a “university kit” that included a 60- and 75-minute version of the film and a ten-page educators’ guide written specifically for an academic audience, which we priced on our website at $250.

To drive sales, we bought an email list for university libraries, attended an annual conference for gerontologists, and directed all of our marketing and outreach efforts to the website.

By the end of our campaign, we sold $88,000 in academic licenses (and another $26,000 through a non-exclusive deal with an educational distributor).

Hunt down corporate sponsors for the big checks

Our biggest single source of income for Age of Champions was corporate sponsorships.

When we secured a national broadcast on PBS, they gave us the opportunity to sell 60 seconds of “underwriting” (which most filmmakers never take). We made tons of pitches to corporate brand teams and eventually sold 15-second spots to Procter & Gamble, Rite Aid, AARP, and Healthways for $75,000 apiece.

We also reached out to the largest senior living companies and sold screening kits and DVDs at a bulk rate, which they could share them with their customers and use for promotions.

All told, we made $538,000 through corporate sponsorships and sales—they were never easy to negotiate, but paid out big in the end.

Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat have produced three documentaries for PBS and teach an online course about direct distribution at Filmmaker.MBA. To get their free 7-day email course, sign up now at


Originally published in Indiewire:

How We Made $1.5 Million Self-Distributing Our Doc: The Six-Step Playbook

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