A New Distribution Future From the Ground Up
This keynote address was delivered at the inaugural Color Congress National Convening, a biannual gathering of US-based nonfiction leaders of color
In September, Color Congress brought together 78 leaders of US-based documentary organizations for their inaugural National Convening in Atlanta, GA and online. This was the largest gathering of POC leaders of film festivals, artist-support organizations, film collectives, and narrative change orgs in the US with the goal of building trust, a shared vision for a reimagined documentary landscape, and a plan for collective work going forward.
One of the keynote addresses at Color Congress’s National Convening was delivered by Distribution Advocates member Karin Chien. For 20 years, Karin has produced American independent media and as president of dGenerate Films, Karin has spent 15 years acquiring and releasing independent Chinese films to audiences in North America. Karin writes that working as a producer and distributor in tandem has given her the opportunity to develop an outsider/insider perspective and a full view of understanding of the supply chain.
With the blessing of Color Congress, we are excited to share an abbreviated version of this keynote address with the wider Distribution Advocates community. Full video here.
Keynote Address, Color Congress National Convening
I’m honored to be here at this extraordinary and historic congress. I am so grateful to Color Congress, to Sahar, Sonya, Andrea, to all of you. It’s been an incredible 36 hours of grounding and radical dreaming and kinship. This is a space like no other I’ve experienced.
We are at a unique moment in our field. Most everyone is aware there is a distribution crisis. This awareness is new. The crisis is not. 25 years ago, I joined the film business because I had a desire to tell stories and, above all, to create change. I discovered that the films I, as an audience member, wanted to see were being made; they just weren’t being distributed. That’s even more true today.
This talk is my call to arms to use our resources, our energy, our creativity and our collective talents to democratize the means of distribution. Just as we are doing with the means of production, can we start to own the means of distribution? Can we start by putting the means of distribution in the hands of everyone in this room? I think we can.
Historically, who controls distribution controls the business of filmmaking. The films and stories that get distributed are the ones that get seen. The films that are distributed are the ones that make money. The stories and creators who make money are the ones who get more money to make their next work. To put it simply, distribution can determine what gets seen, what gets made, and who gets to make it.
We are now in a supercharged version of the original distribution crisis of gatekeepers. Except now, there are fewer gatekeepers. And those gatekeepers are beginning to make rather than acquire films. One distributor went from buying 25 films in 2019 to making 25 films in 2022. We are working in an era of extreme vertical integration. And the business model of today is fueled by predatory pricing, in which lower cost to consumers are passed on to creators. As a consequence, except for an elite few, storytellers are paying for corporations to gain market dominance.
This has starved our options for financing and distribution. For example, think about the funding that exists to develop projects. You need written and visual materials to raise money. Most documentary development is self-financed. Think about who can afford that. Besides a few grants, many BIPOC filmmakers rely on development funding from the public media system, which asks filmmakers to sign away first rights on their broadcast distribution. Giving away distribution rights to secure development funding in order to raise financing for production? That is just one example of how current models feed a cycle of deprivation.
In the original crisis, the distributors were the gatekeepers. The new reality is different. The ground has shifted while regulators looked away. Today, a company that is only a distributor is a company that is struggling.
The biggest distributors have become production studios. We exist in a landscape of vertically integrated Goliaths, fueled by venture capital and private equity. We find ourselves relying upon the wealthiest corporations in the world to distribute diverse nonfiction film.
This is not a level playing ground. This is monopoly in progress.
Let’s briefly define again, What is distribution? What is exhibition?
Distribution is the work to acquire content, engage and deliver the work to exhibitors, and draw audiences to watch it. Curation and marketing are the two biggest drivers of distributor success with resources overwhelmingly spent drawing attention in an attention economy.
Exhibition is the virtual or physical space where films are shown. Many of you in Color Congress are examples of the interesting, radical, ground-up work emerging and leading in exhibition.
To put it another way, our work in distribution is to find the independent films being made, prepare them for the marketplace, deliver them – ideally – to hundreds of exhibitors, and draw audiences to watch the films.
Where does Distribution Advocates come in? We were inspired by the patient advocate model. Patient advocates guide people through an overwhelming healthcare system as they face decisions during a vulnerable time.
During the first 18 months of existence, our work focused around the pillars of education, advocacy, transparency, dialogue, newsletters, reports and articles. In short, we tried to fill a vacuum with knowledge.
We wanted to counter opaque systems with transparency.
We worked as guides to create access in grateful partnership with many of you in the room.
Very quickly, we encountered problems.
Despite a firehose of information and education that we worked hard to provide, we confronted something that we didn’t account for: the uninformed consent of filmmakers. We buy into the existing system. This deeply inequitable system requires us to buy in, so that we don’t create new distribution structures and we don’t create new distribution futures. We must buy in to compete for the same one seat at the table, to believe A-list festivals and awards are more important than circulation to a broader public.
That insecurity is manufactured. Distribution has become the ultimate scarcity mindset. In a country of free markets, film distribution has become one of the least free.
In our signature advocacy program, producer / showrunner Avril Speaks and I learned that filmmakers of color often reach a film’s premiere without an experienced producer on their team. The reason for this is there are few experienced producers of color. This stems from a series of structural problems beginning with a devaluation of producers predicated on a lack of understanding of what producers actually do. Experienced producers hold a community’s distribution knowledge. A community that doesn’t support producers is one that will lack knowledge of increasingly opaque systems of distribution. That creates a severe disadvantage in getting independent work to audiences, to impact, and to revenue. That disadvantage has created a chasm of inequity. We must do better to value diverse producers.
If this is a structural problem, it must be addressed through collective solutions. In our program, led by Abby Sun and Carlos Gutiérrez, we learned that tough conversations about problems are the start and the root of collective action. Filmmakers stuck in inequitable systems of distribution must find each other. Once we do, we must share information and we must have the hard conversations that move us to action.
Producer Amy Hobby led our data collection and visualization project. Amy embarked on a full year of data collection that put up hard numbers against some of the myths that circulate in our field. We made this data publicly available on our Substack and presented it with a panel of stakeholders at the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real conference. Especially interesting is a section of slides that show how many of us try for the Sundance gate, and how many of us get through.
Lastly, at the end of Distribution Advocates’ first 18 months, we held a thought leadership retreat that looked at the efficacy of our programs. This retreat was crucial. While we had accomplished a lot, we came together and had the hard conversation of whether our programs had actually moved the needle.
What we realized is that advocacy in a completely broken system only goes so far.
Following that 2022 retreat, Distribution Advocates made the tough decision to re-prioritize our work. In other words, we learned we were treating the symptoms but not the cause. We identified three root causes around which we can organize: 1) Mindset; 2) Lack of distribution structures; 3) Lack of regulation. We are now working on three new programs.
For the program to address the first root cause, mindsets, we turned to what we know: storytelling. We are working to produce a podcast filled with stories about distribution. And those stories begin well before films reach the distribution stage.
The most common mindset we encounter, and seek to shift, is a desire for status. The second most common mindset we encountered is a resistance to accepting audience reach as part of the filmmaking journey. This can perhaps be traced back to legacy film schools which celebrate production and exhibition but almost always do not teach distribution, while saddling their graduates with monstrous student debt.
Filmmakers have been systemically dispossessed of their audiences. They have been told to care more about the “tastes” and validation of gatekeepers. If I told an independent filmmaker they could reach multiple millions of viewers by putting their films through a strategic release online, how many of them would take that over an A-list festival premiere? We have so many more tools now. Why do we sustain a system that creates and perpetuates privilege, elitism and racial capitalism?
We think storytelling about distribution and about collective action is the best way to move the needle on a much needed mindset shift.
The second program seeks to address structural change. This program is predicated on the simple thesis that in a landscape of vertical integration, the solution is to create and sustain many new and different structures of distribution. But what does new and different look like? How can we create a distribution structure based on a collectivist strategy that supports your work? How do we encourage the development of new structures of distribution?
The third program is a working group to research and present policy recommendations around needed regulation in our media ecosystem, especially in the laws that prevent extreme vertical integration.
We are asking ourselves: What can Distribution Advocates do to level the playing field? What would encourage and inspire each of you to apply your creative talents and your skills at collective work to distribution?
I came with questions and I’m here to listen to answers. Because my work as a distributor involves documentaries said to be overly long, too foreign, too subtitled, because these films must limit publicity to ensure the safety of filmmakers and their families from transnational repression – because that is my work, I have, as a distributor, stood at the edges of the margins of a system that did not see these films at all. It’s my mandate to find space for these films. It’s my mandate to return revenue to these filmmakers. After years of doing this work, it’s undeniable: There is space. There is audience. There is revenue. All of us are making the space.
I believe we can and we must build the ecosystem we want from the ground up. In order to thrive, we need an ecosystem of diverse structures. We need a multiplicity of creative strategies. More than anything, I believe in the creativity in this room to power collective, structural, cultural change.
What do you dream of when you dream of a new distribution future? Here are some ideas I’ve been dreaming about:
What if we could own the means of distribution? What if 1,000 filmmakers put $500 into a pot to own their own distribution structure?
Can we create a distribution funding system that doesn't favor films with the most access and most resources?
What if film teams who have project support from funders also have distribution and sales support from those same funders?
What if we had quarterly scouting reports of undistributed & underseen films, to share across our ecosystem, to support their broader circulation?
What if we didn’t need sales agents?
Instead of one-offs, could we fund a diverse portfolio or a slate of local distribution events?
As activist Grace Lee Boggs said, “Conversation is Revolution.” My intention is to spark a vibrant debate. What do you dream of when you dream of reaching your audiences?