Reflections after Getting Real

Distribution Advocates working group (top to bottom, left to right): Karin Chien, Amy Hobby, Sarah Kim, Avril Speaks, Abby Sun, Carlos Gutiérrez

Distribution Advocates had the privilege of forming a working group as part of the International Documentary Association’s GETTING REAL biennial conference. It kicked off with a talk between Karin Chien and Gary Chou, called Re-Wiring Distribution Networks. We spent several weeks developing a distribution cheat sheet to arm filmmakers with insights about the distribution negotiation process. We field tested it with both new and experienced producers, but we considered it a working document, as the field of distribution is constantly shifting. We published it on our Substack and presented it during a 15-minute report back, by Carlos Gutiérrez, Sarah Kim and Amy Hobby during Getting Real. 

In the days following the presentation, our team had a number of follow up conversations and reflected on a few points that deserve further emphasis. 

  1. There is a lack of knowledge and advocacy around the many structures of distribution. While there is a plethora of panels and initiatives offered on distribution to indie filmmakers, the systems of distribution are accepted more than interrogated. This is due in part to the opacity of distribution structures, including programming, sales and exhibition. We need greater advocacy, mechanisms for education, and a way to safely share community knowledge. Every grant and every festival acceptance should come with a required teach-in on current distribution systems and its asymmetries of power.

  1. The incomprehension of systemic problems in distribution is an increasingly urgent situation, compounded by a global pandemic that is exposing long standing deep flaws in the status quo approach, particularly around festivals and theatrical exhibition. We encourage the work of innovation, interrogation and reimagining that will prioritize festivals and theatrical exhibition, for example, for audiences and filmmakers.

  1. There is a dismal lack of equitable structures in distribution and exhibition for independent filmmakers, particularly for BIPOC filmmakers. This is compounded by growing corporate consolidation, where the pipeline from production to distribution to exhibition is controlled by a single entity. The Paramount Decrees mandated the separation of film distribution and exhibition for 70 years. No longer. In this environment of consolidation and competition, distributors are increasingly owning the means of exhibition. Already for many filmmakers, distributor and exhibitor mean the same thing. Lack of alternatives does not bode well for a strong individual negotiation stance nor for audience access to a multiplicity of work. Recent unilateral rate hikes and undisclosed removal of titles from streaming platforms, that are accessible to filmmakers without an aggregator, are two instances. Simply put, we need new and more diverse structures. 

  1. While our cheat sheet is aimed at supplying sorely needed information for individual filmmakers, its overarching intention is to start a process of unifying filmmakers around even more sorely needed systemic change. When we understand the process and its dysfunctions in shared ways, it can be the start of building collective power, which may hold the key to systemic change.

  1. During our presentation at Getting Real, a question was asked to our group that deserved a more thoughtful response. The question concerned development funding that is tied to broadcast licenses, especially in public media. This is a catalytic source of funding originally developed for and available to emerging BIPOC documentarians. But its terms paradoxically put filmmakers in a corner, when they are potentially licensing valuable distribution rights in exchange for a fraction of their budget. We are continuing a conversation about the structural inequity of this practice through direct channels and through collectives, such as A-Doc. We fully support the interrogation of and momentum to advocate for change within public media funding structures.

Distribution Advocates would like to thank IDA and the programmers of Getting Real for the opportunity to engage in the work of advocacy around distribution. We aim to continue the dialogue wherever and whenever we can.

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