Distribution = releasing and sustaining films in the market place.
In the practice of Hollywood and other forms of industrial cinema, the phases of production, distribution and exhibition operate most effectively when 'vertically integrated', where the three stages are seen as part of the same larger process, under the control of one company.
In the UK, distribution is very much focused on marketing and sustaining a global product in local markets.
In the independent film sector, vertical integration does not operate so commonly. Producers tend not to have long-term economic links with distributors, who likewise have no formal connections with exhibitors. Here, distribution = collaborative process, requiring the materials and rights of the producer and the cooperation of the exhibitor to promote and show the film in the best way possible. In this sector, distribution can be divided into three stages - licensing, marketing and logistics.
A/ Licensing - the process by which a distributor acquires the legal right to exploit a film. In distribution, licensing itself can take place on two levels.
International distribution ensures that films find their way to the 90+ market 'territories' around the world. The major US studios generally have their own distribution offices in all the major territories. By contrast, independent producers have to sell their films to different distributors in each territory. Independent production companies are usually small concerns, sometimes set up for one film and often lacking the necessary knowledge or contacts of each of the territories around the world. Instead of doing this themselves, they might choose to hire a specialist sales agent, whose function is to understand the value of a film in many different markets. The sales agent will then set up stall at the film markets that take place throughout the year.
'Local' distribution - involves the distributor acquiring the licence to release and exploit the film in a particular country. The distributor will usually pay the producer a minimum guarantee for the licence. This fee will vary depending on the status and perceived commercial potential of the film, and on the range of rights that the distributor chooses to exploit. A distributor will usually be offered theatrical rights, for showing the film in cinemas; video rights, for video and DVD exploitation; and TV rights, if the distributor is able to sell the film to a broadcaster.
In addition to paying a fee to secure the film, the licence will stipulate that the distributor will also pay royalties to the producer, taken from the profits that the film generates. A local distributor will conventionally share profits equally with the producer for the theatrical leg, pay back higher royalties for broadcast rights, and lower for video/DVD.
Once the licence has been agreed, it is then the distributor's job to launch the film. UK - feature films are released initially theatrically. A theatrical opening - most effective way to create interest in film. The big screen - optimum setting for both audiences and the filmmakers.
Some months following the theatrical release, a film will be packaged and released on DVD and VHS video, then on various forms of pay television and eventually, two years after opening in cinemas, on free-to-air television. Value of the film built up by its theatrical release reaps dividends during its release cycle, influencing audiences and commercial value it subsequently commands. Each stage - successful distributor must have in-depth knowledge of marketplace - which cinemas, video outlets and broadcasters can best draw an audience for its films - and of the variable marketing costs involved in releasing a film in that territory. The trick is to weigh up the two factors, to invest as much as is needed in promoting film to draw out maximum returns.
B/ Marketing - In the UK, new films are released theatrically on Fridays. The schedule for forthcoming releases is coordinated and published by the Film Distributors Association. A distributor will assess this schedule to identify a Friday release date where there are only a few films scheduled for release. Finding a 'light' week will ensure that there will be both screen space and adequate review column inches in the press allocated to any potential release.
A further consideration for scheduling a release is the seasonality of the film. For example, it is widely assumed within the industry that specialised films have the greatest potential to reach audiences during the academic year.
Finally, the distributor will try to position the film distinctively and avoid a release date occupied by other films with similar traits (story, subject, country of origin). In recent years in the UK, these two aspects of release planning have become increasingly difficult, as the release schedule has regularly featured over 10new releases in a week.
After setting a release date, the distributor works towards the theatrical release, investing in the materials and the marketing campaign to support it.
The costs of theatrical distribution, met by local distributors, are often referred to as 'P&A', or Prints and Advertising. P&A are the nuts and bolts of marketing and distributing films into cinemas, the tools used by the distributor to create a public for its film. P&A also represent the bulk of the distributor's investment, after paying the initial fee for rights, and can range from less than £1,000 to over £1 million for the release of a film in the UK.
Distribution: Marketing: Prints and Advertising – key elements -
The quantity and production of release prints and trailers - Specialised films will often be released with fewer than 10 prints into key independent cinemas, with these prints subsequently 'toured' over a 6-month period to all parts of the UK. On the other hand, commercial mainstream films often open on over 200 prints, simultaneously screening in all major UK towns and cities.
Press materials, clips reels, images, press previews, screener tapes - For the majority of releases, favourable press response is a key factor in developing the profile and desirability of a film. Distributors consider both the quality and breadth of coverage, and this is often inscribed into the nature and scale of a press campaign.
The design and printing of posters and other promotional artwork - The cinema poster - in the UK this means the standard 30" x 40" 'quad' format - is still the cornerstone of theatrical release campaigns. Numerous recent examples indicate that the poster design is highly effective in 'packaging' the key attributes of a film for potential audiences. Distributors will also consider other poster campaigns, ranging from Underground advertising to billboards.
Advertising campaign - locations, ad size and frequency - Advertising in magazines, national and local newspapers works in tandem with press editorial coverage to raise awareness of a release. Press advertising campaign for specialised films will select publications and spaces close to relevant editorial. For mainstream films, scale and high visibility is the key. Cost of print advertising in the UK is comparatively high - seen as making distribution in the UK a riskier business than most other countries. To extend reach of advertising and develop more effective communication with audiences at low cost, distributors look increasingly to 'viral marketing' - forms of electronic word-of-mouth via the internet, email and mobile phones.
Press campaign / contracting a PR agency - Many independent distributors in particular do not have press departments, and hire a press agency to run a pre-release campaign. This is especially the case if the distributor brings over key talent for press interviews to support the release.
Arranging visit by talent from the film - use of talent - usually the director and/or lead actors - wins significant editorial coverage to support a release. The volume of coverage can far outweigh the cost of talent visits. A distributor will consider the use of advance public screenings to create word-of-mouth and advance 'buzz' around a film.
Logistics - The distributor will enter into an agreement with the cinema to screen the film on certain 'play-dates'. It is the responsibility of the distributor to arrange the transportation of the film to the cinema, as part of its wider coordination of print use across the UK. Logistics represents the phase of distribution at its most basic - supplying and circulating copies of the film to theatres, of tapes and DVDs to shops and video rental stores, and managing the effectiveness of the supply. The showing of films in cinemas is a time-pressured activity. Cinemas spend their money publicising film play-dates and times in local papers or through published programmes. There's an imperative for the distributor to deliver the film on time.
For UK theatrical exhibition, the distributor typically handles 35mm film prints, costing around £1,000 - or double if subtitled - so care is required of everyone involved in handling the print. In the UK, prints are generally broken down for ease of handling into smaller reels, each lasting around 18-20 minutes when run through a projector at 24 frames per second. So a feature print, in its physical form, will usually be 5 or 6 reels, stored and supplied in a single hard case, weighing in at 20-25kgs. Prints are hired by the exhibitor for the duration of their play-dates, and therefore each print is made for repeat use. It's easy to see from this that, during the course of even a short theatrical release period, any single print needs to be moved many times from the main print warehouse, onto a delivery van, to the cinema, onto an assembly bench, through the projector and then back through the process and onto the next cinema.
35mm theatrical prints suffer cumulative damage passing through different projectors, and hands of projectionists. Overheads incurred by the distributor for the storage of prints at the UK's central print warehouse in West London - each theatrical print has a finite lifespan. The distributor will invest in sufficient prints to provide optimum coverage through the first period of theatrical release, usually lasting up to 6 months. From this point on, many of the now used release prints will be destroyed, leaving only a small number to be used for second-run and repertory theatrical bookings through the remainder of the film's licensed period.
Distribution: Digital Distribution
Towards the end of 2005, the UK distribution and exhibition sectors were starting to move towards digital distribution and exhibition. For exhibitors, digital projection, especially when married to the increasing use digital formats in production, can now replicate - if not surpass - the image quality of conventional 35mm cinema presentation. And, of course, digital sound systems have been used in cinemas for some time.
In distribution terms, the advantages of digital technology are even clearer, though perhaps longer term. Digital technology is seen to offer a more cost effective and logistics-light alternative to the tried and trusted, but unwieldy model of 35mm print distribution described above. Eventually - cheaper and much less stressful to send films as computer files to cinemas across the UK, than to transport 20-25kg tins of film in the back of a van.
Digital distribution and exhibition on a large scale has started to appear in certain parts of the world, notably China and Brazil, where conventional logistics cannot, for one reason or another, efficiently bring together supply and demand. In the UK, digital technology has been embraced by the non-theatrical sector, in film societies and schools, where the use of DVD and mid-range digital projection has replaced 16mm.
The force of this change, coupled with the new capacity of technology to replicate 35mm imaging, has led the UK Film Council to establish a digital distribution and exhibition programme for the theatrical sector at the end of 2005. Entitled the Digital Screen Network (DSN), it will eventually support new facilities in 211 screens across the country (out of a total of just over 3,300 screens in the UK), and is seen as a small but important step change towards full digital cinema.
The DSN will initially work with files transferred from a high definition digital master (either HDD5, or HD Cam). The compressed and encrypted files will be sent directly to cinemas to be downloaded, de-encrypted (unlocked) and opened as files for screening with digital projection equipment. In principle, digital distribution will, in time, change the paradigm of 35mm print logistics. Possible for the distributor to send feature film files electronically, via broadband networks, thus eliminating dependence on transportation.
There is little doubt that the advent of digital distribution has the potential radically to alter the work of distributors around the world. The comparatively low cost of film copies and additional logistical effectiveness of digital distribution provide the distributor with greater flexibility. It will be less expensive in the coming years to offer a wide theatrical opening with many copies, and also conversely, to screen a film for just one performance at any cinema. In theory - possible for both distributors and exhibitors to respond more precisely to audience demand.
All this suggests that in the future, more titles, both mainstream and specialised, will receive wide theatrical openings, and that this broadening of access at the point of release will dramatically reduce the overall theatrical period from 3-6 months to perhaps 1-3 months. Films will then enter into a second-run and repertory programming market aided by lower costs.
The shortened first-run period will in turn bring forward the distributor's release of the DVD. And there's the rub. The adoption of digital technologies offers greater opportunities for distributors to create joined-up campaigns for theatrical and DVD releases, in which, increasingly, the theatrical opening is used as a way of providing a loss-leading marketing platform for the highly lucrative DVD leg.