So He Made a Movie...Now What?: Local Film Preps for Distribution

For a film, being in the can is one thing. Getting to the big screen is another. Production for the locally made family film Aria Appleton wrapped two years ago, with most of the editing finished last year and a few final clean-up edits made this year. But its journey to theaters is far from over.

Now that the film is done, producer and director Nathan D. Myers is spending more time in his office, sending emails, making phone calls and staring at a markerboard listing “a thousand things to do” – much of which involves working to fill a hard drive with legal files to submit to a potential distributor that could help get his film into theaters.

“It’s lonely work,” Myers said.

But he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t worth it. After a film is made, there’s a lot that goes into its path to distribution, from marketing materials to contracts and licenses. It helps to have a lawyer on hand to help, Myers says, and in some ways, he feels like he “went to the law school of hard knocks.” Still, he keeps his eye on the goal – to see his film on the big screen.

“To me, you’re building a product that’s going to live on for a long time,” he said. “It’s worth taking the time to do it right.”

At the heart of it all is the film itself. Aria Appleton is structured like a musical, featuring six original songs. The film tells the story of a spunky 11-year-old girl named Aria Appleton, who attempts to get the lead role in the school musical by “self-aggrandizing and making fun of others,” Myers said. She winds up making enemies and creating chaos but in the end learns many lessons.

“The themes of the story really center around the dangers of self-aggrandizement and touches on some of the fears that modern parents have about kids and the internet and this celebrity culture that we’re in,” Myers said. “It’s a little ironic because we actually work in the movie industry.”

Parts of the film were shot in Fort Worth. Some filming took place in the Western Hills and Tanglewood neighborhoods, while other scenes were shot in Weatherford, Grand Prairie and Mansfield.

Filming lasted for about four months. Principal photography wrapped in April 2015, and after a short break, post-production ran between July and November 2016.

Now that the film is done, the next step is perhaps the hardest part, Myers says.

“I do think that it mystifies a lot of filmmakers,” he said. “It is that ‘make it or break it’ point for people. For me, it’s absolutely crucial that they’re highly organized if they’re going to get to market.”

Actress Julie Rhodes signing posters

Coming soon...enough.

Filmmakers have several options for distribution. According to Red Sanders, president of Fort Worth-based production company Red Productions, most independent films screen at festivals where a distributor may take interest.

Other options include pitching a movie directly to a major studio and having the studio handle marketing, or entering a “negative pickup deal” in which a distributor comes onboard before the film is even shot. Filmmakers can also partner with a broker or sales representative with ties to the film industry to get potential buyers in a room or simply handle marketing themselves.

Sanders remembers his experience with his first full-length feature, Searching for Sonny, a film shot in Fort Worth and released in 2011. He went the festival route and premiered at the Austin Film Festival, from which the film got a distribution deal with FilmBuff (now called Gunpowder & Sky). Red Productions and FilmBuff worked together to market the film, and it was released in theaters in 10 cities, as well as on digital platforms.

Still, Sanders describes the distribution process as “extremely difficult.” A 2004 TCU graduate, Sanders credits his Business of Film class and former professor Joel Timmer for preparing him for the industry.

“The great thing about the industry is it’s full of dreamers,” said Sanders, whose latest film, A Bad Idea Gone Wrong, recently premiered at South by Southwest in March. “There’s something that’s amazing about a completely fresh and unique approach to storytelling, but at the same time, it’s still a business.”

Now with five feature films under his belt, Sanders has become more accustomed to the process.

And so has Myers (Aria Appleton is his third feature film). Aria Appleton screened at the Lone Star Film Festival last November shortly after post-production was completed, and Myers and his team are looking to screen in several other festivals around the U.S. Ideally, Myers is hoping to partner with a distributor who could help the film get a theatrical release, but he’s also open to releasing through faith-based TV channels and streaming services like Netflix or Pure Flix.

“It’s a changing industry,” he said. “There’s not really a right or a wrong way to do it. There’s just a handful of processes that are traditional, or familiar, or functional. It’s really just a matter of finding the ideal [distributor] and locking the project in with somebody who really wants to put some weight behind it.”

Working on the set of Aria Appleton

The dirty work

Myers says it’s important to have diligence and deliverables kits prepared when pitching a film to possible distributors.

“What that does for us is it just gives us that professional edge,” he said. “Later, [distributors] go, ‘Oh they have all their ducks in a row.’”

A diligence kit consists of legal documents like contracts connected to a film. A deliverables kit primarily includes the film itself, audio tracks, graphics and other parts of the film, as well as pieces of the diligence kit like chain of title and other documents that prove ownership of intellectual property. In Aria Appleton, for example, the Riscky’s BBQ logo appears during the film, so the filmmakers had to obtain a logo clearance from Riscky’s corporate office. Logos that show up unintentionally must also be cleared.

“You have to kind of go back and scrub everything down so that anything that appears on screen visually, you have permission to use it,” Myers said. “We have 10 or 12 stock images in our movie that come from various stock video providers, so the number of different kinds of clearances that have to happen for all of those pieces of the film, they all have to be included in your diligence kit, from music licenses to anything visual.”

Myers said distributors also like to see that a film has errors and omissions insurance, a type of insurance that production companies buy in case an item like a logo or license is missed.

“It’s rather complicated,” he said. “The production season of a movie is lengthy and grueling unto itself...but the legal requirements to even just enter the marketplace are pretty vast and really cause a number of filmmakers to stumble.”

It’s important to stay organized, Myers said. Aria Appleton has a dedicated hard drive with folders that represent every potential item of diligence or delivery, and as assets come in, they are allocated to their respective folder.

“That drive becomes the property itself,” he said. “It is not only the film, but every possible contract – every asset that is connected to it – is on that drive. It’s a rather valuable thing.”

Myers said he and his team have been in conversation with distributors across the U.S., some in the West Coast, some in the East, and some in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. There haven’t been any deals yet, but Myers says he feels like they’re close.

Distribution is tedious stuff, he said, but it’s just a matter of trying until someone is willing to take a few minutes to look at your work.

“Or 93 minutes, in our case,” Myers said.