Movie Hustle: How indies manufacture box office success | Raindance

It’s creeping up to the autumn film festival schedule. Filmmakers at Venice Film Festival, Toronto’s TIFF and of course Raindance Film Festival are all chasing the movie hustle. Many of the autumn festival deadlines are just weeks away. I thought it a good moment to push back and reflect on the all-important distribution end of the film cycle. A cycle that starts with a painful script birth, an awkward and frustrating finance and production cycle. And then, if not careful, a silent death at the distribution phase – a death no one notices until two weeks later when a stench drifts into the hallway.

The Filmmakers Audience

As the all-important autumn festivals approach it is very easy for a filmmaker to imagine their film at a major film festival with paparazzi lining the red carpet.

A lesson I have learned the painful way is that paparazzi can’t help you. There are only two people that can help you: acquisition executives and film festival programmers. These are the people who decide which films a certain festival is going to play (programmers) or which film a distribution company (acquisition executives) is going to release theatrically, online and on television.

And here’s a dirty little secret: Festival programmer and acquisition executives don’t programme the films they like. They programme films that will get an audience. In other words, both festival programmers and acquisition executives want to put bums on seats.

In actual fact, then, there are really only a hundred of so festival programmers and acquisition executives you want to see your film. The trick is how to get to them!

It’s for this reason I asked sales and distribution consultant Jonathan Sadler and filmmaker Simon Hunter to prepare an Independent Film Distribution weekend masterclass.

Can’t wait? Can’t attend? Here’s a brief summary of what this weekend is all about. You’ll soon see that box office success is all about getting the right people to see your film.

Inside The Movie Hustle

Getting the right people to see your film requires a strategic plan coupled with preparation of some key elements.

1.The Film Festival Route

Festival programmers scour the world looking for films they want to launch at their festival. Acquisition executives are always keen to see what is new at film festivals.

Astute filmmakers submit to film festivals for four reasons:

  • To do a deal
  • To participate in panels to get noticed
  • To get reviewed and interviewed
  • To win awards and get noticed

Filmmakers attending the major film festival can expect to attract a great deal of attention.

When Josephine Mackerras submitted her micro-budget french film ALICE to the highly prestigious South By Southwest she had high hopes but was filled with doubt competing alongside accomplished filmmakers working with huge budgets.

Not only was ALICE accepted, but Josephine snatched the Grand Jury Prize and also won the coveted Cherry Award for best debut female director. This success has launched her career and assisted her in her quest to monetise her first film as well as open doors for her second.

2. The Film Market Route

Not being accepted into film festivals, or entering and failing to win an award does not need to be the death knell of your film and your career. The alternative, and indeed complementary route, is the film market route.

The role of the sales agent

You will need a sales agent specialising in film sales (film sales agent) to represent your film at a film market. They will prepare your marketing materials and present your film to prospective film buyers around the world.

When Ryan Kampe of Visit Films took on Alice he presented the film to 348 potential distributors in 30 territories! That shows his incredible network, and also the valuable services a film sales agent can provide. As of this writing, sales continue.

Julian Richards took on The Living and The Dead, which had done well in the festival circuit but hadn’t sold a single territory until Julian’s Jinga took on sales. This micro-budget film later sold to over two dozen territories and recouped its budget and more.

3.Marketing materials

The movie industry is a marketing industry-like any industry trying to sell something, you need to carefully consider and prepare marketing materials.

The Trailer

Along with the poster, the trailer is a key marketing asset. There is no one better to explain the essentials of a trailer than distribution consultant and expert, Jonathan Sadler of Magus Marketing:

“Everything always goes back to the targeting and positioning of the film. If it’s a comedy you want to get two or three major laughs in there. It doesn’t seem to be a huge problem if you tell a lot of the story; people tend to forget that when they sit and watch the film. It doesn’t have to be linear, you can tell a story in the trailer out of sync with the film itself if it works in the trailer.

“It really depends; you just have to pick out key lines. You really have to decide what kind of story you want to tell in the trailer. Do you want to try to tell the story or give an essence of the film? Do you persuade people that it’s a slightly different kind of film than it maybe actually is? If it’s a comedy with dramatic moments, you might want to push the comedic side a little bit more.

“Ultimately all the trailer has to do is to get as many people as possible to think ‘I want to see that film’. You’re under no obligation to be true to the plot or to any particular elements of the film. Unless, that is, the people approving the trailer insist that you convey the vision they had for the film. That can be a point of contention between filmmakers and producers and marketing people.

The Poster

Industry marketing specialists like Sadler will advise you on the different formats for your movie’s poster. Your poster needs to be adapted for social media as well as for print. It also has to look equally good in landscape as portrait.

Once the poster and trailer work together to accomplish the same goal, you will start to look like you have a movie that is getting out there. This enhances the perceived value of your film.

Another movie I produced was sold based on this trailer alone. (Note the slice of the poster in the trailer image)

Sadler was the marketing brains behind the release of Simon Hunter’s EDIE – a tear-jerker starring the iconic Sheila Hancock.

The poster and trailer featured throughout the UK and the film grossed nearly a million in the UK – unheard of for an indie film with a scant marketing budget.

Click image for Edie Trailer


Getting people to talk about your film is how you get people to see your film. You want to organise press junkets where you assemble the key creatives in a studio and have journalists and social media influencers come and talk to them.

Sadler explains:

“If you’ve got a big film out you expect to have your cast in the country for your release. You’ll do maybe a day or two day press junket where all the media can come in. All the big media programmes will send their journalists out to an interview slot. That is a massive part of it.”

Fade out?

You’ve managed to finish your film, and got the poster and trailer together. Congratulations. But remember, you are still a long way from completion. Here is where Director Simon Hunter and Distribution Specialist Jonathan Sadler step in. You still have acres and acres of paperwork to consider.

The release of your film?

For your film to be sold to a territory there are many different ‘back-end’ items that need to be prepared. Everything, from a closed captioning script (for sub-titles) the Music and Effects audio track, contracts, licensing and so on. Preparing these items is time-consuming and expensive unless you develop a strategy right at the start of your production.

Moving forward

There is a lot of valuable research you can do online. You should also check out the new kinds of data-wrangling marketeers and story artists alike are using. My two favourites are:


– the software that lets you quickly analyze keywords and social media marketing responses and compares your film to successful films from the past 35 years.
– with this tool, you can predict audience response to your movie

Kira-Anne Pelican

– the brilliant Raindance tutor and story analyst whose Moneyball is revolutionising storytelling with a clear, keen eye to how iconic characters garner social media responses and with it, audiences

This is where Jonathan and Simon’s weekend is such an asset. Check out their Independent Film Distribution masterclass.

It’s a wrap

Every movie’s sales and distribution strategy will be different. With a complete understanding of how the sales and distribution business works, and with the creation of effective marketing assets, you too should be able to dance the movie hustle. And never forget: box office magic is never earned. It is manufactured.



Photo Credit David Martinez / BIFA 2018

Few people know more filmmakers and screenwriters than Elliot Grove. Elliot is the founder of Raindance Film Festival (1993) and the British Independent Film Awards (1998). He has produced over 700 hundred short films and five feature films: the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead (2006), Deadly Virtues (2013), AMBER (2017), Love is Thicker Than Water (2018) and the SWSX Grand Jury Prize winner Alice (2019). He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance BREXiT trailer 2019

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.

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