Time for a bracing reality check. I love a good drama. I spent an afternoon in the cinema watching Amour and Rust and Bone back to back weeping. But, writing this an insight into traditional distribution for independent filmmakers, I feel like Godzilla stomping on your dreams. I take no joy in it, but you should be aware of how distribution sees drama.

Tell a sales agent or a distributor you’ve made a drama and you’ll see a wince go across their faces. Dramas, the mantra goes, don’t sell. They don’t make money. Not in this market, not at this time, not without a big star attached.

Dramas are difficult. They’re the prime example of the gulf between what independent filmmakers want to make and what the market wants.

Make a drama and the odds are stacked against you. A good commercial drama is hard to make. It needs a great script, strong engaging performances from your actors, fantastic direction and a story that will captivate your audience. Many follow a formula – based on a best selling book, based on a true story, a prestige biopic or take a look at the zeitgeist (The Social Network).

Traditional distribution only seems to have space for the big budget studio dramas, indies with A-list stars, established auteur directors, and the cream of the art-house crop from top tier festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Berlinale and Venice.

That said, even if your film gets into Sundance, you’re still facing an uphill struggle. This year, 115 films were screened at the festival. Indiewire reported only 27 films were picked up for distribution. Out of those, there were 12 dramas: Whiplash, Camp X-Ray, God’s Pocket, Infinitely Polar Bear, Love is Strange, Laggies, A Most Violent Year, The Skeleton Twins, Happy Christmas, Calvary, Wish I Was Here and God Help The Girl. 

The common thread through all of these, with the exception of Sundance winner Whiplash, Calvary (anticipated follow up to The Guard) and God Help The Girl? Strong marketable cast.

(Edit – God Help The Girl benefitted from the BFI’s U.S. Distribution Fund to promote UK film, which made a grant of up £25,000 available to distributors to support a US theatrical release. See Variety coverage here)

Dramas are tough to market, unless they have star power and you can pitch them as a Brad Pitt movie. Part of the problem? You’re telling a new story every time. Horror, action and rom coms have clear audiences and demographics. The viewer knows what they’re going to get. Drama is much more murky and the audiences less transferable. If your film is a period piece about a Romantic poet, it’ll have a completely different audience to a modern drama about a crime family. Contrast that to horror which hits its male 16-24 audience every time.

It’s reflected in the box office numbers. Producer Stephen Follows did some fantastic research looking at UK films by genre between 2003 – 2012, using BFI stats.

28% of films released in UK cinemas were dramas. They only accounted for 7% of the box office. 7%! 

Stephen’s research shows dramas are also hit hard when it comes to home video physical sales. Audiences prefer to rent dramas, rather than buy them, which minimises DVD sales as a revenue stream. That’s your audience voting with their wallets. The strongest performing genre from Stephen’s research? Comedy.

On an anecdotal level, when I worked as a sales agent, one of my TV broadcaster clients told me they were shutting down their drama film channel. Night after night, audience numbers would drop when a drama came on. I have a friend who worked with some of the leading UK Video On Demand platforms. Their strongest performing films? Action. Dramas just didn’t register. Traditional distribution is all about numbers. It’s a business. Genre films are an easier sell for a higher return, rather than the hard work and headaches that is drama.

It’s a heartbreaking truth. You can spend two years of your life pouring blood, sweat and tears into telling a story that’s personal to you. You can make a great film. People will even say it’s a good film. But the chances are, if it’s a drama, with no big stars attached, you’re unlikely to get traditional distribution. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, my favourite film from the past five years, are the exception, not the rule.

Good drama has migrated to television.

We’re seeing a golden age with shows like Mad Men, House of Cards, The Americans, Breaking Bad, True Detective, Girls, Lionsgate’s groundbreaking Orange Is The New Black, Game of Thrones and more. TV’s harder to crack than film, but think about it. Maybe your film would work better as a mini series. If your script and project are strong enough to attract interest from a major production company, you know you’re onto something.

After all that, if you’ve got your heart set on drama or you’ve already made your film, what can you do?

If traditional distribution isn’t working, grab the bull by the horn and take on self-distribution. You have direct control over your film. You’ll get a higher percentage of revenue than you would through traditional distribution. You can find your audience and connect with them directly. The power’s in your hands.

It’s the 1000 true fans theory in action. Be strategic, organised and effective and you don’t need a distributor at all. There’s already a couple of pioneers out there proving it can be done. British filmmaker, Marcus Markou, blazed a trail for all independent filmmakers when he self distributed his film Papadopoulous & Sons through Cineworld in the UK, achieving a huge box office per screen average. His interview with Chris Jones of the Guerilla Film Maker’s Handbook is a must listen for anyone considering the self-distribution path.

If you really want to make a drama, do it. I’m part of the audience who will watch your film. Be prepared with a distribution strategy from day one. Control your own destiny. Chances are the Weinsteins aren’t going to swoop in and pick up your film. But, you might be able to do it without them.

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Picture Credit: The Tree Of Life

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