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Careers in film distribution

When the cameras stop rolling, a film’s journey to the screen begins.

What is film distribution?

Film distributors are the connection between producers, who are the people at studios that make a film, and exhibitors, like the cinemas and TV stations that show them. Distributors are responsible for identifying a film’s target audience, thinking of ways to promote it to them and then making sure it’s shown in enough places for them to see it.

How does film distribution work?

Most of the big Hollywood studios have their own in-house distribution departments who look after every film they produce. Smaller independent producers will use the services of independent distribution companies, who often specialize in certain kinds of films like foreign language or arthouse movies.

Film distributors begin by signing a distribution deal with producers, in which they buy the rights to distribute a film. The deal will also include early details of the cinemas the distributor intends to target, which could be big chains for potential blockbusters or independent cinemas for smaller films, how the film will later be distributed online and on DVD, and how the producers and distributors will split any profits. This deal will often be signed before filming begins, as it is much easier for producers to raise money for a film if they can prove to investors it will be shown in cinemas.

As the film nears completion, the distributors will begin to think carefully about when the film should be released, which can make a big difference to box office takings. For example it’s normally best to release a children’s film during school holidays, but not if there are too many similar films being released at the same time. Distributors will then meet with film exhibitors to persuade them to show the film.

The distributors will also do marketing research to see who the film will appeal to, and devise a marketing plan to reach them. Depending on the budget, this could include things like:

  • Posters and billboard advertising
  • Cinema trailers and TV adverts
  • Online marketing and social media campaigns
  • PR to secure press reviews and interviews with the stars
  • Promotional tie-ins and merchandise

The next step is to get the film over to the cinemas showing it. These days the majority of cinemas use digital projectors so the film is delivered either on hard drive or via download, although some cinemas might still use rolls of 35mm film which have to be dropped off by hand.

What jobs are available?

  • Acquisition staff decide which films a distributor should sign, which can mean watching a lot of films and reading scripts. Knowledge of film and market trends is essential, but you’ll also need great communication skills to deal with film sales agents, who represent the studios trying to sell the film.
  • Marketing staff are needed to make sure the film reaches the widest possible audience, so they have to know the right places to advertise in the right ways to the right people.
  • Designers use their creative skills to come up with posters and websites to promote the film.
  • PR staff or publicists have to be great at communication and networking, which can occasionally mean schmoozing with the stars at premieres, but more often means talking to journalists on the phone or in meetings to convince them to cover the film.
  • Sales staff negotiate with producers and exhibitors, so need a great head for numbers and hard-nosed negotiation skills to drive the best deal. Accountants and other administrative staff are also needed to make sure the numbers add up.
  • Technical staff make sure the films are delivered in the right format and quality to the exhibitors that have ordered them.

How do I get into film distribution?

There are a range of qualifications you could study depending on what side of the business you’re interested in: acquisition staff would find a media studies degree useful, technical staff would be more likely to have a vocational qualification like a HND or foundation degree in film production, and sales and marketing staff would benefit from A-levels in business studies or a marketing degree. Other subjects like English literature or a social science will give you transferable skills that could be used in some aspects of film distribution like researching audiences and cinemas, while a design apprenticeship will provide you with specific practical skills for that area.

You’ll almost certainly need some work experience too, and proving your love of film will be crucial to getting through the door when you apply to distributors. This doesn’t mean dressing up as Darth Vader or quoting Casablanca in your interview, but demonstrating anything from getting involved in the film society at university or making your own short films to a part-time job in your local cinema.

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