Can A Non-Commercial Film Get Distribution?

I recently asked Film Specific members to email me for help, wherever they are at with their projects, and the 2 most glaring calls for help that came back were…

1. My film is completed (or in post) and what do I do next?
2. I want to take my film to AFM, how do I get sales agents and distributors interested and set up meetings in advance?

The answer to the first question is a complicated one since it entirely depends on what kind of film you have (commercial or non?) as to whether you should pursue festivals first, go straight to distribution, go straight to digital, self distribute, etc. So that one requires actual strategy and I can refer you to numerous resources on the FS site to support that. Others, decide to have me do it for them and hire me for consulting instead.

But the second question is more cut and dry – there’s an actual step by step formula that you can follow to get meetings at any Film Market and to simplify that for you, it includes:

• Cut together a killer trailer
• Get your other marketing materials together: Website, One Sheet, Pitch Deck
• Approach sales agents and show them what you got – completely wow them!
• Request a meeting or drop in on them after the first few busy days of the market have passed, marketing materials in hand, and wow them again.

Of course I go into greater detail of this process in my Film Market Prep Guide, but you get the gist here….

So yeah, bottom line there’s going to be some prep going on, starting right now, if you wish to get your film to the fall markets (MIPCOM + AFM). Don’t panic, just follow the steps :)

An interesting case study came out of the responses I received from members as well. Last year producer Tessa Bell took her film Bipolar to AFM to get a sales agent. She learned the hard way how difficult that route can be without an inherently ‘commercial’ film. Read her story below and let me know any questions you have about your film in the comments section below the post…..



What a new drug can do.

Young, introverted and bipolar Harry Poole starts a video diary during a clinical trial for a wonder drug that brings him out of his shell.  The trial is canceled, but not before he turns himself into ‘Edward Grey,’ a seductive and dangerous alter ego, who continues to document his life as it descends into madness.





Under $500,000



We were pretty close to final picture (finished in Jan 2103).  We were looking for a sales agent for international distribution. Our strategy was to set up meetings before hand and meet as many people as possible.

[EDITORS NOTE]: Setting up meetings in advance is key (if possible). Also, in order to get a sales agent’s attention to even want to schedule a meeting with you, you’ll need a killer trailer, one sheet, and/or Pitch Deck.



It was difficult to get interest in the film.  This is not a very commercial property, and we did not fit in very well.  I knew that going in, so I was looking for someone who wanted an unusual film.  Most everyone was in a hurry and we were not a quick sell.  It really showed me in a concrete way what you have been saying all along about the importance of a commercial property.  Now, I knew that going in to the making of this film.  The director was a talented French director with very strong ideas and all the financing in place.  I took the project on knowing full well we were not going to be able to compete.  I did the market anyway and the upshot was that I learned viscerally and painfully just how silly it is to make a movie that is not commercial in any way.



Not having a commercial film.  I knew it, but this was the movie the director and exec prod wanted to make.  Unfortunately, we are not living in that century….

[EDITORS NOTE}: It’s not to say you must make a commercial film, people make their passion projects all the time that aren’t necessarily commercial in any way. The point is to go into the process with your eyes wide open and realize that going the sales agent or film market route may not be your best bet, perhaps you’ll need to pursue the festival circuit instead and manage your expectations regarding traditional distribution.



Love your pep talks and training sessions.  I did the Film Market Lab and it was a great way to keep my head on straight.  The key is to keep focused amidst all the movement, and you certainly help do that.



We did get a sales agent.  He is very cool.  So far we have had no real bites on sales though.  Lots of third tier distributors who want 45% and $45,000 (in expenses).  Lots of those guys.  Amazing.  For $45,000 I can self distribute and see as much money at the end of a year as they would get me.



Produce a film that had a pre distribution deal.  No question.



I’m also selling my second feature, writing a commercial film and looking for more money.  Wish me luck.


Now over to you – what do you think and what questions do you have for me or Tessa? Please post them in the comments section below.


Additional Resources:

Want your own hand held prepping for upcoming film markets (MIPCOM & AFM)? Then join me for my upcoming Film Market Lab, a 4 month Virtual Boot Camp designed to help producers get their completed films and scripts to market. Pre-Registrations tarts today – register here while you can save $150 on tuition.


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  • Elizabeth Appell

    Hi, Tessa,
    Thank you for being so open about your experience. I can imagine how difficult your stint at AFM must have been. I have a lot of fear about going this year. Your comment about having a pre-distribution deal. I assume you mean you would want this deal before you shoot the film. Is that correct? And if it is, how do you get a distributor to put up money without seeing your completed film? It’s the old chicken and egg problem.

    I wish you heaps of good luck in your future projects.

    • Stacey Parks

      She’s referring to getting pre-sales before she even makes the movie…..

    • Tessa Bell

      Hi Elizabeth,
      Thank you for the encouragement.
      Here’s an example: So my producing partner and I are developing a property based on a novel by Pierre Boulle who wrote “Planet of the Apes,” and “Bridge on the River Kwai.” We THINK this is a commercial property, but until a distributor tells me it is, all we have is an opinion.
      Now a distributor can look at the concept and figure out exactly under what conditions the movie would sell and give a decent estimate of projected sales. With those sales projections, I have more than an opinion, I have a sales analysis, which I can take to my investors…it also helps me decide my budget level.
      A distributor would want to talk to me if at least two of the following conditions were true:
      if we partner with a production company that the distributor has a relationship with, if our property is repped by a major talent agency, if a hot actor wants to do the film, or likewise a hot director.
      We would not get any pre-sales advance from the distributor (unless we wanted/needed it and they agreed) but we would keep the distributor in the loop on casting and locations and script changes, for two really good reasons: at the end of the day, they have to want to sell the film, and I need to know what kind of film that is.
      All this is said over and over by Film Specific, and, while it is difficult, it is far far easier than making a movie that noone wants to buy!
      Good luck back to you.

      • StreetFilms

        So I’ve listened to the Million Dollar Blueprint, and read all the rest of those discussions. One sticking point for me is getting the distributor or sales agent to just talk to you, in order to gauge the direction of your film as marketable.

        So are you saying that even before you get that feedback, you need to find a production company, or have hot talent or director interest? Because it seems you need to first know what the script has to be, and finish it, before you can get that interest.

        1. Would not a pitch deck/website, art, and script draft be good enough to get that sales feedback?

        2. Or do you use those things to get that hot interest to then take back to the distributor,

        3. or do you do a juggling act with all this?

        • Stacey Parks

          I’ll just jump in here for a second – have you gone to AFM already to try and meet sales agents and distributors in person? If not, that’s a very quick and easy way to at least *start* to break down those barriers.

          There are countless stories of filmmakers showing up at AFM,EFM, and/or Cannes to pitch their projects and get ‘commercial’ feedback….

          • StreetFilms

            I did it with a doc last year. And I did get a relationship going with one. The doc just didn’t fly. It’s critical of US healthcare, so that’s a huge non-commercial element.

            By the way, the sales agent I talked to said there is a huge difference in looking to make a profit and just looking to get exposure. He says they are completely different markets.

            This year I have two other projects that I would consider a romantic thriller dark comedy (kind of like Bipolar), and a war romance thriller (maybe drama). Obviously not clear cut genres. But both still at the script stage.

            Anyway thanks for chiming in. That’s what I needed to know. I will try it. I have websites, art and working on a trailer for the first one. Not sure I’ll have that for AFM. Maybe Cannes.

            One interesting thing in doing the trailer (and short film version) and working with actors, the actor feedback I get is really helping to mold the script into something better, I think.

            Thank you.

  • StreetFilms

    A few questions and thoughts:

    1. How do you know what’s marketable, and doesn’t this change?

    2. If you have a project in development and with a trailer, does it make sense to alter it or spin it as more marketable? For example, a comedy romance with crime thriller elements could be pitched as more of a thriller and with the thriller elements driving the trailer. You could even rewrite to make the crime thriller element most prominent.

    3. Bipolar seems to be mostly a dark comedy. But it has psycho thriller elements. Could that be the way to pitch it and cut a trailer to MAKE it marketable? It’s kind of Silver Linings Playbook with American Psycho elements. So maybe you could focus on the American Psycho aspect in the trailer and pitch materials.

    • Stacey Parks

      Commercial films are the usual ‘genre’ films – action, thriller, family, sci-fi (basically not dramas or comedies)

      In terms of ‘spinning’ it so your trailer seems more marketable – personally I wouldn’t do that because if the nature of the film is a comedy/romance then that’s going to come out eventually. The only thing to do would be to rewrite the project entirely as a thriller, which I’m sure you wouldn’t want to do! (neither would I).

      If you have a romantic comedy make the best of it and get the best stars that you can for that genre….

      Hope that helps!

    • Tessa Bell

      1. You know what’s marketable from what is selling and yes that changes. Just look at this summer. This is the summer of change for male driven blockbusters. Buddy action films were trumped by a female takeoff. Mega budgets were trounced. It has been an expensive mistake….perhaps smaller films will get more attention now. There is an element of genie in the bottle, but there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Some people are better than others at gauging where the audience is going.

      2. & 3. I would be very careful spinning a trailer too far from the film. We have a very good trailer. All the sales agents wanted to see the movie after seeing the trailer. That was not the problem. The problem occurred when they watched the film. It has great production values and good acting, even great acting in some places. But it is a hard movie to get hooked into. Guys who watch the entire movie generally have enjoyed the experience, but it is an edgy film with a style US audiences are not accustomed to…
      Hope that helps.

  • Prema Rose

    I am fully aware that The MicroCosmic Cartoon Show is, ostensibly, not a commercial genre, being an animated symph-rock-tronic operetta, so what do i do? I have to make it into the kind of movie that will have an audience of differing tastes. Each character has their own musical voice that will appeal to the kids as well as adults. We really cannot make a trailer, since that will depend on the animation studio we work with, although I do have a rough 5 min. animatic. I see that popular genres are always evolving and we may be a breakthough movie. Somebody has to do it.

    I guess what I am saying is that there are many ways to make a movie commercially viable, even if it does not fit into the genre molds. A psychological drama, such as yours Tessa, is a far more interesting genre than much of what I have seen at AFM. I would say to be true to your vision and package it well.

    • StreetFilms

      I don’t speak for Tessa, but I think she’s saying that she’s been there and it does not fly. So it seems that if there’s a way to make it ‘commercially viable’, it’s not going to be through traditional distribution. So I’m curious just how, specifically, that could work. Crowdfunding is one idea. I think her film is a great candidate for that. But you really need to put a knock out campaign together, or have thousands of friends with money.

      My take was that I see crime thriller all over this movie, just looking at the trailer she has up now. So if you package it highlighting those elements you aren’t hiding what the film actually is. You’re just hitting on the elements that work best for a trailer.

      Another thing that can be done is to re-cut with a thriller edge. You can make something a thriller just by the kind of music you use. Is that not true to her vision? Yes. But if it’s a success, she could always release a director’s cut. If Francis Ford Coppola can’t sell Apocalypse Now! cut the way he prefers it, what makes you think you have that ability? Otherwise, you make a film and no one will ever see it. What’s the point?

    • Tessa Bell

      Listen, if you are going completely out of genre, and are breaking new ground, on some level you have to be satisfied with just that…It is a worthy endeavor all on its own. It may not make money, but if you break new ground, that is cool.

      You could say Bipolar does just that. Unfortunately we don’t live in a world thirsty for something truly new. We live in a world thirsty for Coca Cola and Popcorn and reliable entertainment.

      My advice (development) is to pick a genre, comedy, action, drama, horror, romance…pick one. Study the genre and figure out the requirements of a good movie in that genre and then plug your own content into it. This way you can break new ground on the same planet.

      Hope that helps.

      • StreetFilms

        I know I want to see your movie. I think there is a market for it. Maybe distributors are behind the eight ball on this.

  • Phil Condit

    Way back in the thread you mentioned, “partner with a production company that the distributor has a relationship with”. This triggers several questions for me. First, how do you determine which production companies are working with which distributor/sales agent? Second, How do you get them to partner with you?

    I have two projects I’m moving forward with. One is an extremely low budget horror flick, the other is a low budget slasher type film.

    I have sent an inquiry to Lance Henriksen’s manager to see if I can get him for two days on my extremely low budget film. That would make it much more commercially viable, but so far, I haven’t heard back from them. I guess I’ll wait a few more days then call them. If I can’t make a connection that way, I’ll try his agent. Any other suggestions are greatly appreciated. I plan to fund a majority of the film through crowd funding, so having a genre star would really help my credibility and might even open the door for presales(?).

    My second film I plan to attach some real talent to. I had planned a $1M budget, but have since found out that you can’t get a completion bond on films under $2M. That makes it a bigger film than I had planned, but I don’t see another option. I plan to partner with an experienced producer on this film, but I have to have enough elements already in place for them to come on board.

    • Tessa Bell

      Hi Phil,
      You find out which production companies are working with which distributors by researching the AMF website and imdbpro. Let’s say your genre is family films. There’s a section of distributors at AFM who do mostly family films. You can see what they are selling, look at each film and see who produced it. If you don’t get all the info that way you can go thru imdbpro. Each film lists all the players, including the production companies.
      The other thing about relationships as they concern your career is that you can’t research them to make them. In other words, you figure out distributors who have sold movies like yours, then you have to meet them, and charm them with your tale.
      Good luck with your movies.

  • James

    Hey all,

    I just wanted to get the word out about The Audience Awards. It’s a great new online film competition that revolves around the idea that every film deserves the chance to prove itself before an audience. The audience is given the chance to vote for their favorite films, and the film with the most votes in its category wins $5,000 cash + a consultation and film distribution deal with FilmBuff. Check it out!