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Filmmaking (Actually) - Ep. 8 "What Do You Need to Know About Film Distribution, Actually??"

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

With Erik Lundmark (Part 1)

Join Koura Linda in part one of a two-part series as she discusses film distribution with Erik Lundmark, CEO of Leomark Studios, a film production, post-production, and distribution company with more than 50 film titles in its catalog. Film distribution is changing day by day, and while there’s no one model for the trajectory of a feature film’s release, this conversation highlights some of the basics for filmmakers and film enthusiasts alike to learn about. For more on Leomark Studios, check them out on Twitter: @LeomarkStudios, Facebook: LeomarkStudios, and Instagram: @LeomarkStudios

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Below please find a transcript of this episode. Episodes are also available as audio-only podcasts here or with subtitles in this video:

What Do You Need To Know About Film Distribution, Actually?

(Part 1 with Erik Lundmark)

SPACEY: Hey guys this is Spacey, and welcome to Koura's podcast “Filmmaking Actually.” This is an interview with film distributor Erik Landmark and they talk film distributing and all that fun stuff. This is part one, so enjoy!

[Music] [Applause] [Music]

KOURA: Hi, welcome back to my podcast “Filmmaking actually”. I'm here with Erik Landmark of Leomark Studios. He's a very awesome film distributor that I had the honor of meeting at the Capitol Film Market which is a part of the Nova Film Festival in northern Virginia. And he has worked in film for decades, and finally decided to get more into the business side of things, and has worked in film distribution for about 10 years. So I'm very happy to have him with us today. And he's going to be answering some questions about film distribution and what's really important for filmmakers to keep in mind as they go through production and get ready to sell their film. So uh, hello! And welcome to “Filmmaking Actually”

ERIK: Hi thanks for having me!

KOURA: We're absolutely honored to have you. I think that film distribution — it's not something that usually gets talked about that I've seen in like, indie filmmaking forums. Everyone's always focused on their gear and the talent and the script and all this stuff, but no one really thinks about what to do once they've made a film.

ERIK: That's true. Making a film is of course very very important to make a good you know product or a piece of art or however you want to name it. But, if you intend it to be a business, you then also have to take it to the next level and treat it as a business. If you know, if that's your intention of course.

KOURA: Uh, yeah exactly. I have an earlier episode where I said the first thing to do when making a film is to decide, you know, what do you want to do with it? Do you want to go to festivals? Do you want to distribute it? Do you want to self-distribute it? There are so many options. What would you say if someone is, you know, they're starting to plan a film? what would you say is needed by a filmmaker for their film to actually be ready for distribution? Like just the technical specs.

ERIK: The technical things. Right well, we want the deliverables to be Pro-Res 422 HQ at least. If they're shooting 2K, 4K or more there's really still only two formats that are being delivered at TV and digital. Which is UHD or HD which is 1080p, right? So you got to make sure you can deliver those files, even if you shoot with a camera that shoots compressed, you know, many DSLR cameras to shoot mp4s or whatever. But when you master it you have to master out to one of these high-res formats because that's what we want. And then you know, just learn a little bit. If you don't have any skilled technicians on your team, learn a little bit about the QC process to make sure your visuals are within the so-called legal broadcast specs. You know, the brightness, and and and the blacks, and the chroma so don't over saturate things. Same thing with audio. Make sure the audio is within a good specs. We don't want to see audio mixed like a pop song for radio where everything is slamming the top zero. No, it should be for theatrical is minus 18 minus 20 dialogue normal, or for digital release or tv is usually minus 12. So, just be aware of these things.

And also what we see all the time — I can't tell you how many times you see this — when in the audio section in between cuts, they forget to do little cross fades, just just a few frames on either side, and there's pops you know, in the noise background you have this [static sounds] and that's gonna get flagged in QC and it's going to get rejected. So you have to — if you don't do it first, you're going to have to redo it later. So you might as well just spend the extra time and make sure you crossfade all the cuts of production sound. Many many times also, we see the master coming from the color grading house, and they output the final master, and they forget to pan the soundtracks left and right. So we end up with a dual mono master, and that's going to have to be redone too. So there's like a checklist, a simple checklist. And if someone works with us before they create a master, we can send that over. Just you know, it's like an idiot-proof checklist to make sure you don't do things that are like really, really simple.

KOURA: Right. I know I have a couple friends who work in post sound, and one of the things that they said is really important, kind of just like a basic — Isn't it like, to not mix your dialogue and your soundtrack and your sound design into one track? Like so you can't extract the dialogue to do like dubbing in other languages? Is that — does that happen?

ERIK: Well I mean you always mix it down to a stereo master or surround master, but at the same time you do need to separate them if you intend to do foreign dubs. you do need — we call it M&E tracks: Music and Effects. So you have a fully filled Foley track that goes into the effects, so you have all the sound effects and Foley, meaning you have to recreate whatever is missing from production. If you cut out all the dialogue, if you see someone making something that should make a noise, there should be a noise there. So you do have to spend probably a week to two weeks depending how busy the movie is, just doing Foley to fill that in. So you have one stereo track with effects, and then you have one stereo track with music, or surround stamps too (It depends on how ambitious you want to be). But if you don't have those, we can't do foreign sales to countries that like to dub the movies.

KOURA: Good note! So, when a filmmaker is starting pre-production — Like, I mean I'm an over planner, I know not everyone digs in as far as I do when it comes to like, post during pre-production — What should the filmmaker consider during pre-production when they're planning for a film that they are hoping to get distribution on?

ERIK: Yeah! If we're looking at the film as a commercial product that they want distribution and make money from and so on, the best bet is to start a dialogue with an established distributor and saying — and show us the project saying “Here's the idea, here's the synopsis, here's what we're thinking of doing.” And then based on our experience we can come in and help you saying “Well this looks promising, and let's try to get one name in there.” Or so on. Or if we feel the film might not have a good chance commercially, then we're gonna say that. I don't think — At least based on our experience, I don't think this is going to work as a commercial project. Try to go for a festival film and get a lot of accolades and do more of an artistic creative piece, and maybe because of that get hired as a craftsperson on someone else's project. You know, there's different functions. Everything doesn't have to be a business. It could also be that you just make a movie that you believe in so strongly and because of your personal conviction it turns out really really well artistically, and you win festivals and so on. And maybe after a while the film gets picked up by a distributor, because of that, even though it wasn't planned as a commercial project from the beginning, it might work further down the line because you have gained so so many festival laurels and accolades etc.

KOURA: That's interesting, I was warned by one person that uh, festival — they're like “Festivals are not a distribution plan.” It's nice to hear that that actually is — Because you see it at you know, obviously Sundance and bigger festivals. But, I always like talking to more than one person on a subject, ‘cause sometimes you'll get one person who's like “Oh no, you can't do that!” And then you talk to someone else and they're like “You can totally do that!” So, it's nice to have that.

ERIK: Absolutely! The laurels, they make a difference! I mean I think it's just human nature, we see these laurels we go “Oh nice laurels! Oh, this makes the film look really good!” And we're just wired that way, when we see accolades like that we go “Oh I'm sure that's really good!” I mean if you get into one of the top five festivals (Sundance and etc.), you are guaranteed to be in the running to be considered by, you know, a major distributor that can put major, major financing behind a marketing campaign. That's like a different league, and if you do happen to get in there all on your own accord, that's like winning the lottery. And that's nice! But it's very very hard to plan to win the lottery. But we can help you plan a film and distribution from the beginning. That’s doable. We can't — We can make a plan that's fine.

KOURA: And that's — and it's nice! Because sometimes it does feel a little bit like every part of filmmaking is like winning the lottery. So it's nice to know that there's like some nitty gritty that you can put in and and plan!

ERIK: Right! Yeah, exactly.

KOURA: Let's talk about some of the nitty gritty. The runtime. Would you say, like, obviously a feature film I know is more — has more salability than say a short. But, how much does the runtime — say, an hour, hour and a half long movie, versus a two, two and a half hour long movie — how would that affect the salability of it?

ERIK: If your goal is to sell it to television of some kind, then you want to think very traditionally. Around 90 minutes, because otherwise they can't fit it in their slots. And even if you have a longer film, then you can make a tv cut, which might be necessary anyway! Because let's say you have too much nudity or violence that won't be allowed for tv then you have to make a TV version, or an airline version. And this is done with a lot of films. They always make you know, PG or PG-13 version that is TV safe, or airline safe, and that might be a lot shorter. So it's very hard with a film that's too long to fit it into television. For digital, it doesn't matter. You know, there's no limitation because you're just collecting revenue when the viewers are watching the movie. If it's too short there will be an issue too. If it's only like 60-62 minutes and so on, they can't slot it as a feature, then it's like a one-hour special, and then they have certain parameters and quote us for “Okay where are we going to put that then?” Because it's very, how should I say, corporate. When once you start working with television it's very corporate, and it's like “Oh you just put it here!” No no no no. They have certain slots for different kinds of programming, and if your film is too short it will also be an issue. Especially if it's supposed to be a narrative. A documentary? That might work as a hour-long feature. But then you should also make a TV version, which is anywhere from like 45-52 minutes which is called a Commercial Hour, so they can fit in their commercial breaks.

KOURA: Let's say, you know, okay. So I'm an indie filmmaker, and I'm looking at, you know — I have a script. I have either a good runtime planned out for whatever I'm looking for. How — um, pre-sales. Is that something that like, I know obviously if I'm a big studio and I walk in and I'm like “Hi, I have the next Captain Marvel movie!” Like that's not gonna be a problem, but if I'm you know, a random person with a random script, how possible is it to get something like a pre-sale offer as an Indie Filmmaker?

ERIK: It's still possible, but it's a lot harder than it used to be. Before the economic crash in 2008-2009, we hear all these stories of the filmmakers going to one of these markets (like Cane or AFM or Berlin or Hong Kong) with a script and a mock-up poster, or not even a script, a synopsis, just an idea and a poster, and they were able to raise you know, anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000 or even more maybe! But it wasn't difficult to raise pre-sales based on an idea of a you know, genre — what you call a genre movie? Which is like a horror, sci-fi, action, something that is selling on its visual strength more than the cast names right. But today, because of the changes in the industry and the changes in how people watch movies you know, the DVD store is gone and it's all streaming and Netflix have basically taken over. So the only chance to get pre-sales today, is you need to have what's known as a package. And what that means is that you need to have a finished script of course. You also need to have one strong name attached. Because the fame factor is the real currency of the film business. And the fame factor can be fame — you know, well-known cast, a well-known director, producer, it could be a well-known subject matter, it could be based on a well-known book, or a comic book, or a political event, historical event, something that the audience already has a connection to. And in the industry this is called as: Pre-awareness. So the more pre-awareness of topic, or an actor or something like that has with the audience, the bigger the chance that it's going to be a commercial success.

If you have an unknown story, with an unknown filmmaker, with an unknown cast, it's very very hard to get the audience on the receiving end to go “Oh wow! What is this, I have to see this!” You know, just think about what you watch and how you select films yourself when you're browsing through iTunes or Netflix or wherever you browse movies. What is it that makes you go “Wow I have to see that” and then reverse analyze that in how you want to present your own film. But back to the pre-sale. So, I would say you got to have a good script, not just an idea a good script, one name attached, and you have to have a really good presentation with the director's statement where he or she has a vision — how the production design is going to look, what the color scheme is going to be, and the different locations, even if it's not the real location, it needs to have a visual idea of what it's going to look like. And then we might be able to get a few pre-sales here and there. But the thing is with pre-sales, they're going to pay a lot less because they're taking a risk up front, than if you would just sell the movie after it's done. When the movie's done and it's really good and they want it, you can negotiate a higher price. So the flip side of pre-sales is that it's not going to be a ton of money because they're taking this risk up front.

KOURA: So maybe getting pre-sales isn't — Like, I mean, obviously it totally depends on the filmmaker and the project and their budget and what their needs are. But I personally had the impression that like “Oh you should try and get pre-sales.” But I guess there probably isn't a good blanket answer for that. You probably have to look and see what, you know — If you know you're gonna make an amazing movie, maybe you should wait until you make it before you try and sell it.

ERIK: No, that’s not necessarily — Just don't try to finance the whole movie through pre-sales because it's probably not going to happen. But if you get two or three pre-sales, that's fine. So you might look at your budget and you have — all right, a fixed amount, and then you're going to get some in tax incentives, you're going to get some in a deferred payment, some — (All this what we call soft money) you get some in pre-sales. So you might only have to raise maybe 30% of your budget in cash, the rest, is considered soft money, and then you see it starts to kind of make sense “Oh I don't have to raise a million, I have to raise 300 000. Okay well, this is different.”

So that's what we can help with as a distributor and also, if you have a good attorney that is used to doing these things they can help you figure this out: How much cash do you actually raise on a one million dollar movie? But another thing you should think about with pre-sales, the idea of reaching out to the prospective buyers and say “If I make this would you be interested?”, that mindset is a good mindset because you have to do that, I think. And even if you don't make pre-sales, just the vetting process of “Would you be interested in this?” will give you a really good sense of if the film is going to be successful. If they're interested and excited then you go “Ah! I might have something here!” If you don't get any responses to your emails or lukewarm responses then you know, this might not be that successful commercially, it might still be a really good artistic piece, but then that's a different path.

KOURA: So what would you say — Like, obviously, to even consider distribution like you said, it has to be like a good and interesting story, it has to have some relatability, it has to have certain technical specifications: you know you can't have the sound cutting in and out, you can't have shoddy camera work, or shots out of focus or you know, really poor performances from any of the departments. So let's just say that you know, a film is a good — it's a good solid story, it's interesting, audiences respond positively to it, the acting is really good, the sound is well done, the cinematography is very beautiful. Are those, like if you have all those things in, would you say that that would raise your chances? Like it would be fair — I mean obviously nothing's for sure but it would be fairly sure to get a distribution or is there still more that kind of comes into play beyond those factors?

ERIK: Sure. Quality is always a determining factor when we look at films. We try to have our bar that we try to pass is skillfully crafted. We try not to say films are good or bad, because that's too subjective and personal. But what we can measure and judge is: Is it good craft? Do they know what they're doing? Right, and that is absolutely something we look at. And that will — if we have two films that are similar, but one is better made, then we probably will pick that one over the other one.

KOURA: Okay, and obviously I know you would suggest working with a sales representative but, would you be able to kind of speak to the pros and cons of self-distribution versus working with a Sales Rep?

ERIK: Sure! Yeah we get this question a lot and a lot of filmmakers might have had a bad experience in the past with a company that wasn't very forthcoming, or you know, not reporting, and they basically had a really bad experience with their previous distributors and now they want to do self distribution. So we talk about that, and sure yeah there are a lot of possibilities you can do when you self distribute. The platforms are there you can put it on YouTube and Vimeo and you can charge money for it etc. Just know that it's very time consuming. You have to make a decision: How do I want to spend my next five years? Do I just want to promote this one film I just made? Because it is a full-time job! Every hat you put on, even if it's not technically difficult it takes a lot of time! Or, do I want to do that, or do I rather team up with other people and focus on my next movie? Because I think, much as filmmaking is a team sport, film distribution is a team sport too. And it's not that what we do is difficult — I mean I always compare with, you know, playing an instrument because that's my background. I spent many, many years practicing my guitar and I became pretty good — but doing distribution, and so on it's not that you have to practice for many years before you get good at it.

What happens is, we develop a network of connections that we meet at these film markets and so on, and that's the value. Because it is a business of connections. If I can email someone that knows me and responds to me right away, I will much more likely have a chance of doing business, than if a totally unknown person emails that same person and they say “I don't know this one, I don't have time for this, I don't know what this is about.” You know, it's that vetting process that we have already done, so we have established channels with colleagues all over the world! So yeah we tell this filmmaker “Sure, if you really really bent on doing yourself go right ahead!” But we also say “Sure you can do a lot of stuff yourself. You can cut your own hair, you can fix your own car, you can change your plumbing but do you really want to?” Haha you know, everything takes time so i just think it's a team sport.

KOURA: That's a good point! I always say whenever you're making something you can invest you know, time, you can invest your time or you can invest your money. Like you can spend time learning how to do something and then doing it, or you can hire someone who already knows how to do it and get them to do it for you. So —

ERIK: Right.

KOURA: What about like, the legal — I know obviously neither of us are lawyers and none of this, nothing in this podcast is legal advice but — What do you require from a filmmaker. Let's say I was talking to a friend, and they told me a story, and then I decided to make a movie out of it, and I had them help me but I never got them to sign a release, and now I'm trying to sell the movie, but they still have a claim to the work. Could I still sell it? Or like what do I need from the people that I'm collaborating with before I'm able to sell a film?

ERIK: Yeah, that's called a Chain of Title. And that's something we do require. It is: You should register the script with the writer's guild or the copyright bureau. And you should also register the finished film with the copyright bureau because then you get a case number and you have your name on that film that you own it. Because whoever signs the contract needs to show proof that they own the film and they have the right to actually go into a legal contract with the distributor. You also should make sure that you have release forms from all the actors, all the extras, anyone who's on camera, you need a release form, especially the music if you work with with songs and bands, or if you work with a composer or both, you need license deals, release forms, and all that and use a cue sheet, you need to have all your paperwork in order. Because you'd be surprised how many times when we release a film, and there's some obscure actor that pops out of the woodwork saying “Hey you can't release that! I was in there, I didn't ever give my permission to do that!” and it became this legal battle over nothing or it seems like nothing. So just make sure you have signed release forms from anyone who is ever in contact with your work.

KOURA: Smart. What happens if you don't have it. Let's say you — I remember there was a girl who was looking at having me come in to direct her project. And she wanted to talk to me about it and she said she'd been working with some other writers on the script, and then she asked me to come in to take a look at the script and see if I'd be interested in directing it. And one of the first things I asked was if she had release forms from those writers, because their work was — like they had done revisions of the script and she was like “Well no, you know, we're all friends we were just collaborating.” And I said no. Because I didn't — it just seemed a little too weird from what she was saying. But what would have happened if let's say we got — you know, I went ahead and I directed it, we got distribution and she promised me like back end points once it was sold, and then we go to sell it, and she signs a thing saying “Oh yeah no, I registered this. This is mine.” and then the other writers come out and they're like “No nope, that's mine — I never signed a thing, I never agreed to that.” What happens?

ERIK: Yes. It's tricky. I don't know how to answer this specifically, but the bottom line is: If there's a dispute, the film will have to come down. If a lawyer — if someone hires a lawyer, and because they work with the law, and if they say you have to do this, you have to do that. I mean they're not a police officer, but they do represent the law and they are supposed to know it really well. Unless you get your own lawyer and they start to argue and rack up a bill — mostly what happens is that film will have to come down, and that's usually all there is to it. So the film is dead, there's no more money, and it's not out there.

KOURA: That makes sense. That's probably not something you want to do after you've gotten millions of dollars invested into your project and gone —

ERIK: No no no no no no. If you have that kind of budget, I'm sure the people you work with know what to do with regards to legal issues like that.

KOURA: So I know — like, I've been to a couple of film distribution panels, and I know they talk a lot about like action or horror, like those are really easy to sell because you know, it's harder with a comedy because you know, different cultures different languages — Jokes don't always translate, drama doesn't always translate — How vital would you say genre is? Should I be like “Oh I need to make a horror film and if I'm not making horror I'm not getting international distribution.” Or like, how much does that really affect the distribution?

ERIK: It does to a certain extent if you can't get that fame factor like we talked about. If you don't have the same factor or that pre-awareness (something that the audience can already relate to) then the visuals is what you have. And it's very primal, so it's gonna be either very scary, or sexy, or very very romantic. Uh, it sounds like clichés, and it is, but that's what we see you know. But another thought about this whole international distribution, international sales. I think — you shouldn't think too much about “Oh we have to sell this internationally!” You know the US is a really really big market! It's, (Besides China which is really weird to work with anyway) But you know, US is the biggest market in the world! I think you should focus on making the film work here! Because it's going to be in English, and this is where everybody else wants to have their movies distributed. So before you just think “Oh what's going to work in France, what's going to work in Russia?” and so on. Just think: What's going to work here at home? And then of course UK and Australia will be thrown in for free because you know, English-speaking territories are easy. It's very hard to make one movie that fits every country, because they have very very different tastes. Even in the horror genre or action or whatever you have. It's very hard to make a movie that one size fits all. But if you can make a movie that fits the US audience, this is a huge market! Yeah the genre does matter if you don't have the fame factor. That's the simple answer.

KOURA: No, that's a great answer! And it's it's also nice to hear because you do hear a lot of people talking about China, and talking about international sales, and talking about all this, and you kind of forget that there's a giant market of film viewers in America. Like people who would want to watch Netflix subscribers, Amazon Prime subscribers, TV viewers, like there's millions and millions of people no yeah just in the US. So yeah no, that's a good reminder!

SPACEY: Yeah okay! That concludes part one of Koura’s interview with Erik Landmark. Be sure to tune in next time for part two, it's gonna be great! Okay here's the end credits. See ya!


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