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Why Film Distributors Don't Like Dramas

Here's one of the challenges for independent film makers. There's often a disconnect between the kinds of films you want to make and the type of films that are successful in traditional distribution. When I worked as a sales agent, I saw it all the time. There's little or no relationship between supply and demand.

Me, I love a good drama. But the market doesn't. I wrote about the why here - Alternative models of distribution might provide a different avenue for drama films, but you really have to work for it.

Would love to hear you thoughts and comments.

  • So it's not the distributors, it's the audience :-)

    I have to say, I'm part of that audience. Drama works when the audience has time to get to know the characters BEFORE the main action/plot starts.

    So the feature format for drama is constraining. Mini-series and upwards is what you really need.

    What do I watch on TV? Long form drama (Utopia is back , yea!), docus.

    What do I PAY to see in a cinema? Genre. I want my genre to be smart and playful and intelligent and subverted and I've never been a gore/horror fan, but it's genre all the same. Genre accelerates you into the story. And when choosing what to watch, genre helps you pick a movie for your mood.

    As writer, I find the same. My genre stuff (smart and witty as it is) is feature length. Every time I drift into drama and multi threaded multi character narrative I want series time :-)

    When I buy a ticket I want a ride. When I watch at home, I'm looking to get sucked in, (and can bail easily if it just doesn't work).


    5 years ago
  • Good article, Nadin. It's true, and has been true for the last 30 years. But the problem isn't with the genre itself. The problem is that distributors don't know how to sell it. When is the last time an action or comedy film won Best Picture at the Academy Awards?

    It's a self fulfilling prophecy. Distributors don't pour money into advertising of dramas because they don't think there's an audience, so the potential audience doesn't know the film exists. And 'round we go.

    Paramount, back in the early eighties (I'm old), could sell drama. They were damned good at it. Now in the more corporate culture of Hollywood, promotion isn't geared for an individual film. It's a cookie cutter promotion factory were all films are the same, and promoted the same way.

    But in the end, you are right. Since distributors want an easy sell, dramas are fucked. With the right promotion, I think a drama could actually do better than the typical action film, because they appeal to older folk. And older folk tend not to pirate. Compare the piracy figures of "Zombie Land" to "The King's Speech" and you'll see my point. Dramas are cheaper to do, and the potential for profit can outweigh the big budget action movie. But that takes promotion. Something distributors aren't willing to do.

    5 years ago
  • Thanks Nadin - a sobering and pretty realistic assessment of the status quo. I spent absolutely years trying to get a drama script made - it was in development in two countries and it was a great, powerful script I'd still love to do. But without a star name attached it was not a goer. I eventually made a microbudget comedy, TEA & SANGRIA, which has been very well received. But despite there being quite a lot of enthusiasm for comedy in these post-crisis times, it is equally proving a bitch to sell and always for the same reason - lack of star names.

    On a different note, and going back to Stephen Follows fine work, one curious and counter-intuitive thing he turned up in his research was this: of all the genres, the ones where you are most likely (as a director, producer or screenwriter) to move on from a first feature to an actual career are drama, documentary and horror. Indeed, drama was frequently the top option. So weirdly enough, it would appear that the failure to distribute your drama successfully doesn't always stop you getting to make another.

    5 years ago
  • BFI, Creative England, iFeatures et al seem to pick dramas to back and support over genre... so there must be something in kudos and awards... I agree with Dan - they don't know how to sell them...

    5 years ago
  • Wow. Great comments. Just to respond to a couple of points.

    Dan - I'm not sure it's a self fulfilling prophecy. I think audience tastes play a significant part. I'm with Marlon on that and I've also heard it from TV broadcasters that audiences turn off when it comes to feature film dramas. The flipside is, we tune in for TV.

    It's also perhaps a little unfair to make comparisons to the 80s. It was a drastically different time for distribution. There were far fewer alternatives in terms of entertainment which made for a captive audience who'd go to see a film Friday night.

    There were also fewer films being made, which in some ways acted as quality control. It was much much easier to market films compared to now when you have to fight for attention for all the options we have available, not just for film.

    I'd say the awards seasons definitely skew to "serious" films and drama, but Silver Linings Playbook isn't a straight up drama and straddles the line of comedy.

    I agree completely with your point on older audiences. You can certainly see a shift that way - Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, Philomena. It's an interesting niche to explore.

    Stuart - I don't have the stats for BFI, Creative England etc applications, but I'd hazard a guess, they fund more dramas because they get proportionally more in their applications.
    As Stephens Follows shows in his stats, we Brits like to make dramas. 28% of UK films between 2010-12 were dramas.

    Which probably means you have a wider pool of quality projects to draw from than other genres. It doesn't mean they're commercial. In fact, government bodies have the luxury of being able to support films that perhaps wouldn't get made on a commercial basis, but can because they see the value in the art.

    5 years ago
    • I'm not really comparing the 80s. I'm comparing the ability to properly PROMOTE a film then compared to now. Ummmm... you know we did have video stores and cable back then, right? What we didn't have were films for free. I think fighting for eyeballs is a myth. They said that in the 50s with TV, in the late 70s with VHS, then DVDs, and now Netflix. Box office has still gone up during all of the upheavals.

      While there are more films made now, studios fund MANY less films, so there is no huge incentive to promote films they only distribute.

      Just speaking personally, the reason I see or don't see a film in the theater is price. Here in L.A., ticket price is between 14 and 20 bucks. If I don't know about a drama (because it hasn't been promoted) I'll not risk $18 unless the director is someone I know and like. I'm a big fan of tiered pricing, which theaters are fighting to their last breath. Basically, a film that costs 10 million would have a lower ticket price than one that cost 100 million. For $8 I would certainly see many more million dollar indie dramas than I do now. Why is it that television drama is now king? Because there is very little risk involved for the audience, and networks like HBO are willing to take chances. Something studios and distributors are not willing to do.

      5 years ago
    • To a degree I understand. However, so much of what they support isn't unmarketable drama, it's just drama and that comes right round to your original point about how to distribute.

      5 years ago
    • @Stuart Wright Would you mind expanding on that, Stuart? I'm not sure I quite understand your point, and I have a keen interest in distribution.

      For a couple of decades I worked uncredited fixing films in trouble, and have worked with quite a number of distributors in that position. I think I know how they think, and am often befuddled by their thinking. Especially, how over the years, dramas--as Nadin points out--are the redheaded step child. I've seen dramas that were obviously meant for an older audience that were promoted as if they were for 15 year olds, because as the logic goes; teens spend more money at the movies. So of course, the few that see it, spread bad word of mouth because they are not the demographic for that film. It's madness.

      Over the last few years I've also noticed something: I'll be in the video store (yes, there are some left in L.A.) and I'll run across a film with name actors, some with stars even, and I've never heard of the film. I'm in the industry. I'd say 90 percent of my friends work in the industry. AND I'VE NEVER HEARD OF THESE FILMS. If I haven't heard of them, how in the world is somebody that works in Target in Kansas going to hear about them? I go back to my original point: dramas fail because they are not promoted properly because distributors think there isn't an audience for drama.

      5 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich all I mean is that the titles that get support from say the BFI don't seem to be way out west dramas with no discerning market to sell to a la Bruno Dumont

      5 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich "Here in L.A., ticket price is between 14 and 20 bucks." <<-- You really need to check out the Vista Theatre at the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood. Amazing theatre, great sound, and best of all they have week-end matinees for $7.25 on first run movies...can't beat that! (well, ok, you can if you're a member of the DGA).

      5 years ago
    • @Kays Alatrakchi Lived here my entire adult life, and know it well (even before they redid the thing). One theatre doesn't cut it. Downtown, there's $7 Tuesdays for everybody, and didn't include that either. Local 700 (or in the old days 776), doesn't get much in the way of perks.

      You kind of answered my problem: "first run." Vista shows all the same shit as everybody else, for the most part. Living in the film capital of the world, you'd think we'd have more options. But really, The Independent downtown and the NuArt are about the only options left. And I don't go west of La Brea.;)

      5 years ago
    • @Stuart Wright Thanks Stuart. Living in L.A., I'm not up on BFI and other British insider things. Every once in a while, I'll see in the credits "British Lottery" and think, "Hummm... what's that?" Then don't bother to look. My bad!

      5 years ago
  • I'd argue that there are very good reasons for first time film makers to make a damn fine feature length drama. But being commercial isn't one of them.

    1) Action is expensive.

    You can try and save money by going gritty, but it's still inherently pricey.

    2) Comedy is hard. You pick the wrong cast and it's dead in the water no matter how good everything else is.

    Comedy starts in the script, but is made or broken by the acting.

    And it's marmite - the greatest comedies are hated by many :-)

    3) Horror / gore is also marmite, and if you don't like it you sure can't make it.

    4) Drama, done well, is easy for everyone who sees it to agree that it's done well, even if not to their taste.

    I.e. it's a safe showcase to reach the audience that matters to the new film maker - industry professionals.

    So Drama is a great calling card for the first time film maker who wants to show that they can make a good movie, and so be given a proper budget for a commercial movie next time.

    The issue is funding - if you can't afford to self fund and you can't get a grant then chasing commercial money for a no names drama is a waste of time, because your commercial money wants to make a profit.

    I'd say that if you want to do drama, focus on finding a story you can afford to film. That way you're not dependent on anyone else. A low cost script is a story that lives naturally in a very constrained environment - small cast, available locations, simple kit, lightweight crew - and the feature length time frame.

    That might sound simple, but in writing terms, it's bloody hard. If you are a film maker who knows that they are NOT a brilliant writer, swallow your pride and put out a call for scripts that meet your tight brief.

    E.g. a Manchester based film maker might say, "Max 4 characters that need acting, plus a few extras is OK, all interiors to be normal domestic houses, all exteriors to be Manchester doable -i.e. clearly Manchester or "anytown", but no "London Eye". No stunts. Normal clothes costumes. 1 week shoot, so no complex chases etc."

    If a writer has something that fits, they'll be delighted for it to actually get made :-)

    I'm writing one of those now actually, but it's taken me years to come up with a good story that fits such tight constraints. Give me a few weeks and I'll know if I've managed it :-)

    5 years ago
    • Everything you say is true, Marlom, but has nothing to do with distribution. Right? I think Nadine is talking about once a film is done. Not what gets funded. Or did I miss something?

      Look, it's pretty obvious I disagree with Nadine. A film can find an audience. I'm sorry, but it's true. I don't agree that HUMAN BEINGS just don't like drama. That's nonsense. We humans like good stories, no matter the genre. As I've lived through the industry (started in 1979... or was it '78?), I've seen acquisition agents get younger and younger, and they just don't understand how to promote. I see it time and time again. With dramas, they give it some half-hearted effort because they believe there isn't an audience for it. Even complete shit dramas can be hugely successful. Take the toothless vampires out of Twilight: it's a schmaltzy drama. Really bad drama. Yet teen girls camp out (I shit you not) to see it. Why is it successful? Because distributors know how to market to kids. Why? Because the vast majority of acquisitions and promotion people are under 30. They have NO clue how to market to someone over 40. They are just clueless when an intelligent, well made drama comes across their desk. They all want the big sleeper hit, but they are vastly unaware that the sleeper doesn't get there without them.

      I think Nadine and the rest would be pleasantly surprised if they focused on the quality of film and not the genre. To work that niche audience that the film is for, then let word-of-mouth carry it. Distributors need to stop trying to cater to the largest audience possible. Get the niche and the rest will take care of itself.

      5 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich Yes, I was either expanding the topic, going off topic or going off piste, according to preference :-)

      5 years ago
    • @Marlom Tander HA! Yeah, I tend to do the same. I have an inability to stop the rant--as my posts in this thread prove. So I pick "Going off piste."

      5 years ago
  • I think it all depends who's in it and who directed it. What the film's about is 2nd on the list. That might sound a bit cynical but distributors are business people.

    If there's some big names in the mix then the distributor knows they have a good chance of it making them money. If it doesn't then no matter what the genre (except horror I guess) it's gonna have to be pretty special.

    5 years ago
    • The earlier you talk to a sales agent the more I've learnt that names in horror are as important as any other genre.

      5 years ago
  • Clearly the "market"--i.e., the consumer--likes drama. TV has been making them from time immemorial and a lot do very well. If there's a prejudice I'd say it lies with buying and distribution.

    Why? I dunno. Since movies are marketing-driven, they probably need the spectacle to justify those $20 tickets and recoup the costs. There's not as much value added going to the theater to see a drama. And I'm sure they feel threatened by independents playing in the same theater for cheaper, potentially stealing audience.


    As a side point, I think a lot of production has died because now every film has to justify itself. People aren't as passive these days. With the Internet, they go and more or less intentionally seek out a film. With TV you had a pretty captive market so you could sell a mediocre drama (or whatever genre--drama's cheap, though) and rerun it a million times and keep brining in ad money. With cable hemorrhaging subscribers, who's watching this crap (and a few gems I'm sure) anymore? I suspect a lot of the small stuff got made back in the day because of the now moribund market for filler.


    Personally, I accept fimmaking is a money-loser, unless you want to make junk. And if you do, Sorry, somebody already beat you to it. If I have to write copy, or code Python scripts, or sell baluns or what have you I'm fine with that. As long as I can find the time to write and get something made once in a while.

    5 years ago
  • Marlon, the only film I can think of that fits your rules is From London to Brighton. A great film.

    5 years ago
    • Not rules so much as guidelines :-) but I'm tired of conversations with no money film makers in need of a script where they haven't thought about what resources they can realistically get hold of, and have no idea just how much time goes into writing a script. Which is why us writers have to be picky.

      There is no point in me trying to write you a movie that you can't afford to make because you haven't understood the real costs of things like "a muddy field".

      One guy said "why is a muddy field expensive. We can get it for free".

      Answer, because if my script specifies a muddy field, then something will happen there. People might get chased across it, shoot at each other, bury someone, sneak across etc.

      The cost isn't the field, the cost is that it's outdoors, and weather waits cost money. The cost is that clothes get muddy and so you need duplicate costumes for every take. 4-5 people in shot getting muddy, 3-4 sets of clothes for each one and your "cast will wear own clothes" has just gone out the window and you have a several hundred (or more) clothes bill.

      And your budget was how much again?

      If I was a Director I'd def get the word out to writers to see who had a script I could film, with my existing resources. Be picking scripts that work. Shoot your own when you can afford to do it properly, because - be brutally honest now - it isn't a no budget script is it.

      Anyway, time to polish Pope Urbane's radio homily as it frames the opening of my no budget movie :-)

      5 years ago
  • Interestingly there was a distribution forum at the BAFTA film makers market. Event cinema is the fasted growing alternative way to exhibit your film. Coincidently I've done a case study on my Britflicks podcast for a very uncommercial, artful documentary - Dummy Jim - that is touring scottish villages. THe BFI have lent their support to the distribution element too. A few months back I also covered the sub-£50k feature film Common People. They self distributed this innocent drama about life on Tooting Common and managed a 3 week run at Clapham Picture House.... WHile none of this is going to frighten the Warner Bro/Fox Studios output, it's exciting stuff for UK film makers of what's achievable.

    5 years ago
  • I have to chime in and say that I, somewhat, agree with Dan Selakovich. I say somewhat, simply and only, because I am still putting the pieces together. But, something tells me, I think in the end he is 100% right. I slightly think that.

    There was an article about this topic that the LA times published about 4 years ago... I lost the link to it though, darn!! Anyway, they did an in-depth research into which films succeed and which don't. They found star names had NOTHING to do with success. NOTHING. They also found that genre - whether action, comedy, drama, romance, horror or sci-fi also had nothing to do with a film's success. However, they did find 2 things had to do with success: 1) the audience's good word of mouth and 2) how much promotion was put into by distributors. While one is audience word of mouth and the other is marketing by the distributors, it actually boils down to the same thing.. PROMOTION!

    But, like Dan pointed out, if audience's don't know a film exists in the first place then how will they even know to go see it and give it good word of mouth? Hence, the conundrum.

    I personally have done my own little (unofficial) research into this. Last year alone we saw 2 dramatic films (all with people of color and about serious racial themes, that no one thought would do well) shatter expectations.

    First film was 'Fruitvale Station/. A Drama that premiered in the summer in the midst of all the summer action fare. It was about a black kid killed by white cops, and based on a true story. No action, comedy, sci-fi, or romance in it. None of that. It's what distributors call a "total downer" of a film.

    But Forest Whittaker put his money where his mouth was and helped promote it. Of course, the film was not as HEAVILY promoted as Iron Man was... but it was, still, properly promoted. So that people knew it was out there. Because of that effort, for its very low budget it generated impressive returns at the box office during its initial theatrical release. It cost about $1.5 Million to make, maybe less, and made over $15million gross in the box office. That doesn't even count DVD, cable, Pay Per View, NetFlix gorss revenues.. etc. Just the initial box office gross.

    Same thing happened months later as well, when 12 Years a Slave came out in theaters. Distributors promoted it... except this time... not too strongly. Enough to generate word of mouth. I did my own comparisons and you find that when 12 Years first came out in the USA, in late October... it took 30 days (until the end of November) to make about $28 million gross in Box Office revenues. However, that same month in November, the film Best Man Holiday (a romance, comedy geared at African-Americans) also came out and made $50 million in 2 weeks! It took 12 Years a Slave to make $28 million in 30 days and it took Best Man Holiday 2 weeks to make $50million.

    Posters for Best Man Holiday were everywhere!! Everywhere. Posters for 12 Years a Slave.. not as much. Except... distributors took notice that for their minimal promotion... the film still did OK. Not great.. But much better then they expected. So they waited until awards season - meaning, 2 months LATER!!! During awards season, 12 Years a Slave was nominated for every award under the sun. It was impressive. So, you guessed it!

    12 Years a Slave was kept in theaters.. and they even expanded it's theater count.. and then they started promoting the film heavily. I mean, heavily! Once distributors felt like.. Ok, we got good word of mouth on it and now we have nominations.. let's put some money into this now! Yeah... typical. Well, at the point the film grossed over $55 million in US box office.. practically doubling it's first month take. Then it went international and made over $100 million! It's a hit, kids! It's a hit AFTER distributors spread word of mouth. Not because of the awards! It was AFTER they decided to the consensus was worth it. But the consensus was already there!! People just needed to be told WHEN and WHERE to go see it!

    So, yeah... that's my unofficial take. I also remember the warnings of VHS is going to ruin it for theaters.. I remember that. I remember the BETA max wars too.. and even the DVD wars.. and then the cable is going to ruin theater comments.... and so on and so on. Now it's.. the internet is going to ruin theaters and that's why we can only make action and Sci-Fi tent pole films. Yeah, a young person will buy that argument. Older folks.. we've heard this one too many times to fall for it.

    It's the distributors.. they're too lazy to take risks anymore and they think too much like Wall Street. They're not artists anymore... they are lazy and want easy money FAST. Plain truth.

    5 years ago
    • So true. All of it, Johnny. But the reason you get names is the funding--all because of that myth that names are a box office draw. That is true only when you match the name with the right genre. If you have a picture with Bruce Willis NOT shooting someone, you're sunk.

      Back in the 80s, I was working on a picture at a pretty big distributors. One morning sitting on a desk was a list of actors with points next to each name, so I asked about it. You'd think I'd discovered America's launch codes the way the acquisition's people were acting. Anyway, the idea was that you want to get to 100 points. So if you had a big star, that might be 90 points, so you could fill the rest of your cast with lesser known actors. Or you might have some recognizable actors worth 25 points. You'll need 4 of those. A bizarre way to cast a film. I don't know if it's still done today, but I wouldn't doubt it.

      5 years ago
    • you can't promote everything the same way. When is it ever enough when compared to the likes of summer blockbusters? When do you know word of mouth is starting to happen? How much does a distributor risk?

      5 years ago
    • @Stuart Wright Exactly Stuart. I think the key is to release an idie Jan thru March.

      Distributors don't risk. Here's what they'll tell you: "We love your film. We'll release it in NYC and L.A., and if it does well, we'll open it in 5 more cities." That's all bullshit. They'll release it in 2 cities, then go straight to DVD or VOD. Unless a distributor is willing to open in 10 cities or buy your film outright, tell them to go fuck themselves. ANYBODY can open a film in 2 cities. And you don't have to deal with distributor "accounting."

      I really think SP should have a section on Distributor horror stories. Heck, while you're at it, have a section on Festival horror stories so that we know who to avoid.

      5 years ago
    • Sorry my posts have become progressively angry! Nadine hit a button in me that was installed long ago when I'd see distributors pass on amazing films because of genre. Then they'd pass this "knowledge" to their interns, who became sales and acquisition agents, to pass it on down the line as to why one genre was hot right now, or that drama never sells. God I miss Paramount in the 80s. Those guys were fucking brilliant. Or hey, for you Brits: Polygram in the 90s. Amazing! I can only think of one person with that kind of gumption right now: John Sloss. He's a producer's rep. Wish he'd start a distribution company.

      5 years ago
  • Just a small side step from what sells a film/movie etc - language seems to have moved on a bit. I thought everything that wasn't 'documentary' was 'drama'.
    But everyone here is talking of drama OR genre - so what is 'drama' now? If it means character driven stories, then why aren't most genres 'drama' - the exceptions being pow-zap stories for boys. (Not that I am being judgemental)
    Yen Rickeard

    5 years ago
  • Hi guys,
    Interesting topic, thanks Nadin. Many things up there I do agree, we all love to hear good stories, we were born like that (bed time story is just one example). Here's my thoughts:
    It's business, simple. Audience are receivers. They don't change anything. I believe distributors and businessmen manipulate the market based on other factors like politics. Why do all the blockbusters, extremely expensive have to be Sci-fi? Because technology is growing fast and people seem to be fascinated about. Give them a movie that shows them technology beyond their imaginations. Why do comic heroes' movies grow bigger and bigger and reboot every 10 years or so? Because war everywhere and we start to believe that someone has to do something to end all those disasters. Give them a movie tells them that there's someone, could be any of you, who's job is to save the world. There are many examples. My point is viewers can only pick from what is in the market already but they don't change the direction of business. As much as they think or want to, they still pay for a Transformers that has nothing to do with the original one more than the titles and characters' name. Festival do give filmmakers exposure but not their films unless the film falls under what I mentioned above.
    Yes Nadin, many filmmakers make what they don't initially want just to get exposure. I made a Horror/Comedy film although I never watch horror movies and I don't write comedy. We got interest from destructors although the film is not even edited yet! How/why!?
    No named names,no budget but very talented team. Not saying they signed any contracts but we managed to get their attentions which is good start.
    Side answer to Yen. This is purely commercial/business talk not academic. We do understand both languages but here it's about commercial/business.


    5 years ago
    • Great that you got interest in your film, Raed! A bit of advice: NEVER SHOW A DISTRIBUTOR AN UNFINISHED FILM. They say that they can imagine what the thing will be based on an early cut, but I promise you they can't. Finish it first!

      5 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich
      Seconded. Experienced this twice in my career when showing two different films seeking completion finance. Should have learned the first time.

      9 months ago
    • @Ray Brady It's nice that Dan's voice is still with us Ray.

      9 months ago
    • @John Lubran
      Absolutely. One of the most knowledgeable voices to thankfully grace this forum.

      9 months ago
  • Anyone managed to distribute a drama since this discussion? I have a finished drama feature I’m looking to distribute.

    9 months ago
    • I made a drama indie feature called "Egression" about six years ago now in the style of the Dardenne Brothers. No name cast, some hand-held camera, main themes drugs and I made a drama called "Egression" about six years ago now in the style of the Dardenne Brothers. No name cast, some hand-held camera, main themes drugs and dispossession, leading to depression and suicide, a story about young people with baggage escaping to new lives in the big city where they make fresh starts, friendships not strong enough to protect them from their individual past memories of abuse. I entered it into the top twelve dramatic film festivals in the world and failed to get into competition at any of them (yes I am fully aware of the odds and the levels of competition), but that was our complete marketing budget strategy and spend gone (the film was completely self-financed), sadly our plan was to win, or at least get into official competition at a major film festival and therefore garner international reviews and laurels that would then enable us to get some form of pick-up, sadly the plan failed. Why sad, I believe it was a heartfelt powerful film, definitely my best film ever, written by my brother who was also one of the three lead actors in the film, the film worked but without a promotional budget, we were dead in the water, yet another unknown, unseen British Independent Feature. Will be releasing it globally through FilmHub in two months time, but again with major festivals laurels and their subsequent, without a P&A marketing budget, I do not expect many people to be able to find it or to have any reason to do so.
      So drama in my personal experience, I concur is the hardest sell with no name or major festival exposure.
      I hope that you have a better plan Raed

      9 months ago