Cinema distribution and rights – how could it work for you?

Penny Nagle is a pioneer in the Event Cinema industry, and co-founder of More2Screen, the company behind the cinema distribution of major performances. Here, Penny outlines why cultural and creative organisations could and should think about the potential of cinema distribution for their work.

It may feel daunting or irrelevant to consider cinema if your organisation is so small it could fit in the back of a taxi, but there are plenty of good reasons you should think about cinema distribution. Cinema could: extend and enhance the visibility and value of your brand; find new audiences for your work – whether they’re hyper local, national or international; and, help your team develop new partnerships and skills.

If you have had a cinema release, it will also be much easier to get other platforms (such as Home Entertainment, Online) to take you seriously because not every content provider goes into cinema whereas nearly everybody can go online (thank you YouTube, Facebook et al).  However, do be careful as cinema usually has to go first ahead of any online release (it’s called an “exclusive cinema window”) and if you do it the wrong way you can wave goodbye to cinema….

Routes for cinema distribution

There are two main ways of putting your cultural project into cinemas for distribution to a wider audience:

(i) Commercial Third Party Distribution strategy (less risk) usually through an established commercial distributor

As a rule of thumb, the cinema distributors will only be interested in your project if it’s going to gross £70K or more at the UK Box Office.  It’s useful to think of it in terms of admissions – do you think your project will bring 5-6000 people into cinemas to watch it?  If not, then commercial third party distribution may not be for you – yet.

(ii) Hyper Local / Arts and Film Festival distribution can be used either in conjunction with commercial cinema distribution or as a Plan B if no third-party cinema distributor is interested.  It is more risky and needs more set-up funding.

I would recommend considering three main types of boutique cinema distribution:

  • creative crew and cast with Q&A following the screening
  • hyper local screen events within a very local area
  • arts & film festivals both in the UK and internationally

These all need 3-6 months’ advance notice, and creative marketing support (approved marketing assets available immediately, including image, press release, social media content).

Tips on rights clearances for cinema

Rights clearance is a dark art, and there is no one solution. Unions including Equity, BECTU (the media and entertainment union for camera crew) and the MU (Musicians’ Union) all have different approaches and requirements.

My advice for any film is to try to future proof the use you can make of it as much as possible – without breaking the bank.  It’s usually better to do it upfront when everyone is signing the live event contract.  It’s harder and takes more human bandwidth to do later in the production. But clearing after the event – for example if you have a runaway hit – can be done, and definitely consider cinema as an option if that’s the case.

The key to success in cinema distribution is keeping costs (and especially rights costs) low. 

The easiest way to think of rights is like a cake.  You can cut a cake in many different ways depending what you need, and if you are trying to diet you can even cut out the jammy middle. Here’s how it might play out in terms of rights:

  • you could clear all rights, across the world, forever, in a copyright piece of work (the whole cake – it’s delicious but expensive).
  • or, you could just clear for cinema (theatrical rights) in the UK for 3 years (say, a slice of the cake).
  • or, you could consider limiting your rights further (dieting by cutting through the jammy centre of the cake) by clearing rights for 100 screenings across the world within 3 years.

If you have 50 clearances to do, and are a publicly-funded organisation  – it’s quite helpful to set out your financial case to the Union or third party you are clearing with. For example, if they want £1000 for one clearance, and you are planning a single local screening at £10 per ticket with 50 admissions, the total income for the entire event will be £500, meaning you won’t even cover the cost of that one licence fee.  In other words, it’s not going to happen. This can help everyone to appreciate the economics of the project.

Other ways to keep costs low include:

  • you might want to use a Madonna or Beatles backing track throughout your show but it’s going to cost a whole lot more than library music or even better, something you might create yourself.
  • you could make a Blu-ray, not Digital Cinema Package (DCP), to screen from as this costs £500 as opposed to £1500

The key takeaway for you is that a cinema release is a spectrum – from the commercial to the hyper local – and, provided rights clearances and costs are kept low, it can be a viable option in your release strategy for your film.  No matter what your size.

Penny Nagle was a pioneer in the Event Cinema industry screening her first live to cinema events in 2002, including Led Zeppelin and Robbie Williams (the first live High Definition rock broadcast to Europe).

She co-founded More2Screen in 2006 and was Creative Director until 2016. Penny now consults to a range of film, music and media companies through Flaming Lassie Ltd.  Recent clients include Creative United, presenter Lucy Cooke, The Space, Warner Music, Suede, Westlands Yeovil, and the Octagon Theatre.

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