Smart Strategies to Get Your Indie Film Seen

How to maximize your film's potential with festivals and distribution channels.


“The world doesn’t owe you an audience. You have to build it yourself.”

Lights Online Film School recently had the opportunity to chat with indie filmmaker Ryan Patch about his distribution and festival experiences. He covers two award-winning short films and one feature length documentary: The Sheol Express, The Offering, and The Sea In Between, respectively.

From The Sea In Between

From The Sea In Between

Hello, Ryan! To set the stage, can you give us an overview of your distribution and festival experiences? With what films have you explored your distribution options and/or braved the festival circuit?

Also, where do these films stand now – ie., how can we, the audience, see them?

I took my NYU Tisch thesis short that I co-wrote and co-directed with Michael Koehler, The Sheol Express, to festivals and through “traditional” online distribution in 2011/2012. It is currently available on iTunes as well as Amazon.

I took the feature documentary, The Sea In Between, which I edited, wrote, and co-produced, through festivals, grassroots screenings, and now digital distribution. It has been released on several VOD platforms, including Vimeo on Demand.

I took The Offering through festivals. It premiered online on YouTube and since has found a home on Vimeo.

Can you discuss your experience of each film’s distribution strategy/deal? Why did you make the decisions that you made? What lessons have you learned as a result?

With The Sheol Express, we pursued a bit more of a traditional iTunes/VOD deal with Shorts International, fueled by successes at festivals, because we thought that was the “right” way to do it.

With The Sea In Between, we mainly did a grassroots tour of the film, because the film was linked to music and a specific artist with a strong following, so taking it to his already large fan base was a no-brainer.

With The Offering, we were commissioned by an online content company, so the YouTube-first distribution was a part of the deal.

Interesting! It seems like there are a million approaches to indie film distribution in the digital age. How does an indie filmmaker, with finished product in hand, even begin to decide where to start? How did you start?

We started with an iTunes deal (The Sheol Express) because we thought that was our golden ticket.

Although we have made some money on iTunes, it’s not a ton. We learned that shorts are generally about exposure and building contacts and a resume, not about making money. Your distribution strategy should reflect that.

Think about “how do I get the most people to see this film”, then follow that.

In your opinion, what is the key to a successful distribution strategy? Why?

Again, you’re making shorts to gain experience, build connections, and get people to notice you.

The more people notice your film, the more successful it becomes. So, creating a fan base that’s excited about your film and will share it is really important. This should go beyond just your friends and family who you ask to spread the word. You need to identify a market and find a niche who will champion your film.

From The Sheol Express

From The Sheol Express

Well said! Today, indie filmmakers have more access to powerful creative tools than ever before. We no longer need millions or even thousands of dollars to put together a professional-grade film… but professional doesn’t seem to be enough. There’s quality content out there that gets lost on the internet or even in film festivals, their voices drowned out by the proliferation of others.

Why? How can an indie filmmaker prevent against this? Said differently, how can an indie filmmaker “get noticed”?

The world doesn’t owe you an audience. You have to build it yourself.

Making a movie is only 50% of the work. Getting people to see it is the other 50%, so buckling in early and approaching a film from pre-production through post with this in mind is a good place to start. Make a good film and build a community around it, is the most bare-bones way of saying this.

Let’s talk about film festivals for a bit. What makes them so important? What is their purpose(s)?

Ideally, their purpose is to foster young talent and let films and filmmakers who wouldn’t normally get exposed to the industry and audiences have their chance to “get a foot in the door”. Festivals are about connecting audiences to films. They’re a (relatively) egalitarian and meritocratic way for promising filmmakers to make connections. It’s a flawed system, but it’s not a bad start, especially if you’re set on Hollywood.

What practical steps must you take once you’re accepted into a festival? How can a filmmaker prepare for the experience?

Have business cards. Get a good pair of suit pants. Bring a friend or significant other to help you meet others. Practice being social to strangers.

Yes, it will  be “networky”. But networking isn’t about “networking” for its own sake. That’s gross. Think about networking as a casting process to sort through all of the rejects as you find the diamonds in the rough who will be your friends and future collaborators.

More than half of your conversations will be forgettable, stale, and lame. The point of those is to dip your toe in, figure out this person isn’t for you, and politely excuse yourself (“I’m going to get some more wine”) and repeat this until you find a future collaborator, friend, or business contact.

Then, follow up with them after the festival. Basically try to find common ground, be interested in others as fellow humans, and you’ll be fine.


Most films will have a 4×6” postcard that they use to market their film – both the film’s screening at the festival, as well as a place for people to see the film who aren’t able to make it to the screening. So set up a private web address where people can see the film (not necessarily public, but easy to access). You’re at this festival where YOUR FILM is the focus. Make it easy for people to see.

“Building anticipation” by not releasing is not a great way to market your film.

You repped The Offering at Palm Springs. What was that experience like? Ie., once you’re at a film festival, what actually happens? What does your typical day-to-day look like? What should you be doing?

Palm Springs Shortfest is one of the most incredible film festivals on the planet. They really make it a priority to bring young filmmakers together, let them cross-pollinate, and connect them with the industry contacts that will help them progress in their careers.

You should be trying to have meaningful conversations with as many people as possible, whether these are other filmmakers, industry people, media people… whoever. Do find some films you want to catch, but your primary goal there should be getting people excited about your film, and finding people there who you’re excited about.

Go to the parties, the mixers, and if they have industry panels or meetings, go to them and try to make a personal connection with the presenters. You may not have the screenplay for your next feature in-hand, but make a human connection, follow up the next week via email, and now you have a budding relationship.

From The Offering

From The Offering

How do you know when/decide that a film has completed its festival run? Said differently, how many festivals is enough festivals?

Well, usually a film will make a “cycle” of festivals over a period of about a year. So, there’s only a finite number of festivals you could possibly play at.

Really, you want to play at as many as possible. Bear in mind that not every festival is worth the admission fee, so identify which are, prioritize, and then see what you have the budget for!

Any thoughts on how to handle a Q&A Session after a screening of your film?

Something that I’ve learned relatively recently is that people want to feel like they’re close to the film – that they are let in on something relatively interesting about your film.

So, this means that even though you will likely get asked the same one or two questions about your film over and over (“How did you do the effects?” – “Was it cold?!?”), don’t respond aggressively or dismissively. Answer with respect to the person. I am not always great at this, as I often wish someone would ask me a deep and insightful question about my film. But really, I’m just asking them to massage my ego and prove that I’m a good director who provides both insight and mystery. Most people won’t do this.

You should put away your ego and focus on the relationship that is being built between you and this person, not the film.

We make films because we want to tell others stories, not because we want to hear ourselves speak. So, at a festival, treat every question about your film – however seemingly trivial to you – as a compliment, and respond genuinely. People’s desire to ask “normal” questions doesn’t mean that they missed your Truffaut reference in Scene 25; it just means they’re trying to figure out how to engage with it, and inquiring about basic things is how many do it.

Thanks for sharing your perspective and expertise, Ryan! These are some great thoughts. We’ll keep an eye out for your future films!

For more from Ryan, check out his Vimeo page.

 Michael Koehler, with

Start making your own short film for audiences, festivals, and distributors alike with guidance and support from our online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.


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