Advice for Filmmakers from Doc TV's Peter Hamilton

Posted on August 26, 2010

Peter Hamilton is a former executive with CBS International, New York. He is the editor and publisher of, which analyzes deals and trends in the ever-changing business of factual television. Because we know many of you are independent filmmakers trying to navigate the complex world of distribution, we spoke with Peter Hamilton last week to get some insights.

More than 25 years ago you co-authored a book titled Off-Hollywood: The Making and Marketing of Independent Films. How different might that book look if it were published today, and what about it would still hold up? 
That’s a very good question. Off Hollywood was a groundbreaking work supported by The IFP (Independent Feature Project) and Sundance to provide the emerging independent film community with hard numbers about the production, distribution, and exhibition of independent films. That was in the analog era when there were few windows available for independent filmmakers. Now, there are many more distribution platforms, television networks, DVD options such as Amazon, Netflix, pay-per-view, online, and many others.

None of those platforms guarantees success but they combine to present a much more complex distribution environment than when I worked on that book with David Rosen. Many producers are driven by a mission or their personal artist’s drive to create work. They don’t always anticipate the commercial aspects of their efforts until it’s too late. And by that I mean: What are the available distribution channels and how can they sequence them? How much will their potential distributors pay? How much extra investment is required for a successful marketing and distribution effort? There are dozens of really hard commercial questions that the creatives would be better off understanding at the beginning of the process and not at the end. 

You have executive-level experience at CBS International. What are a few defining differences between network and independent styles of producing and distributing media? 
The network model — and this applies to CBS, Discovery, and to any rated commercial network — is that they define their audience and then create programs that will target those viewers. That’s how they schedule programs. The network earns revenues from advertising and subscription fees. There’s relatively little flexibly in that model because the audience is the measure of success. There is very little appetite for the individual, or the quirky, or the risky. The big exception is HBO, which is not supported by advertising. So, other than HBO and of course public television, the list of opportunities is pretty thin. 

Your blog,, focuses on the business of developing, producing, and distributing factual television. What advice do you most regularly offer to independent filmmakers in these areas? 
The first question I’m asked: “Can you help me get distribution from a network?” And then the second question is: “How can I align my network distribution hopes with my DVD and online opportunities?” So we always seem to get into a discussion about sequencing and about the challenges of not closing off opportunities while you open up other ones. At this stage the digital revenue stream is really scant. There are producers who have self-distributed features and documentaries and have earned a return. But I think the saying still holds that analog dollars have given way to digital pennies. And there weren’t many analog dollars to begin with! No one feels the pain harder than the community making artistic films or films with a strong point of view about social change. But that not withstanding, every year we see independent producers who get support from ITVS, Independent Lens, and other sources. Those filmmakers get their work screened in festivals and limited theatrical runs. But there is no guarantee of financial success or even decent returns. Producers who pitch, develop, and receive commissions from commercial networks also have a tough life. So, my mission is to give them better awareness of the challenges they’re going to face and to offer resources that will increase their chances of success and reduce those of failure. 

What advice do you have for aspiring independent filmmakers?

  1. Don’t do it!
  2. If you must, then find someone to pay for it all.
  3. Develop a properly-funded marketing plan.
  4. If it’s a doc, study

Have distribution victories (or disasters) that you learned from? Share with other filmmakers in our comments section!

Independent Television Service does not endorse any third-party product or service discussed on the Beyond the Box blog. Opinions expressed in interviews or other posts by contributors to Beyond the Box blog do not represent ITVS or its staff.


From our blog

  1. ITVS Welcomes Brandii Rice as Head of Business and Legal Affairs

    August 10, 2023

    ITVS is pleased to welcome Brandii Rice as our new Head of Business and Legal Affairs. In her role Rice will oversee business and legal affairs across the ITVS brand portfolio. In addition, she will guide licensing and business strategies to support ITVS’ content development, production, distribution and audience development goals. She will join ITVS

  2. Carrie Lozano Will Lead ITVS as President & CEO, Succeeding Sally Jo Fifer

    June 7, 2023

    Carrie Lozano joins ITVS from the Sundance Institute, where she served as director of Documentary Film and Artist Programs, supporting boundary-breaking filmmakers across the globe. At ITVS, she will continue to protect independent artists’ voices, editorial control and copyright while elevating nonfiction storytelling as an essential strategy

  3. Lisa Tawil Joins the International Board of INPUT

    June 1, 2023

    Discover how Lisa Tawil's appointment to the International Board of INPUT strengthens worldwide collaboration in public media.