Sita’s Distribution Plan

Dear Audience,

That Roger Ebert article has brought a lot of attention to Sita‘s plight, and you are responding awesomely, as always. Audience, I trust you. So it’s time for me to share with you my distribution plan for Sita:


First I must decriminalize it to the tune of about $50,000. That’s down from the $220,000 the rights-holders initially quoted. However, that “bargain” price comes with many strings: a “step deal.” This stipulates that for every 5,000 home video units sold (DVD or download sales or on-demand sales) I must pay another $750 per song, meaning $8,250, plus middleman fees (lawyer or negotiator – I’ve already been billed about $10,000 just trying to negotiate with these corporations). Also for every $1million at the box office, I must pay another $3,500 per song, or $38,500.

To put that in perspective, after theaters, distributors, agents, etc. take their cuts and deduct their costs, $1million in theatrical receipts would trickle down to about $30,000 to $80,000 for me. Luckily(?) it’s very unlikely to ever generate that much box office revenue, so I’m safe. DVDs are another story – the corporations measure their fees per unit (it works out to $1.65 per), regardless of how much the DVDs sell for.

But the good news is, promotional copies are traditionally exempted from step deals. Everyone needs to make free promotional copies for reviewers, festival committees, journalists, etc, and those shouldn’t be “taxed” by the licensors.

Which brings us to step two: while making one DVD pressing of 4,999 copies, I will place promotional files of the entire film – at all resolutions, including broadcast-quality, HD, and film-quality image sequences – online at and as many mirror hosts as volunteer to share it. I will license it either as Creative Commons Share-Alike, or some equivalent of the GNU/Linux license. This will prevent it and any derivative works from ever being copyrighted by anyone. Of course this license won’t apply to the songs, which will remain under copyright by their respective corporate overlords. But clearing the licenses first will decriminalize it, and make it safer to screen in theaters (and theaters will be free to screen it and charge for it without obligation to me). The free online copies are promotional copies.

“But Nina, how will you make money?” The way artists always make money: donations, commissions, grants, patrons, speaking fees. Indie distributors can’t pay anywhere near what it cost me to make the film ($80,000 + $50,000 to clear rights + $160,000 living expenses over the years I made the film + my TIME) but they do lock up the rights for 10+ years. In the Digital Age, distributors function primarily as a barrier between artists and audiences, prohibiting access rather than facilitating it.

I’m betting that you, audience, can find me more money – and certainly wider distribution – than a commercial distributor could. I get wonderful emails from people like you, people who offer to set up little fundraising screenings, who write good reviews, and do lots of things to help. Audiences are so eager to help distribute films! Old-school commercial distributors not only ignore the power of the audience, they actively fight it, calling it “piracy” and “theft” for example. And the audience comes up with much better ideas than I or a distributor could (I didn’t think of doing fundraising screenings, you did). And once I free the film, I won’t have to do any more work on it! You, the audience, can take care of everything.

Here are some ways I imagine copylefting Sita could generate some income for me:

1. Direct donations (aka voluntary payments, aka “pay-what-you-wish”)

2. Ancillary products: t-shirts, pins, toys, books, merchandise. Under a share-alike license these will be open-content as well, but there is little incentive for competitors to invest in producing such merch when it is already available (and much incentive if a certain product is not available, which is good). Any companies producing merch could use their sharing profits with me as part of their marketing; fans are much more interested in seeing their $$ go directly to the artist, than being all eaten up by some publisher or distributor.

3. Sponsorships. We expect the film to spread far and wide under a free license, and a sponsoring credit would be excellent publicity for anyone who cares to make it. Corporations sponsor shows on Public Television all the time for this reason (and under the free license, Sita can also be broadcast anywhere. At least one PBS station says they’re committed to broadcasting it.).

4. DVD sales and auctions. Although the film may be downloaded and copied for free, some will prefer an “official” signed DVD from the artist. These could be sold directly by me in a limited edition (of 4,999), and/or auctioned online.

5. Voluntary payments from public screenings. We encourage the film to be shown in theaters, schools, etc. and anyone can set up a screening and charge admission. They may voluntarily send some of the revenue on to me. Most exhibitors already expect to pay something to distributors, and although this is completely voluntary, we expect many will be willing to do this.

6. Selling 35mm film prints to collectors, archives, museums, and (hopefully) distributors willing to try a non-exclusive service model instead of the existing licensing model. Prints cost about $2,500 to make; I could sell them for $5,000 each. This also outsources the expensive work of archiving.

7. Probably many more that we just haven’t thought of yet!

Now dear audience, if you’ve read this far, what do you think of this? Maybe some of you want to help. Here’s some help I could use right now:

I’m about to take out a $50,000 loan, and am already deep in debt from having to hold on to the film. But obviously I can’t guarantee I’ll make it back. Donors and sponsors will, as always, be acknowledged in the credits of the final version. Big donation? Big credit. Plus I can modify the “intermission” scene to include messages from really, really big sponsors – like $50,000 sponsors – so get in touch if you’re interested. is hoping to arrange Fiscal Sponsorship for the Sita distribution project, so that you could get a tax write-off by donating to them. They would pass the whole thing on to me without skimming any of it (most nonprofits skim 7 to 10%). is AWESOME.

Even with the $50,000, I still may not be able to clear all the songs. So far only Warner-Chappell and EMI have informally agreed to those terms, but they haven’t issued contracts yet, and they can still change their minds for any reason. The rest of the rightsholders are under no obligation to agree. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, will they work with me or against me? Hence my next request:

Is there a lawyer in the house?
I mean a good, progressive, Free-Culture-oriented lawyer. Right now we have‘s legal counsel, whose experience lies in Free Software. The California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation hasn’t yet agreed to help directly (maybe they’ll change their minds!) but is looking for additional pro bono legal help for me here in New York. The coolest legal work seems to be in Software; I haven’t yet found anyone in Entertainment Law who really gets it. But if you’re out there, please get in touch! Let’s make a Sita Legal Defense team.




61 thoughts on “Sita’s Distribution Plan”

  1. Go Nina!

    This is just to confirm and expand on what Nina said above about acting as fiscal sponsor: we’ll have to work with our lawyer to arrange things so that the money is used consistently with our mission statement (everything has to pass muster with the IRS). Fortunately, seeing this decentralized distribution plan succeed is entirely within our mission: it’s likely to be the future for a lot of films, and we want to demonstrate to filmmakers that it actually works (“The water’s fine, come on in!”). We do have to keep our tax-exempt status, so we probably can’t simply pass money through as payments, but we will do everything we can to see to it that directed donations go toward expenses incurred by the distribution plan (including the “rights” clearances that are the bulk of the film’s expenses now — and I can’t resist putting “rights” in quotes because artists should naturally have the right to build on each others’ work; the fact that they currently have to pay off monopolists for that privilege is exactly what’s wrong here).

  2. Yet more proof that Ebert rocks. So do you. What you did is an inspiration to all of us starving artists/cashiers.

    Good luck!

  3. Although the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund ( would be unlikely to help you directly, Nina, its lawyers might be able to direct you to like-minded legal counsel practicing elsewhere in the entertainment industry.

  4. Wow! I’m just trilled to hear that. i’ve been hearing about your movie for a long time, and would love to watch it. And to see you talking about copylefting it’s just wonderful. We’ve been working for two years now in this short (the one from the website link) all done with free software and the final goal is to have alongside with the short, tutorials and other learning material. All the files will be available: character rigs, concept arts, everything copylefted. I believe that what your’re doing is an important and wonderful initiative. Thanks a lot and congratulations!

  5. Thank the Goddess! It is absolutely criminal that your movie has been held up this long all because of rights-holders nickel and diming you to death.

    This is an awesome plan…it’s worth supporting.

  6. Well, long-lost cousin (probably not, but GREAT last name!), what a fantastic piece!!! I am DYING to see it and of course to show it to my students. [I teach art and design in LA at several community colleges.] I have known about your comics for a while, but this animation IS AMAZING.

  7. I’ll be snagging the DVD and getting the HD download as soon as they become available. Good luck getting the rights to the music, all those zeroes on the loan look pretty scary. I’d ask how many rights holders there could possibly be to the music, but I’m guessing that’s a tangled legal mess inflicting hideous mental scarring on all who venture near.

  8. This is excellent. I will definitely be on side for helping out to the best of my abilities. Copyrights and distribution channels need to change, times have changed.

    Good luck!

  9. No hero without a wound, classic problem for a pioneer, the direction you have taken is inspiring for many artists, I hope they watch your endevours, this is the future of the artist as self publisher.

    In regards to the merchandising I understand you can attach your Nina Paley label (Trademark) to all your limited/special edition items, others can copy your T-shirts etc..but they cant include your actual name in the product as you own that, this mechanism although leaning on the side of copyright will allow you to get a return on your craft and can be used across the board for all your work, limited edition books, DVD’s, Downloades (special characters as copyright) comics etc..

    Anything with your name as logo (trademark) can be attached to all your special edition items and still allow other to share only without your trademark name, but your name in normal print will of course be attached to all shared art as part of the Creative Commons License.

    All the best for 2009…..;0)

  10. OK, You and Ebert have sold me. I will talk to my wife abotu what we can do to help, in our small way.

  11. Jonathan Coulton once spent a year writing a song a week, and copylefted them all. He made money, and more importantly, got attention to do more work on his terms. So it can work.

    Just let me know when I can give you money and get a DVD. I care less about the wherewithal to do so.

  12. Just read about your film on the Filmmaker Magazine blog, which linked to Roger Ebert’s mention, which led me here :o)

    I enjoyed reading your thoroughly expressed distribution plans.

    Lots and lots of luck with the film!

    Hope we all get to see it eventually – decriminalized or not…

  13. Hi Nina!

    Brilliantly delightful film (what I’ve seen of it)! I left a comment on Roger Ebert’s site, but thought I’d repeat some of it here too, since it’s mainly suggestions for you!

    I too have a short film that has languished in non distribution due to not having the cash to front for the music rights. Though the sum requested by the music publishers for my film is paltry compared to the sum asked for “Sita,” I know what you’re going through to some degree, and it’s very frustrating.

    I can offer some suggestions that have come from my own research — it’s how I’m going to proceed with my film. First of all, self-distribution is a must! There are several excellent case histories now for successfully using digital & festival distribution and digital marketing to create a good revenue stream. Here is one of the absolute best resources for developing a plan to do this run by former sales agent Stacey Parks: (Sign up today for her email newsletter. It’s invaluable!) I’m sure Stacey will have you reeling with solutions in no time. From reading your blog above, I’m certain Stacey can help you with suggestions that aren’t yet included. Though it is certainly satisfying as a filmmaker and filmgoer, theatrical distribution does not make money, for the most part. But once the plan is in place for self-distribution to raise funds, there are ways to get the film to theaters, even if you do it yourself.

    Once that plan is in place, you could go to the publishers and see if they will work with you as a partner with a revenue sharing plan. Publishers are doing all sorts of different deals these days, based on what I’ve found out from record company insiders. There’s no reason you couldn’t propose an alternate to the step deal you’ve outlined, especially with the power of all the buzz generated, and especially if you go to them with an email list of people begging for your DVD.

    Certainly, the music is a central element of this film which greatly adds to its charm. Your film, however, will do much to bring awareness of Annette Hanshaw to many more people who’d never know about her otherwise — and at exactly the right time, as interest in 20’s music is surging at the moment (at least in LA). Surely there’s a win-win here somewhere. You have power here. There is a time to fight the copyrights law, which I agree often creates absurd obstacles — thanks Disney! — but in the meantime, perhaps there are other solutions that appropriately honor the music’s contribution to the film while allowing it to get out to a wide audience without bankrupting you. Digital distribution has changed the rules, and publishers and rights holders now are presented with the opportunity to adjust — to their own benefit.

    Also, the Institute for International Film Financing ( may be able to help.

    Meanwhile, I’ve forwarded your story to a friend who works with copyright law every day — I’m sure she’s have some insights to offer.

    Good luck! Wishing you creative and financial fulfillment & happy new year!

  14. Its great to see that you are reaching out to your fans and thinking of creative ways to distribute your film.

    Have you heard of a site called Its a website that might help you raise some money and promote your film further. You can post your film on the site and have fans endorse, promote, and contribute money to it. It looks like you’re doing a lot of these things already. IndieGoGo is a hub for all these things and may help you build a bigger audience.

    Check it out:
    Best of luck to you!

  15. Hello Nina,
    I would love to offer you a screening of Sita in Nashville, TN sponsored by the International Black Film Festival Nashville (Ibffnashville). I am the Founder and Executive Director of IBFF and I would consider it an honor to showcase you and your film here in Nashville.

    When you are ready you may contact me at 615-495-0556 at anytime so that we work out the detail. I know that this is not much at this time however, alone with my prayer this is one step while waiting on the right distribution deal.

    Hazel Joyner-Smith

  16. 4999, huh? That’ll sell out in minutes. You might want to figure those royalties in when you set the price of the DVDs, cause I think you’re going to need more, regardless of what stuff you post on And you better find out how many copies Netflix and Blockbuster are going to want.

    Best of luck with your plan, or whatever irritatingly modified version you and your legal team end up with. I REALLY wanna see this sucker at the Oscars, dang it!

  17. Nina,
    I too have been waiting for my dvd of your film (full well knowing that I’ll never get to see it at a film festival)so yes! please let us know when we can get in line for a copy. In the meantime, I’d love to send you a copy of my group’s debut cd that may prove uplifting in this time of roller coaster emotions for you. Is there an address that I can send it to? All the best!

  18. hello nina-

    i have only one question. is there a way yet that i can purchase a copy of Sita? the blog is confusing. as far as i can tell none are available yet. please let me know at your leisure.

  19. I was lucky enough to see Sita at the NYICFF and was able to purchase one of the limited DVDs you had there, so I’m probably one of the very few who already has a DVD copy. I am a long time Japanese animation fan and involved in doing panel presentations at several anime and science fiction conventions. Given your idea here, what’s the word on exhibting the DVD I have in the video program at conventions of this nature?

  20. NINA,

    I found you through the Filmmaker Blog. I’m going to blog about you on Ted Hopes Truly Free Film blog and mine as well – where I write about indi distribution. I’m writing a book about new forms of distribution (I’ve been writing some articles for Filmmaker Magazine on my own distribution). I’d A. Love to interview for my book, blog and articles and B. Invite you to come to the class I teach at Cal Arts in the Spring if you are in LA. Didn’t see a place to contact you directly – but you seem like the kind of person who responds to your blogs.


  21. Nina,

    I am Dawn Douglass’s friend from Mumbai, India.
    She and I will manage the India situation for you.
    She will mail you.

    Kind regards,

    Mumbai, India.

  22. This is _exactly_ the kind of problem that thousands of artists and legal scholars have been warning about. Two people who come to mind: Cory Doctorow, who wrote about this on boingboing, and some legal eagle at Berkeley or Stanford whose name I can’t remember. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also been good on this.

    Unfortunately, since artists are “just” artists, the idiots and moneygrubbers in Congress won’t get their heads out of their asses for a case like this. BUT sooner or later, there will be a case where some great innovation is lost, some new medicine, some new scientific discovery (and I’m thinking of copyright issues broadly here) and people will die or something terrible will happen. Then finally, this shites will figure it out. Still . . . I wouldn’t count on it. These are the same kind of people who tried to patent “clicking a button”.

    Fight the good fight, be angry, be mellow. Send it to China, India. Some place where the billionaire fucks don’t yet control everything down to how we sit on the can. And may those bastards some day meet me in a dark place.

  23. I’d donate at least $25 for a promotional copy. I know we’re all impatient about waiting to get it legally, but thanks for your hard work. Your legion of fans is growing. I’m lucky to have seen Sita, and hope to be able to see it again, and share it with friends.

    Just ordered a shirt form cafepress.

  24. I’m an intellectual property attorney, and while perusing various blog entries on this subject found my self a little confused as to the copyright situation here. In another entry, Ms. Paley says that the Henshaw recordings used in Sita are already in the public domain:

    Anything in the public domain can be used/modified/copied and so forth pretty much without limitation. So Sita could use the recordings in the music.

    However, while the Henshaw recordings are in the public domain, it may be the case that the underlying compositions that are used in the recordings are still copyrighted. If so, then I can see that there are synching license issues here. Is that correct?

    Given how old the underlying compositions must be if the relevant recordings were made in the 1920s, Ms. Paley should also investigate with the copyright office to make sure that, if the works were published, the copyrights were renewed in the middle of the 20th Century. This is no longer a feature of current copyright law, but up until around 1976 copyrights in published works had to be renewed at least once during their lifetime to get their full term. Thus a copyright for something this old that was not renewed during the appropriate period might have already fallen into the public domain, even if it otherwise would still be within the life of author + 70 years duration for copyrights (or 95 years from date of publication for corporate copyrights).

    Also, if the underlying compositions were published, Ms. Paley might look into when it was published and whether a copyright notice accompanied the publication. For works this old, an early publication (or a publication without a copyright notice) may mean that the work is in the public domain. See

  25. Here’s a thought: pay the copyright fees. Quit complaining. If your work is really worthwhile, you’ll be rewarded by big boxoffices. If it’s not any good, at least the creators of the music will be compensated.

  26. first, please ignore “artist”, right above, as it is obvious s/he no clue what s/he is talking about – Annette is DEAD and the only people who would make money off of you paying the copyright fees are Warner Bros and others who are mass market everything. the “creaters” of the music are dead, and so far as i can tell NO ONE who is related to them is receiving a DIME, so not even their ESTATES are getting anything.

    second, i have a weird suggest. go to Baen Books (their website is they have been campaigning for “Electronic Books” for a while – the short version of the story is that while many publishing companies are against online books, afraid that they will “lose money” on “pirated” books, al la the damned music industry and it’s fear of same reguarding music, Baen is doing its damned level BEST to promote a switch to online books. they offer HUNDREDS of book that are STILL IN PRINT for FREE on the Baen library page. when you buy an online book that isn’t free, you can use it just like you would a real book – mean that just i can lend a friend my book, i can share the EBook with anyone (i can copy it as much as i want). Baen is trusting that, even though SOME people WILL steal, most people want to be able to the artist (in this case the author) if only to insure future works from the artist. Baen, and many writers and editors commited to Baen, and spoken against what the RIAA is (trying) to do. and while they don’t do movies, it is entirely possible they could publish in online format and other number of this related to the film – the screen play, adaptations, comic book versions, etc. if nothing else, you may get some idea’s from the website. i recommened going to “Baen’s Bar” where there is a huge set of forums, looking around for an area where you feel comfy, and then start address Toni (she is The Editor at baen) about what she might like. i don’t guarantee they will be interested – they, after all, have their own works – but i am pretty sure that at a MINIMUM you will be offered advise, good wishes, a(nother) small place to advertise your dilemma, and probably another fan base. its possible one (or more) of the writers might take up your cause, or might want to collaborate with you on a book, or something similar.
    it may seem counterintuitive – books and movies are NOT the same, and etc. but you lose nothing by going, looking and asking, and just because something seems weird doesn’t mean it’s wrong – Baen has been working to do things similiar to how you are trying to set things up. i see a connection, and a possible team.

    please let me know when i can buy a copy of the movie!!! i LOVE Hindu mythogloy, and the clips i saw on eberts site have made me want MORE!!!!!!!

  27. I have a request/suggestion: write your promo DVDs without the usual
    encryption (digital restrictions management, see This way, they will play properly with free
    software that is available lawfully in the US. (The free software to
    decrypt the DRM on most DVDs is censored.)

    And a second suggestion one: put the Creative Commons license notice
    on the DVDs and on the covers, so it’s clear that these copies are
    copylefted just like the copies on the net.

    You’re unleashing a revolution, and others are likely to imitate your
    practices, so it’s important to get these details just right.

    It’s against my conscience to own an encrypted DVD, and I have none.
    But if you make these unencrypted, I would very much like to buy one.

  28. Nina, I have a suggestion for the DVDs.

    Sell “do-it-yourself” DVDs which would look exactly like the “official” DVDs with one change: The DVD itself would be a blank DVD-R (though it would have the Sita logo on it and would outwardly look official), so the person who buys it will have to burn the film onto it manually after downloading the ISO online (to be safe, it should probably be a single-layer DVD, since not everyone has the hardware to burn double-layer. Although there could be two versions, one for single-layer, one for double).

    Many people know how to do this. The main attraction for me as a buyer would be owning a DVD that looked official and felt honest.

    These “do-it-yourself” DVDs would not count as one of your 4999 copies, because they would not contain the film, just the outward trappings of an official edition.

  29. Nina, you rock so much!
    This post’s been really inspiring and encouraging. I’m willing to see this feature, sending a big “WOW!” here from Brazil for all your great ideas on the distribution. :- )

  30. Nina stay on your feet and give it to ’em!
    Your battle is a good one; just look at the positivity and solidarity emanating from the majority of comments on this page.

    Yes copyright laws are important, no they should not be used to financially strangle artists with their own work.

    Looking forward to buying a copy and organizing group screenings wherever I’ll be in the world when it finally gets out.

  31. Please let me know when a dvd is available to buy and how and how much. I’d love to see the film on a theater screen, but as that may never happen, second best would be to see it on my 6ft. projection TV screen. I would not know how to download and would rather have a professionally produced DVD if they are not too expensive.

  32. Nina,
    Would you be willing to visit a small college in Michigan to screen your film and talk to our students? Can we talk about speaker fees, honorarium, travel expenses, etc.? Please let me know the best way to reach you and discuss.

  33. I am yet another who would love to purchase a DVD of your terrific film. Please let me know if/when.

    What about pressing region-free DVDs in Europe or elsewhere?

    In any case, Wahoolazuma!

  34. I hope I’m not the only one who is troubled by Nina’s use of the word “decriminalized” as a stand in for paying for the right to use other people’s work in her film.

    I’m an independent filmmaker myself, and go to some not inconsiderable trouble to make my films in a way that does not require using expensive to license music, and frankly “decriminalization” feels like a slap; to me for going to the effort to find a way to make my films without music I can’t afford, and to anyone who’s ever produced piece of music or film in the hopes of providing a descent life for their family.

    I’m also dubious of Nina’s “distribution plan”. What kind of a plan generates $1M in receipts but only stands to put $30K – $80K in the producer’s pocket? Especially when the film has $50K in music rights alone. That not a plan, that’s financial suicide.

  35. Tony Comstock:

    “Decriminalized” seems pretty reasonable to me, considering that the “other people” who actually wrote the compositions in the film will not see a penny from the rights holders. It also seems pretty reasonable considering that at the time the song-writers produced the works in question, the copyright law only protected them until the mid seventies or early eighties.

    If you want to see copyrights extended so as to leave copyrights for your family, I can assure you that your heirs will almost certainly realize virtually no benefit from your work. First, because films don’t keep their broad public appeal for long. As Peter Brook put it in his book The Empty Space, a staging can only ‘live’ for about ten years before losing all but historical interest. The idea that your heirs could collect big money from a film you made a hundred years down the road has its appeal, but it almost certainly won’t come true. In fact, an indefinite copyright extension would increase the division between free culture, protected by copyleft, and corporate-controlled culture. Faced with a choice between paying brokers, lawyers, financiers, and other rights holders exorbitant fees in return for the right to collect a small percentage of the fees charged for the use of your work on one hand, and a free sharing culture on the other, more and more artists will find the copy-left culture freer, more satisfying, and often more financially viable. Extending copyrights may make some lawyers and brokers marginally richer, but it will do little if anything for artists.

  36. Dear Ms. Paley,

    I am humbled by your work by your bravery and by your ideas. I have watched your film last night, and I would like to thank you for this long lasting experience and the inspiration you gave me.


  37. how about only distributing it through chinese bootleggers in los angeles and flushing, ny?

  38. A wonderful film and a wonderful spirit. A daring distribution plan that will not fail. Nina Paley rises from the waves and beckons to all that is creative. Join the flow and it will carry you to the sea. Stand as a rock in the flume and it will wear you down to a nub.

  39. I am a huge fun of this film I watched on the movie theatre and now I have it on DVD

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