How Movie Distribution Works

By: Jeff Tyson
filmmaker clapboard
There is a lot that goes on before you go watch a movie. Isabel Pavia / Getty Images

You have probably seen advertisements in your local paper for movies playing at a theater near you. Sometimes, the ad will say "Held over" or "Special engagement." What exactly does that mean? And just how do those movies get from the motion picture studio to the theater?

In this aricle, you'll see the path of a film from an idea in someone's head to a movie screen at your local multiplex. You'll learn what the "nut" is, find out the difference between negotiating and bidding, and finally understand why movie popcorn is so expensive!


Here's the path a film usually takes to get to your local theater:

  • Someone has an idea for a movie.
  • They create an outline and use it to promote interest in the idea.
  • A studio or independent investor decides to purchase rights to the film.
  • People are brought together to make the film (screenwriter, producer, director, cast, crew).
  • The film is completed and sent to the studio.
  • The studio makes a licensing agreement with a distribution company.
  • The distribution company determines how many copies (prints) of the film to make.
  • The distribution company shows the movie (screening) to prospective buyers representing the theaters.
  • The buyers negotiate with the distribution company on which movies they wish to lease and the terms of the lease agreement.
  • The prints are sent to the theaters a few days before the opening day.
  • The theater shows the movie for a specified number of weeks (engagement).
  • You buy a ticket and watch the movie.
  • At the end of the engagement, the theater sends the print back to the distribution company and makes payment on the lease agreement.

Some of these steps may be combined and, particularly in the case of small independent films, additional steps may be necessary. As you can see, there is a lot that goes on before a movie is ever shown to a paying audience!