Notes from Movieland: Do the Distribution Dance


After a veritable maze of introductions, letters, meetings, “possibly”s and even a “yes” or two that transformed into “no” with the grinding of time, my little indie movie finally met her distribution match: The prince to my Red princess, the Bogart to my Bacall, the Captain to my Maria (I did the Hollywood Bowl’s Sound of Music sing-a-long last night with my friend, Goreti Da Silva, and I can’t get it out of my head…) When I was still a starry-eyed novice (like Maria!), I truly believed in the conventional distribution route. So did most of my fellow moviemakers. We were all after that golden carrot, which, it seems, isn’t as edible as I was led to believe.

During last year’s LA Femme Film Festival, Gloria, the (then) president of a brand spanking new company named Unistar, romanced the cinematic pants off of me. I loved her grand enthusiasm for my movie, Red is the Color of, and her brash sense of humor and irreverent take on the movie world. I met everyone in the company and they seemed like good folk. But I had developed a theory that slime was an inevitable element of any distribution deal (I’ll save those stories for another time) and a nice girl like me shouldn’t even enter that mud ring. Problem was… as the producer, I couldn’t send in a surrogate mudslinger. Or could I?

My brilliant attorney, Tom Fox, waded through the mud (paperwork, contracts, etc.) and gave it all a “thumbs up.” Seems Unistar was an ethical firm with a very fair deal for the moviemaker. Yippee. I signed. We shook hands. Had a glass of Cabernet with the gang and then…

Let’s dance the distribution dance! Oh yeah! We’re doing it! Swing those hips, sell those territories, tap those toes, give me my 0.0078 percent so I can pay off my investors! Cha cha cha!

Once the distribution deal was sealed, we were on to the next phase, the actual selling. I sold to them, now they’d sell to others, who in turn might sell to others and so on and so on and so on… Exponential marketing. Exponential costs. Ouch.

Then came The Wait. The long, arduous, interminable period where nothing seems to be happening, all momentum decelerates and all attempts at action ricochet back in your face. I was so accustomed to pushing, plowing, haranguing, negotiating, pleading, meeting, greeting, schmoozing, that this sudden lull with nothing to do but harass Unistar for market updates had me flummoxed. And there were numerous nips along the way—French TV for one—that dissolved into pixie dust. “But I thought they wanted me…” I must stop taking all this so personally. The Wait. Aargh.

I mistakenly believed that signing with a distributor was the golden carrot. Did you ever try to munch on a golden carrot? In dietary terms, it’s completely useless. Dangerous for your dental health. So I stuck it in my pocket (I pull it out once in a while just to show it off—”Look! I have a distribution deal!!!”) and went on my merry (and occasionally not-so-merry) way.

Last Thursday, Unistar announced they’d made a sale! And lo and behold, a sale it was. Sales agents selling to sales agents selling to sales agents… and you wonder why the moviemaker never makes more than 0.0078 percent of anything. (Don’t panic, I’m exaggerating… it’s at least 0.95 percent of something.) But the money’s not the point, right? The point is… I sold my movie. Isn’t that the real point? I’m on the dance floor, I’ve got a partner, and I’m doing the distribution tango. Yihaa!

I’ve had to explain to dozens of non-industry people why I’m so totally psyched by this accomplishment. “What did you sell?” one non-filmie asked. “I sold the entire North American home video rights!” I gleamed from head to toe with pride.

So how much did you make?
Well…. I think it adds up to about 0.0078 percent. (Arbitrary number—don’t panic.)
0.0078 percent of what?
I don’t know… Units?
Units of what?
DVDs.
How many DVDs?
I don’t know.
Are you just doing this for fun?
No.
Is this a business or a hobby for you?
A business! I have investors for goodness sake. I want to make a profit.
But how can you count zero percent of nothing as profit?
Of course it’s not profit. It’s a metaphor.
You got a metaphor in exchange for your movie?
Sort of.
Your sale is a metaphor?
My movie is a metaphor.
About what?
About our attempts to find happiness and meaning.
So do they find happiness and meaning?
Who?
The characters in your movie.
I don’t know. I didn’t write the sequel. I’m an indie, remember.

I spoke with Michael Shoel of Ariztical, the distributor (sales agent once removed), who bought the North American home video rights from my first distributor, Unistar. I thanked him for having faith in the marketability of my movie.

Michael was gracious and charming and kind enough to share some advice for my MM blog. The “unrealistically high expectations of most filmmakers” was Michael’s topic of choice. Uh oh. I suspected he was about to give me the blunt ugly truth. And that is exactly what he did. Michael talked about the numerous moviemakers he’d encountered who expected to earn in the millions when realistically, most of them should expect to sell 1 – 10,000 DVD units domestically.

Michael thinks that most moviemakers could make more money selling their DVDs on their own. So, what was the point of chasing after a distributor? He said the value a major distribution deal imbues on a movie is mostly one of prestige, not cash. Getting into Blockbuster or other known DVD outlets is a way to raise your profile as a moviemaker and get exposure for the movie, not necessarily an avenue for recouping investments. You might want to keep that little tidbit from your funders.

And surprise, surprise: It’s easier to sell a movie with niche appeal and name actors. Very few indie movies break out without at least one of those two elements.

But we’re still going to make our heart’s songs, right? We’re still going to express our unique vision and hope that someone out there will recognize it and celebrate it and maybe even pay more than 0.0078 percent (or 25 percent in the case of Ariztical, which shared with my other distributor, and the marketing costs deducted and… well… nothing from nothing’s still nothing…).

Michael told me Red is the Color of does have a chance at getting on the shelves of Blockbuster. Okay, I admit it, I’d be thrilled. Ego? Maybe. Would it help my career? I’m dubious. Truthfully (don’t laugh), it would make me feel as if I’d made a “real” movie. I want that illusion. I really do.

My friend, Craig Nisker (The Green Goddess), took a peek at this blog and told me I’d written a downer piece. He asked me to give a little hope to the “celluloid” artists out there. So, here’s the slice of hope I’ll offer you: Some indies do get distribution (I once heard that five percent of independently produced features ultimately get distribution. Don’t worry, you’re in the five percent). And some even make their money back over time. And a few lucky ones land a distributor with deep pockets. It’s possible.

Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting, who has been disseminating valuable information to indie moviemakers for years, has recently written about the “New Age” of Independent Distribution. His premise: A moviemaker will reap the greatest profits by self-distributing from his/her own Website. Peter’s advice stems around an adaptability of strategies, always keeping the right to spread your own seed in tandem with the efforts of a distributor. (Check out the complete article at www.peterbroderick.com.)

It’s funny, we could be buying and selling widgets. We, as producers, ultimately take on the roles of glorified salesmen with rather ephemeral products. The good news is… they need our product! They really do. So go ahead, pour your heart onto the screen. Just remember: it all comes down to the distribution minuet—salesmen dancing with salesmen dancing with salesmen.

I have considered giving up this crazy dance. But I can’t. Yet. I still adore the cinematic tango with all its dips and drama and delight.

Optimistically yours,
Anne

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