In today’s era of $200 million Inception-esque films, the independent moviemaker’s latest project tends to get lost. Studios just don’t seem to care about the little fish, regardless of how great their stories may be, how innovative their techniques are or how passionate they are about the art of moviemaking. A great marketing and distribution deal is nearly impossible to come by in this corporate film world, and it’s unfortunate to see (or not see) how many amazing independent works are left unnoticed.
Moviemaker Bob Ray set out to break through this barrier mid-July with his “Down and Dirty Austin Film Tour.” Sick of waiting around for the system to change, he decided to take his latest feature documentary, Total Badass, along with a few of his other titles, and hit the road, DIY-style. Ray is booking his own screenings complete with Q&A sessions and partnerships with local roller derby groups across the Western coast (his 2007 documentary Hell on Wheels explores the sport’s revival). Using his own Website, Facebook and logging his experiences on an online journal, Ray is also tackling self-promotion. MovieMaker caught up with Ray mid-adventure.
Kate Ritter (MM): What made you decide to forgo the traditional distribution route?
Bob Ray (BR): Frustration, perhaps? An ache for an adventure? An attempt to try something different? Wanderlust? A sampling of the above?
Total Badass is my new movie, and sure, it’s chock full of drug abuse, graphic sex, obnoxious humor, rowdy rock ‘n’ roll, trashcan jumping, dirty and hilariously perverted rap music, felonious crime and other assorted fun. But at its core, it has a heart; a heart of gold like all the street-walking hookers across the globe. But Total Badass might not be the kind of movie that a big fest will embrace. I mean, Lars von Trier can get away with Willem Dafoe cumming blood [in Antichrist] and Harmony Korine can get away with trashcan humping [in Trash Humpers], but can a low-level moviemaker like me get away with it? I’m not convinced and I don’t have $50 to blast off like a shotgun in the night to every film fest that commands an entry fee. I love fests and have garnered a wee bit of notoriety from screening my previous films (Rock Opera, Hell on Wheels) at myriad fests, but ultimately, for a low-budget joint like Total Badass, it just adds to the expense of the flick. And if you don’t land a distribution deal, all you do is dig a deeper financial crater for yourself. Sure, you may get some press, but that doesn’t pay the bills. My children need wine!
We made Total Badass for about $7,000. When we screened it in Austin, we pulled in almost $600. That’s near 10 percent of the budget. I screened my first feature, Rock Opera, at about two dozen film fests and my documentary, Hell on Wheels, at about the same number of fests. Aside from the very few that fly you out and put you up, I spent loads of scratch to get myself to these fests, ship screeners to press outlets, make master tapes in every format known to man in order to accommodate the different machines each fest screens on, print posters, handbills, postcards and other promotional material and all the other miscellaneous expenses that come with attending a fest. Sure they are fun, but at a cost.
And maybe I’ll find out on this savage journey why others don’t tour around with their films. Maybe fests are easier. I surely wish them no ill. My nose is not thumbed their way. Fests are a hoot, ply you with free drinks and connect you with like-minded film freaks. But if I can get a few asses in seats and sell a bit of merch, maybe I can come out in the black for once.
MM: How did you prepare for life on the road?
BR: The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls… Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
Wait—that might be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s close, but not correct. I spent about three months setting up the tour. It’s a huge pain in the ass but if you’ve finished a film, you can do it. It’ll be just as frustrating and difficult, but it can be done. Our tour is a fairly long one at five weeks, but I figure that if I’m gonna do it, I’m going all-in. I’m on tour with Chad Holt, the subject of Total Badass. And despite his rep as a completely insane person, he’s actually a damn fine travel companion. I lived next door to him for about five years, so I know his habits and addictions quite well. If we can keep from getting arrested, it’ll be a huge success.
MM: How did you go about scheduling your screening venues and dates? What sort of research went into this part of the journey?
BR: This is the hardest part of the job. This will suck up every second of your life for several months. It’s like juggling greased-up cats. You’ve got to start about four or five months out from when you want to screen. Luckily, Total Badass is my third feature, and I have a track record. That makes it easier for me to book than the fresh-meat moviemaker straight out of the gate. Hell on Wheels and Rock Opera are proven commodities (at least to a small degree). Basically, you’re trying to convince a cinema to give you a room that might otherwise be occupied by Iron Man VII or the like. They need to know that you will sell some tickets. It’s all biz. And corporate cinemas? Don’t spin your wheels on that one. Even if the front line, folks and the theater managers are down for the cause, once you send the info up the ladder the corporate suits will shoot you down with a particular glee that would shame the Marquis de Sade.
Again, this task is filthy with pile upon pile of endless research, e-mails, phone calls and follow-ups. Seek out the indie cinema in each city and make your pitch. Remember: Stick to the indies. It’s your only hope.
MM: How effective have Facebook and your tour journal been as promotional tools? Are social networking and the Internet key to the success of a project like this?
BR: We’ve been getting loads of hits on the tour journal (http://www.crashcamfilms.wordpress.com) and we set up pages for every single screening on Facebook. Those are great ways to get the word out and direct folks to an online location with all the relevant info. The problem is, who do I know in Boise, Idaho? I mean, once you create a Facebook event page, you need to be “friends” with folks in order to invite them. And Facebook will kick you off if you send more than about 10 messages to folks. They think you are “spamming” people by inviting strangers to an event. Maybe you are…
So I (along with tour producer Mia Cevallos) researched all the local film groups, filmmakers, film societies, film-friendly blogs, counter culture ‘zines, newsgroups, etc., and personally invited these folks to the screening. I include the Facebook event page in my correspondence and encourage people to invite others. This research and promotion is another huge time-consuming beast and it’s pretty hit or miss. But without an ad budget, what else can you do?
It turns out that promoting is the hardest part. Did I say booking was the hardest part earlier? Well it is, until you get to promoting. And promoting makes or breaks a screening. No promo equals no audience. I’m lucky here in that I have a publicist friend, Jenny Bendell, who helps me with this.
Getting a nice write-up in the alt weekly still has value. Almost halfway through the tour, it’s obvious that when we get press, we get an audience. When we don’t, it’s tumbleweeds and tough biz. But getting a review or write-up is a hell of a chore, too. You’ve got to send press releases, follow up with personal e-mails and phone calls, politely nudge the writers and critics and if all shakes out in your favor, you might get some ink.
MM: How successful has the tour been thus far? You’ve still got a little while to go, but what’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned at this point?
BR: Success depends on how you define it, I suppose. Financially, I’m in the black… I think. I’m bad at business and don’t like math. But it feels like a success. The attendance has been hit or miss. In large part this portion of the success factor is about the coverage and exposure we get in each city. Without an ad budget, we are at the mercy of press: Newspapers, blogs, radio stations, etc. Getting the word out is very difficult.
Piling up the hurdles, many papers and press outlets no longer have local film writers. Getting press for a one-night-only screening of an independent film is a tough nut. Lots of these papers are owned by big conglomerates and pull their reviews from wire services. That sucks for many reasons, like small-time moviemakers such as myself not being able to get a write-up for a local gig. On a personal note, I think it’s important that a reviewer have some local ties or something invested in the local scene. But who reads papers today anyway, right?
MM: What’s your next marketing step, post-tour?
BR: If this leg of the tour is a success (by which I mean, we pull through it without an extended rap sheet, we keep all of our limbs intact and can skirt landing a bounty on our heads), we just might be foolish enough to attempt an east coast and midwest tour later in the year. Hopefully we’ll entertain some folks. Hopefully we’re defiling a few rods and cones along the way. Maybe we’ll expand someone’s consciousness. Maybe we’ll make some new friends. Some good press would be nice. Perhaps we’ll show folks that there are alternatives to getting a film out there. Maybe I’ll land that huge six-figure distribution deal, buy a mansion in the Hollywood Hills and stock each room with nitrous oxide tanks. But I am sure that we’ll put about 10,000 miles on my car and have one hell of an adventure. Basically, we’ll assess our gains and losses, our fun and hardships and probably—just probably—give it another go. I am stubborn. I am prolific. I must make and screen films. I am a fool.
MM: What’s the one piece of advice you’ve give to fellow independent moviemakers looking to do the DIY thing?
BR: Don’t. No, just playing. It’s hard as hell but it’s rewarding and fun at the same time. I’d rather be making a movie right now, but next to that, this is pretty cool. But it is a mountain of work. And you have to have a tough shell to handle it. There will be nights when nobody shows up, but then there will be nights when the room will be filled with fired-up filmgoers. It’s feast or famine, just like making movies. So gorge yourself on the fat and hunker down for the lean times. Remember the good, it will carry you through the bad. And never forget that tomorrow there is another city to conquer.
We’re mid-way through the tour right now, but if you want to catch us on the West Coast or through the Southwest, check out our tour schedule here: http://crashcamfilms.com/filmtour2010.htm.