If an indie film is lucky enough to get distribution at all, the release is its one shot, a match you can’t strike twice.
Yet here I am, a decade after my first film Burning Annie’s initial distribution, releasing it worldwide via Sundance’s Creative Distribution Initiative. How did we get here?
It certainly wasn’t because we knew what we were doing when we started making this movie in 1999. I was a first-time producer, a year out of college, who’d just moved to L.A. My friend and publishing colleague Zack Ordynans had written his first screenplay, which had Bottle Rocket/Clerks/Swingers-like potential, and I met a cinematographer-screenwriter-editor improbably named Van Flesher who was looking for his first film to direct. I contacted Woody Allen’s reps to ask for his blessing, which I could use to assure investors we wouldn’t be sued for our Annie Hall references. (Burning Annie is the story of a college student who believes all of life’s answers are in Annie Hall, including the futility of romance, but as he starts to suspect the film is ruining his life, he meets a young woman who might be a modern Annie herself, sending him into a romantic tailspin.) We showed them our script, offered Woody a cameo, and after a long period of cajoling, horse-trading and begging, we succeeded in getting a Covenant Not to Sue signed by the auteur himself (hardest autograph ever!).
Using equity from college friends and an inheritance, we shot in West Virginia in winter 2002 (on a then-state-of-the-art Sony CineAlta 24p HD camera capturing to HD-CAM), went over-budget and annihilated our funds for post-production. We struggled to deal with hard drives full of dailies that no editing system could handle. The files were improperly down-converted to make an offline. Some fledgling editors were found, and after submitting his cut, Van the director left to take a job at a prestigious film school, leaving me (with no experience) in charge of directing post-production and finishing the film. We were dead in the water.
Out of nowhere, Michael Rabehl of Cinequest Film Festival reached out to us. He’d seen the film’s logline in the production listings of Variety and inquired about its status. I explained the situation—unfinishable—and he offered to show it as a work-in-progress at Cinequest. This break allowed us to raise just enough money to finish an assembly. Then at the screening we discovered, to our horror, the film was wildly out of sync: the down-conversion had put the timecode in drop-frame instead of non-drop-frame, corrupting the online. (It literally took years to solve the sync mystery.)
Meanwhile I’d been reading about producers reps and sales agents, and cold-called every one I could find, sending VHS tapes of our rough cut—home-burned DVD technology was years away. Everybody passed. One legendary producers’ rep, Steven Beer, personally called to pass, and at my breaking point, with nothing to lose, I launched into a rant about the lack of risk-taking in a business defined by risk. After a long pause, he said he’d watch the film again. He was true to his word, and this time he saw its potential and became our rep. It helped that his assistant was a big fan.
With Steven on board, Burning Annie was accepted to officially premiere at Hamptons International Film Festival, but we couldn’t solve the tech issues and were too broke to complete the film in time. We presented a new rough cut, only to have the projector choke on our “wet” digital print in front of a sold-out crowd of critics, programmers and intelligentsia. That flushing sound was our dreams heading down the drain.
Most people (smart people) would have quit there. But reviews from the festival were stellar—newspapers were given DVDs ahead of time and thus missed the disastrous screening—and HIFF’s reputation precedes it, so to my surprise regional film festivals started calling us and offering screenings. I had to explain the film wasn’t finished, but the eight- to 10-week period before a festival appearance proved enough time to get the investors excited again and leverage a little “in for a penny, in for a pound” psychology, raising enough money to book an editing suite and implement the notes collected at the previous screening.
(A footnote: Editing in 2003 looked like this: Find a post house with rental editing suites and negotiate a day rate. Book one day, a Friday, and show up when they open, start capturing tapes and grill their best tech guy on output workflow. [FCP + HDcam decks + Mac towers did not dance well until the Kona card.] When they close, lock yourself in the suite with a keycard until they kill the lights and go home. Now you can work in peace until Monday morning. Hide in the suite as long as you can until close of business Monday, then stroll out with your hard drives at 5 p.m. and casually flip the keycard to the last employee there. Ninety percent of the time they have no idea who you are. You just got four days of editorial for the price of one.)
I was teaching myself editing on the fly as Final Cut Pro grew more powerful with each upgrade and thus more able to deal with our still-cutting-edge HD footage. A breakthrough came when I dragged raw HD files directly to the timeline and FCP 3.2 accepted them; now we could throw out the offline with its corrupt timecode and sync issues. I just had to rebuild the entire edit one clip at a time using timecode burn-in as a guide and re-apply all visual effects. A digital negative cut. I did it. It took a month. It was worth it.
For the next few years, we played regional film festivals and got to see audiences respond to the film. We moved hand-to-mouth, the film always a work-in-progress, awards and glowing reviews driving us forward with re-investment and refinement of the film. Every screening led us to improve our posters, website, Q&As, trailer and presentation to the world. But hope for distribution dwindled. Nobody wants damaged goods, just the newest and hottest. The period from 2003 to 2005 felt like walking along a freeway… Vroom! Was that The Squid & The Whale? Look at it go!
Then a new distributor joined the scene, specializing in HD-made films and aggressively pushing HD projection in theaters. They loved Burning Annie and we made a deal for a huge advance, P&A guarantee and dozens-of-markets theatrical commitment. Steven negotiated, all the deal points were locked; we signed and sent the execution copy for them to sign. A weekend became a week. A week became a month. Nobody could get them on the phone. One day I opened the trades and they’d been exposed as frauds—apparently they’d sunk their entire war chest into a single Jamie Foxx film and when it tanked, couldn’t honor their deals with the films they’d signed. Poof.