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Collateral Damage

Collateral Damage

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By the old definitions of art and commerce, Hollywood movies are “show business” and independent films—which no one expects to make money—are “cinema.” But now that studios and larger distribution companies are looking at even the most micro of micro-indies as potential profit-makers, a new generation of independent moviemakers is learning hard lessons about the myriad ways that business can screw up the show. Just ask Caveh Zahedi, a San Francisco-based moviemaker whose autobiographical pseudo-documentary I Am a Sex Addict has become collateral damage in a distribution turf war between billionaire media mogul Mark Cuban and cable giant Comcast.

Here’s how the whole mess works: Cuban and his business partner, Todd Wagner, run 2929 Enter-tainment, which owns (among other things) the Landmark Theatre chain, the largest U.S. chain for dis-tributing indie and art-house films. Cuban and Wagner also own two cable networks called HDNet and HDNet Movies. Comcast, which is a cable provider, won’t agree to carry either of the HDNets. That makes Mark Cuban mad.

Caveh Zahedi stars in the pseudo documentary, I Am a Sex Addict (2006).

I Am a Sex Addict is being distributed as part of something called IFC First Take, a so-called “day-and-date” distribution scheme which allows for the simultaneous, same-day release of a movie in both theaters and at home through video-on-demand. Since Cuban is a big believer in the day-and-date model (his HDNet Films is a small-budget production house that distributes its films via day-and-date), Landmark agreed to carry the IFC First Take films theatrically. Only later did Cuban find out that Comcast would be one of IFC’s video-on-demand partners. That makes Mark Cuban mad.

The rest is easy: Cuban doesn’t want to promote films in his theaters that will also be making money for Comcast through video-on-demand. One of those IFC First Take films was Zahedi’s I Am a Sex Addict. Only four days before its scheduled premiere in a Landmark theater in Berkeley, California, Cuban pulled I Am a Sex Addict from all Landmark theaters in Comcast cable markets, including Berkeley. Ironically, I Am a Sex Addict took home the 2005 Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. (Little did Zahedi know how prescient that award would be.)

What could little guy Zahedi possibly have to do with “big boys” Cuban and Comcast? Time for a crash course in film distribution in the “digital world.”Zahedi understands Cuban’s emotional motivation, but thinks his decision to pull the film is financially unsound, if not morally suspect. “The reason his logic falls apart is because Landmark is playing films which aren’t on Comcast which are making less money than my film, so it’s not like I’m taking revenue away from Landmark Theatres,” says Zahedi. “It’s weird to be so vindictive toward Comcast that he would starve them of profit at his own company’s expense.”

Zahedi wrote Cuban an open letter on his indieWIRE-hosted blog, asking Cuban to reverse his decision. Incredibly, Cuban (whose office said he was “not available for this interview” for MM) wrote back and explained, in not unsympathetic terms, that IFC knew of Cuban’s gripe with Comcast all along and now the ball was in their court. “IFC knew,” wrote Cuban. “Tell IFC not to show them on Comcast and we are happy to play the movies. I’m sorry that you got caught in the crossfire, but IFC wasn’t caught by surprise by this.”

Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, who oversees all of the company’s subsidiary programs, says IFC has been discussing the day-and-date program with Landmark for over a year, but never did he get any indication that Cuban would pull the First Take films over a disagreement with Comcast. Now, Sehring says, IFC and Landmark have been meeting two or three times a week to get things worked out.

“It was a misunderstanding between two companies that actually work very well together generally,” Sehring says. “It’s a situation that I’m pretty confident we’re going to resolve shortly.”

In many ways, though, IFC is just like Zahedi: Caught in the crossfire. “We don’t have any control over Landmark; we don’t have any control over Comcast,” says Sehring. “What we’re looking to do is to have these films, which otherwise would go without distribution, reach as wide an audience as possible and to try to connect the
filmmaker with his audience.”

Zahedi says that’s exactly why he signed up with the IFC day-anddate program. Not only would I Am a Sex Addict be exposed to a much wider audience than typically available through a traditional theatrical release, but IFC agreed to make his three previous feature films available for video-on-demand as well. “I think what IFC is doing is really good for independent cinema,” says Zahedi. “Those films were completely impossible to find—they were out of print. And now suddenly they’re going to be available to 30 million people through video-on-demand.”

Even after losing all but two Landmark theaters, I Am a Sex Addict opened in 20 U.S. cities in smaller, independently-owned theaters and, at press time, appears to be doing well, ranking number 15 among indie films in per screen grosses for its first full week. “The downside of that, of course, is that Landmark has some really good theaters in some really good locations with really good history and customer base,” says Zahedi, “so it definitely does hurt your box office to not play in Landmark.”

Is there a lesson to be learned here for other
independent moviemakers who aspire to wider
distribution? “I wish there were,” Zahedi says.
“You have to play the game, and there’s really no
outside the game. That’s sort of the prison house
of filmmaking in America. There is no real place to
inhabit outside the system and it forces filmmakers
into all types of compromises… It’s not really anything new, it’s just
that the landscape keeps shifting and you have to constantly adapt to
it.” That makes Caveh Zahedi mad.
This whole debacle—not to mention the highly entertaining email
exchanges between Cuban and Zahedi, posted on Zahedi’s
blog—has ironically meant tons of free promotion and press for I Am a Sex Addict.
“It’s given a lot of attention not only to Caveh’s film, but to Caveh
as an artist, that he may not have had if Mark had not stepped in,”
says Sehring. It leads one to wonder if Zahedi hasn’t played up his
feud with Cuban for that very effect. Even in Indiewood, sometimes
show business is show business. MM

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