When Gregory Laemmle of the priceless L.A. independent Laemmle theatre chain (I pray they never go out of business) suggested I speak to Stefan Forbes about his experiences with self-distribution, I had not yet been exposed to the rapidly growing cinematic phenomenon: Boogie Man.
As I spoke with Stefan over an extremely choppy cell phone connection, I mistakenly heard him say the subject of his documentary was “Leon Waters,” whom I assumed to be some obscure blues musician resurrected by this well-meaning moviemaker.
When Stefan mentioned that this Leon dude had mentored George Bush Sr., Ronald Reagan and Karl Rove, I realized we were discussing different men. My Leon wasn’t interested in politics. Lee Atwater, on the other hand, had been knee deep in it. He’s often referred to as the godfather of modern negative campaigning. Oy, was I embarrassed.
Before sharing his self-distribution story, Stefan felt it important to give my readers advice on completion. His movie was only as good as it is because he didn’t stop at 99 percent. He held the extra test screenings, took the criticisms to heart and accordingly made “above and beyond” editorial changes that brought the final level to 100 percent.
If there’s one area where most moviemakers fall short, Stefan says, it’s in post-production. I echo his criticism/advice: Do not rush to get it into any specific festival and do not show an unfinished product to anybody besides your own trusted test audience. Never stop cutting until you’re truly, truly done and if you suspect it could be better, it could.
This dashing toward the finish line and dropping your knickers on the way will sabotage you. Post-production is the one leg of the cinematic journey that so many screw up out of sheer panic. “But we have to get it into Sundance” has ruined many a potentially good movie. Stefan also warned about showing any festival an incomplete product: Do not do it!
Stefan, feeling it was urgent to bring his movie out before the election, didn’t wait for Toronto or Sundance and, instead, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Once there, his little Boogie Man made quite a splash with an amazing review in the Los Angeles Times. Then, just before his NY premiere, The New York Times wrote an entire editorial about the movie’s political relevance. You go, Stefan!
I’m going to take a moment to share a few quotes with you (I love to see true indies succeed):
“For all the nastiness of this year’s presidential campaign, the downward spiral into ever-meaner electioneering really started about 20 years ago…Boogie Man… details Mr. Atwater’s impish, strangely seductive charm, his mean boogie guitar and mostly his political chicanery.”
—The New York Times Editorial
“The movie isn’t a knee-jerk lefty hit job. In fact, it shows that Atwater was a runaway success not just because he was a devious political operator, but because, in the words of one liberal reporter Forbes interviewed, the sass-talking, guitar-playing Atwater ‘was the most fun man I ever met.'”
—Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times
The one thing Stefan didn’t gain at the festivals was a buyer. This should tell you something about the state of the indie film market. Despite the lavish attention, Boogie Man wasn’t offered a significant advance, so Stefan decided to self-distribute.
Although not at liberty to divulge any concrete budget details, Stefan shared that he was grateful to the Cummings Foundation and other nonprofits for supporting the project. Stefan credits his producer, Noland Walker, for coming on the project early, helping him get the ball rolling and helping to procure development funds from ITVS, a division of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Finally—the crux of today’s blog—how did this man domestically distribute his movie so successfully without the aid of a bona fide distributor? When I spoke with Stefan a few days ago, Boogie Man was playing in 35 cities and on its way to even more screens across the country. It was #8 in per screen average in the nation. How on earth did he do it?
He called people. He picked up the phone and called bookers at independent theaters all over the states. It wasn’t easy, he warns. They weren’t all eager to view his movie. But the ones that did helped set it on its current course. Once the press went hog wild over the doc, theaters began calling him. Stefan still seems a little amazed by that fact. He is wonderfully humble, by the way; truly gratified by his success and more than willing to share his journey.
Aiming for a wider release would have necessitated multiple 35mm transfers. His targeted small theaters accepted a slew of formats including HD, HDCam, Betacam SP, etc. The deals landed anywhere between 35 percent to a 50/50 split with the theater depending on the length of the run.
I was astounded. “How did you pay for the advertising?” I asked in awe. He didn’t. He took out a few small ads, but mostly it was word of mouth and the theaters’ own publicity arteries. Without ads, Boogie Man managed to get held over for three weeks in New York and is still going strong. It has now officially recouped its entire budget and it just made a generous domestic TV sale (Stefan can’t reveal the details quite yet). I can hear him smiling. On the foreign front, sales agent Annie Roney played a crucial role in getting the movie seen overseas. She secured a sale to Nick Fraser at the BBC’s “Storyville” among other broadcasters across Europe.
Showing a nostalgic side, Stefan glows about the thriving independent film-loving communities he’s visited around America with Boogie Man and cites some of his favorite theaters. He loves the cult-like devotion of Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theatre and the communal feeling of the Smith Rafael Film Center and the Marin Center in California. Despite the powerful march of the digital age, people still want to go to a communal space and share the experience of movie-watching.
Another moral from this story: When Stefan began making Boogie Man, he kept hearing the mantra, “Documentaries will never sell again.” He chose to ignore the warnings and go with his gut. This year, as Stefan points out, we’ve seen nine docs break $1 million.
Now, buyer beware, if you’ve gotten this far and are projecting your own precious movie out into Boogie Man-land, I feel obligated to rain on your parade. Go forth with an ounce of reality dripping from your brow, please, or, in less gentle terms, “Hey, buddy, reality check!”
Be truly rigorous in assessing your movie—does it really have the goods for a theatrical life? Part of Boogie Man’s success is in the timing. The zeitgeist of the nation coincides with its subject matter and message almost magically. And the movie is brilliantly crafted, audacious, humorous, controversial and it’s received ridiculously glowing reviews from the most respected papers in the nation.
If you are confident in your project and it can grab theater owners’ confidence as well, then you may have a chance of spreading your discs/tapes/celluloid across the country. It wouldn’t hurt to try.
Yes, we all want to see our movies on screen. However, very few of us will have that opportunity outside the festival experience. Online is becoming an increasingly popular alternate avenue for self-distribution. In my next installment, I’ll share info about a new company called NewFilmmakers Online, run by my friend, Barney Oldfield. I’ll also tell you a very unusual self-distribution story that’s somewhere south of the Boogie Man tale.
Don’t be discouraged. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Stefan Forbes says he worked round-the-clock making sure film buyers had a chance to see his movie and used all his reserves of persistence. Ultimately, though, regardless of one’s grit and determination, Boogie Man will speak for itself.
The good news: New options for distribution are sprouting up all over the place. Spend as little as possible, work as hard as you can and remember: Every indie moviemaker will ultimately wear the mantle of “salesperson” in one guise or another. Get used to it.
Please comment. I know you’re itching to dialogue with one another. What’s your self-distribution story?
Anne Norda is an award-winning artist, writer, director and producer with one feature, Red Is the Color Of (Best Feature Film, 2007 LA Femme Film Festival), under her belt. She was born in North Hollywood, schooled at the Parsons School of Design and was a Fulbright Scholar in photography. She’s a Finnish and U.S. citizen and has lived in Paris, Helsinki, LA, NY and Bangkok. Her dream is to run a major movie studio. Or be a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and dedicate her life to art and the transformation of humanity. Whichever may come first.