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Do-it-Yourself Distribution

Do-it-Yourself Distribution

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It’s a scenario that’s all too familiar to hundreds of moviemakers: You’ve spent years pouring blood, sweat and tears (not to mention your rich uncle’s money) into your first movie. You’ve cut corners and costs, called in favors and maxed out credit cards to get your magnum opus made. A couple of small film festivals have accepted it into their lineups and the crowd at the premiere liked what they saw. Maybe you brought it back home and screened the movie once or twice locally. Then the smoke cleared and you sat by the phone, waiting for the call from that big/medium/small distributor which, with the whisk of a pen, could make all your dreams come true. So you wait. And you wait. And you wait…

If your only goal in making a film is getting a distributor to buy it, you’re almost undoubtedly in for a rude awakening. Yes, every year Cinderella stories still happen at festivals like Sundance and Toronto, where little films build buzz and get picked up in seven-figure deals, but those cases are the exception. The more common story goes like this: A good movie gets made, is shown to a handful of people and poof! It’s never heard from again… Unless its creators decide to spend another few years self-distributing it, which is a ridiculous notion anyway because those things never work out, right?

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till’s (2005) Keith Beauchamp and attorney Kenneth Thompson at the film’s premiere.

Wrong! The landscape for self-distribution has changed drastically in the last few years. While there’s no such thing as a sure thing, the do-it-yourself route has come a long way from the days when the only option was “four-walling” orphan films into theaters for a steep fee. Yes, it’s still possible to hit the jackpot the old-fashioned way. People point to Gene Cajayon, who took his low-budget romantic comedy, The Debut, on the road for two years, grossed over $1 million by working the overlooked Asian-American audience and now has a home video distribution deal with Columbia/Tri-Star. The wait-and-see method of schlepping a film to festivals and limited-engagement art-house runs until a name distributor comes a calling also has its share of success stories, notably with Keith Beauchamp’s The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (his dogged efforts to get the film seen eventually attracted the attention of THINKFilm) and Caveh Zahedi’s self-confessional I Am a Sex Addict (he’s sharing a service deal with IFC Films). Thanks to a whole new set of factors, however, moviemakers intent on going DIY now have other options besides driving their prints from theater to theater.

Zack Coffman and Scott Di Lalla spent a little over a year working on their documentary, Choppertown: The Sinners, which follows a custom bike club dedicated to building tricked-out choppers. “They’re all modern-day greasers in their late twenties and early thirties,” Coffman says. “They make inexpensive, garage-built bikes. We were making an inexpensive, garage-built film, so we could relate.” The directors wanted to get the blessing of the Sinners before they started showing the movie around, so they arranged a screening for the group and invited along some journalists from motorcycle and car magazines. It was a smart move. The gearhead press immediately started spreading the word to the film’s core demographic.

“We were still thinking we’d try to shop it to the studios,” Coffman recalls. “We were just starting to map out a game plan when we started getting all these calls from people asking, ‘Where is this playing? When is it showing again? Can I buy a DVD?’ We just got inundated with tons of e-mails and pre-orders… So we thought, let’s start selling it until we get something going. We set up a Website and managed to move several thousand copies in about four months.”

State of Fear (2005) producer Paco de Onis, director Pamela Yates and editor Peter Kinoy premiere their film at New York’s Film Forum.

Though Coffman and Di Lalla still have their eyes on a theatrical deal, they’ve already managed to get their film directly into the hands of their audience via the Internet and jumpstart a grassroots marketing campaign. “The film festival scene is pretty political… especially the bigger ones,” confirms Coffman. “If you don’t have a rep or you don’t know the people running them, it’s tough to get all the programmers to look at it. But we had all these people who’d seen the film at a friend’s house and the next thing you know, they’re calling us up and wanting to organize screenings on their own. We suddenly had people from Paris, Tokyo and London coordinating public showings and selling the disc in their shops for us. They all wanted to be part of this cool thing we’d done, and we haven’t had to spend a dime on advertising yet.”

Thanks to the Web’s ability to reach a community of people with just a few mouse clicks, moviemakers have found the Internet to be a key tool in creating awareness (and cutting out the middleman) when it comes to their films. After Maine-based director Dana Packard and writer-actress Jennifer Nichole Porter procured a sales agent and organized an industry screening for their independent drama, Mr. Barrington, at the DGA Theater in New York, they received a handful of offers. None, however, would allow them to recoup their expenses.

“The sorts of deals that were getting floated toward us at the end weren’t going to enable us to pay our investors back,” says Packard. “It became apparent that getting a theatrical release wasn’t going to happen, so I started researching how DVD distribution is set up… Normally, through a distributor, you get $.25 back for every disc sold. On our own, we were clearing $7.00 per product and we were able to pay for the first batch of DVDs—as well as shipping and managerial costs—strictly from those online sales.”

Like the Choppertown folks, Packard took advantage of the Net’s viral mode of communication. “We followed the model of organizations like MoveOn.org,” Packard admits. “We sent out e-mails about the film to those who might be interested and it didn’t cost us anything. By going to fan sites for someone like [star] Eric Schweig, we were able to let his fan base know directly that he was involved with this project and asked them to tell their friends.”

On the set of Dana Packard’s Mr. Barrington (2003).

Producer Paco de Onis has been fortunate enough to see State of Fear, his documentary on Peru’s terrorist insurgent group Shining Path, get some very lucky breaks. An executive at National Geographic Channel International had seen an ad hoc trailer the moviemakers had put together during production and bought the worldwide TV rights. Director Pamela Yates also knew Karen Cooper, a programmer at Film Forum, and with her help Yates was able to organize a successful theatrical run, which opened up opportunities in other parts of the country. When distributors did come calling, however, de Onis wasn’t sure it was the right road to go down.

“Political documentaries like this one need special attention and care,” says de Onis. “Many distributors don’t have the time or patience for them, and if it doesn’t really do well that first weekend, a lot of distributors will just shelf the film.” De Onis recalls what happened to Peter Raymont’s Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, a well-made doc about the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. It got great buzz after showing at Sundance and came out right on the heels of Hotel Rwanda, “so it had a lot going for it. But then the movie played at Film Forum for one week and just disappeared altogether. That’s just one example; there are dozens of others. Plus, most distributors will offer you around 20 percent of the cost of the DVD sales, but that’s after expenses and marketing. It’s a long time before you see any money.”

Director Caveh Zahedi shoots I Am a Sex Addict (2005).

So de Onis decided to self-distribute the film, contacting human rights film festivals and working the Latin American audience by appearing on Univision and Telemundo to promote the film. It was after he hooked up with the independent moviemaking co-op New Day Films, however, that he was able to start generating a profit.

“They are the original self-distributors,” says de Onis. “They started up 35 years ago and handle films that have appeal to the educational market. They even have their own fulfillment house that collects orders, takes the money and ships products out. You have to promote your film, but they take care of the nuts and bolts of getting the film out there to universities and institutes who will buy the DVD.”

Even if a moviemaker isn’t making features designed to shed light on injustice or appeal to the institutional market, there are still companies like BuyIndies.com, FilmBaby.com and IndieFlix.com that can offer support. While they aren’t co-ops, they do act as effective online bazaars where moviemakers can sell their movies directly to consumers without getting gouged, percentage-wise. (Depending on the service, an artist can earn as high as a 90 to 100 percent return.) Though word-of-mouth may drive a number of consumers to someone’s Website, having a film featured alongside like-minded products in its genre offers exposure to a much larger consumer base. In the case of IndieFlix, you don’t even need to pay for materials. After you submit your film, they’ll burn it right onto a disc and ship it out. Since many of these companies are run by former or current independent moviemakers, they tend to keep the emphasis on making sure the struggling artist is well-served.

Choppertown: The Sinners’ (2005) Scott Di Lalla and Zack Coffman at the 2006 Park City Film Music Festival.

Thanks to these companies and others like them, the self-distributing moviemaker now has an online commerce-based infrastructure. As the largely untested video-on-demand (VOD) format comes of age in the next few years, it’s easy to see similar service-based sites springing up. Soon it may be possible to bypass theatrical releases altogether. For those still clamoring to get their work seen on a big screen without selling their souls, private consultants like Peter Broderick’s Paradigm Consulting and Withoutabox.com’s recent The Distribution Lab project—which will allow a handful of applicants access to everything from catalog services and accounting to DVD and download fulfillment capability—can shepherd moviemakers through the self-distribution process in a user-friendly manner.

Though the fact that self-distribution is still an exhausting process—moviemakers must do the job of a well-oiled marketing department with a tiny fraction of the budget of most small distribution companies—the one thing that those who’ve gone through the experience agree on is that it can also be empowering. “Everything is ours, so if in the future someone big does want to come around or a studio wants to add it to their library, they have to deal with us,” says Coffman. “It ends up being worth a lot more in the long run, and since we know we can live off this, we can wait until an offer comes around that we are comfortable with.”

“There was this mentality that you had to take the first deal that’s offered to you, no matter how bad it was,” Packard concurs. “That’s no longer the case. The advantage is that you own it… That may seem like a lonely proposition when it feels like nobody wants your film right away, but the reality of it is that it’s a powerful position to be in. There’s this whole vast gray area between the great distribution deal and the lonely person holding their movie. But my feeling is, I’d rather be the lonely guy holding his movie if it means that my investors will be paid back and people will still get to see it.” MM

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