In 2007, when Christopher Thompson came across a work of art by Banksy—the infamous, anonymous street artist whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, though he “installs” it free of charge—he saw his acquisition of the piece as a twofold opportunity. First, there was a potentially huge amount of money to be made in selling the piece, which Thompson had acquired for nothing by scraping it off the nearby bridge that was its original home. Second, the effort it would take to find a buyer—getting it restored, authenticated and evaluated, all of which would require gate crashing the business world that’s sprung up around the counterculture icon’s art—would make for an interesting documentary.
Four years later, co-directors Thompson and Alper Cagatay’s debut film, How to Sell a Banksy, was finally complete. Thompson took the time to chat with MovieMaker about the challenges the duo had both in making the film (“…it’d be safe to say [the art community], along with a pretty sizable collection of the graffiti community, hated us.”) and in pursuing traditional distribution (“Nobody was going to hang themselves out there for a low/no budget film coming in from outside of their goldfish bowl”).
Thompson and Cagatay are currently self-distributing their debut film with the help of online distribution platform Distrify. To watch the the trailer for How to Sell a Banksy—or to rent or buy the film—visit www.howtosellabanksy.com.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): How did you come across the Banksy that you’re trying to sell throughout the film? Were you sure right away that it was authentic?
Christopher Thompson (CT): It was around 2007. I was living in East London, and I was sitting in a pub with a couple of mates. At the time, there was a ton of Banksy’s work in the area. Everyone local knew where they were and thought they were pretty cool, but this was well before Banksy is who he is today. He hadn’t shifted millions of coffee table books or been nominated for an Oscar. But it was around the time he was just starting to get big. A couple of his pieces sold for a load of money… and it dawned on us that, if we could, it’d probably be well worth trying to get our hands on one.
One of his most well-known pieces used to stretch 30 feet across a railway bridge over Old Street. So, armed with spatulas, we set out on a pretty drunken mission. To be fair, we weren’t the first people with the idea. The posters were in really crappy condition by the time we got there.
MM: At what point did you decide to turn your quest into selling this piece of art into a documentary? Aside from the difficulties you had in finding a buyer, what challenges did you, as a moviemaker, face in making the documentary?
CT: After “acquiring” the piece, it ended up on top of a wardrobe, to be forgotten about for years. All the while, Banksy’s reputation was growing. Throughout this time, Alper and I were always making films, but mainly talking about them… Then, once again sitting around in a pub, we came up with the idea of the doc. I think what attracted us to the idea was the clear narrative: It had a beginning (“acquiring” the Banksy), a middle (trying to restore, authenticate, evaluate and exhibit it) and a definitive end (actually selling it).
Problems with the filmmaking process were many. Besides the practical issues of hangovers, apathy and depression on my part (Alper was actually a great motivational and integral part of the team), we had the problems of access. Nobody wanted to talk to us, especially nobody from Banksy’s camp. In fact, I reckon it’d be safe to say they, along with a pretty sizable collection of the graffiti community, hated us. But we ended up just incorporating all those frustrations and closed doors into the movie, which I think turns out to be a large part of the story’s charm.
MM: Did you know anything about the art world before you started making How to Sell a Banksy? What about the business that’s sprung up around Banksy’s art surprised you the most?
CT: We knew nothing about the art world before this, but I did have my suspicions that they weren’t going to be overly welcoming to a couple of jokers rocking up and asking for a hundred grand for some shreds of paper stuck in a frame. Turns out I was largely right about that.
The main problem around the business of street art involves the issue of “provenance.” This basically means that you can trace ownership of a piece of art all the way back to the original artist, but if that artist (in this case, Banksy) refuses to confirm it’s his, art buyers get nervous that you’re trying to pull a fast one and sell them a bunch of shreds of paper that you’ve made in your back garden. It’s a little bit ironic that most of the people who want to own an original Banksy want to because they think it’s cool, but then they get a bit scared that they are not, in fact, cool enough to know the real thing when they see it.
I’m not really sure if the business that’s sprung up around Banksy did surprise me. His work’s clever and funny, consistently. He hasn’t got one or two images that do both, he’s got lots, and to his credit he is still churning them out. The thing that did surprise me was the Oscar nod [for his 2010 documentary]… I thought Exit Through the Gift Shop was a cracking movie, but it was just weird thinking of Banksy, who is someone who has essentially built a career appearing anti-establishment and anti-authority, winning an Oscar.
MM: What distribution paths have you pursued for How to Sell a Banksy? What are your future plans for getting the film out to a wider audience?
CT: We managed to cut together a great little trailer for the film, and on the strength of that (and Banksy’s name recognition), we managed to get a substantial number of blogs to pick it up. We got up on Hypebeast and The Huffington Post, to name two. The YouTube trailer has now got around 100,000 views, which is impressive for an independent, zero-budget, self-financed documentary.
Off the back of that press, we arranged a screening for UK distributors. We managed to get all the major players in the room, but none of them were willing to risk it. With the obvious danger of sounding bitter, it’s my personal opinion that these “taste makers” are the problem with the British film industry as a whole; they mainly all come from a posh, rich, upper-class and privileged background. “Clueless” is a word that springs to mind; a bunch of people waiting to be told what’s good. Nobody was going to hang themselves out there for a low/no budget film coming in from outside of their goldfish bowl… Either that, or our film wasn’t good enough.
We reached late-stage discussions with a couple of US distributors, both of whom were linked in some way to Exit Through the Gift Shop. To start with, that wasn’t a problem for them, [as] the film actually works well as a neat companion piece. But they ended up getting nervous about upsetting Banksy; [they were] probably paranoid he wouldn’t work with them again, even though he’s gone on record to say he’s never going to get involved in making another film.
We were offered deals from a couple of companies who would distribute the film online for us, but after some sums it soon became apparent that we could probably do just as good a job of getting the word out, and could keep a larger percentage, if we just distributed it ourselves. We were going to use the Dynamo Player, but there was some weird US tax number Alper and I, as non-US citizens, didn’t have. As soon as we heard about Distrify, we jumped all over it.
Getting it to a larger audience is tough when you have no money. We tweeted hundreds of people, to the extent that it became, essentially, just spamming. But for every 10 people we pissed off, one or two would pick it up and retweet it.
But, ultimately, it’s tough to sell online. The conversion rate from trailer views and visits to actually stumping up five bucks for the whole film is tiny. These days nobody wants to pay for films, especially online, which leaves independent filmmakers trying to scrape together a living or maybe a budget for a follow-up project.
MM: Do you have plans for any upcoming projects?
CT: I’m fully aware that How to Sell a Banksy wasn’t the most noble or worthy of projects, especially when you compare it to the big ideas and issues the documentary genre is capable of dealing with. So I’m intending to tackle something a little weightier. I’m living in NYC now, and it’s an interesting time to be in and amongst the Occupy movement. I’m aware there’s a ton of people already covering it and putting together their own films. But I’m putting something together that subverts the usual approach. If it comes off right it should be interesting and, again, piss a lot of people off.
For more on How to Sell a Banksy, visit www.howtosellabanksy.com.