Within the independent film world, prestige is the name of the game.
It’s all about where you premiere, who represents you, what kind of release you have. (Theatrical, limited, wide? Oh my!) There is an almost superstitious belief that the entire course of your film’s life is determined by what is really just the beginning… and if you blow it, you’re damaged goods.
Yet it’s not that simple anymore. On-demand streaming platforms provide an endless array of options to get your film out to the world, and one doesn’t necessarily preclude the others. Many indies find their home, and possibly even their distributor, long after their premiere. In fact my very first feature, Nothing Sacred, just landed one this year—and it was shot when I was a (very green) 19-year-old, in 2006, nearly a decade ago!
The 10 Commandments of Chloe is an understated, smart little film about overcoming yourself, directed by Princeton Holt and starring myself as Chloe. The film was also co-written and co-produced by Princeton and me, and the story of its creation and its journey into the world of indie film is some parts dream-come-true, some parts cautionary-tale—and, just like Chloe’s story in the film itself, its last scene should really be interpreted as a happy ending.
Chloe was made on a wing and a prayer, planned over phone conversations between Princeton and me from across the country, and cast and shot in less than a week in Nashville, Tennessee. The talent we found there and the dozens of happy accidents were nothing short of miraculous; for a no-budget film with hardly any pre-production or a concrete script, it ended up winning nine awards and having a serendipitous premiere at Calgary International Film Festival, where it was a Discovery Award Nominee. The late 2013 premiere was followed by a nice U.S. festival run, where it scooped up some more awards and notability.
During that festival run, we got some interest from a well-known, reputable distribution/production company that offered to step in and back the release of a new, slightly altered cut of the film. They would provide the music licensing rights, and give it a post/FX cleanup job done by an Academy Award-nominated in-house team.
I asked our film’s new (and very prominent) attorney: Did it matter that the film had already shown in places around the U.S. and, in fact around the world? Or that we had, at one point, briefly put it out online? The lawyer waved away the question like it was fruit fly: “That’s not a problem. I think you should just play [the existing version] down as much as possible; we’re not talking about millions of sales here.” He then regaled us with tales of other well-known indie film reincarnations that had made minor changes to deftly avoid the “premiere” rule.
No, we weren’t talking millions of anything. Maybe a hundred views during a two-week period in mid-2013. We’d gotten a handful of rejections and were just burnt out—before the premiere, after dozens of festival submissions, but before any bites—so we’d decided to put the film up on our production company’s website. We didn’t promote much, because neither of us were sure it was the right move, and shortly thereafter we got our first jury prize (Best Actress at IndieFest) and took it down.
Apparently, it was OK with our distributor. So we stopped the presses: held off any further showings, write-ups or release plans for the original cut. Instead, we worked with the company to re-edit the film and sort out the music placements for the new release. Then we waited for the rest of the magic to happen…
… Now, nearly a year later, we’re still waiting for that magic to happen. Though we understand the nature of being a small fish in a big pond (I’ve experienced this as an actress in talent agencies, and certainly in my music career), and still hold out some hope for the delivery of the new cut, we want what we’ve always wanted—for our “stunning” film to just be out there.The situation with the distributor is tough: We’re still in touch, but I only receive updates every month or two. What started with a flood has slowed to a trickle. When we first began talking they were very enthusiastic, communicating weekly and sometimes daily; they held impressive screenings to discuss suggestions for the new cut and title, and almost immediately took care of the music licenses. We spoke at length about the right festival for the premiere. It was all very exciting.
Then, as last summer turned to fall, responses became increasingly sparse. It seemed that there was always a queue of “bigger” projects on their plates. First it was because of Sundance, after which, we were told, they’d have “plenty of time,” but Sundance consumed an entire season, and was immediately followed by Tribeca, and so on. To be fair, they merged with another company and relocated during that time, and for a big distributor, a relatively small investment can easily go out of sight, out of mind. But it’s heartbreaking, the letdown. Being “low-priority.”
This past spring, during the revisions, negotiations, and seemingly endless waiting process of re-releasing Chloe, I was at artist residency in Finland when I felt the urge to tell another story. I had a budget available from artist grants and so made the psychological thriller/romance Sorceress, my second feature behind the scenes and my first at the helm.
With the rough cut already 80 percent completed, I started a crowdfunding campaign for Sorceress—which was when Princeton suggested releasing Chloe for free online, and using it in the campaign. “Why not use your last film to help finance your new one,” he asked, “instead of just letting it sit on our hard drives?” Which led to the idea of putting it on YouTube.
We’re in an era where being “signed to a major” hasn’t meant much in a long time. The advent of BitTorrent and VOD streaming services have not just changed the players, or the rules, they’ve changed the game entirely. The beauty of “releasing” or “publishing” for free is that it is something of a loophole—despite certain perceptions associated with it, there are no sticky legal issues to deal with, such as intellectual property laws or licensing fees, and it does not preclude an eventual home with a traditional distributor.
Of course, the traditional theatrical distribution route is certainly a best-case scenario, if you can make it work for you. With Sorceress, for example, which has a wider scope and an international market, I think that the festival circuit, the sales rep, and all that goes with it, will be appropriate. But with Chloe in limbo, our digital release feels right, especially with the purpose of moving the next project forward. It feels like we’re taking back a little control of our own destiny, independently.
We have not broken off ties with our distributor; nor have we broken a contract—the version they have, the virginal (hitherto-unseen, not even by Princeton or myself) Chloe, is, indeed, a different film. The ending is different, after a minor edit that implies a dramatically different resolution. The structure is completely different; the original film is composed of 10 chapters, or “commandments,” which indirectly pertain to the subsequent scenes. We ditched ’em in the new cut, in favor of a different motif. The rest of the revisions are basically cosmetic, but there are quite a few. Long story short, it’s not the same film. We haven’t broken any rules. Because just as recently as a month ago I received a communication about one of the music licenses going through, part of me believes that our distributor will eventually finish whatever remains to be finished, and get it onto HBO, or something… but more of me believes it will just grow old on a shelf in their post-facilities warehouse.
Releasing our film by just posting it to YouTube, which does not promote any sales or require any legal documentation, is an extremely innocuous way to release a film. Streaming for free on a private website is equally devoid of legal hassles and intellectual property issues, and may be preferable to some people. It depends on your priorities.This part, for us, isn’t about prestige. Our film got its stamp of approval and credibility in the festival circuit, through its many awards and great reviews. Without a top-notch distributor behind us (and now, not next year or the following), there isn’t really an attainable level of prestige so lofty that it will drastically affect our audience… Hopefully that will happen ultimately, so that it can reach millions of people, but until then it will most likely be good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. And it just needs a place, any place, where someone can tell their friend to check it out.Included among the myriad self-distribution options that do not require a registered copyright:
- streaming on the official movie website, under the appropriate domain name, which probably has the most prestigious and professional appearance
- VHX and Vimeo on Demand, which allow price-setting and do have some quality-control and criteria for inclusion
- finally, YouTube, the opposite extreme, where clips of people tripping reign supreme, and which can be kind of low-brow
And ironically, of all the above options, YouTube is the most accessible. Yes, YouTube, with its island of servers, with its app pre-installed on every mobile device and SmartTV, with its trillions of talking-cat videos, is some very efficient code. It rarely stutters or stops; it supports HD; it doesn’t require a ton of add-ons. If you’re not depending on your platform to typify or promote your film (and hopefully you’re not!), then choose one you can depend on to stream your video properly and consistently.
So, to go along with the campaign for Sorceress, we’ve decided to release The 10 Commandments of Chloe, the original version (which garnered all those prizes!), back out into the world (on YouTube below, or on Vimeo here). Consider your own situation carefully when you’ve finished all the work of pre-production, filming, post, and possibly even a festival run. Weigh your options and the costs and benefits of each. If the traditional route is open to you, and you have momentum, then run with it. But more important, usually, is exposure. So remember to follow your intuition, that your body of work is important, and of no use to anyone if it’s tucked away in a drawer. Three cheers for self-starters and art that cannot be stopped. MM
Naama Kates is a writer/producer/performer. Her credits as an actor include a recurring role on NCIS, and lead roles in the indie favorites Eden and My Normal. Her first film as co-writer and co-producer, Chloe, garnered awards around the festival circuit. She is currently working on post-production for Sorceress, her first feature as screenwriter, a European-U.S. co-production. Check out The Ten Commandments of Chloe on YouTube or Vimeo, and view the Sorceress trailer or stop by its crowdfunding campaign.