Moviemaking Advice From Dov S-S Simens
America’s #1 Film Instructor

This is the fourth of a four-part series on dealing with film distributors.
Part I was “Distribution Patterns: How to Re- lease” (MM#25). Part
II was “The Distribution Deal” (MM#26). Part III was “How
to Select a Distributor.” (MM#27).

You’re a moviemaker. You got the script,
found some bucks, shot the movie, swear it’s great. Now
you’ll take it to a festival to get a distributor and practice
your Oscar speech.

That’s the game plan, anyway. But what
happens when you do everything right and no distributor, not
one (that’s correct, not even a company that specializes
in foreign sales to Pakistan and Yemen) has made you an offer.
There’s been a lot of talk. There’s been a lot of interest.
But no cash. What are you going to do? It’s been shopped.
Miramax and New Line both tell you, “wonderful production
value.” They “love it” and “can’t wait
to see your next film,” but right now their ’98 slate
is booked. What are you going to do now?

You have 3 choices.First, admit that you made
a piece of crap and go to med. school. Second, get a nickel-dime
video distributor, take the box with your name on it and hustle
your second project around to a new group of dentists for financing.
Third, persevere and self distribute. (Before taking this route,
however, consider the immortal words of Kenny Rogers: You have
to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.)

Let’s discuss self distribution for a
filmmaker who has a 90-120 minute feature film that’s played
at a couple of festivals, won a couple of awards, had some good
interest but got no distribution offers.

Hopefully, you understand you’re going
to spend another 12-18 months on this project. Thus, to maximize
revenues, if there are to be any, you must first understand “sequencing,” which
is the maximizing of revenue from all the global markets. It
follows this sequence:

If you can book your film in the
top 20 markets (NY, LA, Chicago, etc.) with at least 1 print
in 1 art house theater for 2 weeks with corresponding publicity
and ads, you will have created a product that the audience
believes has a perceived value of $8.00 (ticket price for
a movie). Even if people don’t attend, this will trigger
sales to the ancillary markets. Theaters to look for are
national chains similar to the Landmark Theaters. Examples
are Laemmle Theaters (Los Angeles), Film Forum (NYC), Dobie
(Austin), Brattle (Boston), Key (Washington, D.C.), CineMagic
(Pittsburgh), Angelika (Houston), Roxie (San Francisco) and
the Music Box (Chicago). To book you will probably get a
percentage deal (25-35% of box office) or a “house-nut” deal,
where the theater owner takes out his expenses first, then
splits. Another method is called “4-Walling,” where
you literally rent the 4 walls of the theater, place your
ads, sit in the box office boot, pray, and keep all the money
for yourself. Spending 1-3 weeks in each city with a total
of 5-7 prints could easily take you 12-16 months. But you
now have something that’s worth $8.00. Bottom line box
office gross could be $200,000-$500,000.

2ND: PPV: Depending
on your theatrical exposure, you can now sell the Pay-Per-View
rights to companies like Spectradyne, SelecTV, and RequesTV,
who will split 50-50 with you on distribution revenues from
hotel/motel travelers ($6-$7 fee) and home viewers who dial
cable operators ($3-$4 fee) after hotels and cable operators
take out their cut. Bottom line could be in the neighborhood
of $20,000-$50,000.

3RD: VIDEO: This
could be wonderful revenue. Assuming your film has been booked
in theaters and video renters have seen the newspaper ads but
did not attend the movie when it was in theaters, they are
now curious about seeing it at home for a rental fee of $2-$3.
Let’s assume there are 25,000 video stores who each purchase
only 2 cassettes each from a video distributor at a fee of
$99. You will gross almost $5.0 million. If, at the low end,
1 out of 5 stores orders only 1 cassette priced at $24.95,
the video distributor will gross $125,000. Thus, video sales
could range from $125,000 to $5 million depending upon the
theatrical exposure and word-of-mouth of your product when
it was in theaters. The national organization for Video Stores
and Video Distributors is the VSDA (818-385-1500). Start calling.
Bottom line: $125,00-$5 million.

Your best sales now will be to the cable industry,
but specifically to those channels that program mostly movies.
For our purposes, movies are defined as “those things
that you see in newspaper ads in the entertainment section.” The
pay-cable buyers are HBO, Cinemax (owned by HBO), Showtime,
The Movie Channel (owned by Showtime), StarZ, Encore (owned
by StarZ), Disney and Playboy. Disney and Playboy don’t
pay big dollars. Thus, there are only 3 cable networks who
will give you $100,000-$1,000,000 for a limited theatrical
release. They are HBO, Showtime, or StarZ. Good luck. Bottom
line: $100,000-$2,000,000.

Although pay cable pays the most, the likelihood
of getting a sale to one of the big 3 is not good if you
haven’t had your film in at least the top 20 markets.
However, you can get basic cable sales of $25,000-$150,000
from basic cable networks that cablecast films that have
no theatrical release but have been award winners at festivals.
These networks are the Independent Film Channel, Bravo, Sundance,
TNT, TBS, USA, A&E, etc. Bottom line is usually $30,000-$150,000.

6TH: PBS/TV: The
most prestigious sale will probably be to PBS. Although the
money is not great ($425-$550/minute) it could still garner
you an additional $25,000-$60,000 and massive credibility.
Thus, get the Public Broadcasting Directory ($15 from Corporation
of Public Broadcasting) and contract stations. You will either
get a “lead” or “presenting” station (see
directory above) or a regional network, such as CEN (Central
Education Network, Des Plaines, Illinois) or PMN (Pacific Mountain
Network, Denver) or SECA (Southern Educational Communications
Association, Columbia, South Carolina), etc. Bottom line: $30,000-$60,000.

Be- sides America, think globally. Thus,
you would like to sell, (the correct word is “license”)
your film to other nations or territories. There are approximately
35 nations (Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Ecuador, Israel,
etc.) or territories (Middle East, east Africa, Benelux,
Scandinavia, etc.) around the world that can afford to pay
you some money for the rights to market your film in their
nation for a period of 4-10 years. To reach these international
buyers you will attend 1 or 2 of the 3-5 film markets (AFM,
Cannes, MIFED, RAINDANCE & IFFM) that take place each
year and make an arrangement with a foreign sales company
which will represent your product for a fee of approximately
35 percent. Bottom line: approximately $50,000-$500,000.

It appears that everything depends on you
taking your film, with a couple of awards, and making it into
a movie. This means paying for prints and newspaper ads. This
is called the P&A budget. A 35mm print is $1,500 each from
your lab if they did the initial answer print. If you are 16mm
and need to do a blow-up it could cost an additional $35,000-$55,000.

You will need $75,000 to $150,000, minimum,
to achieve a limited release and some national exposure to
trigger the video, cable, PBS and foreign sales. Your P&A
budget includes (A) Prints, (B) Publicity and (C) Advertising.

Prints are $5,000-$10,000. Publicity will
include posters ($3,000), press kits ($500), publicity photos
($500), flyers ($500), VHS cassettes ($750), ad designs ($500),
35mm trailers ($5,000), publicists ($5,000), etc. Another $15,000-$20,000
and advertisements (1-2 column inches per day in 150-250 newspapers
for 2 weeks) will run an additional $50,000-$100,000 for a
grand total of $75,000-$150,000, for the possibility of grossing

Well, moviemakers. You’ve made your
celluloid baby. Spent your money. You’ve taken it to a
couple of festivals. Won a couple of awards. Have no offers,
but a lot of pleasant talkers. If you have a minimum of $75,000
and 18 months, then self distribution is possible. But be sure
you know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.
Happy moviemaking!


Dear Mr. Hollywood,
I am working on trying to produce my own script and I think
it’s important to have at least one name actor in the film.
I know if I send my script to an actor’s agent they’ll
realize I’m an indie filmmaker and will probably trash my
inquiry, thinking their actor is too good for any small-time
film. If they do take any notice, they’ll want to see budgets,
etc. and again see I’m small time. How do I bypass an agent
and get an actor interested in my project?
– Stymied in St. Louis

Dear Stymied,
So you discovered the hard reality that agents won’t help first-time
moviemakers, for they know it’s a low-budget film and their 10% of that
low budget isn’t worth the paper or the phonecall. However, you’ve
got one of those moviemaker Catch 22s. Can’t get financing without a
name and can’t get to the names because the agent won’t give you
access. So how do you get to a name is the question. Answer is: “Who
you sleeping with lately?” or “Know anyone who’s sleeping
with anyone lately who would like to be an Associate Producer?” Although
I’m joking there are actually numerous true stories based on the above
two scenarios that have gotten stars attached to projects. However, you’re
in Missouri and the only celebrities there are the Budweiser Clydesdales.
And I assume you’re not trying to remake National Velvet. Thus, a secret
way to circumventing agents who won’t help is through hiring an established
casting director. Hire a casting director (Casting Society of America, 606
N. Larchmont, LA, CA, 213-463-1925) for a flat fee (they usually charge 10%
of the above-the-line cast budget) to set you up with four to five 5 lunches.
Then it will rest on your presentation and your script…Let’s do

Dear Mr. Hollywood,
In 1989 I moved to the Northwest to work for a software company
that has since done extremely well. I managed to get into the
stock at a good time and now find myself with some disposable
income. I’ve been thinking about doing a movie. Maybe my
biography. I’m much too busy to do this myself, but can
I contract with someone to write and film the story I want to
– Signed, Micromogul in Washington

Dear Micromogul,
Another geek with money living up in Bellvue. So you want to do an ego project
about yourself and you actually think that the world wants to see your
story. Well if you have the money to spend and want to go forward the
best way to get an undiscovered writer with talent is to go to your local
film and screenwriting co-ops. Washington has the 911 Media Arts Center
(117 Yale Ave N, Seattle, 206-682-7422) and query the Seattle/Washington
Film Commissioner (Suzy Kellett, 206-464-7148) for names of talented
undiscovered writers. You’ll pay $600-$800/week for 5 weeks and
you’ll only spend $3,000-$4,000 for a first draft. Since you’re
wealthy, go for a pro. Pick a TV series you like and get the names of
a couple of staff writers who’d love to write a feature film. You’ll
be paying Writer’s Guild minimum which can cost $35,000-$55,000
for a treatment and 2 drafts…Happy writer-hunting.

Dear Mr. Hollywood,
I can’t seem to find any information about the video-to-film transfer
systems. I called one place and was told they could transfer a videotape
with an S-VHS format as long as there was 340 to 400 horizontal lines of
resolution, which my system does provide. I called another place and was
told the S-VHS format was a horrible format for a video-to-film transfer
and that Betacam was the best format. The second gentleman suggested that
I go out and buy a $30,000 Betacam video camera. I would appreciate it if
you could find out what video formats work in the video-to-film transfers,
the cost of video-to-film transfers and if there are any procedures that
would aid in this kind of transfer.
– Signed, Muddled in Michigan

Dear Muddled,
First, to find information about video-to-film transfers, call the two labs
(DuArt in New York, 212-757-4580 and Foto Kem in Burbank, 818-846-3101)
that specialize in the process. Finally, stop listening to those two
gentlemen who don’t know much. S-VHS was used on the movie Hoop
Dreams which was transferred to 35mm and projected in theaters and made
money. Next, stop thinking Betacam and $30,000. Digital is the word and
it appears that the best, least expensive digital camera is a Canon XL1
which costs about $4,500. Which means you can rent it for $300-$400/week.
Now stop worrying about which format to use and get your stage friends
to get the great script and shoot it on tape (digital or S-VHS) if you
have less than $10,000, in 16mm if you have less than $50,000 and 35mm
if you have over $120,000…Stop over-thinking and follow the MovieMaker
slogan – just shoot it! MM