In 2001 I sent out the VHS screener of my first documentary film, Treading Water: A Documentary, to Sundance. I kissed the padded envelope as I handed it to the gal behind the counter of the post office. This was my chance. I was gonna live the American independent documentary moviemaker dream. I envisioned a premiere at Sundance—fighting off a gaggle of distributors that would all want to offer me big money to sell my film to theaters, broadcasters and the world. Then anxiety hit. How was I going to deal with the bidding war that ensued? And if for some crazy reason I don’t premiere at Sundance, who would ever want to see my film?
To save you the trouble of searching for my film on IMDb to see if we made it into Sundance, we did not.
We’ve all heard the news broadcast loudly over the past couple years at festival panels and conferences, on independent film blogs and newsletters and from our friends in the industry: “The independent film distribution model is broken!” We’re finally coming to terms with something that has been true for more than a decade, especially for documentary films. Yet somehow, in spite of all this talk, I’m amazed by how many moviemakers at all levels of their careers still live in denial and believe that their project will be the exception. We’re all so in love with our story that we believe others will be, too. We’re right and we’re wrong. There is an audience for your film, but it’s your unique opportunity and joy to find them.
Nine years and four films after that first submission to Sundance, I’ve learned to love self-distribution. That’s right, I said it. I love it. Not only does it give me complete control of my film creatively, but it is at the heart of what independent documentary moviemaking is all about. For most of us, the reason we work outside the Hollywood system or PBS (besides the fact that they won’t take us) is that we want to tell the stories that they fail to tell. So why is it that we presume that they will embrace us and love us once our film is done? And why would we want that? The vast majority of documentary moviemakers will never make a dime off of that system and could find more financial, professional and personal success by self-distributing.
My second documentary, This Obedience, became my first taste of this. The film, which follows a Midwestern lesbian Lutheran pastor whose ordination broke the rules of the church, completely paid for itself in distribution without ever being picked up by a traditional distributor or studio. The film had a robust festival tour and was broadcast on PBS affiliates throughout the U.S. (through American Public Television) and Canada (on OutTV), but that’s not where our money came from. We made back our six-figure production budget primarily through grassroots screenings, a college/seminary tour and individual DVD sales through our Website. The key was that we found our audience through relationships with nonprofits and a network of sassy Lutherans that desperately wanted to support the project and raise awareness about an issue.
Was that the American independent documentary moviemaker’s dream? Maybe not. But it helped me redefine that dream for myself. My dream is to be a working moviemaker who has creative control of her work and, through the support of an enthusiastic community, developing and maintaining an audience that helps me continue to do so. That’s not too shabby.
The Red Tail Team (L to R): Adrian Danciu (DP), Ted Ludwig (Union President), Melissa Koch (Director/Producer), Roch Koch (Airline Mechanic, Main Character), Dawn Mikkelson (Director/Executive Producer) and Mike Klemm (Union Vice-President) attend the 2009 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. Photo: Peter Lee
This past summer, my fourth documentary feature premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland. The Red Tail (co-directed with Melissa Koch) is the story of a former airline mechanic who loses his job to outsourcing and travels to China to meet the workers who replaced him. After screening at a handful of festivals over the past six months, we have been subsequently leveraging the positive press and building our relationships with organizations and individuals across the country and the world to coordinate a semi-theatrical tour of the film starting this fall. Beyond that, we’ve sold hundreds of DVDs and are releasing the film for purchase on Amazon Video On Demand on February 25. I’m looking forward to the post-show discussions, meeting new people and hearing their stories. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received phone calls from former airline employees who have seen the film and have said that it made them feel like they were not alone, that they were heard and that their experiences were significant. Sounds like success to me.
After I complete each film, I still relive that moment at the post office (although the VHS screener turned into a DVD). The difference is that I no longer see Sundance or the other big festivals as the only hope for my film’s success. Do I still dream that someday I’ll be the exception to this rule and that I will be the next Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock? Of course. But I don’t depend on that. Instead I look forward to new opportunities to get my films to an audience who will love it. I have fallen in love with self-distribution.
Dawn Mikkelson is a Minnesota-based documentary moviemaker and teacher whose work has received international acclaim across broad delivery platforms. Mikkelson has spoken at numerous festival panels, colleges and universities around the world. Her current film The Red Tail is available for screenings and DVD purchase at www.redtailmovie.com. On February 25 the film will be available on Amazon VOD. Her films have never screened at Sundance, unless a private screening for students in a Park City condo counts.