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What Do Distributors Want From Us, Anyway?

What Do Distributors Want From Us, Anyway?

Articles - Directing

Ed. note: In
our June issue we interviewed several independent moviemakers about
their experiences with distributors. Most of the moviemakers told
us they would’ve done it differently if they knew then what they
know now. The June issue was immensely popular and, while that may
be a coincidence, we figured you might want to know more. This time
we talked to a handful of microdistributors to

Strand Releasing
Los Angeles, CA
Marcus Whu, Acquisitions & Marketing/CoPartner
Films Distributed: Grief, Totally Fucked Up, The Selling of A Serial
Killer, Crush

MovieMaker: What do you think are the keys
to having a successful release with an independent film?

Marcus Whu: What we always look for are films
that have done well in the festivals. We attend Sundance and Toronto
and Cannes and Berlin, and we always seem to hunt down films that
have a good critical response. We also try to look for films that
have a built-in market, like gay films, especially gay films that
have good critical notice.

Mimbo or The Gentle
Art of Japanese Extortion
, from Nortthern Arts Entertainment.

MM: Are there film categories you do not work with?

MW: We have pretty eclectic taste. People always
comment on how Strand will take on some commercially questionable
films, so it’s just a matter of choosing films that we really like.

MM: Do you review and consider unsolicited
films sent to you on tape?

MW: Not really.

MM: Can you offer any general advice for independent
feature filmmakers thinking about the distribution end?

MW: Get your film into festivals because that’s
how distributors generally pick up films. Let me rephrase that-get
it into the right festivals. Show it at the wrong festivals and
you can kiss your film goodbye, because you will disqualify yourself
from getting into the real festivals. I hear filmmakers saying it
all the time, "Oh gee, I’m in the new directors showcase at
The Mudflap Film Festival in Podunk, Illinois! Whoopee!" That’s
nice, but now you’ve disqualified yourself from Sundance, so what’s
that gonna do for your career? It’s about choosing the right festivals,
and it’s about getting the right critics to see your film.

Also, make a good film, and always, always, always
have people taking good publicity photos.

Northern Arts Entertainment
Williamsburg, MA
David Mezor, President
Films Distributed: Tokyo Decadence, Raining Stones, Minbo-Or The
Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, Stepping Razor-Red X

MovieMaker: What do you perceive as the key
to having a successful release with an independent film?

David Mezor: First, you can’t make a silk purse out
of a sow’s ear-it has to be a good film. People instinctively know
when a film is good or not. There’s nothing you can do with a mediocre
film to flog it to life. For an independent film it takes more than
just Siskel & Ebert giving it Two Thumbs Up; you need support
more on a grass roots level because you can’t do a blitzkrieg of
high-profile television advertising. What independent films really
die or fly on is word-of-mouth among the potential film-going audience.

MM: Do you think opening city by city is the
way to go?

DM: Absolutely. The word from critics and audiences
starts to spread and build, whereas if you go out all at once, by
the time people hear that it’s really worth seeing, it’s already
gone from the theaters.

MM: What kind of films are you folks looking
for?

DM: Nothing in particular, just quality. It
takes more and more these days to get people to go to a movie theater.
There are just so many entertainment options for people to choose
from. It has to be entertaining enough, challenging enough, creative
enough and provocative enough that someone will plunk down their
hard earned six or seven bucks. That’s saying a lot.

MM: Any subject matter or genre you won’t work
with?

DM: No. We do reject a lot of films because
we are a small company and can’t take on that many titles. Our films
don’t have anything in common except they are all good.

MM: Do you consider unsolicited films?

DM: Oh, absolutely.

MM: What do filmmakers need to think about
when seeking a distributor?

DM: They all need to be sure to have good publicity
materials; be sure they take lots of nice stills during production
so they can have good materials for the press. Sometimes we see
films that are good, but since nobody had a still photographer on
set, that film becomes much harder for a distributor to deal with,
sometimes impossible.

MM: Do you think making a film with a market
in mind is important? Or does it just have to be a good film?

DM: Both. A really good film will find an audience.
You can make a film with an audience in mind, but you’d better be
damned sure you know that audience. Sometimes what we see in films
that are not very good is people who think they’re aiming at a target
audience. Someone will say they’re making a musical horror, for
example, thinking there’s an audience for that, but there is not.
There’s an audience for anything if you do it mindbogglingly well,
but not many people can do that! And if you do it poorly, you’re
definitely gonna be out of luck.

Also, overall, people like things with happier endings,
so if you make a movie that drags the audience over 50 miles of
broken glass and leaves them on a rocky shore, you’d better have
made a brilliant film! Or give them a happy ending (laughs).

October Films
Now York, NY
Jeff Lipsky, Partner
Films Distributed: Kika, Life Is Sweet, The Living End, Chronos,
Ruby in Paradise, The War Room

MovieMaker: What kind of films does your group
look for?

Jeff Lipsky: Films in any language that we
have a passion for and feel we have the expertise to market.

MM: Can you feel out the market and know how
successful a film will be, or is it all a crapshoot?

JL: We like to think that all our films will
be successful. We think the ones that we don’t acquire out of disinterest
will not be successful. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re
wrong. Passion and marketability, those are the elements we’re looking
for.

MM: Do you consider unsolicited films? Would
you watch a tape that someone sends you out of the blue?

JL: Yes.

MM: Do you have any advice as a distributor
to someone about to embark on a feature film project?

JL: Yes. Make a film for yourself and not for
an audience.

Quentin Crisp in Greycat
Film’s Resident Alien.

Greycat Films
Las Vegas, NV
David Whitten, Co-Owner
Films Distributed: Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer, A Thousand
Pieces of Gold, Resident Alien: The Life of Quentin Crisp

MovieMaker: Do you think beginning filmmakers
are unrealistic when it comes to expectations of the distributor?

David Whitten: Yes. Part and parcel of the
kind of people who go out and make a feature film for little money
is this, "Damn the torpedoes-full speed ahead" attitude.
And those kinds of people have a real hard time accepting the fate
of their film when someone from our end feels it will not be successful.
You kind of have to be an unrealistic person to go out and do something
crazy like make your own feature film, and sometimes people have
a hard time accepting that it may not have turned out exactly the
way they dreamed it would.

MM: Is it getting harder or easier to have
a successful release with an independent film?

DW: Harder. Film distribution is cyclical,
I think, when it concerns alternative and foreign films. Right now,
we’re at the point where a lot of big companies are spending a lot
of money to dominate this market. So a lot more films are being
released, yet the number of screens that show these kinds of films
has remained essentially static. It’s a total buyers market, and
companies like Miramax, Samuel Goldwyn, Sony Classics and Fine Line
Features have told theaters, "Hey, we will put lots more money
behind these films, and give you money for advertising." Microdistributors
like Greycat and Tarot and Strand, we can’t compete with that.

MM: Do certain films have a better chance because
of their genre or subject matter?

DW: In all honesty, films with gay themes always
seem to have a leg up on getting shown. I think that exists for
a number of reasons: The gay audience has little or no accurate
representation in Hollywood films; the gay audience is generally
more aware of, and more apt to frequent, the arthouse theaters;
and many of the people working in film festivals and the critical
community are gay. What you have is a fairly aware and connected
minority that will nurture and support art and entertainment that
speaks to their community. Take a film like Go Fish. If that was
a film of equal quality without a lesbian theme, it would have never
gotten released. It’s a matter of representation. It used to be
that a large segment of the alternative filmgoing audience was college
students, but that is becoming less and less true. Also, alternative
cinema audiences are now 10-to-one female-to-male, so films that
appeal to women have a better fighting chance to make it into these
theaters.

MM: What should filmmakers think about before
signing with a distributor?

DW: At this point, I think first-time filmmakers are
forced to take any deal that’s offered to them. But when you’re
talking about a homegrown personal film, I think filmmakers should
think of distribution as the final stage of postproduction. One
of the things that will separate your film from all the more well-known
films is if you’re at the theater, answering questions, going to
festivals, being attentive and enthusiastic. But ultimately you’ll
be judged on how well your film does down the line.

MM: Do you think self-distribution is a viable
option?

DW: Yes. I think in the future, small distributors
like us will be like publicists, guiding people to go to theaters
with their films. Because really, all a quality low-budget film
has to sell itself with is the excellence of the work compared to
the amount of money that was spent, i.e. the filmmakers involved.
So the selling and marketing angle is you! Sell yourself! MM

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