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January 31, 2006

Thoughts On Self Distribution, pt. 2

Shortly after writing my first Essay On Self-Distribution earlier this month, a minor explosion of tertial news hit the fan. I Am A Sex Addict was picked up by IFC. Withoutabox revealed their new self-distribution intiative, with Four Eyed Monsters announced as their initial project. At Sundance, Cinematical held a video roundtable entitled Podcasting And The Right To Free Expression, in which Monsters co-director Susan Buice talked about all the different formats the film would be released on. When asked about whether she thought that theatrical might be an option, she said that "where we have hot spots, we could fill a theater with at least 300 people." Meanwhile, over at Spout, Paul Moore returns from Park City and considers all the new methods of distribution at hand and concludes with: "Big inhale. Big exhale."

Looking back on my essay, I had the desire to ratify it slightly with the recommendation that every single point be taken with a grain of salt, simply because everything is changing so fast (Bubble was just released this weekend, and even with a gross of only $70,000, it was declared a success for the day-and-date-model). More than that, however, I was torn between being inspired by my own rhetoric and feeling that such rhetoric was too idealistic. I wasn't even sure that I wanted to live up to the near-dogmatic standard I'd set in the piece (especially since I was, at the time, rewriting a screenplay for a Western piece I very much want to make but could never finance on my own, much less distribute). Thus, I decided to I should write:

A Few Thoughts On Self-Distribution, Pt. 2

But rather than expand at even greater length upon the issue myself, however, I though I'd try to get in touch with some of the filmmakers I cited in the original text and see if they had any thoughts on the matter.

The first person I contacted was Andrew Bujalksi...

bujalski.jpgBUJALSKI: Honestly I'm probably a bad person to ask because I happen to be attached to things like theatrical exhibition, 35mm projection, etc etc, these dinosaurs which are sure to sink the financial viability of a small film. I'm attached to these things because they are how I like to experience films myself. If financial sustainability were the first priority, I'm sure we'd do it differently. As for the Funny Ha Ha release, we certainly could not have done it without an absurdly supportive and patient private investor...
It's also quite a lot of work/headaches/etc, I'd certainly have preferred to have spent much more of 2005 on writing something new, and/or just sitting around...

I also wrote an e-mail to Possible Films, Hal Hartley's company, which I had cited as a primary example of independent distribution in my piece. I sent a copy of the essay, and asked if my understanding of the company was in fact correct. Hartley's associate, Kyle Gilman (not pictured below), wrote back:

hartley.jpg GILMAN: That's not exactly accurate. We took that route with The Girl From Monday when it became clear that it was the only way to make the movie. But our new movie Fay Grim is financed by HDNET Films and will be released by Magnolia simultaneously in theaters, DVD, and on the HDNET television channel. Rejecting the possibility of outside financing would seriously hamper Hal's ability to make films. Sometimes a film is just too big to make yourself.

I tried to get in touch with Greg Pak, to no avail (I've got an interview with him in my old archives that I'll have to dig up).

But I did get through to Caveh Zahedi. Now, only a few hours after our first exchange, the new issue of Filmmaker appeared online - including Andrew Bujalski's terrific interview with Caveh, as well as Caveh's excellent Self-Distribution Manifesto, in which many of the questions I was going to ask were pre-emptively answered. I told Caveh I could just link to that piece instead, but he graciously went ahead and responded to my queries anyway.

caveh.jpg LOWERY: So the news just broke that IFC is going to be releasing I Am A Sex Addict, which is your first major distribution deal; does this come as a relief to you? Is it nice to have the weight taken off your shoulders as far as distribution goes? And how much input will you have in the marketing and release of the picture?
ZAHEDI: I felt very ambivalent about the IFC deal at first. I had put so much work into self-distribution, and there was something so fun and empowering about just doing it myself, that I experienced the IFC offer as taking he wind out of my sails. I was also angry enough at the various distribution companies for passing on the film (and not just passing on it, but being typically arrogant and rude and demeaning in their mode of passing on it), that I had my heart set on proving them wrong - on showing them that I could make a fortune doing it myself, a fortune which they could have shared in if they hadn't been so short-sighted. But after talking with the IFC folks who turned out to be intelligent, straightforward, and humane, I realized I needed to get off my high horse and work with them. Since making that decision, it has definitely been a weight taken off my shoulders.
And yes, IFC has promised me input in the marketing and release of the picture.
Sex Addict made a few lists of 'Top 10 Undistributed Films' last year. Were you actively seeking distribution throughout the film's festival run, or were you always planning on handling it yourself until IFC came knocking?
I was actively seeking distribution throughout the film's festival run, although I left that mostly up to my sales agent.
I remember reading an interview with you at BraintrustDV in which you shuddered at the notion of the interviewer watching your film on a laptop at a Starbucks via VOD and GreenCine. Clearly, and naturally, you care about the presentation of your work; but how important to you is theatrical exhibition? Of course, if I understand correctly, Sex Addict will be released simultaneously in theaters and on DVD, and this seems to be an ideal distribution model for smaller films that may not achieve a wide theatrical release.
Actually, Sex Addict will be released simultaneously in theaters and through video-on-demand. The DVD of Sex Addict won't be available until 3 to 4 months later.
Theatrical exhibition is important to me, especially as the film is a comedy and derives its maximum enjoyment from being watched in a movie theater with other people, but I'm fully aware that the vast majority of people who see the film will watch it on DVD, and I'm okay with that.
Time for a bit of conjecture. Do you think this release will facilitate the production and distribution of future films - and if, say, you don't receive a major distribution deal for your next picture, do you think the exposure you've received (and will be receiving) from Sex Addict might make self-distribution a viable option for you in the future, both commercially and artistically?
Yes. It is already strikingly clear to me that this distribution deal has made my next picture much easier to finance, and that even if that film doesn't get picked up for distribution and I end up having to distribute it myself, the wider promotion offered by IFC can only help with that.
Any word on a release date yet?
The film opens in April.

Meanwhile, over at the Filmmaker blog, Scott Macaulay posted an additional follow-up to Caveh's Manifesto. He takes Caveh to task ever so slightly after "running such a passionate 'call to arms' from a filmmaker who has just saved himself months of licking envelopes and sticking screeners into FedEx packages," but then finds that the response is hard to argue with.

I can't argue with it much, myself, even though the conflict Macaulay finds there is what inspired me to revisit this issue again in the first place.

* * *

Between these three responses I received and the various other interviews and comments circling around the web, a more refined image of that ideal I'd so enthusiastically espoused began to form in my head.

Conclusions can be dangerous things, and thus I have none for this extended series of footnotes - except to quote something Joe wrote in the comments of my intial essay:

"My end goal is to be self sustaining and autonomous. That would be my ultimate measure of success."

To which I'll make one simple addendum:

"Do whatever you feel is right for your film."

And now, if you'll excuse me, I've a bit more work to do on that Western screenplay.

Posted by David Lowery at January 31, 2006 12:17 AM


Great follow up. I'm tracking these issues continously after your first post about it. Something's going on, that is for sure. Thank you for following the issue with such enthusiasm, it is most definitely contageous.

Posted by: Karsten at January 31, 2006 12:17 PM

I'm still dubious of all these new distribution models. Seems every few years the indie community goes abuzz about some new method of something that buzzes itself out. Remember maybe 6-7 years ago when mini-DV first became the rage? Everybody and their dead grandfather jumped to make movies. The festivals overflowed, but nobody was buying.

Seems to me, in part, these new models are merely the end result of this glut. Too many movies, too many broke filmmakers: where there's a will, there's a way.

But like the bulk of the poorly thought-out and rushed DV features, it seems the same thing is happening now with distribution. The technology exists for lots of things. But I have yet to see a model that works.

Is this what FEM intended when it started its online campaign? That somebody would have to create a new distribution method for anybody to see their film? Is that success? Am I the only person who actually found their campaign lacking? For all the attention they got, they could only muster 6 original episodes over the course of 3 1/2 months. Looked a lot of the time like they were trying more to be popular -- run a fan club -- than prove themselves as serious filmmakers. They're a cute marketable couple.

The point of the HDNet simultaneous release is that the formats are becoming equal. It's all about the content. Some say home video outsells theatrical -- but that's because theaters deal only with new releases, while video has the catalog of everything ever released. (Though we all know theatrical is shooting itself in the foot with its prices.)

We know the future. It's VOD. Computers will merge internet with cable and that's that.

Ultimately, distribution will still come down to the same thing: YOU NEED TO MAKE A GOOD MOVIE THAT SOMEBODY THINKS WILL TURN A PROFIT.

Posted by: mutinyco at January 31, 2006 01:20 PM

Hey David,

Nice follow up piece,will metion it over at my blog.
Of course theatrical self-distribution is not new in the US indie film scene: Oscar Micheaux was doing it in the 1930's & 40's, John Cassavettes did a little of it (in 70's? under name Leo Films?), The Debut, Robot Stories, Funny Ha Ha, What The Bleep all did it relatively recently. Kelley Baker is doing it right now, along w/ I am sure a dozen other indie filmmakers that I do not know about. Anyway, I think w/ the current crop of interest in the issue, small/ultra-indie distros will come into play (like the DVD lable Trixie), specially since the specialty divisions of majors & most indiewood are focusing mostly on picking up indie flicks that can make $5-$10 million at the box office. That leaves a whole lot of ultra-low budget/no star indies that others (perhaps new companies) can take on & distribute & make a relatively small (but still in the 10's- 100's of thousands of dollars maybe?)profit. Like I said many months ago on my essay on the same issue, distribution can become a day job for indie filmmakers. When I am done w/ self-distro on my own movie I am going to look around & see if I can use the experience & connections gained from the project to distribute good films by other indie filmmakers. Maybe we can collaborate on a book on this issue in like 3 years :)

Another relevant idea is using limited DVD sales to partially finance the theatrical self-distro effort (like make the DVD available for purchas as soon as the film is done - on a mail-order & limited retail basis, & use some of the $s from DVD sales to pay for setting up theatrical dates for the flick). And once the theatrical work is finished, make the DVD available through all possible avenues.

Of course, as you maybe able to tell, I am taking a harDCore pro-self-distro stance, mostly because I think it will be a fun & rewarding thing to do(self-distribute my own movie) and because I think the US indie film scene can benefit from the existence of filmmaker/distributors. I think if more minority & female filmmakers adopt the self-distro model to get their careers started, we may see more interesting indie movies (and also indiewood & Hollywood movies as some of them rise through the US filmmaking financial ranks). Aside from Spike Lee, R. Rodriguez(does he count?), G. Araki I see very few non-"white" indie/indiewood filmmakers, male or female, in the current wave of US indie that started in '84 w/Jarmusch's Stranger. On the "white" female front there are a couple of interesting indie filmmakers working now, but I would like to see more, specially more feminist stuff. Embrace of self-distribution may not make this stuff - diversity in the indie film scene - better, but it could. Just as embrace of production & distro has made the indie rock scene very diverse (not just indie rock, all manner of indie music genres - folk, hip hop, etc.).

We'll see how it goes down, on the self-distro front, w/ Date Number One, very, very soon (this April is the goal for start of distro). When the whole distro project is over in '08, I'll definitely write a book about it (and pretty much week to week progress on the project will be available on my blogs in the meantime).

All right, later. Looking forward to your western, specially if it has some robots, even better if it has robots w/ sexual identity issues.


Posted by: Sujewa at January 31, 2006 01:36 PM

As I read the comments here, I feel the need to reiterate what I was trying to do on the SpoutBlog. In my mind, I see this fever pitch hysteria that millions of people will stop leaving their homes in favor of sitting in front of their computer and watching a totally obscure filmmaker take their first stab at a career in film.

I think this whole rotation in the life of distribution will be more practical than that. Yes, the bottom line will always be the content has to be good. What is changing now is content has to be good BUT doesn't have come out of New York or LA. I think we're reaching a tipping point when big movies no longer satisfy the masses (it's nothing new, this happens every decade or so). However, new technology is allowing the masses to divide into small communities gathering in small venues (homes, cafes, boutique theaters, etc). The next wave of distribution will rely much less on whether we trust a 30 second trailer on TV and rely more on how much we personally trust a filmmaker.

Posted by: Paul at January 31, 2006 02:33 PM

Great comments, folks. Karsten, I'm glad you've been infected.

Mutinyco - I agree completely wth most of your thoughts, and thus the whole grain-of-sand comment at the start of the post. I also agree with you on the VOD being the future, but I think it's important to note that VOD may not be limited to computer screens. As I wrote in one of my printed exchanges with Matt, "I think that Soderbergh must know, and Mark Cuban must definitely know, that this three-tiered distribution method is a temporary facade. For TV and the internet will eventually merge; DVDs are already viewed by some as an artifact of a bygone era; and the movie theatre itself, well – by digitally projecting films streamed in through satellite, it's sort of leading the way, isn't it?"

I may need to write more on that topic in the future. I wonder if I can get an interview with Mark Cuban.

Regarding FEM, I didn't find their campaign lacking at all - especially for a film of its scale. Yes, there were only a few actual podcasts, but for a matter of weeks there, it wasn't so much the podcasts that mattered (from a marketing perspective) but the coverage of the podcasts, which was everywhere from RES to Wired to the New York Times. Pretty unprecedented for a little film with no distribution (and, for the record, it still technically doesn't - if I understand correctly, the Withoutabox thing aids and abets self distribution, and is not an actual distributor).

Sujewa, you bring up a really interesting point about the whole women/minority issue, in regards to independent filmmaking. I don't think it's really all that underground; but while there are quite a few major female filmmakers, it's also true that there aren't any 'big' names, a la Jarmusch, when it comes to female filmmakers. Incidentally, I've got a friend in DFW who runs a DIY film festival by and for women filmmakers, called Film Fatale. Check it out.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 31, 2006 04:55 PM

Related: our own David Lowery doing some self-distro work by going all the way out to Washington, DC this Spring to show his movies:

Posted by: Sujewa at January 31, 2006 08:24 PM