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January 06, 2006

Thoughts On Self Distribution, Pt. 1

We were driving down the street the other night and I saw poster for some online music company with Aimee Mann's face on it. The text said "Writing Music From The Heart. Even When It's Broken." It was cute, but I liked it, and one thought lead to another, as thoughts tend to do, and I started to think about how nice it would be to make films the way folk singers make songs.

* * *

The holy grail of independent filmmaking was, and generally still is, an acquisition deal, a theatrical release, and a subsequent industry-financed career. In some cases, that initial independence was a means to an inverse end; more commonly, though, that same end was (and is) a mean unto itself, a manner of making a living off one's chosen art form in the most practical way possible. This category would include most of the current indie wunderkinds (the two Andersons, Aronofsky, etc). The practicality of their circumstance, of course, is mitigated by the relative infrequency of such success stories; but nonetheless, those stories are the ideal for many aspiring (and, indeed, practicing) independent filmmakers.

Let's consider, however, the sum of the following:

  1. The very rarity of those cases.
  2. The fact that, when they do occur, the balance of capitalism and artistic freedom renders the studio system a very wealthy middleman.
  3. The possibility that the studio system is indeed crumbling [1] under the weight of its own hegemonic inflexibility and hubristic marginalization of product - its “death spiral,” as Edward Jay Epstein put it. [2]

That last factor may be a bit hyperbolic; Hollywood, being the capital driven machine it is, will more than likely maintain its hold on the entertainment industry; even as it evolves, its goals will remain the same. [3] Still, between digital pipelines, day-and-date DVD and theatrical releasing, etc, it is hard to deny that a paradigm shift is at hand; and it might be a good time for independent filmmakers to consider whether or not that lofty ideal of yore need endure. In other words, should filmmakers be afraid of self-distribution?

At this point, it's perfectly natural to say yes; hey, the idea scares me, too. [4] Furthermore, it implies an automatic financial cap, since private equity will only very rarely carry a budget past the one million dollar range, at the very best (at least for an unknown artist); if you’re a filmmaker who can’t imagine making a film for less than five million, then you better go back to vying for the attention of the studios. For those who are comfortable (or excited by) working with relatively minimal means, on the other hand, encouragement can be found in two recent hybrid examples. Andrew Bujalski successfully self-distributed his film Funny Ha Ha [5] on 35mm this past summer, before releasing it on DVD through Wellspring. Likewise, Greg Pak released Robot Stories around the country over the course of two years; the film is now on DVD from Kino.

It seems increasingly clear to me that, misgivings be damned, it isn't necessary at all to preclude the financial impossibility of extensive self-distribution, nor to limit such distribution to the internet and/or DVD. For a scale model, one simply needs to look at the record industry. The internet is, of course, shaking things up a great deal; but beyond that, artists have been realizing they don't necessarily need major label deals to make a living off their music. In his article 'The New US Indie Film Frontier: DIY Distribution,' filmmaker Sujewa Ekanayake writes that "in the indie rock world, disciplined and committed bands make a living through touring and performing their work and through selling their songs on CDs and other formats." Citing self-sustaining artists like Fugazi as examples, Ekanayake goes on to surmise that the same model is most likely applicable to an independent filmmaker. [6]

What makes his perspective unique - and especially appealing to a romantic big screen aficionado like myself - is that it is based around the old fashioned ideal of theatrical exhibition, followed by (or perhaps concurrent with) DVD distribution. This is roughly the equivalent, in the recording industry, of having an album on store shelves and performances in live venues (whereas VOD might be considered tantamount to mP3 downloads from an artist's site - an equally viable means of distribution, by all means, but it’s important to remember that distribution shouldn’t begin and/or end with the internet). [7]

There is one factor that is of utmost importance to any unknown artist in any medium: building an audience. It is here that the internet is invaluable. For filmmakers, who don't have the luxury of being able to go out and play a show the way musicians can, creating an online presence can be very important. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, the directors of Four Eyed Monsters, are perhaps the most important current examples of this; their film doesn't have distribution, but through word-of-mouth from festival screenings and their video podcasts, they've built up a substantial online presence. When their film is eventually released, it will have a built-in-audience. When they make their next film, that audience will be even larger. They could very well receive offers from studios, and at that point, they’ll have a choice to make. They’ll be in a position similar to that of established artists who realize they don’t necessarily need corporate support to be successful.

An example of this in music, to an extent, would be Aimee Mann, who now releases all of her music through her United Musicians label. Likewise, filmmaker Hal Hartley now produces all his films independently and releases them through his own company, Possible Films. Both Mann and Hartley had bad experiences with their respective backers; later, when they made the jump to their own independent imprints, they took their audiences with them. [8]

The demographic to which these artists are appealing is a very small but extremely viable one. It is the same one that Mark Cuban is counting on to make his very artistically minded low-budget HDNet productions (such as Soderbergh's Bubble) profitable ventures.[9] This audience already knows Soderbergh's name; he doesn't need a blog to convince them to see his film. This same audience could very likely be driving home from the theater listening to new albums by Aimee Mann and Fugazi; it is an audience that, by and large, is interested in and even anxious to support intelligent art that challenges the status quo. Filmmakers like Buice and Crumley - and Ekanayake, and Joe Swanberg, and Caveh Zahedi, and countless others - are slowly but surely making them just as familiar (on a more limited basis) with their own work. They – we- need to let that already relatively fringe contingent know that there’s quite a bit of light even further underground.

Musicians still have it easier;[10] a songwriter can sit down and compose a new piece, which shortly thereafter will be ready to be recorded, performed, exhibited. That is an oversimplification of the process, perhaps, but the comparitive difference is nonetheless a steep one: a filmmaker has to go through the exhaustive process of making a film to arrive at the same point. But let’s shove that disparity aside, for the fact of the matter is that thousands of filmmakers are reaching that point each year, and out of those thousands, I’m willing to bet that hundreds of great films are not reaching the audiences that deserve to see them.

At this point, as I suggested earlier, it is unfair to expect these independent filmmakers to jump at the possibility of self-distribution. Releasing a film , especially a theatrically, is more work than making one in the first place, and not all filmmakers have the business savvy necessary for such an endeavor. Nor should one expect filmmakers to forego a chance, should they have it, to make a film within the studio system. What I would like to see, however, are more filmmakers working from the ground up to establish their names and a fanbase – be it through the internet, film festivals, or even acquisition and distribution – and then, inversely to the growth of that platform, taking steps towards separating themselves from any larger entities. Towards establishing complete creative autonomy. That will be the new holy grail. The classic Hollywood deal, then, would be a means to that end; a means which will eventually render itself entirely unnecessary.

[1]See Patrick Goldstein's article 'In A Losing Race With The Zeitgeist (LA Times, November 22, 2005) for a detailed consensus of this potential death knoll: "As it stands, Hollywood has become a prisoner of a corporate mindset that is squeezing the entrepreneurial vitality out of the system. It's not just that studios are making bad movies — they've been doing that for years. They've lost touch with any real cultural creativity."
[2] ’The Hollywood Death Spiral’ (Edward Jay Epstein; Slate; July 25, 2005)
[3]I don’t mean to vilify the entire studio system; amidst all the wasteful filler that is released, one must not forget to note the truly good and even groundbreaking films that are released (and often financed) by major studios each year.
[4]It's also natural to look to the internet and the possibilities of VOD and expect self-distribution to become common in - and commonly limited to - this arena; that’s a little bit scary, too.
[5]Amy Taubin writes “if I were member of that nearly extinct species known as ‘indie distributor,’ I’d note the facts that Funny Ha Ha’s frugal release did indeed turn a profit…” (Rohmer In Williamsburg; Taubin; Film Comment; December 2005)
[6]In a recent e-mail exchange, Sujewa expanded on this quite nicely: “The US indie film scene is not even 10% as creative & interesting as the US indie rock scene, and not nearly as accessible for young artists, or minority artists, or female artists, or just people who are not well connected or people who have an intellectually or spiritually or politically a minority position. Building a US film scene that rewards creativity & that does not judge the quality of a movie from box office figures (really, who the f**** cares how much money a movie makes, only the people who have invested money in a project should care, I don' t want to hear a movie recommended to me based on its box office, porn makes a lot of money, so does McDonalds food, but I am not going to waste much of my time & money on either). Really, instead of Hollywood - 1 giant source that puts out bloated crap, we should have like 50-150 different healthy & active film scenes, one or several for each state, the US is big enough & populous enough & economically healthy enough for such a set up.”
[7]It's true that making and distributing an independent film is, in most cases, exponentially more expensive than recording and releasing an independent record, and going on tour, but raising the necessary capital for both production and distribution is a moot point once one accepts that some debt will be incurred; that's a matter of fact, and a good business plan can make the cost more manageable.
[8]Jim Jarmusch is in a similar position; although his films are released by studios, they are produced independently, and he maintains all rights to the original negatives, cut or otherwise. Essentially, he's in the most ideal and enviable position of all - and it's a position that isn't necessarily out of reach, if one has equal parts luck and resolution.
[9]In discussing the eventual cross-platform film releases, Cuban writes that “I do expect 2929 Entertainment and HDNet Films to take the lead. We will tailor the movies we develop to fit Landmark Theaters customer base.” These movies include the much touted six-picture deal with Soderbergh, with each film being budgeted in the one-to-two million dollar range.
[10]Back to Jarmusch again. He once wrote about how musicians have it easy: “They can just pick up a guitar or whatever and create. We filmmakers need so many different things to create. Film doesn't lend itself to spontaneity. It takes years to do what they can do in a heartbeat...but when you think about it nothing can compete with the feeling of telling a story you really care about. That is something a musician can't do.”I can’t for the life of me find the source of this quote, but it’s stuck with me.

Posted by David Lowery at January 6, 2006 04:00 PM


It's interesting to note how similar and yet different the situation is here in Australia, where the primary barrier to entry in the industry (in terms of getting a picture made) is not so much a hegemonic studio system and its distribution of production capital, but a minefield of state and federal funding bodies with ideological and other (literally) political agendas. Where the similarities pop up is in the area of distribution. However, unlike in the States, I'm aware of very few (in fact, approximately no) self-distributed independent Australian feature films; there have been a few political compilation films here and there, but that's not really the same thing. Needless to say, self-distribution is something I'm very interested in looking into. Though it does strike me that self-distribution, by its very nature, is something that kind of restricts one to one's own country, no? At least initially? I doubt you have the capital, for example, to put on a global roadshow? Of course, I suppose that's where festival screenings come in, but then you're reliant one actually getting selected.

Sorry for the messy comment; I'm just throwing around thoughts. Excellent post though, David. Thought provoking stuff. In that, you know, it provoked. Thoughts.

Posted by: Matt at January 6, 2006 05:21 PM

I've picked up on some of those ideological agendas from your writing, Matt - I'd say that's even more frustrating then the studio system.

The idea of self-distributing a film overseas is interesting. I wonder if it wouldn't require more than a plane ticket, a passport and a knowledge of foreign exhibition systems? The idea of taking a film of my own to Europe and trying to four-wall it is incredibly daunting; but if you were to express interest in bringing a film of yours to the States, I'd tell you to go right ahead; since it's a system I understand, it seems fairly easy to me. Thus, I suppose it's a matter of having a contact in the country to help facilitate the process (although I'm not sure what sort of legal/economic hurdles one might have to deal with).

Another (and far more viable) possibility would involve getting a foreign sales representative to pick up the film on the strength of the domestic self-distribution.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 7, 2006 01:15 AM

Excellent post re: self-distribution possibilities David.

Re: foreign self distribution: It may not be too difficult, at least in Europe, Australia, Japan & other "1st world" type places where the legal system, general social & economic/business protocol & use of English (if u do not know the local language) will not get in the way too much
for us people from the US. Jon Moritsugu partnered with a start up French distro co a few years ago & they played his film "Hippy Porn" at a Paris? theater called Action Christine for 1 whole year.

Just as we collaborate w/ other filmmmakers & affinity groups in various states here in the US, we can do the same w/ filmmakers & groups in other countries.

To fall back on the US indie rock example, very small, relatively unknown DC bands go & play in Europe & Asia a lot.

In this digital filmmaking & exhibition age, I disagree w/ the notion that it is easier for a band to tour & self-distro because: a band requires moving of much equipment (a van or truck full at least) & taking care of the survival of several individuals (food, sleep, etc.) whereas a lone filmmaker can slip a few DVDs of his films & a Beta tape or two in a back back, take a train or bus, fly, dive etc. to a far away city, show the movie (the venue would have playback devices) and get back home very easily. It would be far cheaper & less work for 1 filmmaker to tour w/ his movie then for a band to tour. Even a band made up of just 1 musician would have to 1) carry more gear w/, and 2) do more work while on the road - the music has to be performed live everytime. All a filmmaker has to do is insert the DVD or the tape into the playback device & do some Q & A after the event.

Anyway, keep up the bold thinking. I believe 2006 will be a good year for US indie self-distro.


Posted by: Sujewa Ekanayake at January 7, 2006 11:38 AM

Great post, David.

Sorry to careen off-topic here, but you wanna come to a Showgirls blog party?. [scroll all the way down]. I know Matt's busy watching JLG but maybe he'd like to come too.
And anyone else who'd like to.

Posted by: girish at January 7, 2006 12:02 PM

I don't know if I'll have time to get it from Netflix and rewatch before Thursday, but regardless, I'm totally on board! Thursday, 9AM. Count me in.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 7, 2006 12:16 PM

Great post (and thanks to Sujewa for sending me the link). I'm in the process of figuring out what to do with my recently/nearly completed indie feature... waiting on festivals, hoping for distribution, wanting people to see it.

It's an interesting dilemma. I feel like, for me anyway, part of having the experience be a success is not JUST getting an audience, but not having to work for an audience. Which doesn't make any sense, really. Getting it out to people can be work and still be exciting and rewarding. But part of me feels like having to do the work of four-walling it means that it 'wasn't good enough' to be picked up on its own.

That's thinking in the old paradigm, of course, but it's the paradigm I started under, when I decided to make films, so it's hard to shift my way of thinking.

At this point, I just want to get into some good fests and see what my thinking is at that point.


Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2006 01:36 PM

Great, David.
(Actually, the 11th is Wednesday.)
Maybe a Blockbuster (yuck) will carry it too.

Posted by: girish at January 7, 2006 01:47 PM

Hey Chris,

Re: "But part of me feels like having to do the work of four-walling it means that it 'wasn't good enough' to be picked up on its own."

If yer film does not get picked up by the existing distro co's, it will be in very good company - a lot of excellent recent indie films were not picked up by distributors. IndieWIRE does an yearly article on this topic. Off the top of my head I can cite "I Am A Sex Addict", and "Mutual Appreciation", both are films that were very well received by critics, indie film fans in '05 and also by festivals - yet have not been picked up by distributors (at the moment Zahedi is self-distributing Sex Addict, Bujalski is selling DVD copies of Mutual App from his web site).

Distributor patronage is not recognition of excellence. Bloodrayne is opening here in DC this weekend :)


Posted by: The Sujewa at January 7, 2006 02:16 PM

Girish - of course, by Thursday I meant Wednesday. I haven't had a video store membership in years, but I'll see what I can do...

Sujewa - distribution, foreign or otherwise, definitely requires extensive teamwork and grassroots efforts. And you're right - technically, travelling around with a DVD and/or Beta tape is a hell of a lot cheaper than travelling with a full band. My comparison was based on the concept of four-walling a film in actual theaters, which, at least in Texas, is pretty hard to do for free (although discounts can be had). When it comes to community art spaces or colleges, the costs go down quite a bit (all the way down to nothing, in most cases).

Chris - thanks for dropping by. I know exactly how you feel, and that's what I tried to address in my last paragraph. There's still a lot of value in a distribution deal. At the same time, as Sujewa pointed out, not recieving one is not necessarily at all related to the quality of the film.

Also, my friend James pointed out to me this evening that to distribute a film yourself, you have to really love and believe in it. Which is why we decided not to self-distribute our film, Deadroom; as proud as we are of it, and as decently as it did on the festival circuit, we're too hot and cold over it to effectively sell it ourselves.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 8, 2006 02:02 AM

Hey Everyone,

I like this conversation. Certainly healthy for us career buildin' filmmaker types.

Yeah, deciding to self-distribute certainly affects the choices you make in making the film. Or, on my new flick, I had decided to self-distribute it even before the script was written.
Essentially I decided to create something that I could stand watching over & over & that will also either will or will not quickly connect with an audience. I chose to make my new movie a comedy because it is very obvious if a comedy is working or not: are people laughing or not? And as the key element of a traveling entertainment venture, I figured a comedy would be an easy, accessible to many, sell.

Becoming a filmmaker/distributor or at least thinking like one may also be useful for those filmmakers who have no desire to self-distribute 'cause it will cause u to look at your project through the eyes of a distributor. Is this film worth all the work & money that distribution requires? I asked that question about the last 2 feature length films I made and the answer was no. But on this new feature the answer is a yes! so I am very enthusiastic about doing the work that lies ahead. I think deciding to self-distribute made me a better filmmaker. Also I want to learn the film distro biz well, my own movie will serve as a test subject in '06 - '08.

Ideally the following could be made to happen in the US film industry: maintain all the avenues now accessible to indie filmmakers for distribution (full on hollywood backed, indiewood backed, VOD/Cable some other non-theatrical combo driven) AND add to that full on self-distribution: low budget, DIY - indie rock style. It is possible that one filmmaker, in a given year, could create several movies that use several different distro paths to reach the audience. Or it will totally be possible (or actually this is already happening: Moritsugu, etc. are doing it) for a filmmaker to keep things very simple & DIY & just to DIY distro for the full length of her career. Options are good.

Posted by: The Sujewa at January 8, 2006 11:43 AM

Addition to above post, some examples of distro types, illustrated w/ flick titles:

4. full on hollywood backed indie: Anderson's "Life Aquatic" ,
3. indiewood backed indie: Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers",
2. VOD/Cable some other non-theatrical combo driven indie: Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha" (which did DIY theatrical distro following cable play)
1. full on self-distribution: low budget, DIY indie rock style indie:
Moritsugu's "Scum Rock", Pak's "Robot Stories", Cajone's "The Debut", Spooner's "Afro-Punk"

Posted by: El Sucre aka Sujewa at January 8, 2006 11:52 AM

One more thing. David, re: fourwalling: It's not free here in DC either. Actually the very concept of fourwalling = renting a theater. However, theaters can be rented for 1 screening, 6 screenings, or 14-21 screenings (1 week) or beyond or some other number of screenings, so there is some financial flexibility there. Also, profits (hopefully there will be some) from the initial fourwalling efforts could be used to do more. And if your initial fourwalled screenings are a success the theater may want to enter into a ticket sales $s % split type arrangemnet for subsequent screenings. And also if your fourwalling efforts yield good results other theaters elsewhere may just outright book your film w/ out you having to put up any cash, but w/ the guarantee that you will promote the film (which could cost some cash). Various options exist for self-distro screenings, not all of them cost a whole lot of money either. I would say budgeting $5K - $10K to get theatrical self-distro started would be realistic, on the low end. In '99 it cost me about $3500 for fourwalling for 1 week (14+ screenings) & publicity expenses here in a DC movie theater. I'll let ya know later this year the cost for doing the same in '06. All right, let me stop my never ending flow of comments :)

Posted by: S*U*J*E*W*A at January 8, 2006 12:19 PM

interesting thoughts, especially the comparison between film and music distribution. i can't agree with you more, film distribution is MUCH more difficult in comparison.

Posted by: brad at January 8, 2006 01:18 PM

I'm curious how much of all this talk is naive idealism as opposed to pragmatic idealism?

I'm not sure the reason indies aren't getting picked up has anything to do with the industry being broken. I think what it ultimately comes down to is whether the indies in question are of a high enough quality -- or marketable angle -- for a distributor to invest millions in. Open Water is a pretty good example. Made over several years for very little money it was ultimately released and turned a nice profit. But it was because the film occupied a marketable genre: suspense thriller.

A movie like Funny Ha Ha, while charming in its own right, never struck me as a film that would make a great deal of money for a distributor. As well, for all the noise Susan and Arin have generated from their podcast, I'm not sure that they're not fighting a losing battle, at least for their chosen cause. Every distributor has probably seen their film at one festival or another. And while it's possible FEM will receive some type of release, ultimately I think what their online series will do is to serve as a calling card for whatever they do next.

Yes, online is the best means for an upstart filmmaker to establish themself. This approach is in its infancy. What the upstarts need to work on -- and I hear this time and time again -- is production values. Most mini-DV features look like shit. They do. And most feature poor acting. And often poor writing. I don't think that's a controversial observation.

What we're all trying to do is pretty damn impossible: establish ourselves as a marketable artist with his/her own vision. How often does that actually happen? For all the indie hoopla in the 90s, how many directors emerged to create successful careers?

We're like a bunch of turtle hatchlings trying to make it to the ocean.

Posted by: mutinyco at January 8, 2006 01:48 PM

$3500 ain't bad at all for one week. I hadn't considered the possibility of renting a theater for more than one night, but it certainly makes sense that the price would drop in accordance with volume. With a 10k distribution budget, that first week would really be the clincher in determining how far you go; if you don't get decent returns, more than one or two future playdates would turn into a monetary black hole. It seemsto me that it might be a good idea to start off in NYC (at either Two Boots Pioneer or Anthology Film Archives) or LA. The press, if nothing else, would be very helpful.

"Yeah, deciding to self-distribute certainly affects the choices you make in making the film. Or, on my new flick, I had decided to self-distribute it even before the script was written.
Essentially I decided to create something that I could stand watching over & over & that will also either will or will not quickly connect with an audience."

I don't know if I could write a film with self-distribution in mind - or with any sort of distribution in mind, for that matter. I get creative tunnel vision. The nice thing about your approach, though, is that, pending the success of thist first effort, you'll be able to get increasingly adventurous with subsequent work.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 8, 2006 01:51 PM

Mutinyco -

As I wrote in my post, I don't think self-distribution is the right path for all filmmakers; but it's something that all filmmakers should consider the possibility and implications of. Autonomy is the goal (my goal, at least), regardless of whether it's achieved through the studio system or through one's own means. Thus, in answer to your question, in so far as this is all just an option, I'd say this discussion is based in pragmatic idealism - with a dash of naivete thrown in. We're all wet behind the ears, after all.

"I'm not sure the reason indies aren't getting picked up has anything to do with the industry being broken."

It's not so much that the studio isn't picking up indies (it's been a bad year, but there hasn't been a cease and desist by any means, nor will there be), but that they're becoming increasingly less adventurous. If they had picked up Funny Ha Ha and opened it like a typical rom-com, they would have suffered a loss. What's killing them is that inflexible dedication to the opening weekend; if they picked up Bujalski's film, or Four Eyed Monsters, and let them start off very small, with realistic expectations, financial success would follow accordingly. But filmmakers can't expect studios to do that any more than they can expect to become the next Wes Anderson; thus, if they lower their expectations, at least temporarily, self-distribution can become an attractive possibility. The money made on the Funny Ha Ha release would have been scoffed at by the studios, but it might just be enough for a filmmaker to sustain himself (almost) and perhaps begin work on another film.

The production value on most indie films is terrible. Too many of them work backwards and try to look like Hollywood productions - a problem frequently exacerbated by technical incompetency. That said, there are also plenty of films where the rough edges are incredibly beautiful and add to the quality of the picture.

And of course, just for the record, from today's New York Times:

'Mr. Bujalski, who lives in Boston and still holds down a day job as a junior high school substitute teacher, cautioned against the temptation to romanticize his D.I.Y. process. "It's completely unsustainable," he said. "I've been absurdly lucky." (Both his films were financed through a combination of savings, grants, private investment and contributions from family and friends.)'

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 8, 2006 02:14 PM

Well...most indies do receive platforms, don't they? That said, I still don't think Funny Ha Ha would've been that commercially successful. It was cute. But a movie without much of a plot (and without the outrageous dialogue of say Clerks), geared primarily toward young people, isn't going to do much in terms of crossing over. And for a filmmaker to have autonomy, as you put it, they need to be commercially successful. Even then, you may still find it difficult to get another project going.

The reason most studios -- let's face it dependents -- aren't releasing micro-budget film festival pick ups isn't because of a conservative mentality, per se. Most of the dependents are focused now on producing their own slates. And that's the result of prior aquisitions success. It's not mental conservatism, so much as financial risk. A movie picked up for $2-mil at Sundance is a different game than a movie produced in-house for say $12-mil.

I think we can all agree on this, no matter our differences: The frustrating thing about the moment is that this is a transition. We all see the direction things are moving in. But we don't know exactly where it'll end up, which makes an already high-risk proposition even riskier.

I think you and I have played things pretty smart by maintaining a web presence where the industry can view our progress. But that's still not going to matter if we don't deliver something they want to invest in...

Posted by: mutinyco at January 8, 2006 02:59 PM

Good point, most of them do receive platforms. And there are a lot of small films that operate under the radar - opening at the Angelikas in NYC and Texas, hitting a few other major cities and then going to DVD. I need to remember not to be so inclusive in my condemnation.

And the films, whether they're self distributed or not, absolutely have to be commercially successful - otherwise, as I noted above, that initial four-walling venture will be a one-time thing. And a successful release won't necessarily get another project going, but it will grease the wheels to some extent.

I think a lot of people want to make films that aren't commercially viable, and most of them probably have come to the realization that there's a big chance that they're going to be on their own, as far as distribution goes (or quality distribution - Greg Pak went his own way partially to maintain a level of integrity absent from the offers he was receiving for Robot Stories, and we're mulling over similar issues with Deadroom at the moment). This doesn't preclude anything - it's merely a realistic expectation.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 8, 2006 03:19 PM

"With a 10k distribution budget, that first week would really be the clincher in determining how far you go;"

True enough Mr. David L. But the publicity generated by opening a film at a theater (even for a 1 week run you should do several months worth of publicity work in all possible media)
can help a lot w/ DVD sales (500 DVDs sold could equal $5000 - $7500). For a self-distro indie, a fully self-distro indie where the DVD sales would be handled by the filmmaker/distributor as CD sales are handled by a musician/distributor, DVD windows, etc. are not an issue as they are for Hollywood flicks. So an indie filmmaker can use the theatrical run to simultaneously push the DVD - specially for those people who may not be able to make it to the limited theatrical screenings.

Naive idealism is a very powerful & useful thing.
I plan on working very had at not losing it.

Indie filmmakers who are banking their careers on being picked up by Hollywood at some point are really just Indiewood filmmakers or Hollywood-filmmakers-in-waiting. And there is nothing wrong w/ that, lots of great movies & several fortunes have been made through that method. To me personally it is more exciting to get the whole thing done 100% DIY & lo-budget. Ultimately it all becomes a personal choice, based probably on how high your bills are, & what you want to contribute to the world besides a movie.

Back to limitations on the low-budget distro plan: there is no ending date for a DIY distro effort. Funny Ha Ha spent 3 years making modest gains on the distro front before being available theatrically & on DVD. Bujalski gets excellent press & he is about to begin theatrical distro on his second film, so I would say, by any indie film success standard, Funny Ha Ha was very successful. Anyway, so when $s run out for distro, a filmmaker/distributor can take a break, raise more $s (through DVD sales, merch sales, licensing for broadcast, through art gallery type more affordable venue play dates) and get back to theatrical distro when conditions are right.

Careers built or helped by the 1990's indie film explosion:
Rick Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, The Tarantino, Tom Dicillo, Nicole Holfecener (sp?), Jon Moritsugu, Christine Vachon, Todd Haynes, Todd Verow, Ang Lee, Wayne Wang, the dude who made Basquiat (sorry, don't recall name). That's just a handful of relatively well known filmmakers who all are working still & have releases/had releases w/ in a 12-24 month period around today. Some like Hal, Jim & Spike got their start in the 80's, but the 90's indie film boom probably definitely contributed to the longevity of their careers.

Posted by: Suj*ewa at January 8, 2006 06:13 PM

Thoughts on "commercial success":

Hollywood's version of commercial success is one that is created to help sustain & grow multi-million/billion $ companies. So, tons of $s - millions & billions & gazillions.

An ultra-indie version of commercial success could be: 1) being able to make an overall profit from the project 2) the filmmaker(s) being able to work on filmmaking & distro as a full time job or the only full time job, or even a paying PT job. So, not as much $s as Hollywood is necessary. I would say that if an ultra indie film can make a PROFIT in the 100K range for a given 12 month period, then that is a very "commercially successful" indie.

Or, commercial success depends on the size & financial needs of your company or production/distribution operation.

Posted by: Sujewa, The at January 8, 2006 06:25 PM

Sujeway, you're the lucky poster of the 666th comment on this site.

I certainly agree that commercial success is a matter of degrees. And making 100k profit in a 12 month period is, at this point, commercial success beyond my wildest dreams (actually, at this point, profit is practically an imaginary concept - which of course makes all this conjecture a little bit easier; I'm looking forward to finding out what works and what doesn't).

Paul Moore responds to all of this with a post of his own.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 8, 2006 07:16 PM

Dude, I ALWAYS wanted to be the poster of the 666th comment on this site! That SO rocks. More ladies for me tonite!

Digging Paul Moore's thoughts on this issue at the moment, thanks for pointing to it.

Posted by: S*ujewa at January 8, 2006 07:38 PM

Corrections: Nicole Holofcener & Julian Schnabel (Basquiat).

I think for the time being we're headed toward a situation where aspiring filmmakers, depending on their agendas or ambition, will be able to choose just how far they go. Online distribution or self-made DVDs will be an option to the filmmaker who prefers to keep things small and close. And the system will still exist for those wishing to get picked up and move onto bigger projects.

The thing that's been rattling my skull for a while now is: how much longer will the average person be able to access the internet at affordable rates before the forces of control find a way, either through takeovers or price raises, to limit who has the ability to get themself seen? That's something most people haven't thought a great deal about. Is there a future where getting your own website becomes as difficult as getting your own TV or radio program? And if it moves in this direction, would these mega sites then determine the content? And with that, make sure the prices are out of the range of anybody who can't afford them?

Posted by: mutinyco at January 8, 2006 07:47 PM

"I think for the time being we're headed toward a situation where aspiring filmmakers, depending on their agendas or ambition, will be able to choose just how far they go. Online distribution or self-made DVDs will be an option to the filmmaker who prefers to keep things small and close. And the system will still exist for those wishing to get picked up and move onto bigger projects."

Exactly. Couldn't have said it better.

As to your other point, I'm sure there's a greedy contigent looking to limit the internet, but there are also quite a few factions hoping to make it more accessible than it already is (a la city-wide wi-fi). At this point, online proliferation is so extensive that it's hard to imagine a hostile takeover such as the one you describe; but, of course, one should never put anything past big corporations.

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 8, 2006 07:59 PM

Just wait till the internet/cable merging excels...

Posted by: mutinyco at January 8, 2006 10:49 PM

The various ideas of "Success" are very interesting. I'm with David, in that my end goal is to be self sustaining and autonomous. That would be my ultimate measure of success.

The steps I'm taking to get there involve keeping my day job, limiting my budgets to little or no money, and going to as many Festivals and events as possible and meeting as many people as I can.

I only spent about $1500 - $2000 on my first film, KISSING ON THE MOUTH, but I have spent many times that amount going to Festivals and supporting the film. My total expenses for KOTM have probably climbed into the $5,000 area. Still really cheap, but when you only make about $18,000 a year, it's a large chunk of that.

For the film I just finished LOL, I would estimate the budget at about $2500 - $3000, and I'm about to enter into the Festival phase where I'll start spending beyond that amount for travel, food, postcards, tapes, DVDs, etc.

I have yet to see a penny for either of my films. This doesn't surprise me. I would call both of them extremely uncommercial. But that's exactly why I'm making them with my friends in Chicago, and they aren't being made in Hollywood. If I wanted to make studio films, I'm sure I could move to Hollywood and start working my way up. But I'm totally happy to be in Chicago spending 1/3 of my annual income on small movies that hardly anybody sees. It's my passion. It's fun for me. And it's very low risk. You would never catch me taking out a loan and sinking $50,000 into a DV feature. I live within my means. And if one of these days, I can get a TV deal or a nice DVD deal for one of my films, I'll make back the money I've spent so far, and I'll consider that a great success.

But for now I already consider my two films successes. They have or will play some Festivals, and they even made David Lowery's Top Ten list of 2005. What more can you ask for?

Posted by: Joe Swanberg at January 9, 2006 02:56 AM

Just read Davids post, and all of the comments...

...and wow, this is sort of enlightening for a filmmaker in Norway, who the other day pondered; "How cool wouldn't it have been if there actually were an independent film scene in Norway? At all." (All shorts and features, except the student films, are financed through state funding, if they are financed... if not, they are left alone. And private funding is practically unheard of. Except if people pay up themselves. And most filmmakers don't, 'cause they have no hope for anything being independent. Sadly, that keeps a lot of interesting ideas unrealized.)

This whole post (avec comments) sort of wideopened my whole view on it. There's no need for an independent film scene in Norway, there's already an independent film scene growing in the WWW. Why feel so local? I guess what I'm trying to say is that this whole issue is much bigger that getting a 'domestic theatrical release' in the US. That's the thought that creates the limitation. Being free and DIY gives you Earth as your scene (1st world, I know, but look at broadband development in China/India etc... it's exploding.) I'm sitting here in Oslo, and just by seeing KISSING ON THE MOUTH on Davids Top 10 makes me want to order the DVD. And I will know that I'm probably the only person in my whole country who has that film. How's that for exclusive?

Well, you get my drift. I should write a blog myself, I guess. All of these blogs together becomes the best Filmmaker Magazine I could ever ask for. Time to join the ranks.

Posted by: Karsten at January 9, 2006 07:07 AM

Let us know when (and it) it's up...

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 9, 2006 12:27 PM

Joe, in a few weeks you may be able to say: "I am huge in Norway".

Looking forward to seeing Kissing On The Mouth & LOL. Great job on keeping things so lo-budget. All you've gotta do is sell like a 1000 DVDs or a combination of DVDs & tix for screenings & you will probably make a nice profit (well, at least recoup the production expenses) from both movies.

Another distro track: hooking up w/ music retailers w/ a web presence. I am getting my new flick Date Number One into a local record store, the DVD that is, and they do some crazy world wide mail order business from the weirdest (far from DC) corners of the globe, so it will be nice to see how many peeps discover & buy my flick through that store's web based mail order biz.

Oh, my dad told me that there is a mass DVD makin' machine out there for like $1600. I need to look into that. 'cause the best prices I've found so far for large volume duplications was about $2.10 per DVD for orders of 1000 units or more (w/ packaging).

What's yer web site Karsten for yer movies (if there is one)? Looking forward to reading your blog, if & when it goes up, for all kinds of neat info. on Norway.


Posted by: Suje*wa at January 9, 2006 01:17 PM

Here's a site that I found a couple of years, I think, ago re: approaching filmmaking (& distro
too I think) as a small scale, outside of Hollywood project:


Posted by: Sujew*a at January 11, 2006 04:11 AM