Sometimes with high expectations, independent filmmakers create work and then try to navigate the increasingly murky world of releasing their movie. It might be a hard pill to swallow, but filmmakers today need to know that getting into a top film festival and/or securing representation from a leading sales company isn’t enough to guarantee a moneymaking deal to release a movie. Calling distribution today, “one of the biggest challenges facing independent filmmakers,” IFP executive director Michelle Byrd introduced a panel discussion Monday night entitled, “Distribution Now… Distribution How?” Filmmakers Caveh Zahedi (director, “I Am a Sex Addict“), Jay Duplass (director, “The Puffy Chair“), and Susan Leber (producer, “Down To The Bone“) chatted with FILMMAKER Magazine editor Scott Macaulay about the topic and offered some filmmakers some reality checks.
“We totally bought into the idea of, if not a major distributor picking up (our film), then at least a middle-sized one,” explained Leber, adding that having won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, her team thought that the awareness and acclaim would be enough help them secure a deal. “I totally bought into the idea of a huge distributor picking it up,” agreed Zahedi, eliciting a few chuckles from the crowded Manhattan movie theater on Monday night. “(Those expectations have) receded gradually, but continually,” he added.
“Puffy Chair” director Jay Duplass added, “I actually had no expectations whatsoever. The film was so small that I was just glad that it was at Sundance. (But), then we had a huge screening at Sundance and I thought we would (get a big distribution deal), and that took a year for it to recede.”
In the case of all three films, each has secured a theatrical distribution deal, but none received money up front and it looks unlikely that any will break even financially. Susan Leber explained that in the case of “Down to the Bone,” a critically acclaimed narrative indie made for $500,000 and starring Vera Farmiga, the “Bone” team partnered with the upstart Laemmle/Zeller Films but had to actually put in additional money for the costs of releasing their film in theaters. The film was selected as one of the best undistributed films of the year by indieWIRE and Farmiga’s performance was recognized as one of the best of the year, nabbing Spirit Awards acclaim and notices from film critics groups. Leber explained that a pending DVD deal with Netflix would bring them some cash up front.”We will never make our money back,” she admitted candidly.
Explaining that he faced frustrations when his previous films didn’t secure wide enough distribution, Caveh Zahedi said that he learned a key lesson, which was to create a high concept film. “If you don’t have stars or money, all you have is the concept,” explained Zahedi. The filmmaker, initially repped by Cinetic at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, said his film was connecting with audiences, but not buyers at the festival. “I don’t feel like most distributors saw it,” Zahedi told the audience. “(They) sent people to it, but the top people didn’t – it seems like it kind of drifted off into the ether. It felt like everyone was talking about it, and then nothing. That’s when I finally said, I am just going to do it myself.”
Ultimately, Caveh Zahedi decided to take the deal with IFC as part of its new First Take program that releases films in theater and via cable VOD at the same time, even though it didn’t come with advance money for the deal. He explained that he did the math and the option was certainly better than self-distribution. And IFP recently signed on to help him stir grassroots support for the release. It opened last week in San Francisco and today in Manhattan.
“For our film to be in the black,” Zahedi told the crowd, “It would have to make a million dollars altogether (theatrical and DVD) — if our film made a million dollars, our film would be in the black.”
For their $15,000 feature financed by money from their parents – “The Puffy Chair” — Jay Duplass explained he and his brother Mark Duplass received offers worth up to $100,000 for TV and DVD distribution of their movie, but they decided to instead pursue a theatrical release first, because they feel strongly that their movie plays well with an audience. “The Puffy Chair” was also repped by Cinetic, but despite positive notices from some, it wasn’t enough to score them a pact. “I think everybody saw it, sadly,” Duplass explained. “Everyone generally seemed to like it or love it, but they didn’t want to buy it.”
The new Truly Indie program from Landmark Theaters was an option for the film, Duplass said, but ultimately they decided against it in favor of a no-advance deal from Roadside Attractions that has them working closely with the company. They also secured a deal with Netflix that will target market the release. The brothers created the trailer and poster for their movie and have designed a marketing strategy, Duplass said Monday. He added that the film will not be bumped up to film to save money, it will instead screen in HD at Landmark Theaters and other venues with digital projection.
“We decided to market the movie as a band would be marketed,” explained Duplass, holding up a sticker with an image of a purple recliner for the audience. “(This) will either be viewed as brilliant or totally stupid,” he added, smiling.
With such a tough market for independent films today, it seems crucial that filmmakers become as engaged as possible in the process if they want to secure any sort of theatrical release, at least in the case of the three filmmakers highlighted on Monday. “All three filmmakers refused to give up and committed their time, energy, and in some cases resources to getting their films out there,” explained moderator Scott Macaulay on the FILMMAKER Magazine blog this week, “All three of these filmmakers were on stage with me discussing how their films made it into theaters. There are literally hundreds of other movies that vanish and never see the light of day. In these three cases, the immediate festival exposure, the expertise of the reps and, most importantly, the determination of the filmmakers got their films leveraged into the marketplace.”