Myths die hard in the film business. But the fairytale that says an independent movie goes into a film festival, sparks a bidding war and gets sold for millions and millions of dollars is fading fast. The dream may hold true for some rare exceptions (Sundance ’08: “Hamlet 2“). But with several buyers out of the picture (from Netflix‘s Red Envelope to Warner Independent Pictures) and a cooling sales environment over the last year, filmmakers and backers are thinking about new ways to deliver their labors-of-love to audiences as they head into this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The trend isn’t entirely new, but it’s been gaining steam over the last few years: Production and financing companies such as Newmarket, Icon, Gold Circle, Yari Film Group, 2929 Entertainment, Sidney Kimmel, Peach Arch and others have all partially or completely entered the wilds of distribution, raising P&A capital, releasing and marketing the films themselves or with partners, and thereby retaining the rights and maximizing their profits–or, conversely, eating their losses.
The latest examples range from star-studded productions (2929’s “What Just Happened?“) to indie art-house darlings (Lance Hammer‘s “Ballast“), where producers would rather hold onto their films than make what they see as lesser deals with existing distributors.
“I try to be in a position where I can go either route,” says Stephen McEveety, producer of that most famous self-distribution effort, “The Passion of the Christ,” as well as “The Stoning of Soraya M,” a Toronto world premiere starring Shohreh Aghdashloo and Jim Caviezel.
While McEveety and others say traditional distribution offers are first on their agenda, they also say it’s increasingly important to “be prepared,” says McEveety, “which means having as many options available for the film as possible when it comes time to sell it.” That means having P&A ready, “So if I don’t get the desired distributor, I can do it myself,” he says.
For “Stoning of Soraya M,” McEveety says he went to a new round of investors – not involved in the film’s initial financing – to raise that P&A stockpile. Armed with cash and a track record of established outsider films, such as “Christ” and his 2006 Toronto People’s Choice Award winner “Bella,” McEveety says he’s also in a better situation to negotiate with interested distributors and determine whether they are the right match for the film.
Jack Turner, a producer on the Toronto bound “Lovely Still,” Nicholas Fackler‘s debut starring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, agrees. “You have to know what it’s going to cost, so that you can assess the offers being presented to you.”
“Investors should be considering a P&A raise as a very likely plan B from the get go,” explains Turner. “Coming up with a non-traditional distribution plan and financing after your film has been passed on is a much more expensive and unforgiving endeavor.”
Rising indie producers Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy (“Old Joy“), who have two films going on the market at Toronto, “Lovely Still” and So Young Kim‘s “Treeless Mountain,” are already developing alternative strategies for distribution.
“We have plans in place,” says Knudsen. “If we don’t get the offers we want or anticipate, it doesn’t end there. There’s been the sense: If you don’t get your film acquired at a festival, what do you do? Now people are waking up and saying: We, as producers and filmmakers, need to do that research and understand the marketplace better.”
The duo has already recruited established marketing consultant Matthew Cohen, who worked on last year’s award-winning campaign for “No Country for Old Men,” to help develop a strategy for their films and give these low-budget indies the first-class marketing treatment.
Similarly, Jonathan Murray, the veteran reality TV producer (“The Real World”), says he’s ultimately not concerned whether a distributor acquires “Pedro,” his company’s Toronto world premiere bio-pic about Pedro Zamora, the HIV+ ’90s “Real World” star and activist.
“With an eventual MTV sale, with DVD and with international, we will be in a good place,” says Murray. “We think the film will resonate with an audience and it didn’t cost that much so the price isn’t that high for a distributor. But even if we didn’t get a theatrical, we would probably create one to support the picture, so we believe our economic model will work with a theatrical distributor or not.”
William Morris Independent‘s Cassian Elwes, who is repping “Pedro” along with a number of other Toronto-bound titles, isn’t backing away from the DIY option for his clients. “When people see very lowball offers coming in being the only offers because the market is so disjointed right now, it would behoove the filmmakers from releasing it themselves,” he says. “It’d probably do better on DVD than just selling it to someone for cheap.”
But there are inherent hazards of raising the additional six to seven-figure sums to release a film.
CAA‘s Micah Green warns self-distributing directors, “Before you commit your own money to P&A, you have to make sure the distributors don’t know something about your film that you don’t. It is true that sometimes domestic distributors are overly cautious,” Green says, citing such famous missed opportunities as “Memento,” “Passion of the Christ,” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” “But usually their instincts are right,” continues Green. “A lot of the films you see serviced through theatrical companies lose a ton of money. If those films had just taken an ancillary deal or a much more limited theatrical deal, they may have made much more of their investment back.”
And while Green agrees that it’s always good to have the option of self-releasing, either through your own distribution outlet (like 2929’s Magnolia) or through a service deal (as many companies employ distribs such as Roadside and Freestyle), Green adds, “Just because you have money for P&A doesn’t mean you should use it. If the market is telling you that your film is of limited commercial value, then it may be smarter to cut your losses and forgo the theatrical release.”
But McEveety says in the current climate, filmmakers are forced to take matters into their own hands. “Because there are not a lot of distributors and there’s a lot more product than outlets. And you’re out of business if you don’t find a way to release it.”
Of course, there are risks, acknowledges McEveety. “But life wouldn’t be fun if there weren’t any risks.”