Getting a film to audiences can be a daunting proposition, especially for a documentary that may seem a bit unconventional and is not immediately embraced by film festivals. "We finished the film and we were broke," Mike Palmieri told indieWIRE last week as he recounted his experience taking his first feature co-directed with Donal Mosher, "October Country," around the world, in search of appreciative audiences in pockets across the globe.
The duo got help from their friend, director/producer Esther Robinson who helped them determine their priorities for the film. "She gave us a lot of good advice about assessing the film [and] about what kind of film it is. 'What you guys have is an eclectic art house film,' she said. 'So you need to think about a distributor that can give it that kind of attention.'"
"October Country" tells the story of Mosher's family, who live in the Mohawk Valley in Upstate New York. The film documents the family's working class life over a year, through their own voices. Poetic and quiet, the film nestles itself into the lives of several members of the family, only to see ghosts of the family's pasts resurrect themselves in front of the camera.
The filmmakers took a small film with dark themes to film festivals across the world, TV networks all over, and to theaters in the U.S. This week, the film came out on DVD. Here's how they did it:
1. Find a festival that will take the film for its world premiere.
"It was really about which festival would take us. It wasn't accepted by the first five festivals that you'd want to take a film to. We were faced with the question of which film festival would take it after the top tier of internationally renowned winter festivals didn't accept us. True/False let us in as a sneak preview; they allowed us to get a leg up so that we could get some exposure without having a world premiere. After that, we were accepted into the Los Angeles Film Festival and Silverdocs and we decided that doing that simultaneous debut was a good option." — Palmieri
2. Take the film to festivals that will expose it to new audiences and markets.
"Still, Esther's comments applied. You've gotta know what kind of film you have and what kind of festival will take it. We chose festivals that were more arty and had good programming, as opposed to gigantic festivals that we would get lost in. In Europe, the film premiered in Locarno, which was another lucky thing. We got huge exposure. Locarno is known to be more arty and more left-of-center. It laid the foundation for us to go to these smaller festivals where we could expose our film to these smaller audiences. Rather than go to IDFA and sell the film all over the place at once…if you can get people to look at it amidst all the other films going on. Because of Locarno, we got Arte and other television networks. Anytime we had a good response at these smaller festivals, we'd have a better chance of a sale." — Palmieri
3. Garner critical acclaim and get an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
"We had no intentions at all of doing a theatrical release. We got all of these nominations at the end of the year. We would never have put the film in theaters if we hadn't been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Even a Truer than Fiction nomination would not have warranted a theatrical release. We could use this as a way to generate publicity." — Palmieri
4. Work with an independent booker to get the film in theaters across the country.
"It actually made more sense for us to work with a really strong independent booker, Wendy Lidell, from International Film Circuit in major markets for one-week runs, so that we would get the major paper reviews. At the best, we would get good reviews, at the worst we'd get complex reviews that engaged with the issues we're bringing up. On the whole, we'd knew it would be a losing venture, but it would be a success in the long run. We were aiming for the film to be a slow burn.
"We were distributing the film and our presence as filmmakers at the same time to get a slight advantage the next time around. We were one step above the competition. Having control of the film, you can control the image of the film as it goes out. We kept what we wanted in tact. The trailer is ours. The poster design is ours. We had a specific vision, and that helps the film. It might defy certain rules of what sells." — Palmieri
"You have to assess your energy. It takes massive amounts of energy and distraction. We've struck a really good balance, but it hasn't been easy." — Mosher It's weird to study these models. The filmmaker must be more than a filmmaker, a Twittering machine. It runs counter to the art. It's this necessary evil that you have to engage in, intelligently, that you can't get too caught up in. Getting caught up in it will just tie you up for six years." — Palmieri
5. Listen to those who care, and find a warm, loving DVD distribution partner.
"We're working as partners and we have the advantage over individual filmmakers. Mike might be working on distribution and I'm working on our next project. Working by himself, he'd be mired in emails and contracts. The documentary world is a really supportive community. You should pull on the resources of your peers and partner up, collaborate in any way you can. Trust the people that care about your movie. All the people we decided to align ourselves with are people who are doing it out of the love of it, not for any other reason." — Mosher
"The standard terms from most boutique distributors look really low — you feel like you're giving up your movie. They're actually being fair. As a filmmaker you can access a better return by doing it yourself. I had a much higher level of respect for these companies. That they are stealing my film, that's not the truth. They should be praised for the way they recommend a better option for the film. Many of them really care about the films.
"We went with Carnivalesque. [Someone] gave us a piece of advice with this sale stuff: You have to go with the set of people you'll be disappointed with the least. It's all so financially rough. If you lay the right groundwork and you own the film and you parse out the rights correctly. It trickles back to you better than if you go with the major companies. For our digital, we decided to go with Cinetic's FilmBuff. There's so many people in the digital world, and our deal with them was actually a really fair deal. Now on to our next project, where the strategy may be totally different." — Palmieri