The following profile of "B-Girl," reformatted for publication in indieWIRE's Filmmaker Toolkit, is one of the filmmaking Case Studies offered to participants at last weekend's Film Independent Filmmaker Forum in Los Angeles. All quotes come from filmmakers Emily and Elizabeth Dell's recounting of their experience working on "B-Girl."
When sisters Elizabeth and Emily Dell finished their film "B-Girl," which Emily wrote and directed and Elizabeth produced, they discovered that unpredictability is a frequent accompaniment with filmmaking. Looking back on the film as the sales are just wrapping up, Elizabeth notes, "It was an un-fun lesson to learn. We thought it would be straightforward: we would get into a festival, a sales agent would pick it up, and everything would be handled. It was a dangerous attitude to have. It sucks when there's no white knight to come to your rescue. Once you realize that, you have to be ok with doing it yourself, and figuring it out as you go. You are going to fail a lot, especially in the beginning. We've been extremely lucky that we had the chance to fail and then to figure out how to do it better on [the next] film."
The filmmakers rocky road from finding funding to producing a finished film to finding an audience for it led the project on an unusual path to a self-distributed multiple city theatrical tour at the end of 2009 and several television deals throughout the world.
"B-Girl" revolves around a young New York City dancer, Angel (Jules Urich or Lady Jules), who is forced to move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after a brutal attack. Though she moves to the new city with only her mother (Missy Yager) and no friends, Angel must go back to her passion, breaking (break dancing) once again. All the while, her mother worries that this will lead her to the same trouble that pushed the family to the west coast.
Case Study – information from the filmmakers and Film Independent:
1. Find your story. Get to know it well.
"We were at a street fair in San Francisco’s Mission district in 2002 when they were first introduced to the world of b-girls. On a side stage, they watched a crew of female dancers breaking and spinning on their heads. We were awestruck – we'd never seen anything like it – and we wanted to know more about these breakers or “b-girls” (only laypeople call them break-dancers).
"Later that year, we moved to Los Angeles and began to explore the local breaker scene. In LA, we were introduced to Jules Urich (aka “Lady Jules”) who was the most well-known b-girl in the world. The relationship developed and Emily decided she wanted to make a short film with Lady Jules."
2. Make a budget, and aim high. Try to raise that money, and make cuts to make the fundraising more realistic.
"We both felt we could tell a strong genre story on a limited budget; and based on the festival success of their short, we knew there was an audience for an urban female dance flick. Elizabeth drew up a budget for [a larger sum than the film was made for] and she approached all the mini-majors for financing; sometimes she would cold-call, other times she would use connections or opportunities that presented themselves—for example, after seeing Mark Gill at Film Independent’s Producer Series, Elizabeth called his office and met with him. Elizabeth was persistent with the mini-majors and production companies without being a pest—she would only call once every 10 days and it often paid off in meetings with several decision makers. Usually Elizabeth would get to pitch 'B-Girl,' but was told the same thing by everyone: 'We are not going to finance a film by a first-time director, but come back to us when you’ve made it, and maybe we’ll buy it.'
"It became clear [we] would have to raise the financing for B-Girl through private equity. Elizabeth started by slashing the budget considerably and then they reached out to everyone they knew, from their circle of family, friends, and school alumni. Elizabeth estimates that her success rate was 1%: she approached about 1000 people to find 12 investors, many of whom were two or three degrees of separation away. If someone said 'no,' she would ask for new contacts with phone numbers. This way, when approaching an investor, Elizabeth would always have a name she could drop, so she was never cold-calling, but 'luke-warm calling.'"
3. [Didn't] get into Sundance? Go anyway.
"'B-Girl' shot in July 2007 for 24 days in LA, and one day in New York (with a bare-bones crew). We wrapped in August and began an intense post-production schedule, aiming to have a cut ready for the Sundance deadline in September. It didn't pay off; Sundance passed on 'B-Girl.'"
"In January 2008, we made the trip to Sundance anyway, as we'd done many times before. We used the trip, not to sell 'B-Girl,' but to meet friends and network with others, but we still talked about our film, and brought film clips for colleagues who showed interest. After a short break from the film and with advice from friends, they came to the decision that 'B-Girl' was far from finished, and a much better version of the film could be found."
4. Don't get into the festivals you want? Leave your options open, and think of partnerships.
"Five months of test screenings and four editors later, the best version of the film finally emerged and a cut was completed in October of 2008. By January 2009, we had a finished film. During this period, Elizabeth had applied to Toronto and SXSW, but 'B-Girl' was again rejected. We then came to the conclusion that 'B-Girl' was not a traditional festival movie. It was a tough decision to make. The festival route was the only one we knew and had planned for. We'd scrapped Plan A, but had no idea where to find a Plan B.
"In April, [we] set up a cast and crew screening and invited a few distributors too, along with executives from sportswear company Nike, who had done some product placement in the film. The Nike execs loved the movie and they suggested to Elizabeth that they sponsor a bigger screening as a way of launching the film. They would pay for the venue and throw a party afterwards with a VIP reception and party. Nike turned the screening, at the Ricardo Montalban theater in Hollywood, into an event. Lady Jules was a hot item, as she had just appeared on MTV’s 'America’s Best Dance Crew' reality show with the Beat Freaks. The event became the de-facto premiere for 'B-Girl.'"
5. Take the film everywhere that makes sense, and never forget about the core audience at any point along the way.
"At the Cannes market, OddLot sold 'B-Girl' to about 15 territories. Shortly after this, we made a deal with Screen Media to buy North American DVD and TV rights for 15 years. Screen Media sold TV rights to Showtime. At the end of 2009, we independently organized a small screening tour to promote the upcoming DVD release at the end of January. We toured cities across the country including New York, LA, San Francisco, Atlanta, Orlando, and Austin. We booked art-house theaters and timed their screenings alongside local hip hop competitions that had built-in audiences from the hip-hop and street-dance communities.
"'B-Girl' was released on DVD on January 26, 2010. In exchange for coordinating and funding our own promotion tour (without support from Screen Media or Showtime), [we] retained the right to sell copies on our website, though this hasn’t been as successful as we’d hoped. We also retained merchandising rights and have produced T-shirts and posters that we sell on the film’s website. We also created a special features DVD outside of the original DVD deal with Screen Media, which we package with other merchandise and sell online."