When Mike Plante decided he wanted to start a grassroots distribution company, he re-watched “Showman,” the fast-paced portrait of film producer Joe Levine and his colleagues as they guide the release of “Two Women” to Oscar-season acclaim. “Those guys would just pick up the phone, booking every city, just talking to people and saying, ‘I think this film would work for you,'” Plante says. “That’s basically what we’re doing, but thank god for e-mail.”
Earlier this year, Plante launched Cinemad Presents, a handcrafted attempt to release the sort of marginalized movies that he and business partner Jon Korn, a shorts programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, would like to help find audiences.
Plante has worked in the festival world since 1993, getting involved with Sundance programming in 2001, and later taking on the reigns at the CineVegas Film Festival in the years following that. In 2009, after Plante was named director of programming for CineVegas — a festival known for screening the sort of outré material he loved — it tragically went out of business. While still programming for Sundance on the side, Plante needed something else to do.
Around this time, filmmaker Brent Green got in touch with the programmer. Green’s latest movie, the delicately-made, part-animated narrative feature “Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then,” was designed to show with a live performance at every screening. Green wanted Plante to book the performances. Although Plante didn’t have a distribution background, the idea always interested him. “It’s one of those things we always wanted to do at CineVegas,” he says. “But all of our resources went into putting on the festival, so we could never get it going.”
After Plante agreed, he started calling up other filmmakers in need of distribution. The company officially launched earlier this year. To date, Cinemad has around eight films on its slate, and Plante hopes to release 4 – 5 films a year with the same city-by-city approach. “Right now, it’s this fun, crazy, free-for-all,” he says. “We’re just barraging every theater we can find to show these movies.”
Both the name of the company and the marginalized cinema it favors harken back to a zine that Plante started in the late 1990s. He turned it into a website in 2002, and now continues it as a blog. “I built up this database,” Plante recalls. Some of the filmmakers he covered in Cinemad, such as Nina Menkes, were among those he called up when he started the company. Menkes’ latest film, the critically acclaimed “Dissolution,” is among Cinemad’s latest releases. While the Cinemad website describes its preference for “independent, foreign, avant-garde, cult and underground films,” Plante merely says he wants to release “unusual, interesting films, usually with cool titles.”
He discusses the operation in a casual fashion partly because it has yet to become a full time job. “I just wanted to do this,” Plante says. “Now, about six months later, I think I can do it reasonably well. It’s definitely a side project, but if things go well over the next five years, I can probably have an employee.” His financial motive is relatively low. “None of us are getting paid,” he explains. “If a film shows somewhere and makes money, everybody makes money. If not, we’re OK. If 30 people see it and they all love it, that’s great.”
That’s not to say that Plante lacks strategy. He talks passionately about the need for theaters to give audiences reasons to attend. “You’ve got to make the theater half the destination,” he says. He works with individual theater owners to figure out an appropriate plan for each release and does all the marketing himself. “You’ve got to e-mail every person you know who you think might like it,” he says. “Hopefully, people will spread the word.”
Plante figures out the business side of each release on a case-by-case basis, but says he usually begins by booking 20 cities, taking some small part of the theatrical gross as his fee. If the film plays well, he may continue to book more cities. “There’s always an incentive for me to book more shows, but it’s always a small piece of the pie,” he says. “We’re not interested in losing money, but we don’t expect to make a lot of it, either.”
As a result, he tends to work with filmmakers who feel the same way. Horror director Calvin Lee Reeder’s mind-numbingly trippy Sundance midnight entry “The Oregonian” provides one such example. “I’m releasing that one mostly because I really love the film,” Plante says, “but also because I know Calvin really well and he has reasonable expectations.”
The one-man-band set-up means that Plante has room for plenty of experimentation, including “Orbit (Film),” an anthology film project he has been organizing with Rooftop Films founder Mark Rosenberg. Plante and Rosenberg, who share an interest in all things astronauts, got their hands on NASA footage from JPL and gave it out to a dozen filmmakers to create short films.
If the result is a success, Plante says, “the money from the shows will orbit back to the people who will make the next round of orbit films.” It’s a clever way of keeping the project alive–but like most of Cinemad’s operations, not a scheme to get rich. “I know I want to see these films, so there are probably 50 people in another town that want to see them, too,” he says. “And I’d like to help make that happen.”