I have no idea if the distribution model we’ve chosen is going to work. In fact, it may very well fail. But if I’m going down, I’m going down swinging. I refuse to be a filmmaker that doesn’t at least try to not be fucked by the powers that seem to fuck first-time filmmakers on a fairly regular basis. For the vast majority of us, such a fate may be unavoidable. As for “This Is Happening,” we’re only in the favorable position we find ourselves now because we failed. We didn’t get into a major festival. We weren’t scooped by a giant distributor. The offers we did get felt masochistic; as if we should be grateful for the torn hamstring we were about to experience from doing the splits just because someone wanted us. You know that feeling. It’s usually followed by a call from your dad asking what you were doing trying the splits in the first place.
But as time passed and I began to learn more and more about independent film distribution (sorry, I just threw up a little in my mouth), we began to develop the muscle known as perspective. We had to think outside the box and start asking questions. Lots and lots and lots of questions. Unlike the others that had been more “successful,” we simply didn’t have a choice.
Our journey begins with learning some very hard truths about the economics of independent filmmaking: There’s too much product. Yes, indie filmmaking is more democratic than ever, but the result is a ton of movies being released digitally every day. There are a LOT of movies making very little money.
If you are lucky enough to find distribution, you’re still pretty much fucked. I spoke to many filmmakers and all of their stories sucked. They were either lucky enough to get an advance for theatrical distribution – which meant yes, someone would front marketing costs, but that total (usually between $80-100K) was recoupable, only to be followed up by a 25-30% distribution fee. With margins as tight as they are, an advance is just debt against a film and you will be lucky to see a dollar from sales. The other option filmmakers with whom I spoke faced was to release their films Day & Date with no advance. This meant having no meaningful theatrical release and then getting buried in a VOD wasteland.
The studios release Day & Date with massive marketing budgets, so unless you have a major indie name – like a Duplass or Julianne Moore – your movie is going to disappear. You are literally looking at a five figure return for your investors. So as I said before… you’re fucked.
We were very close to suffering the same Day & Date fate as so many indies of the last couple years, but then I was lucky enough to speak to a distribution executive named Mia Bruno, late of Gravitas, currently of Seed&Spark. When I met Mia over the phone I didn’t know of her or that her company even had a distribution arm. I thought we were introduced to talk crowdfunding. But Mia had just been hired at Seed&Spark to spearhead distribution and she was interested in making “This Is Happening” her guinea pig.
Mia is an honest person. And she cares about filmmakers. And in her honesty, she explained that she thought Day & Dates were increasingly dubious without a significant advance and articulate strategy behind them (translation: without a shit ton of money and buttload of time, which you’re never gonna get, you’re fucked). She saw too many films of our size fail, and fail miserably. But Day & Date was our model. If that was “increasingly dubious,” what were we supposed to do?
Mia recommended what’s termed a “Broken Window.” It’s not Day & Date and it’s not a traditional 90 day theatrical window. A Broken Window posits trying to make something of your distribution both theatrically and on VOD. Exhibitors are a little more flexible about their 90-day windows than they used to be, so there’s some wiggle room here, which means, you get to take a shot. It’s a notion that’s sort of old but new. Like beards.
I love Mia, but most of her experience has been in digital distribution. If we were going to have any kind of chance to succeed theatrically, we needed someone who knew the space. Lucky for us (and this is quite lucky, I’ll admit), I was introduced to Mark Urman of Paladin back when I first finished the film. Mark is not only one of the best in the business for indie theatrical distribution, he’s extremely filmmaker-friendly. On top of that, he just had great success distributing “What We Do In The Shadows.” He had a vision for “What We Do In The Shadows” and he had a vision for us. Thankfully, he was willing to take on our film.
Now, don’t get me wrong, you still need the funds to support a theatrical window, and theatrical releases, done right, even modestly, are expensive. I was in a position where I couldn’t put any more money against the film, so I had no choice but to crowdfund for our theatrical if this approach was going to be an option. Since Seed&Spark was going to be our digital distributor (and Paladin our theatrical), we turned to them for crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding is not for everyone and many times it fails. However, we went into crowdfunding with an advantage: our movie was finished. There was something we could show people. It was real. And the product was good. So by combining a solid film with A TON of hard work (it’s a lot of work, don’t fool yourself), we managed to raise almost $60,000 in cash. That’s a lot of money in movie crowdfunding terms.
The point is this: what Seed&Spark gave us was control. We seeded distribution through their crowdfunding platform, then followed through by partnering with them as an advisor on all things theatrical and distributor for all things digital. They don’t take a recoupable advance and don’t back that with a fat middle finger of a distribution fee. We get a visionary like Mia and a company that isn’t out to fuck us. I shit you not they are true to their word of “free trade filmmaking.” I have done the splits and the only thing I’ve torn is my pants. Praise Jesus!
I don’t know yet if this approach will work, but on paper, we are in a much better position than pretty much every indie filmmaker I’ve spoken to along the way. I say that not to think we’re better than anyone – we’re not. And I don’t know if our approach will work. But what we did do, and that of which I am so proud, is that we asked questions. As first-time filmmakers we so often just want to be invited to the party. Or we think we’re too cool and just end up as that guy with a handlebar mustache riding a unicycle back and forth down Melrose Avenue. But if you step back and you ask questions and you’re willing to work harder than you ever have on things that seem so far from the process of filmmaking, you may very well fail, but you will not limp away like you just tore a hammy.
Watch the trailer for “This Is Happening” below:
Ryan Jaffe is a director, producer and screenwriter. Most recently, Jaffe produced, wrote and directed “This Is Happening.” Prior to making “This Is Happening,” Jaffe’s script “The Rocker” was made into a feature film starring Rainn Wilson, Emma Stone, Jason Sudeikis and Bradley Cooper for Fox Atomic. Ryan later penned the estate sanctioned Jeff Buckley bio-pic “Mystery White Boy.” He has also sold pilots to Fox, Warner Bros. TV, 20th Century Fox TV and Legendary.
READ MORE: Seed&Spark Teams with Paladin to Acquire Comedy ‘This is Happening’