By Indiewire | Indiewire December 3, 2001 at 2:0AM
BIZ: "The Debut": A Self-Distribution Success Story
by G. Allen Johnson/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/12.03.01) -- Back in March at the opening night bash at the San Francisco International Asian American Festival, Gene Cajayon seemed like most young independent filmmakers about to exhibit their first films. He was friendly, a little jazzed by the experience, and also a bit nervous. His "The Debut," a charming story set in a Los Angeles Filipino American community, would close the festival a week later, but Cajayon was there on opening night, already pressing the flesh.
Most people didn't know exactly how much the 30-year-old Cajayon had on the line. He was set to open "The Debut" at the AMC Kabuki, a mass-market multiplex where the Asian festival is held, the day after the festival closed. He was four-walling a Kabuki screen, putting up his only print against the Hollywood blockbusters, hoping for the best.
Seems that his story of a high-school senior (Dante Basco) who wants to attend a school for the arts against the wishes of his family, and his sister (Bernadette Balagtas) with issues of her own as she prepares her "Debut," a traditional Filipino ceremony, has struck a chord. More than eight months later, "The Debut" is 11 prints strong, has raked in more than a million dollars and shows no signs of letting up. At a time when distribution of independent films continues to be a struggle and the economy in general is taking a nose-dive, Cajayon's story can serve as inspiration for those who feel they have made a film people want to see, but are compiling distributors' rejection slips nevertheless.
On this day, however, Cajayon's hard work takes a backseat to much-needed rest. The telephone call placed at noon wakes him up. It is the day before Thanksgiving, the last day of a successful seven-week run in Los Angeles-area theaters, and he is home with his wife, Mabel, and two young sons, Vincent and Everett.
"We've been chased out by 'Harry Potter'!" Cajayon said. "But we'll be back up and running after the New Year."
"The Debut" will pop up in San Diego in January and Washington, D.C. in February, with cities like Las Vegas, New York and Chicago to follow. Like his previous stops in California (San Francisco, L.A., Sacramento, Stockton and Salinas) and also runs in Guam and Virginia Beach, Va., Cajayon will unleash an army of mostly volunteers, and will have laid the groundwork with an advertising foray that combines traditional print and sometimes TV ads with a unique community awareness campaign.
And there's merchandising, always merchandising. Go to any "Debut" screening and you can buy a t-shirt, poster, nice-looking trade paperback of the script with details of the making of the film, and the soundtrack CD. The latter two items are even available on Amazon.com -- or even better, at http://www.debutfilm.com.
But even with all that success, Cajayon is having trouble getting this film picked up by a major home video label. He figured when "The Debut" began filling up the balance sheet, he wouldn't have to self-distribute the DVD too.
"This has been a unique, frustrating, heartwarming experience," Cajayon said. "If a little guy like me can come along and gross over a million dollars in L.A. and San Francisco alone -- and to do that with little or no advertising budget -- and the distributors still don't get it, that's just really unbelievable."
Cajayon said he has been getting "low-ball" offers from home video companies who are ignoring the box-office numbers because they may not know how to market such a specialized "Asian" film. But "The Debut" is colorfully filmed in English, with some hot hip-hop numbers and a positive message. It's been packing multiplexes, and Cajayon said that while his grass-roots efforts tap into his core audience -- Filipino Americans -- word-of-mouth and mostly positive reviews have brought a significant number from outside the community. Cajayon said that one-third of all tickets sold are being bought by non-Filipinos. Marketers would call that crossover appeal.
Most fascinating is the marketing efforts of Cajayon and his crew. The film took 10 years to make (if you count the script of a shorter version of this story, which Cajayon filmed as his thesis at Loyola Marymount film school). The movie was shot in 1997, and during the arduous postproduction Cajayon began compiling an e-mail database to keep the Filipino American communities informed. He now has more than 20,000 on that list.
When the film's release was imminent, Cajayon recruited "managers" -- either volunteers or lowly paid young people who were looking for experience in either filmmaking or marketing -- who were in charge of "regions." The managers would fan out to social organizations, churches, student groups and mom-and-pop stores to pass out flyers, hang posters and, of course, sign up people for the database well before the film's release. He also hired indie-savvy publicists, bought occasional TV time on small channels serving the Filipino communities in that area, and ponied up for small print ads in newspapers.
The result? The first week at AMC Kabuki, "The Debut" outdrew every other screen at that theater -- $30,000 in admissions. The film also spurred $15,000 in merchandising sales, which Cajayon credits as essential to the film's success.
It was the last four-walling he would have to do. He now has a rep, and splits with the house.
"Those t-shirts, books and posters really put us over the top," Cajayon said. "Without that, I couldn't have afforded another print, or to expand as much as we did."
When the larger San Francisco International Film Festival took over the Kabuki, "The Debut" was booted to another AMC multiplex, but it continued to thrive. And expand. Cajayon had extra prints struck from the original negative, but as the film grew around the Bay Area, he was able to afford to make an interpositive and now has his prints struck in the proper way.
So "The Debut" is set to continue it's theatrical odyssey in 2002, and Cajayon will keep showing his box-office figures to home video distributors. He dreams of a second film, but can't really think about that yet. One thing that humbles him, though, is an unexpected benefit to his first total film experience: He is causing others to dream. Cajayon said one of the most rewarding things about this gypsy-like journey is that several young Filipino Americans have been inspired to think out of the box.
"They see it's possible," Cajayon said. "Because after the film, they can meet and talk to real people who have done it, and the thing is, we're not much older than they are. We have heard stories about how kids are changing their majors, not just to film, but to something other than engineering or law. Film, journalism, the arts -- they've been inspired to consider something someone from that background would normally not even consider."