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Exclusive: What Happens When Your Distributor Goes Bankrupt? Why 'Gun Hill Road' is Now Finally on DVD

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com March 7, 2013 at 10:6AM

In the past few years, the indie community has seen the effects of distributors going under. Most notably, there was Regent Releasing, whose library of more than 100 films recently became tied up in courts owing to the company going out of business. Some of Regent's films were older titles whose home video distribution was up in the air; others, like Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother" had not even done a theatrical run before the case came up. (This month, Dolan's film, which was recently acquired by Kino Lorber, will do a week long run at the MoMA.) After Indomina announced that it would stop distributing films, the future of Sundance film "Filly Brown" is uncertain. This week, though, another film whose distributor filed for bankruptcy, will be released on DVD and VOD for the first time to U.S. audiences.
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An image from "Gun Hill Road."

In the past few years, the indie community has seen the effects of distributors going under.  Most notably, there was Regent Releasing, whose library of more than 100 films recently became tied up in courts owing to the company going out of business.  Some of Regent's films were older titles whose home video distribution was up in the air; others, like Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother" had not even done a theatrical run before the case came up. (This month, Dolan's film, which was recently acquired by Kino Lorber, will do a week long run at the MoMA.) After Indomina announced that it would stop distributing films, the future of Sundance film "Filly Brown" is uncertain. This week, though, another film whose distributor filed for bankruptcy, will be released on DVD and VOD for the first time to U.S. audiences.

Rashaad Ernesto Green's "Gun Hill Road" tells the story of a young transwoman (Harmony Santana) in the process of transitioning and coming out, whose father (Esai Morales) has just come home from a stint in prison.  The film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to screen at several other film festivals.  This writer programmed it as the Closing Night film of the 2011 NewFest: New York's LGBT Film Festival.

The worldwide rights to the film were acquired by Motion Film Group, a distribution outfit started by financier Fotis Georgiadis, who was involved with the financing of the films "Hounddog" and "Twelve," at the time of the "Gun Hill Road" acquisition.  In the press release for the pick-up, it was announced that the deal for the rights to the film was seven figures.  Several months later, the Motion Film Group filed for bankruptcy and the film and money were tied up in court. 

Following the film's festival run, the film came out in over twenty cities.  Its New York debut, boosted by Green's robust grassroots local campaign, led the film to an excellent opening weekend (that week's box office report here).  As Green recounted the opening, "It was a great time for us, especially in New York.  We didn't have a lot of money for P&A [prints and advertising].  My brother and I especially and also the distribution company pulled their resources into advertising in New York so the film could catch fire and spread.

"I was in AMC on a daily basis, trying to get them to play the trailer, have good visibility for the poster.  Same with Angelika.  We used Facebook and Twitter to get the word out.  We did grow this groundswell.  It was a wonderful opening weekend in New York.  At the Angelika, we beat out Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' Friday and Saturday."

But the film's success in New York didn't translate to other markets, from which the filmmaker and his team were geographically removed.  

"That fall," Green recounted, "the distribution company was not able to pay its minimum guarantee.  They filed for bankruptcy.  It just held up the film.  We've been able to do a small screening here and there.  The film kind of died for a long while.  It just kind of laid there.  People would ask about the DVD, and we would just say keep your fingers crossed, and we'll have word soon.  It was a bit of a disappointing blow.  It was not necessarily the biggest surprise in the world."

Rashaad Ernesto Green

But there are certain things that going with Motion Film Group made possible that Green thinks wouldn't have been possible otherwise.  "That's the chance that you take when you go with an unproven distributor," Green continued.  "Their energy was higher than any other offer we had at the time.  I'm glad they took a risk on us.  With the subject matter of the film, it wasn't necessarily something that would guarantee them getting a return on the film.  The distributor's money got tied up in some other thing outside of their control.  As a result, it got tied up in court."

"There was a level of dread that came across the producers, knowing that once it's in the courts, it can take months and years, they didn't know how long it would take.  They didn't know how long it would take to fight the battle. Everybody moves onto their next project, including myself.  Because it was my baby, I kept on checking on it to make sure no one forgot about it."

As Green's directing career continued (he's now working on some TV projects), the fight for the film continued on.  The "Gun Hill Road" team cycled through a couple of attorneys once the distributor went into bankruptcy.  Attorneys need to show up at hearings that often get delayed, and not all attorneys are available to go through these motions.  Eventually though, about seven months after going into the courts, Green got his rights back.  

They won back our rights a few months ago, and right away Virgil was eager to pick it up and bring it to the next step in the process.

"Gun Hill Road" is now available on DVD from Virgil Films and on the following VOD platforms:  Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Cinema Now/Best Buy, Vudu/Wal-Mart, Netflix, iTunes, Film Fresh, and Midwest Tape/Hoopla.

This article is related to: Gun Hill Road, Virgil Films, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution