FUEL TOUR -- The Price of Exposure
by Anthony Kaufman
From the "Fuel Manifesto":
From an ad in Vanity Fair, above a picture of four attractive
twenty-somethings sitting on a couch, wearing loosely fitted pants in
similar shades of gray:
"DOCKERS (R) Khakis is sponsoring FUEL to help present the personal vision
and style of these young, inspired filmmakers, all of who, like DOCKERS (R)
Khakis, believe in independent thought. Who believe in themselves and their
vision. Who have something important and personal and unusual to tell us.
And so, we will listen."
And so they did. Audiences and media from 13 cities across the USA came out
to see what all the fuss was about in the traveling foursome of Dockers'
"young, inspired filmmakers." But as good-humored and preppy as they
appeared in their Dockers fashion spread, the Fuel Tour participants are
surely not smiling because of the money they received. So far, not one of
the directors has seen a dime of profit. But, money isn't everything, is
Financing a cinematic Lollapalooza is no easy task and credit should be
given where credit is do. Suzanne Myers, a founder of Fuel, originally came
up with the idea as an alternative means of distribution that many found
inspiring and bold. Yet, in this distribution model, money was not a prime
goal - audiences were.
To cover expenses Myers sought corporate sponsorship. At one point the
entire fate of the project was placed in jeopardy, following an
eleventh-hour pull-out by The Sundance Channel as the primary sponsor of
the tour. Organizers quickly re-grouped and secured the necessary
sponsorship funding, in this case The Independent Film Channel. Then, along
with Dockers, came Details, GQ, and Vanity Fair. "I thought they were
pretty generous for a first time venture," says Myers, "We sort of started
like you would with a movie. We had a minimum budget and then a higher more
cushy budget and it ended up being closer to our minimum budget; we were
actually pretty tight. What happened was they all came in at different
times giving a certain amount. We hoped to get more and more sponsors and
then by the end, we didn't get more."
One of the filmmakers who felt the brunt of the lack of funding was
writer/actor Steve Grant of CLC's "Delicate Art of the Rifle",
self-proclaimed "captain of the ship", who did much of the driving on the
tour. "Originally, everything was going to be paid for," Grant explains,
"We were going to receive payment for having gone on the trip. There was
going to be this king's ransom for a per diem, and over time, that became
reevaluated to where we got 20 bucks a day, which meant I wasn't starving,
but I couldn't go out and get drunk at night either." Although Grant
praises Myers for her efforts, he also felt that there could have been a
stronger push for more money. "Ask for the moon," says Grant, "If you get
cheese, well, you figure they're going to lowball you, so you should ask
for insane amounts of money."
The Dockers ad is case in point for Grant's dilemma. Fellow CLC member,
director D.W. Harper was flown from North Carolina to Los Angeles for the
Dockers ad photo shoot. Was the cost of producing and placing the
advertisement disproportionate when compared with the money the filmmakers
were given to operate the tour?
"Where is the money going?" asks Ruby Lerner of AIVF, the grassroots film
organization, speaking on the subject of sponsors, "Is the money going to
artists? Is the money going to promotion?" Lerner suggests that filmmakers
may have more leverage against big corporations than initially thought.
"Not enough of us are willing to say, okay, you want to spend $50,000 on
promotion, then you have to match that with X amount of money for artists'
It is generally accepted that sponsors are a necessary evil for any film
exhibition event, whether it be a start-up film festival or in this case, a
film tour, but Lerner offers this advice, "It would be healthier if we could
get more public support, more foundation support, so that the corporate support
is a piece of the package, but not wholly dependent on it. That's the shame about
the moment that we're in. There doesn't appear to be anywhere else to go to get
When one is dealing with corporate sponsors, there is always the risk of
companies forcing their agendas on to the event. For the filmmakers who
participated in Fuel, opinions differed on the amount of sponsor
interference that took place. While Grant said, "On the one hand, it was
uncomfortable, like I felt an obligation to get up there and go, 'Thanks
for all our great sponsors for putting on the tour!' and on the other hand,
the tour was possible because these people gave us all this money and on
the other hand, I'm driving around in a mini-van for $20 bucks a day."
Chris Smith, from "American Job" offered, "We made a film that we really
believed in and really wanted audiences to see and this was the opportunity
for that to happen. I was willing to do anything and everything that they
wanted me to do to publicize the tour."
Hannah Weyer, director of "Arresting Gena", felt the presence of sponsors'
agendas and promotions and noticed the sponsors "were very much on [the
tour manager] to do things on their behalf when she could have been there
for the filmmakers." Suzanne Myers, however, credits the sponsors for
giving a lot of additional support, for example, "Dockers printed up a lot
of stuff for us and IFC did a lot of dubbing and editing and made tapes for
us; they did a lot of in-kind stuff as well as giving us money."
In contrast, Grant says, "The sponsors honestly, in spreadsheet land, don't
give a shit about independent film. They're going, 'We have money. They
need money, but they're cool. We are not cool, but we have money. We can
trade cool for money and everybody wins.'" Did everybody win on the Fuel
Tour? If the purpose was to stir up publicity for the films, their crews
and Fuel itself, judging from the amount of press they received, Fuel did,
in fact, burn. Whether they carved out a new model for film distribution
that compensates the filmmaker remains to be seen.
"The four of us came together, and well, we can't get the million dollar
[distribution deal]," says Grant, "We can't even fucking break even, but
what we can get is exposure." And exposure they did get, screening to
numerous cities, and spreading the independent word to print and radio
outlets, including a prestigious spot on NPR. "I don't think American Job
would have ever got to 11 markets if it wasn't for the Fuel Tour," says
Chris Smith, one of the more satisfied in the bunch, "It also increases our
chances of getting better deals in other areas [video and foreign]."
The economic future of Fuel remains uncertain, but the spirit behind it is
just as strong as when it began. The filmmakers have not seen any
theatrical receipts and a video deal remains hanging, but the enthusiastic
response Fuel received in such places as Columbus, Ohio and Providence,
R.I. makes Myers and the rest confident that Fuel will happen again. Weyer,
the most reclusive director of the four, said, "You do these Q & A's with
people who are interested in art and that was really special. That was
really rewarding. It kind of gave me 'fuel' to keep doing this." Traveling
from city to city, Steve Grant perhaps ultimately sums up the benefit of
having taken part in Fuel: "I felt like a rock star." Maybe next time, this
star won't have to drive the bus.
[The Fuel tour opens in New York City tonight at The Screening Room. For more
information, visit the tour website at:
(December 18, 1996) Sundance Channel Derails "Fuel Tour"
(July 17, 1997) Groundbreaking Tour "Fuels" Indie Film Distribution