PBS, IndieFlix, Wellspring and Fox Searchlight; Sundance Channel, Truly Indie, IFC and Palm; the Weinsteins, Lions Gate, ThinkFilm and iPod -- there's never been so many outlets for the distribution of independent films. And yet, there's never been more independent films trying to find a home, from billionaire-bankrolled star-studded features to no-budget digital undies to foreign auteur-driven oddities -- all of which still fall through the cracks.
Since 1998, indieWIRE has issued its annual list of best undistributed films as a way of giving worthy pictures added exposure and nudging acquisitive execs to give these films a second look. But never did the publication expect it would have a hand in distribution. Together with the digital cinema network Emerging Pictures, indieWIRE is launching the "Undiscovered Gems" Film Festival in nine cities.
[Six films from 2004's list -- David Flamholc's "House of the Tiger King," Bryan Poyser's "Dear Pillow," Jonathan Stack's "Liberia: An Uncivil War," Jessica Hausner's "Hotel," Alain Guiraudie's "No Rest for the Brave," and honorable mention, Celesta Davis' "Awful Normal" -- and one film from 2003's list, Jesse Moss's "Speedo," will play in the festival.
Participating filmmakers share in a percentage of the adjusted box office gross, but few of them are actually planning to get any money out of the series. As Jesse Moss says, "Frankly, my goals are very realistic. I was attracted to the possibility of presenting the film to a theatrical audience in the company of some other good films."
And getting theatrical distribution is no easy feat in today's competitive and crowded marketplace. Each film reflects the myriad, growing challenges that smaller films have getting out into the world -- and in a way that makes financial sense.
On Wednesday, the series opens at New York's IFC Center with "House of the Tiger King," which premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival. A strange journey in search of the lost city of the Incas, the documentary-like feature humorously degenerates from adventure travelogue to utter chaos. Swedish-born director Flamholc says the film initially generated several queries from distributors after its film fest screenings around the world and appearing on indieWIRE's undistributed list. But "unfortunately," he explains, "they all shrunk back after seeing it. They generally feel it is great, but that it is too hard to market it for a wide enough audience."
Flamholc disagrees. He's currently in talks with a new New York-based company who won't offer money upfront, but will market and launch the film simultaneously on DVD and in art house theaters. "But so far all rights are still available for North America and we are always hoping something will come up during the present run with Emerging Pictures," he says.
"Distribution is hard everywhere at the moment," he adds. "Maybe this is a signal that a new structure will emerge with the development of digital screenings and the Internet."
Bryan Poyser has brought "Dear Pillow," his unsettling feature debut about a teenager's friendship with an older man, to 30 film festivals around the world, from Edinburgh to Slamdance to Atlanta, where it won the grand jury prize. But like Flamholc, Poysner has not yet found the right "fit," he says: "a company that is passionate about the movie and can provide much more in terms of distribution than we could do on our own with a little bit of capital."
Not satisfied with the offers on the table, Poysner already self-distributed the film at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse Theater in September 2004. The film played for three weeks and grossed several thousand dollars -- "actually about as much as it cost to shoot the film," he says.
The team hasn't given up on further distribution options, but Poysner says he and "Dear Pillow's" producer, cinematographer and editor Jacob Vaughan are focusing their energies on a new film "The Cassidy Kids," which is the second project from Austin-based Burnt Orange Productions. "Though we have not yet found distribution for 'Dear Pillow,' its success directly led to getting 'The Cassidy Kids' made," he says. And this time out, "there was enough of a budget for both Jake and I to quit our day-jobs."
A similar fate befell Jesse Moss. "Speedo," his entertaining and poignant documentary about demolition derby competitor Ed "Speedo" Jager, never got a theatrical release, playing only on POV. ("I was happy about that choice," he says, preferring the wide audience of PBS to a niche cable audience.) But as for the film's theatrical prospects, there were ultimately "no takers," he says. "I imagine it needed the imprimatur of Sundance, which it didn't have, or an immediate appeal to the core documentary constituency," he adds, "given that it wasn't about kids or animals."
Still, Moss has leveraged the favorable reviews and affectionate story of "Speedo" to transition into bigger things. In the last year, Warner Bros. optioned the rights to develop a big screen version of "Speedo," and Moss is involved as a co-producer. "Funny that a major Hollywood studio would see its theatrical potential," he says, "but a documentary distributor wouldn't." Maybe after the Hollywood version is produced (Adam Sandler as Jager?), Moss's doc version, he suggests, might "conceivably break even."
Jonathan Stack's "Liberia: An Uncivil War" faced another obstacle. Stymied by commitments to cable financier and distributor, Discovery Times, Stack (co-director of the Oscar-nominated "The Farm") never saw his riveting documentary play in theaters. "Discovery Times nixed a theatrical release, they nixed a festival run and there was no distribution," says Stack. "I completed the film in June 2004 -- months late in fairness to them -- and they were eager to get it out." The movie was broadcast on the small network in mid-August, received positive reviews, and received invitations from film festivals and celebrity endorsements as well as a distributor, California Newsreel, willing to take it out. But "without a real [theatrical] window, I simply had to let go," says Stack. "Such is life."
Celesta Davis's "Awful Normal," a disturbing documentary about the director confronting the man who molested her and her sister, is currently unattached to either a broadcast or theatrical distributor, but is being released on DVD by Cinequest Online, a new independent film label started by the Cinequest Film Festival where the movie premiered and won Best Documentary.
While she's still hoping for a TV deal, Davis says the Emerging Pictures release is the "ideal theatrical situation," she says. "Because it's a more intimate film, I don't see it doing a traditional theatrical run."
The festival's two foreign-language narrative features, Hausner's "Hotel" and Guiraudie's "No Rest for the Brave," face the debilitating stigmas of being in languages other than English and defying predictable marketing descriptions. Both genre-benders and Cannes premieres, "Hotel" combines suspense and horror into a minimalist psychodrama, and "No Rest for the Brave" has been called "a volatile shape-shifter that utterly defies taxonomy." Foreign sales agent The CoProduction Office, handling both films, managed to sell DVD rights for "No Rest for the Brave" to TLA Video (and the film is currently available at www.tlavideo.com). But Emerging Pictures' partnership with indieWIRE may be the last time you'll get to see it -- or any of the films in the series -- on the wide, wonderful screen of a movie theater.
The indieWIRE Undiscovered Gems Film Festival will be screening in the following cities and venues in November:
Champaign, IL: November 14-December 5 Boardman's Art Theater
Ft. Lauderdale, FL: November 7-13 Cinema Paradiso
Lake Worth, FL: November 7-10 Duncan Theater
Lincoln, NE: November 11-23 Mary Riepma Ross Theater
New York City: November 9-15 IFC Center
Red Bank, NJ: November 19-20 Count Basie Theater
San Francisco, CA: November 12-17 Roxie Theater
Scranton, PA: November 10-13 Scranton Cultural Center
Wilmington, DE: November 11-13 Theatre N at Nemours
For more information please visit the the Emerging Pictures website here.