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by Anthony Kaufman
January 13, 2009 2:26 AM
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Not Picked Up in Park City? Filmmakers Look Forward to DIY Release Options

The scene at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Peter Knegt.

The year is 2014. Joe the Filmmaker just found out he's going to Sundance with his debut film. His trailer is online the next day. He's got posters at the printer, and a marketing consultant on the phone. In the days leading up to the festival, he hits up bloggers for press, notifies all his Facebook friends and buys ads both online and in print. After winning a special jury prize for innovation during the final day of the festival, he plugs his movie into the IDN (Indie Distribution Network), selling it directly to indie-minded audiences around the country for viewing on their Internet TVs and iPhones, while a percentage of the proceeds feed directly into his bank account. Done.

While we haven't exactly arrived at the above sci-fi scenario, there are established filmmakers who are already planning to bypass conventional distribution. Both Lance Hammer ("Ballast") and Randall Miller ("Bottle Rocket") say if they were to go to Sundance again, they wouldn't wait for a company to acquire their film, but use the festival as a launchpad for a do-it-yourself release.

Most filmmakers, however, still say they're going to Sundance with the hopes of a distribution deal. But now more than ever, they also have a backup plan if the acquisition dream doesn't become a reality.

"The bottom line is that the old model--let's go to Sundance and cross our fingers that someone is going to buy it--is ridiculous," says veteran publicist Cynthia Schwartz, whose firm 42West is repping 15 films at this year's festival and also consults on several DIY releases during the year. "Filmmakers have to take control. If they get a distributor, terrific. But if they don't, they have to have a Plan B. And for the first time at Sundance, I feel like people are getting that."

"Make your own plan. Create your own destiny," continues Schwartz. "That's really how things are going. Use the Sundance prestige to get your opening, not necessarily in February," she adds, "but maybe in April."

But distribution consultant Steven Raphael, who worked closely on Lance Hammer's release of "Ballast," says using Sundance as a platform is a good idea, in theory, but practically, it's far more challenging.

"Some people want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we haven't completely transitioned yet," he says. "You still have to use the old-school methods." If Joe found out about his Sundance acceptance in November, he'd have just a month to get everything in order, says Raphael. "Are your theaters booked? Are your posters ready? Is your media set? Consultants don't work on projects for four months just to get paid," he adds. "You need four months."

Veteran director Joe Berlinger, who famously self-distributed both his 1992 Sundance Audience Award winner "Brother's Keeper" and his 1996 Emmy-winner "Paradise Lost," says he's prepared to launch a DIY release of his latest Sundance entry, "Crude," a verite look at the infamous "Amazon Chernobyl" environmental lawsuit in Ecuador. "A film like this requires tender loving care and a specialty plan, but if a distributor doesn't think they can do that," says Berlinger, "I'd feel comfortable doing that myself."

Berlinger, who is repping the film himself, says that if he isn't close to a deal by the end of March, he'll start making plans for a summer or fall release. While he acknowledges the difficulties of the theatrical market for "a tough film," he says he has modest financial goals. "I'd be very satisfied to get in 10 to 15 cities, and we have some core constituencies that we can appeal to: There is a greatly underserved Spanish-speaking audience; there is a big and growing environmental audience."

Berlinger also wants to appeal directly to the college market. "A distributor may consider that an educational and not a legitimate theatrical market, but if I self-distribute, I'm going to put myself on a college circuit, where this film gets widely seen," he says. "And if that's the communal viewing experience that most people have seeing this movie, I'll be very satisfied."

Similarly, Kansas-based filmmaker Kevin Willmott, who directed 2004's "C.S.A: The Confederate States of America," which was a surprise hit for IFC Films, sees value in the college market in respect to his new Sundance entry "The Only Good Indian," a revisionist Western starring veteran Native actor Wes Studi. As a college professor at the University of Kansas, Willmott travels with his movies to colleges around the country. "All of that can be nurtured and developed and it can generate revenue," he says.

While Willmott is confident that "The Only Good Indian" will sell to a distributor, he also acknowledges the reality: "If you can't sell your film, you have to distribute yourself." To that end, Willmott says they've already started targeting those communities that would gravitate to the film's provocative subject matter, through radio and online interviews.

"If you run into difficulties selling your film or not, you have to connect with those people who will be interested in the film," he says. "Then it's just a matter of getting it to them."

Visit Films' Ryan Kampe, who is repping Ry Russo-Young's gritty NYC-set character portrait "You Won't Miss Me," says he's in no hurry for the film to reach its core U.S. ticket-buyers post-Sundance, instead planning to build word-of-mouth on the regional festival circuit. "This film has some legs," he says. "It's not just relevant at Sundance, but relevant for the entire year following Sundance."

Kampe admits that there may be a point when they discuss alternative options for releasing the film in U.S. art-houses. However, he adds, "I can't tell you whether it's three weeks after Sundance or six months after."

C Plus Pictures' Mike Landry and Carlos Velazquez will have waited more than a year to launch a DIY theatrical release of their Slamdance 2008 entry, "Frost," which they plan to 4-wall at Landmark's Sunshine Theatre in New York this spring. By then, they're hoping to apply what they learn from the experience to their latest Slamdance 2009 effort, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead" if it also goes unsold.

With sales agency Traction Media on board, the filmmakers say they'll consider partnering with the company on a limited theatrical release if they don't have a significant deal six months after their Park City premiere. "With digital rights becoming such a hot commodity and you don't know what's going to be next," says Velazquez, "you want to have as much control as possible. There's something empowering about that model."

And it doesn't work, adds Landry, "The only way we can learn is through trial and error."

TAGS: Features, DIY
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3 Comments

  • tolo87 | May 1, 2009 4:03 AMReply

    “Some people want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we haven’t completely transitioned yet,” he says. “You still have to use the old-school methods.” If Joe found out about his Sundance acceptance in November, he’d have just a month to get everything in order, says Raphael. “Are your theaters booked? Are your posters ready? Is your media set? Consultants don’t work on projects for four months just to get paid,” he adds. “You need four months.”

    Veteran director Joe Berlinger, who famously self-distributed both his 1992 Sundance Audience Award winner “Brother’s Keeper” and his 1996 Emmy-winner “Paradise Lost,” says he’s prepared to launch a DIY release of his latest Sundance entry, “Crude,” a verite look at the infamous “Amazon Chernobyl” environmental lawsuit in Ecuador. “A film like this requires tender loving care and a specialty plan, but if a distributor doesn’t think they can do that,” says Berlinger, “I’d feel comfortable doing that myself.”

    Berlinger, who is repping the film himself, says that if he isn’t close to a deal by the end of March, he’ll start making plans for a summer or fall release. While he acknowledges the difficulties of the theatrical market for “a tough film,” he says he has modest financial goals. “I’d be very satisfied to get in 10 to 15 cities, and we have some core constituencies that we can appeal to: There is a greatly underserved Spanish-speaking audience; there is a big and growing environmental audience.” Nice one. Mike

  • Alive Mind | January 18, 2009 2:34 AMReply

    Why wait for the year 2014? The scenario described by Anthony Kaufman is
    here now but with an unexpected twist.

    I agree that the days of traditional distribution are coming to an end as
    distributors face decreasing box ticket returns from theatrical releases and
    DVD sales and the promised pot of gold at the end of the proverbial digital
    rainbow remains a mirage. Sundance, and top tier and some emerging niche
    festivals, will remain key to generating recognition for independent films.
    But the days of large advances from an independent distributor who relies on
    DVD sales to recoup the theatrical cost from big box names, brick and mortar
    outlets and online sales are waning. DIY distribution is already here and
    is being successfully implemented... by a distributor.

    Lorber HT Digital, founded by Richard Lorber in 2007, has been quietly
    honing its distribution strategy using guerilla DIY distribution strategies
    for its new Alive Mind label. "Our mission is to deliver smart and
    stimulating work with the "aha" factor of a transformative experience"
    explains CEO & President Richard Lorber. We releases a high quality
    selection of documentary programming in the areas of enlightened
    consciousness, secular spirituality, women's issues and cultural change."

    The acquisition team at Lorber HT Digital looks for docs with built-in niche
    audiences which the filmmaker has already built, from non-profit
    organizations who might have contributed to the funding to political groups
    who support the film's message. The Lorber team then partners with the
    filmmaker to take the film beyond the initial core group through a
    semi-theatrical release to independent film theaters, such as Film Forum and
    the Roxie, to cultural centers and college and university theaters as well
    as grass roots outreach to community groups, who can easily be found online
    with new social networking sites such as BraveNewTheaters.

    At the same time, Alive Mind has built a network of review sources from
    online reviewers to traditional print to independent bloggers to generate
    general awareness of their films. Alive Mind's online strategy embraces
    niche audiences and organic cross-promtional opportunities. Alive Mind hosts
    their own communities in their four primary content areas, where the
    filmmakers and recognized writers publish content that attracts readers
    interested in the general themes of reason, spirituality, sex and women.

    Simultaneous to the semi-theatrical release, if appropriate the film is made
    available with public performance rights for several hundred dollars to
    colleges, universities and libraries. A current example is Glass: A Portrait
    of Philip in Twelve Parts that has been short-listed for an Academy Award.
    When it is broadcast later in the year on PBS, it will then be made
    available direct-to-consumer via Alive Mind and its affiliate network. And
    finally, the film will be released into retail through Koch Entertainment
    Distribution, whose customer network includes Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and
    traditional brick and mortar outlets.

    The key is the continued involvement of the filmmaker, who is a partner in
    the entire process. What Lorber brings to the table is the marketing
    knowledge and tools, a dedicated team that will take care of everything from
    building websites, servicing screenings to manufacturing DVDs and
    fulfillment, allowing the filmmaker to do what filmmakers do best: make
    their next film... while earning money from the distribution of their last
    one.

    Elizabeth Sheldon
    Vice President
    Lorber HT Digital

  • Mark Lipsky | January 14, 2009 2:30 AMReply

    There actually *is* a distribution company with a new idea. indieWIRE wrote about Gigantic Digital here: http://www.indiewire.com/article/gigantic_releasing_moves_indie_film_distribution_into_new_era/ Our next release, Morgan Dews' "Must Read After My Death," will open in February on screen in NY & LA (as well as a few other markets) and day-and-date nationally via Gigantic Digital. In other words, this is a first-run film that will be accessible to a couple of hundred million more moviegoers than any 3000 screen studio release.

    Yes, there's the issue of how folks will know it's playing on Gigantic Digital and we're working our asses off addressing that with the media. Our basic argument is a comparison with an office worker who happens to be telecommuting rather than working from their cube. The work they do from home is no less valuable than the work they do from the office. Same concept. If a new, first-run film happens to open online in Dallas or Seattle or Boston rather than in a bricks and mortar theater, why wouldn't the local media alert their readers, viewers and listeners to its 'local' premiere? Especially when the streaming quality is as good as it gets, when the presentation is commercial-free and when the ticket price is just $2.99 for 3-day unlimited viewing. Why not review it and write a feature about it if they like it?

    It's a harder sell right now than it should be but we're fighting that fight. We're actually doing something about the awful state of things rather than just talking about it. Will it work? Yes. In February 2009? Maybe. I hope so. I hope we're only a tiny bit ahead of the curve rather than way ahead. But this *is* the future for independent films. You know, films by directors who aren't household names. Films without movie stars. Films without millions in studio (or studio-lite) dollars behind them. Films in a language other than English. Films that would otherwise never be seen by anyone in today's (and tomorrow's) onerous theatrical environment. Our success will be your success. Pray for us.

    OK, maybe just wish us well.