Tales of Self-Distribution: "Robot Stories," "Maestro," "The Gatekeeper," and "Superstar in a Housedress"
by Rania Richardson
The current crop of self-distributing filmmakers is zeroing in on target niche markets to develop audiences for their films. Charming and articulate, the filmmakers of "Robot Stories," "Maestro," "The Gatekeeper," and "Superstar in a Housedress" are presenting their works to their own specialized communities and reeling in additional viewers using extraordinary marketing efforts. But would they do it again? With the exception of "Maestro," theater bookings and some publicity functions for the films have been delegated to consultants, a factor that some might say would classify them as service deals, but the tireless work of these filmmakers has earned them the right to say they were front and center of the distribution of their films.
Writer/director Greg Pak spent a year taking his science fiction fables "Robot Stories," on the worldwide festival circuit, aware that he might someday self-distribute his film. He collected email addresses and built a database for a future marketing campaign. He also dealt with the press carefully, holding back on opportunities until the theatrical opening.
Pak courted the Asian American, sci-fi, and art house audiences as well those interested in technology and artificial life, through websites for those communities. Even marketing to comic book stores was part of the strategy. He emailed updates regarding the film to his fans or "Robot Buddies" as they are referred to in his blog (http://robotstories.net/blog), which includes cast and crew diaries. Pak hired Sasha Berman of Shotwell Media for theatrical booking and publicity. The film opened on one screen in New York with a gross of $11,806. "Niche people know to support a film on the first weekend," he told indieWIRE. Pak believes that the theatrical release will break even. It has grossed nearly $70,000 since its February 13 opening.
He has no regrets and says that his distribution work, "builds credibility for more jobs." Taking the film on the road put him in touch with useful film contacts. The experience has been rewarding, but he would prefer not to go through it again because he said it's just too exhausting.
The global dance music community is the subject of Josell Ramos' documentary, "Maestro," and that community is the market for the film as well. Ramos chose to go the route of self-distribution to stay in the underground mode of the musicians and DJs in the film. "If it went too commercial it wouldn't work. It would be messed up with a big branded company," he said.
Ramos began by playing the film in European film festivals and opening in some of the better art house theaters there. He created alliances with the European dance music communities and did print promotions with appropriate clubs. He collected good reviews and continued the process in the U.S. Paid parties included an open bar, screenings of film clips, and appearances by some of the featured musicians and DJs such as Danny Tenaglia and Francois K.
Theaters interested in booking the film find him through his own website (http://www.maestro-documentary.com) and Ramos sells "Maestro" t-shirts and posters on the site as well. When the film opened in New York on March 12 Josell did not run an ad in the New York Times, opting for just a small ad in the Village Voice. The opening weekend grossed $6,388 and the film has made under $30,000 to date. For his next project, Ramos would prefer a distributor on board. He may be working outside the system now, but says, "I'm not anti-establishment."
Theatrical distribution consultant, Richard Abramowitz, with his company Abramorama, has handled a number of films with the "self-distribution" label, including Neil Young's "Greendale," and "The Gatekeeper." He doesn't mind keeping his name out of the distribution credits saying, "I don't need to get famous." He noted that "The Gatekeeper" producer Jack Lorenz and Mexican-born writer/director John Carlos Frey put enormous energy into marketing the film, an English language fiction feature on the plight of migrant workers.
On April 23, 2003, the film opened in San Diego, where it was shot. That weekend the film grossed $5,400 at a downtown venue but only $2,000 at a theater in Chula Vista, a Latino community. According to Lorenz, "Recent immigrants go to mainstream films and want the American experience. Migrant workers send their money home. They don't spend money on going to the movies."
Lorenz and Frey found that their film appealed mostly to a socially conscious white audience and assimilated, educated Latinos. "It's a misnomer that you can market to the Latino market (as a whole). That market doesn't exist," he said, since the group is split by region, country of origin, and generation. After this realization, the filmmakers concentrated their efforts on city-by-city grassroots marketing to human rights and worker's rights organizations, turning opening night screenings into benefits. Immigration and human rights websites were linked on the film's website (http://www.gatekeeperfilm.com).
With each city they made enough money to open in the next one. In some cases, college screenings paid honorariums. The filmmakers think they will break even at the end of the run, but would they do it again? "No!" exclaimed Lorenz without hesitation, but then went on to qualify, " With more planning and more money, yes." The film will have made a over $300,000 when it concludes one year in theatrical release in a few weeks.
"Superstar in a Housedress"
Richard Abramowitz is involved with the upcoming, "Superstar in a Housedress," Craig Highberger's documentary about Jackie Curtis, a gender-bender performer from the 1960s. The film will open on May 5 in New York after playing at gay film festivals worldwide.
Before he completed the film, Cincinnati-based Highberger did extensive Internet research on gay, lesbian, transgender, and transvestite related websites around the world. He contacted them for links to his website (http://www.jackiecurtis.com). "I tried to think like a film publicist," he said and sent teaser note cards to potential distributors and theaters, including Karen Cooper at Film Forum, who was intrigued and booked the film for its opening.
According to Film Forum publicist and programmer, Mike Maggiore, Highberger created professional marketing materials and spearheaded the ad. His trailer, postcard, press kit, and press contacts were in shape months before they were required for long-lead press deadlines. Maggiore's words are high praise from an exhibitor with rigorous standards.
Highberger's labor is about to pay off. For a few years he has been working from 5 am to noon at an Internet-based training company and then spending the next several hours each day working on his film. "I want it so bad I can taste it, " he said of the theatrical release.