Talking Indie Biz at Avignon/New York Festival
by Rania Richardson
The Avignon/New York Film Festival concluded its 10th-annual New York event in New York recently. In addition to French and American independent film screenings, there were a number of industry panels, including "Indie Wars: The Art of Marketing & Distribution." Moderated by CAVU Pictures distribution head, Isil Bagdadi, the panel of New York based industry execs consisted of Bill Thompson of Newmarket Films, Jeanne Berney of The Berney Group, Ed Arentz of Cinema Village and Empire Pictures, Richard Abramowitz of Abramorama, and Jeremy Workman of Workshop Industries. The panel discussed a number of topics on independent film distribution, running the gamut from the initial release to sustaining publicity.
In response to the question of theater selection, Thompson said that it's seldom the case of going with the "best" theater for a film. More often there are political considerations and the best relationship with an exhibitor. Of course, theater availability is the primary consideration.
Arentz added that he held the Russian drama "The Return" for an 11-week stretch at Cinema Village, partly because he personally liked the film. "That factor would not come into play in a circuit," he said, referring to the personal nature of some art houses.
On the determination of release dates, Thompson said, "It depends on when the film is ready and if it will be saved for the holidays or summer. We follow everyone else's release dates. They change all the time and have a domino effect on other films."
How to market a small film cheaply was a key issue. "If you don't have money for ads, you need editorial with the right publicist. I count on Jeanne [Berney] to help me position a film," Abramowitz said, teasing his fellow panelist.
Workman brought up that the Internet was the great financial equalizer. "You can get an independent trailer out in the same places as 'Spider-Man 2,'" he said. "Get your trailer out as early as possible," said Arentz. At Cinema Village, the trailer for the Turkish drama "Distant" was up for two months because the release date kept getting pushed back. The film did well, and the longer run for the trailer probably helped.
The panel discussed the growing trend of hands-on independent producers. "We are now working in concert with producers to market films," said Berney, "They're very smart and they play a huge roll in promotion." Workman said he had worked on some studio jobs where the contract stated that the producer would have no input on the trailer. With recent independent films, he found that producers often give input.
Workman's trailers for "The Eye," "Russian Ark," and "The Holy Land" were screened and discussed.
When the panel was asked to name the most difficult part of film marketing, Arentz expressed frustration with critics who kill small films that rely heavily on reviews. The panel conferred that The New York Times dominates the arena. "I have the highest esteem for The New York Times' film critics," Abramowitz said half-jokingly, revealing how dependent he and his colleagues are on that newspaper's reviews.
Thompson praised The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane for championing the difficult Swedish film, "Lilja 4-ever." Berney agreed that the British-born Lane was a visionary critic, and cited Elvis Mitchell for his pop cultural references.
Countering the notion that a big opening weekend is the key to success, Berney said, "If you have a good movie, you can build and continue to build on it." As the publicist for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," she described the evolving strategy as the film grew. For example, even though the film opened in April, leading lady Nia Vardalos didn't start doing publicity until June.
When one critic's interest was piqued by his mother's rave review of the film, Berney declined his request for a video cassette and instead comped him at a regular screening at the Beekman Theatre, where the wide audience for the film would be evident by "walkers on one side and skateboards on the other."
Because of the surprise hit, Workman's clients began to mandate that he make his trailers more like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." "Even if they had a gay coming of age film, a thriller, a foreign language film, they tried to go mainstream," he said, "and when they did that, they failed."
The panel agreed that film marketing is elusive by nature. Berney said, "You try to do everything right...and then there are the movie gods. The fact that there has to be a panel on this subject shows that there is no one way to do it."
The transatlantic Avignon/New York Film Festival will have its companion event in Avignon, France from June 23 to 27.