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FLIXTOUR Winds Down after Wobbly Beginnings

FLIXTOUR Winds Down after Wobbly Beginnings

FLIXTOUR Winds Down after Wobbly Beginnings

by Anthony Kaufman

“The best way I learn is fucking up,” says Tom McPhee, the organizer
behind FLIXTOUR, the traveling college exhibition tour, whose Spring
shudders are closing up today at the University of Virginia. It’s not
the most heartening phrase to hear from one of the people responsible
for the “proliferation of independent cinema,” as his personal mission
statement declares. But McPhee’s FLIXTOUR still proves, despite the
requisite start-up SNAFUs, that alternative distribution is possible,
economically feasible, and an important and viable option for indie

The Spring FLIXTOUR tour began after a less than breakout kickoff at the
Sundance film festival in January. On board for the tour were Karl
Hirsch’s “Green” (aka “Whatever”), Lee Skaife and Loch Phillips’ “Use
Your Head
,” Tom LeGros’ “Guinea Men,” Vincent Pereira’s “A Better Place
and a number of short films (shown only on beta). They began their
continental journey with McPhee taking the proverbial wheel along
with a hefty group of partners and sponsors: their booker, The Auburn
Moon Agency
, law firm Rudolph & Beer LLP, Event Marketing Communications,
Impact Interactive, Harvest Music & Sound Design and other ubiquitous
sponsors like Short Cinema Journal, Movieline and MovieMaker magazines.

Although they spent “a lot of money going to Sundance,” says McPhee,
there was little of the press attention they had hoped for in a launch
event. “I went in with low expectations,” he explains. “We did not
drive for more serious goals. We should have screened one of the films
each night and we should have worked harder with Movieline, selling
FLIXTOUR as part of their ad package.” Filmmaker Tom Legros’
experience mirrors McPhee’s: “I don’t think the goals were that high in
the first place,” he continues, “to get out there and exploit the media
as much as we could and unfortunately, that ‘much as we could’ was not
very much.”

“I think the excursion to Sundance really made them step back and
realize how big FLIXTOUR was,” Karl Hirsch claims, “and how unprepared
FLIXTOUR was in handling itself. All sorts of things went wrong in Park
City. It was incredibly frustrating.” So instead of a glitzy opening,
the four directors got to meet each other in a snowy setting and that
was about it. LeGros also notes that not screening at Sundance was like
“pouring salt in an open wound,” but still he “was just glad to be there to
see how things work,” concluding, “so I don’t think it was a waste of
time at all.” And although Vincent Pereira experienced a lack of faith
at the Park City debut, saying that “things didn’t quite come together
as they should have,” he admits, “since then, I got a nice handful of
dates. And ultimately that’s what matters, not going to Sundance and
meeting the press.”

And so they went on the road. With approximately 90 total screenings
at 40 campuses, FLIXTOUR became a large film event on
colleges and universities across the country. And with gross sales to
date having reached $224,650 (including sponsorships, submission fees,
school contracts, independent theater and extra bookings), McPhee has
broken even, no longer providing capital from his own company (First
Light Contemporary Releasing
). McPhee already gearing up for a Fall
opener at this September’s IFFM and readying himself for the onslaught
of submissions that begins May 1 (The deadline is July 31). McPhee
expects next season’s tour to include roughly two and half times the
number of bookings as the Spring tour.

But what about success for the Spring filmmakers? Directors received
$250 per screening with a maximum of $750 per week (not including
independent venues where they receive 25% of the gross; for example,
Loch Phillipps was able to book a week at a local arthouse in Charleston
because of a successful college screening.) They received free flights,
a modest $20 per diem and accommodations were usually provided by the
colleges. Essentially a traveling film festival, the directors are not selling
their films to FLIXTOUR; they are simply lending them for a few-month,
mildly-lucrative period. Mark Edgington, the director of one of the
shorts (which receive a flat flee of $15 per month), says, “With
FLIXTOUR paying us an honorarium per screening, it’s a no-brainer. Even
if the honorarium isn’t much, it’s sort of the thought that counts.”

Filmmaker’s opinions of the tour screenings have been widely divergent,
but early on, many complained of small audiences. Perhaps
a result of the same lack of advertising that plagued their
Sundance launch or just simply bad scheduling (Phillipps’s
screening at Wilmington College, North Carolina was held the night of the
big Duke/North Carolina rivalry game). At the beginning of the tour,
Vincent Pereira complained, “They were pretty sparsely attended,” but
then later added, “In general, I was pretty happy with my turnouts,”
citing an average of about 50-70, with a few more widely positive
exceptions at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Point Park,
Pittsburgh. Phillipps and filmmaking partner, Skaife, also experienced
small audiences although one of their last dates at the North Carolina
School of the Arts did prove to be “fairly well attended” with
“projection that was beautiful,” despite the fact that “the advertising
was late to go up and not entirely pervasive across the campus.” Karl
Hirsch’s few screenings at San Francisco’s The Casting Couch had
turnouts that he described as “exceedingly small,” (only 5 people showed
up the first night) but Hirsch puts the blame not on FLIXTOUR’s lack of
advertising, but on the “the actual venue [which] is a weird one in a
strange part of town, and, quite frankly, no one knew about it.”

The support for the FLIXTOUR “idea” is overwhelming as those involved
tackle the untapped treasure of the college market while expanding
distribution alternatives. Theaters are also taking note — the Texas-based
Cinemark Theaters chain is showing interest in carrying the tour.
While none of the films in FLIXTOUR are pretending to be
mainstream-independent fare, they are on the fringe and that’s what
makes FLIXTOUR unique. “If it remains committed to a certain kind of
films, edgier films,” Phillipps and Skaife maintain, “it will succeed.
It has to establish a reputation for itself and that reputation is dependent
on every film on the tour — especially during the first few years,” say
Phillipps and Skaife. “FLIXTOUR has to establish itself as a brand so that
people will go to the films because they’re FLIXTOUR films.”

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