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At A Weekend Forum, Considering The Challenges of Film Distribution Today

At A Weekend Forum, Considering The Challenges of Film Distribution Today

Democracy is coming to the world of independent film. Soon, people wanting to see whatever specialty film they want whenever they want it will no longer be dependent on distributors and exhibitors to set their agenda. And struggling filmmakers will benefit by finding more outlets for their work. That observation by Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for the Netflix subscription-rental DVD service, was one revelation of a Saturday forum in Los Angeles called “Sell Your Film Without Getting Screwed!,” sponsored for filmmakers by the nonprofit Film Independent organization (formerly was known as IFP/Los Angeles).

And while the Internet and new technologies such as the video iPod have a lot to do with that vision of change, a key reason may be the much-less-hi-tech demand for gourmet coffees – the Starbucks-on-every-corner revolution. Many of those Starbucks carry The New York Times, which on Friday reviews every new film opening in New York, however limited its distribution or advertising budget.

“People from all over the country read a New York Times review now – they get the newspaper at their Starbucks,” Sarandos said. “They know a (small) film will never play in their town, so they put it in their Netflix request cue right now.” That creates instant demand and a growing, impatient market.

Sarandos’ comments – coming during a panel on “It’s Not Over Your Head: Sales Contracts and Revenue Streams” – carried weight because he also said Netflix is now reaching a larger audience for some specialty releases than theatrical distribution does.

He said his company now has 3.2 million subscribers, is growing fourfold and that its membership demographics correspond with those of art-house movies: about 55% female, college-educated, $75,000 annual income, evenly split between married and single, and 50% of its married members have children at home. And they are curious about well-reviewed independent movies that do well at festivals and major cities but don’t get timely or national releases.

To meet demand, he’s acquiring 6,000 titles a year and has even bought 70 films directly from filmmakers so far this year. Additionally, Netflix is starting to finance and produce indie films, to build a catalogue when it begins delivering films via the Internet. As of now, his contracts with studios would prevent delivery of many of their higher-profile films via such technology.

Because of these changes, he sees the window between theatrical release and other sources – DVD, cable, downloads – steadily narrowing for specialty films. “When it gets down to four weeks, maybe there won’t even be much of a discussion about it anymore.”

After his panel, Sarandos was besieged by filmmakers handing him their cards or wanting his. He was like a movie star signing autographs.

On numerous Saturday panels – some closed to the press so participants could speak more openly – filmmakers, agents, studio attorneys, publicists, producers and consultants talked about how independent filmmakers could get a movie effectively distributed and seen by an audience. Some 200 people jammed a lecture room at the UCLA Hammer Museum for the day-long event.

It was especially insightful because Film Independent moderators pushed panel participants for hard numbers and specific examples. For instance, Michael Lawson of the mPRm film-publicity firm revealed his firm charges filmmakers $10,000 – $15,000 to handle a film in competition at Sundance; $7,500 for American Spectrum entries.

Cassian Elwes, an agent for William Morris Agency, said his firm charges a 5% commission on indie films it sells to distributors. John Sloss of rival Cinetic Media acknowledged he charges more because his firm can do legal work. “We’re thinking a lot about charging more,” Elwes said. “Anyone from the Justice Department here,” Sloss nervously joked.

Although two morning panels, “Friends and Enemies: How to Tell Them Apart” and “Creating a Buzz: Nobody Will See It If They Don’t Know About It,” were off-the-record, Film Independent distributed case studies about films under discussion that were full of juicy tidbits.

For instance, after Sony Pictures Classics purchased Greg Harrison‘s $485,000 rave-oriented “Groove” at Sundance for $1.5 million, its lawyers determined Harrison’s contracts with cast, crew and musicians needed to be renegotiated. He spent $100,000 of his advance on that because they wanted more money. While the 2000 release grossed only $1.2 million at the box office and Sony has only broken even to date, the filmmakers realized a 61% profit.

Meanwhile, Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski sold their Oscar-winning 2004 documentary “Born into Brothels” to HBO before it was accepted into Sundance. HBO paid between $150,000-$250,000 for a two-year cable-broadcast license. After Sundance, ThinkFilm paid under $50,000 for domestic release, but the filmmakers spent all of that creating a 35-millimeter print. They also raised $60,000 to help the distributor purchase newspaper ads. The film grossed $3.5 million.

The three panels that were open to the press had plenty of spirited tete-a-tete, especially the “Your Film: Who Sees It and When,” one which included Elwes, Sloss and Richard Klubeck of United Talent Agency (as well as Lawson and others) trading stories, secrets and jokes.

Mostly, they talked about how to build interest and sell a Sundance accepted film to a distributor – something they all have experience in. “I’ve seen hype kill as many films as lack of quality – which is also a bad thing,” Sloss said. “Create as low expectations as possible while getting people into theaters (at initial screenings).”

Elwes identified a key source of early hype – overblown praise written in film-festival catalogues. “Festival programmers mean well, but they get excited about a movie and write this festival hyperbole,” he said.

They also cautioned that upfront money offered by a distributor isn’t as important as a commitment that the film will be enthusiastically released and supported. A film that flops can harm a career.

Elwes recounted the sad tale of 1999’s “Happy, Texas,” which Miramax Films bought from producer/director Mark Illsley for $10 million at Sundance and then lost faith in. “The problem with that situation was once they bought the movie they started testing it and got scared of the subject matter,” he said. “It had a gay theme running through it. They talked themselves out of it.”

The final seminar, “Do It Your Own Damned Self: An Insider’s Guide to Alternative Distribution,” offered some examples of how the Internet’s access to affinity groups can help filmmakers self- distribute niche films.

Lisa Onodera, the producer of the “The Debut,” a self-distributed movie about a Filipino-American family, borrowed a technique she learned from African-American films – sending E-mails to likely supporters to get them the theater on opening weekend. Since she was renegotiating for space with theaters on a week-to-week basis, a good first weekend was crucial for extending bookings.

It took several years, but her movie slowly earned $2 million theatrically and Columbia Tristar released it on video. “Now I get two or three E-mails a week from First Weekenders Clubs, usually Asian-Pacificers,” she said.

She cautioned this route is hard work, especially while waiting for the box-office revenue to trickle down from theaters. “You must be tireless,” she said.

But the panel’s moderator, Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting, encouraged passionate filmmakers to make the effort to self-distribute. “Remember, Hollywood is our friend because for the most part Hollywood is making content-free movies. So go for it!”

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