Back in 2008, Alex Rivera’s “Sleep Dealer” had the kind of premiere at the Sundance Film Festival that most filmmakers only dream of. Critics gushed about the Rivera’s debut feature, the story of Memo Cruz who struggles against a brave new border. Indiewire called the sci-fi thriller, set in Mexico in the near future, “a fantastic journey.”
Rivera won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and Alfred P. Sloan Award and “Sleep Dealer” was acquired by a small distributor called Maya Entertainment. Things seemed to be going swimmingly until the theatrical release disappointed and Maya Entertainment went out of business.
Rivera hired a legal team and was able to buy the film back. But how do you go about distributing a film that’s six years old and was previously distributed? Through social media and a grassroots efforts, Sundance Institute Artist Services signed on to distribute “Sleep Dealer” digitally via a variety of platforms and storefronts. Indiewire recently interviewed Rivera about the process of getting his labor of love back out into the world.
What was the back story of the film? How did you get funding initially?
This is one of those projects that’s a labor of insane love. It took about 10 years to get the film made from having the first idea to premiering at Sundance. During that decade, it was supported by a lot of arts institutions, but most heavily by the Sundance Institute. It went through the lab in 2001 and premiered at Sundance in 2008 where we won a few awards.
So you would think you’d be set after that, right?
Of course, that was the year that the film industry started to transform or come apart at the seams. There were a lot fewer distributors in the market all of the sudden, so we sold the film called Maya Entertainment, which was a new company focused on Latina entertainment. In a lot of ways, it was a traditional indie model. The film was financed by private equity, we took it to Sundance with the hopes of selling it and recouping our investment. We sold it and the distributor took it out to theaters in 2009. It just didn’t really connect with its audience. Maybe it wasn’t handled correctly. One way or another, it wasn’t a theatrical release that connected with audiences. Then, a few years later, that distributor went out of business.
Ugh. So what did that mean for the film?
When a film company goes out of business, everything from the chairs on the office floor to the films in their catalogue become assets. I know so many filmmakers who lost their films down a black hole when a film company goes out of business. It was a frightening situation because this film had 10 years of my life in it as well as the support and help as countless other people and institutions who backed it. We fought really hard — we had good lawyers and a couple of good lawyers to help us get the rights to the film back.
Then once you got the rights back, how did you find a distributor?
I actually posted on Facebook: does anybody want to distribute this film?
Really? That’s a novel approach. Did you get an immediate response.
The folks from Sundance Artist Services called me up and said ‘we’ve got this new initiative which would be perfect because it’s an already negotiated digital pipeline available for all films that went through Sundance.’ With their prominence in the indie marketplace they’ve set up a deal with an aggregate called Cinedigm so that when the films go out they’re branded as Sundance, but they’re going from Cinedigm to the market. It’s a huge change in the history of film festivals as well as in the history of film distribution for a festival to become a distributor.
What’s the upside about working with Sundance on the digital release?
The beautiful thing about Sundance Artist Services is they’ve already made the deals. You don’t need to negotiate with anyone. All you need to do is deliver the film. It’s simple and beautiful. The only challenge is they don’t have money the way a normal distributor would to do things like make art, make a trailer to spend on advertising, etc.
I know you did a crowdfunding campaign to help raise funds for the re-release. How did that work?
I did a small crowdfund around the re-release of the film to pay for some of the costs of doing this. The crowdfund went out with my network. Van Jones, who is the host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” heard about the re-release on Twitter and reached out to me. He told me he loves the film and sees it as politically important. He’s been helping to organize this innovative campaign with hundreds of grassroots organizations that are pushing the films out to their membership. Bizarrely and wildly, through social media, I found a new distributor, as well as a high profile campaign partner.
How has the industry changed since the film premiered in 2008?
The landscape is shifting in multiple ways simultaneously. It’s definitely true that these network platforms like Facebook and Twitter are so much more robust than they were in 2008 and that does open a world of possibilities – I was able to find a distributor and a campaign partner as well as an audience itself through these networks. But the landscape has also shifted where the old fashioned networks where an indie filmmaker could dream of selling their film at a profit – those systems have shrunken dramatically. There’s hope – and then there’s some despair.
Find out more about “Sleep Dealer” and watch the trailer here.