“Ballast” Steadies Course Alone: Sundance Winner Chooses Self-Distribution

"Ballast" Steadies Course Alone: Sundance Winner Chooses Self-Distribution
"Ballast" Steadies Course Alone: Sundance Winner Chooses Self-Distribution

Lance Hammer is going solo, of sorts, with his 2008 Sundance stunner “Ballast.” The producer-director-writer, whose powerful debut wowed critics at January’s prestigious Park City festival and won prizes for best director and cinematography, pulled out of a distribution deal with IFC Films in order to retain rights to the movie himself. Now the film’s production entity, Alluvial Film Company, along with Steven Raphael‘s Required Viewing, will release “Ballast” at New York’s Film Forum on October 1, followed by a national rollout.

“IFC is a really good company,” Hammer told indieWIRE last week. “The problem is the larger issue that’s plaguing every filmmaker right now: The distributors don’t really offer any money. That’s not that big of a deal if they would allow you to have control of your project, but they don’t.”

If the current art-house climate isn’t challenging enough, Hammer’s decision highlights the harsh reality for indie filmmakers: distribution advances, or “minimum guarantees,” barely ever recoup a film’s budget.

Hammer says conventional distribution advances for a small film like “Ballast” range between $25,000-$50,000. “If you made a $50,000 project, that makes sense,” Hammer said. “If you happen to spend more money than that, it becomes difficult to justify giving up creative control.”

A scene from “Ballast.”

Hammer was particularly dissatisfied with the lengthy term of the contracts. “Giving up Internet rights for 20 years, that’s just crazy,” he said. He also disagreed with IFC’s exclusive home video deal with Blockbuster, which he called a “deal breaker.”

Both Hammer and IFC execs describe the split as amicable, however.

“We’re disappointed and we love the movie,” admitted IFC Films’ head of acquisitions Arianna Bocco. “But how can you argue with an independent filmmaker who wrote, directed, produced and financed his own movie and wants to take that final step of ownership? I respect that choice.”

Of all the small distribution companies that exist, Hammer said he still thinks IFC would have “put the project out in the best way,” he said. “They’re very creative, the day-and-date plan actually works, but unfortunately, that only benefits them financially.” (indieWIRE contacted a small handful of filmmakers who have participated in IFC’s First Take program, but only one, Caveh Zahedi, director of the 2006 release “I Am A Sex Addict,” said money was beginning to “trickle in.”)

Hammer’s choice to pull out of the IFC deal was a difficult one. He consulted numerous people in the industry for advice, including veteran producer Ted Hope, who acknowledged, via email, “We spoke about alternative distribution approaches, community outreach [and] the need for an audience to ‘own’ the film,” he said.

Hammer initially approached Strand Releasing‘s Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans for advice, and while they served as strategic consultants and helped devise a release strategy, the company will not be involved in the distribution.

“We’re big fans of the film and we’re optimistic about the potential,” Marcus Hu told indieWIRE. “It’s very critically driven, and I think Film Forum is absolutely the right place to be debuting on the East Coast. It’s a grade A, class A prime example of a pure American independent art film.”

Hammer is interested in nontraditional theatrical venues, such as film societies, museums and universities. “Which cable company, which digital download, which theaters, whether you go to Landmark or Harvard Film Archives? These are all choices that are available and I think the filmmaker should be in control of that,” he said.

Hammer is also raising the P&A costs himself–another cash liability that he realizes won’t be easy to recoup. He’s putting together $250,000, he said, with the help of the same people who financed the film. “Just a couple years ago, filmmakers would be offered a bigger MG and more money for P&A; now the advance is gone and the amount given to P&A is nothing,” Hammer said, adding, “I think P&A should be put in the production budget.”

Required Viewing’s Steven Raphael acknowledges that it’s going to be a challenge to penetrate the competitive theatrical market. “Doing it on your own is difficult. It’s always more difficult, but the opportunities are less and less and less, which is the reality,” he said, referring to the dwindling number of viable distribution options for indie filmmakers. “But if the offers are not what the filmmakers want, they’re going to take the films out themselves.”

“It’s a risk,” Raphael continued, who acknowledged that he is increasingly consulting on more self-distribution efforts. “I try to be very cautious, but it’s really about trying to make an impact in the market, obviously in New York City, so you can interest your ancillaries and get a better TV or DVD sale.”

That’s, of course, what Hammer is betting on and why he’s spending an additional six months to a year working on the release of the film. “These are the sacrifices,” explained Hammer. “Now that the film is done, I have to think responsibly because I want to have sustainability as a filmmaker. If Sundance is considered the acme of American festivals, and ‘Ballast’ was one of the films that was rated highly there, then it would be a total tragedy if I couldn’t make another film like it again.”

“I don’t want to make a film with a certain actor for a certain company that’s going to have control over the outline of the script,” he continued.

“It may be a total financial failure,” Hammer admitted. “But if I were to go with one of the established distributors, it’d be certain that I’d lose all my money. But if try it myself, aligning myself with very experienced, creative people, there’s a chance that it won’t be a failure. And then I can prove that I’ve done it once and I can do it again. And more importantly, other filmmakers like me can do it, too.”

RELATED indieWIRE ARTICLES: Anthony Kaufman explored the theatrical acquisition of “Ballast” during this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and reviewed the film during the Sundance Film Festival.

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