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From Punk Rock to Think Outside the Box Office and Beyond

That's me on the left circa 1981 when I was in Europe at my first screening of Target Video (on the right) which started me on my "DIY" journey.

I’ve always been inspired by artists who have worked outside established frameworks for success and created their own models to get their work out into the world. I got my start in film via punk rock in the early '80s working with the documentary collective Target Video. I then worked with the street robotic theater group Survival Research Laboratories founded by Mark Pauline - moving onto documentaries about rave and graffiti culture (both extreme versions of DIY in their early years).  For a variety of reasons I have been reflecting on how my early inspirations have guided my work and ignited me to give up a career in economics and live in a rat infested loft shooting punk rock bands at Target.

But half what I did at Target, was distribute the videos we made of mostly California punk rock bands throughout Europe and the US. For those of you who know me, this would be "the new 50/50” from Think Outside the Box Office (so actually not that "new"). There was no network for screening videos in Europe (no institutions even had video projectors) at the time and no film distributor was going to take our 3/4" videos - forget that they wouldn't have accepted the content.  So FU to the gatekeepers. From a phone booth in San Francisco with a plethora of bootlegged satellite phone cards, I booked the films as if we were a band throughout Europe.  We travelled with our own projector and 3/4" deck going club to theater to cultural center to festival shooting more bands along the way.  Paul Rachtman just reminded me of how I slept on his couch when we did a show in Boston when he was in college. 

While the energy and perfect acronym of what DIY stands for has always inspired me, I never advocate pure DIY. (see the subtitle of my first article for Filmmaker Magazine)  I feel you have to create a team and work with elements of structures that can be bent to your purposes.

With contemporary gatekeepers preventing (or completely uninterested in helping) filmmakers getting their films seen, I feel myself doing the same work I was doing in my 20s but just as inspired to do it. I have been blessed to work with quite a variety of pro-active filmmakers who are open to experimenting with new ways of taking distribution into their own hands.

One of the filmmakers I have worked with is Lance Kramer who coined the new process we developed “impact event theatrical”.   Next week I'm excited to be joined by him for a webinar: Create Your Own Distribution Strategy We will outline fundamental principles and essential elements to defining, crafting and implementing a successful distribution, impact and marketing campaign. We will use our experience distributing his and his brother Brandon's doc feature THE FIRST STEP as a case study.


These recent musings - along with some strong nudging from Ted Hope - has got me planning to start a new educational initiative - a Frankenstein of Substack meets a version of the lab that Ted and I developed after I wrote Think Outside the Box Office which became the now paused/cancelled IFP/Gotham Filmmaker Lab.  More on that next week. 


It was so great to be on an IRL panel hosted by Winnie Wang and co-panelists Rachel Gordon and Scott Glosserman at Hot Docs 2023. We talked about goals to creating your own path beyond a dependence on gatekeepers in this down sales market.  We also talked about how funders and film orgs need to step up to start helping filmmakers connect with audiences and not just focus on making more films. 


Here is an excerpt of one of my diatribes during the panel:

"The key things that are important - I'll probably say this multiple times:  knowing what your goals are, understanding who your audience is, connecting with that audience early and understanding what your resources are and saving resources for distribution and not relying on gatekeepers to decide whether your film get seen or not are essential. Those aspects of your release are fundamentally the same and have been the same for decades and certainly the same since 2007, when the film market collapsed in advance of the overall market collapse. So in a sense, we're going through another film market collapse. And filmmakers, unfortunately, whenever there's a boost in sales (after a collapse) kind of think, "Oh, the halcyon days of acquisitions are back", and then they stop doing best practices such as what I just outlined. People need to hunker down and go back to best practices. The other thing is that, I think it's really important, hopefully we'll talk about this later, is that the distribution community, especially funders and organizations, need to start finally recognizing that distribution of marketing is important. It's half the battle for filmmakers and funders need to stop only supporting making films and need to start supporting the distribution of the films that they helped make and other films as well."

                                                                                  WHAT IS OLD IS NEW AGAIN

Heading to Tribeca this week - returning to the festival where Bomb It  had its world premiere in 2007.  It was right then that the market for independent films collapsed (a year before the most of the rest economy collapsed).   Many filmmakers today are facing a similar landscape that I did back in 2007.  I've included an excerpt from Think Outside the Box Office below where I talk about how I got started on this journey.  

As I reread the excerpt below, I am struck by how this could be written by a filmmaker right now coming out of their premiere festival. Yes, the landscape has changed dramatically - but as we have discussed before and much has been written about - here we are again - filmmakers needing to own the distribution and marketing process (but did that ever really go away even in the "Golden Age of Docs" - for most filmmakers I don't think so).  At least now there is more information and resources to help guide filmmakers through this process.  And now the Tribeca focused excerpt from Think Outside the Box Office:

"I had my own rude awakening in 2007 when I brought my film Bomb It (a documentary about the global explosion of graffiti art and culture, and the resultant worldwide battle over public space) to the Tribeca Film Festival. We did our festival launch the old-school way:
• We saved our world premiere for a top U.S. film festival that had a history of acquisitions.

• We got a top-class sales agent to marshal the distribution world and get people excited about our film.

• No advance screeners went out to potential buyers.

• We paid a ton of money for a conventional publicist to get the film written up, so potential distributors would know that there was interest in our film.

• We spent more money on a variety of marketing efforts to get our audience into the theaters (the festival’s theaters).

Each of our five screenings (in 500- to 600-seat venues) was sold out. People lined up around the block; 100 to 200 people were turned away at each screening! The audiences were engaged in the film: People laughed in places that I didn’t expect; there were eruptions of applause after the screenings and mobs of adoring fans.

And nothing in terms of sales. No overall deal with an advance that made any financial sense. We were offered extremely low money deals for theatrical and DVD, tied together so that we were sure that we would never see a dime. No television or cable. No foreign. 2007 was the tipping point in the collapse of the studio-based independent distribution model. We did get interest from a few DVD companies — however, none with any significant advance. What the F? The market had changed — drastically.

A week after Tribeca, our film was available for sale on Canal Street — as a bootleg.

Part of the reason I wrote this book is because I wish I had had it before I released my film. Filmmakers are hungry for information on how to distribute and market their films. Many are shooting themselves in the foot in the process (like I did many times). While there are some disparate sources of information on these new methods, no single resource exists that combines all of the knowledge and tools now available to filmmakers.

Think Outside the Box Office is the first step in filling that void."

                                        DISTRIBUTION GURUS PANEL at HOT DOCS

                                    L- R: Winnie Wang, myself, Rachel Gordon and Scott Glosserman.

It was great to be on an IRL panel again at Hot Docs, one of my favorite festivals (really conducive to meeting people - they do a great job providing space for making connections). People felt it was very informative and all three of us panelists (me, Rachel Gordon and Scott Glosserman) wouldn't shut up. This was helped by the amazing panel prep that Winnie Wang did. A nearly full house with lots of talk about setting goals and creating your own path beyond a dependence on gatekeepers in this down sales market. We also talked about how funders and film orgs need to step up to start funding independent film distribution and marketing and not just fund development and production. EG helping to take care of the full life of the films that are funded instead of just helping those films get made and then letting the filmmakers fend for themselves. Hot Docs did not record the panel - but I did - something all filmmakers should do on their Q&As, even if just on an iPhone. You can then use this for content later. I’ll be sharing a link to a transcript of the panel soon and D-word said they would put the audio up online. I'll be sending links to both of these in the near future. 

Note -I know this is a no-brainer - but so many filmmakers don't do it:  If you don't have a photographer - just get someone to take photos during your Q&As for social - usually people are nice enough to do it - but try to get someone who feels they are good at it. This time I lucked into a cinematographer in the audience to take photos and I traded my books for a few shots!

8 Above, DPA and TFC hosted a great Hot Docs party at Casa Mezcal.
I also got to spend a day at the Hot Docs Forum. I feel you can learn a lot about the current landscape (not to mention learning how to better your pitches) by listening to other filmmakers pitch and seeing the industry's reaction. I’m hoping to write more about this later - but I wanted to point out this excellent piece about the Hot Docs Forum and pitching Forums in general by Brian Newman in his newsletter last week. Speaking of how you can learn a lot about the industry from pitch forums, Brian comments on what he calls the "Pitch Forum Industrial Complex" where filmmakers pay a lot of money to receive unhelpful feedback and platitudes about unpromising collaborations (btw - if you don’t - subscribe to Brian’s newsletter - I highly recommend it). Check it out and let me know what you think.

Excited to be heading back to Hot Docs next week. I have fond memories of being there and have returned several times over the years since Think Outside the Box Office was published. It was one of the first places that I gave a distribution workshop way back in 2012 - and the room was overflowing - with people and enthusiasm. Interesting that we are in a similarly fractured and troubling distribution landscape now as when I first wrote the book. Shout out to Elizabeth Radshaw who has been creating such a great doc industry event at Hot Docs year after year and keeps bringing me back!  This year,  I will be sharing a panel next Tuesday May 2nd at 1:30 PM with Scott Glosserman founder and CEO of Gathr and Rachel Gordon, author of  The Documentary Distribution Toolkit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theater.  If you're at Hot Docs or in Toronto on May 2nd- come check it out!

Enjoy this throwback from NYC 2010- featuring my favorite workshop/lecture shirt from the time.

For anyone at Hot Docs interested in learning more about what I do, what creative distribution looks like in our modern digital landscape, and tips on reaching broader audiences,  join us! And if you are coming to Hot Docs and can't make the panel - hope to see you there as well!